"Our objective," the platoon sergeant said, "is to deny the enemy ...." I squatted with the rest and listened, knuckles white around the black stock of my M-16. I was the newbie, the FNG, a damned draftee, happy as hell I'd been assigned to headquarters squad. Isn't war like chess? Don't they always protect the king? I thought they did, felt more secure, second in file behind the RTO. I was under no illusions, though. I was just a PFC, a pig-fucking chucklehead in a rough AO, no cover in the paddies, about to go on a long, pool-table walk through Indian country.
Nothing happened. We didn't see them, they didn't shoot us. Just a three-day stroll in the park — provided you define stroll as thirty klicks a day humping seventy pounds of ammo, explosives and camping gear in 105 degree heat and max humidity, knee deep in paddie shit, leeches burrowing into your balls. All of which was fine by me, if I didn't get shot at, let alone shot. I'd take that stroll any day, plus 362 more and a wake-up to DEROS.
We were almost home. The sergeant raised his arm, the column stopped. Far across the paddies, a single Vietnamese walked behind a water buffalo, studiously ignoring us. I thought she was a woman. I don't know why. They all looked effeminate to me — short, slight, hairless. Their young soldiers even held hands on the streets of Saigon.
The sergeant turned. "LT, ain't this a free fire zone?" LT turned to the RTO, and in his best game-show voice proclaimed, "The envelope, please!" The radioman passed him the map. The lieutenant, rifle poised on one hip, shook the map open until it hung from his hand. Held it at arm's length, his wrist limp, looking for all the world like Bruce, the bronze faggot in front of the Green Beret Museum at Ft. Bragg, minus jaunty beret. The LT said, "Precisely, my dear Watson. You have apprised the sitrep perfectly." He couldn't read the map at that distance, but he was a good lieutenant, dying to please. They were fragging by then. He was short. All he wanted was to crap in peace — in ONE piece — until his own DEROS, only two weeks away.
The sergeant smiled, gave a smart salute, flipped up his battle sights. "I'd say 800 meters," the LT said. "Yep," replied the sergeant, shouldering his weapon. He fired one shot. A second later the Vietnamese looked up, must have heard the crack as the bullet passed over, then turned suddenly toward us as the report reached her. A tiny splash appeared 200 meters beyond the target. "Hmm," the sergeant mused. "Small dink." "Small buff," corrected the LT, an art-school college boy with special training in the mysteries of perspective. The sergeant adjusted his sights. The small figure began to hurry the buffalo along. The sergeant fired a burst. The buffalo ran. Heavy weapons squad was right behind us. The first M-60 began to chug. Red 7.62x54 reached out in front of the fleeing animal. It turned, ran back the other way, knocked the Vietnamese down, just as the second M-60 and the rest of the platoon opened up.
Why hump all that fucking ammo back to the firebase, anyway? There was plenty more where that came from. I kicked in my two bits, that being maybe what thirty rounds of 5.56 cost the U.S. Army, which was obviously buying it in bulk.
The buffalo went down. The Vietnamese disappeared as the paddy erupted into a thousand points of white.
We didn't go over to check for a kill. There wasn't any weapon to retrieve. LT knew we'd already come a long, long way. Why get fragged over a dead buff and a Swiss-cheese dink chick who may not be dead anyway? Who cares? We'd had our fun, and we, a platoon packing thirty-five automatic weapons, had demonstrated that we could shoot reasonably straight.
When we got to the crest of the next paddy dike half a mile along, a funny look crossed the LT's face. Sergeant began to fidget, too. "Spread 'em out, keep your intervals," the NCO called. "Map, Corporal," LT barked to the RTO. This time he didn't dangle it at arm's length. This time he studied it, closely. "Compass!" he ordered, before realizing he had it in his own pocket. All business now. From the top of that dike I could see the observation towers of our firebase to the north, a communications relay tower across the paddies to the east. The LT shot azimuths on both, penciled lines on the map. Did it again. Evidence unmistakable: the fucker was way off course. He paled a little, cleared his throat, said to the sergeant: "Uh ... looks like we're a little closer to home than I thought." No shit. Like maybe six klicks closer. "Well," the sergeant said, "what are you going to do?" "What can we do?" the LT said. "At least there weren't any witnesses. Let's call it two dinks, 800 meters, Charlie with the weapon got away." He patted his binoculars. "That's why they give me these, right? So I can see things."
"Move out!" the sergeant yelled, waving his arm. "Keep your intervals." As we jigged down the far slope of the dike, the LT paused, fished out his compass, stared at it, then chucked it with a plunk into the shit-stinking muck. "Hey, Sarge," he called, laughing now. "I think we lost our compass." "Yes, sir," the sergeant yelled back. "An American tragedy. Must have got sucked into this quagmire. After our little firefight back there" — the sergeant glared at the rest of us, making sure we got his message — "you can DX it as a combat loss. I'm sure Uncle Sugar will pop for a new one."
"Roger that," LT said. "Besides, what's the worst they can do? Send us to Vietnam?"
by James R. Cooley
... who conducts writing workshops and writes freelance; his work has previously appeared in this magazine.