from Rumor of War

excerpt from Prologue

Though we were civilians again, the civilian world seemed alien. We did not belong to it as much as we did to that other world, where we had fought and our friends had died.

I was involved in the antiwar movement at the time and struggled, unsuccessfully, to reconcile my opposition to the war with this nostalgia. Later, I realized a reconciliation was impossible; I would never be able to hate the war with anything like the undiluted passion of my friends in the movement. Because I had fought in it, it was not an abstract issue, but a deeply emotional experience, the most significant thing that had happened to me. It held my thoughts, senses, and feelings in an unbreakable embrace. I would hear in thunder the roar of artillery. I could not listen to rain without recalling those drenched nights on the line, nor walk through woods without instinctively searching for a trip wire or an ambush. I could protest as loudly as the most convinced activist, but I could not deny the grip the war had on me, nor the fact that it had been an experience as fascinating as it was repulsive, as exhilarating as it was sad, as tender as it was cruel.

This book is partly an attempt to capture something of its ambivalent realities. Anyone who fought in Vietnam, if he is honest about himself, will have to admit he enjoyed the compelling attractiveness of combat. It was a peculiar enjoyment because it was mixed with a commensurate pain. Under fire, a man's powers of life heightened in proportion to the proximity of death, so that he felt an elation as extreme as his dread. His senses quickened, he attained an acuity of consciousness at once pleasurable and excruciating. It was something like the elevated state of awareness induced by drugs. And it could be just as addictive, for it made whatever else life offered in the way of delights or torments seem pedestrian.

excerpt from "The Officer in Charge of the Dead", (Chapter 10)

As fighting increased, the additional duty of casualty reporting officer kept me busiest. It was also a job that gave me a lot of bad dreams, though it had the beneficial effect of cauterizing whatever silly, abstract, romantic ideas I still had about war. My job was simply to report on casualties, enemy as well as our own; casualties due to hostile action and those due to nonhostile causes-the accidents that inevitably occur where there are large numbers of young men armed with lethal weapons or at the controls of complicated machinery. Artillery shells sometimes fell on friendly troops, tanks ran over people, marines shot other marines by mistake.

It was not the simple task it seemed. The military has elaborate procedures for everything, and keeping record of the dead and wounded is no exception. The reports were written on mimeographed forms, one for KIAs, one for WIAs-and for those of you who arent' familiar, KIA stands for killed in action and WIA stands for wounded in action, and a third for nonhostile casualties. Each form had spaces for the victim's name, age, rank, serial number, and unit, and for the date, the description of his injuries, and the circumstances under which they occurred. If he had been killed, the circumstances were almost always described in the same way, and the words could have served as an epitaph for thousands of men: "killed in action while on patrol vicinity of Danang. RVN."

The KIA reports were long and complicated. Much information was required about the dead: their religion, the name and address of their next of kin, beneficiaries of their servicemen's life insurance policies, and whether the money was to be paid in a lump sum or in installments. All reports had to be written in that clincial, euphemistic language military prefers to simple English. If, say, a marine been shot through the guts, I could not write "shot through the guts" or even "shot through the stomach"; no, I had to say; "GSW" ( gunshot wound ) "through and through, abdomen." Shrapnel wounds were called "multiple fragment lacerations," and the phrase for dismemberment, one of mty very favorite phrases, was "traumatic amputation." I had to use it a lot when the Viet Cong began to employ high-explosive weapons and booby traps. A device they used frequently was the command-detonated mine, which was set off electrically from ambush. The mines were similar to our Claymore, packed with hundreds of steel pellets and a few pounds of an explosive called C-4. If I recall correctly, the gas-expansion rate of C-4 is 26,000 feet per second. That terrific force, and the hundreds of steel pellets propelled by it, made the explosion of a command-detonated mine equivalent to the simultaneous firing of seventy twelve gauge shotguns loaded with double-O buckshot. Naturally, anyone hit by such a weapon was likely to suffer the "traumatic amputation" of something-an arm, a leg, his head-and many did. After I saw some of the victims, I began to question the accuracy of the phrase. Traumatic amputation, was precise, for losing a limb is definitely traumatic, but operation.seemed to me, suggested a surgical operation. I observed, however, that the human body does not break apart cleanly in an explosion. It tends to shatter into irregular and often unrecognizable pieces, so "traumatic fragmentation" would have been a more accurate term and would have preserved the euphemistic tone the military favored.

The shattering or fragmenting effect of high explosive occasionally caused semantic difficulties in reporting injuries of men who had undergone extreme mutilation. It was a rare phenomenon, but some marines had been so badly manged there seemed to be no words to describe what had happened to them. Sometime that year, Lieutenant Colonel Meyers, one of the regiment's battalion commanders, stepped on a booby-trapped 155-mm shell. They did not find enough of him to fill a willy-peter bag, a waterproof sack a little larger than a shopping bag. In effect, Colonel Meyers had been disintegrated, but the official report read something like "traumatic amputation, both feet; traumatic amputation, both legs and arms; multiple lacerations to abdomen; through-and-through fragment wounds, head and chest" Then came the redundant notation "killed in action."

