Personal History

THE AIR WAR

By Terry McDermott
July 3, 1995
Pacific Magazine

These things exist, a guy told me, things where you jerk awake in the middle of the night. Then it’s gone. You forget it. And it’s gone for the rest of your life. You lead your life as though it never happened.
There are two theories on how to handle this.
One friend says he went to a therapist for a while. She told him he had built a house inside his head. He was living in the front rooms and had sealed everything he didn’t want to deal with out back. She said it was time to knock down that wall.
Whoa, he said, I didn’t come here for a tear-down. I’d like some touch-up, maybe some new furniture, or a carpet. We can even repaint the walls. But the walls are staying right where they are. That stuff in the other room is there because I want it there.
The second theory is it’s like a swamp, all fog and mystery. Another friend says, “What the hell? Stick a pipe down there. See what you suck out.”

TWENTY-FIVE years ago this Fourth of July I stumbled out of the stale insides of a packed DC-8 charter into the haze and heat and awful noise of Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon.
I had blisters on my feet from a long day of trudging strange streets in San Francisco waiting for my flight; I had blisters on my brain from wondering if I should get on it.
I was a pretty strange piece of work, which is to say, for a 19-year-old, almost normal. I wanted so badly not to be where I was I nearly cried with the first blast of tropical air. I was scared. I was lonely. I was an unshielded wire, giving off sparks. They occasionally set my life afire.
The war for me began where I suppose all wars do, with my father. His good intentions and bad temper sent me reeling out of our little Midwestern town the minute the coast was clear.
I look at old pictures and know this isn’t entirely true. In many of them, it’s my anger that is apparent, not his. My father called me Dark Cloud and I’m sure had no comprehension of what storms were brewing inside me.
The choices then, in 1968, were clear. If you could, you went off to college. If you couldn’t, you went to war.
I hopped on a Greyhound in front of Blackie Lyons’ Mobil station; I haven’t stopped running since. I rode the bus 200 miles to an Air Force induction center, took an oath, got on an airplane and took a sharp turn out of my life to Texas, then Colorado and Nebraska, where I sat four stories beneath black prairie and plotted missile trajectories to Soviet airfields.
I met a girl.
I was Iowa. She was Nebraska. Such different worlds, we thought. I received orders for Vietnam and we were engaged to be married. The summer I left, she worked at a state hospital for the mentally ill. Every time I drove out to see her a weathered old man would greet me in the parking lot, directing traffic as if there were some. I would get out of the car, he would sidle up, shield his mouth with one hand and whisper: “Act normal. Act normal.”
It was a conspiracy. He knew whose side I was on.
She did not. We talked and argued. I wanted to run away to Canada. She declined to go. I was afraid to. When it came time to head west for California and Southeast Asia, she dropped me, my duffel bag and my attitude on a desolate stretch of Interstate 80 in central Nebraska.
I stuck out my thumb and disappeared.

 

