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Viet Nam Generation
& Newsletter

V4, N1-2 (April 1992)

This text, made available by the Sixties Project, is copyright (c) 1996 by Viet Nam Generation, Inc., or the author, all rights reserved. This text may be used, printed, and archived in accordance with the Fair Use provisions of U.S. Copyright law. This text may not be archived, printed, or redistributed in any form for a fee, without the consent of the copyright holder. This notice must accompany any redistribution of the text. The Sixties Project, sponsored by Viet Nam Generation Inc. and the Institute of Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, is a collective of humanities scholars working together on the Internet to use electronic resources to provide routes of collaboration and make available primary and secondary sources for researchers, students, teachers, writers and librarians interested in the 1960s.

Half of Three is Two

Alan Farrell, Modern Languages, Hampden-Sydney College

"Combat," the Detachment Sergeant once told me, "is a world where half of three is two": that is, where any reasoning, order, array, reference point you may once have understood is now skewed, cock-eyed but still systematic-- even mathematic--and predictable and inevitable. Just other. Half of three rounds is two rounds. Half of three men is two men. Half of three grenades is two grenades. And a whole series of corollaries follows from this ineluctable initial premise: twice as many as 100 rounds is three hundred rounds; twice as much as one block of C-4 is three blocks of C-4; three good men less one dead man is one scared man. "Understand that," Team Sergeant assured me, "and you understand combat. Don't--or don't want to--understand it? Stay home! You'll get yourself killed and take a good trooper with you."

1970. And I have made it back home, out of Viet Nam, Republic of. Without glory perhaps, but with my ass. I have plumped safely down into grad school in Boston, Massachusetts, where about the worst anyone seems to be able to do to me is bore me stiff. Slogged out in front of my teevee one wind-buffeted New England afternoon, jaw slack, eyes glazed, lids settling, arm up to the elbow in a bowl of potato chips, slender filament of drool trickling down my chin, I am in a state of grace. Across the screen flashes the War, my War on sixoclocknews. Outside, in the settling gloom, errant leaves plunk against the storm-window. Thunk. And with distant and detached amusement. Thunk. I disengage myself from my lethargy. Thunk. Squint to focus on the dancing images. Thunk. Somehow the thing had seemed so much bigger. Thunk. Than this flickering square of grayblue light that winks at me from across the room. Thunk. Absently, I shovel a fistful of potato chips into my mouth. Thunk. Go get 'em, guys.

Just now, one of those blow-dried, razor-cut commentators, duly decked out in a braaaaaaaand shiny new Coat, Man's Combat, Tropical, Sateen Olive Green Quartermaster Shade 109, is reciting the litany of horror that is today's Dose for the Nation. Some druggie Sp/4 with his hair parted in the middle is squawking, maaaaan, like, about soldiers' rights, y'know. A couple of black guys wearing those little round sunglasses are thumping each other in what we learn is a ritual greeting, to which all the brothers in the Nam are addicted. The village of Bum Phuc-- or is it Ben Suc--has been inadvertantly shelled, so a stiff- necked, white-walled spokesman from the Umpth Infantry is trying to explain what a shortround is. Cut back to the correspondent. A dull "wump!" followed by a sharp explosion in the distance behind him. "A mortar round," he announces, peering calmly over his shoulder, "has struck not fifty yards from here." Unhurried, he drones on about rice cashes (which he pronounces cachet) and checkerboard patrols and the plucky guys of the Five-Oh-Deuce and some villager who insists on bleating his outrage into the camera for the living rooms of America. Wump! Ba-loom! "Another round has hit, about fifty yards off that way now," he interposes, the merest riffle of irritation discernible in his voice, then drifts back into his reportaaaaaaage. (Which I gather is a lot like reporting only classier.)


I stiffen, sit up. My mouth has gone dry. My lips form soundless words. I struggle to get up from the chair. Transfixed, I cannot move. Short, guttural coughs fill the back of my throat: "GGGGGGGG... GGGGGGGGGuck... GGGGGGGttt... Get out, you silly sunuvabitch!" I want to get out, too. Torpor smothers in me another impulse: flight. "Get out! Get out!" I shriek out loud. All this in the mili-second following that whump.

And sure enough, the picture wobbles and the screen goes black. Of course, this is yesterday's event, as I recollect in time. And sure enough, the anchorman returns to assure us in his grave, avuncular tone that, yes, our correspondent was, in fact, struck by fragments from a mortar round during the filming of this segment, although he, our correspondent, was not critically injured and, yes, don't we all wish him well and hope he'll be back on his beat in good order.

And smarter, I should hope.

What happened to this guy was that he watched enemy mortarmen "split a 100-meter bracket": that is set one round long and one short, by fifty meters each, of a target, namely our correspondent. Maybe he thought mortars "walked" toward you and that when the second one skipped over him, the next would happily "walk" on off into the vegetation. When you split a 100-meter bracket, the next command, in aaaaaaaanybody's army, is "Drop Five-zero! Fire for effect!" And sure enough, our Correspondent wound up having to "bouffer du 82mm," my Montagnards would say: "eat an 82mm."

As was ordained.

