Monday, July 7, 2014
Walk a Mile in a Soldier’s Boots: A Review of Vietnam – Perkasie, by William Ehrhart
“We’re over here getting our asses shot off defending them, and what do we get for it? G*dd*amned traitors. I ever run into any of ‘em when I get back, it’ll be kick-*ss-and-take-name time. F*ckin’ parasites.” – William Ehrhart, Hoi An, South Vietnam, May 1967
“What the hell do these f*ckin’ people know anyway?” I thought, addressing myself to the hippies in particular and to everyone else in general. “What right do they have?” Immediately, the other side of the question popped into my head: What right did I have? What had I done in the past thirteen months to be proud of? – William Ehrhart, San Francisco, April 1968
The war in Vietnam – Uncle Sam, showing himself to be a true son of the Father of Lies, called it a “police action” or “conflict” – permeated my growing-up years like cigarette smoke. It affected the economy, the arts, and, of course, the lives of those who fought in it. William Ehrhart had the courage to do what I was never asked to do and probably could never do: he voluntarily put himself in mortal danger and held his ground once the killing began.
As a hippie-background believer,i I could not pass up the opportunity to see the war from the standpoint of one who would have hated me had we met at the time, especially as I occupy the same position today as an opponent of today’s wars. Like one of Ehrhart’s friends, “I’m not a conscientious objector. I’ll fight for my country; it’s just that bullsh*t [overseas] I object to.” But questions about the morality of today’s wars are hard to sell to today’s evangelicals. As “we were attacked” in the Gulf of Tonkin and so supposedly needed to send William Ehrhart and so many others to “defend ourselves,” so “we were attacked” on 9/11 and so supposedly need to devote thousands of soldiers and trillions of dollars to “defend ourselves” now.
Though published in 1983, by which time the war had been pretty well forgotten, Vietnam – Perkasie refrains from passing judgment on the war’s usefulness. It chronicles Ehrhart’s observations from his decision to enlist until his stateside posting a few weeks after his return from Vietnam. How fresh and accurate the accounts are, I have no way of telling – I thought I read that he smuggled in a notebook, but I can’t find it to double check – but either he is a convincing liar or he has done his best to put together a truthful account of the disillusionment of the idealistic, patriotic young man who used to live next door.
More importantly, it also chronicles the degradation of a human being, a destruction of the soul every bit as deplorable as that of teenage girls brought into the sex trade by kidnap or hoodwink. With suicides currently exceeding combat deaths in today’s military, the question needs to be asked if the same thing is happening today, and if so, why evangelicals are abetting the process by standing with the government and against those who protest today’s wars the way they stood with the government that degraded William Ehrhart and against those who rightly claimed that the Vietnam war was not about defending our freedom.
According to the Vietnam vet I spoke to last summer, the government has learned the lesson of Vietnam. He told me again recently that while he was greeted on his return from Vietnam with taunts of “baby killer!” today’s returning vets are treated right: parades, applause in airports, overwhelmingly positive spin in the mainstream media, the whole nine yards. However, babies are still being killed in combat, and the wars have not secured our freedom. If anything, the extra security measures by those sending the soldiers overseas taken since “we were attacked” on 9/11 have robbed us of our freedom. Even so, though, they are still dying by their own hands faster than “the enemy” can kill them.
Are the soldiers over there really concerned with our freedom? Or are they just doing their jobs? I know a soldier who said in as many words that he enlisted because it was the only way he could learn to fly. He eventually got around to saying he wanted to “serve [his] country,” but the short answer was that he wanted the benefits that came with enlisting. So was he out for my freedom, or for my tax money?
“Stop being willfully ignorant,” I hear you say, “their job is to defend our freedom.” One of Ehrhart’s heroes believed that also:
The next afternoon, Amagasu and I were sitting in the S-2 shop when a bunch of strangers walked into the COC through the door down at the operations end of the bunker. Most of them were wearing green utilities, but a few were in civilian clothing.
“Hey!” I said to Amagasu, “I know that man.”
“Down there. The Negro. That’s Floyd Patterson. … Former heavyweight boxing champion of the world.” …
“You’re Floyd Patterson, aren’t you?” I said when he reached us.
“That’s right,” he said, extending his hand. …
“What are you doin’ here, Mr. Patterson?” I asked.
“Floyd,” he said. “I just wanted to come over here and thank you boys for what you’re doing. I’m proud to be an American, and I just wanted you fellas to know that. How are things going?”
