Something from a work in progress that things in the news this week reminded me about. Fictionalized, but the details come from a couple of my father’s war stories.
There’s this story my dad told me once about Vietnam. We were talking, one of those rare times when we were really talking, and I started talking about war. And I said that it seemed to me that war, at least, gave occasion to do great things, maybe, raised reasons for great courage and sacrifice. And my dad sat and listened to me talk shit about shit I didn’t know shit about, and then he told me about the biggest “hero” he ever met.
He said it just like that. The quotes were in the sneer.
There’s one in every outfit, and his name is Parker or LeBeau or Honeycutt or Garcia. And he hails from BF Egypt or Small Town USA or Sheepfucker Mountain or Silver Spoon Estates. And he’s rich or he’s poor or he’s smart or he’s dumb or he’s funny or he’s frigid or he’s short or he’s tall. And he joined to avoid prison or he joined to impress his dad or his dad got him a commission because his dad’s an officer or he didn’t join, he just won a lottery, lucky asshole.
The important thing is that he’s psycho. If nobody knows this before, they know it the first time they see action with him. He’s the guy who breaks noise discipline or maybe even shoots first, generally fucks things up and then gets aggro or scary quiet when confronted about it. All anybody can do is punish him, and whatever his name is, wherever he’s from he can always take a lot of that and think he won, somehow. He never gets the message, he just keeps thinking he’s winning by losing all the time, and some people, no amount of Army will drive that shit out of them.
This one’s name was Cole Harness, I do remember that, my dad showed me on the traveling replica of the Vietnam wall that came to Oregon on a visit, once, a while after this conversation. Don’t remember where he was from or any other details, except that he liked to introduce himself as “Ice Cold Hardness.” What a choad. That, and how he died, are all I know about that name on that wall and the Distinguished Service Cross that went with the name, eventually. My father never told me exactly what he knew about Ice Cold before his death that made him psycho, and I never asked. I have some vague ideas of my own, at this point.
My dad’s company went out on some kind of group effort mission right by the Cambodian border – I’m sure there’s some Army term for this that isn’t “clusterfuck,” but anyway, that’s how it ended up, go figure. The Viet Cong in the area was showing stronger than everybody liked, consistently, there had to be an ammo dump in the area someplace that wasn’t over the border, please Jesus and Mary, both. And Buddha and Vishnu. And hell, Satan, whoever. You do not want to end up in a fight that entails an international incident-causing border running down the middle.
Anyway, people got pulled in from other duties for One Big Push that turned out to be an ambush…you’ve seen Vietnam movies. There was no resupply, the North Vietnamese weren’t as simple as the US assumed and knew exactly how to play us, intelligence-wise, to make up for what they lacked in tech and firepower. Story of the whole fucking war, really, although my dad tends to blame the whole thing on lack of Congressional will to win. Which is one reason we never talked that often about it, I guess.
So, like…I dunno, a hundred (not really) companies converge to rout out all these nasty Cong and there are no Viet Cong, just a bunch of buried and collapsed tunnels and hootches in disrepair. Someplace they obviously used to be. And everybody who’d been “in country” longer than a month knew that was bad. Unfortunately…again, you’ve seen Vietnam movies: green junior officers with something to prove. Plus, we’re all out here, may as well do some sweeps and point of presence stuff, let the locals know we mean business.
They knew. They knew their home turf, too, amazing that. The first waves of attacking Vietnamese divided the American troops pretty neatly in half in about ten seconds. One half got stuck where they stood, and they all died that day – that hour, really. The half my dad was on considered themselves lucky to get away and regroup to fight, right up until they called in for air support.
They’d been chased into a French rubber plantation. The French still had massive economic holdings in Vietnam after they dropped it as a colony and handed the war off to us, and the French were still our allies, even though they were the French. Not only were no jets coming in with bellies full of hell to spray everywhere, the voices on the radio said “Don’t shoot the trees.” My father and fellow troops were in the middle of a total no-fire zone, they may as well have been trying to fight in the middle of an orphanage or something. Except the voices on the radio probably would have said fuck the orphanage, but…not gazillions of dollars worth of tires intended for Cadillacs back in America, no sir.
The Vietnamese were under no such restrictions and were actually firing at my dad’s company, what was left of it, from another rubber plantation across the border, in Cambodia. There’s no great battle story after that, I hate to disappoint you. (Unless you are on-the-winning-side Vietnamese, yourself, in which case this story is maybe hilarious and awesome. I have to imagine that maybe another father on the other side of the world, he tells that story. A lot.) A bunch of soldiers got killed under orders not to shoot back while idiots with commissions figured shit out, enough of said idiots finally died for a retreat to sound, the end.
Number ten thou, in other words. The furthest from “number one” you can go in the American/Asian good-to-bad lingua franca sorta that worked so well for us while the US was running all over Asia after WWII. (People associate that solely with the war in Vietnam, due to movies recently, but it’s really Japanese – ichiban is the best, juban the worst, all of this tied into custom and superstition about human fingers. I think maybe I learned this from a manga, back when I used to read lots of those, when you could still get them here.)
And then a few days later, back to the samo samo, my dad found out Pvt. Ice Cold Hardness was up for a medal. He knew Harness was dead – he’d been in the half that didn’t make it to the slaughter and retreat at the rubber tree farm. He didn’t know anything about how Harness died, though, and then everybody was talking about it, all of a sudden. It made Stars and Stripes. It made the papers and the teevee back home, even. Johnson’s press secretary made a special point of mentioning Cole Harness that week. This was going to be a big medal, obviously.
Ice Cold died exactly the way he wanted to: the good death, the soldier’s death, the valiant death, the whatever you want to call it death. The Vikings and Spartans and Mayans would have all started whole new religions just for this guy. He died manning a mounted gun, surrounded by a small mountain of enemy bodies, the gun jammed, his service weapons empty, a trenching tool in his hand and the business end probably in the eye socket of the guy who killed him, for all I know. It wasn’t his job, even, he was on punishment detail that day and supposed to assist corpsmen. The gunner died, he took over the gun…hate to sound like a broken record, but you’ve seen war movies. Pure hero for the papers.
Which probably sounds great to some people. If it does, that’s because you’re a psycho, too, like Ice Cold Hardness. I mean, you may not ever die that way, taking a busload of humans with you, but you want to. You dream of justification for killing, for a righteous kill, destroying live human bodies in a manner that not only earns you no scorn or punishment, but universal approval. Your heart wouldn’t swell the way it does at that story if that weren’t true, you wouldn’t read superhero comics, and Ice Cold wouldn’t have gotten the Army’s second-highest honor, posthumously.
We’re all a little like that or nobody would ever get medals like that.