Permanent Debt

“This is a waste of time.” Frank stage whispered to me. He swatted a bug on his neck as punctuation. On the other side of me, about 20 feet away our sergeant told us to shut the hell up and keep our eyes on the prize. Some prize. We were hidden in the foliage outside of a hamlet watching the Vietnamese people who lived there going about their day. Mama-sans yelled at papa-sans and kept children busy with some chore or other. From what our platoon leader said, we should be looking at a gathering of Viet Cong getting ready to go out and do hit and runs and set ambushes against various US positions and patrols. From what our eyes told us, we were watching the Vietnamese version of the Brady Bunch without a laugh track. Not that what we saw was funny, but neither was the Brady Bunch.

We’d been there for nearly three hours and it was at the point that even our squad leader, Sergeant Kelly, was pretty sure we’d been given bogus intel. It wouldn’t be the first time. Just a few weeks earlier we were sent off to go light up a bivouacked company of NVA regulars. What we found instead was empty jungle. Well, not really empty. There were snakes, scorpions and all sorts of little flying insects that felt like they were electrocuting you when they bit, which was often. The radio communication between our platoon leader, Lieutenant Skahill and our CO, Captain Shoenberger, got pretty amusing. Nothing we grunts liked better than to hear our officers explain in the bluest of terms just how incompetent they thought each other were. Our CO finally relented and called us back after we spent nearly seven hours waiting for this ghost company of NVA to show up. We all figured we were gonna get to see a hell of a fistfight when we got back to the Tactical Operation Center (TOC) as our officers faced off, but all that happened was they shared a couple of beers and put their heads together about what tomorrow’s plans would be.

The temperature was around 100 degrees and the humidity was 99.999999999%. One more molecule of H2O and the air would have turned into water and drowned us all. Frank slapped another bug and Kelly tossed a rock at him and shook his finger. Frank looked disgruntled but took the hint. We needed to be quiet. So we lay there looking out from under tightly packed leaves and watched the tiny village go about its business. It was like there was some soundless signal, when everyone in the village except the kids suddenly had weapons in their hands. One minute it was business as usual and the next it was weapon city. AK-47 assault rifles, rocket propelled grenade tubes, and any number of other deadly ware magically appeared in the hands of the villagers. Men clad in black pajamas seemed to rise out of the earth from nowhere, quickly amassing a force of fifty to sixty men who collected the weapons produced by the villagers.

“Jesus H.” breathed Kelly. Frank said “God help us.” We were a squad of 12 guys looking at an enemy with a three to one advantage on us. Kelly raised his hand and waved to get the squad’s attention and then held up five fingers, tucking them down one at a time as a countdown. Up and down the squad line I could hear the gentle metallic clicks of safeties being switched as I brought my M-79 grenade launcher forward and aimed it at an angle the should drop my rounds into the clot of Viet Cong. In the back of my mind I was thinking about the women and children that were mixed in with the VC milling about, and knew that some of them were not going to make it. Except that all of the VC moved to a clearing next to the huts and started to form up. Kelly frantically waved his hand and pulled a finger across his throat to indicate that we should stop what we were doing. I know I breathed a sigh of relief/ But then Kelly was waving again, pointed to the clot of VC and made a fist that he pumped up and down a couple of times.

Everyone on the squad line opened up. One after another I pumped grenades and the other squad members opened up with their M-16 rifles and the squad’s M-60 machine gun. The Viet Cong were taken totally off guard and ran one way or another, changing direction suddenly. The ran into each other in an almost comedic way until a few seemed to snap out of their panic and try to return fire. It was too late. We’d pulled a rout. Some of the village men picked up dropped weapons but were cut down before they could bring them to bear. Sergeant Kelly was yelling at us to select targets but move in. We got to our feet and headed towards the village and the screaming and crying women and children. We moved through the little hamlet, checking inside the little huts and structures and tossing grenades into the holes down to the tunnels the VC had been hiding in. Kelly had us go back and search everything again, telling us to check everywhere, even under things that didn’t look like they could be moved. This time through, looking for weapons rather than people we found quite a few rifles, bayonets, grenades, pistols and all different kinds of bladed weapons.

A Huey came in and landed in a clear spot, offloading a number of people in ARVN uniform. They were the army for South Vietnam and two of their number were intelligence officers. The soldiers herded the remaining villagers, all women and children, over next to the helicopter and then a pair of ARVN soldiers put torches to the village structures. Tomorrow there would only be a charred spot to mark where the little hamlet was. In a month the jungle would reclaim the space and it would be as if it never was.

Kelly rounded us up and assigned a point man and headed us back to the TOC. He wasted no time in getting us moving, which was a little unnerving because you never knew what was going to pop up unexpectedly in the heavy growth. We figured out his anxiousness when about twenty minutes into our hump back to base we heard twenty or so single gunshots spaced about two seconds apart.  Sure, I know. We were killers of women and baby burners. Just ask any of the people our age back in the world. Back home in the US of A. Except we weren’t. We were kids and young men with high ideals and a sense of duty. Some of us went off the rails. The Mai Lai Massacre and all. But that was the exception, not the rule. Back at the village, if Kelly had completed the countdown it was a sure bet that the firing would be aimed single shots and not the spray that ended up happening because we weren’t baby burners or killers of women. But a lot of the South Vietnamese intelligence agents weren’t so moral. These were people, so said the grapevine who would toss a VC out the door of a helicopter to get the rest to talk. They would shoot anyone they were reasonably sure supported the North.

The squad moved quietly as we made our way back to the TOC. But after hearing the gunfire there was a different silence. I know that the other guys, like me, were picturing women with their hands bound behind them laying where they fell as someone walked along behind them putting a shot into the backs of their heads. We don’t know that’s what happened. We weren’t there to see if the shots came from the hamlet we left behind us. What we did know was there was no doubt that all of the adults in that village were actively supporting the Viet Cong. Men or women, the enemy is the enemy and no matter the gender they were actively or indirectly killing us. They weren’t innocent by any stretch. Later, at the operations center we sat and talked among ourselves. We tended to believe that the shots we heard came from the village. But we also believed that there weren’t enough gunshots to include the children we’d seen there. We weren’t even sure we’d heard enough to match the number of women there were. So maybe what we heard wasn’t the ugly vision our imaginations displayed for us. Not like that would reduce the numbers of us who would dream bad dreams as time went by.

War is an awful and expensive enterprise and money is the least expenditure. For those involved, they can pay for that involvement throughout their lives, some abbreviating their existence to avoid the debt.