The Forty-First Perception
John spoke out to counterbalance life on the wrong side of the
looking glass. He never made false statements or meaningless
statements. He cast simple truths onto an unreal world. At Army
boot camp in Oklahoma he occupied the bunk above mine. I liked
him right away because of the absence of profanity in his speech.
As we recruits sat captive to our drill sergeant's dirty-mouth
yawps, I wrapped my mind around the first statement I heard John
make. He leaped to his feet and said, "Spouting river talk marks
As soon as we arrived in Vietnam, the Army provided NCOs and
lashed us together into forty-man platoons. The collective
intelligence of a rifle platoon far exceeds the intelligence of
any commanding general. From forty individual perceptions, there
arises a forty-first perception which reconciles and distills the
best thinking and casts it with clarity. This powerful synthesis
spreads by magic throughout the platoon, it allows a simple grunt
to see through walls.
Alice would understand our collective perception, like when she held the
looking-glass book in front of the mirror and the words suddenly went the
right way. Each of us could taste this forty-first perception; John could
A parade of brass lectured our platoon those first few weeks in Vietnam.
We never asked questions at any of these pep talks. We could smell the
lies. But after each talk we crowded around John. He translated our
collective impression into words. "John Wayne's not hardly here," he
said, after a deluded general gave us a patriotic talk. "Meddling with
the calendar in the wrong war," he said in response to an arrogant
colonel who promised we would arrive home by Christmas. A hollow major
told us the U.S. Army had already whipped Charlie. This prompted John to
say, "Not if God's with Charlie." Our battalion chaplain, a bottom-feeder who exchanged currency for unsuspecting soldiers at unfavorable
rates, said we should consider this a holy war. John's comment: "Holy
wars fetch bad rates."
The Army lashed together our jungle training from thin air. Stolen
losing ideas mixed with exercises devised by unblooded staff officers
yielded predictable results. As a captive audience, we listened to
lectures on how to whip Charlie. One of our guys slipped into the
instructor's shack and found military text books translated from the
French. John said, "Makes a grunt feel warm when they spout from George
Armstrong Custer's book." The analogy between following French tactical
failures and following Custer into a massacre blew through the platoon
In the bush, we trained with helicopters. A small group would sneak on foot
into a clearing and pile up brush to break the others' falls in jumps from a
hovering chopper. Once John and I were the last to jump. The chopper rose a
little in response to the lost weight as each man jumped. When our turn came,
the chopper hovered high above the brush pile. We yelled for the pilot to
lower the chopper, but he did not hear us. John and I jumped, after which he
said, "Dangerous duty holding up dominoes." We never used this technique
Both poorly trained and confused, we were sent out to fight anyway.
Limited at first to day patrols on foot, we soon learned that we fought
only when Charlie wanted to fight, and when we clashed Charlie
Our collective insight reached a zenith when we deduced our commanding
general's strategy. Aircraft and artillery were assigned the job of killing
the enemy. The job of the infantry was only to draw fire to locate enemy
troop concentrations. John called us tethered goats: "Sometimes we're
propped behind wire enclosures and sometimes as targets along a jungle
Charlie ambushed our first night patrol on a narrow trail. Noise and
light flashes numbed my brain. I froze. In the dark, Charlie knew the
exact positions in the column of our lieutenant and his radioman, the
opening bursts riddled them. John and I hunkered on the edge of the
trail, behind a large tree root. Those who panicked and leaped into the
bush away from the VC, lit among landmines and blew into puzzle parts.
John set the example by firing accurate bursts at the VC and soon the
rest of us joined in and established a solid base of fire. Charlie
I grieved for our lieutenant. Although no less hollow than any officer,
he was tolerable. I remember him as always being so proud of his
midwestern hometown. Just after we passed through the wire returning to
our camp, John made a single comment, "Charlie's not from Cincinnati."
Charlie used everything and everyone against us and rarely made mistakes.
Groups of Vietnamese kids hung around the main gate, the younger kids
distracted us by asking for chewing gum and the older ones counted us as
we went out on patrol. Vietnamese villagers looked through us, beyond us
into a future that did not include us. If Charlie hid ten feet away, the
villagers would tell us nothing. Following the way of our own Plains
Indians who found uses for all parts of the buffalo, the villagers sat
in the dirt making tools from crashed fighter-bomber skins.
Supplies had a special status in Vietnam. More valuable than men, supplies
rated round-the-clock guards, razor wire, mine fields, guard dogs, and
watch towers. Three men lost on patrol, who cares, but a missing case of
potato chips brought on a formal investigation. Each of us speculated
about our own individual value to the army. A case of ping-pong balls
equals a good point man, a container of ice cream for a machine gunner.
