Hearts, Minds, and Spiritsby Michael Washburn
They didn’t even have an appointment. The three soldiers had the gall to walk into the Westfield Home for Seniors and demand to see the retired Colonel William Hall, U.S.M.C., right away. Hall lay on a cot in his dingy room watching a football game and sipping lemonade when the knock came.
They were two young men and a fellow in his mid-40s. Hall picked himself up and shook their hands. After introductions, everyone sat down, and the eldest of the three visitors reached into a dossier and spread some papers out on the table.
“Colonel Hall, do you remember the inquiry into the deaths of civilians in your sector of Quang Tri province in 1970?” he asked.
“If the Giants don’t find a new quarterback. . . . What? What did you say?” replied the colonel, sitting up in his cot.
“I believe you were subject to an official inquiry, with the goal of determining the circumstances of the deaths of six people in the area where you served your second tour.”
Hall was silent for a moment. Then he said, “I thought you were here because the VFW needs a new board member, or something. Anyway, yes. I and two men under my command had to answer a whole lot of questions, and then they cleared us. I must say, I haven’t heard a word about this in more than thirty years.”
“Well, sir, you will have to answer some more questions. Recently, a group of Australians were out at the village where those civilians died in 1970, doing an agricultural survey, and one of the locals said he could show them where some bodies—not the original six—lay buried. This was less than a mile outside An Binh, but no one had seen these bodies before. And when the excavation was complete, it turned out the bodies were children’s.”
The men could have heard their hair grow for the next twelve seconds. Then the colonel said, “I’m not saying another word without a lawyer present.”
“We’re giving you notice that there will be further inquiries. In fact, the Department of Defense thought it might be wise to pre-empt the media. Unlike the previous case, there may be a trial.”
The colonel looked off into space as the visitors left, and then he was lost in memory.
That Private Collins was a card.
“Would monsieur care to try the coq au vin?” Collins asked the Australian captain who had just sat down inside the officers’ tent in the camp in Quang Tri. When Collins strolled in here, he wasn’t a 19-year-old kid from Bay Ridge, he was a servant with perfect diction.
The Australian, whose name was Hawkins, declined to sample the coq au vin. Hall sent the private to gather some maps, and then he and the others began talking about the intensified VC action all around them. Every day brought news of a local assemblyman knifed in his sleep, a point man maimed by a mine in an area thought safe, a jeep and the four men in it obliterated by a grenade thrown by a shriveled villager who couldn’t outrun a turtle. The troops spoke of fatigue, poor morale, and a growing need to treat every Vietnamese as an enemy.
Hall prided himself on his strength and cool in no matter what surroundings, but some of the tales got to him a bit. The Australian was talking about a journalist named Burchett, who had gone to live among the VC and who had written books and articles in their favor, serving up accounts of what happened to the ARVN in zones they had thought friendly. Entire companies wading in streams got their legs ensnared in spiked coils that grew tighter and tighter and pulled the men into the muck. Spiked globes of bamboo, loosed from the tops of trees by invisible tripwires, smashed into men’s faces at fifty miles an hour. But even with the enemy fighting its war of attrition from all sides, the Australian officer called for a careful and rational policy, referring to the methods of Commonwealth forces in Malaysia in the 1950s.
Collins came back into the tent with maps and cans of beer and accompanied by Litchfield, the wire-thin Kansan. He wasn’t putting on any airs now, he was just Collins. “One thing, sir, if you take a group photo, put us in so we can impress ah mom and dad.”
Everyone smiled. The men drank heavily for the rest of the night.
“Aside from the charges you will face,” said the lawyer, “I promise people are going to provoke you. They’ll say, ‘Hey, baby killer, what’s the grand tally?’ They’ll do anything to make you incriminate or embarrass yourself.”
“I know they will,” replied the colonel.
“And I know what sort of situation existed in Quang Tri in 1970. Do you still want to deny you ever deviated from the rules of engagement?”