The battalion adjutants phoned in reports of their units' casualties, and I relayed them to the division combat casualty reporting center. That done, I filed copies of the reports in their respective folders, one labeled CASUALTIES: HOSTILE ACTION and the other CASUALTIES: NON HOSTILE, I believe the two were kept separate because men killed or wounded by enemy fire were automatically awarded Purple Hearts, while those hit by friendly fire were not. That was the onlt real difference. A man killed by friendly fire (another misleading term, because fire is never friendly if it hits you) was just as dead as one killed by the enemy. And there was often an accidental quality even about battle casualties. Stepping on a mine or stumbling over the trip wire of a booby trap is a mishap, really, not unlike walking in front of a car while crossing a busy street.

Once the reports were filed, I brought Colonel Wheeler's scoreboard up to date. Covered with acetate and divided into vertical and horizontal columns, the board hung behind the executive officer's desk, in the wood-framed tent where he and the colonel made their headquarters. The vertical columns were headed, from left to right, KIA, WIA, DOW (died of wounds), NONHOST, VC-KlA, VC-WIA, and the horizontal columns were labeled with the numerical designations of the units belonging to, or attached to, the regiment. In the first four vertical columns were written the number of casualties a particular unit had suffered, in the last three the number it had inflicted on the enemy. After an action, I went into the colonel's quarters, erased the old figures and wrote in the new with a grease pencil. The colonel, an easygoing man in most instances, was adamant about maintaining an accurate scoreboard: high-ranking visitors from Danang and dropped in unannounced to see how the regiment was performing. And the measures of Vietnam were not the distances it had advanced or the number of victories it had won, but the number of soldiers it had killed (the body count) and the proportion between that number and the number of its own dead (the kill ratio) . The scoreboard thus allowed the colonel to keep track of the battalions and companies under his command and, quickly and crisply, to rattle off impressive figures to visiting dignitaries. My unsung task in that statistical war was to do the arithmetic. If I had been an agent of death as a platoon leader, as a staff officer I was death's bookkeeper.

The driver parked behind the adjutant's tent and hitched the trailer. It tipped forward, the hitch against the ground and the bodies tumbling over on top of each other. A half-severed arm, with a piece of bone protruding whitely through the flesh, flopped over the side of the trailer, then flopped back in again. Stretcher-bearers came up and carried the young woman to the regimental aid station-this was a civilian that was wounded. The old woman shuffled along behind, spitting blackish-red betel-nut juice into the dust.

I checked to make sure there were four bodies. There appeared to be. It was difficult to tell. Tossed around in the trailer, they had become entangled, one barely distinguishable from another. Three of them were entangled, anyway. The fourth did not have arms below the elbow, and his legs had been shot or blown off completely. The others had been mangled in other places. One had been hit in head, his brains and the white cartilage that had moored them to his skull spilling onto the bottom of the trailer. Another, hit in the midsection, had been turned inside out, the slick, blue and greenish brown mass of his intestines bulging out of him. There was a deep, dark red pool of blood at the low end of the trailer. I turned away from the sight and told the driver to get the bodies out of there.

"Sorry, sir," he said, starting up his jeep. "I was told to ve the bodies here. I've got to get back to the motor pool."

"Who the hell told you to leave the bodies here?" I said.

The driver shrugged. "Some officer told me, lieutenant. I've got to get back to the motor pool."

"All right, shove off." I said.

The marine drove away. I went into the tent and told Kazmarack-this was an enlisted man who was one of my assistants-- to take the corpses to the cemetery where the enemy dead were buried. Kazmarack called it the body dump, and it was more that than a proper cemetery.

Captain Anderson-that was my boss-- said, "Leave the bodies here, Mister Caputo."

"Sir, they're going to smell pretty bad in another few hours."

"The colonel wants the bodies here."

"What the hell for?"

"He wants the clerks around here to look at them. There isn't much around here, so I guess he wants them to get used to the sight of blood."

"You're kidding, captain."

"No, I'm not."

"Well, I don't think much of that idea, sir. Christ, let's just bury the poor bastards."

"Lieutenant, I think what you think doesn't make much difference. The Old Man wants these people to get used to sight of blood, and that's what they're going to do."

"Well, there's plenty of blood in there, but I'm not sure they're going to get used to it. Plenty of other stuff, too, guts and brains."

"I'll tell you when to get rid of the bodies."

"Yes, sir."

So the corpses were left lying in the sun. As the colonel ordered, the headquarters troops were marched past the trailer to look at the dead Viet Cong. They filed by like visitors passing before an exhibit in a museum. The sun burned down, and the bodies began to smell in the heat. The odor, at first faint because the VC had been dead only a short time, was like cooking gas escaping from an oven burner. One by one, the marines walked up to the trailer looked into it, made some desperate jokes when they what was inside or said nothing at all, then walked back to their desks and typewriters. The sun burned hotter in empty sky; the smell grew stronger. It blew into the adjutant's tent on a puff of breeze, the cooking-gas odor a stench that reminded me of hydrogen sulfide used in high-school chemistry classes. Well, that was all the corpses were, masses of chemicals and decaying matter. Looking outside, I was pleased to see that the show was almost over; the marines at the end of the line were filing past the trailer. Because of the smell, they kept their distance. The smell was not unbearable; several hours would pass before it got that bad. It was, however, strong enough to prt these men at the end of the line from lingering, as those at the front of the line had done, thus depriving them of the chance to look at the corpses long enough to become accustomed to the sight of blood. They just gave the bodies a brief glance, then moved quickly from the trailer and the growing stench.

