combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 05 Number 04 Fall ©Oct 2007

In the Shadow of the Mountain

          "The Black Lady welcomes you to Tay Ninh!" With a grinding jerk, the sergeant shifted gears while digesting his passenger's rapt gaze at the isolated mountain framed by the Jeep's windshield. It was a geological joke. The solitary silhouette of Black Lady Mountain (Nui Ba Den in Vietnamese) hovered 800 meters above the flat Vietnamese countryside.

          I first glimpsed the mountain when my U.S. Army driver turned off the main highway linking Saigon and the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. The tributary road, Highway 22, would take us 40 kilometers through a carpet of lime green rice paddies to Tay Ninh City in the shadow of the mountain. It was August 1970 and the war had gripped Vietnam for a decade. The only imperfections in the pastoral scene were occasional military convoys or roadside checkpoints with Vietnamese soldiers napping on their bunkers.

          My Vietnamese language instructors in Washington had already acquainted me with this landmark 100 kilometers northwest of Saigon. The name of the mountain derived from a legend about a young woman who went to a Buddhist shrine on the summit to pray for the safe return of her warrior husband. Threatened by kidnappers on the mountain, she hurled herself to her death rather than risk her honor or worse.

          In 1970 the Black Lady performed a dual war-time function. U.S. military antennas and high-tech gear occupied the summit to monitor Viet Cong/North Vietnamese communications and shepherd U.S. bombers to their targets across Vietnam. In caves along the mountain's rocky slopes, communist forces lurked just as Vietnamese nationalists had in the wars against the French and the Japanese.

          My driver guided the Jeep through Tay Ninh City's congested streets and the raucous clamor of motor scooters and the ubiquitous motorized cyclos, Vietnam's answer to the taxi. Pedestrians surrounded the slow moving vehicle traffic, the women in the flowing traditional ao dai capturing the distinctive Vietnamese grace and beauty. Merchants pitched their wares in a cacophonous chorus of the Vietnamese tonal language.

          Moments later I entered the pocket of American air-conditioning at the provincial Military Assistance Command Vietnam office, a one-story prefab structure reminiscent of temporary classrooms back in the States. As the new development advisor, I was welcomed by my boss, the Province Senior Advisor, who pumped my arm vigorously and escorted me into his office.

          "Al, welcome to Tay Ninh. Good to have you here. A lot of work to be done. Been six weeks since your predecessor left." Colonel Storm's iron grip and ramrod straight posture reinforced the image composed from my conversations in Saigon. Well over six feet, he was imposing in combat fatigues bearing pressed on creases with knife-sharp, military precision. Seemingly right off a recruiting poster, Montgomery Storm received an officer's battlefield commission in Korea, and on an earlier Vietnam tour, commanded a 101st Airborne Division battalion in the Central Highlands.

          "Thank you, Colonel. Good to be finally here, especially after the long year in Vietnamese language school back in Washington." After a pause, I added, "Sir, they usually call me Allan, and not Al."

          Colonel Storm's piercing blue eyes bristled with the challenge by a newly arrived, young civilian. I was not a development expert by choice or training, but one of many Foreign Service Officers fed into the MACV pacification program.

          "Okay, Allan, whatever you want. You're the development advisor. But we work as a team here. Military and civilians. No free-lancing. Our job is basically to work ourselves out of a job. We want the Republic of Vietnam to stand on its own feet. Protect and take care of their people. And, we've made Tay Ninh one hell of an example. General Abrams himself came here and said it was the model for the rest of MACV. We're proud of that." Colonel Storm was among the Army's recognized experts in counter-insurgency warfare. He taught the subject at West Point.

          After my graduation from Dartmouth, a tour as a consular officer at the Embassy in Copenhagen provided little preparation for this assignment. Studying Vietnamese for ten months in Washington had sparked a curiosity about this gentle, friendly people with their epic history of conflict. But I also witnessed the sharpening divisions in the United States, including violent demonstrations on the streets of the nation's capital. Growing up in the Cold War, I accepted the strategic rationale for America's presence in this corner of the Asian mainland. I privately wondered, however, why more than forty-thousand dead Americans and billions of U.S. tax dollars still had not yet defeated the Vietnamese communists.

          "Colonel, I'll do my best." A civilian newcomer to the military environment, I groped for something appropriate and professional. "Sir, what development priorities do you think I need to target?"