Ruined Buddhist temples, pock-marked rice paddies, and dead water
buffaloes punctuated the landscape. Our military power allowed us to
erase in moments, for trivial reasons, what man and nature had developed
over uncountable centuries. After a B-52 raid on a small patch of former
jungle, our platoon walked in a skirmish line through the moonscape.
Nothing. John said, "General Sherman swinging a sledgehammer bobbing for
We started using large helicopters on deep patrols and soon learned a
significant truth: A vast jungle area includes only a few clearings.
Charlie knew this. The procession of lieutenants and sergeants that
passed through our platoon had to learn this and many other things.
Grunts paid the cost of their tuition. Mostly we landed in cold
clearings, no VC. At first our luck held. The two hot clearings didn't
hurt us bad. Charlie had not reached them in strength before we landed.
Every man in our platoon considered John a good soldier who always did
his duty. He stood out as skilled in the field, expert on point, a
deadly shot, a man who never panicked, a man you could trust. For any
replacement trooper who asked him, he helped the guy adjust to the
new life. Also, John never complained about the heat, the snakes, the
leeches, the red dust, the danger, the Vietnamese ingratitude, or the
futility. He knew everything important. Always carrying respect for
the enemy, he described the jungle as "Charlie's tall tobacco" and
the war as "Charlie's Boston tea." After refusing a promotion to
squad leader, he said, "Might bend me to lip lies."
High casualties meant that we met a variety of replacements: lost
souls unable to locate Vietnam on a map, volunteers who came to
act crazy, haters who needed a straw man like communism, and
crusaders with bumper-sticker thoughts. Some who felt cursed
because they were born too late to kill Indians, came to ravage
black-haired Vietnamese. All this baggage, when mixed with the red
dust, rain, and lies of Vietnam all peppered over with futility,
became a putrescent cesspool.
Fatigue drained us after a few months. The unreality of our
monotonous, tenuous, drawn-wire lives on the wrong side of the
looking glass became our reality. All our energy went into staying
alive. We were too tired to fight the race and class wars featured
in Hollywood movies. One search-and-be-destroyed patrol led to
another until we forgot details; usually some wounded, sometimes
someone killed, replacements, more patrols. But those first months
served only as a warm-up for the mother-of-all-battles.
Our choppers landed in a large clearing the VC had staked out in
strength. We barely touched down when Charlie fired rockets into the
chopper engines and machine-gunned directly into the hatches. As
our platoon point-man, John stood in the hatch of our chopper.
Charlie fired directly into his belly. I always recognized John as a
better more valuable man than myself. I should have taken those
rounds, not John. I tumbled out, terrified but alive. After killing
all our officers and noncoms, half our platoon, and half the other
platoons in less than a minute, Charlie faded away. A corporal
radioed for support. Soon the fringes of the clearing exploded
with our artillery followed by chopper gunships which rained out
rounds, all too late.
I laid John's head on my lap and held his hand. His sticky warm blood soaked
into my clothes. I told him not to talk, but he ignored me. "We picked on
little folks and we're getting our due. Folks who rise up to protect their
land can't be wrong." I should have taken those rounds.
John's grip went slack and he seemed to grow smaller, like Alice in
the rabbit-hole, then he gripped my hand tight and seemed to get
larger. Barely perceptible breaths alternated with heavy breathing.
Fading fast, he looked into my eyes and said, "We invaded their
land." He paused. "Killing VC seems right but it's wrong." As the
medical evacuation chopper landed, he died. Strangers quickly took
him away in a body bag.
From deep inside my grief, I felt a seed sprout and grow into rage.
I lost my vision of home and I could no longer picture myself
leaving Vietnam. The last remnant of my gentle merciful self fell
away. I started killing and couldn't get enough. I volunteered for
every patrol, listening post, and ambush I could handle. My newfound
alertness and sharpened trail skills bought me many assignments as
point. Every killing made me feel better, and just under my breath I
spoke to John as I killed Charlie with knife, rifle, or grenade. The
heart-pounding, tense-muscle adrenaline rush seemed enhanced when I
abandoned my helmet and flak jacket. Nothing checked my behavior.
Everything within me wanted more blood. I did not treat VC bodies
with respect as John would have done. I lost weight. Charlie had
many chances to kill me, but with each of his failures I gained
immortality. Someone had chosen me to live and to bring death to my
enemies. In retrospect, I see myself then as a model for the
nineteen-year-old American male pushed to the edge: rotten-mean,
cruel, focused and deadly.
My one-year tour in Vietnam ended before I could get close to anyone
in the platoon. I had always hung with John, and after he died my
craziness ran them off. I realized I had forgotten some of their
names and my loneliness got worse. I had lost my rights to the
forty-first perception and I stood alone with only my own feeble
understanding. The Army did not ask me to reenlist.
