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
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
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’
“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,
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
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
“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
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
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-
“Talk,” Kiowa said.
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
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
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.