Monday, February 18, 2008

Quang Tri, Summer, 1968

The date is my best recollection; it could have been my birthday, for all I remember. We were set up in an old French fort of poured concrete buildings with corrugated metal roofs, all above ground. It formed a square roughly 200m. on a side, with an earth berm and bunkers surrounding the buildings on the perimeter, and an open area just outside for Hueys, the smaller scout choppers (OH-13s, if you care) were parked between the perimeter and the hooch next door.

In the early afternoon, a 3/4 ton truck drove up outside our hooch, its markings & paint identifying it as from the armed forces of the Republic of Vietnam (South--our "allies"), or ARVN: in this case from the National Police Field Force (NPFF). We sometimes had to go on missions they were involved in: they'd surround a village, pick out a few people, and start beating them, etc., and we'd watch, helpless to control them. Their national commander was a close ally of President Ky; he's the one in the famous photograph shooting a bound prisoner in the head at point blank range. I usually call them "Gestapo", but they're actually closer to Ordnungpolizei, the field units who rounded up the Jews of Europe.

Two of the NPFF were in the back, which was covered; momentarily they flung something out over the tailgate as if they were unloading sacks of grain: about a five foot drop. It was the body of a woman in a coma. They explained to one of the ARVN Interpreters who were attached to our teams that some one in her village had stated, probably under duress, that she had a relative with the NLF (the enemy). They had questioned her by tying her and turning her upside down in a big earthenware jar of water, then releasing her long enough to ask her a few questions before repeating the process. The last time, she didn't re-gain consciousness, so, having no further use for her, they brought her to us.

I don't remember having much of a reaction at the time, other than "Why us, dammit?" The MPs decided to hold her for "observation" to see if she came out of it; I suppose they called in a medic, but it wasn't my job, so I didn't pay too much attention. There was no point in objecting to any of this--it was "costs of war"; anyone I could have informed could see it as readily as I. The MPs put her in the back of their facility--an barbed wire enclosure with pallets and a tent with the sides up where she was tended by several other female detainees. She hadn't re-gained consciousness when she left about Noon the next day.

I didn't do anything; I was only there to see. And, if it isn't torture, why do I still see the truck, and the heat and light of the day, and the "cage" where detainees were kept by the MPs? Why do I feel stained? How can so many people know about these things and shrug them off or justify them as merely "psychological" or "legal stress?" And, when atrocities are reported--whether they be historical as with the working class Social Democrats from Hamburg in Ordnungspolizei 101, or as current as the present government of the United States--how can we shrug, and go on, and later say, "We didn't know."


Grandmère Mimi said...

Johnie, decent folks can't. It's not so much words that linger with me, but images, and if it's the same with you, which I believe it is, then my heart goes out to you more than you can imagine. As you say, when you were in the midst of that shameful behavior, what could you have done? But the pictures won't go away.

And we are still doing the unspeakable today, and candidate St. John - who was himself tortured - now says that shameful behavior is OK.

Lord, have mercy on us all!

Ken said...

Jon and Grandmere, you have probably defined for me why some decisions are best not made, except the one I have made: not to vote for President this year. To do so would be to ennoble a corrupt process and sully whatever is left of me.

Kirstin said...

My friend, I don't know what to say--but I thought about this all day yesterday.

Mimi's right; decent people can't shrug these pictures off. You know what you saw. And you know it was wrong. But at the time, ou couldn't do anything about it.

Forgive yourself for that, and keep on keeping the rest of us awake to what can happen if we forget.

I want to wrap the world in prayers and love.

Jane R said...

JohnieB, prayers for and with you, my friend.

Dorothee Soelle talks about how shame is a revolutionary emotion. Or rather, I think she says Marx first said that. But ICBW. It's late.

At any rate, thank you. And peace be with you.

Ken, I don't much like the electoral process here: the scattered primaries, the money, the media, the superdelegates. But until we (yes, we) change it, I will continue to vote. Too many people died for the right to vote; I cannot give it up. It would be to violate their memory, even with our lousy process.

Poll monitoring, though. I hope there are poll monitors as there were last time. I don't trust them machines. So, if there are poll monitoring organizations, I'm signing up.

I know, I should be working on electoral reform. We are all so damn overworked in this society we have no time or energy left for civic engagement.

I'd better go get some sleep so I have energy left...

FranIAm said...

Oh Johnieb... oh my, oh my.

Thank you for sharing this, but words that I read are what you have lived. This will be on my heart and you in my prayers, I assure you.

This is a brilliant post as is the one below it.

Thank you.

eileen said...

Johnieb - My dad expresses alot of the same thing as you...he talks about being sort of numb at the time, to get through it, but then, having to come back to normal life, and dealing with the horror and reality of what you've experienced.

It's not easy, it's not fair. It's too much to ask of young men, still kids really, who have no idea of what they are really getting themselves into.


Anonymous said...

I arrived so much later than you Johnieb, sometime around December of '68 or January of 69. Missed Tet, thank God... but was attached to Quang Tri my entire tour, with points north on several occaisions. It was much calmer by the time I arrived but the fun hadn't stop by then. My introduction to saddling-up was 3 clicks north and finding a young Vietnamese hung upside-down in the arch of a stand-alone temple in a fairly large open area. He was grey & blue, with blue and black holes throughout him. It didn't stop there, not a chance.

The memories of these times have been deliberately pushed from my memory and the fog of those days have fortunately melted with my recolections.

Recent actions in Iraq have, today, drawn me to my history with great hesitation. My children have no idea of these times, my son-in-law calls me a burned-out hippy.

I came, I saw, I remember. Now I cry, almost at the drop of a hat. I see Hueys and become choked and unable to speak or look people in the eye. Their "fwop-fwop-fwop-fwop" is heard from miles away and I'm back in-country on any given day.

The internal sadness is overwhelming and I cry. I cry for my own loss and the loss of my fellow Marines, both then and now.

These memories just won't leave me after 40 years, and I feel so deeply for my brothers-in-arms of today and yesterday. I touched a Crobra a few years ago and cried like a child; I cannot see thru the tears, i can't see thru the tears.

johnieb said...


tell me you're in touch with other vets and dealing with these things. I know it helps; if not for my brother (and sister) vets, I woulda been dead decades ago. It still is not easy, but I have hope (every so often).

We had gone to III Corps by then (I hope you'll forgive me for being a Cav dude); it sucked there, too, just in a different way.

I'm glad you're feeling some things; it's a matter of dealing with them effectively. For that, we are our own best helpers. If you haven't, try a "Vets Center". They arose independently of VA, and are still the maverick version; they will admit, if you ask them, that VA pays the bills, and that they have to tell VA what they need to know so the work may continue; otherwise, I don't see much in common. I get pissed and uptight driving to VA to get my meds; I look forward to my meetings (technically "group therapy" or some such bullshit) on Thursday nights. They're my squad--the people that will take care of me the best they can, or die trying.

I also have felt a lot with Iraq; it's been hard to deal with. I had my first freakout in thirty four years last Summer. Abu Gharib hit me especially hard (Did I mention I was an Interrogator?)

I hoped, when I came back, that people would listen to one who had been there, and had seen it firsthand: fat chance. And then the rise of the Chickenhawks who wanted to see "Morning in America", when all I could think of was mourning. And now this draft-dodging callous little dickwipe starts it all again for no reason at all, except to make himself look like a President. Gotta stop here, or break the keyboard.

Anyway, come back, and lemme know what yer doing to cope, and I'll be more than pleased to do anything I can; it helps me to help other vets.

And welcome home; there is rest, and peace, and balm for the wounded heart.

Ex. Spec. 5 JohnieB