“Oh, not too bad,” I said. “We’re hangin’ in there. Say, Champ, I saw you beat Johanssen on television when you won the title back. I was just little then, but I still remember it. That was a great fight, Champ.”
“Well, thank you, Corporal. … “ …
“Say, Champ, can I ask you something while you’re here?”
“What do you think of this Cassius Clay business? You think he should be allowed to keep the title?”
“Well, I’ll tell you,” he said, his whole body shifting slightly, “Clay—you know, he likes to be called Mohammed Ali now; says he’s a Black Muslim——he’s a heck of a good fighter. Maybe one of the best. But he’s an American, too, and I think he’s forgotten that. Even a Champion’s not above the law and the responsibilities of being a citizen. If he won’t defend his country, he shouldn’t be allowed to defend his title. It’s not fair to you boys.”
Was sending Ehrhart and the others to fight a war they knew they wouldn’t win and had no intention of winning “fair to [those] boys”? Why do evangelicals continue to side with those who sent and against those who said they shouldn’t go? While Floyd Patterson’s intentions were faultless, in the end he was less a friend to Ehrhart and the boys than Mohammed Ali was.
We know war kills soldiers’ bodies. What we push under the rug is that it also kills them spiritually. Their very survival often depends on their ruthlessness.
As we walked toward the COC in the late afternoon heat, the Vietnamese from the gook shop were all standing up near the front gate—three men and five women. Three armed Marines stood around them.
“What’s that all about?” Rowe [a new arrival] asked.
“They work in the gook shop. We don’t have a PX or anything like that, but we got a gook shop where you can get a haircut, buy souvenirs and stuff. They do laundry, too; that’s what’s in those big bags. They take stuff home overnight and bring it back in the morning. Stuff comes back smelling like paddy water and buffalo sh*t, but I guess it’s better than nothing.”
“What’s this here, honey?” we could hear one of the guards saying. He had his hand up the front of a young woman’s pajama top. He laughed as she ﬂinched and drew away.
“Cheap way to get a feel,” said Rowe. “What’s he gotta do that for?”
“He’s searching her. Well, anyway, he’s supposed to be searching her. All the gooks at the shop get searched on the way in and going back out again at night. They could be carrying grenades, who knows what?”
“What do we let ’em in here for if we can’t trust ’em?”
“I wouldn’t trust Nguyen Cao Ky if he showed up here,” I said.
“The premier of South Vietnam. Listen, that’s just the way it is. There’s Vietnamese around here, and there’s VC. And most of the time, you don’t know which is which until it’s too late. You want one of those ladies to lob a stick of dynamite under your cot?”
“It is that bad?”
“It’s worse,” I replied. “Two weeks ago, Saunders and I were driving through Hoi An, right through the middle of town, and a g*dd*mned kid maybe eight or nine years old runs up and tries to flip a grenade into the jeep. A grenade! I had to blow ’im away. A little kid. It was really bad, you know. My kid brother's only twelve. And you know — the grenade went off and killed a couple of gooks — so you know what? Some guy shows up here the next day and wants the civil affairs officer to pay him compensation for his dead wife. I couldn’t believe it! The g*dd*mned kid tries to kill us, and they want money. Like I don’t feel bad enough already, you know?”
And this was in a comparatively peaceful part of the country. What is house-to-house combat like?
After nearly a year in rural areas – never even entering a city except on rare and brief official business – we were faced with dislodging an obviously well-prepared enemy from a built-up urban community of considerable size. We had no experience at this kind of fighting, and the on-the-job training cost us heavily. A great many civilians must have died in the fighting. If you saw or heard – or thought you saw or heard – movement in the house next door, you didn’t stop to knock; you just tossed in a grenade.
And I fought back passionately, in blind rage and pain, without remorse or conscience or deliberation. I fought back at the mud of Con Thien, and the burning sand of Hoi An, and the alien blank faces in the market place at Dien Ba; at the Pentagon generals, and the Congress of the United States, and the New York Times; at the Iron Butterfly, and the draft-card burners, and the Daughters of the American Revolution; at the murderer of [his girlfriend in Hong Kong], and the son-of-a-bitch who had taken [the girl who jilted him] flying in his private airplane; at the teachers who had taught me that America always had God on our side and always wore white hats and always won; at the Memorial Day parades and the daily Pledge of Allegiance and the constant rumors of peace talks and the constant absence of peace; at the movies of John Wayne and Audie Murphy, and the solemn statements of Dean Rusk and Robert McNamara; at the ghosts of [his friends he had watched die]; at freedom and democracy and communism and the monumental stupidity with which I had delivered myself into the hands of the nightmare; at the small boy with the terrible grenade in his hand, cocked and ready to be delivered into my lap. … It was a pure and simple purgation of the soul. A sacred rite. A necessity. I had no idea – had not the slightest inkling – what I was fighting for or against. I was terrified.
