Nobody Gets Off the Bus:
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It took Calley and two dozen grunts fifteen minutes or so to put all the gooks down and silence most of the cries. With that many, of course, it's hard to be really thorough. By the time Mike and Billy hunkered down for lunch an hour later, Calley and his triggermen had moved on and the undead in the ditch had begun to cry out, their limbs flopping about spasmodically, the way the seriously wounded do. It must have been a terrible sound, all that flopping and slapping of flesh, the crying, all that agony out there polluting a now otherwise peaceful morning.
After a certain point, after the pork and beans but before the peaches, Mike and Billy stood, checked their M-16s, and walked down the ditch, dividing up the survivors and finishing them off. Just the two of them, pacing deliberately along the edge of the death pit. There's one moving. Pow. Pow. There's another one. Pow. Up and down the ditch bank once and no one moved any more.
As Mike told me the story, my head felt like it must feel when someone is scalping you alive. Even as it is actually happening, you can't bring yourself to believe it. But yes, yes, yes, he said on every detail. It was all true. He hadn't shot into the people when Calley first had them all crowded into the ditch. That was awful. The whole thing was like a bad dream. "It was like a Nazi kind of thing," he said.
But he made a distinction between what Calley had done at the ditch and the coups de gras he and Billy administered later. The people he and Billy polished off, Mike said, were mercy killings. Those people were going to die anyway. No need for them to suffer. How many were there? He didn't know. A dozen. Maybe two. It was hard to count.
We'd been laying there for nearly an hour then. It was not late. It could not have been past 21:00 hours. We were laying on our sides, looking at each other across a few feet of sandbags. We were both tired. It had been a long, nerve-wracking five days and we had not gotten much sleep. This conversation wasn't going to help any. A long silence hung there after Mike finished the story. I was stunned. Finally, after what seemed forever, I whispered the last question I ever asked him about My Lai.
"Mike, Mike," I asked. "Didn't you know that was wrong?"
"I dunno man," he said and a change came over him. It was as if I saw a wall roll down behind his eyes. "I dunno. It was just one of those things."
He rolled over at that and a few minutes later I could hear the regular hum of his breath. He was asleep. We never talked about My Lai again after that, though we pulled four more LRRP missions together and finished the remaining seven months of our tours in Vietnam in the same company. We continued to be cordial, but we were not close after that.
My question had taken me over the line, beyond a limit I should not have crossed, a line a friend should have known was there. While we did not yet know it, there would be plenty of time for judges in our lives. Life is filled with them. He did not need me to be his. It seems like such an obvious, stupid question now, in retrospect, but I could not help myself at the time. It was, I thought, such an extraordinary and awful tale, especially for it to come tumbling from the lips of pure, Mormon Mike Terry.
A few days later, back on the beach of the South China Sea at Chu Lai, someone on the team called Juan by his nickname again. "Hey Good," he said. Maybe it was Gruver. It could have been me. "When we going out again?"
Juan turned. Real sudden. Not just pissed. Really pissed.
"Listen motherfucker," he said, a furious, steely anger in his voice, "Don't you ever call me that again! You hear? Don't none of you motherfuckers ever call me that again!"
We didn't. Clearly, it had the potential to be a killing offense. I was, strangely, almost as shocked by Juan's burst of anger that day, in a certain way, as I was by Mike Terry's revelations to me a few days earlier. Perhaps I was a slow learner. It took me years to understand why.
Ten years later, sometime in 1978, a woman came to me. I had been doing some investigative reporting for a local hippie rag in Phoenix for several years by then and people with trouble sometimes found their way to my door. This woman was a Native American, a member of the Pima Tribe. Her son, whose name I do not remember, had been murdered on the reservation. The reservation police wouldn't do anything about it. Yes, they knew who did it--a neighbor her family had been having a running feud with for years.
The next week another reporter and I drove out to the reservation at Sacaton, forty miles east of Phoenix. The woman would show us the scene of the crime, the house of the killer, etc. When we got to her home, it was like a step back through time, back to Vietnam. The house was little more than a hovel, pounded together with bits and pieces of scrap lumber, cardboard and flattened beer cans. It could easily have come out of any refugee slum in a Saigon side-alley or any refugee camp at the height of the war. As we traveled the reservation that day, we came to see that her house was not unusual there. Everyone was so poor it would take your breath away. Most Americans could not comprehend it. It looked nearly identical, to me, to the state of hundreds, thousands of Vietnamese refugees I had seen, people whose entire life's effort had been reduced to a shack and some rags.
