How to Tell a True War Story

How to Tell a True War Story

This is true.

I had a buddy in Vietnam. His name was Bob Kiley, but everybody

called him Rat.

A friend of his gets killed, so about a week later Rat sits down and

writes a letter to the guy’s sister. Rat tells her what a great brother she

had, how together the guy was, a number one pal and comrade. A real

soldier’s soldier, Rat says. Then he tells a few stories to make the point,

how her brother would always volunteer for stuff nobody else would

volunteer for in a million years, dangerous stuff, like doing recon or

going out on these really badass night patrols. Stainless steel balls, Rat

tells her. The guy was a little crazy, for sure, but crazy in a good way, a

real daredevil, because he liked the challenge of it, he liked testing

himself, just man against gook. A great, great guy, Rat says.

Anyway, it’s a terrific letter, very personal and touching. Rat almost

bawls writing it. He gets all teary telling about the good times they had

together, how her brother made the war seem almost fun, always raising

hell and lighting up villes and bringing smoke to bear every which way. A

great sense of humor, too. Like the time at this river when he went

fishing with a whole damn crate of hand grenades. Probably the funniest

thing in world history, Rat says, all that gore, about twenty zillion dead

gook fish. Her brother, he had the right attitude. He knew how to have a

good time. On Halloween, this real hot spooky night, the dude paints up

his body all different colors and puts on this weird mask and hikes over

to a ville and goes trick-or-treating almost stark naked, just boots and

balls and an M-16. A tremendous human being, Rat says. Pretty nutso

sometimes, but you could trust him with your life.

And then the letter gets very sad and serious. Rat pours his heart out.

He says he loved the guy. He says the guy was his best friend in the

world. They were like soul mates, he says, like twins or something, they

had a whole lot in common. He tells the guy’s sister he’ll look her up

when the war’s over.

So what happens?

Rat mails the letter. He waits two months. The dumb cooze never

writes back.

A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage

virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men

from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do

not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel

that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste,

then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is

no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb,

therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and

uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil. Listen to Rat Kiley.

Cooze, he says. He does not say bitch. He certainly does not say woman,

or girl. He says cooze. Then he spits and stares. He’s nineteen years old—

it’s too much for him—so he looks at you with those big sad gentle killer

eyes and says cooze, because his friend is dead, and because it’s so

incredibly sad and true: she never wrote back.

You can tell a true war story if it embarrasses you. If you don’t care for

obscenity, you don’t care for the truth; if you don’t care for the truth,

watch how you vote. Send guys to war, they come home talking dirty.

Listen to Rat: “Jesus Christ, man, I write this beautiful fuckin’ letter, I

slave over it, and what happens? The dumb cooze never writes back.”

The dead guy’s name was Curt Lemon. What happened was, we

crossed a muddy river and marched west into the mountains, and on the

third day we took a break along a trail junction in deep jungle. Right

away, Lemon and Rat Kiley started goofing. They didn’t understand

about the spookiness. They were kids; they just didn’t know. A nature

hike, they thought, not even a war, so they went off into the shade of

some giant trees—quadruple canopy, no sunlight at all—and they were

giggling and calling each other yellow mother and playing a silly game

they’d invented. The game involved smoke grenades, which were

harmless unless you did stupid things, and what they did was pull out the

pin and stand a few feet apart and play catch under the shade of those

huge trees. Whoever chickened out was a yellow mother. And if nobody

chickened out, the grenade would make a light popping sound and they’d

be covered with smoke and they’d laugh and dance around and then do it

again.

It’s all exactly true.

