THE WRITERS POST
VOLUME 6 NUMBER 2
NGO THE VINH
PEACE WILL COME NO SOONER
The scene was the immense ancient jungle of the Central Highlands. The time was the early 1970's when, unsteady step by faltering step, Vietnamization of the war was being implemented. This was also the period when reconnaissance teams of Airborne Ranger Groups discovered that the Ho Chi Minh Trail was as broad as a superhighway, on which supplies were being transported day and night all the way to the Tri-Border Area. The Trail was very much like a knife stabbing directly into the throat of this strategic border area in the highlands.
It had been no less than seven days. Truly, for six nights our company of Airborne Rangers had been lost in the wilderness of the jungle, our rations depleted, and our canteens empty while neither a stream nor even a bomb crater was found that held any water. We were saved from dying of thirst with puddles of dew drops accumulated over night on the surfaces of our ponchos. It was not as though we were not familiar with warfare in the jungle, the kind of battlefield to which we had grown inured. But all the same, it was obvious that at this point we had lost our direction. The cause for our dilemma could be traced to the fact that the American helicopter unit, of no great courage and experience, had dropped our company down onto the wrong landing zone, the wrong LZ, a spot in the jungle many kilometers away from the targeted location. The pilots should not be blamed, however, as they were still very young, and this was the first time they had made acquaintance with the unconventional initiative named Eagle Reconnaissance Operation. At such times, when both body and mind were at a low ebb, I always invoked a few principles to encourage myself. First, one has to maintain one's offensive spirit – which was a principle I had internalized ever since choosing Dalat Military Academy and subsequently volunteering to join the Vietnamese Green Berets. Second, under whatever circumstance, if one does not want to experience defeat – this term did not exist in the vocabulary of our military academy – one must always insure that one is in an offensive position. Those sharp words were engraved upon my mind.
From the beginning of this operation, the orders given had been incisive; they stated that one of the four assault companies in the Ranger Group was to be dropped into the jungle at sunset, dropped at a location no more than two kilometers away from the target. That target was said to be a very important liaison base, a central node under the command of the enemy's Yellow Star division. My company was chosen for the task. I, also known as Grey Tiger – a nickname given me by members of the reconnaissance team, one of the dozen constituting the recon company to which I had been assigned before being transferred to the assault company, a name likely bestowed upon me for various reasons related to my character: not only was I brave, but I also had brown skin like the Thuong people, and the ability to move through the jungle as fast as they could – was to lead the company, and at nightfall was to move the advance element into position near to the target, where we would lie in ambush deployment and wait until H-hour when the whole company would advance in assault movement and quickly neutralize the enemy base before the break of dawn. Equipped with modern weaponry, extremely powerful yet compact and light, and guided by an audacious plan of operation, we figured that success would depend on the element of surprise and the speed of action. Included in the OPLAN, the operational plan, was the idea that, under whatever circumstance and at any price, we had to be lifted out of the enemy's sanctuary 48 hours after insertion. Yet, even by the third day in the tangled mass of vegetation, we had not so much as neared the target area, while at the same time we recognized signs of being closely followed and watched by the enemy. Unlike the situation faced by other combat units, the area of our operation lay well beyond the range of supporting artillery. And at that moment I already knew very well what a high price in personnel losses, damaged equipment, and spent ordnance we would pay on a battlefield within enemy territory where we were, quite obviously, alone and exposed.
The old jungle was of two layers, the upper one made up of trees no less than thirty meters tall, the lower level a spread of tangled rattan forest. Trying to stay away from well-trodden paths, we had no choice but to carefully part thick bushes and snake through them. From afar we must have appeared like a swarm of ants. We were very hesitant to cross a clearing, a field of straw grass populated with jungle leeches. It was extremely difficult to lose the enemy no matter how many false traces we left behind to deceive them. For seven long days we met nothing but the green of the jungle and the smell of rotten damp leaves. There was no sign of wild beasts, even though during French times this area had been well known as a hunting ground. The animals, if not killed by Agent Orange, had apparently moved elsewhere, away from the shelling. In a situation like this, I truly came to appreciate the statement made by a certain writer, that in this era, men were no longer afraid of wild beasts, instead they feared their own fellow human beings – the object of our fear at the moment was in the form of our fellow Vietnamese. It took merely a note of sung melody from an unfamiliar bird, or several rustling sounds from a bed of leaves, to make the soldiers hyper-alert and anxious.
