“A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil….You can tell a true war story if it embarrasses you. If you don’t care for obscenity, you don’t care for the truth; if you don’t care for the truth, watch how you vote. Send guys to war, they come home talking dirty….And in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It’s about sunlight. It’s about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It’s about love and memory. It’s about sorrow. It’s about sisters who never write back and people who never listen.”
This excerpt from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, served as the inspiration for the following story. This story, from my upcoming novel, Millennia, tells about George’s experience in Vietnam. George is a bit of an old hippie who, after getting wounded in Vietnam, becomes a socialist, goes home and starts a family and after his kids move out, moves up into the Colorado mountains to grow medicinal marijuana. George lives with his wife Pam, who he met in Vietnam, and two young women who are trimmers for the older couple, one of which is one of the novel’s main characters. As the characters are trimming marijuana buds, George begins to tell his story of getting wounded in Vietnam, a story that the main character has not yet heard, despite hearing a ton of George’s old stories about Vietnam. I tried to emulate how O’Brien writes about war stories, not making it about the war but more about the people. In a larger sense, the story relates to different generations’ coming of age experiences compared to one another. Anyway, I hope you enjoy.
George’s War Story
“Did I ever tell you girls about my time in Vietnam?” Only every day, George.
“Once or twice,” I said. Pam smiled.
“Well did I tell you the time I got hit? How I got sent to the hospital?”
We actually hadn’t heard that one. At least Callie and I hadn’t. I assume Pam had heard it a couple times. She was practically there. I try not to ask George about Vietnam much. He wasn’t really the stereotypical image of the shell-shocked ‘Nam vet you see in movies. George was a pretty happy-go-lucky kind of old hippie but I knew he had to have seen some kind of action during the war to go to the hospital. I had seen enough war movies with my dad and brother to know that you don’t go to the hospital for scraping your knee on parade. So I didn’t really look in to it to avoid any kind of awkward meltdown or outburst. I was worried I would set something off in him. I had heard enough stories about PTSD.
“I don’t think they’ve heard that one, George.” Pam said with a smile. She wasn’t discouraging him so either it’s not that bad or she’s heard it so many times that she’s desensitized.
“Well I had only been in country for a couple weeks when they sent us north of Saigon to guard a road being built west of Ben Cat. None of us really cared about the road but we were supposed to be guarding the engineers who were building it. It was supposed to cut the supply line to the local VC but I don’t know if it ever worked. Not much we did in Vietnam worked very well. It was early February when we arrived in the area and they posted us in some trees between the road in question and a small creek behind us. There were some Aussies with us too but they were posted on our flanks so we didn’t see much of them. We all just camped out there in those trees for weeks between guard duty shifts and recon patrols. Most of the guys used their ponchos to make tents or just slept out in the open since it was the dry season and hardly rained. But boy was it hot. I mean, regularly in the nineties. But I had a little hammock that my parents had sent me and I swung between the trees with the breeze under my butt cooling me. It was pretty nice and some of the other guys were jealous of that hammock. I don’t remember the make or model of it because I lost it not long after. I’m pretty sure someone took it. But oh well, such is life, right? Anyway, we were camped out there one hot day just doing nothing when our platoon sergeant came up and ordered us to gear up to move. This platoon sergeant wanted to be an officer. Or a drill sergeant. He liked to yell a lot and throw around a bunch of curse words to try to sound tough but most of us didn’t pay much attention to him. We listened to our squad leaders. Most had already been in country for a year or two. So our squad leader, Sergeant Van Der Meer, asked where we were going and what we were doing. See, they didn’t like to tell us much. We were low on the pole and just meant to take orders and shoot bullets. It just wasn’t what we expected. My father had fought in the Second World War and he always talked about the brave and valiant officers he served under. He would have followed those men into the bottom of a lake with weights tied to his ankles. But our officers were always in the rear. Always back at Battalion. I don’t think I ever saw an officer fire his weapon. I know I didn’t see one shooting that night. It was only us: the privates and corporals and sergeants. I don’t know what I would have done without Van Der Meer.”
