The Realities of War: A Moment with Bill Reflection
Some Opening Thoughts Before Creativity Flows
I am not here to debate the morality or necessity of war. This is, in effect, a writing exercise, but like most writing that is done, it is an extension of the writer. My feelings and thoughts naturally crawl into my writing, like some slithering insect finding a crack in the door frame. It is unavoidable and I am fine with that.
My father served in five combat campaigns in Italy during World War Two. He would not talk of that experience, so great were the horrors he witnessed. The same can be said for friends of mine who served in Vietnam. They could not find the words to describe what they saw….heard…smelled….the fear that was their constant companion….and many of them turned to drugs and alcohol, while others had the need to unleash their anger upon loved ones.
War is hell!
We would do well to remember that the next time we are cavalier about sending young men into battle.
With that preface out of the way, I’ll share with you, through some creative writing, my thoughts about war. Both sections are from my second novel, Resurrecting Tobias.
We finally reached the valley after a helicopter drop and two days of hiking. The lieutenant called out, “Smoke ‘em if you got them.” In theory, this was a fairly safe mission. Go in, see if we could retrieve documents reportedly left behind by the Third, and get the hell out as quickly as possible. There were no reports of NVA in the area, but that thought did not bring relief to anyone in our little group.
The A Sau Valley is twenty-five miles long, one mile wide, flanked by vertical jungles to the east and west. The main vegetation that day was elephant grass, in places chest high, making it damned nearly impossible to see ten feet. A bit eerie that grass, slightly swaying in a gentle breeze, deceptive in its calm appearance, sort of like a rhythmic dance of death. There’s nothing quite like marching into enemy territory and not being able to see further than a drifting fart in any direction, all the while knowing that if the NVA is there, they are having no such problems with sight. Your asshole puckers, your jaws lock, and you swear you can hear every single one of your heartbeats.
Sentries were posted while we all grabbed a breather and drank from our canteens. It was miserably hot that day. Bugs, sweat, dirt, rank body odor….it all added up to a lovely walk in the countryside.
Private Emmanuel Johnson, he of the two-hundred acre corn farm in Nebraska, needed to relieve himself, so he ambled over for cover where he could water the countryside. Unfortunately, he triggered a mine not twenty yards from where we were resting and then, as folks are quite apt to say in a similar situation, the shit hit the fan.
The first thing to happen, of course, was the obliteration of Private Emmanuel Johnson. Whatever memories he had of his time on that farm were gone in a blinding flash and an ear-shattering explosion. The next thing to occur was the NVA declaring open hunting season on our ragtag collection of misfits. From the north, the underbrush came alive with automatic fire. My hiking buddies and I dove for cover. I remember thinking I needed to be one hell of a writer to put a positive spin on this cluster f*%. I also remember looking down at my leg and wondering why there was blood oozing through my fatigues.
We were pinned down pretty damned good. We lost Corporal Hollis, from Lubbock, Texas, that day as well as Private Delaney, of Greene, Iowa and Private McAllister, of Walla Walla, Washington. None of them would see another birthday. None of them would kiss another girl. None of them would hear their mothers say “I love you” or sleep in their childhood beds ever again.
Our second lieu got on the radio and suggested the birds scoop in and pull us out as soon as was humanly possible, which they did forty-two minutes later. Those forty-two minutes were spent in what I like to refer as suspended animation. At some point, sound disappears, even though bullets are streaking by and explosions rule your tiny world. The other senses are on hyper-alert, and your body switches into cruise control. All of those hours of training override the visceral terror that you should be feeling. You are in survival mode, pure and simple.
My dad once told me he learned during World War Two that all thought of country and honor leave your head when you are under fire. All you are concerned about are the guys next to you in the foxhole. You’ve got their backs, and they’ve got yours. He also said there are no atheists in a foxhole. I understood completely what my dad meant. During those forty-two minutes, I am pretty certain a few prayers escaped my lips.
Never have rotating blades sounded as musical as they did that afternoon when the Hueys made their approach. It was not an easy extraction, but they got it done. Final count was four dead, three wounded, including yours truly with a leg wound that still hurts forty years later. But, hey….that leg wound had me on a transport heading back to the States two weeks later, the proud recipient of a Purple Heart and a gut full of disillusionment.
I killed a child that day. He came out of the brush as we were loading into the chopper. His rounds missed; mine didn’t. I still, today, can see his body writhing on the ground, the life leaking into the soil, another conglomeration of hopes and dreams decaying under the scorching sun. I went home. He did not, and hell yes, that made me happy. I was downright giddy knowing his future was non-existent, while mine still had a chance of happening.
That was then. Now…..well, the cost of taking a life is steep.
Full Metal Love
Happiness is a warm gun….bang, bang, shoot, shoot. And none was warmer back in the day than the M16, my friends, a soldier’s best friend unless, of course, it jammed, and then jamming would be the keyword, as in jam it up your ass and hope you can fart out a bullet at fifteen hundred feet per second.
