Ask An Old Soldier
What War Is All About

By Charles Potnar

War is not about "nation building" "bringing democracy to dictatorships" "stopping terror" or any other claptrap. War is about killing human beings.
You see, I am a killer. I have participated in killing other human beings. The Vietnamese soldiers were trying to kill us. We were all young and brainwashed, and weren't smart enough (yet) to know what we were being asked to do.
I was on a firebase next to Highway One, a main thoroughfare in south Vietnam that ran through a portion of the country known as the Elephant's Ear. It was called the Elephant's Ear because of the shape of the border's protrusion into Cambodia. Ours was an artillery station that carried a battery (6) of 105mm howitzers and a battery of 155 mm howitzers. These are very big guns. We were also camp to others: mortar squads, infantry units and sundry support services.
This was in 1968, the year of the "Tet Offensive", the great push by the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong (civilian anti-American guerrilla forces) to rid the country of the "foreign invaders" (us).
I was assistant gunner on a 105 howitzer unit.
It was one peaceful Sunday evening in March, a cooler day in the hottest part of the year. Everyone was going on their usual routines of duty and maintenence when the shit hit the fan. Mortars began to whistle in. The cry, "Incoming, incoming" went over the landing zone's p.a. system. Everyone went to the trenches, or found whatever cover they could. I was caught out in the open. My only alternative was lay flat on the hard earth, not far from the trench dug for our unit. Shells rained down all around. Explosions went off everywhere, and my unit remained in the trench. I screamed "We better get up here and do something," to the guys in the trench. I thought they were cowering. They were not cowering. They had not received orders yet, and one does nothing in the military without orders.
Nearby, one or two of the fire pits, where excess round charges were kept, went up in pillars of fire. Gaining some self control, I went to the water supply and poured water on the fire pits that were close to my unit to prevent them from going up in flames. The other members of my unit were still in the foxhole awaiting orders. The orders came. "Battery, adjust. Shell H.E., lot six, fuse time, deflection 1540, azimuth 320." This told the unit how to adjust the aim of the huge guns. We all went about our tasks of preparing the big guns efficiently, heedless in this hour of necessity of the death whistling nearby, blind to everything but our task. Our hope only was group survival. This violence and shelling and death went on all night. As various units ran out of ordinance, we went through open areas to deliver fifty pound rounds on our shoulders. We were aware of, but not reacting to, the threat of instant death or injury all around us.
After a number of hours (who can say how many or how few) exhaustion set in, and me and a buddy crawled into a culvert to sleep, the battle still raging all around, but we were too exhausted to care. When I awoke, all was quiet, but the aftermath of the battle was there. There was devastation all around.
I found that the perimeter had been broached a number of times but superior firepower had stopped the people trying to break in, leaving their bodies to pile up inbetween the outer ring of wire and the inner. There were bodies all around, or parts of bodies, or bodies blown in half, or bodies with heads split open looking for all the world like some kind of watermelon, with their bright red insides. Hundreds of parts or half or whole bodies. Numbers impossible to estimate accurately, due to the dismembered state of the dead. There were probably hundreds.
I stopped and gazed down at the corpse of a young boy, a dead N.V.A. soldier, and I saw someone very much like myself. Unlike others nearby, he was whole. No apparant cause of death visible. I stared into his face, wondering about him. What kind of person was he? Who was the family he had left behind? Now I know that his family would be left wondering forever whatever happened to him, because they would never have his remains. They, after years of hope and greif, would have to either assume him dead, or maybe lost, him only a memory. I still see his face these many years later, a brother unto me, me alive, him dead.
He was as if sleeping, still free from obvious corruption if not for the pallor of his skin or the flies moving in and out of his nose.
Shortly after dawn, we were called to order. Some names did not answer to roll call. No explanations at that time were forthcoming. Tasks were given out. "Who wants body detail?" said the sargeant. Only one or two volunteered. "Ok, you, you, you, you and you, go out there and clean up." The men were divided into teams, given wheelbarrows, and were sent out to bring the bodies and parts to a specific place. That went on all morning.
It took a few days for the bulldozer to be shipped in by flying crane, and when it arrived, a giant pit was dug and all the human remains that were collectable were buried there. Our dead, about seven, were shipped home to the states.
Many of the enemy dead were not able to be collected. They were in enemy territory, and were left to the enemy. Many had been wounded and crawled to hidden areas in the surrounding jungle where they died later.
Some were near unexploded ordinance and were extremely dangerous.
The end result was the stench of death. God, what a stench. It was all-pervading. Another result was a plague of flies. You had to eat anyway, knowing that the flies that were living on the human carnage were the same ones that were landing on your sandwich. There were clouds of white termite-like flies that presumably fed on the dead, and these were called "body bugs" and were avoided as much as possible. The white flies were probably taking the blame for the other, more ordinary flies, who were more easily tolerated but who were in actuality also feeding off the same "table."
