Things turned weird on the troopship hauling us to Vietnam, a World War II APA with landing craft.
It was 1966, early in the war. Nobody knew what it was yet. Some people knew what they wanted it to be, though.
We had movies. They weren't '50s movies like we'd had on other troopships, Troy Donahue and Sandra Dee movies. They were '30s movies, the same movies Marines might have watched on their way to Iwo Jima. Not just one, either: two or three. One was "Top Hat," with Fred Astaire singing "Isn't this a lovely day to be caught in the rain?"
I worried the captain was leading us on a nostalgia binge, some sweating old madman conducting sing-alongs up there in the wardroom: "Let the rain pitter patter but it really doesn't matter . . ."
We went down the cargo nets and into the landing craft. The closer we got to the beach at Chu Lai, the more frantic a staff sergeant got, a flashback to Korea, maybe. It was about the chin straps on our helmets. Bellowing: "YOUWILLBUCKLETHOSECHINSTRAPSYOUWILLBUCKLE . . ." He was getting on everybody's nerves. The ramp dropped. We charged onto a beach where two Navy construction guys in shorts were lying on towels.
Marines hate doing combat landings next to sailors getting suntans. What kind of war was this, anyhow?
Good question. Were we GI Joes with lopsided American grins, handing out chocolate to World War II urchins? Were we defending South Korea against the godless Chinese horde? Nobody knew. For a while lieutenants acted like we were making history. They took to naming every firefight: Elephant Ridge, the Battle of Fishhook Hill. The colonel told them to cut it out.
Then I realized what kind of war it was: Nobody knew what kind of war it was--that was the kind of war it was. There were no turning points, everything was a turning point. Who could tell?
Like somebody'd tell you that Sgt. Smith in Charlie Company got greased, and you'd say "Sorry 'bout that," and it meant more than you could ever imagine and it meant less. And the less it meant, the more it meant, because that's the way irony worked in Vietnam. It's hard to understand, unless you already understand it, and even then it's hard to understand. It was like a joke, and people back here reading about the war or seeing it on television were the butt of the joke, even though we were the ones getting greased. It was very complicated.
I was a corporal on a civic action team, winning hearts and minds by bowing, saying hello and handing out flour, cement and corrugated roofing to people we'd driven out of ancestral villages and installed in wastelands where the housing plots were lined up nice and square, like bunks in a barracks.
We stopped giving away chewing gum because the kids kept trying to sell it back to us. The SweeTart candy people sent us a crate load. We gave them out to the kids. After a few weeks of SweeTarts, the kids started yelling that SweeTarts were numbah 10 (speaking the Okinawan pidgin they'd learned from us) and threw them back at our truck. We threw the SweeTarts back at them, real hard, so the kids flinched and ducked.
One day, with a firefight going on within earshot, real people dying, I saw kids playing with toy cowboy pistols. Bang, bang, you're dead. One day I saw a girl, maybe 75 pounds, trotting down Route 1 with a pole on her shoulders. On each end of the pole was a five-gallon container of water, 40 pounds, 80 total, more than she weighed. And she was trotting. It occurred to me that this could be a longer war than we thought.
The 3d Marine Division Band played a concert in a village. A lot of women, children and old men turned out to squint at a terrific trumpeter blowing his brains out on "Come Back to Sorrento." I went around taking up a collection of hearts and minds, saying hello and bowing. Then I saw the Viet Cong, maybe half a dozen of them, hard young guys in clean black pajamas. They were unarmed.
I said hello. I bowed. They looked at me. They were very, very cool. They knew I knew they were Viet Cong, but what was I going to do, take the rifle off my shoulder and waste them? Besides, I knew they knew I knew they'd be crawling up through the wispy Australian pines that night to kill me. They had all the time in the world. They seemed ready for a long war indeed.
There was never a shortage of turning points.
I don't mean the incoming fire or the outgoing fire, or sunset and sunrise, which were turning points of a different sort. What I mean is the tangy sense that everything was crucial and pointless at the same time, a kind of psychic smog that could turn farm boys into master ironists in under a week.
One afternoon we shelled the wrong village for hours with our 105mm howitzers. When we got it straightened out and ceased fire, the colonel sent somebody over with an order for the civic action team to do something to make the people feel better about it.
We sat for one, maybe two minutes in silence. We were devastated, we were helpless. It was one of the worst moments of my young life.
Then our driver, Lance Cpl. Gilman, said: "Screw 'em if they can't take a joke," and we shouted with laughter, screamed with laughter, cried and kicked the floor with laughter. It's hard to understand. Maybe you had to be there.
I say this as somebody who had an easy time in Vietnam. Scared a lot, shot at some, a few grenades going off in the vicinity, but an easy time, and it only lasted four months--my enlistment ran out. I was glad to leave but glad I'd been there. So take it for what it's worth.
We knew we weren't going to go down in a slaughter like the French at Dien Bien Phu. We had too much stuff. We might lose some firefights but we'd win the battles. It was the war that was the problem. If we were going for victory, nobody seemed to know how to get there. It was like driving and being lost so bad it doesn't matter which way you turn or when, so every point is a turning point, and none of them are.
That's why we had leaders--to give us orders about which way to turn, and then explain why to the media. We didn't care why. We were too busy doing our jobs.
As for the media, if you want turning points, try being in Vietnam reading an old Time magazine about another part of your unit landing "lean, hard and looking for a fight," or words to that effect. I saved that one to show to friends. I could go on and on but why bother? The whole war was one big turning point. It screwed this country up. One fine day, there will be another turning point, and we'll be over it.