combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 05 Number 01 Winter ©Jan 2007

The Forty-First Perception

          John spoke out to counterbalance life on the wrong side of the looking glass. He never made false statements or meaningless statements. He cast simple truths onto an unreal world. At Army boot camp in Oklahoma he occupied the bunk above mine. I liked him right away because of the absence of profanity in his speech. As we recruits sat captive to our drill sergeant's dirty-mouth yawps, I wrapped my mind around the first statement I heard John make. He leaped to his feet and said, "Spouting river talk marks a loser."

          As soon as we arrived in Vietnam, the Army provided NCOs and lashed us together into forty-man platoons. The collective intelligence of a rifle platoon far exceeds the intelligence of any commanding general. From forty individual perceptions, there arises a forty-first perception which reconciles and distills the best thinking and casts it with clarity. This powerful synthesis spreads by magic throughout the platoon, it allows a simple grunt to see through walls.

          Alice would understand our collective perception, like when she held the looking-glass book in front of the mirror and the words suddenly went the right way. Each of us could taste this forty-first perception; John could verbalize it.

          A parade of brass lectured our platoon those first few weeks in Vietnam. We never asked questions at any of these pep talks. We could smell the lies. But after each talk we crowded around John. He translated our collective impression into words. "John Wayne's not hardly here," he said, after a deluded general gave us a patriotic talk. "Meddling with the calendar in the wrong war," he said in response to an arrogant colonel who promised we would arrive home by Christmas. A hollow major told us the U.S. Army had already whipped Charlie. This prompted John to say, "Not if God's with Charlie." Our battalion chaplain, a bottom-feeder who exchanged currency for unsuspecting soldiers at unfavorable rates, said we should consider this a holy war. John's comment: "Holy wars fetch bad rates."

          The Army lashed together our jungle training from thin air. Stolen losing ideas mixed with exercises devised by unblooded staff officers yielded predictable results. As a captive audience, we listened to lectures on how to whip Charlie. One of our guys slipped into the instructor's shack and found military text books translated from the French. John said, "Makes a grunt feel warm when they spout from George Armstrong Custer's book." The analogy between following French tactical failures and following Custer into a massacre blew through the platoon in minutes.

          In the bush, we trained with helicopters. A small group would sneak on foot into a clearing and pile up brush to break the others' falls in jumps from a hovering chopper. Once John and I were the last to jump. The chopper rose a little in response to the lost weight as each man jumped. When our turn came, the chopper hovered high above the brush pile. We yelled for the pilot to lower the chopper, but he did not hear us. John and I jumped, after which he said, "Dangerous duty holding up dominoes." We never used this technique in combat.

          Both poorly trained and confused, we were sent out to fight anyway. Limited at first to day patrols on foot, we soon learned that we fought only when Charlie wanted to fight, and when we clashed Charlie outnumbered us.

          Our collective insight reached a zenith when we deduced our commanding general's strategy. Aircraft and artillery were assigned the job of killing the enemy. The job of the infantry was only to draw fire to locate enemy troop concentrations. John called us tethered goats: "Sometimes we're propped behind wire enclosures and sometimes as targets along a jungle trail."

          Charlie ambushed our first night patrol on a narrow trail. Noise and light flashes numbed my brain. I froze. In the dark, Charlie knew the exact positions in the column of our lieutenant and his radioman, the opening bursts riddled them. John and I hunkered on the edge of the trail, behind a large tree root. Those who panicked and leaped into the bush away from the VC, lit among landmines and blew into puzzle parts. John set the example by firing accurate bursts at the VC and soon the rest of us joined in and established a solid base of fire. Charlie slipped away.

          I grieved for our lieutenant. Although no less hollow than any officer, he was tolerable. I remember him as always being so proud of his midwestern hometown. Just after we passed through the wire returning to our camp, John made a single comment, "Charlie's not from Cincinnati."

          Charlie used everything and everyone against us and rarely made mistakes. Groups of Vietnamese kids hung around the main gate, the younger kids distracted us by asking for chewing gum and the older ones counted us as we went out on patrol. Vietnamese villagers looked through us, beyond us into a future that did not include us. If Charlie hid ten feet away, the villagers would tell us nothing. Following the way of our own Plains Indians who found uses for all parts of the buffalo, the villagers sat in the dirt making tools from crashed fighter-bomber skins.

          Supplies had a special status in Vietnam. More valuable than men, supplies rated round-the-clock guards, razor wire, mine fields, guard dogs, and watch towers. Three men lost on patrol, who cares, but a missing case of potato chips brought on a formal investigation. Each of us speculated about our own individual value to the army. A case of ping-pong balls equals a good point man, a container of ice cream for a machine gunner.