Yet my reflex was still good. The conditioned response of any infantryman, of anyone who understood what small-unit combat, small-scale warfare was like. It was no intuition or fairy sense: it's how you make war. It would be the reaction of anyone who knew what it meant to close with the enemy, exchange fire at close range. Of a trained, professional infantryman. But this guy was no infantryman. Somebody had dressed this journalist up in a baggy green blouse, issued him a flak jacket, fitted him with a pair of those nifty jungle boots, assured him that he was on a Constitutional mission, and squired him into harm's way without telling him what happens when you let yourself get bracketed! And he had hung around the troopies a little and picked up some lingo and let a couple days' beard grow and heard a couple of rounds pop. Maybe he had even seen a dead man.

What he had not seen was Combat.

War is a profession. It's not a game. It seems to be a profession that Americans take to reluctantly enough--and God bless them for that--under ordinary circumstances, but with the appropriate brutality when the time comes--and God bless them for that, too. But it is no game, and brutality is not enough. And the infantryman, unlike our correspondent, does not drift in and out of it as the odd "story" pops up. He lives in mud and shit, constantly sick, always exhausted, hungry, sleepless, and he grows more and more distant from those who were his family and friends and classmates as he gets more and more competent at this new trade. Nor does he have the privilege simply to suffer and die like, say, the infinitely more fortunate who are merely starving to death. The infantryman is expected to fight: not simply die but fight first, then die. He becomes cynical, professional, mechanical and intuitive at once: mechanical at the business of wielding his weapons and delivering his fire; intuitive at where and when to ply this craft. It is a world of absolutes and final decisions and monotony and reluctance.

It is a world you cannot know unless you are initiated. And you cannot be initiated unless you serve in the infantry. So not confuse Combat, now, with War or Horror or Suffering or Torture or Massacre or any of the thousand-odd other ways human beings have found to choke, gasp, retch, spew, spit, and piss life away. Look at any television documentary. See that guy hunched over, lugging his rifle, galumphing ungainly through the ruins of Stalingrad, scuttling across the beach at Tarawa, trundling over the snow at the Bulge, laboring across No-Man's Land on the Somme? That's combat. I do not say Courage or Bravery or Glory or Victory or Defeat or Vindication or Freedom and certainly not Right or Wrong. Only combat. And it's no part-time job. And no enterprise to be entered into with reservations or demurrers, as a generation of don'wanna-bes found out in Vietnam.

Out of the fog of the past I have a fuzzy picture of two young paratroopers, sucking down a single cold coke, sharing it as men will, on the medevac strip at Pleiku one sweltering, shimmering Vietnam morning till a dustoff chopper sets down noisily on the Umphst Evac Hospital pad. "Give us a hand," shouts the crewchief, and we scurry over to the shuddering aircraft. "Guys from the Umpth Infantry." The Umpth is made up almost entirely of draftees. In, out: Basic, AIT, 30 days leave, Vietnam and back home! The American Plan. Crewchief swings the M-60 aside, screams at the top of his lungs still to make himself heard over the downwinding rotors. "Point in a patrol. Took a B-40." We grab hold of a mousy little man with straight, straw-colored hair and thick glasses, dazed and speechless, a grenadier who has been showered with shrapnel. One lens of his glasses shattered. Thick, dark blood clotted on the welts left by entering fragments. We lug him off in a sitting position, small, forlorn waif, his M-79 clutched to his chest.

We grab a kid stretched out on the chopper floor. Big, good-looking blond. Broad shoulders, blue eyes wide open, vacant, pin-point pupils. I heft him under the shoulders. His head rolls over against my arm. Mush. Back of his head is mush. Medic shakes his head glumly as we set him on a litter. Emergency staff wheels him toward the swinging doors of the emergency room. He disappears from sight.

My buddy and I return to the apron and take a schlurf from the now-warm coke. Silence. An empty sandbag, driven by the wind, skitters across the perforated steel panels of the landing pad. Silence.

"That kid," I say, "should be on a beach in California somewhere chasing girls." My buddy, who is not a hard man, but who has seen fire and death with me for sixteen months now, looks up from his coke with immense fatigue but no satisfaction and replies: "He was trying to get out of something." He meant, of course, that the guy had let himself be drafted and made a soldier. Had not embraced the profession, had never volunteered, had only taken what they gave him--eight, twelve, sixteen weeks of perfunctory training--let them shove him into a unit made up entirely of inexperienced and unwilling kids like himself, had in short taken War to be a game, a place to count days, a thing to be got through, a thing to be done with your fingers crossed, a thing to be done as half-heartedly as sitting through classes or stringing on the team, a thing to be in but not part of. He was trying to get out of something. And now he would die for it.

Oddly enough, though, no one had ever asked him to believe in this war or even in War. Certainly no one ever asked me that. But people had, perhaps, given him to understand that this war might be useless or wrong or unjust or unimportant and thus something he could walk through. The blond-haired kid with the caved-in skull was drafted, urged on by disembodied voices and folksy images and vague notions of duty and country, maybe even the fear to reveal his reluctance to serve; the newsman followed vanity and ambition, knew he could sit when he pleased, stand when he pleased, smoke, eat, sleep when he pleased, go home when he pleased, and never, never have to hunch over and lug that rifle forward into the darkness. But in the end they both paid the price. 'Cause half of three is two.

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