BY THE TIME I got to Vietnam, the end of the war was already in sight. Every conceivable outcome was bad. We didn’t know when or where it would stop, but we knew how. We had decided we were going to lose, we had only to admit it.
Saigon had already turned ugly. So much had been happening for so long, the Vietnamese themselves didn’t know who they were anymore. Many were beyond caring. Even by the standards of the time and region, it was extraordinarily corrupt. There were no real jobs so the thousands of peasants being chased into the city had nothing to do but join the desultory work of stealing money from one another, or us.
It was the first real city I had ever been in and I fell hard for the place, for its chaos, especially, which enthralled me, and which I mistook for liberty. Life had a rushed, surreal quality. We would hire cyclos and race one another and huge Army trucks through the city, stoked on danger and dope.
I watched a policeman draw, aim and fire at a teen-aged boy for running a stop sign on his motorbike. I saw the back wall of a bar suddenly disappear before my eyes and was too drunk to know why, thinking only, “That’s some mean Hendrix, man.”
A friend tried to kill an MP when the cop went for his heroin stash. Another friend disappeared in the midst of a rocket attack at Da Nang. We found him later, unharmed and unawake, passed out on the john.
I played golf at the Saigon Country Club, which might have been the only golf course in the world where out-of-bounds was marked by a perimeter of guard towers and ribbon wire. Inside the wire, kids stole your ball every other hole and sold it back to you.
On wet streets in the city at night, frail forms hung at the door, selling hope and anything else you ever dreamed of, and many things you had not. In long dark evenings in the bars on Tu Do, the Temptations and the Four Tops pined for love; bar girls told us how much it would cost.In the windowless concrete bunker that served as home to the 12th Reconnaissance Intelligence Technical Squadron, we spent most days looking for the war, not fighting it.
I was a reconnaissance photo interpreter. My job was to comb the countryside from a light table, looking for anything that moved or might _ trucks, tanks, people. It was an elegant equation. I would circle a target, write down its description and location. The next day somebody would go bomb it. Or try to.
We ran bombing raids on collections of canoes, on single buildings, on anything that our ingenuity might imagine as a target. We sometimes used infra-red film that could see through jungle canopies to detect sources of heat on the ground. If it was hot enough, we bombed it.
I never saw a single enemy soldier face-to-face. I must have killed thousands.
I often looked at sections of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the main north-south Viet Cong supply route. It was bombed with a regularity you could set your watch to, day in and out for weeks and months at a stretch.
But everyday you’d see fresh tracks, some guy, some little guy by bicycle or foot, weaving his way south through the countless bomb craters along the trail. Little Ho, I began calling him. Forward Ho, for his persistence. I imagined Ho and I were alike, little lost boys careening around the world mistaking someone else’s orders for our own desires.
I remember being shocked one day while working on some low-level film from Kompong Cham in Cambodia. There on the film was an actual pitched battle being fought between I didn’t know quite whom. Sticks of wood from exploded housing were scattered everywhere. Wisps of smoke curled up toward the camera.
I began seeing more and more Cambodian film. Fewer battles, lots of bombs. String after string of bombs dropped on row after row of rubber trees. The bombs walking like a giant’s steps down the countryside, never knowing what was being crushed underfoot. Often not caring.
We, the giant, knew where we were heading; crushing a few dwarves in the process couldn’t be helped. It wasn’t known, then, in the United States that American planes were regularly bombing Cambodia. It surely was not unknown to the Cambodians upon whose houses and fields so much hot metal was being spent.
I began thinking I was wrong: I wasn’t one of the giants. I was one of the dwarves.

 