          Ruined Buddhist temples, pock-marked rice paddies, and dead water buffaloes punctuated the landscape. Our military power allowed us to erase in moments, for trivial reasons, what man and nature had developed over uncountable centuries. After a B-52 raid on a small patch of former jungle, our platoon walked in a skirmish line through the moonscape. Nothing. John said, "General Sherman swinging a sledgehammer bobbing for apples."

          We started using large helicopters on deep patrols and soon learned a significant truth: A vast jungle area includes only a few clearings. Charlie knew this. The procession of lieutenants and sergeants that passed through our platoon had to learn this and many other things. Grunts paid the cost of their tuition. Mostly we landed in cold clearings, no VC. At first our luck held. The two hot clearings didn't hurt us bad. Charlie had not reached them in strength before we landed.

          Every man in our platoon considered John a good soldier who always did his duty. He stood out as skilled in the field, expert on point, a deadly shot, a man who never panicked, a man you could trust. For any replacement trooper who asked him, he helped the guy adjust to the new life. Also, John never complained about the heat, the snakes, the leeches, the red dust, the danger, the Vietnamese ingratitude, or the futility. He knew everything important. Always carrying respect for the enemy, he described the jungle as "Charlie's tall tobacco" and the war as "Charlie's Boston tea." After refusing a promotion to squad leader, he said, "Might bend me to lip lies."

          High casualties meant that we met a variety of replacements: lost souls unable to locate Vietnam on a map, volunteers who came to act crazy, haters who needed a straw man like communism, and crusaders with bumper-sticker thoughts. Some who felt cursed because they were born too late to kill Indians, came to ravage black-haired Vietnamese. All this baggage, when mixed with the red dust, rain, and lies of Vietnam all peppered over with futility, became a putrescent cesspool.

          Fatigue drained us after a few months. The unreality of our monotonous, tenuous, drawn-wire lives on the wrong side of the looking glass became our reality. All our energy went into staying alive. We were too tired to fight the race and class wars featured in Hollywood movies. One search-and-be-destroyed patrol led to another until we forgot details; usually some wounded, sometimes someone killed, replacements, more patrols. But those first months served only as a warm-up for the mother-of-all-battles.

          Our choppers landed in a large clearing the VC had staked out in strength. We barely touched down when Charlie fired rockets into the chopper engines and machine-gunned directly into the hatches. As our platoon point-man, John stood in the hatch of our chopper. Charlie fired directly into his belly. I always recognized John as a better more valuable man than myself. I should have taken those rounds, not John. I tumbled out, terrified but alive. After killing all our officers and noncoms, half our platoon, and half the other platoons in less than a minute, Charlie faded away. A corporal radioed for support. Soon the fringes of the clearing exploded with our artillery followed by chopper gunships which rained out rounds, all too late.

          I laid John's head on my lap and held his hand. His sticky warm blood soaked into my clothes. I told him not to talk, but he ignored me. "We picked on little folks and we're getting our due. Folks who rise up to protect their land can't be wrong." I should have taken those rounds.

          John's grip went slack and he seemed to grow smaller, like Alice in the rabbit-hole, then he gripped my hand tight and seemed to get larger. Barely perceptible breaths alternated with heavy breathing. Fading fast, he looked into my eyes and said, "We invaded their land." He paused. "Killing VC seems right but it's wrong." As the medical evacuation chopper landed, he died. Strangers quickly took him away in a body bag.

          From deep inside my grief, I felt a seed sprout and grow into rage. I lost my vision of home and I could no longer picture myself leaving Vietnam. The last remnant of my gentle merciful self fell away. I started killing and couldn't get enough. I volunteered for every patrol, listening post, and ambush I could handle. My newfound alertness and sharpened trail skills bought me many assignments as point. Every killing made me feel better, and just under my breath I spoke to John as I killed Charlie with knife, rifle, or grenade. The heart-pounding, tense-muscle adrenaline rush seemed enhanced when I abandoned my helmet and flak jacket. Nothing checked my behavior. Everything within me wanted more blood. I did not treat VC bodies with respect as John would have done. I lost weight. Charlie had many chances to kill me, but with each of his failures I gained immortality. Someone had chosen me to live and to bring death to my enemies. In retrospect, I see myself then as a model for the nineteen-year-old American male pushed to the edge: rotten-mean, cruel, focused and deadly.

