---------------------------------------------------------------
     © Copyright Gustav Hasvord
     WWW: http://www.gustavhasford.com/ST.htm
---------------------------------------------------------------



     Dedicated to
     "Penny"
     John C. Pennington, Corporal
     Combat Photographer, First Marine Division
     KIA, June 9, 1968



     Adieu to a Solider

     Adieu, O soldier,
     You of the rude campaigning, (which we shared,)
     The rapid march, the life of the camp,
     The hot contention of opposing fronts, the long manoeuvre,
     Red battles with  their slaughter,  the stimulus,  the strong  terrific
game,
     Spell of all brave and manly hearts, the trains of time through you and
like of you all fill'd,
     With war and war's expression.

     Adieu, dear comrade,
     Your mission is fulfill'd--but I, more warlike,
     Myself and this contentious soul of mine,
     Still on our campaigning bound,
     Through untried roads with ambushes opponents lined,
     Through many a sharp defeat and many a crisis, often baffled,
     Here marching, ever marching on, a war fight out--aye here,
     To fiercer, weightier battles give expression.
     Walt Whitman, Drum Taps, 1871






     The Spirit of the Bayonet



     I think that Vietnam was what we had instead of happy childhoods.
     --Michael Herr, Dispatches



     The Marines are looking for a few good men...
     The recruit says that his name is Leonard Pratt.
     Gunnery  Sergeant Gerheim  takes one look  at  the skinny red-neck  and
immediately dubs him "Gomer Pyle."
     We think maybe he's trying to be funny. Nobody laughs.
     Dawn. Green Marines.  Three junior drill instructors screaming, "GET IN
LINE!  GET  IN LINE! YOU  WILL  NOT  MOVE!  YOU  WILL  NOT SPEAK!" Red brick
buildings. Willow  trees hung with with Spanish moss. Long,  irregular lines
of  sweating  civilians  standing  tall  on  yellow footprints painted  in a
pattern on the concrete deck.
     Parris Island, South  Carolina, the United  States Marine Corps Recruit
Depot, an  eight-week  college  for  the  phony-tough  and the  crazy-brave,
constructed in  a  swamp  on  an island,  symmetrical  but  sinister  like a
suburban death camp.
     Gunnery  Sergeant Gerheim  spits.  "Listen  up, herd. You  maggots  had
better start looking like United States Marine Corps recruits.  Do not think
for one second that you are Marines. You just dropped by to pick up a set of
dress blues. Am I right, ladies? Sorry 'bout that."
     A wiry little Texan in horn-rimmed glasses the guys are already calling
"Cowboy" says, "Is that  you, John Wayne? Is this me?" Cowboy  takes off his
pearl-gray Stetson and fans his sweaty face.
     I laugh. Years of  high school drama classes have made  me a  mimic.  I
sound exactly  like  John Wayne  as I  say: "I think  I'm going to hate this
movie."
     Cowboy laughs. He beats his Stetson on his thigh.
     Gunnery Sergeant Gerheim laughs, too. The senior drill instructor is an
obscene little ogre in immaculate khaki. He aims his index finger between my
eyes and says, "You. Yeah--you. Private Joker. I like you. You can come over
to my house and fuck  my sister."  He grins. Then  his face goes  hard. "You
little scumbag. I got  your  name. I got your  ass. You will not laugh.  You
will not cry. You will learn by the numbers. I will teach you."
     Leonard Pratt grins.
     Sergeant Gerheim  puts his  fists on  his hips. "If you ladies leave my
island, if you survive recruit training, you will be a weapon, you will be a
minister of death, praying for war. And proud. Until that day you are pukes,
you are scumbags, you are the lowest form of life on Earth. You are not even
human. You people are nothing but a lot of little pieces of amphibian shit."
     Leonard chuckles.
     "Private Pyle think I am a real  funny guy.  He thinks Parris Island is
more fun than a sucking chest wound."
     The hillbilly's face is frozen into a permanent expression  of  oat-fed
innocence.
     "You maggots are not going  to have  any fun here. You are not going to
enjoy standing in straight lines and  you are not  going to  enjoy massaging
your own wand and you are not going to enjoy saying 'sir' to individuals you
do  not  like. Well, ladies, that's tough titty.  I will speak and  you will
function.  Ten percent of you will  not survive. Ten percent of you  maggots
are going to  go AWOL or will try  to take your  own life or will break your
backs on the Confidence Course or will just go plain fucking crazy. There it
is.  My orders are to  weed out all nonhackers  who do not pack  the gear to
serve in my  beloved Corps. You  will  be  grunts.  Grunts get  no slack. My
recruits learn to  survive  without slack. Because I am  hard, you will  not
like me. But the more you hate me,  the  more you will  learn. Am I correct,
herd?"
     Some of us mumble, "Yes. Yeah. Yes, sir."
     "I can't hear you, ladies."
     "Yes, sir."
     "I still can't hear you, ladies. SOUND OFF LIKE YOU GOT A PAIR."
     "YES, SIR!"
     "You piss me off. Hit the deck."
     We crumple down onto the hot parade deck.
     "You got no motivation. Do you hear me, maggots? Listen up. I will give
you motivation.  You have no  espirit  de corps. I will  give you espirit de
corps.  You  have no traditions. I will give you traditions. And I will show
you how to live up to them."
     Sergeant Gerheim struts, ramrod straight, hands on hips. "GET  UP!  GET
UP!"
     We get up, sweating, knees sore, hands gritty.
     Sergeant Gerheim  says to his  three junior drill  instructors: "What a
humble herd." Then to us: "You silly scumbags are too slow. Hit the deck."
     Down.
     Up.
     Down.
     Up.
     "HIT IT!"
     Down.
     Sergeant  Gerheim steps over  our  struggling bodies,  stomps  fingers,
kicks ribs with the  toe of  his boot.  "Jesus  H. Christ. You  maggots  are
huffing and puffing the  way  your momma did the first time your old man put
the meat to her."
     Pain.
     "GET UP! GET UP!"
     Up. Muscles aching.
     Leonard Pratt is still sprawled on the hot concrete.
     Sergeant Gerheim dances over to him, stands over him, shoves his Smokey
the Bear campaign cover to  the back of  his  bald  head. "Okay, scumbag, do
it."
     Leonard gets up  on one knee, hesitates,  then stands  up, inhaling and
exhaling. He grins.
     Sergeant  Gerheim  punches  Leonard  in  the Adam's  apples--hard.  The
sergeant's  big  fist  pounds  Leonard's chest. Then  his  stomach.  Leonard
doubles over  with  pain. "LOCK  THEM  HEELS! YOU'RE AT ATTENTION!" Sergeant
Gerheim backhands Leonard across the face.
     Blood.
     Leonard grins,  locks  his heels. Leonard's  lips  are busted, pink and
purple, and his mouth is bloody, but Leonard only shrugs and grins as though
Gunnery Sergeant Gerheim has just given him a birthday present.


     For the first four weeks of recruit training Leonard continues to grin,
even though he receives more  than his share of the beatings.  Beatings,  we
learn,  are  a  routine  element of life on  Parris  Island.  And  not  that
I'm-only-rough-on-'um-because-I-love-'um  crap  civilians have seen  in Jack
Webb's  Hollywood  movie The D.I. and  in  Mr. John Wayne's The Sands of Iwo
Jima. Gunnery  Sergeant  Gerheim  and his  three  junior  drill  instructors
administer  brutal  beatings  to  faces, chests, stomachs, and  backs.  With
fists. Or boots--they kick us in the ass, the kidneys, the ribs, any part of
our bodies upon which a black and purple bruise won't show.
     But  even having the shit  beat out of him  with  calculated regularity
fails to educate Leonard the way  it educates the other  recruits in Platoon
30-92. In high school psychology they  said that fish, cockroaches, and even
one-celled protozoa can be brainwashed. But not Leonard.
     Leonard tries harder than any of us.
     He can't do anything right.
     During the day Leonard stumbles and falls, but never complains.
     At night,  as the  platoon sleeps in double-tiered metal bunks, Leonard
cries. I whisper to him to be quiet. He stops crying.
     No recruit is ever allowed to be alone.


     On the first day of our fifth week, Sergeant Gerheim beats the hell out
of me.
     I'm standing tall in  Gerheim's palace,  a small room at the far end of
the squad bay.
     "Do you believe in the Virgin Mary?"
     "NO, SIR!" I say. It's  a trick question. Any answer will be wrong, and
Sergeant Gerheim will beat me harder if I reverse myself.
     Sergeant Gerheim  punches me in  the solar plexus with  his elbow. "You
little maggot," he  says, and his  fist punctuates  the sentence. I stand to
attention,  heels locked,  eyes  front,  swallowing groans,  trying  not  to
flinch. "You make me want to vomit, scumbag. You goddamn heathen. You better
sound off that  you love the Virgin  Mary or I'm  going to  stomp your  guts
out." Sergeant Gerheim's  face  is about  one inch  from my left ear.  "EYES
FRONT!" Spit sprinkles  my cheek. "You do love the  Virgin Mary,  don't you,
Private Joker? Speak!"
     "SIR, NEGATIVE, SIR!"
     I wait. I know that he is going  to order me into  the head. The shower
stall is  where  he takes the recruits he  wants to  hurt. Almost every  day
recruits march into the head with  Sergeant Gerheim and, because the deck in
the shower stall is wet, they accidentally fall down. They accidentally fall
down so many times that when  they come  out they look like they've been run
over by a cat tractor.
     He's behind me. I can hear him breathing.
     "What did you say, prive?"
     "SIR, THE PRIVATE SAID, 'NO, SIR!' SIR!"
     Sergeant Gerheim's beefy red  face floats by like a cobra being charmed
by music. His eyes drill into mine; they invite me to look at him; they dare
me to move my eyes one fraction of an inch.
     "Have you seen the light? The white light? The great light? The guiding
light--do you have the vision?"
     "SIR, AYE-AYE, SIR!"
     "Who's your squad leader, scumbag?"
     "SIR, THE PRIVATE'S SQUAD LEADER IS PRIVATE HAMER, SIR!"
     "Hamer, front and center."
     Hamer  runs down the center of the  squad bay,  snaps to  attention  in
front of Sergeant Gerheim. "AYE-AYE, SIR!"
     "Hamer, you're fired. Private Joker is promoted to squad leader."
     Hamer hesitates. "AYE-AYE, SIR!"
     "Go."
     Hamer does an about-face, runs back down the squad bay, falls back into
line in front of his rack, snaps to attention.
     I say, "SIR, THE  PRIVATE REQUESTS  PERMISSION TO SPEAK  TO  THE  DRILL
INSTRUCTOR!"
     "Speak."
     "SIR, THE PRIVATE DOES NOT WANT TO BE A SQUAD LEADERS, SIR!"
     Gunnery Sergeant Gerheim  puts his  fists on his  hips.  He pushes  his
Smokey  the Bear campaign  cover to the back  of his  bald head.  He  sighs.
"Nobody wants  to lead, maggot, but somebody has to. You got  the brain, you
got the  balls, so you get the job. The Marine Corps is not  a mob like  the
Army. Marines die--that's  what we're  here  for--but the Marine  Corps will
live forever, because every Marine is a  leader when  he  has to be--even  a
prive."
     Sergeant Gerheim turns to Leonard. "Private Pyle, Private Joker is your
new  bunkmate.  Private  Joker  is  a  very  bright boy.  He  will teach you
everything. He will teach you how to pee."
     I say,  "SIR,  THE PRIVATE  WOULD PREFER TO  STAY  WITH  HIS  BUNKMATE,
PRIVATE COWBOY, SIR!"
     Cowboy and I have become  friends because when you're far from home and
scared shitless you need all the friends you can get and you need them right
away. Cowboy  is  the only recruit  who laughs  at all my jokes.  He's got a
sense  of  humor, which is priceless  in a place like this, but he's serious
when he has to be--he's dependable.
     Sergeant Gerheim sighs. "You queer for Private Cowboy's gear? You smoke
his pole?"
     "SIR, NEGATIVE, SIR!"
     "Outstanding. Then  Private Joker will bunk with Private  Pyle. Private
Joker is silly and he's ignorant, but he's got guts, and guts is enough."
     Sergeant Gerheim  struts  back to  his "palace," a tiny room at the far
end of the squad bay. "Okay, ladies, ready...MOUNT!"
     We all jump into our racks and freeze.
     "Sing."
     We sing:

     From the halls of Montezuma,
     To the shores of Tripoli,
     We will fight our country's battles,
     On land, and air, and sea.

     If the Army and the Navy
     Ever gaze on heaven's scenes,
     They will find the streets are guarded by
     United States Marines...

     "Okay, herd, readdddy...SLEEP!"


     Training continues.
     I  teach Leonard everything I  know, from how to  lace his black combat
boots  to the assembly and  disassembly of the M-14  semi-automatic shoulder
weapon.
     I teach Leonard that  Marines do not ditty-bop, they do not just  walk.
Marines run; they double-time.  Or, if the  distance to be covered is great,
Marines hump, one foot after the other, one step at  a  time, for as long as
necessary.  Marines  work  hard.  Only  shitbirds try  to  avoid work,  only
shitbirds try to skate.  Marines are clean, not skuzzy.  I  teach Leonard to
value  his  rifle as he  values  his life. I  teach him that blood makes the
grass grow.
     "This  here  gun  is  one  mean-looking  piece of  iron, sure  enough."
Leonard's clumsy fingers snap his weapon together.
     I'm  repulsed by the look and feel of  my own weapon. The rifle is cold
and heavy in my hands. "Think  of your rifle as  a tool, Leonard. Like an ax
on the farm."
     Leonard grins. "Okay. You right, Joker." He looks at me. "I'm sure glad
you're helping  me, Joker. You're my friend. I  know I'm slow. I always been
slow. Nobody ever helped me..."
     I turn away.  "That sounds  like a personal problem,"  I say. I keep my
eyes on my weapon.


     Sergeant Gerheim  continues  the  siege of Leonard Pratt,  Private.  He
gives Leonard extra  push-ups every night, yells at him louder than he yells
at the rest of us, calls his mother more colorful names.
     Meanwhile, the rest of us are not  forgotten. We suffer, too. We suffer
for Leonard's mistakes. We march, we run, we duck walk, and we crawl.


     We play  war in the  swamp. Near the site of the Ribbon Creek Massacre,
where  six  recruits  drowned  during a  disciplinary night  march  in 1956,
Sergeant  Gerheim  orders  me  to climb a  willow tree.  I'm a  sniper.  I'm
supposed to shoot the platoon. I hang on a limb. If I can see a recruit well
enough to name him, he's dead.
     The platoon attacks. I yell, "HAMER!" and Hamer falls dead.
     The platoon scatters. I scan the underbrush.
     A green  phantom blinks  through  a  shadow. I see its  face. I open my
mouth. The limb cracks. I'm falling...
     I collide with the sandy deck. I look up.
     Cowboy  is standing over me. "Bang,  bang, you're dead," he  says.  And
then he laughs.
     Sergeant Gerheim looms over me. I try to explain that the limb broke.
     "You  can't talk,  sniper. You  are dead. Private Cowboy just took your
life."
     Sergeant Gerheim promotes Cowboy to squad leader.


     During our sixth week, Sergeant Gerheim orders us to double-time around
the squad  bay with our penises in our left  hands and our  weapons  in  our
right hands, singing: This is my rifle, this is gun; one is for fighting and
one is for fun. And: I don't want no teen-aged queen; all I want is my M-14.
     Sergeant Gerheim orders us  to name our rifles. "This is the only pussy
you people are  going to  get.  Your days  of  finger-banging ol'  Mary Jane
Rottencrotch through her pretty pink panties  are  over. You're  married  to
this piece, this weapon of iron and wood, and you will be faithful."
     We run. And we sing:

     Well, I don't know
     But I been told
     Eskimo pussy
     Is mighty cold...

     Before  chow, Sergeant  Gerheim  tells  us  that  during  World  War  I
Blackjack Pershing said, "The  deadliest weapon in the world is a Marine and
his rifle." At  Belleau  Wood the  Marines  were  so vicious that the German
infantrymen called them Teufel-Hunden--"devil dogs."
     Sergeant  Gerheim explains that  it is important  for us  to understand
that  it is our killer  instinct  which must  be harnessed  if  we expect to
survive in combat. Our rifle is only a tool; it is a hard heart that kills.
     Our  will to kill must be  focused  the way  our rifle focuses a firing
pressure of fifty thousand pounds per square inch to propel a piece of lead.
If  our  rifles  are not properly cleaned  the  explosion will be improperly
focused and our rifles will shatter. If our killer  instincts  are not clean
and strong, we will hesitate at  the  moment  of truth. We will not kill. We
will  become dead Marines.  And then we will be in  a  world of shit because
Marines  are  not  allowed  to  die  without permission; we  are  government
property.


     The Confidence  Course: We go hand  over hand down a rope strung  at  a
forty-five  degree angle across a pond--the  slide-for-life. We hang  upside
down like monkeys and crawl headfirst down the rope.
     Leonard falls off the slide-for-life  eighteen times. He almost drowns.
He cries. He climbs the tower. He tries again. He falls off again. This time
he sinks.
     Cowboy and I  dive into the pond.  We pull  Leonard out  of  the  muddy
water. He's unconscious. When he comes to, he cries.
     Back at  the squad  bay Sergeant Gerheim  fits a Trojan rubber over the
mouth of a canteen  and  throws  the  canteen at  Leonard.  The canteen hits
Leonard on the  side of the head. Sergeant Gerheim  bellows, "Marines do not
cry!"
     Leonard is ordered to nurse on the canteen every day after chow.


     During bayonet training  Sergeant  Gerheim dances an aggressive ballet.
He knocks us down with a pugil stick, a five-foot pole with heavy padding on
both ends. We  play war with the pugil  sticks.  We beat each other  without
mercy. Then Sergeant Gerheim orders us to fix bayonets.
     Sergeant  Gerheim demonstrates effective attack techniques to a recruit
named Barnard, a soft-spoken farm boy from Maine. The beefy drill instructor
knocks out two of Private Barnard's teeth with a rifle butt.
     The purpose of the  bayonet training, Sergeant Gerheim explains, is  to
awaken our killer instincts. The killer  instinct will  make us fearless and
aggressive, like animals. If the meek ever inherit the earth the strong will
take it  away from them.  The weak exist to be devoured by the strong. Every
Marine must pack  his own  gear. Every Marine must be the instrument  of his
own salvation. It's hard, but there it is.
     Private  Barnard,  his  jaw   bleeding,  his   mouth  a  bloody   hole,
demonstrates that he  has been paying attention. Private Barnard  grabs  his
rifle and, sitting up, bayonets Sergeant Gerheim through the right thigh.
     Sergeant Gerheim grunts. Then he responds with  a vertical butt stroke,
but misses. So he backhands Private Barnard across the face with his fist.
     Whipping  off  his web belt, Sergeant  Gerheim ties  a crude tourniquet
around  his bloody  thigh. Then  he makes the unconscious Private  Barnard a
squad leader. "Goddamn it,  there's one  little  maggot who  knows  that the
spirit of the bayonet is to kill! He'll  make a damn  fine field Marine.  He
ought to be a fucking general."


     On the last day of  our sixth  week I wake  up and find  my rifle in my
rack.  My rifle is  under my blanket, beside me. I  don't  know  how it  got
there.
     My mind isn't on my responsibilities and I  forget to remind Leonard to
shave.
     Inspection. Junk on the bunk. Sergeant Gerheim points  out that Private
Pyle did not stand close enough to his razor.
     Sergeant Gerheim orders Leonard and  the recruit squad leaders into the
head.
     In the head,  Sergeant Gerheim orders  us to  piss  into a toilet bowl.
"LOCK THEM HEELS! YOU ARE AT ATTENTION! READDDDDY...WHIZZZZ..."
     We whiz.
     Sergeant Gerheim grabs the back of Leonard's neck and forces Leonard to
his  knees, pushes his  head down into the yellow pool.  Leonard  struggles.
Bubbles. Panic gives Leonard strength; Sergeant Gerheim holds him down.
     After we're sure that Leonard has drowned, Sergeant Gerheim flushes the
toilet. When the water stops flowing, Sergeant Gerheim releases his  hold on
Leonard's neck.


     Sergeant Gerheim's  imagination is  both  cruel and  comprehensive, but
nothing works. Leonard continues to fuck up. Now,  whenever  Leonard makes a
mistake,  Sergeant  Gerheim does not punish Leonard.  He punishes the  whole
platoon. He excludes Leonard from the punishment. While Leonard rests, we do
squat-thrusts and side-straddle hops, many, many of them.
     Leonard touches my arm as we move through the chow line with our  metal
trays. "I just can't do nothing right.  I need some help. I  don't want  you
boys to be in trouble. I--"
     I move away.


     The  first night  of  our seventh  week  of  training the platoon gives
Leonard a blanket party.
     Midnight.
     The fire watch stands by.  Private Philips,  the  House Mouse, Sergeant
Gerheim's "go-fer," pads barefoot down the squad bay  to  watch for Sergeant
Gerheim.
     In the dark, one hundred recruits walk to Leonard's rack.
     Leonard is grinning, even in his sleep.
     The squad leaders hold towels and bars of soap.
     Four  recruits  throw a blanket over  Leonard. They grip the corners of
the  blanket so that Leonard can't sit up and  so that  his  screams will be
muffled.
     I hear the hard breathing of a hundred sweating bodies  and I hear  the
fump and thud as Cowboy  and Private Barnard beat Leonard with bars  of soap
slung in towels.
     Leonard's  screams are like the braying of a sick mule, heard far away.
He struggles.
     The eyes of  the platoon are on me. Eyes  are aimed at  me in the dark,
eyes like rubies.
     Leonard stops screaming.
     I hesitate. The eyes are on me. I step back.
     Cowboy punches me in the chest with his towel and a bar of soap.
     I sling the towel, drop in  the soap, and then I beat Leonard,  who has
stopped moving.  He  lies in silence,  stunned,  gagging for air. I beat him
harder and harder and when I feel tears being flung from my eyes, I beat him
harder for it.


     The next day, on the parade deck, Leonard does not grin.
     When Gunnery  Sergeant  Gerheim  asks,  "What  do  we do for a  living,
ladies?" and we reply, "KILL! KILL! KILL!," Leonard remains silent. When our
junior drill instructor asks, "Do we love the Crotch, ladies? Do we love our
beloved Corps?" and the platoon responds with one voice, "GUNG HO! GUNG  HO!
GUNG HO!." Leonard is silent.


     On  the third day of our seventh week  we move  to the  rifle range and
shoot holes in paper targets. Sergeant Gerheim brags about  the marksmanship
of ex-Marines Charles Whitman and Lee Harvey Oswald.


     By the end of our  seventh week Leonard has become a  model recruit. We
decide  that Leonard's silence is a result of his new intense concentration.
Day by day, Leonard is more motivated, more squared away. His manual of arms
is flawless now, but his eyes are milk glass. Leonard cleans his weapon more
than any recruit in the platoon. Every night after chow Leonard caresses the
scarred oak stock with linseed oil the way hundreds of earlier recruits have
caressed the same piece of wood. Leonard improves at everything, but remains
silent. He does what he is told, but he is no longer part of the platoon.
     We can see that Sergeant Gerheim resents Leonard's attitude. He reminds
Leonard  that  the motto of  the Marine  Corps  is  Semper  Fidelis--"Always
Faithful."  Sergeant Gerheim reminds Leonard that "Gung ho"  is  Chinese for
"working together."
     It is  a Marine  Corps  tradition, Sergeant Gerheim says, that  Marines
never abandon their dead or wounded. Sergeant Gerheim is careful not to come
down too hard  on Leonard as  long as Leonard remains squared away.  We have
already lost  seven recruits on  Section  Eight discharges.  A Kentucky  boy
named Perkins stepped to the  center of the squad bay and slashed his wrists
with his bayonet.  Sergeant Gerheim  was not happy to see a recruit bleeding
upon his nice clean  squad  bay. The recruit was ordered to police the area,
mop up the  blood,  and replace  the  bayonet in  its sheath. While  Perkins
mopped up the  blood,  Sergeant Gerheim called a school circle and poo-pooed
the  recruit's  shallow  slash  across  his  wrists  with   a  bayonet.  The
U.S.M.C.--approved method of  recruit suicide is to  get alone  and  take  a
razor  blade  and  slash deep and  vertical, from wrist  to  elbow, Sergeant
Gerheim said. Then he allowed Perkins to double-time to sick bay.
     Sergeant Gerheim leaves Leonard alone and concentrates  on  the rest of
us.


     Sunday.
     Magic  show. Religious services  in the faith  of your  choice--and you
will  have  a  choice--because  religious  services  are  specified  in  the
beautiful full-color brochures the Crotch distributes to Mom and Dad back in
hometown America, even though Sergeant Gerheim  assures  us  that the Marine
Corps  was  here before God.  "You can give your heart to Jesus but your ass
belongs to the Corps."


     After  the "magic show" we eat chow.  The squad leaders read grace from
cards set in holders on the tables. Then: "SEATS!"
     We spread  butter on slices  of  bread and then sprinkle  sugar  on the
butter. We smuggle sandwiches out of  the  mess hall,  risking a beating for
the novelty  of  unscheduled  chow. We don't give a shit; we're  salty. Now,
when Sergeant Gerheim and his junior drill instructors stomp us we tell them
that  we love it and  to do it some  more.  When  Sergeant Gerheim commands:
"Okay,  ladies,  give  me fifty squat-thrusts.  And some side-straddle hops.
Many, many of them," we laugh and then do them.
     The drill instructors are proud to see that we are growing beyond their
control.  The Marine  Corps does  not want  robots. The Marine  Corps  wants
killers. The Marine Corps wants  to  build indestructible  men, men  without
fear. Civilians may choose to submit or to fight back. The drill instructors
leave recruits  no  choice. Marines fight back or they do not survive. There
it is. No slack.
     Graduation is only a  few days away  and  the salty recruits of Platoon
30-92 are ready to eat their own  guts and then ask for seconds. The  moment
the Commandant of the Marine Corps  gives us the word, we will grab the Viet
Cong guerrillas and  the  battle-hardened North Vietnamese regulars by their
scrawny throats and we'll punch their fucking heads off.


     Sunday afternoon in the sun. We scrub our little  green  garments on  a
long concrete table.
     For the hundredth time, I tell Cowboy that I want to slip my tube steak
into his sister so what will he take in trade?
     For the hundredth time, Cowboy replies, "What do you have?"
     Sergeant Gerheim struts around the table.  He is trying not to limp. He
criticizes our utilization of the Marine Corps scrub brush.
     We don't care; we're too salty.
     Sergeant Gerheim won the Navy Cross on Iwo Jima, he says. He got it for
teaching young Marines how to bleed, he  says. Marines are supposed to bleed
in tidy little pools  because Marines are disciplined. Civilians and members
of the lesser services bleed all over the place like bed wetters.
     We don't listen. We swap scuttlebutt. Laundry day is  the only  time we
are allowed to talk to each other.
     Philips--Sergeant  Gerheim's  black,  silver-tongued   House  Mouse--is
telling everybody about the one thousand cherries he has busted.
     I say, "Leonard talks to his rifle."
     A dozen recruits look  up. They  hesitate. Some look sick.  Others look
scared.  And some  look  shocked and angry,  as though  I'd  just slapped  a
cripple.
     I force myself to speak: "Leonard talks  to his  rifle."  Nobody moves.
Nobody  says anything.  "I don't think  Leonard can hack it anymore. I think
Leonard is a Section Eight."
     Now guys all along  the table are listening.  They look confused. Their
eyes seem fixed on some distant object as though they are trying to remember
a bad dream.
     Private Barnard  nods.  "I've  been having this  nightmare.  My...rifle
talks to me." He hesitates. "And I've been talking back to it..."
     "There it is," says  Philips. "Yeah. It's  cold.  It's a  cold voice. I
thought I was going plain fucking crazy. My rifle said--"
     Sergeant Gerheim's  big fist drives Philip's next word  down his throat
and out of his asshole. Philips is nailed to the deck. He's on his back. His
lips are crushed. He groans.
     The platoon freezes.
     Sergeant Gerheim puts  his fists on his hips. His  eyes glare  out from
under the brim of his Smokey  the Bear campaign cover  like the barrels of a
shotgun. "Private  Pyle  is a Section Eight.  You hear me? If  Private  Pyle
talks to his piece it is because he's plain fucking  crazy. You maggots will
belay  all  this  scuttlebutt.  Don't  let  Private  Joker  play  with  your
imaginations. I don't want  to hear another word. Do  you hear me?  Not  one
word."


     Night at Parris  Island. We stand  by  until Sergeant Gerheim snaps out
his last order of the day: "Prepare to mount....Readdy...MOUNT!"  Then we're
lying on  our backs in our  skivvies, at attention, our weapons held at port
arms.
     We say our prayers:

     I  am a United States Marine Corps recruit. I serve in the forces which
guard my country and my way of
     life. I  am  prepared  to give my  life  in their defense, so  help  me
God...GUNG HO! GUNG HO! GUNG HO!

     Then the Rifleman's Creed, by Marine Corps Major General W.H. Rupertus:

     This is my rifle. There are many like it but this one is mine. My rifle
is my best friend. It is my life. I
     must master it as I master my life.

     My rifle, without me, is useless.  I must  fire my rifle  true.  I must
shoot straighter than my enemy who
     is trying to kill me. I must shoot him before he shoots me.

     I will.

     Leonard is speaking for the first time in weeks. His voice booms louder
and louder.  Heads turn. Bodies shift.  The platoon  voice fades. Leonard is
about to explode. His words are being coughed up from some deep, ugly place.
     Sergeant Gerheim has  the night duty. He  struts to  Leonard's rack and
stands by, fists on hips.
     Leonard doesn't see Sergeant  Gerheim.  The veins in Leonard's neck are
bulging as he bellows:


IT AS A
     BROTHER. I WILL LEARN ITS ACCESSORIES, ITS SIGHTS, ITS BARREL.


WILL
     BECOME PART OF EACH OTHER.




OUR
     ENEMY. WE ARE THE SAVIORS OF MY LIFE.

     SO BE IT, UNTIL VICTORY IS AMERICA'S AND THERE IS NO ENEMY BUT PEACE!



     Sergeant Gerheim kicks Leonard's rack. "Hey--you--Private Pyle..."
     "What?  Yes?  YES,  SIR!"  Leonard  snaps  to  attention  in  his rack.
"AYE-AYE, SIR!"
     "What's that weapon's name, maggot?"
     "SIR, THE PRIVATE'S WEAPON'S NAME IS CHARLENE, SIR!"
     "At ease, maggot." Sergeant Gerheim grins. "You  are becoming one sharp
recruit,  Private Pyle.  Most motivated prive in my  herd.  Why,  I may even
allow you to serve as a rifleman in my beloved Corps. I had you figured as a
shitbird, but you'll make a good grunt."
     "AYE-AYE, SIR!"
     I look at the rifle on my rack. It's a beautiful instrument, gracefully
designed,  solid  and symmetrical.  My  rifle  is  clean,  oiled, and  works
perfectly. It's a fine tool. I touch it.
     Sergeant Gerheim marches down the length of the squad bay. "THE REST OF
YOU ANIMALS COULD TAKE LESSONS FROM PRIVATE PYLE. He's squared away. You are
all squared away. Tomorrow you will be Marines. READDDY...SLEEP!"


