Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Grind

by Bruce Patterson

[ed. This is an excerpt from Rural Manpower, a work in progress by the author of a little-known but splendid book, Walking Tractor and Other Tales of Old Anderson Valley.]

(Swans - November 20, 2006) It was my experiences in Vietnam that turned me against the war. It wasn't like, after carefully weighing all of the evidence and balancing the pros and cons, I'd up and changed my mind. What happened to me was more like -- the process was so common among us grunts that we had a name for it -- "getting turned around in your boots." It was like an explosion of experiences, with you in the center of the impact dome, with bleeding ears and dust settling, looking down and seeing your boots pointing due north while the rest of you is pointing due south. Arriving in combat ready to play a game, have some fun, become a man, take some scalps, serve your country, and earn the everlasting gratitude and esteem of your countrymen and women and girls, in the grind of days you realize that war isn't a game, it serves no purpose, and the folks back home may as well be living on the moon.

Another bush term for getting turned around in your boots? "Getting your cherry popped."

Out in the jungle -- at least if you were determined to live -- you couldn't even suspend disbelief because belief itself was irrelevant and immaterial, no more important than that flickering beam of moonshine glowing in the mountain blackness under the towering foliage, below your foxhole and at the bottom edge of your field of fire.

In combat human life is cheap, talk is cheaper, and the only thoughts that matter are keeping your eyes and ears open, your nerves taut, your heart cold, and your weapons ready.

Yet, even by totally submitting to the tyranny of your situation and expendability, there's no guarantee that total submission won't be your last one. Everything can change all over again with the crack of a bullet -- the bullet you never heard, the bullet you'd fired mistakenly, or the one that killed your partner.

To armor yourself with your blown-away stateside illusions, or by allowing your old civilian imagination to carry you back to The World with its easy pleasures and all you'd willingly left behind, was worse than useless. Reality was too blaring, too in-your-face and for keeps, for flights of fancy. What you needed to do was to keep your bloody nose to the bloody ground at all times, your mind just a mirror of the bush. You wanted your mind to be just another piece of gear that you were forced to hump around in your rucksack.

In combat the very worst thing that can happen to your morale is to lose your "enemy concept." Even though you and your adversaries are trapped in a symbiotic relationship, and even though you are faced-up across a divide that binds you together, and even though you and they wish for the same things in life and share the very same fears, and even though, like you, they are made of flesh and blood and they cry out lustily when mutilated, they asked for it and they got everything they deserved. They got everything they deserved while your side had been dragged forward kicking and screaming.

Locked in a death grip and eyeball-to-eyeball, each must be the opposite of the other. One must be Good, and the other Evil, and which is which depends on who you talk to.

When I was in Vietnam I not only kept my hatred of the enemy, but during my short tour I tried my best to grow it, to cultivate it, to make it even bigger so I could wrap it around my shivering body like a bulletproof wool poncho. I wanted a magic poncho to keep me warm while I was out sleeping under the cold pelting rain below the slippery-steep rim of some nameless, root-bound vine and thorn-choked summit. I wanted my hatred for the enemy to keep me awake at night in my half-foxhole/half-rock pile while I was sitting a shift of guard duty, blinded by triple canopy darkness, or deafened by splattering rain dropping like bomblets, or gusts of wind rustling and bending the trees, or made totally senseless by all three.

In my hatred for the enemy I wanted a little dose of something to help keep me awake all night long while I was out on a six man ambush detail, my belly to the ground, my eyes pealed and my trigger finger itchy.

Hatred for the enemy was not just energy and purpose; it was guns and ammunition, bountiful rations, cool clean water, ripe old age, eagle eyes, cat-quickness, and the nose of a bloodhound.

In combat the enemy must die so that you can live. If there is anything wrong with that equation, then the last source you want to hear it from is your own weak and wicked mind. If questions like that don't get you or your partners killed or maimed, they'll damn sure make you all the more miserable.

Yet what had originally turned me against war wasn't, I must admit, the killing. The killing -- as terrorizing and hideous as it sometimes was -- was built into the contract I'd signed.

Instead, what had initially turned me against the war was my own nearly constant hunger for food. I'd arrived in Vietnam fourteen days after my eighteenth birthday, and I was still a growing boy with a big, Chicago-bred appetite. And even though back stateside I'd given serious thought to the possibility that I might get killed, or worse, in the service of my country in this outrageously faraway and foreign place, it had never occurred to me that, week after week and month after month, they'd starve me half to death.

I never imagined that -- during desperate times -- while on the run I'd fill my canteens with muddy water scooped from the bottoms of bomb craters. Not only that, but I'd be glad to get it. I'd treat the bomb crater muck with iodine pills and an envelope of Kool-Aid sent from home and then I'd gulp it down like I was some thirsty English lord craving a slug of hot brown tea.

Nor had it ever occurred to my young volunteer ass that when first thing in the morning I got a hole punched into my plastic "tit bag" holding the last of my drinking water, I'd spend a day begging sips of water from my fellow thirsty GI compadres before I managed, before dark, to convince my platoon sergeant, who was flush with water and proud of it, to sell me a quart canteen of it -- just the water, not the canteen -- for ten dollars American and cash up front.