Kiss me, hold me, and never let me go. My dad once told me there are no atheists in a foxhole, and that may be true, but the number one object of desire…the number one object of devotion and love in a foxhole….is the M16. My rifle is my friend. My rifle is my savior. I will clean my rifle, sleep with my rifle, touch my rifle endearingly, and I’ll be goddamned if I’ll let the enemy have my rifle, for my eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Huey, come to take us away oh Lord, come to take us away.
She’s sweet, my rifle, with a long, slender neck of steel, a butt of aluminum alloy and sweet plastic to lighten the load. She’s got a carrying handle for easy transport, a rear sight assembly for staring down the Cong, and she’ll spit out an M193 cartridge without bigotry or hatred. She is a fine killing machine, my rifle, and she makes no judgments.
You think Aunt Martha’s fruitcake is ugly? Take a look some time at a man gut shot by an M16 if you want to experience ugly. Press down on that wound, soldier…push those guts back in…get me a litter over here because there is no fucking way we are leaving a wounded man behind. Strap him on, push down, I said, on that wound. Don’t make me tell you again, boy! He’ll bleed out if you can’t push down hard enough, and then what’s his family going to do when he don’t show up for Christmas? Do you want that on your conscience? No you don’t, boy, so keep pressing down, and we’ll get you some help as fast as possible.
Shoot him up with some morphine, dammit, he’s hurting bad, and the Huey can’t get in because of the damned ground fire, and holy shit! Did you see that mushroom? They must be closer than we thought, so pick up that litter, you two, we’re moving out. Keep it level , and keep it at double-time out of here, down that path. Step it up, boys, step it up. Private Johnson needs to get home to his mommy, and we need to get the hell away from this killing zone.
I’m telling you, man, there is one in every platoon. ‘I don’t believe in killing…no way I can shoot someone else…they haven’t done a damned thing to me…. .’ But just wait until he’s staring death in the face, man, and you’ll see that pacifist unload a full magazine into a thirteen year old faster than you can shit a brick. It’s always the same and has been since the beginning of recorded time: kill or be killed. That is the only damned law of the jungle you need concern yourself with when the lead is flying and your future can only be measured in minutes.
God, country, family, fighting for freedom, my friend, that’s the bullshit you’ll hear in the States, but ask anyone in the trenches, and they’ll tell you they are fighting to stay alive. Nothing else crosses their mind when the bullets are buzzing and the sweat mixes with blood, and the groans of the wounded mix with the smell of shredded innards and released bowels, and the red, white and blue lies tattered in a puddle of red and brown.
Just fighting to stay alive.
And then it happens, silently in the night comes stealing, the numbness that takes over your whole damned being. Sure, you are alert for every broken twig, every flicker of reflected light, every change in nuance that could mean full metal love is about to pay you a visit, but the fear disappears, replaced with resignation.
This is the reality of shit, my friend. You are stuck in this steaming, festering, dehumanizing situation, and you need to just shut it all out, close the shutters, block out the emotions, and just put one boot in front of the other and survive. You are so fucking tired you fall asleep while standing up stealing a smoke break. You see the severed limbs, but now they have the same significance as a tree branch. If you smiled….and why would you?....your smile would have no luster, for the light has left your eyes, your heart, and your soul, and it’s just about safety mechanisms as old as mankind.
It’s not shock; it’s detachment. My body is walking, I can feel it moving, I can smell the death, and I can see the hatred, but it ain’t registering, and if it does begin to register, we just take another toke of that magical weed and make it through another click, and another, and listen for the beautiful sounds, the orchestrated melodies of the Huey symphony as it flits across the treetops looking for a clear field and extraction from another hell hole.
Just alive to be fighting. A switch in realities, don’t you see? The farm boys from Nebraska, the crab fishermen from Maine, the factory workers from Michigan, no longer who they once were, just shuffling along to the beat of automatic fire as it reverberates through the canopy, the smell of napalm in the morning, the taste of blood in the afternoon, the sounds of misery all through the night.
This is your reality now, not some goddamn family picnic or a shopping trip in your sixty-eight Chevy with the top down and your babe next to you looking so sweet and innocent and desirable, and look! Over yonder….is it a bird, is it a plane, no it’s….
And I’ll tell you something else, boys and girls. When the guy next to you has his head explode like a ripe watermelon, you stop and give silent thanks that it wasn’t you. There it is, the naked truth for all to give witness to. There is unbridled joy when someone else not named you takes a bullet or steps on a Bouncing Betty, because it means you cheated the system one more time, and praise the Lord, I say, and pass the ammunition, and that shit will seep into your very being, my friends. It will infiltrate your mind and cling for decades, because one more time your humanity took a broadside hit, and you were diminished once more in a cesspool of survival.
Me and my rifle, wherever it goes, everyone knows it’s me and my rifle.
And now I lay me down to sleep and pray the Lord my soul to keep.
Me and my rifle!
Take from That What You Will
Is war necessary? Or shall we just say war is a reality? This writer is sixty-five years of age, and I do not remember life without war. There are 7.2 billion people in this world, and that’s a whole lot of possibilities for disagreement. Toss in a pinch of greed and a dash of power-grabbing, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for death and destruction.
I’m just tossing this out. If it sticks in your subconscious, then great!
Have a peaceful day.
2014 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)