     Graduation day.  A thousand new Marines stand tall on  the parade deck,
lean and tan in immaculate khaki, their clean weapons held at port arms.
     Leonard is selected as the  outstanding recruit from Platoon 30-92.  He
is  awarded a free  set  of dress blues and is allowed to wear the  colorful
uniform when the graduating  platoons pass in review. The Commandant General
of  Parris  Island  shakes Leonard's hand and  gives him a  "Well done." Our
series commander  pins a  RIFLE  EXPERT  badge  on  Leonard's  chest and our
company commander awards Leonard a citation  for shooting the  highest score
in the training battalion.
     Because of a special  commendation  submitted by Sergeant Gerheim,  I'm
promoted  to  Private First  Class. After our series  commander pins  on  my
EXPERT'S badge, Sergeant Gerheim presents me with two red and green chevrons
and explains that they're his old PFC stripes.
     When we pass in review, I walk right guide, tall and proud.
     Cowboy receives  an EXPERT'S badge and is selected to carry the platoon
guidon.
     The Commanding General of Parris Island speaks into a microphone: "Have
you seen the light? The  white light? The great light? The guiding light? Do
you have the vision?"
     And we cheer, happy beyond belief.
     The Commanding General sings. We sing too:

     Hey, Marine, have you heard?
     Hey, Marine...
     L.B.J. has passed the word.
     Hey, Marine...
     Say good-bye to Dad and Mom.
     Hey, Marine...
     You're gonna die in Viet Nam.
     Hey, Marine, yeah!

     After  the graduation  ceremony  our orders  are  distributed.  Cowboy,
Leonard, Private Barnard, Philips, and most of the other Marines  in Platoon
30-92 are  ordered to ITR--the Infantry Training Regiment--to  be trained as
grunts, infantrymen.
     My orders instruct me to report to the Basic Military Journalism School
at Fort  Benjamin Harrison, Indiana, after  I  graduate  from ITR.  Sergeant
Gerheim is disgusted by the fact that I am to be a combat correspondent  and
not a grunt. He calls me a poge, an office pinky. He says that shitbirds get
all the slack.
     Standing at  ease  on the parade deck, beneath the  monument to the Iwo
Jima flag raising,  Sergeant Gerheim says,  "The  smoking  lamp is  lit. You
people are no longer maggots. Today you are Marines. Once a Marine, always a
Marine..."
     Leonard laughs out loud.


     Our last night on the island.
     I draw fire watch.
     I stand by in utility trousers, skivvy shirt, spit-shined combat boots,
and a helmet liner which has been painted silver.
     Sergeant Gerheim gives me his wristwatch and a flashlight. "Good night,
Marine."
     I march up and down the squad bay between two perfectly aligned rows of
racks.
     One hundred young Marines breathe peacefully as they sleep--one hundred
survivors from our original hundred and twenty.
     Tomorrow at  dawn we'll all board cattle-car buses for the ride to Camp
Geiger in North Carolina. There, ITR--the  infantry  training regiment.  All
Marines are grunts, even though  some  of us will learn  additional military
skills. After advanced  infantry training we'll be allowed pogey bait at the
slop chute and  we'll be given weekend liberty off the base and  then  we'll
receive assignments to our permanent duty stations.
     The squad bay is as quiet as a  funeral parlor at midnight. The silence
is disturbed only by  the  soft creak-creak  of bedsprings and an occasional
cough.
     It's  almost time for  me to wake my relief when  I hear a voice.  Some
recruit is talking in his sleep.
     I  stop.   I  listen.  A  second  voice.  Two  guys  must  be  swapping
scuttlebutt. If Sergeant Gerheim hears them it'll be my  ass. I hurry toward
the sound.
     It's  Leonard.  Leonard is  talking  to  his  rifle. But there  is also
another voice. A whisper. A cold, seductive moan. It's the voice of a woman.

     Leonard's rifle is  not  slung  on his rack. He's  holding  his  rifle,
hugging it. "Okay, okay. I love you!" Very softly: "I've given  you the best
months of  my life. And now you--" I snap on my flashlight.  Leonard ignores
me. "I LOVE YOU! DON'T YOU UNDERSTAND? I CAN DO IT. I'LL DO ANYTHING!"
     Leonard's words reverberate  down the squad bay. Racks  squeak. Someone
rolls over. One recruit sits up, rubs his eyes.
     I watch the  far end of the  squad bay. I  wait for the light  to go on
inside Sergeant Gerheim's palace.
     I touch  Leonard's shoulder. "Hey, shut your  mouth,  Leonard. Sergeant
Gerheim will break my back."
     Leonard  sits up.  He looks at me. He strips off his skivvy  shirt  and
ties  it around his face to blindfold himself. He begins to field-strips his
weapon. "This is the first time  I've ever seen her naked." He pulls off the
blindfold.  His  fingers  continue to break down the  rifle into components.
Then, gently,  he  fondles  each piece. "Just  look  at that  pretty trigger
guard.  Have  you ever  seen a  more  beautiful piece  of  metal?" He starts
snapping the steel components back together.  "Her connector assembly is  so
beautiful..."
     Leonard continues to babble as his trained fingers reassemble the black
metal hardware.
     I  think  about Vanessa, my  girl back home. We're  on  a  river  bank,
wrapped  in  an old  sleeping  bag,  and  I'm fucking her  eyes out.  But my
favorite fantasy has gone stale.  Thinking about Vanessa's thighs,  her dark
nipples, her fully lips doesn't give me a  hard-on  anymore. I guess it must
be the saltpeter in our food, like they say.
     Leonard reaches under his pillow and comes out  with a loaded magazine.
Gently, he inserts the metal magazine into his weapon, into Charlene.
     "Leonard...where did you get those live rounds?"
     Now a lot of guys  are  sitting up, whispering,  "What's happening?" to
each other.
     Sergeant Gerheim's light floods the far end of the squad bay.
     "OKAY, LEONARD, LET'S GO." I'm  determined to save my own ass if I can,
certain that  Leonard's  is  forfeit  in any case. The  last  time  Sergeant
Gerheim  caught  a recruit with a live round--just one round--he ordered the
recruit to  dig a grave ten feet  long and ten feet deep. The whole  platoon
had  to fall out for the "funeral." I  say, "You're in  a world of shit now,
Leonard."
     The  overhead lights  explode.  The  squad  bay  is  washed with light.
"WHAT'S THIS MICKEY MOUSE SHIT? JUST WHAT IN THE NAME OF JESUS H. CHRIST ARE
YOU ANIMALS DOING IN MY SQUAD BAY?"
     Sergeant Gerheim  comes at me  like a mad dog. His voice cuts the squad
bay in half: "MY BEAUTY  SLEEP HAS  BEEN INTERRUPTED, LADIES. YOU  KNOW WHAT
THAT MEANS. YOU HEAR ME, HERD? IT MEANS THAT ONE RECRUIT HAS VOLUNTEERED HIS
YOUNG HEART FOR A GODDAMN HUMAN SACRIFICE!'
     Leonard pounces from his rack, confronts Sergeant Gerheim.
     Now  the  whole platoon  is awake. We all  wait to  see  what  Sergeant
Gerheim will do, confident that it will be worth watching.
     "Private Joker. You shitbird. Front and center."
     I move my ass. "AYE-AYE, SIR!"
     "Okay, you little maggot, speak.  Why is Private  Pyle out of his  rack
after  lights out?  Why is Private Pyle  holding that weapon?  Why ain't you
stomping Private Pyle's guts out?"
     "SIR, it is the Private's duty to  report to  the drill instructor that
Private...Pyle...has a full magazine and has locked and loaded, SIR."
     Sergeant Gerheim looks at  Leonard and nods. He sighs. Gunnery Sergeant
Gerheim  looks more than a  little ridiculous in his pure white skivvies and
red rubber flip-flop shower shoes and hairy legs and tattooed forearms and a
beer gut  and a face the color of raw beef, and, on his bald head, the green
and brown Smokey the Bear campaign cover.
     Our senior drill instructor focuses all of  his  considerable powers of
intimidation  into his  best John-Wayne-on  Suribachi  voice: "Listen to me,
Private Pyle. You will place your weapon on your rack and--"
     "NO! YOU CAN'T HAVE HER! SHE'S MINE! YOU  HEAR  ME?  SHE'S MINE! I LOVE
HER!"
     Gunnery Sergeant Gerheim  can't  control himself any longer.  "NOW  YOU
LISTEN TO ME, YOU FUCKING  WORTHLESS LITTLE PIECE OF SHIT. YOU  WILL GIVE ME
THAT  WEAPON OR I'M  GOING TO  TEAR YOUR BALLS  OFF AND STUFF THEM DOWN YOUR
SCRAWNY LITTLE THROAT! YOU  HEAR ME, MARINE? I'M GOING TO PUNCH YOUR FUCKING
HEART OUT!"
     Leonard  aims  the  weapon  at Sergeant Gerheim's  heart, caresses  the
trigger guard, then caresses the trigger...
     Sergeant Gerheim is suddenly calm. His eyes, his manner are  those of a
wanderer who has found his home. He is a man in complete  control of himself
and of  the  world he lives in.  His face is cold and  beautiful as the dark
side surfaces. He smiles. It is not  a friendly smile, but an evil smile, as
though Sergeant Gerheim were a werewolf baring its fangs. "Private Pyle, I'm
proud--"
     Bang.
     The steel buttplate slams into Leonard's shoulder.
     One   7.62-millimeter  high-velocity  copper-jacketed  bullet   punches
Gunnery Sergeant Gerheim back.
     He falls.
     We all stare at Sergeant Gerheim. Nobody moves.
     Sergeant  Gerheim sits  up  as  though  nothing has  happened.  For one
second, we relax. Leonard has missed. Then dark  blood squirts from a little
hole in Sergeant  Gerheim's  chest.  The  red blood blossoms  into his white
skivvy  shirt  like a beautiful  flower.  Sergeant  Gerheim's  bug eyes  are
focused  upon the  blood  rose  on  his chest, fascinated.  He  looks  up at
Leonard. He squints.  Then he relaxes. The werewolf  smile is frozen on  his
lips.
     My menial  position of authority as the fire watch on duty forces me to
act. "Now,  uh,  Leonard, we're all  your bros, man, your brothers. I'm your
bunkmate, right? I--"
     "Sure," says Cowboy. "Go easy, Leonard. We don't want to hurt you."
     "Affirmative," says Private Barnard.
     Leonard doesn't hear. "Did you see the way he looked at her? Did you? I
knew what he was thinking. I knew. That fag pig and his dirty--"
     "Leonard..."
     "We can  kill you. You know  that."  Leonard caresses his rifle. "Don't
you know that Charlene and I can kill you all?"
     Leonard aims his rifle at my face.
     I don't look at the rifle. I look into Leonard's eyes.
     I know that Leonard is too weak to  control his instrument of death. It
is  a  hard  heart  that  kills, not  the  weapon.  Leonard is  a  defective
instrument for the  power that  is flowing through him.  Sergeant  Gerheim's
mistake was in not  seeing that Leonard was like a glass rifle  which  would
shatter  when fired. Leonard is not  hard enough to harness the power of  an
interior explosion to propel the cold black bullet of his will.
     Leonard is grinning at us, the final grin that is on the face of death,
the terrible grin of the skull.
     The grin changes to a look of  surprise and then  to confusion and then
to  terror as Leonard's weapon moves  up and back and then Leonard takes the
black metal barrel into his mouth. "NO! Not--"
     Bang.
     Leonard is dead on the deck. His head is now an awful lump of blood and
facial bones and sinus fluids and uprooted teeth and jagged, torn flesh. The
skin looks plastic and unreal.
     The  civilians  will demand yet another investigation,  of  course. But
during  the investigation the recruits of Platoon 30-92  will  testify  that
Private Pratt, while highly motivated, was  a ten percenter who did not pack
the gear to be a Marine in our beloved Corps.
     Sergeant  Gerheim  is  still  smiling. He was a fine drill  instructor.
Dying, that's what we're here for, he would have said--blood makes the grass
grow. If  he could speak, Gunnery Sergeant Gerheim would explain to  Leonard
why the guns that we love don't love back. And he would say, "Well done."
     I turn off the overhead lights.
     I say, "Prepare to mount." Then: "MOUNT!"
     The platoon falls into a hundred racks.
     I feel cold and alone. I am not alone. All over Parris Island there are
thousands  and  thousands of  us.  And,  all around  the world, hundreds  of
thousands.
     I try to sleep...
     In my rack, I  pull my rifle  into my arms. She talks to me. Words come
out of the wood and metal and flow into my hands. She tells me what to do.
     My rifle is a solid instrument  of death. My  rifle is black steel. Our
human bodies are bags of blood, easy to puncture and quick to drain, but our
hard tools of death cannot be broken.
     I hold by weapon at port arms, gently, as though she were a holy relic,
a  magic wand  wrought with interlocking  pieces of silver  and iron, with a
teakwood  stock,  golden bullets,  a crystal bolt,  jewels to sight with. My
weapon  obeys me. I'll hold Vanessa, my rifle. I'll hold her. I'll just hold
her for a little while. I will hide in this dark dream for as long as I can.
     Blood pours out of the barrel  of my rifle and flows up on to my hands.
The blood moves. The blood breaks up into living fragments. Each fragment is
a spider. Millions and millions of tiny red spiders of blood are crawling up
my arms, across my face, into my mouth...


     Silence. In the dark, a hundred men are breaking in unison.
     I look at Cowboy,  then at Private Barnard. They understand. Cold grins
of death are frozen on their faces. They nod.
     The newly minted Marines in my platoon  stand to  attention, horizontal
in their racks, their weapons at port arms.
     The Marines wait, a hundred young werewolves with guns in their hands.
     I lead:

     This is my rifle.
     There are many like it, but this one is mine...


Body Count



     I saw the  best  minds of my  generation destroyed by madness, starving
hysterical naked...
     --Allen Ginsberg, Howl



     A psychotic is a guy who's just found out what's going on.
     --William S. Burroughs




     Tet: The Year of the Monkey.
     Rafter  Man and I spend the  Vietnamese lunar New  Year's Eve, 1968, at
the  Freedom  Hill PX near  Da Nang.  I've  been ordered to  write a feature
article on  the Freedom  Hill Recreation Center on  Hill 327 for Leatherneck
magazine.  I'm a combat correspondent assigned to the First Marine Division.
My job is to write upbeat news features  which are distributed to the highly
paid civilian news  correspondents who shack up with their Eurasian maids in
big hotels  in Da Nang.  The  ten  correspondents in  the  First  Division's
Informational Services Office are reluctant public relations men for the war
in  general  and  for  the  Marine  Corps  in particular.  This  morning  my
commanding officer decided that  a  really  inspiring piece could be written
about  Hill 327,  an  angle being  the  fact that  Hill  327 was  the  first
permanent  position occupied by American  forces. Major  Lynch thinks I rate
some slack before I return to the ISO office in Phu Bai. My last three field
operations were real shit-kickers;  in the field,  a Marine correspondent is
just another  rifleman.  Rafter Man tags along  behind me like a kid. Rafter
Man  is a combat photographer. He has  never been in the shit. He thinks I'm
one hard field Marine.
     We go into a movie theater  that looks like  a  warehouse  and we watch
John  Wayne in The  Green Berets, a  Hollywood soap opera about the love  of
guns. We  sit way  down front,  near some  grunts. The  grunts are  sprawled
across their seats and they've  propped muddy jungle boots onto the seats in
front of them. They  are bearded,  dirty, out  of uniform, and look lean and
mean, the way human  beings  look after they've survived  a long hump in the
jungle, the boonies, the bad bush.
     I prop my boots on the seats and we  watch John Wayne leading the Green
Beanies. John Wayne is a beautiful soldier, clean-shaven, sharply attired in
tailored tiger-stripe jungle utilities, wearing boots that shine  like black
glass.  Inspired  by  John Wayne,  the  fighting  soldiers  from the sky  go
hand-to-hand with all of the Victor Charlies in Southeast Asia. He snaps out
an order to an Oriental actor  who played Mr. Sulu on "Star Trek." Mr. Sulu,
now playing an Arvin  officer, delivers a line with great conviction: "First
kill...all stinking Cong...then go home." The audience of Marines roars with
laughter. This is the funniest movie we have seen in a long time.
     Later,  at the  end of the movie,  John Wayne walks off into the sunset
with a spunky little orphan.  The  grunts laugh and whistle and  threaten to
pee all  over themselves. The sun is setting  in the South China Sea--in the
East--which makes the end of the movie as accurate as the rest of it.
     Most of the zoomies in the audience are clean-shaven office  poges  who
never  go  into the field.  The  poges wear  spit-shined  boots and starched
utilities and  Air Force sunglasses. The poges stare at the grunts as though
the grunts were Hell's Angels at the ballet.
     After the screen loses it color and the overhead lights come on, one of
the poges says, "Fucking grunts...they're nothing but animals..."
     The grunts turn around. One grunt stands up. He walks over to where the
poges are sitting.
     The poges laugh and  punch each other and mock the grunt's  angry face.
Then they are silent. They stare at the grunt's face. He's smiling now. He's
smiling like a man who knows a terrible secret.
     The zoomie poges  do not ask the  grunt to  explain why  he is smiling.
They don't want to know.
     Another grunt jumps up,  punches  the smiling  grunt on  the arm, says,
"Hey, fuck it, Mother. It  ain't no big thing. We  don't want to waste these
assholes."
     The smiling Marine takes a step  forward, but the smaller man stands in
his path.
     The  poges take  advantage  of  the  smiling  grunt's delay.  They walk
backwards  up  the  aisle until they reach the  door, then  stumble out into
sunlight.
     I say, "Well, no  shit. And  they say grunts are killers. You ladies do
not look like killers to me."
     The  smiling  grunt  is  not  smiling  anymore.  He  says,  "Okay,  you
son-of-a-bitch..."
     "Stand by, Mother," says the small Marine. "I know this shitbird."
     Cowboy and I grab each other and wrestle and punch and pound each other
on  the back.  We say,  "Hey, you  old mother-fucker.  How you  been? What's
happening? Been getting any? Only your sister. Well,  better my sister  than
my mom, although mom's not bad."
     "Hey, Joker, I was hoping I'd never see you again, you piece of shit. I
was  hoping  that Gunny  Gerheim's ghost would  keep  you on  Parris  Island
for-ev-er and that he would give you motivation."
     I laugh. "Cowboy, you shitbird. You look real  mean.  If I  didn't know
that you're a born poge I'd be scared."
     Cowboy grunts. "This is Animal Mother. He is mean."
     The  big Marine is picking his nose. "You  better motherfucking believe
it." A belt of machine-gun bullets crisscross the Marine's chest so  that he
looks like a big Mexican bandit.
     I say, "This is Rafter  Man.  He's not a walking  camera store. He's  a
photographer."
     "You a photographer?"
     I shake my head. "I'm a combat correspondent."
     Animal  Mother  sneers,  exposing rotten canine teeth.  "You seen  much
'combat'?"
     "Hey,  don't give me any shit, asshole. My payback is a motherfucker. I
got twice as many operations as any grunt in Eye Corps. I'm just scarfing up
some bennies. My office is up in Phu Bai."
     "Yeah?"  Cowboy punches  me in the chest. "That's our  area.  One-Five.
Delta Company--the baddest of the bad, the leanest of the lean,  the meanest
of the  mean. We hitched  down here this morning. We  rate some slack 'cause
our squad wasted  beaucoup  Victor  Charlies.  Man, we are  life takers  and
heartbreakers. Just ask for the  Lusthog Squad, first platoon. We shoot them
full of holes, bro. We fill them full of lead."
     I grin. "Sergeant Gerheim would be proud to hear it."
     "Yeah,"  Cowboy says, nodding his  head. "Yeah,  I guess so." He  looks
away.  "I hate Viet Nam. They don't even have  horses here. Why, there's not
one horse in all of Viet Nam."
     Cowboy turns away and introduces us to his squad: Alice, a black man as
big as Animal Mother; Donlon,  the radioman; Lance  Corporal Stutten, honcho
of the third fire team; Doc Jay, the squad's Navy corpsman; T.H.E. Rock; and
the leader of the Lusthog Squad, Crazy Earl.
     Crazy Earl  is  carrying an  M-16 Colt automatic  rifle  slung  on  his
shoulder, but in  his  hands is  a Red  Ryder BB gun.  He's as skinny  as  a
death-camp survivor, and his face consists of  a  long, pointed  nose with a
hollow cheek  on each side.  His  eyes are magnified by thick lenses and one
arm of his gray Marine-issue eyeglasses has been wired back on with too much
wire. He says, "Saddle  up," and the  grunts  start picking up  their  gear,
their M-16's and M-79 grenade  launchers  and captured AK-47 assault rifles,
their ruck-sacks, flak jackets, and helmets. Animal Mother picks up  an M-60
machine gun and  sets the butt into his hip so that the  black barrel slants
up at  a forty-five-degree angle. Animal Mother  grunts. Crazy Earl turns to
Cowboy and  says, "We  better be  moving, bro. Mr. Shortround will punch our
hearts out if we're late."
     Cowboy is picking up his gear. "That's affirmative, Craze. But  you got
to talk to Joker,  man. We  were on  the island together. He'll write you up
and make you famous."
     Crazy Earl looks at me. There  is no expression on his face.  "There it
is. They call me Crazy Earl. Gooks love me until I blow them away. Then they
don't love me anymore."
     I grin. "There it is."
     Crazy Earl  grins, gives me a  thumbs-up,  says,  "Moving, Cowboy," and
then leads his squad out of the theater.
     Cowboy punches me on the shoulder. "That's my fearless leader, bro. I'm
the first fire-team leader. I'll  be squad leader soon. I'm just waiting for
Craze to  get wasted. Or maybe he'll just go plain fucking crazy. That's how
Craze got  to  be  honcho.  Ol' Stoke,  he was our honcho  before Craze. Ol'
Supergrunt. Went stark raving. Pretty soon it'll be my turn."
     "Hey, you keep your shit together, Cowboy. You know you're  a fool. You
know you can't take care of yourself. Remember how easy it was for me to zap
you when  Sergeant Gerheim made  me play sniper? I mean, the Crotch ought to
fly your mom over here so that she can go into the bush with you."
     Cowboy takes a few steps toward the door, turns, waves goodbye, grins.
     I give him the finger.


     After Cowboy and his squad  are  gone, Rafter Man  and I  watch a "Pink
Panther"  cartoon. Then we  pick up our  weapons and head for the PX,  which
looks like another warehouse. We buy junk food; pogey bait.
     As  we   wait  to   pay  for  our  pogey  bait  with  military  payment
certificates, Rafter Man tries  to find some words.  "Joker, I want...I want
to go  out. I want to go  out into  the  field. I been in country for almost
three months.  Three  months. All I do  is take  hand-shake  shots  at award
ceremonies. That's  number ten, the worst. I'm  bored.  A  high-school  girl
could do my job." He gives MPC's to a pretty Vietnamese cashier.

     Outside, an apprentice Viet Cong forces me to  submit to  a  boot shine
while his older sister exhibits her breasts to Rafter Man.
     "Relax,  Rafter. You owe  it to yourself.  You'll be in  the field soon
enough."
     "Come on, Joker, cut  me a  huss. How can I teach geography  if I never
see the world? Take me to Phu Bai. Okay?"
     "Right," I say.  "And then you'll get  yourself  wasted  the  first day
you're in the field and  it'll be  my fault.  Your mom will  find me after I
rotate back to the  World. Your mom will beat the shit  out of  me. That's a
negative,  Rafter.  I'm  not  a sergeant,  I'm  only  a  corporal.  I'm  not
responsible for your scrawny little ass."
     "Yes you are. I'm only a lance corporal."


     Rafter  Man and  I stop  by the USO and  exchange a few off-color jokes
with  the  round-eyed  Red Cross girls, who give us  donuts. We ask  the Red
Cross  girls if they  expect us to satisfy our lust  with a donut  and  they
explain that a donut hole is all we rate.
     In  the USO there  are barrels and barrels  of letters which  have been
written to us by children back in the World:

     Dear Soldiers in Red Alert:
     We have learned that men in Vietnam alive or dead  are  the bravest. We
are all trying to help you all
     to come  home to  your house. We'll buy bonds. We help the Red Cross to
help soldiers. We'll help
     you and your allies to come back. If possible, we'll send you gifts.
     From Your Country,
     Cheri
     Dear Friend in Battle:
     I am eight years old. I have one brother. I have one sister. It must be
sad over there.
     Sincerely,
     Jeff


     Dear American:
     I wish I could see you instead of talking on this Card.  We have a dog,
and it is so cute. It is black
     and has long  hair. My name  is Lori.  I will always remember you in my
prayers. Tell everyone I love
     them and I love you too, so good-bye.
     Your Friend,
     Lori


     Rafter Man reads the letters out loud. He can still be touched by them.
     To me, the letters are like shoes for the dead, who do not walk.


     As dusk approaches, Rafter Man and I  hitchhike back  to the ISO hootch
in the First Marine Division HQ area.
     Rafter Man writes a letter to his mother.
     I take my black Magic Marker and I make a thick X over the number 59 on
the shapely thigh of a  the life-sized nude woman  I've drawn on the plywood
partition behind my  rack. There is a smaller version of the  same woman  on
the back of my flak jacket.
     Almost every Marine in Viet Nam carries a short-timer's calendar of his
tour  of duty--the  usual  365 days--plus  a  bonus of  20  days for being a
Marine. Some are drawn on flak jackets with Magic Markers. Some are drawn on
helmets.  Some are tattoos. Others are  mimeographed drawings of Snoopy, his
beagle  body cut up by  pale blue ink, or a  helmet on a pair of boots--"The
Short-Timer." The  designs vary, but the most popular design is a big-busted
woman-child cut up into pieces  like a puzzle. Each day  another fragment of
her delicious anatomy is inked  out, her crotch being  reserved, of  course,
for those last few days in country.
     Sitting  on  my  rack,  I  type  out  my  story  about  Hill  327,  the
serviceman's oasis, about how all of us fine young American boys are assured
our daily  ration of pogey  bait and  about how those of us  who  are  lucky
enough to visit the rear areas get to see Mr. John Wayne  karate-chop Victor
Charlie to death in a Technicolor cartoon about some other Viet Nam.
     The  article I actually  write  is a  masterpiece.  It takes talent  to
convince people that war is  a beautiful experience.  Come one, come all  to
exotic Viet Nam, the jewel of Southeast  Asia, meet interesting, stimulating
people of an ancient culture...and kill them. Be the first kid on your block
to get a confirmed kill.
     I fall into my rack. I try to sleep.
     The setting sun pours orange across the rice paddies beyond our wire.


     Midnight.  Down in Dogpatch, in the  ville, the gooks are shooting  off
fireworks to celebrate  the Vietnamese New Year. Rafter Man and I sit on the
tin roof of our hootch so that we can watch the more impressive fireworks on
the  Da Nang  airfield.  One  hundred-and-twenty-two-millimeter rockets  are
falling from the dark sky. I open a  B-3 unit and we eat John Wayne cookies,
dipping them in pineapple jam.
     Chewing. Rafter Man says, "I thought this was supposed to be a truce on
account of Tet is their big holiday."
     I  shrug. "Well, I  guess it's  hard not to  shoot somebody you've been
trying to shoot for a long time just because it's a holiday."
     A sudden swooosssh...
     Incoming.
     I jump off the roof.
     Rafter Man  stands up, his mouth  open.  He  looks down at me like  I'm
crazy. "What--"
     A rocket hits the deck fifty yards away.
     Rafter Man falls off the roof.
     I jerk Rafter Man to his  feet. I shove him. He falls into a sandbagged
bunker.
     All  around the hill orange  machine-gun tracers flash up into the sky.
Outgoing mortars. Outgoing artillery. Incoming rockets.  All kinds of noise.
Illumination rounds  pop high above the rice paddies. The flares  sway down,
glowing, suspended beneath little parachutes.
     I listen for a few moments  and then I grab  Rafter Man  and I pull him
into our hootch. "Get your piece."
     I pick up my M-16. I  snap in  a magazine. I  throw a bandolier of full
magazines to Rafter Man. "Lock and load, recruit. Lock and load."
     "But that's against regulations."
     "Do it."
     Outside,  headquarters  personnel from  the  surrounding  hootches  are
stumbling  into rifle  pits on the  perimeter. They crouch down  in the damp
holes in their skivvies. They stare out through the wire.
     Down on the airfield  in Da  Nang Victor Charlie's rockets  are raining
down on the concrete corrals where the Marine Air Wing parks its F-4 Phantom
fighter bombers. The rockets blink like flashbulbs. The flashbulbs  pop. And
then the sound of drums.


     The  Informational Services Office on the hill is a carnival with green
performers--many, many of them. The lifers  are  all being fearless leaders.
The New Guys are about to wet  their pants. Everyone is talking. Everyone is
pacing and looking, pacing  and looking. Most  of these guys have never been
in the shit. Violence doesn't excite them the way it excites me because they
don't understand it the way I do.  They're  afraid.  Death is  not yet their
friend. So they  don't know what  they're supposed  to  say. They don't know
what they're expected to do.
     Major Lynch, our commanding officer, marches in and squares us away. He
tells us that Victor Charlie has used the Tet holiday to launch an offensive
all over Viet Nam. Every major military target in Viet Nam has been  hit. In
Saigon,  the United States Embassy  has been overrun by suicide  squads. Khe
Sanh is standing by to be  overrun, a second Dien Bien Phu. The term "secure
area" no  longer  has any  meaning.  Only fifty yards up the hill,  near the
commanding general's  private quarters, a Viet Cong  sapper squad  has blown
apart a communications center with a satchel charge. Our "defeated" enemy is
lashing out with a power that is shocking.
     Everybody starts talking at once.
     Major Lynch is calm. He stands in the center of chaos and tries to give
us orders. Nobody  listens.  He  makes us listen. His  words  snap out  like
bullets from a machine gun. "Zip up those flak jackets. Put on that  helmet,
Marine. Load your weapons  but do  not put a round in the chamber. Everybody
will shut the fuck up. Joker!"
     "Aye-aye, sir."
     Major Lynch  stands in front of the Marine  Corps flag--blood red, with
an eagle, globe, and anchor of gold, U.S.M.C. and Semper Fidelis. He taps my
chest with his finger. "Joker, you will take off  that damned button. How is
it going to look if you get killed wearing a peace symbol?"
     "Aye-aye, sir!"
     "Get up to Phu Bai. Captain January will need all his people."
     Rafter Man steps forward. "Sir? Could I go with Joker?"
     "What? Sound off."
     "I'm Compton, sir. Lance  Corporal Compton.  From Photo. I want  to get
into the shit."
     "Permission  granted. And welcome  aboard."  The  major  turns,  starts
yelling at the New Guys.
     I say, "Sir, I don't think that--"
     Major Lynch  turns back to  me,  irritated.  "You  still here?  Vanish,
Joker, most  ricky-tick. And take the  New Guy with  you. You're responsible
for him." The major turns and starts snapping out orders for the defense  of
the First Marine Division's Informational Services Office.


     Chaos  at  the Da Nang airfield; enemy  rockets have  wasted  hootches,
Marines,  and  Phantom jets. I talk to a poge  in thick glasses. The poge is
reading  a comic book.  By using my  voice  as  an instrument  of  command I
convince the  poge that I'm an officer and that I'm on a personal errand for
the Commandant  of the Marine Corps.  Rafter Man and I are  given a priority
rating  and have  to wait  only nine hours  before we're  stuffed  into  the
cavernous belly of a C-130 Hercules cargo  plane with a hundred Marine Corps
lifers.
     Thousands  of feet below, Viet Nam is a narrow  stripe of  dried dragon
shit upon  which God  has sprinkled toy tanks  and airplanes  and  a  lot of
trees, flies, and Marines.
     As we descend for a landing at Phu Bai Combat Base, Rafter Man hugs his
three black-body Nikons like metal babies.
     I  laugh.  "When the grunts  see  that  the famous Rafter Man  is here,
they'll just know that the war must be over."
     Rafter Man grins.


