“The Fragment”

by William Hauser

They were offering him a callback, a dozen years after he’d doffed the uniform, to chair a secret committee planning withdrawal from Afghanistan. He’d also be expected to safeguard the Army’s professional interests.

He’d never consider accepting without Madelyn’s assent, and she had characteristically said yes, despite his age and the White House’s reputation as a greedy taskmaster.

“You know this has to be confidential, don’t you, Robert?” the Joint Chiefs Chairman had said, “but I think you’ll get the nod if you accept.”

“How long do I have?”

“I need your answer by Thursday.”

That was today. Up early as always, he emerged from his suburban townhouse to retrieve the Washington Post from the doorstep. He could hear sirens not far away, and there was a smell of smoke in the air.

Smoke . . .He snatched the paper from the sidewalk, hurried inside, and climbed to the third floor.

He’d converted a spare bedroom to serve as his study, with a view across the river. Covering the walls were the memorabilia of his career: of combat in Vietnam, civil-war intervention in Bosnia, armed restoration of Kuwaiti sovereignty, the ill-conceived invasion of Iraq, and futile attempts at “nation-building” in Afghanistan.

From his desk, he took a silver box, engraved with the crest of his Vietnam brigade. He opened the lid. The curious object was three inches long and half an inch wide, silver-gray with a patina of tarnish, a wickedly jagged fragment from a North Vietnamese 82-millimeter mortar shell. It had changed his life.

***

Five decades ago, in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam, he’d been an artillery lieutenant, forward observer to an infantry company in combat.

The battle site was in an area of rice paddies and crisscrossing canals, twenty miles north of the Mekong River and south of the desolate Plain of Reeds. Within an angle between canals lay a deserted rubber plantation, overgrown with jungle vines. A hamlet of thatched houses, surrounded by diked rice paddies, was located west of the plantation. The air was thick with smoke, from farmers burning rice-plant stubble in preparation for the monsoon.

The company Robert supported, “Charlie” of the 2nd Battalion, 49th Infantry, had begun a sweep through that hamlet. Receiving sniper fire, they responded with mortars, clearing the hamlet without further resistance. But when they pushed onward, the commander incautiously allowed one of his platoons to walk down the bank of a canal. The thirty men had advanced just beyond the hamlet when they came under withering fire from the plantation. With the platoon leader dead and half their number killed or wounded, they were unable to advance or withdraw. The commander tried leading his remaining platoons to turn the enemy’s flank, but they too were forced to hit the dirt, and the captain was shot through the chest by a sniper’s bullet.

Robert crawled from behind the cover of a paddy dike and dragged the captain to safety, himself sustaining wounds, one through his right shoulder, the other creasing his left buttock. “Get a medic for your boss!” he ordered the captain’s radio operator.

 Robert pondered a moment—two of Charlie’s platoons were led by sergeants, while the third had a lieutenant who’d joined only the day before. “I guess that’s right,” he said. Dodging from platoon to platoon (“in total disregard for his own safety,” read the later medal citation), he set about restoring discipline to the demoralized company.

The battalion commander, directing from a reconnaissance helicopter, called him on the radio. “Forest, you’re in charge. Don’t let me down.”

“Roger that, sir,” he’d replied. “You can depend on me.”

That battalion commander, judging the plantation to hold a sizable force of Viet Cong, deployed another company farther to the south. That unit also came under heavy fire. The 2/49 had met with a major enemy formation.

The brigade commander, using assault helicopters, inserted a company from another battalion beyond the plantation, at a cost of two choppers shot up and that company also pinned down. All three of the brigade’s battalions were now deployed around the patch of jungle. The 2/49 holding the west side, the 1/13 the south, and the 3/81 were positioned to encircle the hamlet. As darkness fell, tracer bullets winked like Christmas lights, flares illuminated the area, and medical helicopters darted in and out, carrying wounded from the battle. The area was blanketed with a pall of smoke, from the smoldering rice paddies and from tracer bullets starting additional fires.

