Stupid behavior left no witnesses [UPDATED]Published 10:39am Wednesday, November 6, 2013 Updated 12:40pm Wednesday, November 6, 2013
I have some memories of Vietnam hanging around the edges of my consciousness. Partly this is because my brother attended a reunion of his infantry battalion; partly because a friend gave me a book written by a soldier who was there in 1966 in an armored unit.
There is a connection of sorts between my brother’s experiences and Arthur Haman’s, the author of: “Vietnam — 365 Days.” I’ll give my version of my brother’s reunion experience first.
Vietnam, like any war, is buried deeply within those of us who went, so deep that a lot of what happened there has been buried and forgotten, for obvious reasons.
My brother met someone at the reunion who was in the same company, and after a bit was asked: “Remember The Scream?” He didn’t have a clue. Scream? What scream? At this point, another vet was dragged over, introduced, and told to tell about The Scream.
As I have it, it went like this: Some wet-behind-the-ears new officer called the entire company into formation beneath some heavily canopied forest. It was night time. Dark.
It is against all common sense to have this many men (somewhere around 60-70, most likely) this close together, out in the bush. Too good a target. New officers got a lot of guys killed. New officers got themselves killed too.
Picture how dark it is, under those trees. No one can see anyone else. Suddenly, there’s a scream out of that darkness. Several seconds go by, and then there’s a shotgun blast. Then quiet.
“A snake dropped out of the trees overhead onto the soldier standing next to me,” explained the vet at the reunion. He let out a scream, was wrestling with it, shouting at me to shoot it shoot it!
“So I did,” he said, and that was that. Most of those there never did know why someone screamed. Didn’t know what really happened in the dark. Why there was a scream; why only one round was fired. And with the telling, my brother said he remembered.
Now, in the (more or less) words of Arthur Haman: (Remember, this is an armored unit; they’re moving around in armored personnel carriers—APCs) “We came to an open field. It turned out that the field was a trap into which we were lured, with the sniper fire the bait. I spotted several bleached sticks in the field directly in front of my APC. (These sticks marked mines planted by Charlie.)
It would be suicide to drive across there. Our new platoon leader was 50 feet behind me.
He was yelling at us over the radio to charge across that field. I looked back, and there, in the safety of underbrush, sat my stupid platoon leader with just his head sticking up from his APC. It crossed my mind that this guy was a menace and someone needed to shoot him.
I was coming up with my M16, but by the time I got turned around, he had ducked back down. An APC on my left decided to try it. He didn’t get 15 feet when a mine blew the front of his APC off.”
Haman said he backed up right in his tracks, but still set off a small antipersonnel mine, which did minimum damage to the tracks on his APC. “I put in for a three-day rest and recreation break immediately.” He had, he thought, come so close to shooting that officer because of the continual stress.
So what do these two stories have in common? Senseless leadership. In “365 Days,” about as many of his unit were killed by leadership stupidity as were killed during well-thought-out missions.
Many soldiers in formation in sight of the jungle; sending troops into ill-advised situations. In 1969, when a new major took over my support battalion and began standing us in group formations twice a day in sight of the jungle, I wrote my Iowa U.S. Senator, Sen. Hughes, who happened to be on an armed services funding committee, and my letter brought down a full congressional inquiry on my unit. There were no more formations. (It didn’t hurt that someone tried to frag him, either.)
Most Vietnam combat soldiers didn’t have this opportunity. It was a stupid war led too often by 90-day-wonder officers who shouldn’t have been allowed into a boy scout troop, much less combat.
They got away with their decisions, because often, leaders’ stupid behavior left no witnesses.
Except for those of us who were there.
And made it back.