     Rafter Man won his nickname the night he fell out of the rafters at the
Thunderbird Club,  the enlisted men's slop  chute  back in  the First Marine
Division headquarters area. An  Australian comedian and two fat Korean belly
dancers were entertaining an SRO  audience. Rafter  Man was hammered, but so
was I, so I couldn't stop him. We were back near the entrance and Rafter Man
decided that  the only way he was going to get a good  look  at the seminude
belly dancers was to  climb up into the rafters and crawl out above the mass
of green Marines.
     General Motors and his staff had stopped by to catch the show. They did
that sometimes. General Motors liked to keep in touch with his Marines.
     Rafter Man fell off the rafters like a green bomb, crashing through the
general's table, spilling beer,  smashing pretzels, and knocking the general
and four of his staff officers on their brass behinds.
     Hundreds of enlisted men, having  assumed that Rafter Man was some kind
of  unconventional mortar round, were one mass of  green laundry. Then heads
began to pop up.
     The staff officers jerked Rafter Man to  his feet  and  started yelling
for the M.P.'s.
     General  Motors raised  his hand and  there  was silence.  Unlike  many
Marine  Corps generals, General  Motors  looked exactly like  a Marine Corps
general, eyes as gray as  gun metal,  a face that was tough but sensitive--a
Cro-Magnon   holy  man's   face.   His   jungle  utilities  were   starched,
razor-creased, with shirt-sleeves rolled up neatly.
     Rafter Man stood there, staring at the general, grinning like a goddamn
fool. He wobbled. He tried  to  walk  but  he couldn't. He was having enough
trouble just standing in one place.
     General Motors ordered  the broken table cleared away.  Then he offered
Rafter Man his chair.
     Rafter  Man  hesitated,  looked at  the  general,  then  at  the  staff
officers,  who were still  pissed off,  then at me,  then  he looked  at the
general again. He grinned and sat down on the metal folding chair.
     The general nodded, then sat down on the floor next to Rafter Man. With
a wave of his hand he ordered the staff  officers to sit on the floor behind
him, which they did, still pissed off.
     With another wave of his hand the general  ordered the performers to go
on with the show.
     The Australian comedian and the sweating belly dancers hesitated.
     Rafter Man stood up.
     He wobbled, then sank down  to the  deck beside the general. He put his
arm around  the general's shoulders.  General Motors looked at  him  without
expression. Rafter Man  said, "Hey, bro, I  can fly. Did you see me fly?" He
paused. "You think...am I drunk? I mean, am I hammered or am I hammered?" He
looked around. "Joker? Where's Joker?" But I was still stumbling  over angry
poges.  "Joker's  my bro, sir.  We  enlisted personnel  are tight, you know?
Indubitably.  I am in love with those sexy women.  I roger that..." His face
got  serious. "Who'll  take  me  through  the wire? Sir? Where's  Joker?" He
looked around, but didn't see me. "I'll fall in the wire. Or blow myself up.
Sir? SIR?  I'll  step on a mine. I got to find my  bro, sir. I don't want to
fall into the wire, not again. JOKER!"
     General  Motors looked  at Rafter Man  and  smiled.  "Don't worry, son.
Marines never abandon their wounded."
     Rafter Man looked at the  general the way drunks look at people who say
things they don't understand. Then he smiled. He nodded. "Aye-aye, sir."
     The Australian comedian and the meaty belly  dancers resumed their act,
which consisted primarily of  double-takes from the comedian  every time one
of the  belly  dancers slung  a big tender  breast  out  of her tiny  golden
costume. The act was a smashing success.
     By  the time the show was over, Rafter Man could stand only if he had a
wall to hold onto. General Motors took Rafter  Man's arm and put it over his
shoulders and helped Rafter Man out of the E.M. club and,  leaving the staff
officer's  behind,  helped Rafter Man  to stagger down  the  hill, along the
narrow path through the tangle-foot and the concertina wire.
     As  the enlisted men left the Thunderbird Club, they watched this small
event and they smiled and nodded and said, "Decent. Number one."
     And: "There it is."


     Now  the  C-130 Hercules propjet is taxiing to a stop. The  heavy cargo
door drops and slams into the runway. Rafter Man and  I  hop  out  with  our
fellow passengers.
     There are three damaged C-130's pushed together on the port side of the
airfield. On the  starboard side of the  airfield is  the gutted carcass  of
another  C-130,  charred,  still  smoking.  Men  in  tinfoil  spacesuits are
squirting the torn metal with white foam.
     Rafter Man and I ditty-bop off the airfield  and we hump down a freshly
oiled dirt road until we come to the perimeter of Phu Bai Combat Base, about
a mile from the airfield and thirty-four miles from the DMZ.
     Phu Bai  is a vast mud puddle  cut into  sections  by perfectly aligned
rows of frame hootches. The largest structure at Phu Bai is HQ for the Third
Marine Division. The big wooden building stands as a symbol of our power and
as a temple of those who love the power.
     We stop  at the guard bunker. A  big  dumb M.P. orders us to  clear our
weapons. I click  the  magazine out of my M-16. Rafter  Man does the same. I
stare back at the big dumb M.P. to assert my principles. He is scribbling on
a clipboard with a stubby yellow pencil.
     Suddenly  the  M.P. punches Rafter Man  in  the chest  with his  walnut
baton. "You  a New Guy?" Rafter Man  nods. "I got a working  party for  you.
You're  going to  fill sandbags for  my bunkers."  The  M.P. hooks his thumb
toward the guard bunker in the center of the road. A big bite has been taken
out of the bunker.  A mortar shell has blasted through one layer of sandbags
and has split open a second layer, spilling sand.
     I say, "He's with me."
     Sneering, the  sergeant  draws  himself  up  inside  his  crisp,  clean
stateside utilities, his  white helmet liner with Military  Police stenciled
in red, his white rifle  belt with its  gold buckle bearing the eagle, globe
and  anchor,  his shiny  new  forty-five  automatic  pistol,  and his  black
spit-shined stateside shoes. The big  dumb M.P.  is smugly  enthroned in his
power  to exact the trivial. "He'll do what I say, motherfucker. Cor-poral."
He thumps his black metal  collar chevrons with the tip of his walnut baton.
"I'm a sergeant."
     I nod. "Affirmative. That's affirmative,  you fucking  lifer. But  this
man is only a lance corporal. And he takes his orders from me."
     The big  dumb M.P. shrugs. "Okay. Okay, motherfucker. You can  tell him
what to do. You can fill my sandbags, corporal. Many, many of them."
     I look at the deck. An explosion is building up inside me. I experience
fear,  and a terrible  strain, as the  pressure  grows  and grows,  and then
release,  relief. "No, you dumb redneck. Negative,  you fucking pig. No, I'm
not going  to  fall out  for any  Mickey Mouse working party. You know  why?
Huh?" I slam the magazine back into my M-16 and  I snap the bolt, chambering
a round.
     I'm smiling now. I'm smiling as I jam the flash  supressor into the big
dumb  M.P.'s jelly  belly  and then I wait for him  to  make  one sound, any
sound,  or  just the slightest  movement  and  then  I'm  going to  pull the
trigger.
     The big dumb M.P.'s  mouth falls open. He doesn't have anything else to
say. I don't think he wants me to fill his sandbags anymore.
     The clipboard and the pencil fall.
     Then,  walking backward, the big  dumb M.P. retreats into  his  bunker,
mouth open, hands up.


     Rafter Man is too scared to say anything for a while.
     I  say,  "You'll  get  used  to   this  place.  You'll  change.  You'll
understand."
     Rafter Man  remains quiet.  We  walk. Then, "You weren't bluffing.  You
would have killed that guy. For nothing."
     I say, "There it is."
     Rafter Man  is  looking at me as though he's seeing  something new. "Is
everybody like that? I mean, you were laughing. Like..."
     "It's not  the  kind of  thing you  can  talk  about. There's no way to
explain stuff  like that. After  you've  been  in the shit, after you've got
your first confirmed kill, you'll understand."
     Rafter Man is silent. His questions are silent.
     "At ease," I say. "Don't kid yourself, Rafter Man, this is a slaughter.
In  this world of shit  you won't  have time to understand. What you do, you
become. You better learn to flow with it. You owe it to yourself."
     Rafter Man nods, but he doesn't reply. I know how he feels.


     The Informational Services Office for Task Force X-Ray, a unit assigned
to cover elements of the First Division  temporarily operating in the  Third
Division's  area, is a small frame hootch, constructed with two-by-fours and
slave labor.  Nailed to the screen  door is a red sign with yellow  letters:
TFX-ISO.  Roofed  with sheets  of  galvanized tin and walled  with fine-mesh
screening, the  hootch is designed to  protect us from the heat. The Seabees
have nailed green plastic ponchos along  the side of the hootch. These dusty
flaps  are  rolled up  during the furnace of the day and are  rolled down at
night to keep out the fierce monsoon rain.
     Chili Vendor  and Daytona  Dave are doing fleetniks in front of the ISO
hootch. Chili Vendor is a tough Chicano  from East L.A.  and Daytona Dave is
an easy-going  surf  bum  from  a  wealthy  family  in  Florida.  They  have
absolutely nothing in common. They are the best of friends.
     About  a hundred grunts have  stuffed  themselves into  every available
piece of shade in the area.  Each grunt has been given a fleetnik, a printed
form  with spaces for all the necessary biographical data required to send a
photograph of the grunt to his hometown newspaper.
     Daytona Dave  is  taking the photographs with a black-body  Nikon while
Chili Vendor says, "Smile, scumbag. Say, 'shit.' Next."
     The grunt next in line kneels down beside a little Vietnamese orphan of
undetermined sex. Chili  Vendor slaps a  rubber Hershey bar into the grunt's
hand. "Smile, scumbag. Say, 'shit.' Next."
     Daytona Dave snaps the picture.
     Chili Vendor snatches the grunt's fleetnik with one hand and the rubber
Hershey bar with the other. "Next!"
     The  orphan  says,  "Her, Marine  number  one! You!  You! You  give  me
chop-chop? You souvenir me?"  The orphan grabs at  the Hershey bar and jerks
it out  of Chili Vendor's hand.  He bites the Hershey  bar; it's  rubber. He
tries to tear off the wrapper; he can't. "Chop-chop number ten!"
     Chili Vendor  snatches the rubber Hershey bar out of the orphan's hands
and tosses  it to  the next grunt in the line. "Keep moving. Don't  you guys
want to be famous? Some  of you dudes probably wasted this kid's family, but
back  in your  hometown you gonna  be the big strong Marine  with a heart of
gold."
     I say in my John Wayne voice: "Listen up, pilgrim. You skating again?"
     Chili Vendor  turns,  sees me  and  grins. "Hey,  Joker, que pasa? This
might  be  skating,  man,  it  fucking  might  be.  These  gook orphans  are
hard-core. I think half of them are Viet Cong Marines."
     The orphan  is  walking  away,  grumbling, kicking  the road.  Then, as
though to prove Chili Vendor's point, the orphan pauses. He turns around and
gives us the finger with both hands. Then he walks on.
     Daytona Dave laughs. "That kid runs an NVA rifle company. Somebody blow
him away."
     I  grin. "You ladies  are  doing an outstanding job. You're  both  born
poges."
     Chili Vendor shrugs.  "Hey, bro, the Crotch don't send beaners into the
field. We're too tough. We make the grunts look bad."
     "You guys getting hit?"
     "That's  affirmative," says Daytona  Dave. "Every night. A  few rounds.
They're just fucking with us. Of  course, I've got so many confirmed kills I
lost count. Nobody believes me because the gooks drag off their  dead.  I do
believe  that  those  little  yellow enemy folks eat their casualties. Blood
trails all over the place, but no confirmed kills. So here I am, a hero, and
Captain  January  has got  me  doing  Mickey  Mouse  shit  with  this uppity
wetback."
     "CORPORAL JOKER!"
     "SIR!" Later, people. Come on, Rafter."
     Chili Vendor punches Daytona Dave in the chest. "Doubletime  up  to the
ville and souvenir me one cute orphan, man, but be sure you get a dirty one,
a really skuzzy one."
     "JOKER!"
     "AYE-AYE, SIR!"


     Captain  January  is  in  his  plywood cubicle  in the  back of the ISO
hootch.  Captain  January  is the kind  of  officer who chews  an unlit pipe
because he thinks  that a pipe will help to make him a father  figure.  He's
playing  cut-throat  Monopoly   with  Mr.  Payback.  Mr.  Payback  has  more
T.I.--time  in--than  any  other snuffy in our unit.  Captain January  isn't
Captain Queeg, but then  he's not  Humphrey Bogart, either. He picks up  his
little  silver shoe and moves  it  to Baltic  Avenue, tapping  each property
along the way.
     "I'll  buy Baltic. And  two  houses."  Captain January  reaches for the
white and purple deed to Baltic Avenue. "That's another monopoly, Sergeant."
He  positions  tiny green  houses on the  board. "Joker,  you've  scarfed up
beaucoup slack in Da Nang and I am sure that now you are squared away to get
back into the field. Hump up to Hue. The NVA have overrun the  city. One-One
is in the shit."
     I hesitate.  "Sir, would the Captain happen to know who killed my story
on  that  howitzer  crew  who wasted a  whole squad of  NVA with one beehive
round?  In  Da Nang some poges told me that a colonel shit-canned my  story.
Some  colonel  said that  beehive  rounds were  a figment of  my imagination
because the  Geneva Convention  classified them  as 'inhumane'  and American
fighting men are incapable of being inhumane."
     Mr. Payback  grunts.  "Inhumane? That's  a  pretty  word  for  it.  Ten
thousand feathered stainless  steel  darts.  Those  flechette  canisters  do
convert gooks into lumps of shitty rags. There it is."
     "Oh, damn," says Captain  January. He slaps a card onto the field desk.
"Go to jail--go directly to jail--do not pass go--do not collect two hundred
dollars." The  captain puts his little silver  shoe into jail.  "I  know who
killed  your beehive story, Joker. What I don't know is who has been tipping
off hostile reporters every time we get an adverse incident--like that white
Victor  Charlies recon wasted  last  week,  the one  the snuffies call  'The
Phantom Blooper.' General Motors is ready to bust me down to a grunt because
of that leak in our security. You talk; I'll talk. Do we have a deal?"
     "No. No, Captain. It's not important."
     "Number one! Snake eyes! No sweat, Joker. I've got a big piece of slack
for you." Captain  January picks up a manila  guard mail  envelope and pulls
out a  piece of paper with fancy  writing on  it. "Congratulations, Sergeant
Joker." He hands me the paper.


     SPECIAL TRUST  AND  CONFIDENCE  IN  THE  FIDELITY OF  JAMES  T.  DAVIS,
2306777/4312, I DO
     APPOINT HIM A SERGEANT IN THE UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS...

     I stare  at the  piece  of  paper.  Then  I  put  the order on  Captain
January's field desk. "Number ten. I mean, no way, sir."
     Captain January stops his little silver shoe in  mid-stride.  "What did
you say, Sergeant?"
     "Sir, I  rose by sheer military genius to the rank of corporal, as they
say, like Hitler and  Napoleon. But I'm not a sergeant. I guess  I'm just  a
snuffy at heart."
     "Sergeant  Joker, you  will  belay the Mickey  Mouse  shit.  You won  a
meritorious promotion on Parris Island. You've got  an  excellent record  in
country. You've got high enough time-in-grade. You rate this promotion. This
is the only war we've got, Sergeant. Your career as a Marine--"
     "No, sir. We bomb these people, then we photograph them. My stories are
paper bullets fired  into the  fat black  heart of Communism. I've fought to
make the  world safe for hypocrisy. We have  met the enemy and he is us. War
is good business--invest your son. Viet Nam means never having to say you're
sorry. Arbeit Macht Frei--"
     "Sergeant Joker!"
     "Negative, Captain. Number ten. I'm a corporal. You can send me  to the
brig,  sir--I know that. Lock me  up in Portsmouth Naval Prison until I rot,
but  let me rot  as a corporal, sir. You know I do my  job. I write that the
Nam is  an  Asian  Eldorado  populated  by a cute, primitive but  determined
people. War is  a noisy breakfast food.  War is fun to eat. War can give you
better  checkups.  War cures  cancer--permanently.  I don't kill.  I  write.
Grunts kill; I only watch. I'm only young Dr. Goebbels. I'm not a sergeant."
I add: "Sir."
     Captain January's silver shoe lands on Oriental Avenue. There is a tiny
red plastic  hotel on Oriental Avenue.  Captain  January  grimaces and  then
counts  out thirty-five  dollars in  MPC.  He  hands Mr.  Payback the  small
colorful bills  and then hands him the dice. "Sergeant, you will  be wearing
chevrons  indicating your  proper rank the next time  I see your  or  I will
definitely jump on your program. Do you want to be a grunt? If not, you will
remove that unauthorized peace button from your duty uniform."
     I don't say anything.
     Captain January looks at Rafter Man. "Who's this? Sound off, Marine."
     Rafter Man stutters.
     I say, "This is Lance Corporal Compton, sir. The New Guy in Photo."
     "Outstanding. Welcome  aboard, Marine. Joker, make sleeping sounds here
tonight  and head up to the Hue in the morning. Walter Cronkite is  due here
tomorrow so we'll be busy. I'll need Chili Vendor and Daytona here. But your
job  is  important, too.  General Motors called me about this personally. We
need some  good, clear photographs.  And some hard-hitting captions.  Get me
photographs  of indigenous civilian  personnel who  have been executed  with
their hands tied behind their backs, people buried alive, priests with their
throats cut, dead  babies--you  know what  I  want.  Get  me some good  body
counts. And don't forget to calculate your kill ratios. And Joker..."
     "Yes, sir?"
     "Don't even photograph any naked bodies unless they're mutilated."
     "Aye-aye, sir."
     "And Joker..."
     "Yes, sir?"
     "Get a haircut."
     "Aye-aye, sir."
     As  Mr.  Payback  release  his  little silver car Captain January says,
"Three houses! Three houses! Park fucking Place! That's...eighty dollars!"
     Mr.  Payback counts  out all of his money. "That  breaks me, Captain. I
owe you seven bucks."
     Captain  January  rakes up  the  pile of MPC, a shit-eating grin on his
face.  "You  do not  understand a  business, Mr. Payback.  If  we had Marine
generals who understood business  this war  would be  over.  The  secret  to
winning this war is in public  relations. Harry S. Truman once said that the
Marine  Corps has  a  propaganda  machine almost equal to Stalin's.  He  was
right.  In  war,  truth  is  the  first  casualty. Correspondents  are  more
effective  than grunts.  Grunts merely  kill the enemy.  All that matters is
what  we  write, what we photograph.  History may  be written with blood and
iron but it's  printed with ink. Grunts are  good show  business but we make
them  what they are. The lesser services like to joke about how every Marine
platoon   goes  into  battle  accompanied  by  a  platoon  of  Marine  Corps
photographers. That's affirmative. Marines fight harder because Marines have
bigger legends to live up to."
     Captain  January slaps a large package  on the floor by his desk.  "And
this  is  the final  product of all our industry.  My wife  likes to show an
interest in my work. She asked me for a souvenir. I'm sending her a gook."
     Rafter Man's  expression is so funny that I have to look  away to avoid
laughing out loud. "Sir?"
     "Yes, Sergeant?"
     "Where's the Top?"
     "The First shirt went to Da Nang for some in-country R & R. You can see
him after you come back from Hue." Captain January looks at his  wristwatch.
"Seventeen hundred. Chow time."


     On the way to chow Rafter Man and  I meet Chili Vendor and Daytona Dave
and Mr.  Payback  at the  ISO  enlisted men's hootch.  I  give Rafter Man  a
utility  jacket with  101st Airborne patches all over it. My own Army jacket
has  First  Air Cavalry  insignia. I  select two salty sets  of Army  collar
chevrons  and  we  pin  them on. Now we're  Spec-5's--Army  sergeants. Chili
Vendor  and  Daytona  Dave  and Mr. Payback are all buck  sergeants from the
Ninth Infantry Division.
     We  go to chow down  in the Army  mess  hall. The Army  eats real food.
Cake, roast beef, ice cream, chocolate  milk--all the bennies. Our own  mess
hall  serves  Kool-Aid and  shit-on-a-shingle--chipped  beef  on toast--with
peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for dessert.
     "When's the Top due back?"
     Chili Vendor says, "Oh, maybe tomorrow. January on your program again?"
     I nod. "That fucking lifer. He's crazy. He's  just plain fucking crazy.
He gets crazier every  time I see him. Now he's mailing a gook stiff home to
his wife."
     Daytona says, "There it is. But then the Top is a lifer, too."
     "But  the Top is decent. I mean,  maybe  the Crotch is his home, and he
makes  us  do a good job, but he don't harass us with Mickey Mouse  shit. He
cuts the snuffies  some slack when  he can.  The  Top's not a lifer; he's  a
career Marine. Lifers are a breed. A  lifer is anybody who  abuses authority
he doesn't deserve to have. There are plenty of civilian lifers."
     The Army mess sergeant with the big cigar spot-checks I.D.'s.
     The Army mess sergeant  with the big  cigar  takes the shiny mess trays
out of our hands and throws us out of his mess hall.
     We retreat to the Marine  mess hall where we eat  shit-on-a-shingle and
drink lukewarm Kool-Aid and we talk about  how the Army could  have at least
souvenired us  some  leftovers since that's  all the  Marine Corps ever gets
anyway.


     After chow we play tag back to our hootch. Laughing and breathing hard,
we take a moment to  pull  down  the  green  plastic ponchos  nailed  on the
outside of the hootch. During the night the  ponchos  will keep light in and
rain out.
     We lie  on  our racks and  swap scuttlebutt. On the ceiling, the combat
correspondent's  motto in six-inch block letters: FIRST TO GO, LAST TO KNOW,
WE WILL DEFEND TO THE DEATH OUR RIGHT TO BE MISINFORMED.
     Mr.  Payback performs  his  sea  stories  for  Rafter  Man:  "The  only
difference between a sea story and a fairy tale is  that a fairy tale begins
with 'Once upon a time...'  and a sea story begins with 'This  is  no shit.'
Well, New Guy, listen up, because this is no shit. January orders me to play
Monopoly.  All fucking  day. Every day of  the fucking week. There's nothing
lower than a lifer. They fuck me over, man, but I don't say a word. I do not
say a word. Payback is a motherfucker, New Guy. Remember that. When Luke the
gook zaps  you in the back and Phantoms bury him in napalm canisters, that's
payback. When you shit on people it comes back to you, sooner or later, only
worse. My whole program is a mess because of lifers. But Payback will  come,
sooner or later. I'd walk a mile for a payback."
     I laugh. "Payback, you hate lifers because you are a lifer."
     Mr.  Payback  lights up  a joint. "You're the one  who's tight with the
lifers, Joker. Lifers take care of their own."
     "Negative. The lifers are afraid to talk to me, I got so many ops."
     "Operations? Shit." Mr. Payback turns to Rafter Man. "Joker thinks that
the bad  bush  is down  the road in the ville. He's  never been in the shit.
It's hard to talk about it. Like on Hastings--"
     Chili  Vendor interrupts: "You weren't  on Operation Hastings, Payback.
You weren't even in country."
     "Oh, eat shit and die,  you  fucking Spanish American. You poge.  I was
there,  man. I was  in the  shit with  the grunts,  man. Those guys have got
guts, you know? They are very hard individuals. When you've been in the shit
with grunts you're tight with them from then on, you know?"
     I grunt. "Sea stories."
     "Oh, yeah? How long have you been in country, Joker? Huh? How much T.I.
you got? How much fucking time in?  Thirty months, poge. I got thirty months
in country. I been there, man."
     I  say,  "Don't  listen to any of Mr.  Payback's  bullshit, Rafter Man.
Sometimes he thinks he's John Wayne."
     "That's  affirmative," says Mr. Payback. "You listen to Joker, New Guy.
He knows ti ti--very little. And if  he  ever  does  know anything it'll  be
because he learned it from me. You just know he's never been in the shit. He
ain't got the stare."
     Rafter Man looks up. "The what?"
     "The thousand-yard stare. A Marine gets it after he's been in  the shit
for too long. It's  like you've really seen...beyond. I  got  it.  All field
Marines got it. You'll have it, too."
     Rafter Man says, "I will?"
     Mr. Payback takes a few  hits off the joint and then passes it to Chili
Vendor. "I used to be an atheist, when I  was a New Guy, a long time ago..."
Mr. Payback takes his Zippo lighter out of his  shirt pocket and hands it to
Rafter Man. "See? It says, 'You  and me, God--right?'"  Mr. Payback giggles.
He seems  to  be trying to focus his vision on  some  distant object.  "Yes,
nobody is an atheist in a foxhole. You'll be praying."
     Rafter  Man looks at me, grins,  hands the lighter back to Mr. Payback.
"There sure is a lot of stuff to learn."
     I'm whittling  a piece  of ammo crate with my K-bar jungle  knife.  I'm
carving myself a wooden bayonet.
     Daytona Dave says, "Remember that gook kid that tried to eat  the candy
bar? It bit me. I was down in the ville, scarfing  up some  orphans and that
little Victor Charlie ambushed me. Ran up and bit  the shit out of my hand."
Daytona holds  up his left  hand, revealing a little red  crescent of  tooth
marks. "The kids says that our chop-chop is number ten. I bet I get rabies."
     Chili Vendor grins. He turns to Rafter  Man.  "There it  is,  New  Guy.
You'll know  you're salty when you stop  throwing  C-ration cans to the kids
and start throwing the cans at them."
     I say, "I got to  get back into the shit. I ain't heard a shot fired in
anger in weeks. I'm bored to  death. How are we ever going  to get  used  to
being back  in the World? I  mean, a day without blood is like a day without
sunshine."
     Chili  Vendor says, "No  sweat. The old mamasan  that does our  laundry
tells us things even the lifers in Intelligence don't know. She says that in
Hue  the whole fucking  North Vietnamese  army is  dug in deep inside an old
fortress they call the Citadel. You won't come back, Joker.  Victor  Charlie
is gonna shoot  you  in the  heart. The Crotch will ship your scrawny little
ass home in a three-hundred-dollar aluminum box all dressed up like a  lifer
in a blouse from  a set of dress blues. But no white hat. And no pants. They
don't give you any pants. Your friends from school and all of  the relatives
you never liked anyway  will be at  your funeral and they'll call you a good
little Christian  and they'll say you  were a hero  to get  wasted defeating
Communism and you'll just lie there with a cold ass, dead as a mackerel."
     Daytona Dave sits up. "You can be a hero for a little while, sometimes,
if you can stop thinking about your own ass long enough, if you give a shit.
But civilians don't know what to do, so they  put up statues in the park for
pigeons to  drop turds on.  Civilians  don't know.  Civilians  don't want to
know."
     I say, "You guys are bitter. Don't you love the American way of life?"
     Chili Vendor shakes his  head. "No Victor Charlie ever raped my sister.
Ho Chi Minh never bombed Pearl Harbor. We're prisoners here. We're prisoners
of the  war. They've  taken away our  freedom  and they've given it  to  the
gooks, but the gooks don't want it. They'd rather be alive than free."
     I grunt. "There it is."


     With my magic marker  I  "X"  out a section of thigh  on the nude woman
outlined  on  the  back  of  my  flak  jacket.  The  number  58  disappears.
Fifty-seven days and a wake-up left in country.
     Midnight. The boredom becomes unbearable. Chili Vendor suggests that we
kill time by wasting our furry little friends.
     I say, "Rat race!"
     Chili Vendor hops off his canvas cot and into a corner.  He breaks up a
John  Wayne  cookie. In the corner, six  inches off the desk, we've nailed a
piece of  ammo crate to form a  triangular pocket. There's a  little hole in
the  charred board.  Chili Vendor puts the cookie fragments under the board.
Then he snaps off the lights.
     I toss Rafter Man one of my booties. Of course, he doesn't know what to
do with it. "What--"
     Shhhh.
     We wait in ambush, enjoying the anticipation of violence. Five minutes.
Ten minutes.  Fifteen minutes. Then  the  Viet Cong rats crawl  out of their
holes.  We  freeze. The  rats  skitter along the  rafters,  climb  down  the
screening, then hop  onto  the  plywood deck,  making little  thumps, moving
through the darkness without fear.
     Chili Vendor waits until the skittering converges in the  corner.  Then
he jumps out of his rack and flips on the overhead lights.
     With  the  exception of Rafter Man we're  all on our feet  in the  same
second, forming a semicircle across the corner. The rats zip and zing, their
tiny pink feet clawing for  traction on the plywood. Two or three escape--so
brave, or so terrified--in such situations motives are immaterial--that they
run right over out feet and between our legs and through the deadly gauntlet
of carefully aimed boots and stabbing bayonets.
     But most of the rats herd together under the board.
     Mr. Payback takes a can of lighter fluid from his bamboo footlocker. He
squirts lighter fluid into the little hole in the board.
     Daytona Dave strikes  a  match. "Fire  in the  hole!"  He  pitches  the
burning match into the corner.
     The board foomps into flame.
     Rats  explode  from beneath  the  board like  shrapnel  from  a  rodent
grenade.
     The  rats  are  on  fire. The rats  are little flaming kamikaze animals
zinging  across the plywood deck, running under  racks, over gear, around in
circles, running  faster  and faster and in  no particular direction  except
toward some place where there is no fire.
     "GET  SOME!" Mr. Payback is screaming  like  a lunatic.  "GET SOME! GET
SOME!" He chops a rat in half with his machete.
     Chili  Vendor holds a rat by the tail and, while it  shrieks, pounds it
do death with a boot.
     I throw  my  K-bar  at a rat on  the other side of the hootch. The  big
knife misses the rat, sticks up in the floor.
     Rafter Man doesn't know what to do.
     Daytona Dave charges around  and around with fixed bayonet,  zeroing in
on  a burning rat like a fighter  pilot  in a dogfight. Daytona follows  the
rat's crazed, erratic course around  and around, over all obstacles, gaining
on him with every step. He butt-strokes the rat and then bayonets him, again
and again and again. "That's one confirmed!"
     And, as suddenly as it began, the battle is over.
     After the rat race  everyone collapses. Daytona is  breathing hard  and
fast. "Whew. That was a good group. Real hard-core. I thought I was going to
have a fucking heart attack."
     Mr. Payback coughs, grunts. "Hey, New Guy, how many  confirmed did  you
get?"
     Rafter Man is still sitting on his canvas cot with my boot in his hand.
"I...none. I mean, it happened so fast."
     Mr. Payback laughs. "Well, sometimes it's fun to kill something you can
see.  You better  get  squared  away, New Guy. Next time the rats will  have
guns."
     Daytona Dave is wiping his face with a  dirty green skivvy shirt.  "The
New  Guy will  do okay.  Cut  him  some slack. Rafter ain't got  the  killer
instinct,  that's all. Now me, I got  about  fifty  confirmed. But everybody
knows that gook rats drag off their dead."
     We all throw things at Daytona Dave.


     We rest  for a while and then we gather up the  barbecued rats and take
them outside to hold a funeral in the dark.
     Some guys from utilities platoon  who live  next door come out of their
hootch to pay their respects.
     Lance Corporal Winslow Slavin, honcho of the combat plumbers, struts up
in a skuzzy green flight suit. The flight suit is ragged, covered with paint
stains and oil splotches. "Only six? Shit. Last night my boys got seventeen.
Confirmed."
     I say,  "Sounds like a squad of  poges to  me. Poges kill  poges. These
rats are Viet Cong field Marines. Hard-core grunts."
     I pick up one of the rats. I turn to the combat plumbers. I hold up the
rat and I kiss it.
     Mr. Payback laughs, picks up one of the dead rats, bites off the tip of
its  tail. Then,  swallowing,  Mr. Payback  says,  "Ummm....love them crispy
critters." He grins. He bends over, picks up  another dead rat, offers it to
Rafter Man.
     Rafter Man is frozen. He can't speak. He just looks at the rat.
     Mr. Payback laughs.  "What's  wrong,  New Guy?  Don't you want to  be a
killer?"
     We  bury  the enemy rats  with  full military  honors--we scoop  out  a
shallow grave and we dump them in.
     We sing:
     So come along and sing our song
     And join our fam-i-ly
     M.I.C....K.E.Y....M.O.U.S.E.
     Mickey Mouse, Mickey Mouse...

     "Dear God," says Mr. Payback, looking up into the ugly sky. "These rats
died like Marines. Cut them some slack. Ah-men."
     We all say, "Ah-men."
     After the  funeral we insult the combat plumbers  a few more  times and
then  we return to  our hootch.  We lie awake in our  racks. We discuss  the
battle and the funeral for a long time.
     Then we try to sleep.