So it was in Pima country--flat, desolate and arid--a desert, except for when it is a flood plain. As we drove around the reservation, one of the many that dot Arizona, the woman and her husband would stop every few miles, sometimes every few fields, and point to the place where some relative or friend had died. By that cattle guard, right over there. That's where they found Manuel. He was my cousin. His face was hacked off with an ax. See that old cottonwood, way over there? That's where his brother shot uncle Joe with the shotgun. Most were men. All were murdered or committed suicide. Thirteen of their relatives were on the list--brothers, fathers, sons, uncles, cousins. Yeah, it was clear. These motherfuckers were gooks. No doubt about it. No matter how the government dresses it up, you can always tell by the kill ratios. These people were definitely still gooks.
Sometime during that drive I realized that Sacaton was where Sgt. Juan had grown up. He had not needed us to tell him about being a gook. He already knew. His people have been gooks for a long time.
The theaters have changed now, of course. We no longer call it Vietnam--because it is not. It is a new, much grander era. It might be called the era of perpetual internal warfare: the Perpetual War. America's military and foreign policy apparatus is its hub--the driving, organizing, controlling center of an international security state. The Vietnam war never really went away: the tiger simply rearranged its stripes, changed its name--and grew. Its mechanisms of political control were also extended home, but that is a story for another time.
Today, in Latin America, the U.S. pays for and sponsors "Vietnamized" wars of one kind or another in roughly half the countries from Mexico south. Every one of the drug war countries, for instance, is currently involved in some variation of a Vietnam-style counterinsurgency campaign. Some are disguised as "drug wars," others as counterinsurgency campaigns separate from simultaneous drug wars, or as in El Salvador and Nicaragua, as an outright counterinsurgency or insurgency operation. Each country has a MILGROUP, the modern variation on MACV, boatloads of traveling TDY (temporary duty) advisors, American military and/or drug war aid, and tons of American training. Other similar wars are also being waged in Africa and Asia.
In every case, amazingly enough, the enemy happen to be citizens, usually large numbers of them, who oppose the government we support. Gooks, I guess you'd say.
In each of those countries the tools, the tactics and the techniques of the Vietnam war are at work. The Pentagon calls it Low Intensity Conflict: Pentagon packaging of the same old thing. Richard Wright, the Assistant Commander of the School of the Americas (the U.S. Army training school for Latin American military leaders) said in an interview that LIC is nothing more than a sanitized version of counterinsurgency.
Because few allegations of direct U.S. involvement in Vietnam war-style atrocities surface in the pages of America's newspapers, however, there is not much press or public interest in the perpetual war. The U.S. is nevertheless still orchestrating the slaughter of gooks throughout the world. Massacres, assassinations, disappeared ones, forced relocation of the rural poor, government "secure" zones, death squads, the torture of prisoners, the labeling of any and all opposition as "terrorists"--all have a familiar ring.
Call it Nixon's revenge. It is Vietnamization that seems to work. We provide the money, the guns, the strategies, and plenty of on-the-scene advisors to our friends, the good gooks. They in turn steal most of the money, do the dirty work on the bad gooks, and if someone gets caught, take all the blame. A whole continent with gooks on one side and potential Lt. Calleys on the other. Gooks and Lt. Gooks. What could be more perfect in a world of perpetual war?
The Perpetual War will be bigger than the Vietnam war. And longer, of course. It already stretches from Mexico south to Bolivia, a reach that covers eleven countries. If this entire region is looked at as one theater of operations, with each country the equivalent of a U.S. Army Corps such as I Corps in Vietnam, and each ambassador as a Corps level provincial military advisor, then the drug war suddenly starts looking a whole lot like a real war--a real big war.
Some Corps are quieter within the Latin American theater, of course, but there is still plenty of action. If all the war news from each of the eleven Corps of the Drug War were ballyhooed and concentrated by America's daily newspapers the way the war news from the Gulf War was, how much space would the Perpetual War take?
Too much. All the news--let's face it--is not fit to print. Some of it is R-rated: too strong for the stomachs of discerning adults.
It's funny how people are. I never heard Mike Terry say the word "gook." If you'd have called him a racist, he would have denied it with the purest conscience. Sometimes I wonder, though, what Mike would have done if the people in that ditch at My Lai had been Mormons, white Mormons? Would he have put them out of their misery? Maybe, but I doubt it.
That's kind of the way it is with the people trapped in the Perpetual War. We only catch occasional glimpses of the victims moaning from the ditch during our lunch. The audible sound of human agony is less obtrusive for us than it was for Mike and Billy that day at My Lai.
We don't actually hear them. We still do not feel compelled to make a choice. Instead, we turn the page on the three-inch story at the back of the news section in the New York Times, down at the bottom just before the crossword puzzles begin, and barely have a second thought about the massacre of more villagers in some remote spot in some Latin American country. It doesn't even dawn on us that we're leaving them all to die in the ditch. Perhaps, if they were white Mormons, people would be pissed.
Ron Ridenhour was instrumental in bringing public and media attention to the My Lai massacre.