I will never forget one such experience of anxiety, an experience which occurred when I was still with the reconnaissance team, and on an operation in the Ashao valley. The team's task at that time had been very specifically delineated: we were to search for the enemy, watch for clues that might lead to their ammunition stockpiles, and if possible, capture North Vietnamese troops alive in order that intelligence could be extracted from them. This had not been the first time I was assigned such a task. I had long trained for it, and had become familiar with that type of operation. However, contrary to what I had previously thought, that courage was no more than an acquired habit, it did not seem that the frequency with which we engaged in jungle warfare was good enough a habit to help lighten our fear. Being truthful to myself, I had to admit that I was afraid, even though the soldiers always saw in me the image of a bold and stubborn grey tiger; some of them even superstitiously believed that I possessed magical power. It was not necessary to correct their false belief, if it made them feel calmer. I myself was quite aware that my outwardly brave behavior was sometimes only an attempt to suppress anxiety, or a reaction prompted by self-esteem, the self-esteem which anyone in a commanding role was expected to have.
At that particular instant during the Ashao operation, I had been leading my team toward a turn on a trail where we were to lie in ambush. In truth, I had not prepared myself well to contact the enemy right at that moment, even though we were looking for them. Therefore it had been quite a shock when, without warning, I came face to face with an enemy soldier no more than three meters distant. We both had firearms in our hands, not an M16 and an AK, but AK against AK, both surely with round chambered and safety off. Our reconnaissance teams, when dropped into the jungle, were outfitted in black pajamas and equipped with AK's exactly as were the VC. We recognized one another's identity only through some sort of subliminal perception or by an instantaneous awareness of some specific detail in the manner of wearing the outfit, or perhaps even by the postures assumed.
This was so absolutely a strange situation – the meaning of which, up until now, I have not been able to figure out – that when our eyes met, we both stopped short, motionless. The fear strangled my breathing and surely his as well, because before we knew it, both of us at the same instant spun around and ran away from each other, without looking back even once. So absurd a happy feeling I had for having escaped this danger! What did the look in his eyes, and surely mine as well, bode, looks which provoked such fear for the both of us that our minds became numb? I have not found the answer. Surely I was not a person short of courage. The merits I had earned in the past were sufficient to guarantee my present standing, as judged by everyone from common soldiers to my commanding officers.
In the present circumstance, as the sun rose higher, the speed of the company's movement markedly reduced. Without waiting for permission to halt, a few soldiers collapsed, panting through open mouths. I realized that they had become truly exhausted, having no strength left for fighting. I radioed the OPCON, the commander of the operation, and requested that, at any price, the company be withdrawn today, the seventh day in the jungle. My immediate duty was to locate an LZ. Given the landscape of rolling hills and mountains it was not easy to find an LZ flat enough that use of rope ladders would not be necessary. You could not argue with an inexperienced American helicopter squadron, so in order to be picked up you had to do as they wished, I thought to myself.
