PUNJI SPIKES AND SPIDER HOLES
In this essay I shall examine the outstanding volume of poetry and novel describing the American soldier's experience in Vietnam: Dien Cai Dau, by Yuseph Komunyakaa; and, Close Quarters, by Larry Heinemann. Along the way we will encounter the unforgettable language of that era. In Heinemann's novel we are introduced to armored personnel carriers, called "tracks", in which ordinary soldiers, "grunts", wore football-like helmets, "CVCs" and bulky "flak jackets" for protection. The rice-paddy dikes they attacked were called "berms", the mud huts, "hooches", and the enemy, "squint-eyes", "dinks", "slopes" and "gooks".
As in all wars, soldiers were conditioned from basic training onward with racism to view the enemy as inhuman (e.g. "Huns" in W.W. I, "Japs" in W.W. II). No less a figure than U.S. Army General William C. Westmoreland, Commander of U.S. troops in Vietnam, claimed that the "Oriental doesn't value life in the same way as a Westerner."(We have heard similar claims regarding Muslims since the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq). In this war the dead were measured in "body count", "kill ratio" and "KIA" (killed in action); their corpses seen on the nightly TV news inside "body bags" on conveyor belts emerging from giant air transport planes. And there were the unforgettable phrases:
"punji spikes"(shit-covered bamboo stakes driven into the ground to penetrate and infect the feet of the enemy); "spider holes" (shallow trenches dug in the ground for enemy reconnaissance); and "tiger cages" (tiny wooden cells in which prisoners were exposed to the blistering heat of the sun). Let us begin with Yuseph Komunyakaa's collection of poetry, Dien Cai Dau (crazy in the head).
In, "Tunnels", the sheer terror of combat is distilled in the experience of the "tunnel rat", often the smallest man in the platoon:
"Crawling down headfirst into the hole, he kicks the air & disappears...
He moves as if trying to outdo
blind fish easing toward imagined blue... his globe-shaped helmet
follows the gold ring his flashlight casts into the void. Through silver
lice, shit, maggots, & vapour of pestilence
he goes, the good soldier... (p. 193)"
In, "Hanoi Hannah", we hear the voice of North Vietnamese propaganda on the radio listened to by Gl’s in the field:
Shells carve a white arc against dusk. Her voice rises from a hedgerow on our left... Howitzers buck like a herd of horses behind concertina. "You know you're dead men, don't you? You're dead
as King today in Memphis"... We lay down a white-klieg Trail of tracers. Phantom jets fan out over the trees...(p. 198)"
"2527th Birthday of the Buddha", describes the Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Due's, self-immolation on June 11, 1962 on a Saigon street. This horrifying footage was captured on TV camera, and featured prominently in Phillip Roth's, American Pastorale, (perhaps the greatest novel of the Vietnam War on the home front) and in lngmar Bergman's masterly film, "Persona":
"When the motorcade rolled to a halt, Quang Due climbed out & sat down in the street.
He crossed his legs, & the other monks & nuns grew around him like petals... he burned like a bundle of black joss sticks.
A high wind that started in California fanned flames, turned each blue page, leaving only his heart intact.
Waves of saffron robes bowed to the gasoline can...(p. 201, 2)"
In, "Sappers", we witness waves of enemy combatants advancing irresistibly toward an American platoon:
"They fall & rise again like torchbearers,
with their naked bodies greased so moonlight dances off their skin. They run
with explosives strapped around their wastes,
& try to fling themselves
Into our arms...(p. 206)"
In, "Prisoners", we're reminded of the physical torture employed by the American occupiers and their
"... I see them stumble-dance across the hot asphalt
with croaker sacks over their heads, moving toward the interrogation huts... I've heard the old ones
are the hardest to break.
An arm twist, a combat boot
Against the skull, a .45
Jabbed into the mouth, nothing works...