Nor was I prepared for the unrelenting drudgery. True, back stateside, I'd been warned many times and from many sources about what was in store for me once I got out in the bush. And, true, I'd spent a year in vigorous physical, tactical, and psychological preparation for it. Still it'd never occurred to me that, even when the strongest of us were sleepwalking through the jungle, we'd never get a day off.

Mine was an elite, hunter-killer outfit commanded by ambitious officers -- a good percentage of them were West Pointers -- and we American paratroopers under their command were trained to attack and only to attack. It wasn't our job to hold on to territory, nor were we getting paid to guard anything.

But -- here was the rub -- the people we were fighting, which were mostly units of what was then the North Vietnamese Army, saw themselves exactly as we saw ourselves and they saw their mission exactly as we saw ours.

As a result, we bad-assed bush bunnies were not just the hunters, but the hunted. In order to avoid inviting possible annihilation, we were forced to always keep on the move. With swinging machetes we hacked paths through the jungle instead of following established trails, and we never, ever returned the way we came. We never slept anywhere but atop a mountain, and then only after digging a perimeter of holes, cutting out of the bushes fields of fire and communication trails, setting out booby traps and trip flares and sending out three or four overnight ambush details, one or two to cover our tracks and the remainder to stake out the most likely "approaches." Again, to avoid possible annihilation, we never slept on any one mountain twice.

Our cycle began on re-supply day when, after a couple of fat-bellied gunships had swooped over our summit to let the enemy know the sheriff was in town, a Huey dropped into the hole we'd hacked in the jungle canopy. Whatever replacements that had rolled down the pipe would jump from the deck of the Huey and run like hunchbacks for cover while the flight crew, with the help of a detail of us bush bunnies, hurled cargo to the ground like there was no tomorrow (with the wound-up whine of the chopper primed to get back up out of there, you couldn't hear incoming bullets or mortars).

While the replacements were getting "orientated" and divvied-up ("cherries" were sprinkled into the ranks where it was decided they'd do the least damage), the rest of us took turns having at our rations of bounty. The choppers might have brought us letters and care packages from home, or real care packages from the USO to be divvied up within our half-squads. We'd often get clean, fresh water and sometimes we'd get new socks and underwear and complimentary cigarettes from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, or packages of milk chocolate from Hershey, Pennsylvania. Always we'd get more ammunition, munitions, weapons, and medicines as needed. Plus we'd get whatever special orders that our CO had put in through channels; formal written requests for stuff like a new barrel for a machine gun, or a base plate for a mortar, six new helmets, fifty more canteens and the like. Yet special orders, like the care (food) packages sent to us from our families back home had a way of disappearing in the rear areas and either getting devoured on base or sold on the black market in town.

In addition, the re-supply choppers brought us our next stash of C-rations. Since, for reasons of self-preservation, we only got re-supplied once every five days, each of us was issued fifteen boxed and canned C-Rat meals. We'd stack our C-Rats like building blocks inside an empty sandbag, tie the bag shut with a length of parachute cord and then, once it was time for us to move out in the morning, tie our bulging sandbags to the tops of our rucksacks.

More than anything else on re-supply day it was the hot chow brought to us in five gallon cans that we most looked forward to. Even if the monsoon was blowing and half of our turkey and gravy, potatoes and dressing got washed off our trays before we could spoon it up into our mouths, still that hot meal was about the closest we'd ever get to feeling full bellies.

The next morning at first light, we'd all be up and at our battle stations, awaiting a dawn attack ("stand-to," the position was called). Then we'd take turns eating C-Rats for breakfast and then we'd "saddle up and move out," our shoulders straining under our over-stuffed, seventy-pound rucksacks.

During the day we'd play cat and mouse with the enemy until, two or three hours before sundown, we'd climb a mountain, dig in, eat C-Rats, tend to our ammunition, weapons, and equipment and then, from dusk till pitch black, "stand-to" again before beginning our rotation of overnight guard duty.

Barring a fixed-piece or a running battle, or a gauntlet of booby traps, the next day would be exactly the same, as would be the next night, and so on through the five-day cycle. You survive three cycles and, on the 16th day, you get rewarded with a chopper ride back to your forward artillery base -- another carved mountaintop somewhere off in the sticks -- to line up for breakfast and supper in a chow line and then, sitting on the ground wherever it was comfortable and balancing your tray on your lap, devouring what little food they'd given you.

While guarding the "firebase" you'd get the chance to take makeshift soapy showers to scrub the caked salt, stink, bugs, and tropical rot off you. If it was to your liking, you could gather in the bent grass and sit and listen to patriotic sermons delivered by military chaplains enthralled by the universal and everlasting spirit of the M-16. While resting in a firebase, you'd fill sandbags, build bunkers, dig communication trenches between bunkers, run short recon patrols, go out in pairs as "pickets" (human trip wires), sit and GI your equipment, stand guard, write letters home, and listen to the 105mm Howitzers blasting what seemed like all day and all night long.

After five days of rest and relaxation in the firebase, that gave you roughly two-thirds of one month served. Then it was back to the bush for you for another fifteen days. Multiply that bush-to-firebase rotation about sixteen times, and that was a tour.

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