Bury Me Upside Down
Robert Kaplan remembers the Vietnam that was meant to be forgotten. It deserves to be read in its entirety, but without giving away the store, here are some excerpts.
Not ranked on Amazon, it is among the most amazing personal stories of any war. His eardrums ruptured, his face crusted with blood from beatings, one arm broken and both knees badly injured from the ejection, Bud Day was hung by the feet "like a side of butchered beef for many hours" by his captors after he refused to answer their questions. A week into his captivity he escaped. He then hiked 12 days alone in the jungle back to South Vietnam, eating frogs, nauseous from pain, only to be recaptured.
With all of his limbs now broken or shot up, he spent the next six years in captivity, undergoing mock executions, hung again repeatedly by his feet, often not permitted to urinate, beaten senseless in scenes "out of the Mongol Hordes" with whips that made his testicles like charred meat. When prison guards burst in on him and other POWs during a clandestine Christian service, Day stared into their muzzles and sang "The Star-Spangled Banner."
The Hippie Warriors
Air Force flight surgeon Dean Echenberg of San Francisco—a former hippy who helped start a free clinic in Haight-Ashbury, did drugs, went to the great rock concerts, and then volunteered for service in Vietnam, more-or-less out of sheer adventure. ... If anyone lived the American Experience of the 1960s in its totality, it was Echenberg. One day in 1968, his medical unit was near Phu Cat, just as it was attacked by Viet Cong. "The dispensary quickly filled with blood and body parts," write the authors. "Parents and family members staggered around in a daze, desperate for their children to be saved." Echenberg worked almost the entire night with a pretty American nurse. Near dawn, emotionally overwrought, the two laid down to rest near the end of the runway on the American base, and "made love in the grass while artillery boomed in the distance." "Echenberg struggled to understand how anybody could be so savage as to murder children."
Where is that village now?
The Americans liked the village. They liked the freedom to drink beer and wear oddball clothes and joke with girls. They liked having the respect of tough PFs [Popular Forces government militia] ... who could not bring themselves to challenge the Viet Cong alone. They were pleased that the villagers were impressed because they hunted the Viet Cong as the Viet Cong had for years hunted the PFs ... The Americans did not know what the villagers said of them ... but they observed that the children, who did hear their parents, did not run or avoid them ... The Marines had accepted too many invitations to too many meals in too many homes to believe they were not liked by many and tolerated by most. For perhaps the only time in the lives of those ... Americans, seven of whom had not graduated from high school, they were providing at the obvious risk of death a service of protection. This had won them open admiration ... within the Vietnamese village society in which they were working and where ultimately most of them would die.
In 2002, Bing West returned to Binh Nghia. In a new epilogue he writes:Once a year, the villagers gather to pray for good crops and no floods [by] ... a cement wall bearing a Vietnamese inscription to the Marines who built the well and the shrine in 1967 ... The Village remembers.
Over the Fence
The border truly meant nothing. The battlefield overlapped it. Meyer spends 18 pages describing a savage, day-long firefight in Laos that ends with many dead, as well as beer in the canteen for the survivors near midnight, before another insertion that meets another enemy troop concentration the next morning. From beginning to end, Across the Fence is a record of extreme heroism and technical competence that few who fought World War II surpassed.
Every time Meyer crossed the border it was with South Vietnamese "indigs" (indigenous troops) integrated into his unit. He writes about their exploits and personalities in as much detail as he does about the Americans. He identifies with them, and with the enemy whose skill he admires, more than he does with elements of the home front.
Maybe in the end there was no such thing as the Vietnam War which historians and polemicists have codified in books. Perhaps there was nothing that remotely resembled the neatly constructed narratives, both pro and antiwar, of the times. All that there is -- all that remains -- is memory. And as Kaplan picked through the memories, I recalled Stephen Pressfield's opening chapter as the dead of Thermopylae crossed the River Lethe, the border of forgetfulness.
That state which we call life was over. I was dead. And yet, titanic as was that sense of loss, there existed a keener one which I now experienced and felt my brothers-in-arms feeling with me. It was this.
That our story would perish with us. That no one would ever know. ...
We had reached the river now. We could hear with ears that were no longer ears and see with eyes that were no longer eyes the stream of Lethe and the hosts of the long-suffering dead whose round beneath the earth was at last drawing to a period. They were returning to life, drinking of those waters which would efface all memory of their existence here as shades. ...
Then from behind me, if there can be such a thing as "behind" in that world where all directions are as one, came a glow of such sublimity that I knew, we all knew at once, it could be nothing but a god. Phoebus Far Darter, Apollo himself in war armor, moved there among the Spartiates and Thespaians. No words were exchanged; none were needed. ... I would be the one. The one to go back and speak. ... If indeed you have elected me, Archer, then let your fine-fletched arrows spring from my bow. Lend me your voice, Far Darter. Help me to tell the tale.
So long lives their tale, so long shall they be.