BY WHAT would have been late fall, had there been a fall, I began to feel I was shrinking, getting smaller every day. Everything I believed _ that the war was wrong, that such casual cruelty was beneath us, that we owed something to one another and especially to ourselves _ was mocked every day by what I was doing.
I quit my job. One November day, I just didn’t show up. I didn’t run away. I stayed home, in so far as my bunk and barracks were home. George Boyer, my boss, showed up that night and asked if I was ill.
George, I said, I’m not sick. Other than the war, I feel fine. I just can’t do this anymore.
Do what?
Kill people.
You’re not killing anybody, you’re sitting in an air-conditioned room looking at pictures.
Killing people, I said.
It’s a war, he said.
George, a career enlisted man with kids my age, recognized unreasonableness when he saw it.
Take a couple days and think about what you’re doing, he said. You could spend the rest of your life in jail.
He left me alone. By this time I was beyond thinking about anything. The wire was stripped clean to the copper. I burned bright. It was the proudest moment of an unproud life.
It seemed then to a lot of people _ people who didn’t know or care about me, especially, but even some family and friends _ an act of simple cowardice. It felt to me the only brave thing I’d ever done. Something done because I thought it was right, not because someone had told me to do it or to please someone.
Most people who go off to war, any war, are not much more than children, scared and lonely and aching for love. They do the terrible things they do for approval. As my people might say, they haven’t got their growth. They’re not yet adults. Their deepest, spookiest terror is that because of what they do and see, or imagine themselves doing and seeing, they may never be.
The next day, Boyer’s boss, a decent, thoughtful major, came to see me. He sympathetically, but without mincing words, read me my rights.
Do you want to see a lawyer or a chaplain? he said.
Lawyer, I said.
It says here you’re Catholic. I recommend both.
We talked for a while.
How about a different job? He listed options: Collate reports. Debrief pilots. Everything down to the mail room.I told him I didn’t think so. Anything I did would help the war.
Anything you don’t will help the enemy, he said.
I’m sorry, I said.Appointments were made. My security clearance was revoked. I couldn’t go to work if I wanted. I couldn’t even get in the building without an escort. I was assigned to the squadron’s first sergeant, an administrator. Two days later, he was called home on emergency leave.
He never came back.
I quit going to his office. For a month, I barely left my bunk except to see the lawyer, who was exactly what you might want in a lawyer _ sympathetic and amoral.
The chaplain had been dismissive. The church doesn’t condone what you’re doing, he said. This is a just war and Catholics have a duty to serve.
He reawakened my every animus to the church, which hadn’t been sleeping that soundly to begin with.
I’m not a goddamned Catholic, anyhow, I told him. I don’t believe anything you say.
What do you believe? he asked.
In doing right, I said.
And who’s to say what that is? he wondered.
I didn’t know what to say. For the moment, at least, the only one who could tell me anything appeared to be me.
The lawyer told me I ought to apply for conscientious objector status. For somebody already in the military, to be classified as a CO required religious grounds _ which I did not have _ or a belief that all violence is wrong.
What do you mean, all violence? I asked.
Well, if your mother was walking down the street and she was attacked by three men, would you stop them?
Of course, I said.
Then you don’t qualify, he said, but I think you should apply anyway. Who knows, maybe they’ll make an exception. In the meantime, it will keep you out of LBJ.
LBJ?
Long Binh Jail.