“A great many civilians must have died in the fighting.” Then the US military withdraws, “the enemy” wins, and The End of the World as We Know It that men like Ehrhart were told would arrive if “the enemy” won doesn’t arrive. It was all a lie. What do you do when you find that out?
Long before he was thrown into the worst of the fighting, Ehrhart knew he had been lied to and was now part of the lie himself.
“What’s this?” Rowe asked the next morning, pointing to the piece of paper tacked to the wall above my ﬁeld desk in the COC.
“Read it,” I said. On the paper were pasted an article from the daily military newspaper, Stars ’n’ Stripes, and four entries clipped from our battalion’s I-Sums [intelligence summaries]. All ﬁve items were dated within a few days of each other and arranged in chronological order with the newspaper story ﬁrst. It detailed how a platoon from Bravo Company had captured a cache of Vietcong supplies during a ﬁreﬁght in which three VC were killed; the take included several bolt-action riﬂes, a few cases of Chinese-made grenades, some explosives, ammunition and rice. The article concluded with a quote from some general up at Division that we’d set the VC war effort back in our battalion’s area by at least four months. The excerpts from the I-Sums included: amtrac loaded with grunts from the Horseshoe hits ﬁfty-pound box mine, ﬁve dead, eleven wounded; Delta Company patrol ambushed near Phuoc Trac bridge in broad daylight, two dead, six wounded; bridge on Highway 28, 500 meters north of battalion command post, blown up by VC sappers; Charlie Company platoon commander wounded by sniper. At the bottom of the page, I’d typed in: “If you can’t trust your local general, who can you trust?”
“Are you kidding me?” asked Rowe when he’d finished reading.
“There it is,” I said, “in black and white. Lyndon Johnson says we’re winning the war because Lyndon Johnson’s generals tell him we’re winning the war. You ﬁgure it out.”
“That g*dd*mned piece of paper is seditious, Ehrhart,” said Lieutenant Roberts, entering the S-2 shop in the middle of our conversation.
“Oh, good morning, sir. I can't help it, sir; it’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. You could order me to take it down, sir.”
“I can’t. It’s the funniest g*dd*mned thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”
“I don’t think it’s funny at all,” said Rowe.
“You just got here,” said the Lieutenant.
“Who says we’re supposed to control infiltration?” I replied. “We’re just target practice for the gooks. Uncle Ho and LBJ got a deal between ’em: we supply the targets; they supply the artillery. Gives everybody jobs. In ain’t infiltration we’re supposed to be controlling; it’s inflation.”
That “the enemy” ended up winning bothers my Vietnam vet acquaintance not a bit, at least not in comparison to the reception he got when he got home. Ehrhart explains his view: “How do you go through things like that, and then tell yourself it wasn’t worth it?”
I’ll close with what was for me the most heartrending passage in the book. It puts a human soul, if not a face, on the twenty casualties the Vietnamese suffered during the war for every US casualty. I’m sure Sergeant Trinh’s story can be repeated many times mutatis mutandis not only in Vietnam but in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is why Christians in the US should consider armed force the last, not the first, resort for solving the problem of evil. Like every other government program, war, the ultimate government program, accomplishes the exact opposite of its stated intention.ii If you can read this without choking, you might seriously question your own humanity.
Sergeant Trinh was a Vietnamese adjunct to Ehrhart’s unit. The excerpt begins when Ehrhart hears that Trinh is being disciplined and sent away, and comes to visit him. He offers him some licorice:
“Why do you offer with both hands?” Trinh responded. The sudden sense that I had somehow accidentally insulted Trinh seized me by the throat. I wanted to bolt and run.
“I—I don’t know,” I stammered. “I didn’t mean anything. I’m sorry.”
“Do not be sorry,” he smiled wanly. “That is the way you are supposed to offer a gift. We always offer with both hands. It means sincerity, good feelings. You Americans hold something out with one hand only. To us, that is an insult—like offering scraps to a dog. You surprised me, that is all. It was nice. Sit down.” He took a piece of licorice and began chewing on it thoughtfully. “I am used to being insulted by you Americans. So many little things. You do not know. That store—the laundry and barbershop—you call it the ‘gook’ shop; where did you ever get that word? The other day, Corporal Walters asked me to go with him to the gook shop to offer money to one of the laundry girls. ‘I do not know gook talk,’ he said to me—and he smiled like a big dumb puppy. I did not know if I should hit him or pat him on the head.”
