Despite my indiscretions, or perhaps because of them, going to church seemed like a good idea since Christmas was coming up soon. I held only a smidgen of hope that the chaplain would provide any profound message of inspiration. It was more the ritual that I sought. A way to make a connection with something more pure than the immoral morass in which we lived as soldiers in Vietnam. Given the number of Protestant denominations, chaplains for each and every one of them were not available at every base. Oftentimes, a somewhat generic Protestant service was all there was. This was the case at Bearcat.
So I went to the Protestant chapel where I waited and waited. Chaplain Vladimir kept conferring with his enlisted aide, spec-4 Estragon (the names have been changed to protect the guilty and gratify those who enjoy literary allusions). They were stalling—5, 10, 15 minutes after Sunday services were supposed to have started in the chapel at Bearcat. The civilian church services I had attended typically followed a tight schedule. If anything, unlike other military activities, the timing of religious services conducted by chaplains was even tighter. Finally, as the chaplain’s face brightened, the reason for the delay became clear. Preceded by his junior officer flunky, General Westmoreland strode sharply into the back of the room, taking a seat in the last pew. After the services, the general shook hands with each of the departing soldiers, greeting them somewhat like a parent in the receiving line at a wedding, but even more like a politician at a campaign stop. As I approached and shook his hand, an aura of power seemed to emanate from him, as much as two or three inches from his crisply starched uniform. Startling as this was, it certainly was understandable. He was so important that God had to wait for him! After all, he was a man in charge of 500,000 American soldiers.
As soldiers, we were not paid to think. All we had to do was follow orders of our NCOs, who followed the orders of the officers, who followed the orders of their superior officers and all the way on up to General Westmoreland himself. The general, in turn, was following the directions of the Commander in Chief, AKA President LBJ. We of course, as American citizens and soldiers, naturally wanted to believe in and follow our president and Commander in Chief. Only later would I learn the annoying fact that I couldn’t trust what the president tells the American public, then or now. Waiting for Westmoreland was no different from waiting for Godot or for Lefty to tell us what to do. Or for the chaplain, pastor or priest to tell us what was on God’s mind. In this best of all possible wars, as Voltaire might say if he were alive today, there could be no doubt that Westmoreland was doing God’s business, killing Commies. After all, that’s what some of the bumper stickers of the time said: “Kill a Commie for Christ.” In fact, the official position was that the more we killed the better.
That was so because, unlike in previous conventional wars, there were no land-related strategic objectives. During the time I was there, the primary goal was to eliminate Communist political power. As a war of attrition, the measure of progress toward this objective was the body count of killed enemy (both NVA and VC) relative to their perceived ability to put additional men in the field. Unfortunately, the CIA and the Defense Department apparently didn’t agree on the replacement numbers available to the Communists. That was a major reason the Vietnam War became subject to such conflicting opinions on its winnability. There were also questions about the actual number killed, so much so that Westmoreland eventually sued Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes for allegedly libeling him, by saying the general was overestimating the number of enemy killed.
I didn’t know all of this then. I wasn’t even too suspicious yet, about why we were there or what we were doing. I felt fortunate, yet a little guilty, that my existence was relatively safe. Unlike those going on search and destroy missions in the jungle or fighting the VC in rice paddies, I was in base camp or in the rear. I had noticed the difference in how we enlisted peons lived and how the generals lived, at least the ones at Long Binh. They lived in air-conditioned Quonset huts that were spic and span, with manicured lawns and shiny jeeps (polished by their drivers at least daily) parked in front of them. How fortunate for them. For those of us at Bearcat living in hooches, we still had it better than the poor grunts in the field living in tents or bunkers with scorpions and snakes—or with even more unwelcome visitors like Charlie, the Viet Cong.