MY COURAGE, never in huge supply, was dribbling away, spent, as it usually is, on small compromises. When I had first decided to quit, I assumed I’d be in jail as a deserter by nightfall. It hadn’t occurred to me that the bureaucracy was stronger than the law. Not having gone to jail immediately, my willingness to go there sunk. My parents and my fiance had written to say I was making a foolish mistake. I was threatening to screw up my entire life for the sake of what, some futile gesture? I knew exactly what they meant. I knew what was at stake: Me. Whatever future I had imagined lay in ruins before the first foundation of it could be built.
We are in this eternal argument, screaming into the dark trying to ward off the terror of not knowing what’s out there. I like to think it’s Darwinian; we get scared to stay alive. And, boy, was I scared.
War stories are usually told as homilies to heroism. Closer to the bone, they are stories of simple, constant, unparalleled dread. Dread of the next bend in the river. Dread of the next hill, the next bush, the next day. Or worst of all, dread of yourself.
That’s what I had. Nobody was trying to kill me but me.
I guiltily applied for CO status.
This involved writing a paper explaining my beliefs. I spent my days in the library and the gym, searching for truth and healing in one place, a jump shot and pain in the other. At night, I either holed up and read like a monk, or ran wild in the many jungles of Saigon.
I became a curiosity. I abandoned uniforms, grew my hair long. I imagined myself a spy, gone to ground.
The paper was torture. I hadn’t the intellectual tools to discover or create a theory for what I believed. I would write pages and pages of fevered explanation, all of which could be reduced to this: It’s wrong.
I befriended Army helicopter pilots and went joyriding all over IV Corps. The war spread out beneath us like a comic book. We swooped in and out of its pages. I developed a sense of invulnerability. I was Batman. No one could touch me.
The comic books became real. I went to my mailbox one month and found my pay had mysteriously increased. I went to personnel and discovered I had been promoted. Friends joked I’d be getting a Bronze Star soon.
I went, absurdly, on R and R twice. At China Beach in Da Nang, I nearly died in a rocket rain. In Sydney, Australia, not an hour off the airplane, I was walking in King’s Cross in a tie-dyed T-shirt and a woman my age walked up and offered me a test ride on a new batch of acid.
I met a man who was a dead ringer for the beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who I was devouring at the time. How are you, he said.
I’m like a ball, I said, quoting Ferlinghetti, like a ball, bounced down steps. He didn’t get it.
Time passed. I did my best at forgetting who, where or what I was. I was a ball. Every day was another step. Steps became staircases. I bounced. Months went by. One day, visiting my roommate on base, a gray-haired Master Sergeant stuck his head in and asked, “Who the hell are you?”
McDermott, I said. And you?
He was the new first sergeant. He’d been going through records and discovered his responsibility for some airman _ me _ no one had told him about.
Where have you been? he asked.
Hangin’, I said.
You might, he answered.
My sojourn in the wilderness had ended. I was, I suppose, close to the edge of some sort of insanity and grateful. I had been running for six months. I had only weeks of my year left. The First Shirt put me to work planting banana trees in the squadron compound, which I treated as a lark, an excuse to drive trucks out into the countryside and get shot at. I did carpentry chores. A friend and I built an air-conditioned clubhouse with supplies bartered from all over town. I tended bar and tried to unionize my squadron the night it opened.
Two weeks before I was due to head home, a trial board of senior officers denied my CO claim. I tried to shrug it off, but couldn’t. I had come to believe the claim would legitimize my action.
Who cares? a friend said. You’re going home anyway. You got away clean.
Oh no, I thought. That’s not what I wanted.
On July 3, 1971, I boarded another DC-8, bound back to the world. By coincidence, the man in the next seat was the same junior officer I had sat next to on the trip over. We hadn’t seen each other at all in the intervening year.
How’d it go? he asked.
No problem, I said.

