(A messy business)
enemy attacked the province capitol during the early morning hours of Tet, the
Vietnamese New Year. By daybreak, the fighting had spread to the outlying hamlets and
Alpha Company was sent into an area southwest of the city. On point was the second platoon.
As we approached
a collection of shacks and
hooches on the edge of a graveyard, gunfire erupted. Enemy AK47 rounds
cracked and zipped overhead as we scattered and scrambled for cover.
began returning fire. The rattle of our M16s and M60s rose quickly to an ear-splitting crescendo.
We poured withering automatic fire into the shacks, hooches and bushes. Our grenadiers hurled
M79 shells into the hamlet as well.
The enemy broke contact and fled into the hamlet. We followed, pursuing them through the hooches and shacks.
in hamlets and villages was a messy business. Up until Tet, the battalion
had operated only in the Central Highlands. In those jungle covered hills
the only civilians I saw was
an occasional Montagnard villager. Now we were fighting Viet Cong guerillas in populated areas.
Many grunts suspected peasant loyalties. These
suspicions, along with the confusion of battle, and a soldier's survival
instincts, seemed to lift from our
shoulders any acute sense of concern for the safety of
If you went in
there worrying about women and children, a hardcore
grunt say later, you couldn't do your job. The uncertainties of guerilla
warfare made the death of civilians, innocent or not, a certainty. While I understood this cold fact,
it's different when you see these things up close.
According to my diary, the first casualty I saw that morning was an old Vietnamese
in a crossfire at the edge of the hamlet. He was wounded when an M79 shell exploded in his shack. Gunner and I dashed
inside after the explosion and found him lying on a dirt floor moaning and babbling with fright.
The man's back was peppered with shell fragments. We stayed long
enough to bandage his worst wounds, then hurried out to catch up with
the rest of the second platoon.
Minutes later I saw Schultz entering a hooch to check it out.
I heard a shot and ran over to investigate. I entered carefully, calling out Schultz's name.
a dead monk sprawled on the floor, blood pouring from a hole in the man's shiny shaved
head. He lay in a
spreading pool of blood behind a wooden table on which squatted a small statue of Buddha.
fired instinctively when he heard a noise coming from behind the
table. That's where the monk was hiding.
Schultz looked grim, but there was nothing to be done. We had to move on, stay
with the platoon. Two days later, in another
anonymous hamlet, Schultz took a bullet in the chest. He was dragged into a rice
farmer's shack were he lay on the floor until medevacked. Inside this shack,
on a shelf was another small statue of the ubiquitous Buddha.
Schultz and I left
the dead monk and joined Gunner outside. The three of us moved forward through the hamlet toward the sound of
increased gunfire. Our nostrils stung with the smell of burning grass and cordite.
two more wounded civilians, and heard crying coming from a hooch. I looked in through
the window. On
the floor, surrounded by hysterical children, was an old woman shot in the face.
This was not how I expected combat to be. I was naive. A dark anger, a rage, grew inside me. Minutes later I vented that
rage on a dying enemy soldier.
Gunner, Schultz and I caught up with the platoon on the far end of the hamlet
where I passed two dead enemy soldiers. I confess, I was pleased to see their
crumpled bodies. I felt no remorse or pity. I thought, at least the enemy is dying,
I passed a captured enemy soldier who had a leg wound. Somebody said he was a political officer. The thin, bareheaded
man was sitting on ground stained with his blood, holding his arms straight up.
Close by I saw Aguero lying on the ground with a gunshot wound. A medic was
tending to Aguero's wound.
I was now on a skirmish line with the point squad, moving away
from the hamlet toward another part of the graveyard. I could hear sporadic
gunfire and explosions from M79 grenades.
Suddenly, a bareheaded VC with a shock of black hair emerged from behind a line of bushes. We
aimed our weapons at him
but held our fire, unsure at first if he was trying to surrender. The VC had a pistol in his hand, but it was pointed at the sky. Grunts screamed for him to drop
it. Why doesn't he drop the gun, I thought. Was he too fucking scared to think?
When he started waving the pistol, we opened fire. Our bullets tore him
to pieces. Machine-guns and M16s blazing away, tearing flesh and bone from his body.
He crumpled back, holding one arm straight out, palm out, as if trying to stop the
The assault line moved against the line of bushes
from where the pistol carrying VC had emerged. As we passed his bloody body
I saw one of his fingers on the ground. We were blasting
away at the line of bushes. As we broke through them, I came upon a wounded
enemy soldier. He had a mortal chest wound. His fatigue shirt was soaked in blood.
The man was about my age, maybe a little older.
His glazed eyes looked up at me. He was close to death. These were his last living moments on
earth and I would be the
last thing he would see. A man in a G.I. helmet silhouetted against the sky.
He was my enemy. He was
an object to me, like a Japanese soldier in those old World War II
movies I grew up watching. I told myself I
would put him out of his misery. A mercy killing. I was skirting the truth.
What I really wanted was to
kill him before he died. He was going to bleed to death anyway, but I wanted to be the
immediate cause of his
death. According to some perverse equation in my head, I figured his death would even the score for the
old lady I saw shot in the face. His death would make her death more acceptable.
I wrote in my dairy later that I shot him five times. He
was just an object to me that day, he only became human years later.
provide us with
your email address so
notify you when "Pieces" is available.