Walt died this week. We met in Vietnam, and stayed close after the war. At his funeral, everyone spoke glowingly of his generosity and kindness. But all I could think about was our lowest moment.
In Vietnam, everyone knew the power structure: the President, the Joint Chiefs, major generals, regular generals, and all the way down the ranks until the foot soldiers like me. But we weren’t the end of the chain; the Vietnamese were.
I was sent to Saigon in the summer of ’68, the “Summer of Love.” My brothers (war has a way of turning strangers into brothers) and I soon learned that there was no love in the jungle.
I never vocally opposed an order. But I would be lying if I said I always agreed with everything we were told to do. The same was true for most of the men, I suppose. I only had one conversation, with my best friend Walt, where I shared my doubts about what we were doing. I woke up one night and Walt wasn’t in our tent. I found him outside, sitting on the ground with his legs folded and his head tucked into his body. He told me he couldn’t stand it anymore.
“Look at what we’re doing to these people, man. They didn’t do anything to us, you know? But we’re bombing the living daylights out of these people anyway. I get the whole, ‘Stop the spread of Communism’ thing, but this is way too much for me”, Walt told me. It struck me that he said what I had been thinking for the past week.
“I know, Walt. I know how you feel. I wonder if we’re bound for hell sometimes. If there is a God somewhere, how the hell could he let us in? Look at all that we’ve done: the firebombing, the napalm, destroying villages, crops, homes, everything. It’s not right.”
“I still can’t believe we did that.”
“You mean Chu Lai?”
A week before our talk we received orders to enter a village named Chu Lai. Army intelligence said the village was a likely hideout for Viet Cong troops. We slogged through five miles of filth in the pouring rain to get there just as night fell. Due to the intelligence, we were expecting some sort of resistance. We found none. We searched every house. We found no guns, no ammo, no maps or charts, nothing but terrified villagers. I began to wish we did walk into a firefight that night; at least it would’ve given us some action. I was ready to head back when I heard the one word I wanted to hear least:
I heard the word being sent around the village, but I wasn’t going to join. “Ghost” was the order to completely obliterate a village. The name came from the idea that it was supposed to look like there was never a village there; the irony was that though you couldn’t tell a village had been there, you could tell we had been there.
When I heard the order, I had just entered a small hut about the size of a standard hotel room these days. A mother and father were huddled in the corner with their son. I can’t describe them to you. I looked once and turned away. I pulled out my rifle, and without looking at them shot at least ten bullets in their direction. I was afraid to look after. What if I missed the boy and hit his parents? I’d have to look at that boy; he’d ask me with his eyes for a reason, and I would have none. I never checked if they were dead. After I ducked out of the hut I lit a match and threw it onto the hut. I’m sure it burnt. Later that night, after trekking back, I realized that if anyone was still alive in that hut as it burnt, they would have wished to have been struck by a million bullets, rather than burn to death in their own hut, next to their dead family.
Walt had the same story. We all have the same story from that night. There wasn’t a single thing remaining in Chu Lai when we left. We had followed our orders perfectly.
“Why the hell did we do that, Sam? What is wrong with us? We should’ve shot ourselves, for crying out loud. Where’s our honor? Isn’t that a big part of all this? What’s honorable about murdering a bunch of villagers in cold blood? We’ll never be able to forgive ourselves, Sam.”
“I don’t know, Walt. I really don’t know anything. But what were we supposed to do? Shoot ourselves? That’s crazy talk, Walt, and you know it is, too. We did what we were told.”
“I just want a goddamn reason, Sammy. Anything.”
I couldn’t give Walt an answer that night. Nobody could. He died with the weight of that night hanging over him. I spent many years trying to find Walt an answer, hoping it would comfort him somewhere, somehow. Remember the power structure I mentioned at the beginning? That’s the answer. Power is the answer. We had no power. We were at the bottom of the order. We walked those five miles in the rain knowing what we were doing was not right. But we had no power. The only power we had was over those villagers in Chu Lai. The “ghost” order was the final straw. How dare we be ordered to kill innocent people, we thought. So we took a bit of power back the only way we could, by killing those people and burning their village. And you know what the worst thing is? It felt good when we shot them. It felt good to have some power. That’s why I feel so terrible about it; I liked shooting innocents in cold blood, just for a little control, a little authority, a little power. I know it sounds inhuman. But it’s the most human thing there is.