From a half-mile away trees huddle together,
& the prisoners look like
Marionettes hooked to strings of light...(p. 214)"
In "Saigon Bar Girls, 1975" we are introduced to the young women of Vietnam forced to work as prostitutes:
"You're among them
Washing off makeup
& slipping into peasant clothes
The color of soil... French perfume
Pale as history, reverie
Of cloth like smoke rings
Blown at an electric fan... They stand like Lot's wife
at plaintive windows
or return to home villages as sleepwalkers, leaving sloe gin glasses
kissed with lipstick...(p. 228, 29)"
And another poem about the Vietnamese bar girls, "Tu Do Street", poignantly adds: "Back in the bush at Dak To
& Khe Sanh, we fought
the brothers of these women
we now run to hold in our arms...(p. 210)"
And finally, in, "Losses", we watch one of the many veterans finally returned home with his mind destroyed by the war:
"After Nam he lost himself, Not trusting his hands
with loved ones. His girlfriend left,
& now he scouts the edge of town,
Always with one ear
cocked & ready to retreat,
to blend with the hills, poised
like a slipknot
becoming a noose...(p. 232, 233)"
Larry Heinemann's novel, Close Quarters, begins with its protagonist, Phillip Dosier's, first view of a platoon of armored personnel carriers and the soldiers with which he will spend his combat tour of Vietnam:
"I stood stiffly with my feet well apart, parade-rest fashion, at the break in the barbed-wire fence...My feet and legs itched with sweat. My shirt clung to my back. My shaving cuts burned. I watched, astonished, as the battalion Reconnaissance Platoon, thirty-some men and ten boxy squat-looking armored personnel carriers- tracks, we called them -cranked in from two months in the field, trailing a rank stink and stirring a cloud of dust that left a tingle in the air...(p. 3)"
Dosier describes his first experience driving a "track":
"I drove slowly, holding the black plastic grips on the brake handles tightly. The vibrations jolted my hands and arms and chest. The CVC muffled the grinding and shrieking and thumping of the treads, the throttled roar of the engine, but after that day I always had a buzzing, crackling, rushing hum in my
A milestone in his "tour of duty" was Dosier's first patrol of enemy territory, called "going on ambush": "Finally it was dark and word came down for the Romeo Apple Pie to move out. One by one we got on
line...he snapped the safety off and turned to me and said, "Do what I do..." I put the sling of the pig
over my shoulder and brought the butt of the gun up into my right armpit...llistened...l felt the sweat on the back of my neck, along the sides of my face. There was little sound besides my own breathing and
the bamboo clacking together in the wind...The gun, the ammo, the grenades and flak jacket, everything hangs painfully on my shoulders...Someone shouts, "Gooks!" and immediately there is a long, shuddering burst of automatic rifle fire, clean and crisp. There are gun flashes in the woodline and I freeze. I am frozen as though the air had been sucked out of my lungs...Rounds are going by my ears, near enough to touch, buzzing, whining like quick hard thorns...Suddenly my gun is firing. The recoil shakes me stiffly...Rounds keep coming out of the woodline, right for my chest, my head, kicking up dirt around my feet...Here I am, cursing and fumbling, trying my level goddamn best to shoot back, but my hands, my eyes, my voice --everything is haywire. I am going to be killed...! breathe in gasps, sucking the acrid gun smoke and the sweet humus smell and sweaty salt odor of my own body deep into my lungs...(p. 41-44)"
It turns out that the enemy they have been exchanging fire with are ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam), their own Vietnamese allies. In the confusion of battle, casualties are often the result of "friendly fire" -- Americans shot by Americans or by South Vietnamese. At the end of his first ambush they finally return to base:
"...1 want to run and run and run. I want to crash through the woodline, hit the trail, and keep going. I want to shout and scream, yell and run. I have never known the simple release of turning my back on a terror and taking to the woods...one at a time we go through the bushes, along the ditch, and step inside the wire, home free...(p. 47, 48)"
Then there is the terrible day on which Dosier kills an enemy combatant with his bare hands:
"...I am low-crawling hand over hand across the mushy grass, holding my bayonet. A little man drags himself away with his rifle under one arm, held level, pushing at the grass with his good leg, pulling with his free arm. I catch sight of the tip of the muzzle and the front sight blade in the downpour, like a hole in the earth. He catches sight of me. There are two quick roaring flashes in my face. My eyes burn. I must be blinded...I get up on my knees and fall forward, knife first, past the muzzle, brushing it aside
with a jerk of my elbow. The little man tries to scuttle away. I grab his shirt and feel for the collar, shoving him into the soggy mud. He reaches for my arm, my eyes. I raise myself straight-armed above him, bringing the bayonet roundhouse high, I gather the shirt tightly in my fist; tightly around his neck. All I have to do is bring the knife down, drop it straight into his chest, and snap the breastbone...I can see nothing but his eyes...I could puncture a lung, coming straight down through the shoulder, or get his heart from the side, or simply stab him in the throat at the carotid...I let the bayonet slip from my hand and come down with all my weight on his chest, my hands around his neck. I squeeze his Adam's apple with both my thumbs. I lift his head and push it back into the turf with a muted splash. My fingernails work into the back of his neck. The little man grabs both my wrists. He gurgles and works his jaw. His mouth stretches open and he wags his tongue. Lift. Push. Squeeze...Something cracks and my thumbs work easier, deeper...His face and lips and jaw go slack. His head and hands go limp...(p. 72, 73)"
Once again "going on ambush", Dosier and his comrades next torch a Vietnamese "vill":
"...I bust jungle out to Ap Six, another Chieu Hoi ville...Some dinks take off for the woods...Seven-seven and seven-eight peel off after them...I stop at the first hooch I come to...there is an old mama-san sitting in the shade...Dewey grabs the old woman by the back of the blouse..."No VC!", she shouts, and shakes her gray-haired, wrinkled old head..."Shut yer yap, mama-san." Dewey holds her back while Dipstick and Walters go through the hooch. Dipstick thrashes around, throwing dishes and saucepans and crockery out into the front yard...Dewey tells the woman to squat, which she does...Dipstick comes chugging around the side of the hooch, holding a crossbow-looking contraption over his head..."Booby trap," says Trobridge..."She's gook!..."Romeo Six," I say into my eve microphone...but it is too late. Dipstick has already torched the hooch and is dragging a flaming rag to the haystack. The woman screams and tries to run after him..."Fucken Gl," she says, and slaps the ground disgustedly..."You think that's fucked up?" With my gun I point to her hooch, smoking thickly and crackling...There is a bull buffalo just to my left with his nose-ring tied to a palm tree with a simple slipknot...I switch the shotgun off safe and take aim
on the buffs head from the hip. I work the pump and squeeze off the rounds. Blam. Blam. Blam...the buff keeps rolling his eyes, stamping his hooves, and stretching and yanking against the nose-ring thong with flared nostrils and dug-in heels. It takes me six rounds of double-aught buckshot to bring him down...He flinches again, baring his teeth, and paws the ground...he staggers on his forelegs, stumbling, and slacks the thong. He shakes his head again, flinging dribbles of blood in an arc on the damp, packed earth. The woman screams and collapses on the ground, whining and thrashing her arms and pounding the hard ground with the flat of her palms...I catch the buff again...His jaw slacks and he slobbers gobs of red and creamy foam...He falls to his side, bleeding gushes from his neck and head and snout in front of the hooch, which is now flaming and falling into itself with glowing bits of thatch trailing off with the smoke...(p. 106-109)"
Later in his "tour of duty", Dosier joins a wounded comrade in his death in a fire fight:
"... I am there on my hands and knees in the muck next to him, trying to get him to lie quiet, because every time he moans and hunches his hips a little more entrail squeezes out through the flapping slice across his belly- blackish and slimy and puke-smelling. I mean, he's turning himself inside out each time he winces to ease the pain. He breathes in hoarse sucking gasps, like he's had the wind knocked out of him, and I'm whispering louder and louder into his bloody, muddy face, "Don't die, hey, don't die, don't die, goddamn it," and squeezing his hand. But I feel his hand and arm and face go chill as I touch him. His reddened, shrunken eyes roll back into his head and his lips hang slack, showing tartar-blackened gums. His hand goes limp in my hand though the calluses are still hard and scratchy, like paper on paper...I gather the head and shoulders and draw the body to me...then a hard, beating downpour comes at us across the paddy in sheer, roaring sheets. In no time I am soaked and shivering and my hair hangs in my eyes, and I am whispering and whimpering in the ear of a dead man, "Don't die, don't die, don't die...(p.