I knew no one on the plane back to the states. At the San Francisco
airport I bought a paperback: Alice's Adventures in
Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found
There. From California I slowly drifted east for about eight
years working ranches, washing dishes, roofing houses, anything. I
said very little and people left me alone. Whenever anyone lied to
me, I packed up and left. My life held only questions. I read
Lewis Carroll's words a hundred times looking for answers; I found
no answers, only analogies. Vietnam had its impatient rabbits, red
queens, and caterpillars. The sense of place Alice must have had
in Wonderland and behind the looking-glass was identical to mine in
Vietnam. A place divorced from reality, experience, and
understanding. A beautiful garden meant to remain hidden.
I began to feel the warmth of hope for finding answers when I
reached the midwest. The fact that each small midwestern town had
either an American Legion or a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall made me
feel less alone. While plowing a Kansas field for spring planting, I
saw the newspaper picture of the last Americans leaving Vietnam.
They escaped in a crowded chopper from the roof of a building in the
compound of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. John's words came to mind:
"Spouting river talk marks a loser." I needed someone to help me
wrap my mind around the sense of our sacrifice. For answers, I
headed for West Virginia to talk with John's kin.
John's folks lived in biblical hill country; low mountains and rolling
hills filled with good people living a simple life. They said grace
before every meal; they treated me special. John's parents walked me
to his simple grave on a hill shaded by oak and maple trees.
John's hometown seemed full of American flags and warriors quick and
dead, servicemen home on leave and servicemen's pictures on mantles.
John's grandfather fought the Kaiser, his father received wounds in
the Pacific, one uncle died in Korea. I described John as a good
soldier, but they already knew. They all spoke like John, and I
could feel the truth of their words soak into my sinews and marrow.
John's father was a self-educated and wise man. I tried to explain
to him how Vietnam was different than other American wars. He looked
squarely at me, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, "All
America's wars are the same – fought by mostly the wrong
generals and backed by politicians with mostly the wrong ideas."
I opened my mouth to speak, but I decided to listen.
"Now it may not be clear to you, but Korea and Vietnam were just
necessary conflicts of a Cold War which is still going on. For
generations we Americans have stood for what's right. My father's
description of each of his battles at Saint Mihiel and in the
Meuse-Argonne resembled my own battle on the beach at Tarawa: a
bloody senseless mess. But in the end we tossed the Kaiser, Hitler,
and Tojo onto the ash heap of history. International communism's
dupes will join them soon, thanks to men like you and John. We
express our ideas of right and wrong imperfectly through
politicians, but our enemies get our collective message. Our
beneath-the-surface American belligerency prevails." He paused.
"Duty is duty," he said.
Of course, that's what John's father would say. But John would not
have said this. I had not gotten my mind around a statement with
real meaning since John died, but I was beginning to see through the
fog. I felt like I had regained my rights to the forty-first
perception. My mind took on the power of forty minds. It's true,
John and I had drawn duty like many before us, and many to come.
It's possible to view those who served in Vietnam as sentinels
standing sentry at an important point of-passage, where America
passed from self-righteous arrogance to something better
– where she grew up a little. But that's the wrong view;
John and I and the others were patriots betrayed. A new page of
American history has been turned since Vietnam and no one pays
any attention. Americans are no longer the good guys. I did not
have the words to express my view to John's father.
News of the November, 1982, completion of the Vietnam Veterans'
Memorial drew me here to Washington, D.C. Now I work at a dead-end
warehouse job in Arlington. I try not to talk with other vets,
even at the memorial; each of us had our own war and talking
doesn't help. People give me a wide berth; best they do.
My rage flares up sometimes and I stay crouched in the dark on the
floor of my rented room. Some flashbacks I don't mind, those with
John in them. I can handle nightmares full of strange creatures
from the wrong side of the looking-glass. All the time now I
feel as if something important will happen very soon. It never
does. I'm beyond help from all the king's horses and men. I
sleep now and then, but I always sweat heavy at night.
I stay near Washington to stay near John, not John exactly, only
his name on the polished black granite. On weekends I walk
perimeter around the memorial. I try to keep the terrain around
John's name unblemished.
by Peter Graebner
... who is a former Marine Corps officer and mathematics
professor, and a retired topologic geophysicist, now writing
freelance on Asian subjects, including a trilogy of spy novels set
during China's national revolution (1911-48). He has published
"Samurai Geometry" in the Journal of Asian Martial
Arts (v14n3 Aug 2005), "The Forever Motel" in
Words of Wisdom (v24n4 Dec 2005), and "The
Philosopher's Shingle" is forthcoming in Words of