Through a long night, the infantry dug in, while artillery fire was directed inside the perimeter. The enemy sporadically returned fire, and there were occasional volleys from troops detecting individuals trying to escape.

Robert, with no rest for two days, was exhausted beyond measure. At the urging of the company first sergeant, he sprawled on the ground and fell asleep.

He was wakened by a stinging sensation in his ear, and his fingers came away dripping with blood. An enemy mortar shell had burst in a treetop, plunging a hunk of metal downward, nicking his ear on the way. A medic, examining him by flashlight, stopped the bleeding with an astringent. “You got you another Purple Heart, Loot,” the first sergeant exclaimed, “a cheap one this time. You one lucky fucker, if you don’t mind my saying, sir.”

Robert, pocketing the fragment, played it cool. “Thanks, Top. Now it’s your turn to nap.”

At dawn, the brigade commander, Colonel Padilla, attended by his S-2 (intelligence officer), landed in triumph on the battlefield. With them was a TV reporter named Eric Prahn, who’d become, since embedding with the brigade, its unofficial public relations officer. “I have,” he’d boasted, “made ‘Padilla’s Gorillas’ a hit mini-series in the living rooms of America.”

Awaiting their leader’s arrival were the three battalion commanders, gaunt faces straining to match his smile of victory. Robert stood to one side, awed to be included.

The infantry spent the day combing the jungle. They’d already sustained seventeen killed and forty-two wounded, and another soldier was killed by a booby trap and two more were wounded. This grisly enterprise produced a total of eight enemy bodies, sixteen parts (arms, legs, a couple of heads), and twenty blood trails.

Padilla declared that eight plus sixteen plus twenty equals forty-four, and the VC must have carried off at least as many, and that many must be buried in caved-in bunkers, for a total of 132 killed “by body count.” The S-2 dutifully reported that to division. Padilla, calculating that “at least twice that number must have been hit,” ordered him to report 264 enemy wounded. The S-2 (equally a lover of statistics) talked him into reducing that number to 164, on grounds that primitive VC medicine made for a higher killed/wounded ratio. Besides, he said, the brigade would surely receive a Distinguished Unit Citation for a 132/164 victory. That only twelve weapons were recovered was easily explained — the Viet Cong were notoriously clever at retrieving weapons.

And there was a prisoner. One of Robert’s soldiers, seeing a hand protruding from the dirt, called for help to pull out the “body.” As it happened, the palm-log roof of a “spider hole” had collapsed, leaving the enemy soldier’s head in an air pocket. Unconscious, he came around when they got him in the open. Robert brought him to the colonel.

The prisoner looked to be in his thirties, with a muscular build like a gymnast. His hair was close-cropped on the sides, but a shock fell in a black curtain over his muddy forehead. His accent was northern, according to the brigade’s Vietnamese interpreter. He wore only a pair of black shorts.

“He’s a tough one, Colonel,” the S-2 reported. “He claims to be a farmer, but the interpreter says he speaks like an officer, maybe a courier. We ought to get him to division for interrogation.”

“And give them the credit? Not on your fucking life.”

“All right, sir. I’ll take him back to base camp.”

Padilla grinned. “No you don’t. I’ll question him here.”

The command helicopter was summoned, and soon its whop-whop was heard coming over the trees. It landed on the canal bank, blowing dust and soot in their faces.

“Take him on board,” Padilla told the S-2. “You too, Lieutenant Forest. And you, Mr. Prahn. You’re going to watch a professional interrogate.”

When they got to five hundred feet, Padilla had the interpreter make the prisoner stand in the door of the chopper, his back to the opening. “Tell him to spill his guts or we’ll throw his ass out. His own mother won’t recognize him after he hits the ground.”

The prisoner listened intently, his face twisted in hatred. Speaking rapidly, he ended with a rhythmically chanted phrase. Then he was gone.

“The sonofabitch jumped! He can’t do that to me!”

The interpreter spoke. “Sir, he say he proud to die for Vietnamese nation, and his comrades will defeat American imperialists.”