With time and burial, the plague of flies and the stench lessened. As the weeks went by, the battle was just another psychological scar torn through the distance of self, to be buried in the press of duty, to emerge years later, leaving you weeping unexpectedly at jovial occasions, much to the puzzlement of your family or friends.
Some of the enemy had gotten through the perimeter, and had in a suicidal paroxysm, tried to do as much damage as possible before being killed. One private, recently promoted to "temporary corporal" in lieu of his later promised advancement, (we called them "candy stripers" as they wore a black band with their future rank on it) was able to put an end to one of these invaders. He had shot him through the back, the automatic weapons fire (m16) moving through his body in a pattern, making a series of holes through from the back to the front of the body like buttons on a jacket.
This individual took polaroid photos of his "trophy" and gave them to me for safe keeping. Why he had selected me for this task wasn't clear, but I was the wrong person to give them to. I buried them, repelled by the concept of human dead as trophy material. I got into a big fight when he tried to get his photos and I said that I had "lost" them.
Lots of others were not so squeamish, however. Some kept photos, or articles of clothing, weapons, medals or body parts, mostly ears, dried in the sun to a leather like texture, from the ones they killed. I remember Sgt. Hirshberg telling me that he had to boil a belt that he got from a N.V.A. soldier's corpse for two days to get the stink of death out of it. Soon after, Sgt. Hirshberg himself was found dead. Perhaps an N.V.A. soldier boiled his belt.
That kind of thing that was as common as bread, then. Death. Human beings lowered to the basest impulses within themselves, killed other human beings for the thrill of it, easily and without thought as easily as you would fish in your pocket for change to take the bus. Killing is legal, there. You would go to prison here, or perhaps get the death penalty for the killing and and the mutiliation. In Vietnam it was sport. No morality. No ethics about who shall die and live. Nope. Death was sport. Or revenge.
Often, the enemy would horribly mutilate our dead, to instill terror or just to say "fuck you" in the worst way possible. We would retaliate in kind. I remember a group of infantry men telling how they cut off the penises of their enemy and shoved them in the mouths of the newly dead as a kind of "fuck you back" gesture.
Death then becomes a kind of communication, a grisly "postcard" if you will.
Forget about right and wrong. It doesn't exist. Only survival, hatred, revenge and killing. In the crucible of war, it all boils down to the lowest denominators. There is little mercy. When we human beings are placed in a kill or be killed situation, we can only become killers. We see our friends die and revenge is our only outlet. You make the most of the situation by becoming the most beautiful artistic killer possible.
Right and wrong? A just war?
The military was engaged in a psychological war as well, entreating by helicopter equipped with speakers for the enemy to "give up, give up. You will be treated fairly and those of you who are innocent will be sent back to your families". They flew over the countryside calling out in the Vietnamese language,"Chiu hoi, chiu hoi..." They also dropped leaflets with the same message by the thousands over the land.
I saw firsthand the benefits of this "mercy program." I was watching as an N.V.A. soldier was cornered in the nearby countryside and had decided to give in to the cries of "chiu hoi" that our soldiers were making. He put his weapons on the ground. He stood up with his hands behind his head. A burst of gunfire and a "Take that, motherfucker" and it was over. It wasn't a puzzle to me why the program met with little success.
A just war?
I haven't even gotten to the non combatants yet. Men, women and children, innocents all, falling to the stray bullet, being blown apart by the hidden mine, town destroyed by the misplaced bomb, or worse.
It seems that we have forgotten about Lt. William Calley and the village of Mi Lai.
William Calley was court martialed and found guilty of the massacre of a number of innocent men women and children. He rounded up the inhabitants of this small hamlet, collected them together as possible enemy collaborators and ordered them all to be killed, burning the village after. The men who refused to fire upon the people who played a major part in his conviction.
William Calley was an offering to the millions who were protesting the war here at home. Many others followed his methods and were not punished for their crimes. They suffer only the nightmares that doubtless still haunt them.
It is estimated by some that one to three million non-combatants, civilians, died as a direct or indirect result of the Viet Nam conflict.
I must believe that there are other ways. I must believe that we can find other means. To think otherwise would be anathematic to my very life, and I would either retreat into irreversible insanity or suicide, as so many of my fellows have done. Is it any wonder that the war veteran has the highest rate of "non-functionality": drug addiction, alcholism and suicide, of any other group? Do you know that war veterans comprise the largest part of the homeless? I know why they "drop out".
For years, I was unemployed, way, way into drugs. I found it impossible to work a job that paid taxes to the Death Machine. By the grace of God I escaped the fate of so many, to be reduced to a voiceless suffering shell of what I could be.
I came back alive from this cauldron of death to tell you that there must be another way. So many others did not come back, will not come back, and I speak for them.
Let us pray for peace.



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