Once again was heard the voice of the American advisor begging to stop for a short rest. The man, a giant, was once a Special Forces sergeant. This was the third time he had volunteered for duty in Vietnam. I had known him when he was the renowned top sergeant, the senior intelligence sergeant, of a Special Forces team running a camp located near the Tri-Border Area. Coming from Fort Bragg, and having accumulated years of experience in the battlefield of the Central Highlands, he was definitely no chicken. Yet, at this time, he looked miserable: his face bright red, his lips dry and cracked, his mouth wide open as he gasped for breath. It was not as though he was the only one exhausted from the operation. The soldiers and I also desperately needed rest. But that was not possible. I could not allow us to halt until we had found an LZ. We had to continue moving on if I hoped to avoid losses and uphold the morale of the soldiers, which was rapidly declining. With that decision in mind, coupled perhaps with something akin to ruthlessness, I sarcastically told him that if necessary I would ask my soldiers to carry him on a stretcher. His self-respect wounded, the advisor stood up again, and walked on with heavy footsteps, panting. Looking toward my ragged soldiers, I could not help belching a short laugh out of suppressed anger. After all, the fact that assault companies had to continuously operate in the jungle resulted from pressure exerted by his side, the Americans.
Indeed, the American chief advisor to the Airborne Group, a Lt. Colonel with eagle eyes, always urged us to maximize our companies' engagement in combat. He declared that from his personal perspective, as well as that of MACV, the Americans could not understand the low level of losses sustained by a Vietnamese military unit whose specified tasks were reconnaissance and assault. One interpretation of this insinuation was that our Airborne Ranger Group had to demonstrate its fighting spirit by sustaining huge numbers of lives lost during upcoming operations. Otherwise, MACV would see no legitimate reason to continue its support, at such a high financial cost, for the existence of a unit acting as if it were merely a reserve force. This argument pretty well reflected what Nixon called "Vietnamization of the war", which the American press in turn cynically dubbed "an effort to change the skin color of the corpses".
Only now did I come to appreciate the dilemma faced by my commanding officer. He was a qualified commander who led a frugal, honest life. Naturally, duty, and also self-respect, would have prevented him from ever allowing his soldiers to die in an operational arrangement alien to his own notion of troop maneuvering. But he knew only too well that any stubborn resistance on his part against his advisor's ideas would land his unit in innumerable difficulties. Normally a very calm person when dealing with whatever difficult circumstance, on one occasion he could not contain himself. Pounding his fist on his desk in response to the chief advisor's vituperation, full of arrogance and condescension, he dismissed the American from the underground shelter being used as the operations command post. The American advisor had once more put on pressure relative to various issues, and had yet again been successful with his manipulations through the mediation of the present Commanding General of II Corps Tactical Zone, a general with shady dealings who was quick to reach compromises in order to be left undisturbed, no matter what was to happen to the units under his authority. Having a commander as strong and firm as my own, the sense of self-esteem I required was to some extent gratified. But then what? Besides the temporarily gratified self-esteem, there were realistic issues which had to be dealt with. How could we have a strong voice when every ARVN soldier from A to Z had to depend on the Americans? Eventually, we had to find ourselves asking how it was that generations of our predecessors, even without foreign aid, had been able to create powerful armies to fight against foreign invaders.
When enrolling in the Dalat Military Academy, I had believed in the mission of a mature army to protect national independence and to re-construct the country. Sadly, the Academy was only capable of transforming us into military experts, but failed to adequately prepare us to cope with the complicated political circumstance which was the case at present. Starting from a very simplistic naïve notion of serving the fatherland to the bitter end, by confronting and overcoming whatever obstacles and difficulties that might arise, I had not entertained the thought of dealing with politicking amidst the military collective, and had resolutely refused to have anything to do with it. But gradually, through repeated experience of rubbing shoulders with others, I had become deeply aware that wielding weapons was not the end of our line of duty; rather, we were being forced into complicated circumstances of political entrapment. The time had come for a soldier to clearly define his position and ask himself for what legitimate reason he was sacrificing so much of himself in continuing to participate in armed conflict.