When they landed, Padilla turned to the S-2. “You tell division we were bringing in a prisoner?”

“Yes, sir. I…”

“Tell them he was wounded and died on us.”

He put his arm around Prahn’s shoulders. “You’re getting an exclusive on this, Eric, assuming you understand that my S-2’s fuck-up is unimportant in the larger scheme of things.”

Prahn, blanched and shaken, nodded agreement.

Later that day, having his wounds treated, Robert was told he’d been recommended for a Distinguished Service Cross. He would also spend the latter half of his year’s tour on staff at division headquarters.

 There, five months later, he was awarded that medal.  After the ceremony, he was guest of honor at the Division Commander’s Mess. Constructed of plywood stained mahogany, it had a roof of glazed blue tile and was surrounded by a sprinklered lawn, a green oasis in the sandy bleakness of the base. It was illuminated by spotlights at night, flaunting the contrast between senior officers’ lifestyle and that of common soldiers.

The chief of staff (Padilla, finishing his tenure in command) had decreed a “luau” to be held that night. All staff officers — not only the high-ranking ones belonging to that mess — would partake. Also invited were as many women as could be assembled — nurses, service-club hostesses, and Red Cross “doughnut dollies.”

The party began with platters of huge Mekong River prawns and Vietnamese shredded duck in rice-flour blankets, and to wash it all down, frozen daiquiris and mai-tai’s. Robert, in starched fatigues and polished boots, was happily getting plastered. He was chatting with a doughnut dolly, who’d become rather pretty by his second daiquiri (and tenth month in-country) and downright gorgeous by the third.

Feeling debonair, he was speculating (he later recalled) whether this lovely creature would join in his first act of infidelity after two years of’ marriage to Madelyn. The air was heavy with the scent of frangipani, a soldier combo was playing “Sweet Leilani,” and the war seemed very far away.

Then behind him, he heard the whop-whop-whop of a Huey. There it came, the Red Cross symbol stenciled on its side, banking to land on the hospital helipad, carrying wounded from “out there” in that expanse of jungle, rice paddies, canals, and marshes, where soldiers labored under the weight of weapons and ammo through stinking leech-infested waters, subject to sniper fire and booby traps lurking to take off a foot or spray hot shrapnel into one’s body.

The main course was to be roast suckling pig, which had been turning over the barbecue pit all day, according to Padilla’s jovial welcome. Robert pled fatigue and was absentmindedly excused by the division commander. He went back to his quarters, where he fell into a sad and drunken sleep.

The next morning, nursing a pounding hangover, he rummaged through his duffle bag and found the fragment. Clutching its jagged edges, he walked to division headquarters and presented himself at the chief of staff’s office. When Padilla arrived, he found Robert seated in the anteroom.

“What’s on your mind, Lieutenant?” he asked cheerily.

“I want to extend my tour, Colonel. I understand there’s a vacancy in command of the special-operations platoon.”

“You want to coordinate long-range patrols and snipers, work with Special Forces and local militia, all that spooky stuff?”

“That’s the ticket, sir.”

“You’re due to rotate next month, Forest, and I got the impression, when you left my brigade, that you wanted no further part of this stupid fucking war.”

“Yes, I felt that way, but I’m a professional. Even assuming we lose this stupid fucking war, we’ve got to back out with honor, for the sake of our country and the Army. What’s more important is there will be other wars. Next time, however, political leaders won’t be able to fool our country into entering a conflict, and then ignore the judgment of professional soldiers on how to conduct it.”

“Naïve as ever, young Robert. You really believe politicians will change?”

“If they don’t, the next generation of military leaders will have the balls to stand up to them. Call me naïve, but I have faith we’ve learned our lesson. This getting into wars we can’t find our way out of — that won’t be allowed to happen again.” 

***

He turned over the piece of metal in his hand, caressing its ragged contours. He picked up the phone and dialed.

“This is General Forest. The Chairman is expecting my call.”

“Mort? It’s Robert. Tell them no thanks. I really am too old to get back in the game.”