          The Colonel's voice thundered into the adjacent main office populated by U.S. government-issue desks and Army clerks racing around with resolute urgency, "Allan, I want those monthly reports to show continued increases in schools built, clinics opened, roads paved, that sort of thing. MACV headquarters and Washington likes those stats. Nation-building is more than statistics, but we're part of the bigger picture. Always keep that in mind. Since the Cambodian operation last March, we have the goddamn communists on the run. We need to exploit it. We're not going to be here forever."

          I mumbled polite words of agreement and left. My office was on the opposite side of the province compound from Colonel Storm and the MACV headquarters. The small annex lacked air-conditioning but had large, always open doors and windows to seize every particle of fresh air.

          My job involved working with the province's deputy chief for administration, Nguyen Cao Thi, whose office was outside the provincial compound in a building across the street. Advising Mr. Thi was perhaps, I recognized, impertinent. The province's principal administrator for eight years, he had family ties to a leading cleric of the Cao Dai, the Vietnamese religious sect which dominated Tay Ninh. He was probably twice my age, further straining the credibility of an "advisor" who had done nothing in life except attend school and stamp visas.

          "Ong O'Connor," he greeted me in basic Vietnamese to accommodate his American advisor, "I'm always pleased to see you." A former football player at Dartmouth, I towered over the diminutive Mr. Thi. His smile and gracious manner were, however, genuinely welcoming. "What can I do for you today?"

          "Ong Thi, I've looked at the reports my predecessor prepared before my arrival." My Vietnamese was simple but functional. "I noticed several developments projects still listed as incomplete but started more than two years ago."

          "In a war, Ong O'Connor, progress is slow and difficult. We do the best we can in the conditions we have here in Tay Ninh."

          "Colonel Storm tells me security has never been better in Tay Ninh. The crowded streets, the marketplace and flow of commerce certainly suggest conditions are much improved." I hesitated to even slightly challenge a senior Vietnamese who had lived in Tay Ninh his entire life and knew every secret and hectare of the province.

          "That is true, thanks to the sacrifice of the soldiers from our two countries. But the Viet Cong have not completely disappeared. They are in the shadows, in the forests, on Nui Ba Den. We must be very careful with our development projects. But, yes, we are making great progress."

          Mr. Thi's caution belied the success that the governments in Saigon and Washington loudly trumpeted. The U.S. and Vietnamese military had crippled the main force communist forces in Tay Ninh and across the country. Statistical success jumped off the page. The worst of the war seemed to be in the past. Only scattered incidents were reported at the daily military briefing attended by Colonel Storm and the principal MACV advisors.

          The briefer was a short, soft-spoken Vietnamese lieutenant whose English was halting, heavily accented but adequate. MACV advisors rarely spoke Vietnamese beyond the simple phrases required to negotiate with bar girls or laundry women. I was the only team member with any real command of Vietnamese.

          "Colonel, sir, overnight two incidents reported," Lieutenant Nguyen motioned with a pointer at the provincial map behind him. "Small, unidentified VC unit probed RF post at edge of Kien Hoa village at 0300 hours." The RF was the Regional Force militia charged with the routine security role in the province. "RF engaged with small arms. Enemy withdrew in direction of Nui Ba Den. No friendly casualties. Fire Support Base Carson City," the lieutenant shifted the pointer to the far north of the province along the Cambodian border, "attacked by suspected main-force NVA unit of unknown size with small-arms, RPG and mortar fire. Fire Support Base returned fire and called in air strikes on enemy positions. Enemy withdrew. One US wounded. No enemy casualties but blood trails found along the perimeter of the fire support base."

          "Lieutenant," Colonel Storm interrupted from his front-row seat, "third night in a row we've had VC coming off the mountain to test our defenses." He turned to the province chief, Colonel Chien, Storm's counterpart and the Vietnamese military and administrative leader in the province. His appointment was attributed to his politically prominent family in Saigon rather than to any demonstrated competence, hence the province chief usually deferred to his U.S. senior advisor. "Colonel Chien, we need some nighttime ambushes up near the mountain. Have to make the VC worry every time they leave their caves."

          "Yes, Colonel," the Vietnamese province chief replied in barely comprehensible English, "good idea. We do it. Right away."