“Come on, he didn’t mean any harm. He just didn’t think.”
“Yes, I know, he just did not think,” Trinh said wearily. “That is what is so sad—none of you mean any harm; you just do not think. Corporal Ehrhart, I have seen you taunt Vietnamese men in the market for holding hands. You call them ‘homos.’ Did you know that is our custom? It means only friendship. If a woman held hands with a man in public, that would be something bad.”
“I didn’t know that, no,” I said, feeling my face ﬂush with embarrassment. “In America, it means ——”
“In America, in America,” Trinh laughed softly. “This is not America, Corporal Ehrhart. Such simple things, yet none of you ever bother to ask. Every day, you are losing the war in a thousand little ways, and none of you see it. The gook shop,” he snorted. “What do you think the laundry girls tell their friends when they go home at night? Is every young woman in America a prostitute? Why do you think our women are?” He reached for another piece of licorice. “Your parents must miss you very much. They send you good things to eat all the time. Perhaps they have heard about Marine Corps chow," he laughed.
I laughed, too, relieved to be off the hook. “Yeh, I guess so," I said.
“Well, if you are lucky, you will be going home soon.”
“Seems like forever sometimes,” I said.
Trinh laughed again, though it didn’t sound like a laugh. “Yes, forever,” he said. I grasped for something to say.
“Do you have a family, Sergeant Trinh?”
“I have one sister left. She is a nurse. She lives—she lived with my mother in a village south of Saigon. Perhaps she will be dead, too, before long. My family has not been lucky. We Vietnamese have not been lucky.”
It hurt to see Trinh so sad and subdued— and it made me very uncomfortable. I thrashed around in my head, trying to think of some safe question to ask.
“My father was killed by the Japanese when I was very little,” Trinh continued in a monotone. “I never knew him. We were living in the Red River delta then, not far from Haiphong. When the communists took over the north, my mother was afraid. She thought the communists would kill us because my father once worked for the French, in the post office. That is what people were saying. So we ﬂed to the south. My oldest sister died along the way. She stepped on a mine. I do not know if it was a Viet Minh mine or a French one. It does not matter.” After another silence, he reached into a box by his feet and pulled out a letter. “It is from my sister,” he said. “My mother has been killed by American artillery. I did not even get to bury her.”
The mother and child I’d seen on Barrier Island back in August leaped into my head; my stomach buckled and I dropped the bag of licorice. “I’m sorry, Sergeant Trinh,” I stammered. “Jesus. Jesus, I’m sorry, Trinh.”
“So am I.” He picked up the bag slowly and handed it to me. I am going to miss your red licorice,” he said. The six eight-inch guns in the compound roared, shaking the hooch and sending a trail of invisible whistling steel down the long corridor of the night.
“Is that what happened this morning, Trinh? Is it because of your mother?”
“That is only the end of it,” he said. “What is your expression?”
“The last straw?”
“Yes. The last straw on the camel. How old are you?”
“Eighteen. I’ll be nineteen the end of this month.”
“Do you know how long I have been ﬁghting? I was drafted when you were twelve years old; I have been ﬁghting for six and one half years, and there is no end in sight. Every year it gets worse. Every year, the Vietcong grow stronger. When I was drafted, the VC fought us with sharpened bamboo sticks and Japanese riﬂes and French riﬂes. Now they fight us with Russian rockets and Chinese grenades and American machine guns. You are their best recruiters. You Americans come with your tanks and your jets and your helicopters, and everywhere you go, the VC grow like new rice in the fields. You do not understand Vietnam. You have never bothered to understand us, and you never will bother because you think you have all the answers. Do you know what Uncle Ho says? ‘You Americans will tire of killing us before we tire of dying.’ Sometimes I think he is right—and sometimes, I think you Americans will never grow tired of killing.”
“That’s not true, Trinh! What do you think I’m doing here? I didn't have to come here. I wasn’t drafted. I could’ve stayed home where it was safe, and so could the rest of us. A lot of good people have died trying to help you—and you know it, Trinh. You’ve known a lot of them. You people asked for our help, for chrissake.”