There came an incoming call on the field radio. The reconnaissance squad, which had gone ahead of us, informed of contact with the enemy, whose effective strength they could not determine. I wondered what our unit could hope to accomplish when all we had at this point were dog-tired soldiers. But then the sounds of discharging weapons awakened the survival instinct, and the soldiers came to life again, ready for action. When I had managed to pull the company up to the point of contact, we did not need to fire another shot. There remained only underground shelters full of rice and provisions which we had to quickly destroy. Upon checking, we found a single North Vietnamese soldier who had been hit during the first round of fire exchanged with the reconnaissance squad. This constituted the small and only victory our company would claim during this operation -- and, ironically, it had been achieved by those few riotous and drug-addicted soldiers, still being severely disciplined, who happened to be members of the recon squad. In principle, when taking alive a prisoner, those responsible each would automatically be granted a 30-day pass for leave of absence, as well as a sum of money for reward, and a medal. However, this time, all they asked of me was that when we had returned to the rear, I would set them free from confinement to the Conex containers. They also promised to behave themselves from now on. Conex containers were 2-square-meter metal shipping receptacles, often retained at the operational base and frequently used to store supplies, including ammunition. To be punished by confinement in a Conex container exposed to the sun was a torture which even the most unruly soldier dreaded.
I only smiled and offered no promise, even as my heart was filled with affection for their carefree and very courageous natures.
"Who can ever trust tongues of the likes of you?" I asked.
In point of fact, more than once they had sworn on their honor to give up drugs, but the habit had become so much their second nature that it was hard for them to get rid of. I had to note, nonetheless, with respect to the one named Lam Chut, that here was a special case. On one occasion he had been inserted by helicopter – equipped only with a few hand grenades, a knife, and some dry provisions – near a fire support base temporarily under control of the communists. Rather unbelievably, only five days later, he reappeared at the rear with a huge smile on his face and made a detailed report of his observations. Without, as his commanding officer, being able to say anything openly, I had to admire him.
When I met the prisoner, he was still alert, which made me think that he had suffered only a light wound. Though the bullet had penetrated his buttock, probably it had not hit any major artery. Staff Sergeant Tung, a medical corpsman, quickly bandaged him to stem the bleeding. Orders from the OPCON were to give priority to taking the prisoner to the LZ for pick up. The man was very young, his skinny pale body quite in contrast with the alert facial expression and the deep passion in his eyes. He evoked the image of my younger brother who had been killed in battle not long ago, a battle also in this jungle area. There arose from the depths of my heart a sentiment very hard to describe, somewhat like a combination of anger and compassion. But then his childlike face immediately settled my feelings. Not displaying much fear, he showed instead a cooperative attitude. From my experience with NVA prisoners, his manner of response was what was to be expected, nothing out of the ordinary.
UÙt Hieàn, the officer accompanying us from the S2, the company Intelligence Section, came immediately to interrogate the prisoner. Originally from Thanh Hoa province, the captured soldier had infiltrated into the South four years ago and had participated in many battles. His unit had been engaged in an operation down in the lowlands for the past three days. He had been left behind in their rear base area with an ordnance team because he had succumbed to fever from malignant malaria. This ordnance team had just hurriedly left, as they did not want to clash with such a ferocious enemy as a Ranger unit. I tried hard to suppress my strong emotions when hearing him mention the place of his origin.. It turned out that he and I were natives of the same province. An invisible connecting string drew me nearer to him. This approach, in fact, was not merely because of the necessity to extract intelligence from him, but simply because I felt I had the duty to save his life. The look in his eyes betrayed his trust in me. All fear gone, like a child he talked and asked numerous questions without pause. I entrusted Corpsman Tung to keep an eye on the young prisoner and care for him. Seeing that blood seeped through the bandage over his wound, I grew very concerned. I asked Tung about it.
"There's no cause for alarm, Lieutenant. The pulse is still strong and regular," Tung said.
The young man was given shots to reinforce his heart, manage the pain, and to stop the bleeding, and an IV was started when his blood pressure was found to be rather low. There was nothing more we should be anxious about before finding a serviceable LZ from which to send him out.