The procession ended. Kazmarack and another clerk, Corporal Stasek, hitched up the trailer and drove off towards Danang. Anderson left for a staff conference that had been called in preparation for General Thompson's visit. Ten minutes later, he came lumbering back into the tent, his red, jowly face pouring sweat.

"Mister Caputo, we've got to get those bodies back here."

I looked at him incredulously.

''The Old Man wants thebodies back show them to the general when he briefs him," Anderson said.

"Stasek and Kazmarack are gone, sir," I said. They're probably in Danang by now."

"I know they're gone. I want you to find somebody who can handle a jeep. Tell him to catch up with those two and have them bring those bodies back here ASAP.

" "Captain, I don't really believe we're doing this."

"Just get moving." He turned and walked off with quick, jerky little steps.

I managed to find a driver who knew the route and told him what to do. I returned to the tent, where, in the spirit of the madness in which I was taking part, I made up a new title for myself. I wrote it on a piece of cardboard and tacked the cardboard to my desk, and it read:


The general arrived by helicopter-and what other way is there for a general?-in midafternoon. I had a glimpse of him as he walked into the headquarters next door, the colonel on one side of him, Lieutenant Colonel Brooks on other, and a couple of nervous-looking aides trailing. He looked about the same height and build as Wheeler, but all resemblance ended there. Wheeler was wearing the drab battle dress of a field commander, Thompson a uniform that befitted a Lieutenant General in the Army of the United States. Three white stars shone on his green cap. Three more adorned each starched collar. A blue and white Combat Infantry Badge was pinned to his chest. Various patches added bits of color to his shoulder sleeves, and a name tag above his left pocket proclaimed his identity: THOMPSON.

The briefing started. Stasek and Kazmarack returned a quarter of an hour later, both looking overwrought. "Lieutenant, sir," Stasek said, "what the hell's going on? We had those VC buried . . ."

I told them what was going on and asked where the bodies were.

"Outside, sir." Stasek started to laugh in the slightly hysterical way a man does when what he really wants to do is scream. "Christ, we had to pull them out of where we buried them. One of the VC's guts spilled right out of him. Then I pulled at another one and his leg started to come off. They were just coming apart."

"Okay, that's enough," I said. "Sorry about all this. Just stand by for now, but you'll have to bring the bodies when; the briefing's over."

"Yes, sir. If that general's going to look at those bodies, we'd better hose the trailer down."

"Okay, hose it down then," I said, walking out of the tent with him and Kazmarack. The trailer was parked in the same place as before.

The briefing was going on next door. I could not hear every word, just disjointed phrases: "and we're planning further operations in the Le-My area . . . that's here, general..." Through the screening, I saw Thompson sitting, legs crossed. He nodded while the briefing officer talked and waved a pointer at the big wall map in the colonel's tent. Wheeler was standing by his desk, a collection of captured enemy weapons hanging on a partition that divided his half of the tent from Brooks's. "One of our patrols engaged force in that vicinity this morning, sir . . . activity has increased . . ." Twenty yards away, Kazmarack and another marine had connected a hose to a water carrier and were filling the trailer. The general, uncrossing his legs, said something I could not quite hear. "Yes, sir," replied the briefing officer. With the trailer filled, Kazmarack and the other marine disconnected the hose. They lifted the hitch from the ground, pushed the trailer back a couple of feet, pulled it forward, pushed it back, pulled it forward again, sluicing it out. There was a murmuring inside the colonel's tent. "I think I can answer that one for you, sir," someone said. Outside, Corporal Stasek said, "Okay, Kaz, tip it back a little." Kazmarack and the marine who was helping him tipped the trailer backward. They held it like that, each with both arms under the hitch, their arms straining from the weight, while Stasek squatted, reached underneath the trailer, and unscrewed the plug in the bottom. He pulled his hand back quickly when the water poured out in a heavy red stream speckled with bits of white stuff. "Jesus Christ," Stasek said, "look at it all."

When the briefing ended, General Thompson, Colonel Wheeler, and the other officers came out of the tent. I saluted smartly as they walked past me toward my freshly washed corpses. I thought of them as mine; they were the dead and I was the officer in charge of the dead. A rivulet blood-colored water flowed from under the trailer and soaked into the dust. The brass stepped over it carefully, to avoid ruining the shine on their boots. Someone pointed out the bodies and told the general that they were the VC who had been killed in the morning. He glanced at them, said something to the colonel, then continued on to the landing zone, where his helicopter waited.

[PHILIP CAPUTO, A Rumor of War, New York 1996, pp....]


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