“I did not ask you for anything!” he responded sharply. “Ky and Thieu and the rest of those fat, bloated bandits who are getting ﬁlthy rich from this war—they asked for help. They do not speak for the Vietnamese. They do not speak for me. Your President Johnson is too ignorant or too arrogant to understand such a simple truth. You help the whores and the pimps, and you take the people from the land where their ancestors are buried and put them in tin cages where they cannot fish or grow rice or do anything but hate and die—and if they do not want to leave the bones of their ancestors, you call them communists and beat them and put them in prison and kill them. You Americans are worse than the VC. ”
“Wait a minute, g*dd*mn it! Don’t tell me it’s all our f*cking fault. What about those f*cking national policemen yesterday? We didn’t beat up on that kid. They did!”
“If the people ruled Vietnam, those dogs would be cut by a thousand knives!” Trinh nearly shouted. “They are exactly the kind of pigs and vermin you Americans like because they do not argue with you and they grin like fools while you and your friends destroy a Buddhist temple [as Erhart's patrol had done “just in case – ha, ha” a few days before]. Your father is a priest, Corporal Ehrhart. How would you feel if I came to your father’s church and broke it down? You don’t understand anything, do you? Do you think I voted for Thieu last week? Did you know that a Buddhist asking for peace almost won the election, even though no newspaper in Vietnam was allowed to tell his story? Did you know that Thieu has already thrown him in prison?! And you Americans praise Thieu, and tell yourselves you are helping us. Sometimes I think you are the most evil nation on earth.”
“I don’t have to take this sh*t!” I shouted. “I come over here because I’m feeling bad for you, and you sh*t all over me.”
“No, Corporal Ehrhart! You and your friends come over here and sh*t all over my country, and I will not take it anymore.”
“F*ck you, man,” I said, getting up quickly and turning toward the door.
“Wait!” Trinh shouted. “Wait! Don’t go. Please.” I stopped, but didn’t turn around. My whole body shook, my lips biting down hard against tears. “Sit down, please.” I walked back slowly and sat down across from Trinh, but I couldn’t look at him. “I’m sorry, Corporal Ehrhart. I do not mean to accuse you. I know you are not a bad man. You are just very young.” He paused. “You are very young, and you do not know. Armies are always made of the young.” Trinh took hold of my hand and pressed it between both of his. He lifted all three hands between us. “It means friendship,” he said. “Do not be angry with me. It is all so sad.” His voice broke. The 155s across the compound punched a volley of steel into the night, a ripple of air and echoing sound filling the vacuum left in their wake. “My country is bleeding to death, Corporal Ehrhart. My beloved Vietnam is dying. I have fought hard. I am tired. Someday, perhaps, you will understand.”
“What’ll they do to you, Trinh?” I asked after a long silence.
“I do not know. Make me a private and send me back to an ARVN battalion, I think. Send me where there is heavy ﬁghting. At least I will die among my own people.”
We sat in silence for a very long time. I felt numb, dizzy and sick to my stomach. Trinh’s hands surrounded mine with a pocket of warmth.
“I guess I’d better go, Sergeant Trinh,” I ﬁnally said.
“Yes, it is late. Thank you for coming.”
“Trinh, I don’t know what to say. You know, I mean, I just—I’m sorry, Trinh.”
“It is not your fault,” said Trinh. “You are very young.”
We both stood up. “Good luck, Sergeant Trinh,” I croaked. “Here.” I handed him the bag of red licorice, and turned to leave.
“Good luck to you,” Trinh said softly. And then in a voice even softer, he added, “I hope you make it, little brother.”
Early the next morning, an ARVN major and two ARVN enlisted men arrived at the command post in a jeep, and took Sergeant Trinh away with them.
Sergeant Trinh was trying to be a good neighbor. How good a neighbor did he consider even well-intentioned American soldiers? How likely would he have been to listen to the gospel from a pro-war American?
i OK, I’m exaggerating here. I was a rising ninth-grader during 1967’s Summer of Love. While it was then that I first kissed a girl on the lips, I didn’t lose my virginity until my honeymoon. The closest I’ve come to consuming illegal drugs would have been one can of beer with my father and one of his friends, but then only if Massachusetts’ drinking age was over 18 at the time. So my claim to hippiedom is mostly wishful thinking. But I came to Christ and free enterprise because I saw them as fighting the respectable establishment and fulfilling the hippie dream that went sour. Though Jesus is the ultimate critic of hippiedom, my emotions see him as the fulfillment of what was good about it; I leave it to others to portray him as the fulfillment of establishment aspirations.
ii “What about World War II?” you ask. That’s as close as can be gotten to an exception to my rule. It will be the subject of another blog post. Stay tuned.