Having achieved a feat of arms, the soldiers became oblivious to their exhaustion, every one of them in high spirits. The commanding officers at the rear base, and especially in the S2, seemed very impatient for news and information. From the command-and-control helicopter where he was with the Lt. Colonel, the chief surgeon of our unit requested that we inform him of the condition of the prisoner's wound so that, if necessary, the man could be the first evacuated by a helicopter equipped with a mechanism to pull him up on a rope stretcher-swing. As for myself, I still honestly believed that he would be all right until the time he would accompany the company to the base. Moreover, in my heart I had the wish to be present, to have a role to play in the handling of this particular young man, which I thought would be rather different than usual. After mapping out the route with the use of a compass, I ordered the company to continue in the southern direction. Not very far away, a good LZ seemed possible. Immediately, the prisoner advised me against it, as it was possible that we would encounter his unit returning from their operation in the lowlands. I always had great confidence in my sharp intuition. This time, it took only a brief look into his eyes to convince me of the value of his judgment. Consequently, I had the company move in the northeast direction instead, even though I knew it would be more difficult because the landscape presented many obstacles, and we would have to climb many slopes. Almost all members of a platoon took turn to carry him on a hammock. During the bumpy trips up the slopes, I observed that the prisoner tried his best to contain his pain, which had not been completely assuaged by the medication. Though blood still seeped through the bandage, his pulse remained stable. An acceptable location for an LZ was found only after we had walked for almost two hours. I mobilized the soldiers to clear it quickly. The American helicopter pilots, no matter how little courage they possessed, would have no reason to refuse landing on this LZ. Moreover, they were well aware that an American advisor was among us. Nonetheless, to guarantee airlift for the whole unit, I decided that the advisor and I would be the last to be picked up.
The prisoner was placed straight down on a bed of soft grass. Weakly, he forced a smile when seeing me approach. I meant to chat with him for a minute by way of showing a caring gesture. All of a sudden there were cries of jubilation by the soldiers when from afar the sound of the approaching helicopter squadron was heard. Soon thereafter, for some unknown reason, suddenly the prisoner sat bolt upright and screamed in panic. As if he could not see, the man blindly extended his arms straight in front of him and got hold of me. Apparently in terror, he called out a single word: "Brother!" before he collapsed and died instantly. Flabbergasted, I immediately summoned Corpsman Tung, who had been attending to several soldiers with early symptoms of heat prostration. Both he and I tried various ways to revive the prisoner, to no avail. I did not think the wound was severe enough to cause his death so quickly. Tung's only explanation was that the young man had died of shock. Learning another technical medical term did nothing to help me make more sense of his sudden and unreasonable death. Then I remembered that earlier I had noticed that when first hearing cavitations from the rotors of the helicopters as they approached the LZ, the young man's face had completely lost its color, giving place to horror. Perhaps his death all boiled down to a conditioned reflex to the fear of one who had lived in the deep jungle for four years, the reflex of one to whom the constant threat was air-mobile Ranger teams engaged in their Eagle Operation. In contrast, the sound of those same propeller blades made my hungry and thirsty soldiers jump up in a delirium of joy.
There came only four aircrafts. The remainder of the squadron had unexpectedly been mobilized for support of the ongoing fighting in the lowlands. As the situation stood, it would take at least twelve trips to withdraw the whole company from the jungle. To make things worse, there came ominous signs of bad weather. In fact, words from our base indicated that there might be a big rain storm in the afternoon. In accordance with standard operating procedure, I and the rest of the command section of the company were always to be the first to land and the last to leave an LZ. I entrusted to Second Lieutenant Löïc, my XO, executive officer, to see to the arrangement for withdrawal.
My body heavy with exhaustion, I sat down on the ground next to the corpse of the prisoner. My hand reached out and pressed upon his eyes. The still warm eyelids closed without resistance. This was a gesture which I had not been able to extend to my younger brother when he had been killed in a battle in Pleime. My mother had, without a second of hesitation, embraced and wept over his putrefied corpse wrapped in a poncho and brought back five days later.
I happened to look at the prisoner's hands marked with bloodstained scratches which must have been caused by the thorny bushes through which we had passed. It was heart rending to imagine that the pain was still imprinted in that body losing its warmth. Go to your last sleep now, I said gently beneath my breath, even as I was aware that never before had I felt so intimate and familiar with death. There was no appropriate label to attach to that young dead body. It made no difference whether it was his corpse or my younger brother's, for in the end it came down to another dead Vietnamese. I wondered if there was any way to inform his family of his demise. I had heard about a radio station called "Mother Vietnam" established by the Americans, with very effective broadcast sessions aimed toward North Vietnam, in which were read letters captured from cadres and soldiers born in the North and killed in the South. But then, upon second thought, it might be better to let his mother and his younger siblings continue to nurture the hope of his return. The unfinished letter he had tried to write this morning surely would never be sent to them. In the letter, which I had read, he mentioned his mother and his little brother; talked about Vónh Loäc district in which his Boàng Trung village was found on the Maõ river, a river flanked by a crumbling bank on one side and a silt-deposit bank on the other. He also referred to the grave of his father lying beyond a summer rice field, at the foot of Ña Buùt mountain. His words instantly evoked the image of a homeland that both he and I had lost. My throat constricted painfully and my heart wearied, but I could not shed even the drop of a tear. In the inmost recesses of my heart, I truly wanted to be able to cry.
New orders came which demanded that the corpse be left behind on the LZ. Our Commander, the Lt. Colonel, being by nature superstitious, would not allow dead bodies – those of his fellow soldiers included – brought back to the operations command post. There existed an anecdotal rumor that before every operation, he would take care to cleanse himself, to the extent of avoiding intercourse with his wife, an act which he considered inauspicious. He always tried by all means available to avoid as much as possible loss of and damage to his soldiers.
As for myself, I felt it cruel to leave the dead body behind. When I as the last person had entered a helicopter, the aircraft hurriedly shot up into a gloomy sky where storm clouds were rolling in without pause. Viewed from this height, it looked as though the corpse was deep in a peaceful sleep, covered not with a flag but with a pale green hammock. I was resigned to leave him there alone, alone with the isolated mountain and the surrounding jungle, and carried with me an indescribably disquieting emotion. How I wished I had had enough time to dig a grave for him, even one just barely deep enough to enfold his body.
Sitting next to the door, I felt the strong prop blast forcefully splashing moisture from the clouds against my face, making it cold and sore. My skin and flesh numb, my heart numb too, numb almost to the point of insentience, I could neither think thoughts nor respond to anything. Inert, almost to the point of death, it seemed. Sitting nearby, and constantly fidgeting, was the deep-blue-eyed door gunner, his heavy machine-gun thrust out before him. All of a sudden, like one possessed, he pointed the gun down toward the landing zone and fired rapidly and continuously a rain of roiling rounds, even though there appeared no suspicious sign of the enemy. The strong smell of burning cordite accompanied deafening clanging sounds of the extraction mechanism and the spewing bullets.
When the helicopter squadron had completely moved away from the LZ, the sergeant, who was my close and reliable aide, raised his voice and reminded me.
"I think you forgot something, Grey Tiger," he said.
"No, I did not forget about it this time around," I assured him.
He was referring to the practice of planting a grenade with the safety catch undone under the body of the dead prisoner left on the LZ. More than once the enemy had done that and caused us much damage. But this time, I thought that even if I had used his corpse as another trap and caused a few more deaths, that would not make Peace come any sooner.
Tân Cảnh – Kontum 1971
NGO THE VINH
[From the short story collection: THE BATTLE OF SAIGON,
to be published soon]
Editorial note: All works published in this issue are simultaneously published in the printed Wordbridge magazine double issue 3 &4 Winter 2003 & Spring 2004. (ISSN: 1540-1723).
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