“I categorically deny it.”
The country unfolded two hundred feet below the Huey, mile after mile of lush green and brown scored by streams whose source lay in the hills at the edge of the province. Huts lay here and there at the borders of fields where peasants rode water buffalo back and forth to break up the earth in preparation for sowing. Here was life as it had been for centuries. The presence of ancestors in the fields under cultivation today ensured a respect and love for the land, which was one with those who had helped make it fertile.
The men in the Huey were debating whom to kill.
“See that cluster down there on the right, fifty yards from the water,” said Corporal Smith, pointing to some huts made of bamboo. “I think they have meetings in there somewhere. Unfortunately, our intelligence doesn’t go further than that.”
“I say we raze the whole damn place,” offered Major Bradford. “Their dead, our dead, just do the fuckin’ math.”
“I say we send in the SEALs and selectively remove some officials,” said the corporal.
“We haven’t got enough intelligence to do a thing at this point,” argued the Australian.
“You’re sitting here talking about the state of our intelligence while our men are walking into traps every goddamn day,” the major fumed.
Suddenly they noticed smoke on the horizon, and they strained to make out its source. They watched the scenery unfolding, the shapes of trees and the contours of land coming into relief, and soon they could make out the carnage to which the enemy had reduced a patrol. A column of black smoke poured from the top of a truck hit by a bazooka, and charred bodies lay about the perimeter, the shells of those who had survived the blast and tried to limp off into the bush. Some of the forms were human only by a generous definition, and in one case, the observers could actually think the lower half of a man’s body had tried to run away after the top half’s incineration, for twenty yards from the truck lay a smoldering pelvis and two legs.
One of the men in the camp was screaming. The sound ripped through the moist air of the camp near the Laotian border on a particularly sticky night in August 1970. Lying awake in his tent, Hall wondered what kind of man screams like that, and whether the guy had stepped on a slug on his way to the john. He got up and put his belt on and walked out. The cone of light from his bobbing flashlight danced over the tents, the scattered crates and tires, and the jeeps far off at the perimeter where two watchmen were staring out into the dark. Hall moved in the general direction of the sound. The randomness of what he was doing was almost humiliating, until the light fell on the pale face of private Litchfield, who lay in the dirt several yards from the latrine. The private’s wide eyes stared into the light for a moment before he picked himself up clumsily.
“I didn’t know! Jesus Christ on a— Fuck! I tripped! Fuck!” he screamed.
“What happened, private?”
“Look! Look right in front of you!”
Hall turned the beam downward, and then he saw. It was the bloodied body of a young man in a VC regular’s uniform. Although there were no bullet holes, or any individual wounds at all, something had knocked the life right out of this kid. I didn’t hear any shots, thought Hall, and there are no traps around here, but I did hear the drone of a plane overhead a half-hour ago.
“It’s all right, Litchfield,” he said, in the paternal tone he had cultivated when trying to win over potential recruits back in Virginia. “Come on, now, we all have to see this some time.”
“Good lord, what happened, colonel?”
“I think he just fell off one of our trucks on its way back to the lot. Come on, now, soldier, go to your tent and take out your bible and read Leviticus and Matthew.”
“You won’t discipline me, sir?”
The private ran off in the dark.
The Americans got a spectacular welcome as they rode into An Binh. The toothless man in a dirty white shirt thrust his parallel arms up as if hefting an invisible barbell, while another man with thin white hair and glasses jabbed the air with an American flag on a flimsy stick. Kids leapt up and down, girls and women blew kisses at the men in the jeeps and atop the M48 Pattons. Once it had penetrated the village, the jeep carrying Hall and his fellow officers broke from the convoy and headed for a hut where local officials were waiting. After parking in the mud, the men walked inside and shook hands with the mayor and members of the provincial assembly.