“Well, according to Sergeant Van Der Meer, some of the Aussies on our flanks had gotten word that the VC were planning a major attack on the road. So we had to move forward and set up a firing line on the road overlooking the rice paddies across from it. It was late in the afternoon and we were all hot and lazy but this was the first opportunity most of us had for real combat. We had been on a few patrols around the area but hadn’t done much. I hadn’t even fired my gun yet. So we all hustled out of the woods and up onto this road that ran across a ridge cutting our woods off from the rice paddies on the other side. We set up our positions on the far side overlooking the paddies and laid there and watched the wind blow through the grasses. I mean there wasn’t a thing going on. I was on my stomach and the hot sun was roasting my back through my fatigues. This guy next to me had passed out behind his machine gun. All the rest of the day we just sat there and baked in the setting sun, rubbing dust into our ODs and staring out complacently into the rice paddies. For maybe half an hour we were on edge thinking we would see action but we were back to being bored and lazy pretty quick. Most of the guys sat up and smoked cigarettes. Not many were smoking pot yet. I didn’t even try pot until I got to the hospital and I had never smoked cigarettes so I just laid there and watched the fields, drawing my aim on random points out in the sea of green.”
“Well I must have fallen asleep because when I came to it was dark and the sun had just set down over the horizon. The stars were coming out. It was clear and warm but there was a nice breeze blowing across the road. A couple guys had pulled out their rations for chow. I looked over to my left and the fellow on the machine gun was awake and smoking a cigarette, just watching across the fields. He stared like he knew someone was out there. Like he had spotted them or something. His hand moved slowly towards his mouth as he brought the cigarette up for a puff. Out of part boredom and part curiosity I asked him if he had another cigarette. He did and gave it to me after lighting it with his own. I took a long puff like I had seen him do and like I had seen in the movies and I let out a terrible coughing fit. For what felt like ten minutes I sat there and coughed. When I was done my head was spinning and I couldn’t see straight. ‘You ok?’ the machine gunner asked me and I told him I was. He nodded his head and turned back out to look onto the rice paddies. I asked him if he had seen anything and he told me he hadn’t, ‘But they’re out there. I know it.'”
“‘How do you know’ I asked him, also turning to look out onto the dark paddies. ‘Don’t you know man?’ he said. ‘They’re everywhere. Fucking everywhere. They can listen through the trees and see through the rocks. This is their country, man. They own it and control every square inch. The less you see Them the more of Them there are around you. And if you can see Them, then it’s because They want you to see.'”
“He kept putting a heavy emphasis on the words they and them, like the Vietnamese were some otherworldly power. I even turned my head around and looked up into he trees in the forest behind us, where we were camped, expecting to see a rice hat topping the branches and eyes looking down at us from underneath it. ‘Oh yeah man,’ he said noticing me looking at the trees, ‘Behind us, in front of us, inside us. They’re everywhere. I heard a story from a buddy in the 23rd who told me that they had a fucking VC in their unit. It was this Japanese guy, or at least they all thought he was Japanese, called Takumi or some such Jap name. But all his squad mates just called him Tuck. He was a nice, cordial guy who liked to eat, drink, and smoke. Now this was a big guy too. He was probably six foot and at least two hundred pounds so everyone got along with him just because they wanted a big ass guy like that on their side. A big guy like that could haul two wounded grunts over his shoulder and still have strength for two more. So everyone was real nice to him. But he was a little strange, they said. He would go off on his own a lot and the squad would find him sitting cross-legged on the ground with his helmet off just staring up into the sky. Day or night, it didn’t matter. Sometimes he would just sit there and stare. One time they were in a firefight and this big fucker just stood there, standing straight up and all, like the biggest fucking target around, fiddling with his web gear. Not in a hurried or stressed manner either like he knew he was gonna get shot, but in a calm and relaxed way, connecting and disconnecting pieces of gear and checking the fit on his overalls. It was like he didn’t care. Or, he knew he wouldn’t get hit. They were his buddies out there and him standing there like a big, dumb, fucking tree was the signal to Them that he was embedded in an American unit and what do They do next? They stop the attack. They melt away into the forest. Well this Tuck goes missing the next day. At first everyone thinks he’s just sitting cross-legged off in the woods somewhere but when they don’t find him after a day they start sending out patrols. One after another, patrol after patrol goes out looking for this big bastard and they don’t find a fucking thing. Not a footprint, not a cat hole, not a drop of sweat on a fern leaf to be found. Nothing. It was like he vanished into the rocks. So a couple months go by and the unit forgets all about big Tuck the big Jap. They write him off as MIA or figure he’s dead or something. But one day my buddy’s squad is out on patrol in the bush when they run into a squad of gooks. Now these aren’t those dirty VC fuckers running all around the south. These are crack northern troops with AKs and uniforms. Real official guys. Part of the 316th Division so he said. And these guys get in real close and try to surround and cut off my buddy’s squad. So he’s in the back of the column covering the squad’s fallback trail when he sees this big fucking gook sprint across the trail in front of him and duck into the tree line before he gets a chance to get a shot off. And who is it? It’s the missing Jap! Well, he ain’t a fucking Jap ’cause he’s a god damn Vietnamese. So as soon as my buddy realizes who he’s just recognized, he starts lighting up that tree line. He unloads like six mags and then starts tossing frags. His sergeant thought they were under attack by a whole Division. My buddy never got a good look at the guy again but he knows it was that big Jap. He moved the same way and had the same kind of facial hair. But my buddy’s squad was redeployed the next day and he never caught wind of him again.’