          In the back row, the deputy operations advisor and I exchanged furtive smiles. We knew the province chief's pledges were often empty. His main concern was limiting casualties, favoring inaction over action, vacillation over decisiveness. Agreement followed by hesitation was a common Vietnamese tactic with American advisors.

          I had no military role in the MACV provincial team, but the morning briefings were a command performance for the senior staff of eight U.S. military officers and four civilian advisors. Monitoring combat trends was helpful to development planning. After the U.S. and Vietnamese operation in Cambodia several months earlier, combat incidents dropped dramatically. The communist headquarters, COSVN, located in War Zone C north of the mountain, disappeared. Communist base camps in the border areas were overrun. Glowing reports by Saigon and Washington proclaimed that the war had entered a new, decisive phase. In 1970, the government controlled the country's populated areas. America's dream of an independent, non-communist Vietnam seemed within reach.

          I experienced first-hand the waning military threat by daily traveling unescorted in my Jeep across the province to monitor development projects. My predecessor could do it only by helicopter or military convoy. Americans and Vietnamese now moved freely around Tay Ninh's populated areas – at least in the daytime.

          My Vietnamese language opened a window inaccessible to other Americans in Tay Ninh. The lack of the language among virtually all Americans crippled their ability to understand and deal with Vietnam. Americans depended on English-speaking Vietnamese, who usually told them what they wanted to hear. The message I heard traveling around the province was more mixed than what my MACV colleagues reported to Saigon headquarters.

          One of my favorite contacts was Father Hinh, the elderly priest and patriarch of the province's only Catholic parish in the Phuoc Ninh district, ten kilometers from the Cambodian border. The church steeple towered above the landscape of rice paddies, as modest Vietnamese peasant homes and palm trees browned in the dry season heat. Father Hinh and two younger priests ministered to a congregation of several thousand. After the 1956 Geneva peace agreement, his parish fled North Vietnam to resettle in Tay Ninh and endured the pulsating twists and turns of war. The communists saw the Catholics as an implacable enemy, but even in this exposed border area, Father Hinh and his parish survived.

          The priest greeted me warmly with a playful twinkle in his eye. A wrinkled black cassock draped his slight frame. Father Hinh spoke French from his seminary training in Hanoi, but no English. High school French had little impact on me. Vietnamese was our common language. I accepted the priest's offer of tea on the shaded patio next to the church. "I wanted to check on the province's development projects and what we might do to help. I know the new health clinics in Ba Liep and Xa Huyen villages are important to you."

          "Ong O'Connor, I understand your concern. Construction of the clinics is incomplete. That is how we report to the province, but nothing is easy in a war. We do what we can."

          "Father, when do you think the clinics will be finished?"

          "I wish I could be more optimistic. It is difficult for us. At night, the Viet Cong come, steal the concrete, and warn the villagers about cooperating with the government."

          Such accounts rarely surfaced in the Army reports fixated on highlighting only evidence of progress. "The communists are taking away the concrete? Why is this happening? I thought the security situation had improved."

          "Yes, it is better. In daytime the communists stay away. They fear your airplanes and helicopters. But at night they move freely around the countryside. My people are afraid."

          "But the Regional and Popular Force militia? Don't they protect your villages?"

          The priest paused and his eyes riveted on me. "They stay in their bunkers at night. The communists own the night. But my people have their faith. God is always with them."

          Father Hinh's sobering report echoed similar stories I heard in villages across Tay Ninh. The main North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces hid in the canopied jungle north of Nui Ba Den. But smaller insurgent groups circulated at night, sinister apparitions haunting virtually every village or hamlet.

          The local militia was no help. "Hey, little brother, how's it going?" I used colloquial Vietnamese to greet the soldier at a busy intersection near Father Hinh's church. Barely a few inches over five feet tall, he was dwarfed by the American M-16 strapped around his shoulder, the baggy green combat fatigues, and combat helmet. Militia duty close to home was a better alternative than a regular ARVN division in the Central Highlands or near the Demilitarized Zone with North Vietnam. In the tropical sun, the soldier leaned casually against a sand-bagged bunker. The approach of a Vietnamese-speaking American did not seem to stir him. He nodded silently in acknowledgement more than respect.

          I motioned to the steady parade of motorized vehicles and peasants shouldering produce-filled baskets. "Seems to be a lot of traffic here these days. Different than a year or two ago, right?"

          "I guess," the soldier mumbled while staring at the flow of vehicle traffic crossing the intersection.

          "And, what about this village at night?"