Finally, in vengeance for the death of a comrade, Dosier executes a Vietnamese prisoner in cold blood: "...two dinks climbed out, a kid and an old man...l pushed the kid down on his heels...The kid squatted in
the sun. His wounded arm hung painfully to the ground, his other hand holding the bandage tight, almost squeezing it. I put the muzzle of the twelve-gauge right in his face...l judged him thirteen or fourteen...Move, kid. Just move. Go ahead and take off on a run. It would be so easy to kill him and say he made a grab for the gun. Kid, I'm going to blow your fucking head off, at the eyes. I wanted to reach down and crush his fucking face, disembowel his little asshole...l stood there watching his black blinking eyes, moving my finger from trigger to guard to trigger and back...And I waited my chance. The kid knew what I wanted to do...I kept glancing over my shoulders, picking a time when no one was looking, and when that moment came...l clicked off the safety, looked again, and blew the top of his head off...(p.
Joe Allen's excellent, Vietnam: The (Last) War the U.S. Lost, will provide us with the historical context in which to situate our two examples of the literature of the American soldier in Vietnam. In the Foreword, by John Pilger, we are told that:
"...the longest war of the twentieth century was waged by the American government against the people of Vietnam, North and South, communist and noncommunist. It was an invasion of their homeland upon which the United States dropped the greatest tonnage of bombs in the history of warfare, pursued a military strategy deliberately designed to force millions to abandon their homes, and used banned chemicals in a manner that profoundly changed the environmental and genetic order, leaving a once bountiful land petrified. Some three million people were killed and at least as many were maimed and otherwise ruined. The American military commander, General William Westmoreland, declared that the object was to cause human devastation "to the point of national disaster for generations to come." That this was achieved as an epic crime by the Nurnberg standard is hardly known in the United States...(p.
Allen describes the U.S. presence in Vietnam, which was:
"...one of the largest expeditionary forces in American history which, by late 1967, numbered nearly five hundred thousand men with a colossal support apparatus. Each month, the United States spent nearly
$2 billion on the war and delivered more than one million tons of supplies. American engineers built a
massive road network, deep-water ports, and nearly one hundred airstrips to facilitate the war effort. This was augmented by bombing missions carried out from U.S. bases in Thailand and Guam, and from aircraft carriers in the South China Sea. It was the best trained, funded, equipped, and most mobile military force in the world. Yet despite the incredible destructive power it brought to bear in Vietnam, it failed miserably... instead of the huge American army intimidating the NLF and North Vietnamese, the U.S. atrocities increased the number of Vietnamese willing to join the resistance and fight back...(p. 43)"
But unlike today's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan- which are about the economic control of the world's most important strategic commodity, oil- the Vietnam War was about the political "credibility" of the U.S. in its super-power confrontation with the Soviet Union:
"...While Vietnam did not have any direct economic or strategic importance for the United States without a great natural resource like oil or a command of vital sea lanes, like the Panama Canal- it took on great political importance. Success or failure there involved what American political leaders would call "credibility"...War in Vietnam was the price to be paid for having a global empire and an arrogant leadership who believed they could bully anybody into line. Though it tried to justify its intervention in Vietnam by saying that it was fighting foreign "communist aggression" against South Vietnam directed by Moscow or Beijing, the only aggressors and foreigners in Vietnam were Americans...(p. 41)"
Finally, Allen summarizes the reasons why the poor little country of Vietnam was able to defeat the
United States of America, the richest and most powerful empire in history:
"...The Vietnamese forces won independence not because they defeated the United States militarily, but because they were able to drain the will of the United States to continue fighting. Though the United States won every major engagement in Vietnam, it was forced to retreat because the political cost of victory became too high, as millions of Americans (workers, citizens, and soldiers alike) turned against
the war...ln the end, it was these three elements that combined to defeat the United States in Vietnam:
A strong national resistance movement in Vietnam; the development of a mass antiwar movement at
home; and the almost complete breakdown of the fighting capacity of the American soldier as a result of the experience of combat combined with Gl rebellion...(p. 204, 205)"