“I couldn’t believe it. ‘Can’t believe it can you?’ he said, ‘It’s a true story. Hell, there’s probably a VC in our squad right now.’ I actually looked around. Not that I believed him but his story was convincing. I don’t like what he called the Vietnamese though. But it made me stare out into the rice paddy until my eyes were sore trying to spot something. At some point I thought I saw something but it was just water shimmering in moonlight. No VC or NVA that I could see.”
“But they mortared us at midnight. I threw myself onto the ground and crawled under an APC parked next to our position as the shells landed all around me. I shut my eyes and shoved my face into the dirt road and covered the back of my head and neck with my helmet. I was digging the rim into the top of my back so hard that it would leave a mark that I found at the hospital. When the mortars stopped I heard nothing but screams for what felt like an hour. I don’t think it was more than ten seconds. And then for the rest of the night I heard only gunfire.”
“I crawled out from under the APC and saw the machine gunner spraying his machine gun out into the rice paddies. I got up next to him and looked out on the paddies seeing only the flashing lights of the muzzle flashes and the lines of tracers spitting out into the darkness. I couldn’t see anyone or anything other than the lights. So I just pointed my gun out into those paddies and started firing. I probably didn’t hit anything but I really don’t know. I kept hearing the buzzing past my head. And I just kept shooting and reloading and shooting and reloading. My ears were ringing like sirens and I was starting to see the flashes when I closed my eyes but I kept staring out onto those burning rice paddies and shooting my gun at dark shapes in the grass. They never gave up and they seemed to be everywhere. We expected them to withdraw pretty quickly but when they just wouldn’t back off we thought we might run out of ammunition. Twice I had to get up and run behind the APC to grab ammo for the machine gunner and me. His name was Vince but everyone called him Vinny. He just kept shooting. I don’t know how many he killed but I’m sure it was a lot. He probably kept me alive. Never got a chance to thank him for it though. It was around four in the morning when they tried to make another hard attack and they started with mortars again. I didn’t even see him. He was just there one moment and gone the next. I didn’t see him. So I just got up, turned, and ran. No one saw me run or they probably would have called me a coward but I just had to get out of there. That’s when one went off right behind me. I felt my pack and my harness drop off to one side of me and then warmth and then heat and then burning in my left shoulder. This all happened as I was falling down onto my face. Someone dragged me off the road and down the hill to the aid station in the rear. I was lucid the whole time but I couldn’t move or speak. It was like it struck me into solid wood. They told me a three-inch plate had gone into the back of my left shoulder. I spent the rest of ’66 in the hospital and then went home the next winter.”
“Shit, George, that’s a crazy story!” I had to say something to break the silent tension. I picked up another bud and concentrated on trimming of the little sugar leaves near the top.
“Yup, I still feel the wound in my shoulder. I can’t extend my arm all the way in certain directions and I can’t sleep on my left side. Hurts a little right now actually.” He rotated his arm and winced a bit as he rubbed the back of his shoulder and went back to what he was working on.
Disclaimer: George’s War Story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and events are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the author.
Header image is property of the Associated Press.