The Man I Killed

His jaw was in his throat, his upper lip and teeth were gone, his one

eye was shut, his other eye was a star-shaped hole, his eyebrows were

thin and arched like a woman’s, his nose was undamaged, there was a

slight tear at the lobe of one ear, his clean black hair was swept upward

into a cowlick at the rear of the skull, his forehead was lightly freckled,

his fingernails were clean, the skin at his left cheek was peeled back in

three ragged strips, his right cheek was smooth and hairless, there was a

butterfly on his chin, his neck was open to the spinal cord and the blood

there was thick and shiny and it was this wound that had killed him. He

lay face-up in the center of the trail, a slim, dead, almost dainty young

man. He had bony legs, a narrow waist, long shapely fingers. His chest

was sunken and poorly muscled—a scholar, maybe. His wrists were the

wrists of a child. He wore a black shirt, black pajama pants, a gray

ammunition belt, a gold ring on the third finger of his right hand. His

rubber sandals had been blown off. One lay beside him, the other a few

meters up the trail. He had been born, maybe, in 1946 in the village of

My Khe near the central coastline of Quang Ngai Province, where his

parents farmed, and where his family had lived for several centuries, and

where, during the time of the French, his father and two uncles and

many neighbors had joined in the struggle for independence. He was not

a Communist. He was a citizen and a soldier. In the village of My Khe, as

in all of Quang Ngai, patriotic resistance had the force of tradition, which

was partly the force of legend, and from his earliest boyhood the man I

killed would have listened to stories about the heroic Trung sisters and

Tran Hung Dao’s famous rout of the Mongols and Le Loi’s final victory

against the Chinese at Tot Dong. He would have been taught that to

defend the land was a man’s highest duty and highest privilege. He had

accepted this. It was never open to question. Secretly, though, it also

frightened him. He was not a fighter. His health was poor, his body small

and frail. He liked books. He wanted someday to be a teacher of

mathematics. At night, lying on his mat, he could not picture himself

doing the brave things his father had done, or his uncles, or the heroes of

the stories. He hoped in his heart that he would never be tested. He

hoped the Americans would go away. Soon, he hoped. He kept hoping

and hoping, always, even when he was asleep.

“Oh, man, you fuckin’ trashed the fucker,” Azar said. “You scrambled

his sorry self, look at that, you did, you laid him out like Shredded fuckin’

Wheat.”

“Go away,” Kiowa said.

“I’m just saying the truth. Like oatmeal.”

“Go,” Kiowa said.

“Okay, then, I take it back,” Azar said. He started to move away, then

stopped and said, “Rice Krispies, you know? On the dead test, this

particular individual gets A-plus.”

Smiling at this, he shrugged and walked up the trail toward the village

behind the trees.

Kiowa kneeled down.

“Just forget that crud,” he said. He opened up his canteen and held it

out for a while and then sighed and pulled it away. “No sweat, man. What

else could you do?”

Later, Kiowa said, “I’m serious. Nothing anybody could do. Come on,

stop staring.”

The trail junction was shaded by a row of trees and tall brush. The slim

young man lay with his legs in the shade. His jaw was in his throat. His

one eye was shut and the other was a star-shaped hole.

Kiowa glanced at the body.

“All right, let me ask a question,” he said. “You want to trade places

with him? Turn it all upside down—you want that? I mean, be honest.”

The star-shaped hole was red and yellow. The yellow part seemed to be

getting wider, spreading out at the center of the star. The upper lip and

gum and teeth were gone. The man’s head was cocked at a wrong angle,

as if loose at the neck, and the neck was wet with blood.

“Think it over,” Kiowa said.

Then later he said, “Tim, it’s a war. The guy wasn’t Heidi—he had a

weapon, right? It’s a tough thing, for sure, but you got to cut out that

staring.”

Then he said, “Maybe you better lie down a minute.”

Then after a long empty time he said, “Take it slow. Just go wherever

the spirit takes you.”

The butterfly was making its way along the young man’s forehead,

which was spotted with small dark freckles. The nose was undamaged.

The skin on the right cheek was smooth and fine-grained and hairless.

Frail-looking, delicately boned, the young man would not have wanted to

be a soldier and in his heart would have feared performing badly in

battle. Even as a boy growing up in the village of My Khe, he had often

worried about this. He imagined covering his head and lying in a deep

hole and closing his eyes and not moving until the war was over. He had

no stomach for violence. He loved mathematics. His eyebrows were thin

and arched like a woman’s, and at school the boys sometimes teased him

about how pretty he was, the arched eyebrows and long shapely fingers,

and on the playground they mimicked a woman’s walk and made fun of

his smooth skin and his love for mathematics. The young man could not

make himself fight them. He often wanted to, but he was afraid, and this

increased his shame. If he could not fight little boys, he thought, how

could he ever become a soldier and fight the Americans with their

airplanes and helicopters and bombs? It did not seem possible. In the

presence of his father and uncles, he pretended to look forward to doing

his patriotic duty, which was also a privilege, but at night he prayed with

his mother that the war might end soon. Beyond anything else, he was

afraid of disgracing himself, and therefore his family and village. But all

he could do, he thought, was wait and pray and try not to grow up too

fast.