We were trying to help the “good guys,” i.e., the local non-Communist Vietnamese. Unfortunately, since few of the VC wore distinctive headgear, had tattoos or carried ID cards advertising their membership in the Communist bad guy group, it was difficult to tell them apart from the good guys. Still, we tried to help the locals through programs like MEDCAP (Medical Civic Action Program). MEDCAP provided outpatient treatment to villages, using an Army doctor, medic and an ARVN interpreter. MEDCAP also gave me another opportunity to escape the tedium of details and the scrutiny of Stubby. I volunteered to ride shotgun, serving as a bodyguard to the medical personnel, on MEDCAP trips to Long Thanh and other local villages. The VC apparently viewed the humanitarian gesture with annoyance because it would engender good feelings toward Americans and the South Vietnamese government. If we were to be successful helping a very foreign nation fight what appeared to be a civil war, it would seem valuable—if not essential—to win the trust of the people. Or their “hearts and minds,” as the Washington policy makers would say about the process. Despite apparent good intentions, that was never too damn likely.
As we all waited for Westmoreland to tell us what to think, I later learned what he himself was thinking. During a segment in the Peter Davis documentary Hearts and Minds, [i] (Academy Award for Best Documentary, 1974) Westmoreland says on camera, “Well, the Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful, life is cheap in the Orient, and as the philosophy of the Orient expresses it, life is, uh, is not important.” Perhaps the general was mistaken. Juxtaposed with his comments was footage of a Vietnamese boy crying while holding a picture of his dead father, a South Vietnamese soldier. Fellow mourners repeatedly pulled the boy’s mother from the man's grave as workers filled it in. She kept jumping in to be with her dead husband.
The fact is that while we were supposed to be here helping these people, most GIs treated them with contempt, thereby demeaning the Vietnamese and corrupting themselves in the process. To most NCOs and officers, all Vietnamese were “Gooks,” “Slope-heads” or “Slant-Eyes.” That didn’t stop any of us from getting “short-times,” of course. During my entire year in Vietnam, I recall only one occasion on which an officer or NCO made any effort to educate us about Vietnamese customs and encourage us to treat the people with respect. He was a first lieutenant. I don’t remember his name or his position. He told us not to cross our leg and point our foot toward anyone, that this was the local equivalent of the American insult of giving someone “the finger.” He explained that seeing two men holding hands doesn’t mean they are gay, it’s just a local custom. He also informed us that “gook” really means foreigner, so we are the gooks, not them. Everyone waited until we were dismissed and out of the lieutenant’s earshot before laughing. Although I joined in the laughter, I had never called the Vietnamese names and continued to resist doing so. My mother’s lesson about the Bandbox murder remained with me. I always remembered her disgust at someone brutally killing a man because he was Chinese.
It surprised me hearing even African-Americans referring to Vietnamese as gooks. Color was a major issue in Vietnam. Anger could redden any complexion as hostility and mistrust swirled among black, white and yellow human beings. While I sat in another hooch, a brother played back a portion of a tape he was sending home. The part I remember was his lament to his woman that “ ‘Here we are fighting two Charlies—whitey and the Cong.’ ”
“Why’re you playin’ this for me?” I asked, puzzled and embarrassed.
He laughed and said, “Yeah, you all right, man. I didn’t mean nuthin’ by it about you. But you know there’s plenty a rednecks and crackers here that are askin’ for trouble.”
“You got that right,” I agreed.
Not all the brothers did call the locals names or have problems with whitey. A guy named Alford actually chastised fellow African-Americans about this. He and I had some good discussions about race before he got infused to some unit up near the DMZ.
Relations between blacks and whites could be explosive. Although we were in a combat zone, subject to attack, our rifles were kept locked up in a bunker, kept there because we were more in danger from each other than from the Viet Cong. Personal weapons were prohibited altogether. Locker inspections were relatively infrequent in my unit but I think it was no coincidence that one came soon after a new guy transferred in. Unlike other brothers who kept outward shows of aggression in check, he seemed to hold little back. It wasn’t that he seemed particularly angry with whites, he seemed angry with everyone. He wasn’t interested in getting friendly with the other brothers or anybody else. I wasn’t real comfortable having him in the next bunk to me. He was about six-feet tall and a muscular 200 pounds. I didn’t have long to worry about him. During the surprise inspection they found a loaded 45-caliber, non-standard issue, pistol in his locker. That offense earned him a quick ticket to LBJ (Long Binh Jail, not the U.S. president). I never saw him again.
[i] Hearts and Minds. Directed by Peter Davis. 112 minutes. BBS Productions, Rainbow Releasing, Touchstone Pictures, 1974. Criterion Collection, 2002. DVD