          The soldier's head turned abruptly. "I don't know. I'm usually at the barracks down the road."

          "And, the VC? Do they come here?"

          The soldier stood and fingered his M-16. "We protect our village. The VC are our enemy. They hate Catholics and we hate them." He reverted to the pidgin-English that the Vietnamese often used with Americans, "VC no good, VC no good."

          "But do the VC come at night sometimes?"

          "Maybe sometimes, just at night." The soldier looked nervously at the ground. "But people here do not want communism. It is against our religion. We will always fight them."

          The soldier's blend of conviction and equivocation was repeated in conversations across the province. There was little sympathy for the communists. Violence did not inspire ideological loyalty, but brutality was a powerful psychological force.

          Despite the cheerleading in Colonel Storm's reports to Saigon – reinforcing the chorus of optimism there and in Washington – I could not shake the ambivalence and doubts. Vietnam consumed Lyndon Johnson and LBJ was consumed by Vietnam, which forced him to resign. A new president promised a program of Vietnamization to replace U.S. soldiers, but the killing went on – and the communist resistance, like the Viet Cong in the Nui Ba Den caves, did not go away. My misgivings deepened about the integrity of an MACV operation that was obsessed with finding progress in the elusive, ambiguous reality of endless war.

          My stay in Tay Ninh stretched from weeks into months. I did what the job required, arranging shipments of construction materials, consulting province officials, and assembling the statistical reports about everything from bags of cement to agricultural production.

          A crusty career sergeant on the MACV team advised me one day, "Just remember, my friend, we tell the people at the top what they want to hear and then maybe we go home earlier."

          "But sugar-coating will catch up with them eventually, won't it?"

          "Kid, that's their problem. By then, I'm back in the States with my wife and kids. To tell you the truth, that's all that matters to me."

          As a new civilian on a military advisory team, I guarded my doubts. Colonel Storm's personality and fixation on progress dominated the provincial advisory team.

          After four months in Tay Ninh, however, I could remain silent and acquiescent no longer. The Vietnamese lieutenant was half-way through his briefing. "Sir, 0400 hours last night," he recited mechanically, "PF unit reported attempted entry by VC force of unknown size into Long Hien village, Phuoc Ninh district. VC engaged by PF with small arms fire and withdrew. The first attempted incursion into a Phuoc Ninh district village in six months."

          I knew this was totally untrue. "Colonel Storm, my sources tell me incursions frequently take place there." My intervention landed in the briefing room like a truckload of lead. Heads sharply pivoted toward the back row.

          "O'Connor," the Colonel barked, "what so-called sources do you have that our Vietnamese allies do not have?"

          I faced a wall of skeptical U.S. Army uniforms. "Sir, ordinary Vietnamese in Phuoc Ninh villages report small VC units regularly come at night, usually just to propagandize the population. But the VC are uncontested."

          "O'Connor, perhaps you and your sources should stick with latrines and school desks and leave military intel to others."

          "I'm sorry, sir." I was not ready to retreat so quickly. "But the villagers have nothing to gain telling me these things. I'm just reporting what they tell me. That's all."

          Colonel Storm's fury was barely contained. A dissenter – a civilian, no less – was breaking the drumbeat of MACV optimism. "O'Connor, we'll talk in my office right after the briefing." Turning back to the briefer, "Lieutenant, sorry for the interruption. Please continue."

          The rest of the briefing was a meaningless drone of words. I wondered whether my tenure in Tay Ninh was at risk. Perhaps even my Foreign Service career. An evaluation report sprinkled with "insubordinate" and "uncooperative" would trouble a State Department promotion board.

          The Colonel led me into his office, closed the door behind us, and seated himself behind a deck bracketed by U.S. and Vietnamese flags. The officious, hostile tone surprisingly melted away. "I respect what you've done here in Tay Ninh, Allan. You do your job. You speak Vietnamese and the local people respect you."

          The Colonel looked gravely at me. "We're at a takeoff point in history. We're nation-builders proving that the communist revolutionary idea is not the answer in the Third World. Lenin had a vision for communist dictatorships in the developing countries that would encircle and strangle capitalism." I pictured the Colonel lecturing to the counter-insurgency class he once taught at West Point. "We offer security, freedom and prosperity and not the tyranny of communism. Americans have spent many lives to help the Vietnamese. We're succeeding and we will succeed."