A little girl was kneeling behind one of the 19th-century French chairs, clutching something in her tiny hand. Hall looked at her and flashed his J.F.K. grin.
“What do you have there, little girl?” he asked.
No answer. He tried speaking to her in French, and then used the bit of Vietnamese he knew. Still no reply. The eyes kept watching him while the rest of the face and most of her body stayed hidden behind the chair. Hall seemed to be the only one in the room who had noticed her.
The meeting began. The elders of the village were aware of the crisis facing the Americans. If people anywhere knew the abruptness and shock of loss, they were the heads of a village whose young men walked by the score into deadly traps and fell to the arrows and spears of tribesmen whom they thought disliked the Vietcong. Sharing tales with the officers, the elders voiced their consensus that things had not gone quite this badly in a long time. The Americans agreed. Obstacles or distractions of one kind or another kept diverting American and ARVN forces to a perilous route. It was as if the land, the rivers, the very air conspired to subvert the efforts to save this province.
Hall and the Australian, Captain Hawkins, asked about the strength of the ARVN regiments in the area, and then laid out preliminary plans for a joint attack on VC posts in the mountains lining the border with Laos. Those mountains were an uncontrolled zone where VC reinforcements crept over the border into the communist positions, easily setting up new camps and just as easily slipping back over the border when the need arose.
Again, the officers and the elders shook hands. The Vietnamese seemed pleased with the meeting’s outcome, as did most of the Americans, but Hall, at least, was curious about the girl who would not reveal her face. Only weeks later would he hear about the fire that fell from the sky.
“The thing we must focus on,” said Hawkins, as he and the colonel, flanked by forty other men, descended a knoll on the fringes of a jungle at the foot of a mountain north of An Binh, “is logistics, ours and the enemy’s. If you look back at what Australians did at Long Tan in ’66, you can see the case for hitting the enemy’s command centers and impairing his ability to coordinate attacks.”
“You guys did an o.k. job at Long Tan,” replied Colonel Hall, “but I don’t know how useful that is as a model. Their command structure isn’t always that centralized, they’ve got so many damn irregulars in the field, you’ve got to nail them individually, in whatever guise they may appear.”
The Australian took umbrage at being corrected. “The details may vary, but not the overall model.”
“Oh, it does.”
“No, Colonel Hall, I tell you it doesn’t.”
“I don’t see how you can know that, sport. You’ve only been in country six weeks.”
“Sometimes I wonder if you Yanks know your arses from your elbows.”
That was when Hall barreled into the Australian like a linebacker in full throttle, sending him sprawling at the foot of the knoll. Though briefly stunned, Hawkins registered the look in the colonel’s eyes and followed their gaze to a metal hook nestled in the lush grass right where the Australian had been about to step.
The first bullet from the bush tore off the left cheek of a young radioman and made him spin wildly until the weight of his gear flopped him onto his back. More rounds came as Hall sank reflexively and made hand signals at the other men, some of whom stared vapidly at the tree line, newly alive with a cacophony of shouts and flashes. The men began to take cover behind random rocks and trees, but seven were already down before anyone could return fire.
Then six attackers garbed in black rushed out of the bush, followed quickly by another six. Hall crawled behind the base of a mango tree and slid his .45 out of its holster. Kneeling behind another tree, Hawkins opened up with his L1A1 semiautomatic. The rounds punched through the first wave and then the second, spraying bloody garb over the dense green, but another wave followed even as the first two fell. Hall emptied his .45, hitting one attacker directly between the eyes, flung a grenade at the tree line, then began to crawl toward the fallen radioman.
Caught by a burst from the trees, two more of Hall’s men fell screaming. When he turned the radioman over, the radio was so drenched with blood that he doubted it would work. But he was able to raise the provincial headquarters and request immediate backup.
“Yes, Colonel,” came the drawling voice at the other end, “we’ll have the air cav there ASAP, sir.”
