Viet Nam Generation Journal & Newsletter
"Section formée, z'ef!"
Alan Farrell, Modern Languages, Hampden-Sydney College
One morning in 1968, six months in country, I stumble out for first formation at oh-dark-thirty to find my section formed up by fours, after the French: ("Comptez-vous quatre!") The montagnard platoon leader bellows "Garde-à -vous": ("Faaaaall-hin!") Locks his heels, does a regulation pirouette, presents me a palm-out French salute, and announces impassively: "Section foooooormée, z'ef": ("The platoon is formed, sir!")
I take the salute, but something ain't right. I look around. Then it dawns on me, literally, in the crepuscular light. They all have red boots on! They're painted red! I know better than to look surprised. I squint archly at the toes, all pointing outward at the regulation 45 degrees. They are all red. I pull the montagnard first sergeant, Nhiao A, aside, put my arm around his shoulder, draw my face very near to his, and ask: "Pourquoi godasses rouges": ("Why boot red?") "Ça faire bon, z'ef," comes the sober reply: "Seemed like a good idea at the time." The horror! The horror!
What he meant, of course, was that of the two quite distant poles available to him for sorting out moral priorities, that is good and bad, the reason for painting boots red fell closer to the "good" pole than the other. And that was all the explanation he could or would give me, but between those poles lay a world of exquisite complexity and refinement into which I had a privileged glimpse for a short time.
Nhiao A was So-dang . Served in the French Army in 1953. "Quat'iéme battailllllll-ong, z'ef," as he would announce to anyone who asked him, throwing out his meager chest and giving that backhanded French salute. Captured at Dien Bien Phu in the North, he served in a labor camp, and upon release, returned to his highlands ( Haute région ) where, of course, the New War was brewing. He knew all the immediate actions and specifications for the Model '36 French carbine and the MAT '49: "PM, mod' 1949, z'ef. Pistolet mitrailleur." He had been cabot chef , senior corporal.
Now he was Top Sergeant of my section of strikers, supplétifs as they still called themselves. Technical rank: Exploitation Force 0-1. And every morning as I staggered out into the compound of Hruh Huong , the "Hornet Hive," Raider Battalion camp, he stood at rigid attention after the French fashion, snapped me a quivering salute, and reported proudly: "Section fooooooooooormée, z'ef!" He enjoyed the formality of his position, and I honored meticulously his role as juteux, adjutant. He'd turn and roar in his own language what sounded to me like : "Binh...gia dai...Binh! The thirty-odd So-dang in the section would hit the first position of attention, then pop to parade rest, then back to attention as I took over. French, I guess.
One morning I take it upon myself to form the platoon alone. "Binh..gia dai...Binh!" I bleat. 'Yards look at me, motionless. Louder: "Binh..gia dai...Binh!" Nothing. Nhiao watches, at length marches discretely over to the side of the formation, says something in So-dang to the troops, motions me to give the command again. "Binh..gia dai...Binh!" They pop from attention to parade rest and back. And from then on, each time I shout "Binh...gia dai...Binh!" at the platoon, they execute. After a while I decide to broaden our repertoire, so I ask him how to give the command: Repos! (At ease!) "Pas moyen, z'ef," he says; "No way." Of course I ask later. I learn not to ask why. After a lot of downcast eyes and harumphs and so on, I extort from him that it would be too complicated for the men. Why? Because they have no idea what I am saying, so badly do I mispronounce the three lousy syllables I have set myself to entone; Nhiao has simply told them that whatever I shout, they should come to attention, snap to parade rest, then back to attention. Fact is that I could howl "54-40 or fight!" and they would execute for me.
I have, in my foolish and linear Western Way, been looking to associate cause and effect. I have assumed that when I give the command and witness the response, I have provoked the response. Error! I discover later that my orders in combat would come to the same end as well: when I shout the right thing, I get compliance. If not, then what they do is what I should have ordered. An unusual system, but one in the end I learn to live with. And through. Nhiao knows I am young and dumb, but he has an old man's patience and the patience of a people used to biding time. And he tries to explain time to me more than once, but between my diffidence and his French, that elusive concept remains just that between us. I do come to comprehend that, though he wears a watch and evidently understands the meaning of the hands, he arrives places more or less on time and performs tasks more or less on time purely as the happy coincidence of when us bou mis want things done and when he determines that the fullness of time has revolved. "Moyen faire, z'ef" ("Can do, sir.") means that we can do it now , though why not before or why not after is never clear to me.
"Putain dgieu de merde de bordel de dgieu de merde de bordel de dgieu de merde de merde et merde!" Faced with the perversity of things or events (though never at men) Nhiao would let loose his best string of genuine French invective, then punctuate it with a Vietnamese: "dix mille fois!" He has picked up from some tirailleur colonial in the 50's the savory art of strung-together expletive, wherein all the dark terror and somber joy of a soldier's life commingle brutally: God, shit, whore. "Nomdedgieu," he'd spit once again, though the god he thus invoked he knew not at all.
On operations, we'd stumble up those Laotian mountain ridges till dark, then dig in. I can still remember squatting beside old Nhiao, chopping with an entrenching-tool at the rooty, fragrant soil. I would tend to hack out a shallow burrow and flop on my back like a beetle puffing and gasping and sucking water out of my canteen. Nhiao would take up the E-tool and methodically square off my crude hole and make it into a fighting position. Later, at 4 or 5 in the morning, when the first 82mm rounds began to slam into our perimeter, I would be grateful for his persistence. More than once, crouching in that hole in the darkness as explosions rocked the ground and shrapnel whistled and skittered through the brush, I felt him put his arms around me. Not for the sake of his fear, but for mine. And I recall thinking (when I recall thinking!) that I could do worse than die in the company of a man like this. As surely I shall one of these days.
Death came for Nhiao in January, 1969 during the routine sweep of a base camp in a region called merely Hotel -Nine, where he took a round in the chest. We hack frantically at a landing zone for a chopper. We huddle around the old man in the mud and rot. Can't get a vein for the IV. Respiration shallow. Pulse limping. He looks up as we try to jam the needle in his arm:
"Moi, C'est foutu, z'ef," he says to me. "I'm done for."
"Non, non!" I tell him, "Tu t'en tireras": "You're gonna make it!" He doesn't seem to acknowledge. Now I'm choking: "Si tu peux tenir... L'hélico va arriver... Tu vas t'en tirer." I know he knows those words. He stares incredulously. I try again: "Si tu pouvais tenir, tu t'en tirerais." But the "hélico" ("chopper") I have evoked by my futures, my conditionals does not exist for him. Only the air he can't catch, only the numbness spreading across his chest. The conditional, the future are for Nhiao non-states, dislocated from tangible reality. The meaningless watch, remember? What is real is what you can touch, big dumb American. "Moi, C'est foutu," he corrects. And he is right. As he has been about many other things I have come slowly to understand.
I have a photo of him. He stares sternly at the objective lens. Meager chest thrust out, black eyes burning. Still after so many years. He wears, for his own reasons, a pair of Western eyeglasses but with no lenses in them. It was his habit to carry them and to put them on with great solemnity. I never thought to ask him why.
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