          "Colonel Storm, I don't question our overall purpose. I just wonder about the rate of progress. I see signs that –."

          "Nation-building is imperfect and difficult. But we have to look at the big picture, Allan. We've come a long way since Tet when the communists occupied the streets of Vietnamese cities. The communists are on the run. Since Cambodia," the Colonel's voice reached a thunderous crescendo, "they are demoralized, defeated, done. They're history if we keep up the pressure and stay the course."

          "In many ways, Colonel, it's better, I know. But the VC have not disappeared. They're in the jungles and on the mountain. I still see fear in the faces of the villagers."

          "But look at what we've accomplished and where we're going. The big picture, Allan, the big picture! Tay Ninh is a forward outpost in the strategic struggle of communism and democracy. If we don't decide the issue here in Tay Ninh and Vietnam, we open the door to the rest of Asia, and then North America. We can fight the communists here, or on the beaches of the West Coast. That's the issue."

          "The objective I don't question, Colonel. I understand, but I'm worried reality lags behind the objective. At least, based on what I've seen and heard. I just don't think the situation is what everybody thinks."

          "None of this half-empty glass bullshit! We're building a free, democratic nation in a traditional Asian society. Not perfect or something we'd have in the States, but it's their country and not something imposed on them by Hanoi or Moscow. All that's happened in the last year across Vietnam tells me we're succeeding and the communists are not. Period."

          This dialogue – or its imposter – was going nowhere. I recognized that the theology of success was too deeply rooted, especially among Americans in Saigon and Washington where goals controlled perceptions. It was a flawed formula for public policy.

          "Allan, you're bright, hard-working. I respect that. I want you on the team. With the big picture in mind, you can put everything in perspective and stay a on as a part of the team. Our mission is success. We have to stress the positive. No more half-empty glasses. We must try to encourage the Vietnamese as they take over from us."

          I did not miss the barbed insinuation about remaining "part of the team" but replied softly, "I understand, sir. Thank you for your time." We shook hands and a smile creased the Colonel's face.

          "It's going to work fine. Keep up the good work." Flooded with an emotional cocktail of uncertainty and frustration, I piloted my Jeep several blocks to the MACV housing compound located in a Tay Ninh City residential area and surrounded by a ten-foot cement wall. Once the residence of a French rubber plantation manager, a salmon-colored, stucco villa served as a mess hall, bar and recreation area for the MACV team. Enlisted personnel occupied sleeping quarters on the upper floors. Eight prefabricated, one-story structures on the villa grounds provided individual suites for MACV military officers and civilian advisors.

          Nung mercenaries, a Vietnamese minority group of ethnic Chinese origin, guarded the compound. Delegating protection to hired guns and not the Vietnamese military was a telling statement, but the Nungs were longtime U.S. allies. The MACV team slept securely with these loyal, fierce warriors at the gate and in several guard towers on the wall.

          My conversation with the Colonel eased the tension but not the doubts. I knew the measures of progress – often inflated, unverified statistics – did not tell a complete picture. I continued my rounds across the province and valued the personal satisfaction from new village schools or marketplaces that improved the lives of ordinary Vietnamese. I supported the Filipinos whose medical clinics in Tay Ninh were a showcase for the rest of the country.

          The bustling marketplaces and congested roads disguised, I knew, unresolved conflict. Communist insurgents moved in the shadows, which Vietnamese privately admitted, but the government minimized the threat so as to appease the American addiction to success. I wrestled with playing out the MACV game and the eventual reward of a good Foreign Service assignment. Or was the price too high for my personal integrity to tolerate the distortion of what was really happening?

          "You Americans number one," a merchant assured me at the Phu Khuong marketplace. He offered a large inventory of black-market watches and perfumes pilfered from the American PX. Gold teeth flashed in his broad smile. "You bring us good life here. Good things to sell. Americans number one!"

          "But maybe we won't be here forever. What will happen when we're gone?"

          "Oh, no, Americans never go. You always help us. America number one!"

          Whatever my private reservations, I did my job and submitted reports with the requisite focus on successful, completed projects. Relations with the Colonel were correct but distant. I rarely spoke at the daily briefings or other meetings.

          Nursing my martini one evening two months after our confrontation, I saw the Colonel arrive at the MACV bar. I hastily finished my drink and started to leave. The Colonel stopped me gently with an arm on the shoulder. "How's it going? Haven't had much chance to talk lately."