The colonel crawled back to his former position. No more attackers came from the trees, and the fire died down, but Hall knew that would change if one of his men ventured out from whatever cover he’d found. At least eight were dead, and another seven or eight could not leave on their own. Hall repeatedly signaled that no one was to move for any reason. They waited, and waited some more, as the heat kept coming down in searing waves and blood and sweat mingled freely. Hall kept expecting the familiar groan of a Huey to penetrate the wet stillness, but there was only silence above the trees ringing the knoll, a silence suggestive of infinite distances all around the trapped men.
After another excruciating five minutes, Hall looked back at the radioman, who had now bled to death, and decided not to risk going back to the radio. Fifteen feet away, Hawkins was lying on the ground, panting and looking at him. After another series of signals by Hall, repeated by others for the benefit of those who couldn’t see him, it was clear what he had decided to do.
Without further ado, the men stood up and flung all their remaining grenades at the tree line simultaneously. They followed up with a fusillade that nearly depleted their remaining ammunition, and then there began a crazed dash up the knoll whence they had come. The enemy exploited this chance to pick off a number of the fleeing Americans, in an almost leisurely manner, as they left behind thirty yards strewn with the dead and the moaning wounded, who faced God knew what torments.
Later, the radio operator and other support staff at the base faced an incensed superior.
“We acted on your orders immediately, sir.”
“Then what held up the rescue and made us abandon wounded men to the enemy?” Hall asked.
“We still don’t know, sir. We lost contact with the pilot, and the Huey may have gone down. It’s under investigation as we speak. The pilot may have misread the coordinates. In any event, right before we lost contact, he was distracted by something he saw, or thought he saw, on the ground, and when he moved lower, part of the bird may have become ensnared in waving branches . . .”
August 28, 1970. Shouting arose outside the tent that night, and this time it wasn’t one kid who’d tripped on a corpse, but a babble of voices rising in pitch. When Hall walked out of his tent, men tore right past him as if he didn’t exist, calling for help for the truck that had rolled into the center of the camp. Three more vehicles followed in a storm of diesel fumes and shouts. Hall walked up to one of the men who had leapt off the truck, demanding to know what was going on. The man started talking in a shrill tone, and soon the scene had meaning. Thirty miles outside the camp, a troop transport had taken a direct hit from a mortar, igniting the ammunition aboard, which in turn made the gas tank blow. Sniper fire on both sides of the road tore into the men who had been able to clamber out and who had started rolling on the ground in the hope of minimizing the burns. A few soldiers had hidden themselves by the side of the road, and had called for help. The VC didn’t stick around, but the truck and jeeps sent to save the men took forty-five minutes to arrive.
Then that very truck, packed with the dead and wounded, hit a mine on the way back, incurring fresh casualties, and went off the road, necessitating yet another rescue.
The next day, everyone in the camp was struggling to put on an upbeat air. Stars and Stripes had sent a photographer, a sandy-haired kid in awe of everything military, to write a puff piece about the campaigns in Quang Tri. When the reporter walked into the mess hall, a drab facility adjoining the command center, garage, and hospital, the officers gave him a beer and started fielding all kinds of questions about operations in the province and the chances of driving the VC back over the border for good. It didn’t take long to see what kind of story the kid’s editors were expecting. The journalist had some morale-boosting lines, and now all he needed was a group photo, so he asked the officers to start organizing themselves in the front of the room.
“Ohhh, put usss in the picture!” hissed a voice from the partitioned door leading to the garage.
All the men in the room turned quickly around. Collins was gazing through the space where the upper half of the door had been and clinging to the lower half with the one hand of his still recognizable as a hand. The only part of his blackened, singed face that resembled Collins before the ambush was the grin. Behind him were Litchfield and a third burned, vaguely humanoid mass.
“Put usss in your picture and make us famous! Please!” he said, grinning.
“Goddamn it! I said only KIAs in there!” thundered one of the officers to a corporal. “What are they doing there?”
“I thought they were KIAs, sir!” said the corporal.
“Get back in there, damn it!” yelled the major, grabbing the upper half of the metal door. He was furious at the burned men. “Get back in there and—” He slammed the door with enough force to sever Collins’s fingers from the rest of him.
“Colonel Hall,” intoned the prosecutor, looking directly at him, “after the events related so far in these proceedings, is it fair to say that some officers felt a need for massive retaliation against the Vietcong and their perceived supporters?”
Hall’s own lawyer was watching intently from his seat. The colonel’s hard face looked down for a moment.
“Yes, sir, that’s fair.”
“Maybe you can tell us about the nature and extent of the retaliation.”
Hall spoke for fifteen minutes, without divulging anything one could not learn from the illustrated Time/Life books on the war.
The witnesses questioned by Hall’s lawyer were an Australian forensics expert and a professor from a university in Texas whose facilities included a center devoted to Vietnam’s history. The forensics expert spoke of the work he’d done after the excavation of the children’s bodies. The climate of the underground chamber, he noted, had kept the bodies in something close to their state at the time of death.
The lawyer said, “Please describe any holes, marks, or incisions which might indicate a wound from a gun, knife, or blunt object.”
“There were no such marks, sir.”
Total silence in the room.
“Tell us how you believe the children died.”
“I do not know. But because of the absence of any visible wounds, I would speculate that they died from a lack of breathable air.”
Then it was the professor’s turn.
“I gather,” stated Hall’s lawyer, “that you are an expert on the customs, beliefs, and mythology prevalent in the Central Highlands and other regions of Vietnam. Tell us something about the routing of evil spirits.”
“That, sir, is a very crude phrase to use. But such ‘spirits,’ in mythology, have manifold powers and means of inflicting harm. There were, and in some areas there still are, communities where people believe that the propitiation of spirits doing harm to the living requires an act of sacrifice.”
The lawyer raised his voice for effect. “And can these acts of propitiation include burying children alive?”
Hall was watching football. Hell of a game, he hadn’t seen anyone play like this since the Jets in 1969.
His lawyer had told him to avoid dwelling on this case, to let it go, but Hall had had questions after its dismissal.
“Of course, with all that’s come out here, they’re going to want to revive the other case now, because that’s the shoe that fits.”
“You’re thinking emotionally, Colonel Hall. Anyone can adduce circumstantial evidence for any trial in history, can tell you about the climate people lived in. From a legal point of view, nothing in this trial constitutes fresh evidence that would warrant reopening the old case. Consider yourself well protected.”
Those words were a relief, for no one today, no one who wasn’t there, could hope to see the rhyme and reason of Colonel William Hall’s actions.
“You are part of the very life of the land,” Hall said to the Vietnamese boy seated across from him in the hut. “The food that nourished you grows on the land where your great-grandparents lie, and their parents, and so on. And you work that land, and you too will make it fertile some time. There are rhythms here that we have disturbed, and someone or something is very angry. Not all the screams I hear at night come from men.
“I’m telling you, some of the elders around here have taken special steps to reverse the course of events, have made offerings based on their deepest-held beliefs and superstitions. That’s well and good, but it’s not how I do things. It’s not what a man would do. My response to it is to say, ‘I’m not afraid of anything or anyone, and I will do whatever I like in this country.’
“But none of this need concern you. You are just a boy thinking about your future. You probably have a vision of what you will become, a handsome young man bringing handmade bamboo gifts to mama-san and papa-san and working the fields all day with the methods perfected by your ancestors. Your mother brought you into the world, and she expected so much. She thinks of you, and she sees the person you will become. She imagines those beautiful cheeks, that mouth, twenty, thirty years in the future, thinks of your skills developed to perfection. She shares the dream with you, and you, too, long to be that man.”
Then Hall put the tip of his .45 to the boy’s temple and said one more word before he squeezed the trigger:
Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor.