Tentatively titled A Citizen of London, Stacy Danielle Stephen’s work-in-progress excerpted here began twelve years ago as a fictional account of the last person killed in England by a V2 rocket but has since become a twentieth century history in the form of a war correspondent’s memoir. Ms Stephens captures the sweep of history with intimate glimpses into personal moments ranging from the teenage Nikita Khrushchev arriving in the filthy bustle of Yuzovka to the day Eva Braun met Adolf Hitler. Today, we feel the human cost of LBJ’s commitment to the defense of Viet Nam.
In his play, We Bombed in New Haven, Joseph Heller talks about a list, insisting that every name on that list is your son. He’s right about that.
* * *
After Jan Masaryk’s death, in 1948, I had a nightmare, and when George Orwell died, in 1950, it became a recurring nightmare. Most of the details will vary, with a few remaining much the same.
I’ve ascended several flights of stairs, arriving at a garret apartment, probably Jan’s, although I’d never actually seen it, and it won’t always be the same apartment, although it seems never to be a different apartment, either. Consistently, the furnishings will be nondescript, yet vividly striking, particularly since they’re lighted by the firestorm raging outside the window. The brilliance of that horrifying illumination makes each thing inside, each and every object, a distinct shadow with a bright face turned toward the terrifying light, and I go toward that light, and stand at the casement window framing it, grasping the handle of the latch, turning it, and pulling, and always surprised that the suction of the firestorm holds it shut. It seems I can only watch, and yet I pull at the window frame with all my strength, and this added strain shatters the glass, which the suction pulls outward, more often than not pulling me out as well, although if it doesn’t, I will lean out until I fall into the acrid scorching winds. Either way, I swirl between the downward pull of gravity and the irresistible updraft, and drops of my own blood swirl, too, pelting me like a driving rain. And either way, I always get to the bottom of it, the white-hot, sky blue flame at the heart of the endless sacrifice, and always I know the burnt offering is an infant no longer living, wrapped in bandages, the outer layers of them scorched. I wake as I begin peeling them away.
In Pleiku, those first two weeks of November, I was waking to this almost constantly, seldom sleeping more than an hour at a time. I had covered the Blitz twenty-five years earlier, covered the war in Italy, covered the dirty war when French generals were determined to engage and destroy their communist enemy at any cost. I knew better than anyone what we’d be seeing in the days ahead, and how much of it we’d see, and how long we’d go on seeing it even after we turned away from it.
* * *
Unprecedented numbers of casualties began arriving early in the evening of November 14th. Three US Air Cavalry Battalions and their supporting artillery had encountered and engaged two regiments of The People’s Army of Viet Nam, informally known as the NVA, at an arbitrary rectangle drawn on a map of the Ia Drang valley and labelled LZ X-Ray.
Although they were outnumbered nearly three-to-one, the Americans had two significant advantages; the more obvious being virtually unlimited air support. More importantly, those two regiments had no interest in defending their position, or in holding the mountain where they had dug in. They, too, had been sent to seek out, engage, and destroy the enemy. And they had travelled two months on foot, and on short rations, specifically for that purpose. Although their determination fell short of a death wish, each individual going into combat against these Americans was profoundly committed to the unification of Viet Nam and hell bent on accomplishing it through the immediate and eternal defeat of their enemy at whatever personal cost was necessary.
* * *
In the majority of divorce cases, custody hearings are not, as they purport to be, about the children; rather, they are a forum in which parents attempt to hurt each other, to engage and destroy their enemy, and the war in Viet Nam, whether it was the French war or the American war, wasn’t about the mountains and valleys of Southeast Asia, or about finding and establishing the best way to govern the people living there. It was never about preserving democracy from the threat of communism, as both France and the United States had discarded Vietnamese democracy when it proved detrimental to their war against Ho Chi Minh’s goal of a unified and independent Viet Nam. That Ho was in fact a communist provided his opponents, whether military or political, a convenient pretext for their opposition to him, since it could hardly be justified for any other reason. That a majority of Vietnamese living south of the sixteenth parallel preferred not to be ruled from Hanoi, nor to be part of a communist state, was also a happy coincidence for anyone who wished to oppose Ho, although the inconvenient truth that few South Vietnamese had ever wished to be ruled by Bảo Đại, or Ngô Đình Diệm, or Nguyễn Văn Thiệu had to be ignored.