          "Sorry, sir, I have some letters to write. If you'd excuse me, I –."

          "No, no, I understand. Just wanted you to know that I appreciate your good work. The province chief tells me you're doing a great job to speed up those shipments of construction materials for the new Phu Khuong district headquarters. First-class work. Keep it up."

          "Thank you, Colonel. Sorry, have to go now." I knew that such displays of diffidence did not play well with the MACV military team concept. It was not easy for a civilian blended into the military's gung-ho camaraderie.

          I retreated to my room and a new book recently received from the States, Stilwell and the American Experience in China 1911-1945 by Barbara Tuchman. She chronicled General Joseph Stilwell's frustrations with Chiang Kai-Shek and Washington's myopic commitment to the enigmatic Chinese leader. It sounded eerily familiar. But one general seemed to get it right.

          I fell asleep digesting how the United States had misread the dynamics of the world's most populous nation. The U.S. experience in China had faded into a deep, dreamless slumber when an ear-splitting explosion rocked the MACV compound. Knocking the Tuchman book to the floor, I bolted upright in bed. My first thought was a random rocket attack against Tay Ninh City, which happened regularly several years ago, but that conclusion collapsed with the staccato exchange of small arms fire somewhere near the compound: the rhythmic pop of M-16s and, a greater concern, the distinctive firecracker report of an AK-47 assault rifle, the standard communist weapon.

          I dropped to the floor next to the bed and grabbed the protective helmet and flak jacket lodged in a nearby corner – and used only twice before during compound defense drills. Darkness, in these chaotic and confused circumstances, I decided was the prudent course. Raising myself slightly, I turned off the light and reached into a nightstand drawer for a .38 caliber Smith and Wesson revolver, the standard weapon issued to civilian advisors. I knew, however, that the .38 had little value against an AK-47 assault rifle.

          The M-16 and AK exchange paused briefly and then resumed. The frantic shouts of other MACV personnel resonated outside, but the words were hard to decipher. In the darkness, I felt alone, bewildered, increasingly afraid. The AK fire sounded very close. My nerves were shattered by the nightmarish scream of a wounded American pleading for help. In an escalating panic, I considered escaping to shelter in the concrete bunker twenty-five meters away, the emergency destination assigned to civilian advisors.

          A deafening explosion erupted close to my room. A window burst, glass fragments flooded the room followed by the distinctive odor of cordite. Burrowed close to the bed, I escaped the impact of the window's implosion, but the blast left my ears ringing and the sounds of combat were faint. Several similar explosions shook the compound, likely rocket-propelled grenades, another favorite communist weapon. The VC were in the compound. They must have breached the gate or scaled the walls. My best choice was to reach the bunker and the company of the other team members.

          With the revolver in one hand, I crawled toward the door and reached up to open it. My hearing returned, but the exchange of rifle fire now seemed to be on the far side of the compound. Through the slightly open door, I saw the silhouettes of MACV personnel in combat gear racing back and forth. From the shouted commands – and Colonel Storm's booming voice was the most predominant – I understood that the VC were near the main gate a hundred meters away. An aerial illumination flare soared above the compound, bathing the MACV buildings in a ghostly, shadowy tableau. I had to reach the security of the concrete-walled bunker – a short dash across an open area.

          Under the weight of the flak jacket, I struggled to my feet and crouched in the doorway. I waited until another pause in the rifle exchange, hovered close to the ground and started toward the bunker. Almost immediately I collided with a MACV enlisted man in combat gear who was carrying an M-79 grenade launcher. We collapsed together on the ground. The corporal cursed, scrambled to his feet and raced toward the compound gate. Still stunned, I slowly rose and renewed my way to the bunker. After a few steps, I felt myself propelled helplessly into the air and a powerful blow smashed the side of my combat helmet. In the last moments of consciousness, while spinning seemingly without gravity above the ground, a thunderous, deafening explosion enveloped me. I plunged into darkness.

          My eyes opened to the gray pre-dawn sky. I was draped on a canvas Army stretcher on a Jeep, but what seized my first seconds of consciousness was a pounding headache. An intravenous tube connected my arm to a dispenser held by Stan Hawthorne, the MACV medical assistant, a draftee and a Yale graduate, an Ivy League link which often sparked jocular banter between us.