          My one-year tour in Vietnam ended before I could get close to anyone in the platoon. I had always hung with John, and after he died my craziness ran them off. I realized I had forgotten some of their names and my loneliness got worse. I had lost my rights to the forty-first perception and I stood alone with only my own feeble understanding. The Army did not ask me to reenlist.

          I knew no one on the plane back to the states. At the San Francisco airport I bought a paperback: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. From California I slowly drifted east for about eight years working ranches, washing dishes, roofing houses, anything. I said very little and people left me alone. Whenever anyone lied to me, I packed up and left. My life held only questions. I read Lewis Carroll's words a hundred times looking for answers; I found no answers, only analogies. Vietnam had its impatient rabbits, red queens, and caterpillars. The sense of place Alice must have had in Wonderland and behind the looking-glass was identical to mine in Vietnam. A place divorced from reality, experience, and understanding. A beautiful garden meant to remain hidden.

          I began to feel the warmth of hope for finding answers when I reached the midwest. The fact that each small midwestern town had either an American Legion or a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall made me feel less alone. While plowing a Kansas field for spring planting, I saw the newspaper picture of the last Americans leaving Vietnam. They escaped in a crowded chopper from the roof of a building in the compound of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. John's words came to mind: "Spouting river talk marks a loser." I needed someone to help me wrap my mind around the sense of our sacrifice. For answers, I headed for West Virginia to talk with John's kin.

          John's folks lived in biblical hill country; low mountains and rolling hills filled with good people living a simple life. They said grace before every meal; they treated me special. John's parents walked me to his simple grave on a hill shaded by oak and maple trees.

          John's hometown seemed full of American flags and warriors quick and dead, servicemen home on leave and servicemen's pictures on mantles. John's grandfather fought the Kaiser, his father received wounds in the Pacific, one uncle died in Korea. I described John as a good soldier, but they already knew. They all spoke like John, and I could feel the truth of their words soak into my sinews and marrow.

          John's father was a self-educated and wise man. I tried to explain to him how Vietnam was different than other American wars. He looked squarely at me, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, "All America's wars are the same – fought by mostly the wrong generals and backed by politicians with mostly the wrong ideas."

          I opened my mouth to speak, but I decided to listen.

          "Now it may not be clear to you, but Korea and Vietnam were just necessary conflicts of a Cold War which is still going on. For generations we Americans have stood for what's right. My father's description of each of his battles at Saint Mihiel and in the Meuse-Argonne resembled my own battle on the beach at Tarawa: a bloody senseless mess. But in the end we tossed the Kaiser, Hitler, and Tojo onto the ash heap of history. International communism's dupes will join them soon, thanks to men like you and John. We express our ideas of right and wrong imperfectly through politicians, but our enemies get our collective message. Our beneath-the-surface American belligerency prevails." He paused. "Duty is duty," he said.

          Of course, that's what John's father would say. But John would not have said this. I had not gotten my mind around a statement with real meaning since John died, but I was beginning to see through the fog. I felt like I had regained my rights to the forty-first perception. My mind took on the power of forty minds. It's true, John and I had drawn duty like many before us, and many to come. It's possible to view those who served in Vietnam as sentinels standing sentry at an important point of-passage, where America passed from self-righteous arrogance to something better – where she grew up a little. But that's the wrong view; John and I and the others were patriots betrayed. A new page of American history has been turned since Vietnam and no one pays any attention. Americans are no longer the good guys. I did not have the words to express my view to John's father.

          News of the November, 1982, completion of the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial drew me here to Washington, D.C. Now I work at a dead-end warehouse job in Arlington. I try not to talk with other vets, even at the memorial; each of us had our own war and talking doesn't help. People give me a wide berth; best they do.

          My rage flares up sometimes and I stay crouched in the dark on the floor of my rented room. Some flashbacks I don't mind, those with John in them. I can handle nightmares full of strange creatures from the wrong side of the looking-glass. All the time now I feel as if something important will happen very soon. It never does. I'm beyond help from all the king's horses and men. I sleep now and then, but I always sweat heavy at night.

          I stay near Washington to stay near John, not John exactly, only his name on the polished black granite. On weekends I walk perimeter around the memorial. I try to keep the terrain around John's name unblemished.

by Peter Graebner
... who is a former Marine Corps officer and mathematics professor, and a retired topologic geophysicist, now writing freelance on Asian subjects, including a trilogy of spy novels set during China's national revolution (1911-48). He has published "Samurai Geometry" in the Journal of Asian Martial Arts (v14n3 Aug 2005), "The Forever Motel" in Words of Wisdom (v24n4 Dec 2005), and "The Philosopher's Shingle" is forthcoming in Words of Wisdom.

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