     An  hour later.  It's raining. We roll up in our poncho liners and pray
for morning. The  monsoon rain  is cold and heavy and comes without warning.
Wind-blown water batters  the ponchos  hung around  the hootch to protect us
from the weather.
     The terrible falling of the shells...
     Incoming.
     "Oh, shit," somebody says. Nobody moves.
     Rafter Man asks, "Is that---"
     I say, "There it is."
     The  crumps start  somewhere  outside  the  wire  and walk in  like the
footsteps of a monster. The crumps are becoming thuds. Thud. Thud. THUD. And
then it's a whistle and a roar.
     BANG.
     The  rain's  rhythmic  drumming is broken by  the  clang and  rattle of
shrapnel falling on our tin roof.
     We're all  out of our racks with our weapons in our  hands like so many
parts of the same body--even Rafter Man, who has begun to pick up on things.
     Pounded by cold rain, we double-time to our bunker.
     On  the  perimeter M-60 machine  guns are banging and  the M-70 grenade
launchers are blooping and mortar shells are thumping out of the tubes.
     Star flares burst all along the wire, beautiful clusters of green fire.
     Inside  our  damp  cave  of  sandbags we  huddle  elbow-to-elbow in wet
skivvies, feeling the  weight of the darkness, as helpless as cavemen hiding
from a monster.
     "I hope they're just fucking with us," I say. "I hope they're not going
to hit the wire. I'm not ready for this shit."
     Outside our bunker: BANG, BANG, BANG. And falling rain.
     Each  of us  is waiting for the  next  shell to nail  him right  on the
head--the mortar as an agent of existential doom.
     A scream.
     I  wait for a time  of silence and I crawl out to take a look. Somebody
is  down. The whistle of an incoming  round forces  me  to retreat into  the
bunker. I wait for the shell to burst.
     BANG.
     I crawl out, stand up, and I run to  the  wounded  man. He's one of the
combat plumbers. "You utilities platoon? Where's Winslow?"
     The man is whining. "I'm dying! I'm dying!" I shake him.
     "Where's Winslow?"
     "There." He points. "He was coming to help me..."
     Rafter Man and Chili  Vendor come out and Rafter Man helps me carry the
combat  plumber to  our  bunker.  Chili Vendor  double-times off  to  get  a
corpsman.
     We  leave  the  combat  plumber  with  Daytona  and  Mr.  Payback   and
double-time through the rain, looking for Winslow.
     He's in the mud outside his hootch, torn to pieces.
     The mortar shells stop falling. The machine guns on  the perimeter fade
to short  bursts.  Even so, the grunts standing line continue  to  pop green
star clusters in case Victor Charlie plans to launch a ground attack.
     Somebody throws a poncho  over Winslow. The rain taps the green plastic
sheet.
     I say, "It  took a lot of guts to do what Winslow  did. I mean, you can
see Winslow's guts and he sure had a lot of them."
     Nobody says anything.


     After the green  ghouls from graves registration  stuff Winslow  into a
body bag and take him away, we go back to our hootch.  We flop on our racks,
wasted.
     I say, "Well, Rafter, now you've heard a shot fired in anger."
     Soaking wet in  green skivvies, Rafter Man is sitting  on his rack.  He
has something in his hand. He's staring at it.
     I sit up. "Hey, Rafter. What's that?  You souvenir yourself a  piece of
shrapnel?" No response. "Rafter? You hit?"
     Mr. Payback  grunts. "What's  wrong, New Guy? Did a few rounds make you
nervous?"
     Rafter Man looks up  with a new face. His lips are twisted into a cold,
sardonic smirk.  His labored breathing is  broken by grunts. He  growls. His
lips are  wet with saliva. He's looking at Mr. Payback. The object in Rafter
Man's hand is a  piece  of flesh, Winslow's  flesh, ugly yellow, as big as a
John Wayne cookie, wet with blood. We all look at it for a long time.
     Rafter Man puts the piece of flesh into his mouth, onto his tongue, and
we thing he's going to vomit. Instead, he grits his teeth. Then, closing his
eyes, he swallows.
     I turn off the lights.


     Dawn. The heat of the day  comes quickly, burning  away the mud puddles
left by the monsoon  rain.  Rafter Man and  I ditty-bop down to  the Phu Bai
landing zone. We wait for a med-evac chopper.
     Ten minutes later a Jolly Green Giant comes in loaded.
     Corpsmen  run up  the  ramp at  the  rear of the vibrating machine  and
reappear  immediately,  carrying  canvas  stretchers. On the  stretchers are
bloody rags with men inside. Rafter Man and I  run into the chopper. We lift
a stretcher and run down the metal ramp. The chopper is already beginning to
lift off.
     We place the stretcher on the deck  with the others, where the corpsmen
are  sorting the dead from the  living,  changing bandages, adjusting plasma
bottles.
     Rafter  Man and I run into the  prop wash, running sideways beneath the
thumping  blades into  a tornado of hot wind  and stinging  gravel. We stop,
hunched over, holding up our thumbs.
     The  chopper pilot is an invading Martian  in an orange flame-retardant
flight suit and  an olive-drab  space helmet. The  pilot's  face is a shadow
behind a dark green visor.  He gives  us a thumbs-up.  We run around  to the
cargo ramp and  the door gunner  gives us a hand  up  into  the belly of the
vibrating machine just as it lifts off.
     The  flight  to  Hue  is  north eight  miles. Far below, Viet  Nam is a
patchwork  quilt of greens and yellows. It's a beautiful country, especially
when seen from the air. Viet Nam  is like  a page from a Marco Polo  picture
book. The deck is pockmarked  with shell  holes, and napalm air strikes have
charred vast patches of earth, but the land is healing itself with beauty.
     My  ears  pop.  I  pinch  my  nose and puff  out  my cheeks. Rafter Man
imitates me. We sit on bales of green rubber-impregnated canvas body bags.
     As  we  near Hue, the  door gunner smokes marijuana and fires his  M-60
machine  gun at a farmer in the rice paddies below. The door gunner has long
hair,  a  bushy  moustache,  and is naked except for an unbuttoned  Hawaiian
sport shirt. On the Hawaiian sport shirt are a hundred yellow hula dancers.
     The hamlet beneath us is in free fire zone--anybody can shoot at it  at
any  time and for any reason. We watch the farmer run in the shallow  water.
The farmer knows  only  that his family needs  some rice  to eat. The farmer
knows only that the bullets are tearing him apart.
     He falls, and the door gunner giggles.


     The  med-evac chopper sets down on a landing  zone near Highway One,  a
mile south of  Hue. The LZ  is  cluttered  with walking  wounded,  stretcher
cases, and body bags. Before Rafter Man and I are off the LZ our chopper has
been loaded with wounded and is airborne again, flying back to Phu Bai.
     We wait for a  rough rider convoy in front of a bombed-out gas station.
Hours pass. Noon. I take off my flak jacket. I pull my old, ragged Boy Scout
shirt out of my NVA rucksack. I  put on my  Boy  Scout shirt so that the sun
won't roast  the flesh  from  my  bones. On the  frayed  collar,  corporal's
chevrons that are so salty that  the black enamel has worn off and the brass
shows through. Over the right breast  pocket, a  cloth rectangle which reads
First Marine Division, CORRESPONDENT. And in Vietnamese: BAO CHI.
     Sitting on a bullet-riddled yellow oyster that says SHELL OIL, we drink
Cokes that cost five dollars a bottle. The mamasan who sells us the Cokes is
wearing a conical white hat. She bows every  time we speak. She  squawks and
chatters like an old black bird. She  flashes her black teeth at  us. She is
very  proud of  her teeth. Only a  lifetime of chewing betel  nuts  can make
teeth as black as hers. We  don't understand  a word  of her magpie chatter,
but the  hatred in  the smile  frozen  on her  face says  clearly, "Oh well,
Americans may be assholes but they are very rich."
     There  is  a  popular  sea  story  which  says  that old Victor Charlie
mamasans  sell  Cokes with  ground-up glass in them. Drinking, we  wonder if
that's true.
     Two Dusters, light tanks  with twin 40mm guns, grind by. The men in the
Dusters ignore our thumbs.
     An  hour  later a  Mighty Mite zooms by at eighty  miles  an  hour, the
maximum speed of the little jeep. No luck.
     Then a convoy of six-bys  appears, led by two M-48 Patton tanks. Thirty
big  trucks roar by at full speed. Two more Patton tanks are riding security
at tail-end Charlie.
     The first tank speeds up as it passes us.
     The second tank slows down, bucks, jerks to a halt. In  the turret is a
blond tank commander who is not wearing a helmet or a shirt. He waves us on.
We put  on our  flak jackets. We pick up our gear  and swing it up onto  the
tank. Then Rafter Man and I climb up onto a block of hot, vibrating metal.
     Down in a hatch  by  our  feet is the  driver. His head  protrudes just
enough for him to see; his hands are on  the controls. The driver jerks  the
wobble stick  and  the tank lurches forward,  bouncing, grinding, faster and
faster  and faster. The roar  of an  eight-hundred-horsepower  diesel engine
accelerates to a rhythmic rumble of mechanical power.
     Rafter Man and I fall back against the  hot turret. We are hanging onto
the long  ninety-millimeter gun  like monkeys. The  cool  air  of  speed  is
delicious  after  hours in Viet  Nam's one-hundred-and-twenty- degree yellow
furnace. Our sweat-soaked shirts are cold. Flashing by: Vietnamese hootches,
ponds with  white ducks  in  them, circular  graves  with chipped  and faded
paint, and endless  shimmering pieces of  emerald  water newly  planted with
rice.
     It's  a wonderful day. I'm so happy that I am alive, in one  piece, and
short. I'm in  a world of shit, yes, but  I am alive.  And I am not  afraid.
Riding  the  tank gives me  a  thrilling sense  of power and well-being. Who
dares to shoot at the man who rides the tiger?
     It's a  beautiful  tank.  Painted on  the long  barrel: BLACK  FLAG--We
Exterminate Household Pests. Flying on a radio antenna, a ragged Confederate
flag. Military vehicles are beautiful because they are built from functional
designs which make  them  real, solid, without artifice. The tank  possesses
the beauty  of its hard lines;  it is fifty tons of rolling armor on  tracks
like  steel watchbands. The  tank  is our  protection,  rolling  on  and  on
forever, clanking out the dark mechanical poetry of iron and guns.
     Suddenly the tank shifts to the left. Rafter Man and I  are thrown hard
into the turret. Metal  grinds metal. The tank hits a bump, shifting sharply
to  the right and jerking to a  halt, throwing us forward.  Rafter Man and I
hang onto the gun and say, "Son-of-a-bitch..."
     The blond tank commander climbs out of  the  turret hatch and jumps off
the back of the tank.
     The tank driver has run the tank off the road.
     Fifty  yards  back  a  water  buffalo  is  down on its  back,  legs out
straight. The water bo bellows, tosses its curved horns. On the deck, in the
center of the road, I see a tiny body, facedown.
     Chattering  Vietnamese  civilians  pour  out of  the roadside hootches,
staring and pointing. The Vietnamese civilians crowd around to see how their
American saviors have crushed the guts out of a child.
     The  blond tank commander speaks to the Vietnamese civilians in French.
Then, walking back  to the  tanks, the blond tank commander is pursued by an
ancient papasan. There are tears in the papasan's eyes. The withered old man
shakes his bony little fists and throws Asian curses at the tank commander's
back.  The Vietnamese civilians  grow  silent.  Another child is  dead, and,
although it is very sad and painful, they accept it.
     The blond tank commander climbs up onto his tank and reinserts his legs
into the turret hatch. "Iron Man, you fucking shitbird. You will  drive this
machine  like it's a tank and not a goddamn sports car. You hit  that little
girl, you  blind idiot. Hell, I  could see  her  through  the fucking vision
blocks. She was standing on that water bo's back..."
     The driver turns, his face  hard.  "I didn't see them, skipper. What do
they think  they're doing,  crossing in front of me  like  that? Don't these
zipperheads  know that tanks got the  right-of-way?"  The  driver's face  is
coated with a thin film of oil and sweat; iron has entered into his soul and
he has become a component of the tank, sweating oil to lubricate its meshing
gears.
     The blond  tank commander says, "You fuck up one more  time,  Iron Man,
and you will be a grunt."
     The driver turns back to the front. "Aye-aye, sir. I'll watch the road,
Lieutenant."
     Rafter Man asks, "Sir,  did we kill that  girl?  Why  was  that old man
yelling at you?" Rafter Man looks sick.
     The blond tank commander takes  a green ballpoint pen  and little green
notebook out of his hip  pocket. He writes  something in the  notebook. "The
little girl's grandfather? He was yelling  about how  he needs his water bo.
He wants a condolence award. He wants us to pay him for the water bo."
     Rafter Man doesn't say anything.
     The  blond  tank  commander  yells  at  Iron  Man:  "Drive,  you  blind
son-of-a-bitch."
     And the tank rolls on.


     On the outskirts of Hue, the ancient Imperial Capital, we see the first
sign of the battle--a cathedral, centuries old, now a bullet-peppered box of
ruined stone, roof caved in, walls punctured by shells.
     Entering Hue, the  third largest city in  Viet Nam,  is  a  strange new
experience. Our was has been in  the paddies, in hamlets  where  the largest
structure was a bamboo hut. Seeing the effects of war upon a Vietnamese city
makes me feel like a New Guy.
     The weather is dreary but the city is beautiful. Hue has been beautiful
for so long that not even war and bad weather can make it ugly.
     Empty streets. Every  building  in  Hue has  been hit with some kind of
ordnance. The ground is still wet from last night's rain.  The air is  cool.
The whole city is enveloped in a white mist. The sun is going down.
     We roll past  a  tank which has  been  gutted by B-40  rocket-propelled
grenades. On the barrel of the shattered ninety-millimeter gun: BLACK FLAG.
     Fifty yards down  the road  we pass two wasted  six-bys. One of the big
trucks has been knocked onto its side. The cab of the truck is a broken mass
of  jagged,  twisted steel.  The  second  six-by has  burned  and is only  a
skeleton of black iron. The windshields of both trucks have been strung with
bright necklaces of bullet holes.
     As we roll past Quoc Hoc High School I punch Rafter Man on the arm. "Ho
Chi  Minh went  there,"  I  say.  "I  wonder  if  Uncle  Ho  played  varsity
basketball. I wonder who Uncle Ho took to the senior prom."
     Rafter Man grins.
     Shots pop, far away. Single rounds. Short  bursts of automatic weapons.
The fighting has stopped,  for the moment.  The shots  we hear are just some
grunt trying to get lucky.
     Near the University of Hue the tank grinds to a halt and Rafter Man and
I  hop  off. The University of Hue is now a collection point for refugees on
their way  to  Phu Bai. Whole  families with  all of their  possessions have
occupied the classrooms and  corridors since the battle began. The  refugees
are too tired to run anymore. The refugees look cold and drained the way you
look after death sits on your face and smothers you for so long that you get
tired of screaming. Outside, the women cook pots  of rice. All over the deck
there are piles of human shit.
     We wave good-bye to the blond  tank commander and his tank grumbles and
rolls away. The tank's steel cleats crush some bricks which have been thrown
into the street by explosions.
     Rafter Man and I  stare across the River  of Perfumes. We  stare at the
Citadel.  The  river  is  ugly. The  river  is muddy.  The  steel suspension
bridge--The Bridge of the Golden Waters--is  down, blown by  enemy  frogmen.
Torn  girders  jut out of the  dark water  like the  broken bones  of a  sea
serpent.
     A hand grenade explodes, far away, inside the Citadel.


     Rafter Man and I head  for the MAC-V, Military Assistance Command--Viet
Nam, compound.
     "This is a beautiful place," says Rafter Man.
     "It  was.  It  really  was.  I've  been here  a  few  times  for  award
ceremonies.  General Cushman  was here.  I  took his picture  and he took  a
picture of me taking a picture of him.  And Ky was here, all duded up in his
black silk flight jacket with silver general's stars all over it and a black
cap  with  silver  general's   stars  all  over  that,  too.  Ky  had  these
pearl-handled  pistols  and  wore a purple ascot. He looked like  a Japanese
playboy. He had his program squared away, that Ky. He believed in a Viet Nam
for  the  Vietnamese.  I  guess that's  why  we kicked him out.  But  he was
beautiful  that day.  You  should have  seen all the schoolgirls in their ao
dai, purple and white, carrying their little parasols..."
     "Where are they now? The girls?"
     "Oh,  dead, I guess. Did you  know that there's a legend  that Hue rose
from a pool of mud as a lotus flower?"
     "Look at that!"
     A squad of Arvins are looting a  mansion. The Arvins of the Army of the
Republic of Viet Nam look funny because  all of their  equipment  is too big
for them. In baggy uniforms and oversized helmets they look like little boys
playing war.
     I say,  "Decent.  Number one. We got some slack, Rafter. Remember this,
Rafter Man, any time you can see an Arvin  you are safe from Victor Charlie.
The Arvins run like rabbits at the first sign of violence. An Arvin infantry
platoon  is  about  as  lethal  as  a garden  club  of old  ladies  throwing
marshmallows. Don't believe all that scuttlebutt about Arvins being cowards.
They just hate the Green Machine more than  we do. They  were drafted by the
Saigon government, which  was drafted by the lifers who drafted us, who were
drafted by  the lifers who think that they can  buy the war.  And Arvins are
not stupid.  The  Arvins are not stupid when they are doing  something  they
enjoy,  like stealing.  Arvins sincerely believe that  jewels and  money are
essential military supplies. So we're safe  until the  Arvins start yelling,
'Beaucoup VC, beaucoup VC!'  and then  run away.  But be careful. Arvins are
always  shooting at  chickens, other people's  pigs,  and trees. Arvins will
shoot anything except transistor radios, Coca-Colas, sunglasses,  money, and
the enemy."
     "Don't they get money from their government?"
     I grin. "Money is their government."
     The sun is gone. Rafter Man and I double-time.  A sentry challenges us;
I tell him to go to hell.
     Fifty-six days and a wake-up.


     In the  morning we wake up inside the MAC-V compound, a white two-story
building  with bullet-pocked walls. The compound has  been enclosed behind a
wall of sandbags and concertina wire.
     We gather up our gear and prepare to leave while a light colonel  reads
a statement  made by  the military mayor  of Hue. The statement  is a denial
that  there is  looting in Hue  and a warning that looters will  be shot  on
sight. A dozen  civilian  war  correspondents sit on  the deck, wiping sleep
from  their  eyes,  half-listening, yawning. Then  the light colonel  adds a
personal  comment.  Someone has awarded a Purple Heart to a big  white goose
that  got  wounded while the  compound was  under attack. The light  colonel
feels that the civilian correspondents do not understand that war is serious
business.
     Outside, I point to  a wasted NVA hanging in the wire. "Was  is serious
business, son, and  this is our gross national product." I  kick the corpse,
triggering panic  in  the  maggots  in the  hollow  eye  sockets and in  the
grinning mouth and in each of the bullet holes in his chest. "Gross?"
     Rafter Man kneels down to get a better look. "Yes, he is confirmed."
     A CBS camera crew appears, surrounded by  star-struck grunts who strike
combat-Marine poses, pretending to  be what they are.  They all want  Walter
Cronkite  to  meet  their  sisters.  In white short-sleeved shirts  the  CBS
cameramen hurry off to photograph death in living color.

     I stop a master sergeant. "Top, we want to get into the shit."
     The master  sergeant  is  writing  on  a  piece  of yellow  paper  on a
clipboard.  He  doesn't  look  up, but  jerks  his thumb  over his shoulder.
"Across the river. One-Five. Get a boat ride by the bridge."
     "One-Five? Outstanding. Thanks, Top."
     The master sergeant walks away, writing on the yellow paper. He ignores
four skuzzy grunts who run into the compound, each man holding up one corner
of a poncho. On the  poncho is a dead Marine. The grunts are screaming for a
corpsman and  when  they  put the poncho  down,  very gently, a pool of dark
blood pours out onto the concrete deck.
     Rafter Man  and I hurry  down to the  River of Perfumes.  We talk to  a
baby-faced  Navy  ensign who  souvenirs  us a ride  on a  Vietnamese gunboat
ferrying reinforcements to the Vietnamese Marines.
     As we skim down the river Rafter Man asks, "Are these guys any good?"
     I nod. "The best the  Arvins  got.  They're  not as tough as the Korean
Marines, though. The ROK's are so hard that they got muscles in  their shit.
The Blue Dragon Brigade. I was on an op with them down by Hoi An."
     A shot pops from the shore. The bullet buzzes over.
     The  gunboat crew opens up with a fifty-caliber machine gun and a forty
mike-mike cannon.
     Rafter Man watches with joy  in his eyes as the bullets  knock  up thin
stalks of water along the river bank. He holds his piece at port arms, first
to fight.


     The Strawberry Patch, a large triangle of land between  the Citadel and
the River of Perfumes, is a quiet suburb  of  Hue. We get off the gunboat at
the Strawberry  Patch and wander around with the Vietnamese Marines until we
see a little Marine with an expensive pump shotgun slung  across his back, a
case of C rations on his shoulder, and DEADLY DELTA on his flak jacket.
     I say, "Hey, bro, where's One-Five?"
     The little Marines turns, smiles.
     I say, "You need a huss with that?"
     "No thanks, Marine. You people One-One?"
     "No, sir,"  I say. Officers do not wear rank insignia in the field  but
snuffies learn  to fix  a  man's rank  by  his  voice.  "We're  looking  for
One-Five. I got a bro in the First Platoon. They call him Cowboy. He wears a
cowboy hat."
     "I'm  Cowboy's platoon  commander. The  Lusthog Squad is in the platoon
area up by the Citadel."
     We walk along with the little Marine.
     "I'm Joker,  sir. Corporal Joker. This is Rafter Man. We work for Stars
and Stripes."
     "My  name  is  Bayer.  Robert  M.  Bayer the third.  My  people call me
Shortround, for obvious reasons. You here to make Cowboy famous?"
     I laugh. "Never happen."


     The  gray sky is clearing.  The white mist is moving away, exposing Hue
to the sun.
     First Platoon's area  is  within sight  of  the  massive  walls  of the
Citadel. While First Platoon  waits  for  the  attack to  begin, the Lusthog
Squad is partying.
     Crazy Earl points a  forefinger at  the three  of us. "Resupply! Number
one!" Then: "Hey, cowpuncher, the Joker is on deck."
     Cowboy looks up and grins. He's holding a large  brown  bottle of tiger
piss--Vietnamese  beer. "Well, no shit. It's the Joker and  his New Guy. Lai
dai, bros, come on, sit and share, sit and share."
     Rafter Man and I sit down in the dirt and Cowboy throws loose stacks of
Vietnamese  piasters into  our  laps.  I  laugh,  surprised.  I pick up  the
brightly colored  bills, large bills, in large denominations. Cowboy  shoves
bottles of tiger piss into our hands.
     "Hey,  Skipper!"  says Cowboy. "Souvenir  me  spaghetti  and meatballs,
okay? Every  time  we  chow down  I pull ham and  mothers--the  Breakfast of
Champions. I hate fucking ham and lima beans."
     The little Marine rips open one case of C's, pulls out a cardboard box,
pitches it to Cowboy.
     Cowboy  catches the  box,  squints at the  label.  "Number one. Thanks,
Skipper."
     Crazy Earl throws another stack of piasters into my lap.
     Every man in the squad has a pile of money.
     "Man,  we  finally  got  paid," says  Crazy  Earl. "You know  what I am
saying, gentlemen? We been slave-labor mercenaries and  now  we are rich. We
got a million P's here, gentlemen. Yes, that's beaucoup P's."
     I say, "Sir, where'd this money--"
     Mr. Shortround shrugs. "Money? I don't see any money." He takes off his
helmet. On the back of the helmet: Kill a Commie for Christ. Mr.  Shortround
lights a cigarette. "About half a million  P's. Maybe a thousand dollars per
man in American money."
     Cowboy says, "You got to write about our John Wayne lieutenant." Cowboy
punches Mr.  Shortround on the arm. "Mr. Shortround is a mustang.  When  the
Crotch made him a lieutenant he was just a corporal,  just a snuffy like us.
He's very little, but he is oh so bad." Cowboy tilts his head back and sucks
in  a long swallow  of  tiger  piss.  Then: "We  were  taking  this railroad
terminal. That's where the  safe was. We blew  it open with  a block of C-4.
The gooks  were coming  down on us  with automatic  weapons, B-40's,  even a
fucking mortar.  The  Lieutenant got  six  confirmed.  Six! He  wasted those
zipperheads like a born killer."
     "There are NVA here," says Crazy Earl. "Many, many of them."
     "That's affirmative," says Cowboy. "And they are as hard  as slant-eyed
drill instructors. They are highly motivated individuals."
     Crazy Earl holds his bottle by the  neck and smashes it across a fallen
statue of a fat, smiling, bald-headed gook. "This ain't a war, it's a series
of overlapping riots. We blow them away. They come up behind us before we're
out of sight and shoot us  in the ass. I  know a guy in  One-One that shot a
gook  and  then  tied a  satchel  charge to  him  and  blew him into  little
invisible  pieces because shooting  gooks is a waste of time--they come back
to  life.  But  these  gooks  piss you  off  so bad that  you  get to  shoot
something, anything. Bros,  half the confirmed kills I got are civilians and
the other half is water buffaloes." Earl pauses, burps, drawing the burp out
as long as he can. "You should have seen Animal Mother wasting those Arvins.
As soon as we hit the shit the Arvins started di-di mau-ing for the rear and
Animal Mother spit and then blew them away."
     "I miss Stumbling Stewey," says Alice, the black giant.  He explains to
me  and  Rafter  Man: "Stumbling  Stewey was our  honcho  before Stoke,  the
Supergrunt.  Stumbling  Stewey was real nervous, you  know? Very nervous.  I
mean,  he was nervous. The  only way the dude  could relax was throwing hand
grenades. He  was always popping frags all over the area.  Then  he  started
holding on  to them  right up to the  last second.  So one day ol' Stumbling
Stewey pulled the  pin and just  stood  there,  staring,  just  staring  and
staring at that little ol' olive-drab egg in his hand..."
     Crazy Earl nods, burps.  "I was just a New Guy the day Stumbling Stewey
blew  himself away and Stoke the Supergrunt  took the  squad.  Stoke made me
assistant squad leader. He could  see that I  didn't  know nothing,  and all
that good  shit,  but he said he liked  my personality." Crazy Earl  takes a
swallow from another bottle of beer. "Hey, Cowboy, get your horse! Quick! My
crabs are having a rodeo!"
     Donlon, the radioman, says, "I hope we stay  here. This street fighting
is decent duty. We can  see  them here. We got cover,  resupply,  even  some
areas  where you  can cut a few Z's without  digging a hole. No rice paddies
full of slope shit to swim in. No immersion foot. No jungle rot. No  leeches
falling from the trees."
     Crazy Earl flips a beer bottle into the air and the  bottle arches down
and smashes upon a  broken  wall. "Affirmative,  but  we  blow  up all these
shrines and temples and the gooks got lots of shit to hide under and we have
to dig them out."
     Everybody gets a little high. Crazy Earl goes into a long, detailed sea
story about how the Montagnard Tribesmen are  in fact Viet Cong cavemen. "We
said we were going to bomb them back to the Stone Age and we do not lie."
     Cowboy  suggests that Montagnards are  actually  Viet  Cong Indians and
that the secret  to winning  the war is  to issue  each grunt  a horse. Then
Victor Charlie would have to hump while Marines could ride.
     Crazy  Earl puts his arm across the shoulders of the  man next to  him.
The man has a bush  cover pulled down over his face, a  beer in  his hand, a
pile of money in his lap.  "This is my  bro," says  Crazy Earl, removing the
bush  cover from  the  man's  face. "This is  his party. He is the  guest of
honor. You see, today is his birthday."
     Rafter Man looks at me, his mouth open. "Sarge..."
     I say, "Don't call me Sarge."
     The man next to Crazy Earl  is a dead man, a North Vietnamese corporal,
a clean-cut Asian kid about seventeen years old with ink-black hair, cropped
short.
     Crazy Earl hugs  the North Vietnamese  corporal. He grins. "I made  him
sleep." Crazy Earl puts his forefinger to his lips and whispers, "Shhh. He's
resting now."
     Before Rafter Man  can start asking questions Animal Mother and another
Marine double-time up the road, carrying a large cardboard box between them.
They drop the box and reach  inside. They throw plastic bags  to each of us.
"Resupply! Resupply! Get your red-hot bennies. Scarf it up!"
     Cowboy snatches up his bag and rips it open. "Long-rats. Outstanding!"
     I pick up my bag and I show it to Rafter Man. "This is number one chow,
Rafter. The Army eats this shit on humps. Add water and you got real food."
     Lieutenant Shortround says,  "Okay, Mother, where'd  you  souvenir  the
chow?"
     Animal Mother spits. He grins, baring rotten teeth. "I stole it."
     "You stole it, sir."
     "Yeah, I stole it...sir."
     "That's looting. They shoot people for that."
     "I stole it from the Army...sir."
     "Outstanding. It is part of your duty as a  Marine to harass our sister
services. Carry on."
     Cowboy punches the Marine who helped Animal Mother carry  the cardboard
box. "This is T.H.E.  Rock. Make him  famous. He wears that  rock around his
neck so that when the dinks zap him they'll know who he is."
     T.H.E. Rock grins. "You fucking  alcoholic. I wish  you'd  stop telling
people about my rock." He pulls out a rawhide cord and shows  us his rock, a
quartz crystal mounted in brass.
     Animal Mother props his M-60  machine gun against a wall and sits down,
cross-legged. "Man, I almost got me some eatin' pussy."
     T.H.E. Rock says, "That's affirmative. Mother was chasing a little gook
girl with his dick hanging out...."
     Lieutenant Shortround pulls his  K-bar from its sheath and cuts a chunk
from a block of C-4 plastic explosive he has extracted from a Claymore mine.
He puts the  piece  of C-4 into  a little stove he has made  by punching air
holes into an empty C rations can. He strikes a match and lights the C-4. He
fills a second  can with  water from his canteen  and then holds the can  of
water over the blue flame. "Mother, you know what I told you last week."
     A Phantom  F-4 jet roars over  and  unloads a few  rocket pods into the
Citadel. Explosions rock the deck.
     T.H.E. Rock  looks at  Animal Mother  as he  explains: "She  was just a
baby, sir. Thirteen or fourteen."
     Animal  Mother grins, spits.  "If she's old  enough to bleed, she's old
enough to butcher."
     Mr. Shortround  looks at  Animal Mother,  but doesn't say  anything. He
takes a white plastic spoon out of his shirt pocket and puts it into the can
of boiling water. Then he takes a tinfoil packet  of cocoa  out of his thigh
pocket, tears it open, pours the brown powder into the can of boiling water.
He  takes hold  of  the  white  plastic  spoon  and  begins to stir the  hot
chocolate slowly. "Animal Mother? Do you hear me? I'm talking to you."
     Animal Mother glares at the lieutenant. Then,  "Oh, I was just  fooling
around, Lieutenant."
     Mr. Shortround stirs his hot chocolate.
     I say, "Animal Mother, how come you think you're so bad?"
     Animal Mother looks  at me, surprised.  "Hey, motherfucker,  don't even
talk to me. You ain't a  grunt. You want your face stomped in? Huh? You want
to battle?"
     I pick up my M-16.
     Animal Mother reaches for his M-60.
     Cowboy says, "Man, if there's one thing I can't stand, it's violence. I
mean, if  you  got  to blow Mother away,  that's  outstanding.  Nobody likes
Mother anyway. Shit, he don't even like  himself. But  you got to get a real
gun, not that  toy  M-16. If it's Mattel, it's swell." Cowboy unhooks a frag
from his flak jacket and tosses it to me. "Here. Use this."
     I catch  the  hand  grenade.  I  toss  it  up into the air a few times,
catching  it,  still looking  at Animal Mother. "No,  I'm going to get me an
M-60 and then me and this motherfucker are going to have one duel--"
     "Stow it, Joker," Mr. Shortround interrupts: "Animal Mother, listen up.
You harass one more little girl and I'm going to put my little silver bar in
my pocket and then you and I are going to throw some hands."
     Animal Mother grunts, spits, picks up a bottle of  tiger piss. He hooks
a tooth  into the  metal cap and  forces the bottle up. The cap pops off. He
takes a swallow, then looks at  me. He mutter,  "Fucking  poge..." He  takes
another  couple of swallows  and then  says very loud, "Cowboy, you remember
when we was set up in that L-shaped ambush up by Khe Sanh and blew away that
NVA rifle squad? You remember that little gook bitch that was  guiding them?
She was a lot younger  than the  one I saw today." He takes another swallow.
"I didn't get to fuck that one either. But that's okay.  That's okay. I shot
her motherfucking face off." Animal Mother burps. He looks at me and smirks.
"That's affirmative, poge. I shot her motherfucking face off."
     Alice shows me a necklace of little bones and tries to convince me that
they're magic Voodoo  bones  from New Orleans,  but  they look like dry  old
chicken bones to me.
     "We...are animals," I say.
     After a couple  of  minutes Crazy Earl  says, "Grunts ain't animals. We
just  do our job. We're shot at and  missed, shit on and hit.  The gooks are
grunts,  like us. They fight, like  us.  They got  lifer poges running their
country and we  got lifer  poges running ours.  But at least  the  gooks are
grunts, like  us. Not the  Viet Cong. The VC  are some dried-up old mamasans
with rusty  carbines. The NVA, man,  we are tight with the NVA. We kill each
other, no doubt about it, but we're tight. We're hard." Crazy Earl tosses an
empty beer bottle to the deck and picks up his Red Ryder air rifle. He fires
the air rifle at the bottle and the BB ricochets off the bottle with a faint
ping.  "I love  the  little  commie  bastards,  man.  I  really  do.  Grunts
understand grunts. These are great  days  we are living, bros. We  are jolly
green giants,  walking with the earth  with guns.  The people we wasted here
today are the finest individuals we will ever  know. When  we rotate back to
the World we're  gonna miss  having somebody  around who's  worth  shooting.
There ought to be a  government for grunts. Grunts could fix the world up. I
never met a grunt I didn't like, except Mother."
     I say, "Never happen. It would make too much sense. It's better that we
save Viet Nam from the people who live here. Of course, they love us;  we'll
kill them if they don't. When you've got them by  the balls their hearts and
minds will follow."
     Donlon says,  "Well, we're  rich and we  got beaucoup beer and beaucoup
chow. Now all we need is the Bob Hope show."
     I  stand  up.  The beer has  gone  to my  head.  "I'll be Bob Hope."  I
hesitate.  I touch my  face.  "Oh, wow,  my  nose ain't  big  enough."  Mild
laughter.
     A hundred yards  away a heavy machine gun fires a long burst. Scattered
small arms fire replies.
     I do impressions.
     "Friends, I am Bob Hope. You all  remember me, I'm sure.  I was in some
movies with Bing Crosby. Well, I'm here in  Viet Nam to  entertain  you. The
folks back home  don't care enough about you to  bring you back to the World
so you won't get wasted, but they do care enough to send comedians over here
so that at least you can  die laughing. So have you  heard the one about the
Viet Nam veteran who came home and said, 'Look, Mom, no hands!'"
     The squad laughs. They say: "Do John Wayne!"
     Doing my John Wayne voice, I tell  the squad a joke: "Stop me if you're
heard this.  There was  a Marine of nuts  and bolts,  half robot--weird  but
true--whose  every move  was cut from pain as though from  stone. His stoney
little hide had been crushed and broken. But he just laughed and said, 'I've
been crushed  and  broken before.' And sure enough, he  had  the  heart of a
bear. His heart functioned for weeks after it had been diagnosed by doctors.
His  heart  weighed half  a pound. His heart  pumped  seven hundred thousand
gallons  of  warm blood through one hundred thousand miles of veins, working
hard--hard enough in twelve hours to lift one sixty-five ton boxcar one foot
off the  deck.  He said. The  world would not  waste the heart of a bear, he
said. On his clean blue pajamas many  medals hung.  He was a walking word of
history, in the shop for a few repairs. He took it on the chin and was good.
One  night in Japan his life  came out  of his body--black--like  a question
mark. If you can keep your head  while others are losing  theirs perhaps you
have misjudged the situation. Stop me if you've heard this..."
     Nobody says anything.
     "The war is ruining my sense of humor," I say. I squat.
     Cowboy nods. "There  it is. All  I'm  doing  is counting my days,  just
counting  my  days. A  hundred days  and a wake-up and I'll  be on that  big
silver Freedom Bird, flying back to  the World, back to the  block,  back to
the  Lone Star State, back to  the land of the big  PX. And I'll have medals
all over myself.  And I won't be fucked up. No, when you  get fucked up they
send you to Japan. You go to Japan and somebody pins a medical discharged to
what's left of you and all that good shit."
     "I'd rather be  wasted," I say.  "Hire the handicapped--they're  fun to
watch."
     Cowboy grins.
     T.H.E. Rocks  says, "You know, my mom writes  me a lot of letters about
what a brave boy  T.H.E. Rock is. T.H.E.  Rock is not a boy; he's a person."
He drinks beer.  "I  know I'm a person  because I  know there ain't no Santa
Claus. There ain't  no  fucking Easter bunny. You know? Back in the World we
thought that the future is always safe in a little gold box somewhere. Well,
I'll live forever. I'm T.H.E. Rock."
     Crazy  Earl grunts. "Hey Skipper, what say we stuff some dope into your
shotgun and toke it through the barrel?"
     Mr. Shortround  shakes his  head. "No can do, Craze. We're moving  most
skosh."
     Donlon is talking into his handset. "Sir, the C.O. wants the Actual."
     Donlon gives the  handset to  Mr.  Shortround.  The Lieutenant talks to
Delta Six, the commanding officer of Delta One-Five.
     "Number ten. Just  when we were scarfing  up some of the bennies," says
Crazy Earl. "Just when we were getting a little piece of slack..."
     Lieutenant  Shortround  stands  up  and starts  putting  on  his  gear.
"Moving, rich kids. Saddle up. Craze, get your people on their feet."
     "Moving. Moving."
     We all stand up, except for the NVA corporal who remains seated, a beer
in  his  hand, a pile  of money in  his lap, his split lips curled back in a
death grin.
     Alice steps  up with a machete in  one hand and  a blue canvas shopping
bag in the other. He kneels. With two blows of  the machete  Alice chops off
the NVA  corporal's feet. He picks up each foot by the big  toe and drops it
into the blue shopping bag. "This gook was a very hard dude. Number one! Big
Magic!"
     The  grunts  stuff  beer  bottles,  piasters,   long-rats,  and  looted
souvenirs into their baggy  pockets, into Marine-issue field packs, and into
NVA haversacks  souvenired  from  enemy grunts they  have wasted. The grunts
pick up their weapons.
     Moving. Moving. I walk behind Cowboy. Rafter Man walks behind me.
     I say, "Well, I guess this Citadel shit is going to  be oh  so bad. But
it could be worse. I mean, at least it's not Parris Island."
     Cowboy grins. He says, "There it is."