          "How's it going, you old bastard? You're damn lucky taking the force of that RPG, but you'll be fine. I guess going to school up in that New Hampshire wilderness toughens you guys up."

          "I – I don't know." The words emerged reluctantly from parched lips. "Stan, really need some water. Please." The medic produced a canteen and guided its contents into my eager mouth.

          "Everything's fine, pal. Medevac gonna be here soon. Bien Hoa Field Hospital will get the shrapnel out of you." Besides the worst headache of my life, a burning sensation gripped my legs and abdomen, but I had feeling in all extremities, a good sign. My eyes darted back and forth confirming that I was at the small Tay Ninh airfield. A chorus of helicopters roared in the background. Regional Force soldiers, tiny figures dwarfed by American-issued gear and weapons, climbed aboard the U.S. helicopters and lifted off.

          "What the hell happened?" The cobwebs were clearing. I turned back to Stan. Next to the medic appeared the towering frame of Colonel Storm in full combat uniform.

          "Allan, you had us worried for a while." His voice was almost lost in the ear-splitting background of helicopters. "Medics say you'll be fine. Some shrapnel and probably concussion from the RPG, but you'll be back on your feet in no time. Looks, however, like your war is over."

          I deliberately ignored his prognosis. "Colonel, what happened? I don't remember a thing."

          The Colonel signaled the slightest hint of embarrassment, "Well, VC sappers probably from the mountain got into the city and somehow made it to the compound. Blew open the main gate and overpowered the guards there, but our MACV team and the Nungs reacted immediately. VC lobbed a few RPGs around the compound, but never got far from the main gate. Six VC killed right on the spot. Two others killed later on the street by an RF reaction force. We got them all. Eight KIA. You and two MACV troopers injured, but nothing serious, thank God!"

          I breathed deeply and closed my eyes in a vain attempt to buffer the unremitting headache and the burning pain across my torso. A VC attack inside the city and in the U.S. compound itself. I wondered how the reports would package this new evidence of improved security. America's nation-building crusade would continue but would never master the historical and cultural complexity of a Third World country.

          Colonel Storm put a reassuring hand on my shoulder. "Medevac's coming in. I'll get down to Bien Hoa in the next few days before they send you back to the States. Just wanted you to know I respect your courage and good work here. God speed!"

          I looked into Colonel Storm's eyes but said nothing. There was nothing more to say. Colonel Storm was not a bad person or a lousy soldier. He simply embodied the perilous blend of cultural ignorance infecting America's well-intentioned but misguided expedition to Vietnam.

          Stan and two other MACV soldiers lifted the stretcher from the Jeep and carried me to the waiting Huey with the Red Cross painted on the side. The blast from the helicopter's revolving blades buffeted the stretcher and almost turned it over, but the bearers maintained balance and guided it through the open side of the aircraft. The Medevac crew locked the stretcher to the cabin floor. I looked out and saw Stan grin, salute and back away. The Huey lifted with the whining acceleration of the rotor blades and hovered briefly a few meters above the ground. The pilot turned the aircraft to the north and started to elevate. Inches from the open door, I glanced down and fixed on Colonel Storm standing near the Jeep and watching the departing Medevac. Perhaps it was just my imagination, but I thought that I detected a haughty smirk on the Colonel's face.

          The Medevac rose higher, wind and noise engulfed the cabin, while the streets and homes of Tay Ninh City faded into the morning haze. The pilot banked the aircraft to the right towards Bien Hoa and the Army field hospital. Through the open side of the Huey, I saw the massive, haunting shape of Nui Ba Den. I had never been so close. The forbidding rocky terrain displayed isolated pockets of struggling vegetation. Ringed by sand-bagged fortifications, the U.S. communication outpost's jungle of wire and antennas created a surreal vista on the solitary Asian mountain. Below the summit, Nui Ba Den's slopes dropped abruptly. The mountain's shadow enveloped the good intentions, flawed execution, and cultural myopia which would define the U.S. experience in Vietnam – and in conflicts waiting on the horizon.

by Dell F. Pendergrast
... who is a retired Foreign Service Officer with assignments in Vietnam, Yugoslavia, Poland, Canada, and the U.S. Mission to the European Communities in Brussels. His writings have been published in the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and the Foreign Service Journal. This semi-autobiographical story is based upon his 1970 tour as a civil adviser in Tay Ninh province, Republic of Vietnam.

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C O M B A T, the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones