War Stories II
I am the author of Ivory Fields, a novel. I wrote it soon after I came home from Vietnam. Not many have read the book. After thirty-three publishers turned it down, I lit a fire in a trash barrel behind a rented house in Iowa and burned up all my copies of the manuscript. Years and years went by, and the book became a part of my distant memories of being a soldier, memories that would creep up on me when I was washing dishes or turning a key in a lock, memories that I wished away. Then one morning another copy of the novel arrived in the mail, from an old friend who was cleaning out his files, and I realized I was glad to have it back. From time to time I look at it, and I think. The protagonist of Ivory Fields is a strange, doomed young Army officer named Larry Dempsey. He's a second lieutenant, just as I was when I arrived in Vietnam in June 1968. But Lieutenant Dempsey is sent to Vietnam to lead an infantry platoon in combat. Whereas I commanded, in a manner of speaking, a detachment of eight enlisted men who performed an indoor sort of job, a classified mission called communications intelligence, in support of the 198th Light Infantry Brigade of the Americal Division. We belonged to the Army Security Agency, but in Vietnam we worked under the false though actually more descriptive name Radio Research.
I imagine this disguise was meant to confuse not only our enemies but also our friends who didn't have proper security clearances, but I don't know what difference it made. Our compounds were off limits to most American soldiers, and we never saw the Vietcong or North Vietnamese. At higher headquarters in Chu Lai and in small airplanes, other radio research soldiers listened in on the enemy's encrypted Morse code communications, and what they learned mainly locations was passed to my detachment, and passed on by me to the brigade commander. I remember an article in an overseas edition of Time that accurately described what units like ours were doing. I read the article in my hootch, in my detachment's compound, which was tucked inside the brigade's fortified base camp, Landing Zone Bayonet. The camp was situated at the edge of the coastal plain, at the base of the foothills of the central highlands, in the part of South Vietnam that the American authorities had labeled I Corps. I spent most of my year at lz Bayonet, inside the perimeter.
I remember watching a small group of American soldiers head out one evening. The selections that memory makes often puzzle me, but I probably remember seeing the patrol because it was the closest I ever got to the infantry in Vietnam. I was standing on the hill near my detachmentÕs antennas. I could see most of the base camp and to the west, out beyond the bunkers and barbed wire, green hills with taller hills like a wall behind them, and on a rock face in white paint, alpha 1Ú46 the gunfighters, the name of an infantry company that must have passed through in the course of the war and left that memento behind. The sun was setting on the hilltops, below great-chested clouds, and I was gazing out that way, glad to be apart from my men for a while, when I caught sight of the infantry patrol on one of the intervening hills, a group of olive-drab figures in procession, tiny at that distance, humpbacked beneath rucksacks. It would be dark soon. They were trudging away from the camp at an hour when I would have wanted to be heading in the opposite direction, toward hootches and beer and cots and mosquito nets and generators.
I had decided that this war was wrong. Not because of anything I had read recently or because of what I had seen so far. I opposed the war mainly because a lot of my friends were protesting against it back home. I watched the patrol with morbid fascination, with something like the feeling I used to get as a boy when I'd inch toward the edge of the roof of my grandmother's apartment building in New York, until the soldiers went over the hill in single file and disappeared. I was glad I wasn't going with them. But what if I had to? What if I enraged some field grade officer and for punishment got reassigned to the infantry? A fluttery sensation passed through my chest, and for a moment my hands felt weak. I imagined my civilian friends watching me. I imagined my girlfriend, Mary Anne. She might approve of my being less than gung ho, but not homesick and frightened. I had let some of those feelings slip into a few letters, and she had written me a sweet but keep-your-chin-up letter, in which she'd said, "Don't be so paranoid. I'd be more careful from now on. Soon my letters would suggest a stoical, even at times heroic young fellow. And after all, here I was, standing on the edge of the dangerous highlands under an operatic Asian sky, in a situation she ought to find poignant, a reluctant commander drawing hazardous duty pay.
I wandered down the hill, past our latrine, toward the enlisted men's hootches, and turned in at the one we had made into our lounge. Outside the screen door, I heard beer cans hissing open. I went inside as usual. Five or six of my men were sitting around the tv set, awaiting that eveningÕs episode of Combat! The title filled the screen: What Are the Bugles Blowin For? Sergeant Saunders's platoon has volunteered for a dangerous mission, which takes them, through the pouring rain, into a bombed-out village in France. The one kid left in the village joins up with them. He wants to fight the Krauts, too, because they killed his sister. He wants to get the man who did it, so he keeps checking the faces of the Krauts that Sergeant Saunders's squad guns down. Sergeant Saunders is brave and wise, and kind to children and women, especially nuns. I had a good sergeant, a buck sergeant in his early twenties, three stripes on the sleeves. His name was Stoney Spikes, and he came from Alabama. He had a strong face, with a big square chin, and the other men obeyed him. He kept one of his two pairs of jungle boots polished more or less, for the inspections we occasionally endured, which were for me almost a form of combat. The other pair he left unshined, at first perhaps because he saw no sense in shining them and later on, I think, because they made him feel more like the soldier he wished he was because a real soldier, an infantryman, a grunt, would never wear shiny boots in the bush. Spikes had gone away on leave and had run into some buck sergeants his age who had Combat Infantryman's Badges. "They got a name for people like us, Lieutenant," he told me when he came back. His jaw hardened. The term was remf. It stood for "Rear Echelon Mother Fucker." Spikes never seemed quite the same after he found out what real soldiers thought of soldiers like us.
In my memory, he sits forever in the lounge, at the end of another hot and dusty day. He opens a beer and tells the other men to hush as Combat! fills the tv screen, and he is dressed for the show in those sad, scuffed jungle boots. In a sense, I put on scuffed boots too, when I came home and began to write my novel about an infantry platoon and its lieutenant. Writing about experiences that I didn't have in Vietnam quieted real memories. A decade later, I had become a magazine writer. In 1978, still curious about those experiences that I had merely imagined, I traveled around the country, interviewing Vietnam combat veterans, to gather material for an article. And what a lot of strange and violent experience had been transported back into the United States, into jails and treatment centers and at least as often into houses on quiet, tree-lined streets. I met a former infantryman who remembered getting a black eye when a piece of his best friend's skull hit him in the face, a former combat medic who had finally weaned himself from morphine but still had lurid dreams about the men whose lives he hadn't saved, a government official who had lost an arm and both legs to a hand grenade, and dozens of others with terrible stories, all certifiable. Also, in Louisville, Kentucky, I met a man whom I'll call Bill, who told me a different kind of story, a tale about a tale.
In a bar one night, after listening to a bunch of other Vietnam veterans tell war stories, Bill had said, "We were ridin' on an apc outside Pleiku, when we got hit." Bill had told the barroom that he could still see those tracer rounds, like little red-tailed comets coming at them from the tree line, and the way his buddy who was sitting beside him on the armored personnel carrier slumped over and, as if in slow motion, fell by the side of the trail. Bill was scared, he told the bar. Fuckin' A, who wouldn't be? But that was his buddy, that was a GI lying wounded and dying back there on the trail. The captain, though, was yelling at the driver to di di mao. And Bill was yelling at the captain that they had to go back, and the coward told him to shut up and shouted at the driver again to move out. So afterward, back in base camp, the captain, to cover his ass, busted Bill to spec. 4, and Bill brooded and brooded and finally made up his mind to get payback. He had to kill the officer. He had to frag the lifer. Bill was sitting on a sofa in his parents' living room when he described himself telling that story. He said that he really did experience some moments of near combat in Vietnam, and that there really was a captain he wanted to kill, who busted him in rank. And in fact, Bill came home wounded. But his actual offense was repeated drunkenness, and he got his wound when he fell in a hole in a base camp and a friend, also stumbling drunk, fell in on top of him and broke his jaw. Bill had come home feeling miserable and had moved between the city's drunk tank and its barrooms, where he told his story again and again. It just came out one time, and it felt really good. Then each time I'd say it, I'd make it a little more glorified, Bill told me. "When I came home, the other veterans always had big wild stories, and I didnÕt have anything like theirs to tell. And theirs was probably as fictitious as mine. He looked down at his hands and seemed to smile at them. "It takes the place of things you didn't do. After a while, if you tell 'em enough, the ones people like to hear, you almost start to believe them."
When one considers the suffering of actual combatants and the much more numerous sufferings of Vietnamese civilians, it seems like sheer perversity for a rear-echelon soldier to come home wishing his experiences more dreadful than they were. But Bill was not alone. Most of the American soldiers who went to Vietnam were boys, whether they were twenty-two or just eighteen. They had watched a lot of movies and tv. I'm sure that many set out for Vietnam feeling confused or unhappy, as adolescents tend to do, and deep down many probably thought they would return with improved reasons for feeling that way. But of the roughly three million Americans who went to the war dressed as soldiers, only a small minority returned with Combat Infantryman's Badges, certain proof of a terrible experience. Imagine all the bullshit stories Vietnam inspired. My own wasn't exactly a story, just a freighted suggestion. I made it twice, the last time on a night in the mid-1970s. I got drunk at a Christmas party. Afterward, imagining that I'd been insulted by the various people I'd insulted there, I started crying angrily in the backseat of my car. A friend was driving. He asked me what was wrong, and I felt the need for a better explanation than the real one, whatever the real one was. My friend knew IÕd been in Vietnam. "Did you ever kill anyone, buddy?" I said. "No," he said. "Did you? "I don't want to talk about it." Ivory Fields was a more elaborate war story.
In late 1968, just back from Vietnam, I sat down at a table in my parents' house, and I began: When we were there things were on the increase, not the wane. The coonskin cap was still nailed on the walls of Cam Ranh Bay, so to speak. About this time is when the sad story begins. It is the saddest story you ever hope to hear. The Tabor's Sound II I think I expected readers to view my novel as autobiographical, and I was also beginning to sculpt my memories, looking for configurations that would make me more comfortable with them. I gave the lieutenant in Ivory Fields a Òpained and hawklike faceÓ and a sketchy past. His father isn't mentioned. His mother appears only briefly and is described as "once birdlike, but rounder poultry these days." No one who knew me could have imagined I meant to depict my own thin, beautiful, high-strung mother. Lieutenant Dempsey's experiences in the war are also very different, of course analogous to mine perhaps, but much more dramatic, the big shadows on the wall looming over me. For one thing, he gets shot to death. (He is done in by a conniving sergeant and giant black soldier named Ivory Fields; he dies while trying to protect, in his bumbling way, a Vietnamese girl whom his men have raped.) A reader might well think that the traits Dempsey and I had in common were fiction and at the same time imagine that some of Dempsey's fictional experiences resembled mine. Imagining the book's reception, I could see myself denying that I had suffered as he does. The more I demurred, the more the reader would think of me, He must have seen some stuff over there.
When my novel begins, Dempsey is already an infantry lieutenant on his way to Vietnam. He goes for patriotic reasons. He assumes the war is just. My case was more mystifying, at least to me. I grew up in the town of Oyster Bay, on the north shore of Long Island, at a time when the great suburban expansion had only just begun. Our house had been the gardener's cottage of a huge estate. It sat on several green acres, beside one of the island's last big hardwood forests. I spent what seems to me a very pleasant childhood playing with my two brothers and our friends at the foot of huge oaks and among pear trees and flowering dogwoods and on the waters of Long Island Sound. We carved our initials and later our first girlfriends' initials as well into the elephantlike skin of beech trees. I had a fierce temper as a child. Its eruptions sometimes made me climb into bed with my shoes on at midday. I had an equally fierce fear of the dark, which made real bedtimes dreadful, until I was ten or eleven and imaginary snakes stopped crawling up the gray stucco walls and through the window that looked out over the field in front of the house.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from My Detachment by Tracy Kidder. Copyright © 2005 by Tracy Kidder. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.