by Ben Weise
One fine day on an American college campus, a young man, headed to his first class, encountered a female student walking in the same direction. They struck up a conversation and seemed to be hitting it off when she asked him about his missing hand. “Lost it in Vietnam,” he said, at which her countenance suddenly changed.
“Serves you right,” she said and left him talking to himself.
An isolated incident? Not by any means. By the late 1960s and increasingly to the end of our country’s involvement in the Vietnam Conflict in 1973, Americans seethed with anger at what they saw as unjustified hostilities against a people on the other side of the world who, contrary to our leaders’ propagandistic rhetoric, posed no threat to the security of America’s democratic way of life.
Ultimately, that anger targeted also the men and women actively engaged in the conflict, many of whom were denounced when they returned home and even spat at for having, as they believed, merely served their country.
I was one of the lucky ones, visibly unscarred and embraced by friends and loved ones as though I had never left. The years passed. Although there were times when a book, a movie, or the sound of helicopter blades whump-whumping overhead evoked memories of names and places long ago, I was able to move on with little awareness of the myriad repressed feelings I carried inside – until the day a certain young woman, who introduced herself as having been born in Ho Chi Minh City, walked into my academic writing class at Rutgers University. Up to that point, I had taught literally hundreds of international students, most of whom hailed from China, Korea, Japan, and Thailand. The fact that among them no student had ever represented Vietnam had curiously escaped me. But there she was, startlingly inconspicuous in western attire, quietly attentive to my lecture, as I reflected on my present role at the head of the class vis-a-vis that of my much younger self in the shrouded past of a distant land.
Two weeks in-country at a spot on the map called Ocean View, a platoon size outpost a few hundred yards south of the DMZ, I was part of a rifle team sent out on a routine patrol. Itching from the healing effect of a serious sunburn sustained on my second day in country, I twitched and jerked inside my olive T-shirt as we moved single file. I, the most recent arrival, was at point, moving over sandy hummocks overgrown by gray, leafy groundcover that reflected sunlight. For weeks no sightings of activity north of our position had been reported, and we expected none as we walked with M16s listlessly balanced on our shoulders or cradled in the crook of our arms. Not yet inured to the prospect of real danger, I found myself daydreaming, an adolescent again armed with a BB gun in a game of cowboys and Indians with my best friend.
Then I heard the command, “DOWN!” Reflexively, I was on my belly, barely breathing. Our team leader, a seasoned Marine, had spotted movement off to our right not fifty feet away. Telling us to keep our heads down, he reached for a grenade, pulled the pin… one…two…three… and heaved it. The explosion I remember as little more than a cherry bomb going off on New Year’s Eve. We waited five, ten seconds. With his rifle at the ready, he slowly raised himself on one knee, then, hunching low, led us to the point of impact. At first, unable to see anything, I felt as I had so often after shooting a bird out of a tree: eager to find my prize though it was never more than a clump of feathers still warm. This, however, was Vietnam.
There was a smell in the air, and it was not that of a dead bird. The legs were oddly cocked, the arms splayed as if in divine submission. Out of the black pajama pants stuck bare feet, one of which had lost its thong. The deeply gashed throat exposed the braided intricacy of smoothly entwined muscles as I had seen them in anatomy books. Above that, the right half of the face was a dark sink hole of tangled flesh and bone and clotting blood. To know that it was human, one had to look closely at what remained: two molars stuck, as if after the fact, in the splintered jaw bone, the vacant eye socket a reminder of life once dearly observed and now no more. The top of the skull, likewise stripped of skin, glistened like a polished shell. It no longer housed a thinking brain. Our team leader was searching the dead man’s body for identification when he came upon a small fabric pouch that contained what looked like a letter and a weathered black and white photo of a gentle-eyed woman holding a chubby, little child. Grinning at the photo, he spoke to it: “Sorry ’bout your fucking husband. Fragged his ass. But, hey, I got something that’ll make you forget him real fast,” he said and, laughing, rubbed the photo against his crotch. To officially confirm the kill, we dragged the body back to the compound. It was not hard. There was not much left of it. Needless to say, our return aroused excitement. Within minutes the platoon, to a man, had come running for a close-up look at Charlie. For some, as for me, the first- whose myth could so inspire fear, but who already here at our feet had paled beyond human recognition, a ravaged rag doll unable to evoke even hatred or compassion.
The lieutenant, having taken a picture of the body and listened to a recounting of the incident, asked to see the contents of the pouch. Since they were of no military value, he gave the pouch back to our team leader who, in the envious presence of his buddies, guardedly slipped it into the side pocket of his camouflage trousers. But he raised the dead man’s Kalashnikov above his head in a brazen show of triumph. He would send it home, he said, ensuring the ageless compact of war: to the victor belong the spoils.
That left the disposal of the body. Predictably, I was assigned the task as well as another disgruntled Marine, who happened to be one grade in rank senior to me. Just beyond the perimeter, we dug a shallow hole and got ready to dump the body in. I do not know what possessed me to say it, but I suggested placing the body facing east. My fellow grave digger looked at me. “What are you, crazy?” he said. “The motherfucker’s dead.” I knew the hole was not deep enough or long enough, but I had not said anything while we were shoveling. “Double him over,” I heard. Although I tried, the body had stiffened.
The best I could manage was to get it to sit up. “Goddammit! Jump on the motherfucker.” Finally, we both ended up jumping on the body as if it were a trampoline. Even through my boondocks I could feel bones cracking and joints popping. A couple of minutes later, the job was done. A few inches of sand covered the body. All that was left was a small mound to mark the spot, which, like a boil on the skin of the Vietnamese landscape, would settle into oblivion and disappear from the collective memory of a people fighting for survival. And yet in the hearts of one young mother and her small child beneath the roof of a home somewhere, the absence, forever, of a face once loved and caressed would be mourned well past the silencing of guns and the signing of treaties.
Is it conceivable that that small child would grow and marry and one day see its child cross the ocean in search of new beginnings at Rutgers University? The answer is written in the vastness of the stars whose light has guided humankind since the dawn of history. And if that history has not been all for the good, the kind, innocent eyes trained on me that first day in class fill me with hope for a better tomorrow.
Ben Weise is a veteran of the Vietnam War. He holds MA degrees in German Literature and TESOL from Middlebury College and the New School for Social Research respectively. Having taught Business English and Translation in Europe and Academic Writing at Rutgers University, he now spends time reading, writing, and traveling. His work can be found in present and upcoming issues of the Tipton Poetry Journal, MEA’s As You Were, Silhouette Press, Wanderlust, and Cosmographia Books, among others. At present he is searching for a publisher for his novel, Go Down in the Milk.