In this context, the battle of Ia Drang valley is emblematic of the American war in Viet Nam. Any sane person who saw the casualties of that battle would be hard pressed to declare it a victory for anyone. Wounded and dead alike had been shot, burned, and dismembered, although the Chinook helicopter loaded to its limit with rotting fragmented body parts gathered from trees–all those were dead. And like Goya before me, I can say that I saw it. This happened. Infinitely worse than that, what happened was no accident, no mistake, but the very object sought by both sides. They had engaged and destroyed their enemy, left their enemy burned and bullet-riddled. In fragments. Hanging from trees. So both sides could rightly and honestly claim a victory, for which there can be no substitute in war.
* * *
By November 16th, Peter Jennings was interviewing Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore for a segment to be broadcast on the ABC Evening News. Jennings was among the Chinook-load of reporters flown into LZ X-Ray that day; Lieutenant Colonel Robert McDade, commanding 2nd Battalion of the 7th Cavalry Regiment, could hardly be blamed for thinking the battle was over. His unit had arrived at LZ X-Ray just ahead of the reporters, and in the morning (17th), he was ordered to move his battalion to LZ Albany, not quite three miles away, where they were to be airlifted out and returned to their base camp.
However, what the Americans expected to be an authoritative dénouement, a simple exit, stage left, would prove to be something else entirely, and the day, like the battle it wrapped up, would also prove to be consummately emblematic of the American war in Viet Nam. As with the Tet Offensive twenty-six months later, when the Americans believed the war was nearly over, and woke to learn that it was not, and likely never could be, on November 17th, 1965, the Americans learned, or should have learned, that a resilient and determined enemy can be depended upon to bring Murphy’s Law home to you at the worst moment, to shock and surprise you, to spring out and hit you when you least expect it.
There were two NVA battalions waiting at LZ Albany.
* * *
Although there are now numerous articles detailing McDade’s “tragic blunder” the fact is, he never faced a court martial for taking his unit into an ambush that day. Statements of men present at the battle suggest he was in shock, but neither his courage nor his competence were ever brought into doubt, and he was among the more experienced American officers serving in Viet Nam at the time, having commanded a platoon in the Pacific during the second world war, and a company in Korea during the police action there.
While the communists in Viet Nam, whether north or south, had good intelligence, they also had sense enough to put two and two together. They knew a landing zone when they saw one, and they knew what it was for. Simply waiting quietly would surely prove to be worth the time spent.
Arriving at the LZ after several hours of walking with full packs through elephant grass, the Americans dropped their gear and sprawled out to rest before setting up a perimeter which, under the presumed circumstances, was only a formality. Two Vietnamese sleeping in the vicinity were taken prisoner while a third ran away. The prisoners claimed to be deserters, and the Americans saw no reason to believe otherwise. While that third man may have alerted his comrades to the presence of the Americans, their reconnaissance helicopter circling overhead would have done so just as well. Either way, early in the afternoon, the NVA attacked the scattered and unprepared Americans. The surgical hospital in Pleiku began receiving the wounded around ten-thirty that night. The helicopter unit bringing them in–not Medevac–had taken battle damage during the evacuation, but no losses.
* * *
Triage is a French word, which means sorting. It comes from an earlier French word for plowing, where a triangular blade broke the soil. Coincidentally, perhaps, in triage, the wounded are sorted into three groups. The first are those who must be helped first. The second are those who can wait to be helped. The third are those who are beyond help. A War Correspondent is most immediately concerned with the third and second groups. In twenty-five years of reporting war, I’d been in any number of medical facilities, ranging from hospital buildings to aid stations, where I’d seen any number of wounded men, more then a few of whom died as I watched.
* * *
A hundred years earlier, when the telegraph brought news of President Lincoln’s death, Americans vividly remembered for the rest of their lives sharply detailed images of what they were doing the moment they heard. Likewise when just two years earlier Walter Cronkite let us know that President Kennedy had died in Dallas. In this same way, I suppose, I remember the concrete floor of the corrugated steel Quonset, and the radio tuned to 820 AM, Armed Forces Saigon. And the recovering wounded, waiting to be sent to An Khe, or Qui Nhon, or Tokyo, or sometimes back to their unit in just a few days. And some carried out in body bags.
* * *
I thought of him as the thirteenth man, although I don’t know what order, if any, really, they arrived in. There were thirteen of them, the last collection of wounded from LZ Albany, gathered from among the many dead outside the initial perimeter, where they had waited, whether physically unable to move or prudent enough to stay put until the LZ was secure and they could be safely brought back. During the night, many of the wounded Americans bled to death, and many who hadn’t were quietly killed by NVA who had come to retrieve their own wounded. Among the few who survived the night, a few more were killed by the artillery or napalm which forced the NVA withdrawal, allowing the men inside the perimeter to move forward and retrieve anyone still alive beyond it.
This thirteenth man had been shot several times and perforated by shrapnel. His arms had been removed by an exploding artillery shell, technically friendly fire, and the man he’d been arm in arm with on the ground had become fragments scattered among the trees around them by that same explosion. Then he’d been severely burned by napalm.
He’d been given more than the usual dosage of morphine, and I knew what that meant. I waited with him, already knowing what he was piecing together in his personal haze amid the fog of war. He told me about a bayonet stopping a knife, and clinging together in the bitter cold of near death with Brooke Brookfield. “Aint that a goofy name?” he asked me rhetorically. I didn’t tell him I recognized that name, or that I had known Brooke’s mother. It was Brooke who had been blown to fragments scattered in the trees around them moments before the napalm.
My thirteenth man was quiet for several minutes. Gathering strength for the end, for his closing statement. I’d seen this before, and waited.
“My mom was a reporter,” he said. “Dad told me she drowned covering the flood.”
“When you were six years old?” I asked.
“Yeah. How did you–”
He had no more breath, and no more strength to breathe.
* * *
What had possessed me to ask that? And why had he responded as he did? Could he be? I hadn’t asked his name. When had I quit asking names? I was tired, and there had been so many, arriving so suddenly, and I had stopped asking who they were.
Almost all the boys who had come into this Quonset were nineteen; the same age as Ollie, my son, whom I hadn’t seen since he was six years old. I remembered the intelligent look in his eyes as he moved around the living room, listening to the radio, engaged in the action and actually seeing something without staring at anything. Could this corpse, burned and mutilated, be that same little boy?
“No,” I said. A nurse heard me, and asked if he had passed.
“His name,” I said, pointing at him. “Where was he from?”
“PFC Oliver Eggleston,” she said. “Omaha, Nebraska. Did you know him?”
I didn’t answer, but she didn’t wait for an answer.
* * *
I must have watched as they placed him in a bag and carried him out; I don’t remember.
I was still sitting there hours later, I suppose, when I heard a Chinook approaching, heavily loaded from the sound of it. I assumed reporters were returning, and felt that I needed to be among a crowd of my peers, so I went outside. As it descended, I noticed a hardened rivulet of blood beneath the lower edge of the rear gate, where it had dried en route while pouring out through the hinges. In a few minutes, without a word or even a thought, I began helping some sorry sons of bitches unload the largest pile of rotted body fragments any of us had ever seen. This was the conclusion of Ia Drang, and for me, the end of Viet Nam.
Stacy Danielle Stephens is editor of the anthology She Blended Me With Science and author of the police procedural novella The Dog Who Knew Too Much (Publisher Website | Amazon).