“Listen to me,” Kiowa said. “You feel terrible, I know that.”

Then he said, “Okay, maybe I don’t know.”

Along the trail there were small blue flowers shaped like bells. The

young man’s head was wrenched sideways, not quite facing the flowers,

and even in the shade a single blade of sunlight sparkled against the

buckle of his ammunition belt. The left cheek was peeled back in three

ragged strips. The wounds at his neck had not yet clotted, which made

him seem animate even in death, the blood still spreading out across his

shirt.

Kiowa shook his head.

There was some silence before he said, “Stop staring.”

The young man’s fingernails were clean. There was a slight tear at the

lobe of one ear, a sprinkling of blood on the forearm. He wore a gold ring

on the third finger of his right hand. His chest was sunken and poorly

muscled—a scholar, maybe. His life was now a constellation of

possibilities. So, yes, maybe a scholar. And for years, despite his family’s

poverty, the man I killed would have been determined to continue his

education in mathematics. The means for this were arranged, perhaps,

through the village liberation cadres, and in 1964 the young man began

attending classes at the university in Saigon, where he avoided politics

and paid attention to the problems of calculus. He devoted himself to his

studies. He spent his nights alone, wrote romantic poems in his journal,

took pleasure in the grace and beauty of differential equations. The war,

he knew, would finally take him, but for the time being he would not let

himself think about it. He had stopped praying; instead, now, he waited.

And as he waited, in his final year at the university, he fell in love with a

classmate, a girl of seventeen, who one day told him that his wrists were

like the wrists of a child, so small and delicate, and who admired his

narrow waist and the cowlick that rose up like a bird’s tail at the back of

his head. She liked his quiet manner; she laughed at his freckles and

bony legs. One evening, perhaps, they exchanged gold rings.

Now one eye was a star.

“You okay?” Kiowa said.

The body lay almost entirely in shade. There were gnats at the mouth,

little flecks of pollen drifting above the nose. The butterfly was gone. The

bleeding had stopped except for the neck wounds.

Kiowa picked up the rubber sandals, clapping off the dirt, then bent

down to search the body. He found a pouch of rice, a comb, a fingernail

clipper, a few soiled piasters, a snapshot of a young woman standing in

front of a parked motorcycle. Kiowa placed these items in his rucksack

along with the gray ammunition belt and rubber sandals.

Then he squatted down.

“I’ll tell you the straight truth,” he said. “The guy was dead the second

he stepped on the trail. Understand me? We all had him zeroed. A good

kill—weapon, ammunition, everything.” Tiny beads of sweat glistened at

Kiowa’s forehead. His eyes moved from the sky to the dead man’s body to

the knuckles of his own hands. “So listen, you best pull your shit

together. Can’t just sit here all day.”

Later he said, “Understand?”

Then he said, “Five minutes, Tim. Five more minutes and we’re

moving out.”

The one eye did a funny twinkling trick, red to yellow. His head was

wrenched sideways, as if loose at the neck, and the dead young man

seemed to be staring at some distant object beyond the bell-shaped

flowers along the trail.

The blood at the neck had gone to a deep purplish black. Clean

fingernails, clean hair—he had been a soldier for only a single day. After

his years at the university, the man I killed returned with his new wife to

the village of My Khe, where he enlisted as a common rifleman with the

48th Vietcong Battalion. He knew he would die quickly. He knew he

would see a flash of light. He knew he would fall dead and wake up in the

stories of his village and people.

Kiowa covered the body with a poncho.

“Hey, you’re looking better,” he said. “No doubt about it. All you

needed was time—some mental R&R.”

Then he said, “Man, I’m sorry.”

Then later he said, “Why not talk about it?”

Then he said, “Come on, man, talk.”

He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay

with one leg bent beneath him, his jaw in his throat, his face neither

expressive nor inexpressive. One eye was shut. The other was a star-

shaped hole.

“Talk,” Kiowa said.

Ambush

When she was nine, my daughter Kathleen asked if I had ever killed

anyone. She knew about the war; she knew I’d been a soldier. “You keep

writing these war stories,” she said, “so I guess you must’ve killed

somebody.” It was a difficult moment, but I did what seemed right,

which was to say, “Of course not,” and then to take her onto my lap and

hold her for a while. Someday, I hope, she’ll ask again. But here I want to

pretend she’s a grown-up. I want to tell her exactly what happened, or

what I remember happening, and then I want to say to her that as a little

girl she was absolutely right. This is why I keep writing war stories:

He was a short, slender young man of about twenty. I was afraid of

him—afraid of something—and as he passed me on the trail I threw a

grenade that exploded at his feet and killed him.

Or to go back:

Shortly after midnight we moved into the ambush site outside My Khe.

The whole platoon was there, spread out in the dense brush along the

trail, and for five hours nothing at all happened. We were working in

two-man teams—one man on guard while the other slept, switching off

every two hours—and I remember it was still dark when Kiowa shook me

awake for the final watch. The night was foggy and hot. For the first few

moments I felt lost, not sure about directions, groping for my helmet and

weapon. I reached out and found three grenades and lined them up in

front of me; the pins had already been straightened for quick throwing.

And then for maybe half an hour I kneeled there and waited. Very

gradually, in tiny slivers, dawn began to break through the fog, and from

my position in the brush I could see ten or fifteen meters up the trail. The

mosquitoes were fierce. I remember slapping at them, wondering if I

should wake up Kiowa and ask for some repellent, then thinking it was a

bad idea, then looking up and seeing the young man come out of the fog.

He wore black clothing and rubber sandals and a gray ammunition belt.

His shoulders were slightly stooped, his head cocked to the side as if

listening for something. He seemed at ease. He carried his weapon in one

hand, muzzle down, moving without any hurry up the center of the trail.

There was no sound at all—none that I can remember. In a way, it

seemed, he was part of the morning fog, or my own imagination, but

there was also the reality of what was happening in my stomach. I had

already pulled the pin on a grenade. I had come up to a crouch. It was

entirely automatic. I did not hate the young man; I did not see him as the

enemy; I did not ponder issues of morality or politics or military duty. I

crouched and kept my head low. I tried to swallow whatever was rising

from my stomach, which tasted like lemonade, something fruity and

sour. I was terrified. There were no thoughts about killing. The grenade

was to make him go away—just evaporate—and I leaned back and felt my

mind go empty and then felt it fill up again. I had already thrown the

grenade before telling myself to throw it. The brush was thick and I had

to lob it high, not aiming, and I remember the grenade seeming to freeze

above me for an instant, as if a camera had clicked, and I remember

ducking down and holding my breath and seeing little wisps of fog rise

from the earth. The grenade bounced once and rolled across the trail. I

did not hear it, but there must’ve been a sound, because the young man

dropped his weapon and began to run, just two or three quick steps, then

he hesitated, swiveling to his right, and he glanced down at the grenade

and tried to cover his head but never did. It occurred to me then that he

was about to die. I wanted to warn him. The grenade made a popping

noise—not soft but not loud either—not what I’d expected—and there

was a puff of dust and smoke—a small white puff—and the young man

seemed to jerk upward as if pulled by invisible wires. He fell on his back.

His rubber sandals had been blown off. There was no wind. He lay at the

center of the trail, his right leg bent beneath him, his one eye shut, his

other eye a huge star-shaped hole.

It was not a matter of live or die. There was no real peril. Almost

certainly the young man would have passed by. And it will always be that

way.

Later, I remember, Kiowa tried to tell me that the man would’ve died

anyway. He told me that it was a good kill, that I was a soldier and this

was a war, that I should shape up and stop staring and ask myself what

the dead man would’ ve done if things were reversed.

None of it mattered. The words seemed far too complicated. All I could

do was gape at the fact of the young man’s body.

Even now I haven’t finished sorting it out. Sometimes I forgive myself,

other times I don’t. In the ordinary hours of life I try not to dwell on it,

but now and then, when I’m reading a newspaper or just sitting alone in

a room, I’ll look up and see the young man coming out of the morning

fog. I’ll watch him walk toward me, his shoulders slightly stooped, his

head cocked to the side, and he’ll pass within a few yards of me and

suddenly smile at some secret thought and then continue up the trail to

where it bends back into the fog.


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