 

I flew into Omaha, more confused even then when I had left. My fiance met the plane. I walked right past her in the waiting lounge. She called my name. I turned, saw no one I recognized and kept moving.
It’s me, she said.
Who? I asked.
Three weeks later we were married.
For a while after I came home I remember sitting in the corners of rooms full of people, trying to shrink away and disappear.
My parents so wanted me to have been a hero they welcomed me home as if I had been one. They tacked a big sign up on the front of the house announcing my arrival when what I really wanted was to slink in and out of town undiscovered.
They acted as if nothing had happened, nothing bad, that is. Worse still, I went along with the lie. To some extent, I still do. In casual conversations about the war _ at least as casual as a conversation can be when one of its participants is quaking inside _ I seldom even hint at what happened.
I pass. Nobody questions it.
Why don’t you take a couple of days off, George Boyer had said. I did. And the days became weeks, months, and finally years.
The years became a life. I coated it with layers and layers of cozy insulation. Even as a marriage failed, I hardly ever poked my head outside. The void swallowed me up and I was grateful for its comforts.
Nice place you got here, I said.
No problem, the void replied.
Precisely, I said.

 

This is 1995. We’re still debating whether I should have been there. Well, to tell the truth, my name hardly ever comes up in these debates. Never, in fact.
My experience with the war was too far outside the mainstream _ or any other stream _ for anyone to claim. But I think in some deep way its vagueness and ambiguity is a perfect metaphor for the war. And I know what has happened to me and the war since are intertwined.
The reaction this spring to Robert McNamara’s, “In Retrospect,” a deck-clearing confession by an old man who ought to be allowed as much, surprised me in its depth of feeling. Conservatives branded him a traitor. Liberals laid 55,000 coffins at his door. I wondered why.
I’ve concluded that Vietnam’s power is its ambiguity. Once a quagmire, always a quagmire.
I’m not an atheist about history. I don’t deny it exists. I’m agnostic. I doubt what I’m told it means.
I find belief of almost any kind impossible. We want neatness and the world is ragged. We want closure and everything goes on. I wanted to set Little Ho free. I helped build him a cage instead.
We’re afloat in a flood of myth, clinging to scraps of belief, snatching bits of truth, half-truth, outright lies and misinformation as it swirls around us, trying to cobble it together into some serviceable theory that will stay together long enough to carry us to the river’s end.
Under the surface, there are powerful forces fighting for control of the current. They want to tell our story.
America, like Little Ho and me, is adrift in the world. We want to know who we are, what we mean. We want to add the evidence of Vietnam to our competing versions of America’s meaning at the end of the century.
One side wants to say Vietnam was a mistake from the first adviser’s disembarkation to the last rotor’s chop of air. We shouldn’t have been there, ever, not for a minute. The others say we had to be there. We were on the ramparts of freedom, staving off a totalitarian menace.
Both sides have powerful evidence.
The war’s futility is self-evident, and so is the horror that wasn’t stopped. I’ve walked the bone fields of Cambodia, felt the shards crunch underfoot and stared into the blank presence of its people. It chills me still.
You can’t help but wonder why this happened and who should have done what to stop it.
The doubt is there always and bubbles up spectacularly only on occasion.
We’re lost, peering into the night, not knowing most of the time even where our wars are, much less how to fight them.
We can convince ourselves of some pretty weird things: that the earth is flat, for instance, or that space is curved.
We’ll believe what we can, or what fits the narrative we choose to explain our lives. Ideas never die. Those that haunt us, the things we carry to the grave, are those that don’t fit. They fall outside the frame.
A story about a nation is like that house in my friend’s head. We furnish the front rooms with our favorite things, myths as comfortable as an old couch, explanations as warming as a log fire. For those things we can’t explain, won’t explain or refuse to even think about, we build a room out back.
Most of the time we never go in there. Once in while, when something like McNamara’s book comes along, with its sense of double-cross and treachery, all the spooks in the back room come rushing out.

 

I’ve collected all of the stuff I’ve written about the region and the war since it ended. It is a considerable pile, large and jumbled enough it makes me wonder: What was I trying to say? In all those words, there wasn’t much meaning.
When I first returned to Vietnam in 1986, I traveled throughout the country with a group of tortured GIs, some of whom had been wounded in the war, almost all of whom found the war a transforming event.
We talked and laughed and walked and drank and argued long into every night from Haiphong to The Delta. It was great fun and very interesting. We met Russian lepidopterists and Hungarian hydrologists and Polish leathernecks. A Vietnamese man sat with me in a small sad village under banyan trees and drew on his hand pictures of bombs falling from giant birds above.
I came home, wrote a story I was too proud of and turned it in to my editor who said, “This is good, but where are you?”
Whattya mean, where am I? I’m everywhere. I’m up and down the whole damned country. Bringing it home, I nailed it, man.
She said, I know that, but that’s the reporter. Where’s the rest of you? You were returning, too. What did you feel?
The very sad answer was that beyond curiosity, I hadn’t felt much. I wondered about this a little then. I’ve wondered about it a lot since.
When I left Vietnam something had shut down and I walked away with barely a backward glance. I was hardened in failure, shrunken of nerve, determined to never again risk exposing so much of my foolish self.
A couple years ago, I was leaving Saigon again. I was in a car with photographer Harley Soltes, a guide named Omar and a driver named Dong. I asked Dong to drive around Tan Son Nhut. Part of the old American air base is now a Vietnamese military installation. The parts I wanted to see were walled off.
I saw some building I thought I recognized and asked Dong to stop. I got out, boosted myself up to look over the wall. Omar in the best of times was an unsettled individual, full of fear and accusation. Almost all of his descriptions of people had to do with their behinds. Of somebody he didn’t agree with, Omar would say: “Dumb-assed.” Of somebody skinny: “Boney-assed.” I was candy-assed.
“Candy-assed Air Force,” Omar would say.
When I climbed up the wall, he and Dong were beside themselves in the car. They feared, with cause, I’m sure, they could get in serious trouble helping an American break into a military base. They screamed at Harley in the car, “We gotta get outa here.”
I was oblivious. I don’t know what I expected to see, maybe something that would reawaken me.
As it happened, there wasn’t much beyond the wall. I climbed down and got back in the car.
Jesus, Candy-assed Air Force, what are you trying to do? What are you looking for?
I don’t know, I said, and I thought:
My life maybe, I left it somewhere around here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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