     We see the great walls  of the Citadel. With zigzagging ramparts thirty
feet high and  eight feet  thick,  surrounded by a moat,  the fortress looks
like an ancient castle  from a fairy tale about  dragons  who guard treasure
and knights on white horses and princesses in need of assistance. The castle
is black stone against a  cold  gray sky,  with  dark  towers  populated  by
shadows that are alive.
     The Citadel  is actually  a  small  walled  city constructed  by French
engineers as protection  for the home of Gia Long,  Emperor  of the Annamese
Empire. When Hue was the Imperial Capital, the Citadel protected the Emperor
and  the royal family  and the  ancient  treasure of the Forbidden City from
pirates raiding from the South China Sea.
     We are big white American boys in steel helmets and heavy flak jackets,
armed with magic weapons, laying siege to a castle in modern times. One-Five
has changed a lot since the days when it was  the first battalion to hit the
beach at Guadacanal.
     Metal  birds  flash  in and  shit  steel eggs  all over the place.  F-4
Phantom  jet  fighters  are  dropping  napalm, high  explosives,  and  Willy
Peter--white  phosphorus. With  bombs  we are expressing ourselves;  we  are
writing our history in shattered blocks of stone.
     Black roses of smoke bloom inside the Citadel.
     We ditty-bop  Indian-file  along both  sides of the road,  twenty yards
between each man. The lines pop and snick as cocking levers are snapped back
and bolts sent home,  chambering rounds. Safeties are  clicked off. Selector
switches are thumbed to the full  automatic  position. Those  Marines  armed
with M-14's fix bayonets.
     Machine guns  start typing  out history. First  our guns,  then theirs.
Snipers on the wall fire a round here and there, sighting us in.
     War is a catalogue of sounds. Our ears direct our feet.
     A bullet crunches into a wall.
     Somebody starts singing:



     The  machine guns  are exchanging a steady fire now,  like  old friends
having a conversation. Thumps and thuds puncture the rhythm of the bullets.
     The snipers zero in on  us.  Each shot becomes a  word spoken by death.
Death is talking to us. Death wants to tell  us a funny secret.  We may  not
like death but death likes  us. Victor  Charlie  is hard but  he never lies.
Guns tell the truth. Guns never say, "I'm only kidding." War is ugly because
the truth can be ugly and war is very sincere.
     I say out loud: "You and me, God--right?"
     I  send  guard-mail  directives  to   my  personal  Tactical   Area  of
Responsibility,  which extends  to the perimeters  of  my skin.  Dear  Feet,
tiptoe through the  tulips. Balls,  hang in there. Legs,  don't do any  John
Waynes.  My body  is  serviceable.  I  intend  to maintain  my body  in  the
excellent condition in which it was issued.
     In the  silence of our hearts we  speak  to  our werewolf weapons;  our
weapons reply.
     Cowboy is  listening to me  mutter to myself. "John Wayne? Hey, Joker's
right.  This ain't  real. This is just a John Wayne movie. Joker can be Paul
Newman. I'll be a horse."
     "Yeah."
     "Crazy Earl says, "Can I be Gabby Hayes?"
     "The Rock can be a rock," says Donlon, the radioman.
     Alice says, "I'll be Ann-Margret."
     "Animal  Mother can be  a rabid buffalo," says Stutten,  honcho  of the
third fire team.
     The walls are assaulted by werewolf laughter.
     "Who'll be the Indians?"
     The  little enemy folks  audition for the part--machine-gun bullets rip
across a wall to starboard.
     Lieutenant Shortround calls up his squad leaders with a hand signal--he
holds up his right hand and twirls it. Three  squad leaders, including Crazy
Earl, double-time to him.  He  talks to them,  points at the wall. The squad
leaders double-time back  to  their squads  to  confer with their  fire team
leaders.
     Lieutenant Shortround blows a whistle  and then  we're all running like
big-assed birds. We don't want to to  this.  We are  all afraid. But  if you
stayed behind you would be alone. Your friends are going; you go too. You're
not a person anymore. You don't have to be who you are  anymore. You're part
of an attack, one  green object in a line of green objects, running toward a
breach in the  Citadel wall, running through hard noise  and bursting metal,
running, running, running...you don't look back.
     We  double-time,  werewolves  with  guns,  panting.  We  run  as though
impatient to  sink  into  the  darkness that is opening up  to  swallow  us.
Something snaps and we're  past the  point of no return. We're going through
the broken wall. We're running fast and we aren't going to stop. Nothing can
stop us.
     The air is being torn.
     The deck  shifts beneath your feet. The asphalt sucks at your feet like
sand on the beach.
     Green tracer bullets dissect the sky.
     Bullets  hit the street. The  impact  of the bullets is  the sound of a
covey of quail taking flight.  And sparks.  You  feel the  shock  of bullets
punching through bricks. Splinters of stone sting your face.
     People tell you what to do.
     Keep moving, keep moving,  keep moving.  If  you  stop  moving,  if you
hesitate, your heart will stop beating. Your legs  are machines  winding you
up like a mechanical toy.  If your legs  stop  moving, your taut spring will
run down and you will fall over, a lump without motion.
     You  feel like  you could  run around the world. Now the asphalt  is  a
trampoline and you are fast and graceful, a green jungle cat.
     Sounds.  Cardboard  being torn. Head-on collisions.  Trains  derailing.
Walls falling into the sea.
     Metal hornets swarm overhead.
     Pictures: The dark eyes of guns; the cold  eyes of guns. Pictures blink
and blur, a wall, tiny men, shattered blocks of stone.
     Keep moving, keep moving, keep moving...
     Your    feet   take    you   up...up...over   the    rubble   of    the
wall...up...up...you're loving  it...climbing,  you're not  human, you're an
animal, you feel like a god...you scream: "DIE! DIE! DIE, YOU MOTHERFUCKERS!
DIE! DIE! DIE!"
     Hornets try to swarm into you--you swat them aside.
     Boots crunch in powdered stone. Equipment flaps, clangs,  and  rattles.
People curse.
     "Oh, fuck."
     Keep moving.
     Your Boy Scout shit is  wet with sweat. Salty  sweat wiggles into  your
eyes and onto your lips. Your  right index finger is on the  trigger of your
M-16. Here I  come, you  say  to  yourself, here  I come with a  gun full of
bullets. How  many rounds left in this magazine? How many days  left  to  my
rotation  date? Am I carrying too  much gear? Where are  they? And where the
hell are my feet?
     A  face.  The face moves.  Your weapon sights in. Your  M-16  automatic
rifle vibrates. The face is gone.
     Keep moving.
     And then  you feet no longer touch the  ground,  and you wonder  what's
happening to you. Your body relaxes, then goes  rigid. You hear the sound of
a human body erupting, the  ugly sound  of a human  body being torn apart by
high-speed metal. The pictures blinking  before  your eyes slow  down like a
silent film  on a defective reel.  Your weapon floats our of your hands  and
suddenly you are alone. You are floating. Up. Up. You are being lifted up by
a  wall of  sound. The  pictures blink  faster  and  faster and suddenly the
filmstrip snaps and the wall of sound slams into you--total, terrible sound.
The deck is enormous as you fall. You merge with the earth. Your flak jacket
absorbs much of  the impact. Your helmet  falls off  your  head  and  spins.
You're on your back, crushed by sound. You think: Is that the sky?
     "CORPSMAN," someone says, far away. "CORPSMAN!"


     You're  on  your  back. All  around  you boots dance by,  pounding  and
crunching.  Dirt  clods and  pieces  of stone fall  from the sky, into  your
mouth, your eyes. You spit out stone. You hold up one of your hands. You try
to tell the pounding boots: Hey, don't step one me.
     Your  palms are hot. Your  legs are  broken. With one of your hands you
touch yourself, your  face,  your thighs,  you  search your broken  guts for
warm, wet cavities.
     Your  reaction  to  your  own  death  is  nothing  more  than a  highly
intensified curiosity.
     A  hand  presses you down. You wonder if you should try to do something
about your broken legs. You think that it's possible that you don't have any
legs. Tons of  ocean water, dark and cold  and  populated by  monsters,  are
crushing you.  You try to  raise your head. Hands hold  you down. You fight.
You fling your arms. Strong hands search for damage in your body.
     "Legs..."
     You cough up spiders.
     On  the  ground beside you is  a  Marine  without a  head.  Exhibit  A,
formerly a  person, now two  hundred  pounds  of fractured  meat. The Marine
without a head is on his back. His face has been knocked off. The top of his
skull has been torn back, with the soft brain inside. The jawbone and bottom
teeth  are  intact.  In the  hands of  the Marine  without a head is an M-60
machine  gun,  locked  there forever  by rigor mortis. His  finger in on the
trigger. His canvas jungle boots are muddy.
     You look at the dried mud on the jungle boots of  the  Marine without a
head and you are stunned that his feet look so much like your own.
     You reach out. You touch his hand.
     Something stings your arm.
     Suddenly, you are very tired. You  are breathing hard from the running.
Your heart is beating so hard that  it  seems to want to tear its way out of
your body. Through the  center of your heart there  is a  star-shaped bullet
hole.
     Hands touch you. Gentle hands. "You're okay, jarhead. No sweat. I'm Doc
Jay. Can you hear me? You can trust me, Marine. I got magic hands."
     "No," you  say. "NO!"  You try to explain to the hands that part of you
is missing in action. You want the hands to find the missing part; you don't
want your missing  part to be left behind. But you cannot  speak. Your mouth
won't work.
     You sleep. You trust the hands that are holding you, the hands that are
lifting you up.


     In your dope dream  of  death you are an enlistment  poster nailed to a
black wall: THE MARINE CORPS BUILDS MEN--BODY--MIND--SPIRIT.
     You feel  yourself  breaking  up into three pieces...you  hear  strange
voices...
     "What's  wrong?" one  voice  says,  confused  and  frightened.  "What's
wrong?"
     "Who's there?"
     "What?"
     "Who's there?"
     "I'm Mind. Are you--"
     "Affirmative. I'm his Body. I'm not feeling well..."
     "This is utterly ridiculous," interjects a  third voice. "This can't be
happening."
     "Who said that?" Mind demands. "Body? That you?"
     "I said it, fool. You may call me Spirit."
     Body sneers. "I don't believe either of you."
     Mind speaks slowly: "Now, we've got to  be logical about  this. Our man
is down. We've got to get organized."
     Body whimpers. "Listen, you guys, that's  me lying there--not  you. You
don't know what it's like."
     Mind says, "Look, you moron, we're all in this together. If he goes, we
all go."
     "Is he..." Body can't say the word. "I've got to survive."
     "No," Mind  observes. "Not  necessarily. They  play this game.  I'm not
sure we are allowed to interfere."
     Body is horrified. "What kind of 'game'?"
     "I'm not sure. Something about rules. They have a lot of rules."
     Spirit says, "This guy pisses me off. I'm not going back."
     Mind says, "You have to go back."
     "On the  contrary,"  says Spirit. "I do as  I please.  You two  have no
control over me."
     "Forget him," says Body.
     Mind insists, "But Spirit must return with us."
     "No. We don't need him."
     Mind considers  the  situation.  "Perhaps  Spirit has a valid argument.
Perhaps I shouldn't go back either..."
     Body is frantic. "NO! PLEASE...."
     "Yet,  actually,  nothing  would be  achieved by  not going  back.  Our
actions will not affect their game in any event. Losing one man won't change
the game one way  or the other.  In fact, losing men  seems to be the  whole
point  of  the  game. We must be practical.  Come  along,  Body, we're going
back."
     Spirit says, "Tell the man I'm missing in action."


     In your dream you call for Chaplain Charlie. You  met the Navy chaplain
when  you  interviewed him for a  feature article you were writing. Chaplain
Charlie  was  an   amateur  magician.  With  his  magic,   Chaplain  Charlie
entertained Marines  in sick  bays and distributed spiritual tourniquets  to
men who  were still  alive,  but  weaponless.  To brutal,  godless  children
Chaplain Charlie spoke about how God is merciful, despite appearances, about
how  the  Ten Commandments lack detail because when you're writing on  stone
tablets with lightning bolts  you're got to be brief,  about  how  the  Free
World  will conquer Communism  with aid of God and  a few Marines, and about
free fish. One day a Vietnamese child booby-trapped Chaplain Charlie's black
bag  of tricks. Chaplain Charlie reached in and pulled out a  bright ball of
death...

     "Hey, hit the deck, leatherneck, we're moving."
     "What--?" I recognize the  rooms I'm  in.  I remember the  room from an
earlier visit to  Hue.  I'm in  the Palace of Perfect Peace in the Forbidden
City.
     Cowboy punches my  arm. "Okay, Joker,  stop  acting. We know you're not
dead."
     I sit up. I'm on a canvas med-evac  stretcher. "There it is. I  did it!
Number one! I got my first heart."
     Rafter Man says, "A Purple Heart?"
     Cowboy laughs. "Tough titty, you poge. No heart."
     I pat myself with my hands. "The hell you say. Where am I hit?"
     Rafter Man says, "You been out for hours. Doc Jay said you got blown up
by a B-40. A rocket-propelled grenade. But you only got the concussion. Some
other guy got the shrapnel."
     "Well," I say, "that sounds like a lifer-type thing to do."
     Animal Mother grunts and spits.  Animal  Mother spits a  lot because he
thinks it  makes him look tough. "Lifers never  get  wasted. Just the ones I
frag, that's all."
     Donlon takes a step toward Animal Mother. Donlon  is glaring  at Animal
Mother. Donlon starts to say something, then decides against it.

     Rafter Man says, "Doc Jay  gave  you  some morphine. You were trying to
punch him out."
     "There it is," I say. "I'm mean, even when  I'm unconscious. But that's
some very good shit, that morphine."
     Cowboy pushes his gray Marine-issue glasses  up on  his nose. "I  could
use a hit of something myself. I wish we had time to smoke some grass."
     I say, "Hey, bro, who's on your program?"
     Cowboy shakes  his head.  "Mr. Shortround is  KIA." Cowboy pulls  a red
bandana from his back pocket and wipes his grimy face. "The platoon radioman
was down. Some redneck from Alabama. I forget his name. Took a sniper  round
through  the knee.  The Skipper went out to get him. A  frag got him. A frag
got them  both. At least..."  Cowboy  turns to look  at  Animal Mother.  "At
least, that's how Mother tells it, and he was walking point."
     I  shake the  cobwebs out  of my head and pick up my  gear. "Where's my
Mattel?"
     Cowboy  hands me a grease gun. "Your Mattel got  wasted. Use this."  He
hands me a canvas bag containing half-a-dozen grease-gun magazines.
     I check out the grease gun. "This thing is obsolete."
     Cowboy shrugs. "I souvenired it off  a wasted tanker." Cowboy scratches
his face. "I got a new K-bar. And I souvenired Mr. Shortround's pistol."
     "Where's Craze?"
     Cowboy  leads me  outside a long row of body  bags and  ponchos stuffed
with human junk.
     We stand over Craze as Cowboy says, "Craze did a John Wayne. He finally
went berserk. Shot BB's at a gook machine gun. The BB's bounced off the gook
gunners. You should  have  seen it. Craze was laughing like a  happy  little
kid. Then that slope machine gun blew him away."
     I nod. "Anybody else?"
     Cowboy checks  his weapon,  snaps  the bolt to  see  that  it's working
smoothly. "T.H.E. Rock. A sniper. Popped his head off. I'll have to tell you
about  it. Right  now we got  a job to do. We  got  to find that sniper. I'm
personally  going to  waste  that  gook son-of-a-bitch. T.H.E.  Rock was the
first guy to get wasted after I took the squad. He's my responsibility."
     Alice double-times up the road. "That sniper is still there.  You can't
see him, but he's there."
     Cowboy doesn't say anything; he's looking at the long row of body bags.
He takes a few steps. I walk along with him.
     Mr. Shortround doesn't look  like an officer anymore. He's naked, lying
facedown on a bloody poncho. His  skin is yellow. His eyes are  dry in their
sockets, Dead, Mr. Shortround is just another meat-bag with a hole in it.
     Cowboy looks down at Mr. Shortround. He takes off his muddy Stetson.
     Donlon steps up to Mr. Shortround. There are tears in Donlon's eyes. He
fumbles with his handset. Donlon says, "We're mean Marines, sir." He hurries
away, fumbling with the handset.
     Alice  walks  up  to the  row of  body bags and kicks Mr.  Shortround's
corpse. "Go easy, bro."
     The squad files by.
     I kneel.  I fold the poncho over  Mr. Shortround's small body. I feel a
great need to say something to the green plastic lump with the human feet. I
say, "Well, you're short, sir."
     I think about  what I have just  said and I know that  making a bad pun
was a stupid thing to do. But then anything you  could say to a dead officer
who was killed by one of his own men would have to be pretty ridiculous.


     Rafter Man and I double-time to catch up with the squad.
     We hump  past scented lotus ponds,  through  landscaped  gardens,  over
bridges linking delicately structured pagodas.
     All around the beautiful gardens invisible gunships rip  into the peace
and quiet like dogs fighting in a church.
     Cowboy holds  up  his right hand. The  squad stops. Alice aims an index
finger at a street of big mansions.
     Cowboy looks at  me, then at the squad. Cowboy pulls me  aside. We walk
ahead for  a  few steps. "That sniper opened  up on us in a gook  graveyard.
Some guys in  One-One told  us they found gold bars in the Emperor's palace.
They had  all they could hump, so we was going to souvenir the rest." Cowboy
wipes  sweat from his eyes. "T.H.E.  Rock was walking point. The sniper shot
T.H.E.  Rock's foot off. Shot it off. The Hardass Squad went out to get him,
one at  a time. That sniper shot all their feet off.  We were hiding  behind
graves, those old round graves  like baseball mounds, and we had nine grunts
down  in the street...."  Cowboy pulls a red bandanna  from his back pockets
and wipes his sweaty  face. "Mr.  Shortround wouldn't let us go get them. It
made  him sick, but he held us back. Then  the sniper  started  shooting off
fingers,  toes,  ears--everything.  The guys in  the  road  were  crying and
begging and we were  all growling  like  animals, but Mr. Shortround held us
back. Then Animal  Mother  started  to go for  them and the Skipper  grabbed
Animal  Mother's collar and hit him in  the face. Animal Mother was so mad I
thought he was  going  to kill us all. But  before he could do  anything the
sniper  started putting rounds into  the  guys in the street. He didn't miss
more than a couple of times. He popped T.H.E.  Rock's head  off and then  he
put a round through each guy's head. They were all moaning and  praying  and
then it was quiet and they were dead and it was like we were dead too..."
     I don't know what to say.
     Cowboy spits, his face a  sweaty stone. "After the NVA  pulled out, the
lifers  sent in the  Arvin Black Panthers to take the Forbidden City.  Shit.
Nothing left but rear guard  squads. We stomped the NVA and they  stomped us
and  then the lifers send in the Arvins, like the goddamn Arvins did it. Mr.
Shortround  said it was their country, said we was only helping out, said it
would boost  the morale of the Vietnamese people.  Well, fuck the Vietnamese
people. The  horrible hogs in hard, hungry Hotel Company ran up  an American
flag. Like on Iwo Jima. But some poge officers ordered them to take it down.
The  snuffies had to run  up the stinking  Vietnamese flag, which is yellow,
which  is  the  right  color for  these chickenshit  people.  We're  getting
slaughtered in this  city.  And we can't even run up a fucking  flag. I just
can't  hack this shit, bro. My job is to get  my people back to the World in
one piece."  Cowboy coughs, spits, wipes his nose with the back of his hand.
"Under fire, these are the  best human beings in the world. All they need is
for  somebody  to  throw hand  grenades  at  them  for  the  rest  of  their
lives...These guys  depend on me.  I can't send my  people  out to  get that
sniper, Joker. I might lose the whole squad."
     I wait until I'm sure that Cowboy has finished  talking and then I say,
"That sounds like a personal problem to me, Cowboy. I can't tell you what to
do.  If I was a human being instead of a Marine, maybe I'd  know." I scratch
my armpit. "You're the honcho. You're the sergeant around here and you  give
the orders. You make the decisions. I could never do it. I could never run a
rifle squad. Never happen, bro. I just don't have the balls."
     Cowboy thinks  about  it.  Then he  grins. "You're  right,  Joker.  You
shitbird.  You're right.  I've got to get  my program  squared  away. I wish
Gunny Gerheim was  here. He'd know  what to do."  Cowboy thinks about it. He
grins. "Shit." He walks back to the squad. "Moving..."
     The squad hesitates. Crazy Earl has always been the one to say what is.
     Animal Mother stands up. He sets his M-60 machine gun into his hip.  He
doesn't speak. He looks at the dirty faces of the squad. He moves out.
     The squad collects its gear and gets to its feet.
     Cowboy waves his hand and Mother takes the point.


     We are discussing the best way to search the street house to house when
a tank rumbles up.
     Donlon says, "Hey, a tank! We can get it to--"
     "No," says Cowboy. "Number ten! We don't need any help."
     "That's affirmative," says Animal Mother.
     I say, "A tank could flush him for us, Cowboy. Think about it. We can't
budge gook grunts without supporting arms."
     Cowboy shrugs. "Oh, to hell with it."
     I  double-time down the road  to meet the tank.  I  run  past heaps  of
rubble  which  were houses yesterday, bricks  and stones and shattered  wood
today.
     The tank  jerks to a  halt. The turret whirs. The big ninety-millimeter
gun locks on me. For a long moment I think that the tank is going to blow me
away.
     The  top  half of the blond tank commander appears in the turret hatch.
The  lieutenant is wearing  a flak jacket and an olive-drab  football helmet
with  a microphone that protrudes over  his lip. He is a mechanical centaur,
half man, half tank.
     I  point out the mansions and I explain about the sniper, about how the
sniper wasted our bro and all that good shit.
     Cowboy comes over  and tells the lieutenant to "wait  one"  and then to
start wasting the mansions, one after another.
     The blond tank commander is silent. He gives us a thumbs-up.


     Cowboy sends Lance Corporal Stutten and his fire team around behind the
row of mansions.
     Animal Mother sets up his M-60 on a low wall and opens fire, raking the
mansions at random. Every fifth round is a tracer.
     The tank rolls up to the first mansion.
     The rest of  us double-time down an alley  and cross the road a hundred
yards down the street, at the end of the row of mansions.
     At the opposite end of the street sits the tank. The tank fires a round
of high explosives. The upper  story  of the first house is blown apart. The
roof collapses.
     Animal Mother continues to fire from his position near the tank.
     Cowboy double-times  to the first house at our end  of the  street.  He
steps carefully to the  rear corner  of the house, peeks  around the corner.
Cowboy waits  for  Lance Corporal  Stutten to pop a green smoke as  a signal
that his fire team is in position as a blocking force.
     We wait.
     When green smoke  begins to pour from a drainage ditch behind the first
house  at  the far end of the street Cowboy  waves his hand  and we all open
fire  at the first house  at our  end of the street. One at a time,  we  run
across the street to the first house, joining Cowboy.
     Cowboy  waves his hand around the corner and  Lance Corporal  Stutten's
fire team opens up with their weapons on full automatic, pouring hundreds of
high-velocity  copper-jacketed  bullets into the rear of  the first house at
their end of the street.
     Animal Mother continues to chew up the fronts  of all the mansions with
his black steel machine gun.
     The tank fires a second round. The  ground floor of  the first house is
blown apart. The tank grinds  forward  twenty yards, stops, fires again. The
second story of the second house explodes.
     Cowboy leads  us into the mansion at our end of the street. Inside,  we
leapfrog  from corner to corner. Cowboy pops  a  frag and underhands it into
somebody's kitchen. The detonation rocks the whole house, numbs our ears.
     Rafter Man steps forward. He gestures to Cowboy, jerks his thumb at the
ceiling.  Cowboy holds up  a circled  thumb and index finger, "okay." Rafter
Man pops  a  frag  and pitches it up  a stairwell to  the  second story. The
explosion splits the plaster over our heads.
     Outside, up the street, the tank fires again.
     Cowboy punches  me  in  the chest  with his  knuckles. Then he  punches
Rafter Man and Alice. He  aims his right index finger at Donlon, then at the
deck.  Donlon nods and begins to silently point out the  positions he  wants
the men in the squad to take.
     Cowboy waves his hand and we follow him up the stairs.
     Upstairs, Alice kicks out a window and we all hop out onto the roof.
     The tank is two houses away. It fires.
     We drop our gear and jump the six-foot chasm between houses.
     On the roof  of  the  second  house  Cowboy  stands up and signal Lance
Corporal Stutten,  who  waves  back  with  his  poncho.  Bullets  from Lance
Corporal  Stutten's  fire  team stop hitting  the  rest of  the  house we're
standing on.
     I double-time to the front  of the house and I wave  to Animal  Mother.
Bullets from  Animal Mother's machine  gun  stop hitting  the  front  of the
house.
     The tank fires. The shell bursts. Shrapnel whines over us.
     We converge on a skylight. I drop a frag through the glass.
     The grenade explodes  in an  invisible room  below. Concussion shatters
the skylight.
     We  drop through the ragged rectangular hole into  somebody's  library.
Shrapnel has mangled leatherbound books. I pick up a small leatherbound book
for  a souvenir. The author is Jules Verne; the title is in  French. I stuff
the book into  my thigh pocket and reach  to the front of my flak jacket for
another grenade.
     We work our way through  the house, fragging every hallway, every room.
But we can't find the sniper.
     The tank fires into the second story of the house next door.
     I say, "No time."
     Cowboy shrugs. "He wasted T.H.E. Rock."
     I take a few steps down the stairs. Cowboy holds up his hand. "Listen."
     Animal Mother's M-60 is ripping up the roof over our heads.
     I say, "Is Mother dinky-dow? Crazy?"
     Cowboy shakes his head. "No. Mother is a prick, but he's a good grunt."
     We run back to the library.
     We drag a heavy antique  desk to the ruined skylight  and Cowboy climbs
up onto it and lifts himself back onto the roof.
     The crack of  a  Simonov sniper's  carbine  pierces the muted rhythm of
Mother's machine gun.
     Cowboy falls back through the skylight. Alice, who has climbed up  onto
the desk, catches Cowboy and eases him down to the desktop.
     I pop a  frag. I  climb up onto the desk and take hold of the roof with
my left hand.  I let the spoon fly. The  spoon  phinnnnings away and rattles
across the  floor.  I  hold the  sweaty green  oval  for  three seconds and,
lifting myself up, I flip it up and  back  so  that it rolls across the roof
directly over us. The frag  bursts, spraying  seven hundred and fifty pieces
of  steel  wire  across  the roof. The  ceiling  splits. Alice  hugs Cowboy.
Plaster and splintered wood bounce off my helmet.
     Rafter Man jumps up onto the desk and lift himself up onto the roof.
     Surprised, I pull myself up after him.
     The tank fires into the ground floor of the house next door.
     Rafter Man and I crawl on our bellies on the roof.
     Behind  us, Alice lifts  Cowboy over his head like a wrestler, deposits
him gently  upon the roof. Then  Alice climbs  up. He picks Cowboy up in his
arms as though Cowboy were an oversized baby.
     Doc Jay calls to us from the roof of the first house.
     Alice pulls a  tent rope from a thigh pocket and ties it under Cowboy's
arms.  He flips the  other end  of the rope to Doc  Jay. Doc Jay gets a good
grip on the  rope and braces himself as  Alice lowers Cowboy into  the chasm
between  the houses.  Doc  Jay pulls in the slack as Cowboy  falls. Cowboy's
limp body  swings over and  thuds into the wall beneath Doc Jay's  feet. Doc
Jay grits his teeth, pulls Cowboy up. Alice looks back at me, but I wave him
on. He leaps over to the first house.
     Doc Jay  gathers up all  of  our gear and Alice  throws Cowboy over his
shoulder and they start back down.
     Rafter Man has crawled up to the crest of  the roof. He  peeks over the
crest.
     Bang. A hiss.
     I crawl  up beside Rafter Man. I take a peek. From behind a low chimney
at the opposite corner of the roof a thin black line protrudes.
     We  hear the incredibly  loud clanking of the tank  as it rolls  on the
street below. It stops.
     Animal Mother and Lance Corporal Stutten stop firing.
     "Let's go," I say. I grab  Rafter Man's shoulder.  "The tank can  waste
the gook."
     Rafter Man doesn't look at me. He pulls away.
     I turn away and  I duck walk to the edge of the roof. I stand up and am
about to jump across when the house explodes beneath me.
     I fall on my back.
     The sniper is moving.
     Rafter Man jumps over the crest of the roof and slides down the incline
on his ass.
     I try  to stand up. But all  of my bones have shifted one  inch  to the
left.
     Suddenly a foot steps on my  chest, pinning  me. The sniper looks down,
surprised. The sniper sees  that  I'm helpless,  glances back at Rafter Man,
gets ready to jump across to the other roof.
     Rafter Man  runs back up the  incline and slides back down on his  ass,
ten yards away.
     I reach for my grease gun.
     The sniper turns toward Rafter Man and raises her SKS carbine.
     The sniper is  the first Victor  Charlie I've seen  who was  not  dead,
captured, or far,  far away. She is a child, no more than fifteen years old,
a slender Eurasian angel with dark, beautiful eyes, which, at the same time,
are the hard eyes of a grunt. She's not  quite five feet tall.  Her  hair is
long and black and shiny,  held together by rawhide cord  tied in a bow. Her
shirt  and shorts  are mustard-colored khaki  and look new. Slung diagonally
across  her  chest,  separating her small breasts, is a white cloth tube fat
with  sticky reddish rice.  Her  B.F. Goodrich  sandals  have  been cut from
discarded tires. Around  her tiny waist hangs  a web belt  from which dangle
homemade hand grenades  with hollow wooden handles,  made by  stuffing black
powder  into Coca-Cola  cans,  a  knife  for cleaning fish,  and six  canvas
pouches containing banana  clips  for the  AK-47  assault rifle slung on her
back.
     Bang. Rafter Man is firing his M-16. Bang. Bang.
     The sniper lowers her weapon. She looks at Rafter Man. She looks at me.
She tries to raise her weapon.
     Bang. Bang.  Bang.  Bang.  Bang.  Bullets  shock flesh.  Rafter Man  is
firing. Rafter Man's bullets are punching the life out of the sniper.
     The sniper falls off the roof.
     The tank fires into the ground floor beneath us. The house shakes.
     I stand  up. I feel like a dead man's shit. I walk to the front  of the
house. I wave to the blond tank commander. He swings a fifty-caliber machine
gun around and aims it at me. I step into full view on the edge of the roof.
I wave an "all clear."
     The tank commander gives me a thumbs-up.
     I pop a green smoke grenade and I drop it on the roof.
     I limp over to the skylight and I climb back down into the library.
     Rafter Man has already jumped into the  library and is running down the
shrapnel-scarred stairs.
     Down on the street I watch as the tank rolls up to the last house still
standing. I wave another "all clear" and the tank commander gives me another
smile and another thumbs-up and then the tank fires, blasting the top floor.
If fires again, blasting the ground floor.
     The  tank commander's  great mechanical body  grumbles  contentedly and
rumbles away.
     Cowboy  double-times to  meet  me.  He punches  me  on the arm. "Look!"
Cowboy touches his right ear, carefully. "Look!" There's a neat little round
hole through his  right ear and a semicircular  nick on the top of  his left
ear.  "See? A  cheap Heart!  The round went through the helmet from  behind,
spun all  the way around my head, then came  out  and hit me in the  arm..."
Cowboy holds up his right forearm, which has already been bandaged. "Did you
see that tank? Was that tank bad? What a honey."
     Doc  Jay  catches up  to Cowboy,  grabs him roughly,  pushes  him down.
Cowboy sits on a splintered tree stump while Doc Jay  tears  the  waxy brown
wrapper  off a compress bandage and ties the bandage around Cowboy's  bloody
head.
     Alice and I walk around to the rear of the house.
     We  find  Rafter  Man standing over the  sniper,  drinking a  bottle of
Coca-Cola. Rafter Man grins. He says, "Things go better with Coke."
     Animal Mother walks up and Rafter Man says, "Look at her! Look at her!"
     We all  stand  over the sniper.  The sniper is drawing her breath  with
great effort. Guts that look like colorful plastic have squirted out through
bullet holes. The back of  the sniper's right leg and her right buttock have
been torn off. She grits  her teeth and then makes  a sound like a dog  that
has been run over.
     Lance  Corporal Stutten  leads  his fire  team to  the sniper. "Look at
that," says Lance Corporal Stutten. "It's a girl. She's all busted up."
     "Look at her!" Rafter  Man is saying. He struts around the moaning lump
of torn meat. "Look at her! Am I bad? Am I a menace? Am I a life taker? Am I
a heart breaker?"
     Alice kneels  and  unbuckles the sniper's web belt  and jerks  it  from
under  her body. The  sniper  whimpers. She  speaks  to us  in French. Alice
tosses the bloody belt to Rafter Man.
     The sniper begins to pray in Vietnamese.
     Rafter Man asks, "What's she saying?"
     I shrug. "What difference does it make?"
     Animal Mother  spits. "It's gonna get dark. We  better hump back to the
company area."
     I say, "What about the gook?"
     "Fuck her," says Animal Mother. "Let her rot."
     "We can't just leave her here," I say.
     Animal Mother takes a giant step toward me, puts his  face up  close to
mine.  "Hey,  asshole,   Cowboy  is  down.  You're  fresh  out  of  friends,
motherfucker. I'm running  this  squad. I was a platoon sergeant before they
busted me. I say we leave the gook for the mother-loving rats."

     Rafter  Man  is  buckling on his  NVA belt. The belt has  a dull-silver
buckle with a star engraved in the center. "Joker is a sergeant."
     Animal Mother is surprised. He stares  at Rafter Man, then at me. Then:
"That don't cut no shit out here. This is the field, motherfucker. You ain't
a grunt. You don't pack the  gear to  be  a grunt. You want to fuck with me?
Huh? You want to throw some hands?"
     I say, "I  wouldn't run  this squad  for  a  million  dollars. I'm just
saying that we can't leave the gook like this."
     "I don't care," says Animal Mother. "Go on and waste her."
     I say, "No. Not me."
     "Then we saddle up and move...now."
     I  look at the  sniper. She whimpers. I try to decide what I would want
if  I were down, half dead,  hurting  bad,  surrounded by my enemies. I look
into her eyes, trying to find the answer. She  sees me. She recognizes me--I
am  the one who will end her  life. We share a bloody intimacy. As I lift my
grease gun she is praying  in  French. I  jerk the trigger.  Bang. One round
enters the sniper's left eye  and as the bullet exits it tears off  the back
of her head.
     The squad is silent.
     Then Alice grunts, flashes a big grin. "Man, you are one hard dude. How
come you ain't a grunt?"
     Cowboy and Doc Jay are standing beside me.
     Cowboy  says, "Mother,  I'm  serviceable.  Joker, that's a  well  done.
You're hard.'
     Animal  Mother spits.  He takes a  step, kneels,  zips out his machete.
With  one powerful blow  he chops off  her head. He picks the head up by its
long  black hair  and  holds it high. He laughs  and says, "Rest  in pieces,
bitch." And he laughs  again. He walks around and sticks the bloody ball  of
gore  into   all  our  faces.  "Hard?  Now   who's  hard?  Now  who's  hard,
motherfuckers?"
     Cowboy  looks  at  Animal  Mother and  sighs. "Joker  is hard,  Mother.
You...you're just mean."
     Animal Mother pauses, spits, throws the head into a ditch.
     Cowboy says, "Let's move. We done our job."
     Animal  Mother  picks  up his  M-60  machine gun,  lays  it  across his
shoulders, struts over to me. He smiles. "You know, Shortround never did see
the frag that wasted him, that little kike." Animal Mother  unhooks  a  hand
grenade from the front of his flak jacket and pushes it into my chest--hard.
Mother looks around, then  smiles at me again. "Nobody  shits on the Animal,
motherfucker. Nobody."
     I hook the grenade onto my flak jacket.
     Alice picks up the sniper's rifle. "Hey, number one souvenir!"
     Rafter  Man  is standing over the sniper's  decapitated corpse. He aims
his M-16 and fires  a long burst  of automatic fire into  the  body. Then he
says,  "That's mine,  Alice." He takes  the SKS from  Alice and  examines it
closely. He looks  down and admires his new belt. "I shot her first,  Joker.
She'd have died. That's one confirmed for me."
     I say, "Sure, Rafter. You wasted her."
     Rafter Man says, "I  did. I  wasted her. I  fucking blew her  away." He
looks at his NVA  rifle belt  again. He holds up the  SKS.  "Wait  until Mr.
Payback sees this!"
     Alice is down on his knees beside the corpse. With his machete he chops
off the  sniper's feet. He puts the feet into his blue canvas shopping  bag.
He chops off the sniper's finger and takes her gold ring.
     We wait until Rafter Man takes photographs of the dead gook and we wait
until Alice takes photographs  of  Rafter Man posing with his SKS set in his
hip and his foot on the mutilated remains of the enemy sniper.
     Then,  as we're moving out, Rafter Man sees a reflection of his face in
the  jagged teeth of a shattered  window, sees  the new smile upon his face.
Rafter Man stares at himself for a long time and then, dropping the carbine,
Rafter Man just walks off down the road, not looking back, not responding to
our questions.
     Cowboy waves his  hand  and we  move  out. Nobody  says anything  about
Rafter Man.
     We hump back to the Forbidden City and set in for the night.
     I mark the short-timer's calendar  on my flak  jacket--fifty-five  days
and a wake-up left in country.
     Later, in the dark, Rafter Man comes back.
     The fighting continues all around us  all night,  sputters of  violence
here and there, a mortar round, a curse, a scream.
     We sleep like babies.


     The  sun  that rises  in  Hue  on  the morning  of February  25,  1968,
illuminates a dead  city. United  States Marines  have  liberated Hue to the
ground. Here,  in  the  heart of the ancient imperial capital of Viet Nam, a
living shrine to the Vietnamese people on both sides, green  Marines  in the
green machine  have liberated a  cherished past. Green Marines  in the green
machine have shot the bones of sacred ancestors. Wise, like Solomon, we have
converted Hue into rubble in order to save it.


     The  next morning Delta  Six  cuts us  some  slack and we spend the day
hunting gold bars in the emperor's palace.
     We enter the throne room of the old  emperors. The throne is blood red,
studded with inlaid mirrors.
     I wish I could  live in the Imperial Palace. Bright pieces of porcelain
make the walls  vivid.  The  roof is orange tile.  There  are stone dragons,
ceramic urns, brass cranes standing on the backs of  turtles, and many other
fine  objects  of undetermined  origin and  function but obviously of  great
value and great beauty and very old.
     I  walk  out into the  emperor's  magnificent garden.  I find Alice and
Rafter Man looking  at some crispy  critters. It's impossible  to  determine
which army the men were from. Napalm leaves less than  bones.  I  say,  "The
aroma of roasted flesh is, admittedly, an acquired taste."
     Alice laughs. "This is such a fucking waste. I mean, this place is like
a  magic  temple, you know?  The  gooks love this place.  Blowing it away is
like, oh, blowing away the White House.  Except  that  nobody  gives  a shit
about the White House and this place is ten times as old."
     I shrug.
     "It's crazy," Alice says. "It's just plain fucking crazy. I  wish I was
back in the World."
     I  say, "No,  back in the World is the crazy part. This, all this world
of shit, this is real."
     Cowboy comes around later and  says that Delta's company commander  has
passed the word to regroup on the beach at the Strawberry Patch.
     We march. We look at the rubble  we have made. We get tired of  looking
at it; there's so much of it.


     Twilight.
     What's  left of Delta  Company, 1st Battalion,  Fifth Marine  Regiment,
First Marine Division, is sprawled  all  over the beach down by the River of
Perfumes. The bearded grunts are sleeping, cooking chow, bragging, comparing
souvenirs,  and reenacting every moment of  the  battle, real and  imagined,
every man a hero beyond belief.
     The Lusthog Squad is wasted. We have nailed our names into the pages of
history enough for today. Canteens  come out. It's too hot to cook so we eat
cold C's.
     Some of the guys are getting to their feet.
     Donlon stands up, shouts, "LOOK!"
     Five hundred yards north there is an island in the River  of  Perfumes.
On  the  island a semicircle of miniature tanks is converging upon a frantic
colony of  ants. The ants  drop  their  gear and  sling  their AK-47 assault
rifles over their backs and they jump into the river. The ants swim for it.
     All  of  the tanks  open fire with  ninety-millimeter  shells and  with
fifty-caliber machine guns.
     Some of the ants sink.
     Cobra gunships  buzz  out of  a horizon  that  is the color of lead and
swoop in for the kill.
     The ants swim faster.
     The hovering gunships chop up the brown water with their machine guns.
     The ants swim, dive, or, in their panic, drown.
     Delta Company gets onto its feet.
     Three  Cobra gunships zoom down to  within a few yards of the river and
the helmeted  door  gunners machine-gun the ants as they flop in  the water,
trapped in a  syncopated hurricane of hot air beating down from the swirling
rotor blades, trapped in the water  while their  red  life runs  out through
bullet holes.
     Only one ant reaches the river bank. The ant opens fire at the gunships
as they hover over the water like monsters feeding.
     Someone says, "See that shit? He's hard-core."
     One gunship  detaches itself from the blood feast and skims across  the
River of Perfumes. The chopper drops bullets all  over the beach, all around
the ant.
     The ant runs off the beach.
     The gunship zooms back to feed on the ants in the water.
     The ant runs onto the beach and opens fire.
     The  gunship  banks sharply  and comes in  low,  rockets swooshing from
under its belly and machine guns chattering.
     Again, the ant runs off the beach.
     The gunship is halfway back  to the ants in  the water when the  ant on
the beach reappears and opens fire.
     This time the gunship pilot brings his ship in low enough to decapitate
the ant with the chopper's skids. The gunship fires.
     The ant fires.
     Machine-gun bullets knock the ant over.
     The gunship swings around to verify that it is a confirmed kill.
     As machine-gun bullets snap into the wet sand, the  ant stands up, aims
its  tiny AK-47  assault rifle, and fires  a  thirty-round magazine on  full
automatic.
     The Cobra gunship  explodes, splits open like  a bloated green egg. The
gutted carcass of  aluminum  and plexiglass bounces along, suspended  in the
air, burning, trailing black smoke. And then it falls.
     The flaming chopper hits the river and the flowing water sucks it down.
     The  ant  does  not  move. The  ant  fires  another  magazine  on  full
automatic. The ant is shooting at the sky.
     Tired  of  firing into  floating corpses, the  remaining  two  gunships
attack.
     The ant walks off the beach.
     The gunships hit  the beach and sand  dunes  with every weapon  they've
got. They circle and circle and  circle  like predatory birds.  Then, out of
ammunition and out of fuel, they buzz straight into the horizon and vanish.
     Delta Company applauds and cheers and  whistles. "Get some! Number one!
Out-fucking-standing! Payback is a motherfucker!"
     Alice says, "That guy was a grunt."
     While we wait  for the gunboats  to come  and  take us back across  the
River of Perfumes we talk  about how the NVA  grunt was one  hell  of a hard
individual and about  how it would be okay if he came to America and married
all our sisters and about how we all  hope that he will live to be a hundred
years old because the world will be diminished when he's gone.


     The next  morning, Rafter Man and I get the map  coordinates  of a mass
grave from  some green  ghouls and we  hump over  to the site to get Captain
January his atrocity photographs.
     The  mass grave  smells really  bad--the odor of  blood,  the  stink of
worms,  decayed human  beings. The Arvin  snuffies doing  the  digging in  a
school  yard have all tied olive-drab skivvy  shirts around their faces, but
casualties due to uncontrollable puking are heavy.
     We  see corpses  of  Vietnamese civilians who  have been  buried alive,
faces frozen in  mid-scream,  hands like  claws,  the fingernails bloody and
caked  with damp  earth. All of the dead people are  grinning  that hideous,
joyless grin of those who  have heard the joke,  of those who have  seen the
terrible secrets of the earth. There's even the corpse of a dog which Victor
Charlie could not separate from its master.
     There are no corpses with their hands tied behind their backs. However,
the green ghouls assure us that they have seen such corpses elsewhere.  So I
borrow  some demolition wire from the Arvin snuffies and, crushing the stiff
bodies with my knee until dry bones crack,  I bind up a family, assembled at
random from the multitude--a  man,  his wife, a  little boy, a  little girl,
and, of course, their dog. As a final touch, I wire the dog's feet together.


     Noon  at  the  MAC-V  compound.  We say  good-bye to Cowboy  and to the
Lusthog Squad.
     Cowboy  has found a  stray puppy and is carrying the bony little animal
inside his shirt. Cowboy  says to me, "Keep your ass down, bro.  Scuttlebutt
is, the Lusthog Squad is headed up to Khe Sanh, a very  hairy  area. But  no
sweat; we  can hack  it. And maybe they got some horses  up there. So if you
ever feel hard enough to be a real Marine, a grunt, bop up to see us."
     I pet Cowboy's puppy. "Never happen. But  you  take  care, you piece of
shit. We've got a date with your sister I don't care to miss."
     Rafter Man  says good-bye  to Alice and  to the other guys in  Cowboy's
squad. He shakes hands with  Cowboy and pets Cowboy's puppy. In my best John
Wayne voice I say, "See you later, Mother."
     Animal Mother says, "Not if I see you first."


     Rafter Man and  I  ditty-bop down Route One, south,  toward Phu Bai. We
hump in crushing heat for hours, looking for a ride. But  the sun is without
mercy and there are no convoys in sight.
     We sit  in  the shade  by the road. "It's hot," I  say. "It's very hot.
Wish that old mamasan was here. I'd souvenir beaucoup money for one Coke..."
     Rafter  Man  stands  up. "No  sweat. I  can  find  her..."  Rafter  Man
ditty-bops into the road.
     I  start to say something about how it might  be a good idea for us  to
stay  together.  There are still  plenty  of  NVA  stragglers  in the  area.
"Rafter..." But then I remember that Rafter Man  has got his first confirmed
kill. Rafter Man can take care of himself.


     The deck trembles. A tank?  I look up, but I can't see anything  on the
road.  Yet nothing on earth sounds as big as a tank, nothing  produces  that
terrible rumble  of metal like a tank. It shakes my bones. I jump up, weapon
ready. I look up and down the road. Nothing. But all around me is the clamor
of rolling iron and the odor of diesel fuel.
     Rafter Man is  walking across the  road. He does not hear the invisible
tank. He does not feel the mechanical earthquake.
     I double-time after him. "Rafter!"
     Rafter Man turns around. He grins. And then we both see it. The tank is
an object of heavy metal forged from  a cold shadow, a ghost with substance.
The black mechanical phantom comes  for us, dark  ectoplasm  rolling in  the
sun. The blond tank commander stands  in the turret hatch,  staring straight
ahead and into the beyond, laughing.
     Rafter Man turns around.
     I say, "Don't move."
     But Rafter looks at me, panic on his face.
     I grab his shoulder.
     Rafter Man pulls away and runs.
     The tank is bearing down on me. I don't move.
     The tank swerves, misses  me, roars past  like  a big iron  dragon. The
tank runs over Rafter Man and crushes him beneath its steel treads. And then
it's gone.
     Rafter Man likes on his back in the dirt, a crushed dog spilling out of
its skin. Rafter  Man looks at  me the  way he looked at me that  day at the
Freedom  Hill  PX on  Hill  327 in Da Nang. His  eyes are  begging me for an
explanation.
     Rafter Man has been cut in half just  below his new NVA rifle belt. His
intestines are  pink  rope all over the  deck. He is trying to pull  himself
back  in,  but it  doesn't work. His guts are wet and  slippery and he can't
hold them in.  He tries to reinsert  his spilling guts back into his severed
torso.  He tries  very hard to  keep  the  dirt  off of his intestines as he
works.
     Rafter Man stops trying to save himself and, instead, just stares at me
with an expression that might be  found on the face of a person who wakes up
with a dead bird in his mouth.
     "Sarge..."
     "Don't call me 'Sarge,'" I say.
     I kneel  down and pick up Rafter's black-body Nikon.  I say, "I'll tell
Mr. Payback about  your belt  and about  your SKS..." I want so much to cry,
but I can't cry--I'm too tough.
     I stop talking to  Rafter  Man because Rafter  Man is dead. Talking  to
dead  people  is not  a healthy habit for a living  person to cultivate  and
lately  I have been talking  to  dead people  quite a lot. I guess I've been
talking to dead people ever since I  made my first confirmed kill. After  my
first confirmed  kill,  talking  to corpses began  to make more  sense  than
talking to people who had not yet been wasted.
     In Viet  Nam  you see corpses almost every  day.  At  first you  try to
ignore them.  You don't want people to think you're curious. Nobody wants to
admit that corpses are not old hat to them; nobody wants to be a New Guy. So
you see lumps of dirty rags. And  after a while you begin to notice that the
lumps of dirty rags have arms and legs and heads. And faces.
     The first time  I saw a  corpse, back when I was a New Guy, I wanted to
vomit, just  like in the movies. The corpse was an NVA  grunt who died in  a
great orange  ball of  jellied gasoline near  Con  Thien. The  napalm left a
crumbled  heap  of  ashes  in the  fetal  position. His mouth  was open. His
charred fingers were covering his eyes.
     The  second  time  I  really looked at a  corpse I was embarrassed. The
corpse was an old Vietnamese woman with teeth which had turned black after a
lifetime of chewing betel  nuts. The woman had  been hit by something bigger
than small-arms fire. She was killed in a  crossfire between ROK Marines and
NVA grunts in Hoi An. She seemed so exposed in death, so vulnerable.
     My  third corpse was a  decapitated Marine. I stumbled over  him on  an
operation  in the A Shau valley. My reaction was curiosity. I  wondered what
the rounds had felt like as they entered  his body,  what  his  last thought
was, what his last sound  was at  the  moment  of impact. I  marveled at the
ultimate  power  of  death.  A  big  strong  American  boy,  so vibrant  and
red-blooded, had become within minutes a yellow lump of inflexible meat. And
I understood that my own weapon  could do this dark magic thing to any human
being. With my automatic rifle I could knock the life out of any  enemy with
just the  slightest pressure of  one finger. And, knowing that,  I was  less
afraid.
     The  fourth  corpse  is the last  one  I  remember.  After that they've
blurred together,  a mountain of faceless dead. But I think  that the fourth
corpse was the old papasan in the conical white hat  I saw on Route One. The
old  man  had been run over by a six-by as  he squatted in the road taking a
shit. All I remember is that when I marched by, flies  exploded off  the old
man like pieces of shrapnel.


     I got my first confirmed kill with India Three-Five.
     I was writing a feature article about how the grunts at the Rockpile on
Route Nine had to sweep  the road for mines every morning before any traffic
could use the road. There was a fat gunny who insisted on walking point with
a  metal  detector. The fat gunny wanted to protect his people.  He believed
that fate killed the careless. He stepped on an antitank  mine. A man is not
supposed to be heavy enough to detonate an antitank  mine, but the gunny was
pretty fat.
     The earth opened up and hell came out with a roar that jarred my bones.
The fat  gunny was  launched into the  clean  blue sky,  green and round and
loose-jointed like a broken doll. I watched the fat gunny float up to heaven
and then a wall of heat slammed into me and I collided with the deck.
     The fat gunny floated back to earth.
     Although shrapnel had stung my face and  peppered my flak jacket, I was
not afraid. I was very calm. From the moment the mine detonated I knew I was
a dead man, and there was nothing I could do.
     Behind  me  a  man was  cursing.  The man  was  a  Navy  corpsman.  The
corpsman's right hand  had been  split open  and he was holding  his fingers
together with his good hand and cursing and yelling for a corpsman.
     Then  I understood that the "shrapnel" I'd felt had only been shattered
gravel.
     Grunts from the security squad were  crawling into the  bushes, turning
outboard, weapons ready.
     Still  confused  about  why I was  still  alive I  got to  my  feet and
double-timed to the  little  pit  that  had  been torn into the  road by the
explosion.
     Two  grunts were  double-timing across a  meadow toward  a treeline.  I
followed them, my finger on the trigger of my M-16, eager to  pour invisible
darts of destruction into the shadows.
     The  two grunts and  I  ran until  we  passed through  the treeline and
emerged on the edge  of a vast  rice paddy. There the fat gunny was floating
on   his  back  in  the  shallow  water,  surrounded   by  dark  pieces   of
do-it-yourself fertilizer.
     The  grunts spread a poncho under  him while I stood security.  Both of
the gunny's legs had been torn off at the pelvis. I saw one of his  fat legs
floating nearby so I picked it up out of the water and threw it in on top of
him.
     We all took hold of the poncho and started carrying the heavy load back
to the road. I was breathing hard,  and the black anger  was pounding inside
my chest. I was watching the trees, hoping I'd see movement.
     And then out  of nowhere a man appeared, a tiny, ancient farmer who was
at the same  time ridiculous and dignified. The ancient farmer  had a hoe on
his shoulder and was wearing the obligatory conical white hat. His chest was
bony and  he looked so old. His sturdy legs were scarred. The ancient farmer
didn't speak to us. He just stood there beside the trail with rice shoots in
his hand, calm, his mind rehearsing the hard work he had to do that day.
     The ancient farmer  smiled. He saw the frantic children with their  fat
burden  of  death and he  felt sorry for us.  So he  smiled to  show that he
understood  what  we  were  going  through. Then my M-16  was  vibrating and
invisible metal missiles were snapping through the ancient  farmer's body as
though he were a bag of dry sticks.
     The ancient farmer looked at me. As he fell forward into the dark water
his face was tranquil and I could see that he understood.
     After  my first confirmed kill  I began to understand  that it  was not
necessary to understand. What you do, you become. The insights of one moment
are blotted  out by the events of  the next. And no amount  of insight could
ever alter the cold, black  fact of what I had done.  I was  caught up  in a
constricting web of darkness, and,  like the  ancient farmer, I was suddenly
very calm, just as I had  been calm  when the mine detonated, because  there
was  nothing I  could do. I  was  defining myself  with bullets;  blood  had
blemished my Yankee Doodle dream that everything would  have a happy ending,
and that I, when  the  war was over,  would return to  hometown America in a
white silk uniform,  a  rainbow  of  campaign ribbons across my chest, brave
beyond belief, the military Jesus.


     I think about my first kill  for a  long time. At  twilight  a corpsman
appears. I explain to him that Marines never abandon their dead or wounded.
     The  corpsman  looks  at each  of  Rafter  Man's  pupils several times.
"What?"
     I shrug. I say, "Payback is a motherfucker."
     "What?" The corpsman is confused. The corpsman is obviously a New Guy.
     "Tanks  for the memories..." I  say, because I  do not know how to tell
him how I feel. You're a machine gunner who has  come to the end of his last
belt. You're waiting, staring out through the barbed wire at  the little men
who  are  assaulting  your position. You see their tiny toy-soldier bayonets
and  their  determined,  eyeless faces, but you're a machine  gunner who has
come to the end of his last belt  and there's nothing you can do. The little
men are  going to grow and grow and  grow--illuminated by the fluid, ghostly
fire of a star flare--and then  they're going to run up over you and cut you
up with knives. You see this. You know this. But you're a machine gunner who
has come to the end of  his  last  belt  and there's  nothing you can do. In
their distant fury the little men are  your brothers and you  love them more
than you love your friends.  So  you wait for the little men to come and you
know you'll be  waiting for them when they come because  you no longer  have
anywhere else to go...
     The corpsman is confused.  He does not understand why I'm smiling. "Are
you okay, Marine?" Yes, he is a New Guy for sure.
     I ditty-bop down the road. The corpsman calls after me. I ignore him.
     A mile away from the place of fear I stick out my thumb.


     I'm dirty, unshaven, and dead tired.
     A Mighty Mite slams on its brakes. "MARINE!"
     I turn, thinking I've got some slack, thinking I've got a ride.
     A  poge colonel pounces  out  of  the jeep,  marches  up  to  face  me.
"MARINE!"
     I think: Is that you, John Wayne? Is this me? "Aye-aye, sir."
     "Corporal, don't you know how to execute a hand salute?"
     "Yes, sir." I salute. I hold  the salute until  the  poge colonel snaps
his hand to his starched barracks cover and I  hold  the salute for an extra
couple  of second before  cutting it away sharply. Now he  poge  colonel has
been identified as an officer to any enemy snipers in the area.
     "Corporal, don't you know how to stand to attention?"
     Right away I start wishing I was back in the shit. In battles there are
no police, only people who want to shoot you. In battles there are no poges.
Poges  try to kill you on the inside.  Poges leave your body intact  because
your muscles are all they want from you anyway.
     I stand to attention,  wobbling slightly  beneath the  sixty  pounds of
gear I'm humping.
     The poge colonel has  a classic granite  jaw. I'm sure  that the Marine
Corps must  have a strict examination at  the officers'  candidate school at
Quantico designed to eliminate all officer  candidates  who lack the granite
jaw.
     His jungle utilities  are razor-creased, starched to the consistency of
green  armor.  He executes a  flawless Short Pause, a favorite  technique of
leaders of men, designed to inflict its victim with fatal insecurity. Having
no desire  to damage the colonel's self-confidence, I respond with  my  best
Parris Island rendition of I-am-only-an-enlisted-person-I-try-to-be-humble.
     "Marine..." The colonel stands ramrod straight. This stance is the  Air
of Command,  intended  to intimidate me,  despite the  fact  that I'm a foot
taller  and  outweigh  him  by fifty  pounds. The  colonel investigates  the
underside  of my chin. "Marine..." He likes that word. "What is that on your
body armor, Marine?"
     "Sir?"
     The poge  colonel stands on tiptoe. For a moment I'm afraid he's  going
to bite me in the  neck. But he only  wants to breathe on  me. His  smile is
cold. His skin is too white. "Marine..."
     "Sir?"
     "I asked you a question."
     "You mean this peace button, sir?"
     "What is it?"
     "A peace symbol, sir..."
     I wait patiently  while the colonel tries  to remember the "Maintaining
Interpersonal Relationships with  Subordinate Personnel" chapter  of his OCS
textbook.
     The poge  colonel continues  to  breathe all over  my face.  His breath
smells of  mint.  Marine Corps officers are not allowed to  have bad breath,
body odor, acne pimples, nor holes in their underwear. Marine Corps officers
are not allowed to have anything that has not been issued to them.
     The colonel jabs my button with a forefinger, gives me  a fairly decent
Polished Glare. His blue eyes sparkle. "That's right, son, act innocent. But
I know what that button means."
     "Yes, sir!"
     "It's a ban-the-bomb propaganda button. Admit it!"
     "No, sir." I'm in real pain. The man who invented standing at attention
obviously never humped any gear.
     "Then what does it mean?"
     "It's just a symbol for peace, sir."
     "Oh,  yeah?" He breathes faster, up close  now,  as though he can smell
lies.
     "Yes, Colonel, it's just--"
     "MARINE!"
     "AYE-AYE, SIR!"
     "WIPE THAT SMILE OFF YOUR FACE!"
     "AYE-AYE, SIR!"
     The  poge  colonel moves around  me, stalks me. "Do you call yourself a
Marine?"
     "Well..."
     "WHAT?"
     "Crossed fingers, king's-X. "Yes, sir."
     "Now  seriously,  son..." The  colonel  begins  an  excellent  Fatherly
Approach. "Just tell me who gave you that button. You can level with me. You
can trust me. I only want to help you." The poge colonel smiles.
     The colonel's smile is funny so I smile, too.
     "Where did you get that button, Marine?" The colonel looks hurt. "Don't
you love your country, son?"
     "Well..."
     "Do you  believe that the United States should allow the Vietnamese  to
invade Viet Nam just because they live here?" The poge colonel is struggling
to regain his composure. "Do you?"
     My  shoulders are about to fall off. My  legs are falling  asleep. "No,
sir. We should bomb them back to the Stone Age...sir."
     "Confess, Corporal, confess that you want peace."
     I give him a Short Pause. "Doesn't the colonel want peace...sir?"
     The colonel hesitates. "Son, we've all got to keep our heads until this
peace craze blows over. All I have ever asked  of my boys  is that they obey
my orders as they would obey the word of God."
     "Is that a negative...sir?"
     The poge colonel tries to think of some more inspiring things to say to
me, but  he has used them all  up.  So he says, "You can't wear that button,
Marine.  It's against  regulations.  Remove  it immediately  or you will  be
standing tall before the man."
     Somewhere up  in Heaven, where the streets  are guarded by Marines, Jim
Nabors, in his Gomer Pyle  uniform, sings: "From the halls of Montezuma...to
the shores of Tripoli..."
     "MARINE!"
     "YES, SIR!"
     "WIPE THAT SMILE OFF YOUR FACE!"
     "AYE-AYE, SIR!"
     "The  Commandant  has ordered  us  to  protect  freedom by allowing the
Vietnamese to live like Americans all they want to. As long as Americans are
in Viet Nam the Vietnamese  will have the right  to  express their political
convictions  without  fear of  reprisal.  So  I will say  it  one more time,
Marine,  take off that  peace  button or  I will give you a  tour of duty in
Portsmouth Naval Prison."
     I stay at attention.
     The poge colonel  remains calm. "I am going to cut a new set  of orders
on  you,  Corporal. I am personally  going to  demand that  your  commanding
officer shit-can you to the grunts. Show me your dogtags."
     I dig out my dogtags and I tear off  the green masking tape around them
and the poge colonel writes  my name, rank,  and serial number into a little
green notebook.
     "Come with me, Marine," says the poge colonel, putting the little green
notebook back into his pocket. "I want to show you something."
     I step  over to the jeep. The poge colonel  pauses for dramatic effect,
then pulls a poncho off a lump on the back  seat. The lump is a Marine lance
corporal  in   the  fetal   position.  In  the  lance  corporal's  neck  are
punctures--many, many of them.
     The poge colonel grins, bares his vampire fangs, takes step toward me.
     I punch him in the chest with my wooden bayonet.
     He freezes. He looks down at the  wooden bayonet. He looks at the deck,
then at the sky. Suddenly his wristwatch is very interesting. "I...uh...I've
got  no  more  time  to  waste  on this  unprofitable  encounter...and get a
haircut!"
     I  salute. The poge  colonel  returns  my  salute.  We  hold the salute
awkwardly while the colonel  says, "Someday, Corporal, when you're a  little
older, you'll realize how naive--"
     The poge colonel's voice breaks on "naive."
     I grin. His eyes fall.
     Both salutes cut away nicely.
     "Good day, Marine," says the poge colonel. Then, armored in the dignity
awarded him by Congress, the colonel marches back to his Mighty Mite, climbs
in, and drives away with his bloodless lance corporal.
     The poge colonel's Mighty Mite lays  rubber--after all that talking  he
doesn't even give me a ride.
     "YES, SIR!" I say. "IT IS A GOOD DAY, SIR!"
     The war goes on. Bombs fall. Little ones.
     An hour later a deuce-and-a-half slams on its brakes.
     I climb up into the cab with the driver.
     During   the  bumpy   ride  back  to  Phu   Bai   the  driver   of  the
deuce-and-a-half tells me about a mathematical system  he has devised  which
he will use to break  the  bank in Las Vegas as soon as he gets back  to the
World.
     As the driver talks the  sun goes down and I think: Fifty-four days and
a wake-up.


     I've got forty-nine  days  and a  wake-up left in country when  Captain
January hands me a piece  of paper. Captain January mumbles  something about
how he hopes I  have good luck and then he goes to chow even though it's not
chow time.
     The  piece of  paper orders me to report  for duty  as a rifleman  with
Delta Company, One-Five, currently based at the Khe Sanh.
     I say good-bye to Chili Vendor  and Daytona Dave and Mr. Payback and  I
tell hem that  I'm glad to be  a grunt because  now  I won't have  to  write
captions for atrocity photographs they just file away or tell  any more lies
because there's nothing more the lifers can threaten me with. "What are they
going to do--send me to Viet Nam?"
     Delta Six cuts Cowboy a huss and I'm assigned  to Cowboy's squad as the
first fire  team leader--the assistant  squad leader--until I've got  enough
field experience to run my own rifle squad.
     There it is.
     I'm a grunt.


     Grunts







     Behold a  Marine, a  mere  shadow and reminiscience of  humanity, a man
laid   out   alive  and   standing,   buried  under   arms   with   funereal
accompaniments...
     --Thoreau, Civil Disobedience







     Rolling thunder.
     Clouds float  across  the  white moon,  clouds like great metal  ships.
Black wings  beating,  enormous objects falling.  Arc Light  in the  monsoon
rain; an air strike in the dark. A  flight  of B-52 bombers circle Khe Sanh,
sprinkling eggs of black iron. Each egg weighs two thousand pounds. Each egg
knocks  a hole into the  cold earth, punches  a crater into the constricting
web of slit  trenches that forty thousand determined  little men have dug to
within a  hundred yards of our wire. Black and wet, the earth heaves up like
the deck of a great ship, heaves up toward the droning death birds.
     Even in the fury of aerial bombardment we sleep, shadows  in the earth.
We  sleep in holes we have dug  with entrenching tools. The holes are little
graves and hold the rich, damp odor of the grave.
     The  monsoon rain is cold and heavy and is thrown all over the place by
the wind. The wind has  power. The wind roars, hisses, whispers seductively.
The  wind claws  at the shelters we have constructed  with ponchos and nylon
cord and scraps of bamboo.
     Raindrops thump my poncho like pebbles falling into a broken drum. Half
asleep, my face pressed into my gear,  I listen  to the sounds of the horror
that is  everywhere,  buried just beneath the  surface  of the earth. In  my
dreams of blood I make love to a skeleton. Bones click,  the earth moves, my
testicles explode.
     Shrapnel bites my  shelter. I  wake up. I listen to the fading drone of
the B-52's. I listen to the breathing of my squad of brothers, nightmare men
in the dark.
     Outside our wire an enemy  grunt  is  screaming  at invisible airplanes
that have killed him.
     I try to dream something beautiful.... My grandmother sits in a rocking
chair on her front porch  shooting Viet Cong who have stepped on  her roses.
She drinks  the blood of a dragon from a black Coca-Cola bottle while Goring
my mother with fat white breasts nurses me and drives Germany on and on, his
words cut from the armor plate of a tank....
     I  sleep on steel, my face  on a pillow of blood. I bayonet  teddy bear
and I snore. Bad dreams are something you ate. So sleep, you mother.
     The wind roars up under my shelter  and rips the  poncho off its bamboo
frame, snapping the lines that secured it. Rain falls on me like  a  wave of
icy black water.
     An  angry voice drifts in from beyond  the wire. An  enemy  sergeant is
saying dirty words I don't understand. An enemy sergeant has stumbled over a
dead man in the dark....
     Night patrol.
     In the  predawn  sky  a little metal  star goes  nova--an  illumination
round.
     Eating  an early breakfast  in the  red slime  of a  slit trench at Khe
Sanh.  Yesterday I made  myself  a  new stove  by punching air holes into an
empty C's can. Inside the stove, C-4 plastic explosive glows like a fragment
of brimstone. Ham and mothers pop and bubble in another olive-drab can while
I mix and stir with a white plastic spoon.
     On the horizon, orange tracers stitch the night. Puff the Magic Dragon,
"Spooky",  a C-47  flying  electric Gatling  gun, is  pouring three  hundred
rounds per minute into some gook's wet dreams.
     Taste the ham  and lima beans. Hot.  Greasy. Smells like pig shit. With
my bayonet I lift the full can off the stove. I anchor the can in red mud. I
balance my mess cup over the  flame and pour  in a packet  of powdered cocoa
and then half  a  canteen  of spring  water. With some  slack, hot chocolate
dilutes the sour aftertaste of halazone purification tablets.
     A Viet Cong rat  attacks. Obviously, he intends  to bring  my breakfast
under the influence of Communism.
     This is a rat I know personally, so I cut him some slack and do not set
him  on fire with  lighter fluid the  way my bros  and I have  done with his
relatives. I stomp my foot and the rat retreats into a shadow.
     In  the light  of the  flare  my bros  in  the Lusthog  Squad  of Delta
One-Five look like pale lizards. My bros look up at me with lizard eyes.  No
slack. I gave  them the finger. Their lizard  eyes click back to their poker
cards.
     From  his new  strategic position,  the  Viet Cong  rat stares  back to
assert his principles.
     The  illumination  flare  trembles,  freezes  Khe  Sanh  into  a  faded
daguerreotype. Look at all the junk of modern  war  spilled across our dusty
citadel,  look  at how bearded grunts  hang  on  while  the world  spins and
gravity  cheats,  look  at  the  concrete  bones  of  an old French  outpost
(patrolled at night  by the ghosts  of dead Legionnaires and  by the  Mongol
horsemen of Genghis Khan)--see how  the broken walls of the outpost are like
rotting  teeth, look  out  beyond our wire at  a  thousand  acres of blasted
moonscape, feel the cold hard terror and the calm of it.

     During the past three months the rocky terrain around Khe Sanh has been
pounded with  the greatest  volume of  explosives in the history of war. Two
hundred million  pounds of bombs  and whole catalogues of other weapons have
torn and  plowed the  sterile  red  earth,  have  shattered  boulders,  have
splintered  and  chewed the stumps  of trees, have pockmarked the  deck with
craters big enough to be graves for tanks.

     The  flare  floats  down beneath  a  miniature  parachute,  swaying and
squeaking, dripping sparks and hissing, until it hits the wire. Illumination
dissolves.


     In  the  darkness  I  am  one  with  Khe Sanh--a  living cell  of  this
place--this erupted pimple  of sandbags  and barbed wire on a bleak  plateau
surrounded by the end of the world. In my guts I know that my body is one of
the components of gristle and muscle and bone of Khe Sanh,  a small American
community pounded  daily  by one-hundred-and-fifty-two-millimeter  artillery
pieces firing from caves  eleven  kilometers away on  Co  Roc Ridge in Laos,
pounded  by fifteen  hundred  shells a  day, pounded, pounded,  pounded with
brain-numbing regularity, an anthill beneath a sledgehammer.
     Today I am feeling extra fine--I'm short. Twenty-two days and a wake-up
left in country.
     The  Viet Cong rat crouches on  a sandbag an inch from my elbow. I bend
over and  put his  share of ham and mothers on the  toe of my boot. The  rat
watches me  with black bead  eyes. Rats are little  but they're smart. After
the rat is satisfied I can be trusted, he jumps off the sandbag and into the
slit trench. He hops up onto the toe of my boot. Eating, his cheeks are fat.
He looks so very bad; he's beautiful.
     Roll call.


     The squad files  out through  the wire. We do  not joke with the drowsy
sentries who stand lines in bunkers constructed with sandbags  and logs from
the  jungle  and sheets of galvanized tin. We ignore the  hundreds of grunts
from the 26th Marine Regiment who are sprawled along the perimeter, ready to
move out on Operation Gold.  Our squad is walking point  for a battalion. We
ignore Claymore mines, rust-eaten Coca-Cola cans hung on the concertina wire
with pebbles in them, red aluminum triangles with MINES and MIN stenciled on
them, trenches full of  garbage, catholes full  of  fly-sprinkled turds, and
heaps of brass from our howitzers.
     This  time  we do not  salute  Sorry Charlie. Sorry Charlie is a skull,
charred black.  Our  gunner, Animal Mother, mounted the skull on a stake  in
the  kill  zone.  We think that it's the  skull  of an  enemy grunt  who got
napalmed outside  our wire. Sorry Charlie is still wearing my old black felt
Mousketeer  ears, which are getting  a little moldy.  I wired  the ears onto
Sorry Charlie  for  a joke. As  we  hump  by,  I stare  into the  hollow eye
sockets. I wait for a white spider to emerge. The  dark, clean face of death
smiles  at  us with  his  charred  teeth,  his inflexible ivory grin.  Sorry
Charlie always smiles at us as  though he knows a funny secret. For sure, he
knows more than we do.
     Back on the hill, resupply choppers wop-wop down  to earth like monster
grasshoppers while mortar shells rip up the steel carpet of the airstrip.
     We lock and load.
     Our minds sink into our feet.
     On a stump inside the treeline someone has nailed a scrap of ammo crate
with crude letters that are  black through the ground fog: ALL HOPE ABANDON,
YE WHO ENTER HERE. We do not laugh. Our eyes stay on the trail. We have seen
the sign a hundred times and believe it.
     We meet some guys from India Three-Five  humping down from their  night
ambushes.  Scuttlebutt  is,  nobody  got  in  the  shit.  No  VC.   No  NVA.
Outstanding, we all agree. Decent, we say, and  we  ask them if any of their
sisters put out.  They offer to buy us free  beer if we  promise to pee down
our legs and we're to be sure and write if we need any help.
     Dawn.


     We come to the last  two-man listening post. Cowboy waves  his hand and
Alice takes the point.
     Alice  is a  black  colossus, an African wild man  with a  sweat rag of
green parachute silk tied around his head; no helmet. He wears a vest he has
made  from  the skin of a  Bengal tiger he wasted one night on Hill  881. He
wears a necklace of Voodoo bones--chicken bones from New  Orleans.  He calls
himself "Alice" because his  favorite record album is Arlo Guthrie's Alice's
Restaurant.  Cowboy calls Alice "The Midnight Buccaneer" because Alice wears
a gold ring in  his left ear. Animal  Mother calls Alice "The Ace of Spades"
because Alice sticks poker cards between the  teeth  of his confirmed kills.
And  I call  Alice  "Jungle Bunny"  because it mocks  Alice's  truly  savage
nature.
     Alice has a blue canvas shopping bag  slung over his shoulder. The blue
canvas  shopping bag is filled with foul-smelling gook  feet. Alice collects
enemy soldiers; he shoots them dead, then chops their feet off.
     All clear, says  Alice with a hand signal.  Alice's hands are protected
by pigskin gloves. He hacks the jungle with his machete.
     Cowboy waves his hand and we move along the trail, Indian-file.
     Cowboy steps off the trail, jabs his gray Marine-issue glasses with his
forefinger. In the gray glasses Cowboy does not look like a killer, but like
a reporter for a high school newspaper, which he was, less than a year ago.


     Humping in the rain  forest  is like climbing a stairway  of shit in an
enormous green  room  constructed  by  ogres for the  confinement of monster
plants. Birth and death are endless processes here, with new life feeding on
the decaying remains  of the old. The black earth is cool  and damp and  the
oversized greenery is  beaded  with moisture, yet  the air is  thick and hot
because  the triple canopy holds in  the humidity.  The canopy of interwoven
branches is so thick that sunlight  filters through only in pale, infrequent
shafts like those in Sunday-school pictures of Jesus talking to God.
     Beneath mountains like the black teeth of dragons we hump. We hump on a
woodcutter's  trail,   up  slopes  of  peanut  butter,  over  moss-blemished
boulders, into God's  green  furnace,  into  the  hostile terrain of  Indian
country.
     Thorny underbrush  claws our sweaty jungle utilities and our bandoliers
and  our sixty-pound field packs  and our twelve-pound Durolon flak  jackets
and  our  three-pound  camouflaged  helmets  and  our  six-and-a-half  pound
fiberglass and steel  automatic rifles. Limp sabers  of elephant grass slice
into hands and cheeks. Creepers trip us  and tear at our ankles. Pack straps
rub blisters on our shoulders  and salty water wiggles in dirty  worm trails
down our  necks and faces.  Insects eat our  skin, leeches drink  our blood,
snakes try to bite us, and even the monkeys throw rocks.
     We hump, werewolves  in the jungle, sweating 3.2  beer, ready, willing,
and able to grab wily  Uncle Ho by  his inscrutable balls and never  let go.
But our real enemy is the  jungle. God made this jungle for Marines. God has
a hard-on for Marines because we kill everything  we see. No slack. He plays
his games; we play ours. To show our  appreciation  for  so  much omnipotent
attention we keep Heaven packed with fresh souls.


     Hours pass. Many, many of them. We don't know what time it  is anymore.
In  the  jungle there is no time. Black  is  green; green is black--we don't
even know if it's night or day.
     Cowboy strides up and down our line of march. He reminds us to maintain
ten yards  between each man.  Frequently he stops to check his  compass  and
acetate map.
     We hurt. We ignore the pain. We wait for the pain to become monotonous;
it does.
     Our  New  Guy  sweats  and  stumbles and looks  like  he could get lost
looking for a place to shit. A heat casualty for sure. The New Guy eats pink
salt tablets like a kid eating jelly beans, then gulps hot Kool-Aid from his
canteen.
     Monotony.  Everything samey-same--trees, vines like dead  snakes, leafy
plants. The sameness leaves us unmoored.
     The fuck-you lizards greet us: "Fuck you...fuck you..."
     A cockatoo laughs, invisible, laughs as though he knows a funny secret.
     We  hump  up rocky  ravines  and  I  can  hear  Gunny  Sergeant Gerheim
bellowing at Private Leonard Pratt on Parris  Island: The only way  to reach
any  objective  is by taking one step  at a time. That's all. Just one step.
One more. One more. One more
     One more.
     We  think about  things we will do after we  rotate  back to the World,
about silly  high-school  capers we pulled before we were sucked up into the
Crotch, about hunger and thirst,  about  R &  R in Hong  Kong and Australia,
about how  we  are  all becoming Coca-Cola junkies,  about  picking  popcorn
kernels  out  of  our  teeth  at  the  drive-in  movie  with  ol'  Mary Jane
Rottencrotch, about the  excuses we'll  have to invent for not writing home,
and especially and  particularly about the  numbers of  days left on each of
our short-timer's calendars.
     We think  about things that aren't  important  so  that we  won't think
about fear--about the  fear of  pain, of being maimed, of that half-expected
thud of  an  antipersonnel mine or  the punch of a sniper's bullet, or about
loneliness, which is, in  the long run, more  dangerous,  and, in some ways,
hurts  more. We lock our minds onto yesterday, where the pain and loneliness
have  been censored, and on  tomorrow,  from which pain  and loneliness have
been conveniently  deleted, and  most  of all, we  locks  our minds into our
feet, which have developed a life and a mind of their own.


     Hold. Alice raises his right hand.
     The squad stops, now, within rifle shot of the DMZ.
     Cowboy flexes the fingers of his right hand as though cupping a breast.
Booby trap?
     Alice shrugs. Just cool it, man.
     Our survival hangs on our sniper bait's reflexes and  judgment. Alice's
eyes  can  detect  green  catgut  trip  wires, bouncing betty  prongs,  tiny
plungers,  loose  soil, crushed  plants, footprints, fragments of  packaging
debris, and even the fabled punji pits. Alice's ears can lock onto unnatural
silences, the faint rattle of equipment, the thump of a mortar shell leaving
the  tube, or the  snap  of a rifle bolt coming home. Experience and  animal
instincts warn Alice when  a small, badly concealed  booby trap has been set
on the  trail for easy detection so  that we  will be diverted off the trail
into a more terrible  one.  Alice knows that most of  the casualties we take
are from booby traps and  that  in  Viet Nam  almost  every  booby  trap  is
designed so that the victim is his own executioner. He knows what  the enemy
likes to do, where he likes to set ambushes, where snipers hide. Alice knows
the  warning signals that the enemy leaves for his  friends--the  strips  of
black cloth, the triangles os bamboo, the arrangements of stones.
     Alice really understands the shrewd race  of men who fight for survival
in this garden of darkness--hard soldiers, strange, diminutive phantoms with
iron insides,  brass balls, incredible courage, and no scruples at all. They
look small, but  they  fight  tall, and their bullets are  the same size  as
ours.
     A lot of Marines who choose to walk point have death wishes--that's the
scuttlebutt. Some guys want to be heroes and if you walk point and are still
alive at the end of the patrol then you are a hero. Some guys who walk point
hate themselves so  much that  they don't care what they do  and don't  care
what is done to them. But Alice walks  point  because Alice thrives on being
out front. Sure I'm scared, he told me one  night after we'd smoked about  a
ton of dope,  but I try not to show it. What  Alice  needs are those moments
when he can see into what he calls the "beyond."
     Alice freezes. His right hand closes into a fist: Danger.
     All of Alice's  senses  open up. He waits. Invisible birds scatter from
tree to  tree. Alice  grins,  sheathes his machete,  lifts his  M-79 grenade
launcher  to his shoulder. The  "blooper" is  like a toy shotgun,  comically
small.
     Ancient trees stand silent, a  jade cathedral  of mahogany  columns two
hundred feet high,  roots  entwined, branches interwoven, with  thick, scaly
vines roped around solid trunks.
     Adrenaline gives us a high.
     Alice shrugs, lowers his  weapon,  gives  us his  usual thumbs-up,  all
clear; as if to say, I'm so cool that even my errors are correct.
     Cowboy's right hand slices the air  again, and we all shift our gear to
less painful positions and move out, grumbling, bitching. Our thoughts drift
back into erect-nipple wet dreams about Mary Jane Rottencrotch and the Great
Homecoming Fuck  Fantasy, back into blinking black and white home  movies of
events that did not happen  quite the way  we  choose to remember them, back
into bright watercolor visions of that glorious rotation date circled in red
on all  of  our short-timer's calendars--different  dates--but with the same
significance: Home.
     Alice  hesitates. His gloved  hand reaches out and plucks  an oversized
yellow orchid  from a swirl of vines.  Standing to attention, Alice  inserts
the thick, juicy  stem into a leather loop on his  ammo vest, the skin of  a
Bengal tiger. In  rows of loops across  the front of the vest hang two dozen
M-79 grenade rounds.
     Alice's blue canvas shopping bag is slung over his shoulder. The bag is
tattooed with graffiti, autographs, obscene  doodles,  and  a  scoreboard of
stick men recording Alice's  seventeen  confirmed kills.  On the blue canvas
shopping bag are  fading black block letters:  Lusthogs Delta 1/5 We Deal in
Death and Yea, though I  walk  through the valley of death, I shall  fear no
evil, for  I  am the evil and, in crisp new letters: DON'T SHOOT--I'M  SHORT
and a helmet on a pair of boots.
     As he humps down the narrow trail, Alice hums, You can get anything you
want...at Alice's Restaurant...
     Cowboys stops, turns around, sweeps a muddy pearl-gray Stetson  off his
head.
     "Break," he says.
     Green Marines in the green machine, we sit beside the trail.
     "I got  to souvenir  me an NVA belt buckle," says Donlon, our radioman.
"The silver kind with a star. Go home with something decent or the civilians
will   think   I  was   a  poge,   punching   a  typewriter.  I  mean,   I'm
short--thirty-nine days and a wake-up."
     I say, "That's not short. Twenty-two days and a wake-up. Count them."
     "That ain't short," says Animal Mother. "Alice is short."
     Alice brags: "Twelve days  and a wake-up left in country, ladies. Count
'em. I am  a short-timers, no  doubt about it. Why, I'm so short  that every
time I put on my socks I blindfold myself."
     I  grunt, "That's not short-enough,  Jungle  Bunny. The Doc is beaucoup
short. Nine days and a wake-up. Right, Doc? You a single-digit midget?"
     Doc Jay  is chewing a mouthful of  canned  peaches.  "I got  to  extend
again."
     Nobody says anything. Doc Jay won't be allowed to extend again. Doc Jay
has been in Viet Nam for two years, treating major wounds with minor medical
training. Doc Jay wants to  save all  of the wounded, even  those  killed in
action and buried months ago. Every night  dead Marines beg him to come into
their  graves. A week ago, our company commander picked  up  a football that
was lying on the trail. The football blew him in half. Doc Jay tried  to tie
the captain back together with  compress bandages. It  didn't  work. Doc Jay
started giggling like a kid watching cartoons.
     "I'm going to extend, too!" says the New Guy as he shoves  his  Italian
sunglasses up onto his forehead. "Do you guys--?"
     "Oh,  screw  yourself, New Guy," says Animal Mother,  not  looking  up.
Mother is holding his M-60 machine gun in his lap and is massaging the black
vanadium steel  with a  white cloth.  "You ain't been in country  a week and
already you're  saltier than  shit. You ain't  been born yet, New Guy.  Wait
until you got a little T.I.,  candy ass, and then I  may allow you to speak.
Yeah, a little fucking time in."
     "Gung ho!" I say, grinning.
     Animal  Mother  says,  "Fuck  you, Joker." He starts breaking down  the
machine gun.
     I blow Mother a kiss. Animal Mother  is a swine, no doubt about it, but
he's also big and mean; he inspires a certain tolerance.
     "Joker thinks he has an outstanding program," Mother tells the New Guy.
"Going to Hollywood after he rotates back to the World. If I don't waste him
first. Going to be Paul  fucking Newman. My ass." Animal Mother pulls out  a
deck of poker cards. The cards are dog-eared and greasy and have photographs
of Tijuana whores  on them. The Tijuana whores are  establishing  meaningful
relationships with donkeys and big dogs.
     Animal Mother deals draw poker hands to himself and to the New Guy.
     The New Guy hesitates, then scrapes up his cards.
     Animal Mother unbuckles his field  pack and pulls  out a brown  plastic
rack of poker chips--red, white, and blue.  Mother takes a stack of  plastic
chips from the rack  and drops them on the deck in  front of  the  New  Guy.
"Where are you from, you little shit?"
     "Texas, sir."
     "Sir, my ass.  This ain't P.I. and  there ain't no way I'm gonna be  no
fucking officer.  Never  happen.  Ain't  even  the  assistant  squad  leader
anymore. Now I'm a private--the most popular rank in  the Marine  Corps. Got
more fucking ops, more confirmed kills, and more T.I. than any grunt in this
squad--including Cowboy." Animal Mother spits, scratches the dark stubble on
his chin. "Flipped a bird to  a poge colonel at the  big PX on Freedom Hill.
Got me busted from sergeant. I was the fucking platoon  sergeant. No  slack.
Just like back in the World. Back in Queens I took me a ride in this Lincoln
Continental. It was a beautiful  machine. The judge gave me a choice between
the Crotch and hard time in a stone hotel. So I became a mercenary. I should
have  gone  to prison,  New Guy. There's less humping." Animal Mother grins.
"So don't call me that 'sir'  shit. Save that  lifer shit for poges like the
Joker."
     I grin. "Hey, Mother, I'm big but I'm wiry..."
     Animal Mother says, "Yeah,  I  know, you're so tough you bite the heads
off animal crackers." Animal Mother turns to Cowboy: "Hey, Lone Ranger, they
got your little sister  in the  Crotch. Here she sits, a lean Marine in  the
green machine." Turning back to the New Guy: "Our honcho is from Texas, too,
little maggot. Dallas. He wears that Stetson so the gooks will see that they
are dealing with a real Texan lawman."
     Cowboy  chews. "Play poker, Mother."  Cowboy picks  up a  B-3  unit,  a
little  can containing John Wayne  cookies, cocoa, and pineapple jam. Cowboy
cuts open the can with a little P-38 folding can opener on his dogtag chain.
"I won't say it again."
     Silence.
     "Yeah, okay, you don't have to get hard. What are you going to do--send
me  to Viet Nam? Cut me some  slack, Cowboy.  You ain't John Wayne. You just
eat the cookies."
     Animal Mother  grunts. "Bet a buck." He  drops a red  chip. He puts his
cards facedown on the deck and continues to massage his disassembled machine
gun with the white cloth.  "New  Guy, you just better not be no hero. Lifers
get glory; grunts get  killed. Like ol' Rafter Man. Went hand to hand with a
tank. And Crazy Earl; shot gooks with a BB gun. Last New Guy we had sat down
on a bouncing betty  his first day in the  bush.  Rotated straight  to hell.
Blew away  six good grunts. KIA and tough titty to  you,  ma. I got shrapnel
through  my nose..." Animal  Mother leans forward and shows  the New Guy his
nose. "Worst part about it was that little maggot owed me five bucks--"
     Alice spits. "You got to run them sea stories?"
     Animal Mother ignores Alice and says, "This is no shit, New Guy. Stoke,
our old  honcho, thought he  was Supergrunt. Got  the  thousand-yard  stare.
Every time he saw a dead Marine he'd  start laughing. Pulled  a tour of duty
in a rubber room. He--"
     Alice stands up. "Stow that Mickey Mouse shit, Mother. You hear me?"
     Animal Mother doesn't look up. He says, "Thank God for sickle cell."
     Alice scratches  his chest.  "No racists in a foxhole, Mother. New Guy,
you'll do fine. No sweat."
     "Sure," says Animal Mother. "Just watch me. Do what I  do.  These  guys
will tell you that I am a monster, but I'm the only grunt in this squad that
doesn't have  his head  up  his ass. In  this world of  shit,  monsters live
forever  and everybody  else dies.  If you kill for fun, you're a sadist. If
you  kill  for  money, you're  a mercenary.  If you kill for both,  you're a
Marine."
     "Yes, sir," says the New Guy, dropping two chips into the pot.
     "I'm horny," I say. "I can't even get a piece of hand."
     Animal Mother groans. "That was real funny,  Joker. I don't get it." He
drops two chips, then three more. "I raise you three bucks. Dealer takes two
cards."
     The New Guy says, "I'll take three cards. And I'm not a hero. Just want
to do my job. You know, defend freedom--"
     "Fuck freedom," says  Animal Mother. Animal Mother starts  reassembling
the M-60. He kisses each piece  before  snapping it back into place.  "Flush
out your headgear, New Guy. You think  we waste gooks for freedom? Don't kid
yourself;  this is a slaughter.  You're got to open your eyes,  New Guy--you
owe it to  yourself. If I'm gonna get my balls  shot off for a word I get to
pick my own word and my word is  poontang.  Yeah, you better  believe we zap
zipperheads. They waste our bros and we cut them a big piece of payback. And
payback is a motherfucker."
     "Why talk about it?" asks Donlon.  "The  Nam can kill me, but  it can't
make  me care. I just  want to  get back to the land  of  the Big  PX in one
piece. I owe it to myself."
     "Why go  back?"  I  ask. "Here or there,  samey-same.  Home is where my
sergeant  is--right, Cowboy?"  I turn  and look at Animal Mother. "You watch
Cowboy, New Guy. Cowboy will tell you what to do."
     "Yeah," says Donlon,  plucking  a pack of  cigarettes from  the elastic
band around his helmet. "Cowboy takes this shit seriously."
     Cowboy  grunts. "Just  doing  my job,  bro,  just counting my days." He
smiles. "You  know  what  I did back in  the  World? After school, I shucked
pennies out of parking meters. I had a red wagon to pour the pennies in, and
I had a blue  cap with a silver  badge on  it. I thought I was hot shit. Now
all I want is a ranch with some horses..."
     Animal Mother  says,  "Well some cunts smell  really bad,  and Viet Nam
smells really bad, so I say, fuck it. And fuck the lifers who invented it."
     "I  hear  you  talking," I  say. "I  see your  lips  move.  But  we all
brown-nose the lifers..."
     "That's an  amen," says Alice,  up  the trail. He swats a mosquito away
from his face. "We talk the talk, but we don't walk the walk."
     Donlon glares at me. "So who the hell are you? Mahatma Gandhi?"  Donlon
aims  an index  finger at me. "You're honcho of the first  fire team, Joker.
That makes you the assistant squad  leader. So you're no different. You just
like to feel superior."
     "Shit."
     "I wouldn't shit you, Joker. You're my favorite turd."
     "Fuck...you..."
     "Quiet, Joker," says Cowboy. "Somebody's mother might be  hiding in the
bush and you're talking dirty. Keep it in the family, okay?"
     "Yes. That's affirmative, Cowboy." I look at Donlon. "When Cowboy gives
me the order I'll eat  the boogers out of a dead man's nose. I ain't got the
guts to rot in Portsmouth. I admit it. But I don't give orders. I--"
     "Bullshit," says Donlon. "You and your fucking peace symbol. Why do you
wear that thing? You're here, same as us. You're no better than we are."
     "Look," I say, trying not to lose my temper, "Maybe the Crotch can fuck
me, but I won't spread my own cheeks."
     Animal Mother interrupts: "You ain't got a hair on your ass."
     My lips are trembling. "Okay, Mother,  you can just eat the peanuts out
of my shit. I'm not the author of  this farce, I'm  just acting out my role.
It's  bad  luck to wear green  on stage but the war must go  on. If God  had
wanted me to be a Marine I'd have been born with green, baggy skin. You  got
that?"
     Nobody says anything.
     I say, "I'm just a snuffy. A  corporal. I don't send anybody out to get
blown away. I know that getting killed over here is a waste of time."
     I  stand up.  I take three steps toward Animal Mother. "You be gung ho,
Mother. You give the orders." I take another step. "But not me!"

     Nobody says anything.
     Finally the New Guy says softly, "Bet a buck."
     Animal Mother looks at me, then starts  dropping his chips into the pot
one at a time. "Call...raise you..." Counting...counting. "Five bucks."
     The New Guy thinks about it. "I call."
     "Oh, Jesus H. Christ!" Animal Mother slaps his cards down hard, bending
them. "Number ten! I ain't got shit."
     The New Guy says, "Three  jacks." He flashes his cards and rakes up the
pot.
     "Hey, Mother," says Donlon, laughing, "that was humble."
     Alice says, "You sure bluffed out the New Guy."
     I say, "Lose a few, lose a few--right, Mother?"
     Mother tries to be cool about  it. "I couldn't  fold, could I? Had over
four bucks in  the pot. I  thought the New Guy would fold. Most  people  are
afraid of me..."
     Donlon laughs  again.  "Your  program is squared  away, New Guy. What's
your name?"
     "Parker," says the New Guy, smiling. "Name's Parker. Henry. People call
me Hank."
     The New Guy counts his  chips. "Animal Mother,  you  owe  me nine and a
half bucks."
     Animal Mother grunts.
     I say, still standing, "Lose a few, lose a few--right, Mother?"
     "Who fucking asked you, Joker? You're funny enough to be a lifer."
     "Yeah?  Well,  when I'm a  civilian first class and  you're  a bonehead
funny gunny I'll buy you a beer and then I'll kick your ass." I sit down.

     Cowboy grins. "You can buy me  a  beer, too, Joker.  But you'll have to
wait until I'm twenty-one."
     Down  the trail, someone laughs  very  loud.  I say,  "Hey, belay  that
noise. I'm making all the noise for this squad."
     Lance  Corporal Stutten, honcho of the first fire  team,  gives  me the
finger. Then he  turns  to  the guy  who  laughed--a  skinny  redneck  named
Harris--and says, "Shut the fuck up, Harris."
     Animal Mother says, "Yeah, Harris, obey General Joker."
     I say, "I'm ready to jump on your program, you fucking ape..."
     "So eat this monkey turd  and choke on it, poge." Animal  Mother spits.
"You just can't hack--"
     And then I'm on my feet, my K-bar in my hand. There's hot  saliva on my
lips and as I hold the big jungle knife inches from Animal Mother's face I'm
snarling  like  an  animal.  "Okay, you son-of-a-bitch,  I'm gonna  cut your
fucking eyes out..."
     Animal Mother looks  at  me, then at the  blade  of  my K-bar, then  at
Cowboy. His hand moves to his M-60.
     Cowboy continues to eat. "Stow that pig-sticker, Joker. You know  how I
feel about that Mickey  Mouse  shit. Now  get your head and your  ass  wired
together or--"
     "No way, Cowboy. Never happen. He's been on my--"
     Cowboy  jabs at his  glasses. "Didn't ask to run a rifle  squad in this
piss tube war...but I will break your back, if that's the way you play..."
     Donlon whistles. "Cowboy's--"
     Cowboy says, "Shut up, Donlon."
     I  relax a  little bit and then I slip my K-bar back into  its  leather
sheath. "Yeah, yeah, I guess  all this humping  has given me diarrhea of the
mouth."
     Cowboy shurgs. "No sweat, Joker." Cowboy stands up. "Okay, ladies, stow
the pogey bait. Let's saddle up. Moving."
     "Moving" is repeated down the trail.
     I struggle into my gear. "Hey, Animal Mother, I wasn't  really going to
waste  you. It's  just that  I'm well, you know, a trained killer. Cut me  a
huss with my pack..."
     Animal Mother shrugs and helps me into my NVA rucksack. Then I help him
put on his field pack. I say, "Now you buy me  Saigon tea?" Mother sneers. I
blow him a kiss. "No sweat, maleen, I love you too much." Mother spits.
     Cowboy waves his hand and Alice takes the point.
     I say, "Break a leg, Jungle Bunny."
     Alice gives me  the  finger. Then he raises his  right fist and  throws
power. On the blue canvas shopping bag slung on Alice's back is the warning:
If you can read this your too dam close.
     Cowboy waves his hand and the squad moves out.
     My gear feels like a bag of rocks, heavier than before.
     Animal Mother  tells  Parker, the New Guy. "Don't follow  me too close,
New Guy. If you step on a mine I don't want to get fucked up."
     Parker steps back.
     As is my custom, I salute Animal Mother so that any snipers in the area
will assume that he is an officer and shoot him instead of me. I have become
a little paranoid since I painted a red bull's-eye on the top of my helmet.
     Animal Mother returns my salute,  then spits, then grins. "You sure are
funny, you son-of-a-bitch. You're a real comedian."
     "Sorry 'bout that," I say.


     Searching  for something we don't want to find, we hump. And  hump. And
when we're so bone-sore tired that our minds sever contact  with our bodies,
we hump even faster, green phantoms in the twilight.
     From somewhere, from everywhere, an almost inaudible snap.
     A bird goes  insane. One bird sputters overhead. And a great weight  of
birds shift across the canopy.
     Alice stands rigid and listens. He raises his right hand  and closes it
into a fist. Danger.
     I slump forward. My body is aching with all the thousand natural shocks
that flesh is hear to after every fiber of  every muscle  is  begging you to
stop but you choose to overrule such objections by a  force of will stronger
than muscle, bullying your  body into  taking one more step,  one more step,
just one more step...
     Cowboy thinks about it. Then he says, "Hit it."
     Wavering forms crumple to the deck as Cowboy's order is echoed from man
to man back down the trail.
     I say to  Cowboy, "Bro, I was hoping a sniper would ding me so I'd have
an excuse to fall down. I mean, I think I'm going to hate this movie..."
     Cowboy is watching Alice. "Cut the shit, Joker."
     Kneeling, Alice studies  the few yards  of trail he can see before it's
swallowed by leathery, dark green jungle plants. Alice studies the treetops,
too, for a long time. "It's not right, bro."
     I  say, "That's affirm, Cowboy.  All  my crabs are screaming,  'Abandon
ship! Abandon ship!'"
     Cowboy ignores me, keeps his eyes on Alice. "We got to move, Midnight."
     The jungle is silent  except for the  squeak-squeak of  a canteen being
unscrewed.
     "Hurry up and wait. Hurry  up and wait." Alice wipes the sweat from his
eyes. "All I want to do is make it back to the hill so I can smoke about one
ton  of dope.  I  mean,  are  you sure  this  is  safe?  I...wait...I  heard
something."
     Silence.
     "A bird," says Cowboy. "Or a branch falling. Or--"
     Alice shakes  his  head. "Maybe.  Maybe. Or  maybe a  rifle  bolt going
home."
     Cowboy's voice is stern: "You're paranoid, Midnight. No gooks here. Not
for maybe  another four or  five klicks. We got to keep moving or we'll give
the gooks time to set up an ambush in front of us. You know that..."
     Donlon  crawls over to Cowboy, handset at his  ear. "Hey,  Lone Ranger,
the old man wants a report on our position."
     "Let's move, Midnight. I mean it."
     Alice  rolls  his  eyes.  "Feets,  get movin'."  Alice  takes  one step
forward, then hesitates. "I can remember when I've had more fun."
     I say in my John Wayne voice: "Viet Nam is giving war a bad name."
     Daddy D.A., who's walking  tail-end Charlie, calls out: "HEY,  MR. VIET
NAM WAR, WE HOMESTEADING?"
     Cowboy says, "Everybody shut the fuck up."
     Alice  shrugs,  mumbles,  takes another  step forward.  "Cowboy, m'man,
maybe  old soldiers  never die, but  young ones  do. It ain't easy being the
black  Errol Flynn, you know. I mean, if I don't get the Congressional Medal
of Honor  for  all the crazy shit I  do,  I am going to send  Mr. L.B.J.  an
eight-by-ten photo of my  black bee-hind with a caption on the back, telling
him what it is..."
     Alice,  the point man, moves out. He ditty-bops into a little clearing.
"I mean--"
     Bang.
     The crack of an SKS sniper's carbine jolts Alice into a rigid  position
of attention. His mouth opens. He turns to speak to us. His eyes cry out.
     Alice falls.
     "HIT IT!"
     Falling forward--now...
     "Oh, no..." Black earth.
     Dead leaves. "ALICE!"
     "What...?" Damp. Bleeding elbows.
     "MIDNIGHT!"
     Looking, not seeing, looking...
     "Oh-oh...Shit City..."
     Waiting. Waiting. "Hey, man..."
     Silence.
     My guts melt.
     "ALICE!"
     Alice doesn't  move and  I curl up and try to make  myself small and my
asshole feels like it has been turned inside out and  I think  how wonderful
it would  be if Chaplain Charlie had taught me magic and then  I could crawl
up into my own asshole and just disappear and I think: I'm glad it's him and
not me.



     Alice, the point  man, is down. His  big black hands  are locked around
his right thigh. On the deck all around him are a dozen decayed gook feet.
     Blood.
     "FACE OUTBOARD!"
     Cowboy says, "Damn." He  shoves his Stetson to the back of his head and
jabs at his glasses with his index finger. "CORPSMAN UP!"
     Cowboy's command is echoed back down the trail.
     Doc Jay comes scrambling up on all fours like a bear in a hurry.
     Cowboy waves his hand, "Come on, Doc."
     Donlon grabs Cowboy's ankle,  tries to hand  Cowboy the  radio handset.
"Colonel Travis is on the horn."
     "Fuck off, Tom. I'm busy."
     Cowboy and Doc Jay start crawling.
     Donlon says  into the handset: "Uh, Sudden Death Six, Sudden Death Six,
this is Baby Bayonet. Do you copy? Over."
     Cowboy stops crawling, calls back: "Gunships. And a med-evac."
     Donlon talks into  the  handset,  talks  to the  old man.  Static.  The
handset hangs on  a wire hook attached  to  Donlon's helmet strap.  Donlon's
singsong words are like a prayer  he has known for a long time. Donlon stops
talking, listens to an insect inside the handset,  then shouts: "The old man
says, 'Only you can prevent forest fires.'"
     Cowboy looks back. "What? What the hell does that mean?"
     The  radio crackles. Static. "Uh...say again, say again. Over." Static.
Donlon listens, nodding. Then: "I roger that. Stand by, one." Donlon  yells:
"The old man keeps saying, 'Only you can prevent forest fires.'..."
     Cowboy  crawls  back to our  position.  "Donlon, boy, if you're fucking
with me..."
     Donlon shrugs. "Scouts honor."
     I  say, "Cowboy, are  you absolutely sure that  the  colonel is  on our
side?"
     Animal Mother spits. "There it is. He's a lifer, ain't he?"
     Donlon shakes his head. "No slack. The old man is dinky-dow, crazy."
     I grunt. "Sanity is overrated."
     Cowboy says, "Just tell that lifer son-of-a-bitch that I need a dustoff
for--"
     Bang.
     A rifle bullet  snaps through  Donlon's radio. The impact of the bullet
flips Donlon onto his back. Donlon struggles like an overturned turtle.
     I crawl  on my hands and knees. I grab Donlon's rifle  belt. I drag him
behind a boulder.
     Donlon swallows air. "Beaucoup thanks, bro..."
     Cowboy and Doc Jay are arguing. Cowboy says, "Alice is in  the open. We
can't reach him."
     The New Guy says, "Is it just one enemy soldier?"
     "Shut  your mouth."  Animal Mother sets up  his  M-60 machine gun on  a
rotten log  and adjusts a golden ammo belt over a C's can he has attached to
the gun so that the rounds feed in smoothly.
     Cowboy says, "I got to send back a runner--"
     Bang.
     Cowboy rolls over. "I'm okay. I'm okay."
     "He hit Alice again!"
     Alice moves, groans. "It hurts...it hurts..."
     There's  a  dark  hole through the canvas  jungle boot on Alice's  left
foot. Alice laughs, grins, grits his teeth. "I'm short..."
     Animal  Mother  kicks  the  rotten log and  opens  fire.  High-velocity
machine-gun bullets clip, chop,  and ricochet through  the  canopy, snapping
into  tree  trunks  with rhythmic  precision,  cutting leaves from twigs and
killing birds.
     The New Guy  opens up  with his  M-16.  Lance Corporal Stutten fires an
M-79  and the  grenade bursts,  invisible in  the darkness. I see  a strange
shadow on a  limb so I throw  a few rounds in there with my grease gun.  But
it's Maggie's drawers. There's nothing to shoot at.
     The New Guy pops a frag and lobs it in.
     Cowboy  screams into the jarring thud: "OKAY,  OKAY, EVERYBODY  FUCKING
COOL IT."
     Everyone  stops firing--everyone except Animal Mother. I put my hand on
Mother's  shoulder  but  his weapon  continues to spill  hot brass and black
metal links until the belt runs out.
     "We gotta kill  that cocksucker!"  says Animal Mother.  "Payback  is  a
motherfucker!"
     "Yeah."
     "Yeah."
     "The law of the jungle, man."
     Animal  Mother punches the rotten  log with his fist. "I'll  punch  his
fucking heart out!"
     "Yeah."
     "Kill that cocksucker!"
     Alice  is trying  to crawl to cover.  "Cowboy?  Bro?" Alice extends his
gloved right hand.
     Bang.
     Alice's hand is knocked down. He lifts it again slowly. Ragged leather.
And Alice's right forefinger is missing. "Oh, no...not..."
     Alice screams.
     Doc  Jay stands up. Cowboy grabs  him and  pulls him down. "You crazy?"
But Doc Jay  wrestles free. He unhooks the Unit One medical kit from his web
belt and drops the rest of his gear.
     Cowboy looks sick. "Don't try it, bro. That sniper does not miss..."
     "I'm the  corpsman,"  says Doc Jay."  Not  you." And before  Cowboy can
react, Doc Jay is on his feet and running. He runs at a crouch, zigzagging.
     Bang.
     Doc Jay stumbles, falls.
     The Doc's left thigh has been torn open. Jagged bone protrudes. The Doc
tries to push himself forward with his good leg.
     Cowboy pops a smoke grenade, lobs it in.
     "We've got to do something...."
     The  squad  bunches  up  behind  the  boulder.  "Spread  out,"  I  say,
halfheartedly.  The New Guy is watching with wild eyes, his weapon  at  port
arms. Animal  Mother's bloodshot  eyes  scan  the canopy for muzzle flashes,
movement, any sign of life. Lance Corporal Stutten and the rest of the squad
watch silently--they are  waiting for orders. Donlon  is  hugging  his  dead
radio.
     Doc Jay stands up, balances himself  on his good leg. He bends over and
hooks Alice under the armpit with his forearm, tries to lift him.
     Bang.
     Doc Jay collapses. Now his left foot is a bloody lump. He waits for the
last  bullet. When  the  last  bullet  doesn't come  he sits up, pulls Alice
across his lap. The Doc fumbles in his Unit One, takes out a  Syrette, gives
Alice a hit of morphine.
     Using his  teeth,  Doc  Jay  tears  the waxy  brown wrappers off  three
compress bandages.  The Doc  ties the  bandages around  Alice's wound. Alice
groans, says something we can't hear. Doc Jay uses his shirttail to wipe the
sweat from Alice's forehead, then pulls out a piece of rubber tubing he uses
to tie tourniquets.
     Bang.
     Doc Jay's right hand is shattered. The Doc tries to move his fingers.
     He can't.
     Green smoke pours from Cowboy's smoke grenade, obscuring the clearing.
     Cowboy starts to tell us what  to  do. But he  can't make  up his mind.
Then: "We're pulling out. That's  a  shitty thing to do, but we can't refuse
to accept the situation. We saw  this in Hue. That sniper is just sucking us
in.  Wants the whole squad,  one at a time. You know that.  Doc and Midnight
are wasted; we're not. Saddle up."
     Nobody moves.
     Cowboy stands up. "Do it."
     We all know that Cowboy is right. He's hard, but he's right.
     "GET SOME!"
     Without warning, the New Guy charges for the clearing.  He fires blind.
He lopes along with the  fluid grace of a  meat eater, a predator attacking.
His chin is dripping saliva. The New Guy wants warm blood  to drink. The New
Guy wants human flesh  to tear apart and devour. The New Guy's eyes are red:
the New Guy's eyes glow in  the shadow world around us. He  fires blind. The
New Guy doesn't know what the hell he's doing. He thinks he's John Wayne. He
hasn't been born yet.
     Cowboy tries to trip the  New  Guy as he double-times up the trail, but
the New  Guy catches  his balance and runs faster, a  werewolf charging into
the house of death. He stumbles up to Doc Jay. He spins around. His red eyes
probe the canopy. "Com'on, Doc. I'll help you. I'll carry--"
     Bang.
     For a breath or two we think maybe the sniper  has missed for the first
time. Then the New Guy drops to his knees, praying, clutching his throat.
     Cowboy says, "Let's move."
     "Move, my ass," says Animal Mother. "You move, motherfucker."
     Cowboy  takes a  step toward Animal Mother,  puts his face up close  to
Animal Mother's face, looks Animal  Mother right in  the eye.  "Mother, take
the point."
     Animal Mother stands up, pulls his machine gun off the log and sets the
butt into his hip  so that the black barrel slants up at a forty-five degree
angle. "Marines never abandon their dead or wounded, Mr. Squad Leader, sir."
     Cowboy glares at Animal Mother for several deep breaths, then pulls  me
aside.  "Joker, you're  in charge. Move these people out," Cowboy  sees that
Animal Mother is listening so he adds, "Order Mother to walk the point."
     Animal Mother spits.
     Cowboy says in a low  voice: "Never turn your back on Mother. Never cut
him any slack. He fragged Mr. Shortround."
     I say, "What about you, Cowboy? I  mean, if you get yourself wasted who
will introduce me to your sister?"
     Cowboy  looks  at me.  His face is without expression. "I don't  have a
sister. I thought you  knew that." Cowboy looks at Doc and Alice and the New
Guy. "Mother's right. I've got to try. The  sniper will see you pulling back
and--"
     "Hey, never happen. Fuck it. You can't do anything."
     "Move them out, Joker. By the numbers."
     "But Cowboy, I--"
     "It's my job," Cowboy says.  "It's my job...."  Cowboy says, as  though
his guts are choking him. Then: "Okay?"
     I hesitate.
     "Okay, bro?"
     "Sure,  Cowboy.  I'll get them all  back  to the hill  in  one piece. I
promise."
     Cowboy relaxes. "Thanks, Joker." He grins. "You piece of shit."
     Donlon yells: "LOOK!"
     Doc Jay has the New Guy across his lap.  The  New Guy's face is purple.
Doc Jay is kissing  the  New Guy's purple lips in an attempt to breathe life
back into the limp body. The New Guy  squirms, claws for air. Doc  Jay holds
the  New  Guy  down, zips out his K-bar,  cuts  the New  Guy's  throat.  Air
whistles in through the crude incision, blows pink bubbles in the  New Guy's
blood. The New Guy bucks, wheezes, coughs. Doc Jay spills his Unit One, paws
through  splints, compress bandages, white tape.  Then, frantic,  he empties
his pockets. The Doc throws everything away until he finds a ball-point pen.
He stares at  the ball-point pen, draws his hand back to throw the pen away,
stops,  looks again, unscrews the pen, inserts  the  biggest  piece into the
hole in the New Guy's throat. The New Guy sucks in air, breathes irregularly
through the  small plastic  tube. Doc Jay puts the New Guy down on the deck,
gently.
     Bang.
     Doc Jay's  right ear is split. Cautiously, the Doc touches  the side of
his head, feels wet, jagged meat.
     Bang.
     A bullet cuts off Doc Jay's nose.
     Bang.
     A bullet passes through Doc Jay's cheeks. He coughs, spits  up uprooted
teeth and pieces of his gums.
     Animal Mother snarls, fires his machine gun into the canopy.
     "Get them back," Cowboy says. He drops his Stetson and Mr. Shortround's
shotgun.  He  pops  another  smoke  grenade,  lobs  it   in.  He  jerks  Mr.
Shortround's pistol from his shoulder  holster. And before I can tell Cowboy
that  a pistol is useless in the jungle he punches me on the shoulder like a
kid and runs, feinting as wildly as the narrow trail allows.
     We wait.
     I know  that I  should  be getting the  squad on its feet, but I too am
hypnotized.
     From nowhere and from everywhere comes the sound of something laughing.
We all  rubberneck to see  who  aming  us is so stone-cold  hard  that he is
enjoying a world of shit like this.
     The sniper is laughing at us.
     We try  to  pinpoint the  sniper's  position.  But the  source  of  the
laughter is  all around us. The  laughter seems  to radiate from  the jungle
floor, from the  jade trees, from the  monster plants, from  within our  own
bodies.
     As the dark laughter draws the blood from my veins I see something.  My
eyes  try to focus on a shadow. Sweat stings my eyes, blurs my vision. And I
see Sorry Charlie, a black skull, perched on a branch, and then I understand
that only a  sniper  that does not  fear death would  reveal his position by
laughing....
     I squint. I strain my eyes. The laughing skull fades into a shadow.


     Today I am a sergeant of Marines.
     I laugh  and laugh. The squad freezes with fear  because the sniper  is
laughing  with me. The sniper  and I are laughing together and we know  that
sooner or later the squad will be laughing, too.
     Sooner or later the squad will  surrender  to  the black design  of the
jungle. We live  by the law of the jungle,  which is that more Marines go in
than come out. There it  is. Nobody asks us why we're smiling because nobody
wants  to know.  The ugly that civilians choose  to  see  in war  focuses on
spilled guts. To see human beings clearly,  that is  ugly. To carry death in
your smile, that is ugly. War is ugly because the truth can be  ugly and war
is very  sincere. Ugly  is the face of Victor Charlie,  the shapeless  black
face  of death touching  each  of  your  brothers with  the clean  stroke of
justice.
     Those of us  who survive to be short-timers will fly the  Freedom  Bird
back to hometown America.  But home won't be there  anymore  and we won't be
there either. Upon  each  of our brains  the war has lodged itself, a  black
crab feeding.
     The jungle is quiet now. The sniper has stopped laughing.
     The  squad  is silent, waiting for orders.  Soon  they will understand.
Soon they won't  be afraid. The dark side will surface and  they'll be  like
me; they'll be Marines.
     Once a Marine, always a Marine.


     Cowboy stumbles into the clearing.
     "We're moving," I say, more to Mother than anyone.
     Mother ignores me, watches Cowboy.
     Bang. Right leg.
     Bang. Left leg. Cowboy falls.
     Bang. The  bullet  rips open Cowboy's trousers  at the crotch. "No...."
Cowboy feels for his balls. He shits on himself.
     Animal Mother takes a step.
     Before  I can  make a  move to stop Animal Mother a pistol pops in  the
clearing.
     Bang.
     Then: Bang.
     Donlon: "HE KILLED DOC JAY AND THE NEW GUY!"
     Cowboy shakes himself  to stay conscious. Then  he shoots Alice through
the back of the head.
     Bang. Alice's face is blown off by the forty-five caliber bullet. Alice
flops as though electrocuted.
     Cowboy raises the pistol and  presses  the  huge  barrel to  his  right
temple.
     Bang.
     The pistol falls.
     The sniper has put a bullet through the center of Cowboy's right hand.
     The squad bunches up behind the boulder again. I study  the dirty faces
of all my bearded children:  Animal Mother,  Donlon, Lance Corporal Stutten,
Berny, Harris, Rick Berg, Hand-Job, Thunder, The Kid from  Brooklyn,  Hardy,
Liccardi, and Daddy D.A.
     "Stutten, take your people back."
     Lance Corporal Stutten looks at Animal Mother, takes a step toward him.
The squad is going to follow Mother and commit suicide for a tradition.
     Mother  checks his M-60. His face is  wet with tears, Viking-wild,  red
with  rage. "We'll  go for Cowboy, give the sniper  too many targets. We can
save him."
     I take a step into Animal Mother's path.
     Animal Mother raises his weapon. He holds the M-60 waist high. His eyes
are  red.  He  growls  deep in  his throat. "This  ain't no Hollywood movie,
Joker. Stand down or I will cut you in half..."
     I look into Animal Mother's  eyes. I look into the eyes of a killer. He
means it. I know that he means it. I turn my back on him.
     Animal Mother is going to waste me. The  barrel  of the M-60  probes my
back.
     The squad is silent, waiting for orders.
     I raise  my grease  gun  and I  aim it at Cowboy's  face.  Cowboy looks
pitiful and he's terrified. Cowboy is paralyzed by the shock that is setting
in  and by the helplessness.  I hardly know him. I remember the first time I
saw Cowboy, on Parris Island, laughing, beating his Stetson on his thigh.
     I look at him. He looks at the grease gun. He calls out: "I NEVER LIKED
YOU, JOKER. I NEVER THOUGHT YOU WERE FUNNY--"
     Bang.  I  sight down the  short metal tube and I watch my  bullet enter
Cowboy's left  eye. My bullet passes through his eye socket, punches through
fluid-filled sinus  cavities, through membranes,  nerves,  arteries,  muscle
tissue,  through  the tiny blood  vessels  that  feed  three  pounds of gray
butter-soft high protein meat  where brain  cells arranged like  jewels in a
clock hold  every  thought and memory  and  dream of  one  adult  male  Homo
sapiens.
     My bullet exits through the occipital bone, knocks out hairy, brain-wet
clods of jagged meat, then buries itself in the roots of a tree.
     Silence. Animal Mother lowers his M-60.
     Animal Mother, Donlon, Lance Corporal Stutten, Harris,  and  the  other
guys in the squad do not speak. Everyone relaxes, glad to be alive. Everyone
hates  my guts, but they know I'm  right.  I am  their sergeant; they are my
men. Cowboy was killed by sniper fire, they'll say, but they'll never see me
again; I'll be invisible.
     "Saddle up," I say,  and the squad  responds. Packs are hefted up.  The
flap and rattle  of  equipment. A grunt, a growl,  and the Lusthog  Squad is
ready to move.
     I study their  faces. Then I say, "Man-oh-man, Cowboy looks like a  bag
of leftovers  from a V.F.W. barbecue. Of course, I've  got  nothing  against
dead people. Why, some of my best friends are dead!"
     Silence. They all look at me. I have never felt so alive.
     Semper Fi, Mom and Dad, Semper  Fi, my  werewolf children. Payback is a
motherfucker.
     They shift their gear to more comfortable positions.
     They wait for an order. I pick up Cowboy's muddy Stetson.
     I wave my hand and the squad moves out, moves back down the trail.
     Nobody talks. We're  all too tired to talk, to joke, to call each other
names. The  day has been too hot, the hump too long. We've shot up our share
of Victor Charlie jungle plants and we are wasted.
     We wrap ourselves in pastel fantasies of varied designs and "X" another
day  off our short-timer's calendars. We  look forward to imaginary bennies:
hot showers, cold beer, a  fix of Coke (because things go better with Coke),
juicy steaks,  mail from hone, and a  moment of privacy in  which to massage
our wands,  inspired by fading  photographs of loving wives and  girlfriends
back in the World.
     The showers  will be cold, the beer, if  there  is any, will be hot. No
steak. No  Cokes. The mail, if  there is any,  will not be from sweethearts.
The mail from hometown America, like the half dozen letters I carry unopened
in my rucksack, will say:  Write  more often be  careful  if you think  it's
tough there bought this used  car what  a report card mother is taking shots
nothing good on TV don't  write  depressing letters  so  maybe send me fifty
bucks new furniture in the dining room for a ring quick buddy she's pregnant
be real careful write more often and so on and so on until you feel like you
just got a Dear John letter from the whole damned world.


     We hump back down the trail.
     Back  on the hill, Sorry Charlie, our bro,  will laugh at  us one  more
time; Sorry Charlie, at least, will greet us with a smile.
     Putting our  minds back into our  feet, we concentrate all  our  energy
into taking that next step, that one more  step, just one  more step....  We
try very hard not to think  about anything important, try  very  hard not to
think that there's no slack and that it's a long walk home.
     There it is.
     I wave my hand and Mother takes the point.


Популярность: 43, Last-modified: Tue, 24 Jan 2006 18:33:41 GMT