Wednesday, September 3, 2014

War in the Bush – Atrocity the Norm

[Dear Reader:  The time is at last at hand to turn full-time to writing the memoir. To facilitate the writing, the blog will continue to post, but now monthly on the 1st Wednesday of each month.  We will keep you informed about our progress to publication.]

Atrocity is usually thought of as the exception in war – certainly the American way of war. Witness the My Lai massacre of ’68 in Vietnam – when the cover-up was finally penetrated, it was considered a terrible aberration, a one-off tragedy of the war. Its horrific singularity was glibly explained away as failure of leadership and an infantry platoon that went berserk.

It wasn’t until years later we learned that it was only the scale of My Lai – the number of South Vietnamese civilians killed – that was unique. In fact, as was discovered when the Pentagon’s archives were at last opened, numerous US combat units – many of them well led by competent officers – committed atrocities in the countryside throughout that long, futile war. They were war crimes that went undetected, unreported, or, more often, investigated and quietly shelved.*

The Vietnam War was not a war of fronts with identifiable armies, but instead a series of relentless guerrilla actions large and small and counter- insurgent reactions. While US forces in the jungles of SVN were clearly recognizable by uniform, their main opponent for much of the conflict – the Viet Cong (VC) – was not, at least not until they attacked with AK-47s blazing. More often than not, the VC wore the black pajamas of the South Vietnamese peasantry, rendering them indistinguishable from civilians – like a ‘fish in water’ to quote Mao.

That was war in the bush with all the ambiguities of an elusive enemy in an often impenetrable terrain. There were few certainties in the Vietnam War – moral or otherwise. What, then, if we strip away all illusions to the contrary and assume the perverse position that the war’s many atrocities, especially against civilians, was frequently either the unacknowledged norm or certainly not the exception?

For the VC, the commission of atrocities was usually a coldly calculated policy for the purpose of intimidation in order to gain control of the peasant villes caught in the middle between the forces. The idea was to sever the allegiance of the countryside to the government in Saigon.

For American units, mistreatment of civilians, not to mention atrocities, was strictly against command policy. Many of the incidents that did occur were usually the result of the frustration caused by not being able to locate the elusive VC or tragic mistakes in the fog of war, but others were malevolent acts of barbarism by entire units.

In ’68, when brother Jeff Sharlet, an ex-Vietnam GI, founded Vietnam GI, the first GI-edited underground antiwar paper addressed to GIs, he was handed a photo of four US troopers who had just beheaded two VC bodies. It was an appalling sight – the first atrocity photo to emerge in public – and Jeff ran it over an antiwar caption, commenting, what did the generals expect from 18-year olds with M-16s acting like God in an ethical wilderness far removed from civilization?

The most eloquent and starkest case for atrocity as a bush war norm is made by the fictional character Colonel Kurtz, a maverick Special Forces commander in the Vietnam War flick, Apocalypse Now (1979). The story is straightforward – the colonel had become an embarrassment to the Army, to Saigon HQ, for his unorthodox tactics.

A Green Beret officer was dispatched to terminate his command, to take him out. In the end, even high command’s hit man, who had studied his target’s thick file and talked with him, came to see the perverse logic of Kurtz’s unbridled way of war.

Viewed appreciatively for its antiwar story line,** fine acting, and spectacular visuals, the film is a rare vehicle for traversing uncharted territory from atrocity as war crime to atrocity as strategic choice and tactical necessity in bush war. To see Kurtz’s contrarian rationale unfold, we need to accompany the designated terminator on his journey upriver to the colonel’s remote jungle camp.

Captain Willard is no innocent in Vietnam. He’s a seasoned Green Beret officer previously assigned to carry out targeted assassinations. The assignment awaiting him, however, will turn out to be radically different.

Willard is summoned into the presence of a general and his aide as well as a mysterious civilian, no doubt CIA. They hand him sealed orders for a classified mission – to travel hundreds of miles up a jungle river into off-limits territory, nominally neutral Cambodia, to terminate Kurtz. The general’s aide adds – with ‘extreme prejudice.’

Willard is mystified by the assignment, but is told only that Walter Kurtz, once a promising officer with a stellar record slated eventually for flag rank, had wandered off the reservation, broken with military authority, and was out there running his own war with ‘unsound methods’. Willard is given the colonel’s career file and sent on his way. He had done this kind of work before, but never against an American, least of all a fellow officer.

His route is to proceed upstream on the fictional Nung River through the Mekong Delta from Vietnam into Cambodia. Transport is a small, well-gunned Navy river patrol boat (PBR) manned by a crew of four. The crew’s initial obstacle is that the mouth of the Nung is controlled by a strongly fortified VC village. Movement orders call for Willard and crew to rendezvous with an infantry unit that will get them past the Cong.
Thus, the film becomes a riparian view of the Vietnam conflict or, as Willard puts it, a journey ‘up a river that snaked through the war’. The voyage will alternate between moments of sheer terror and interludes of manic frivolity ranging from war zone hijinks to bizarre encounters.

Their first encounter involves the full array of combat, oddly culminating in a recreational break more suitable to the Southern California coast than the shores of the Nung. Willard meets the swashbuckling Colonel Kilgore, whose hot shot air cavalry unit is to get the patrol boat past the VC strong point. Kilgore and troopers do so with heavy firepower and great panache.

Hueys in attack formation out of the sun

In the old horse cavalry tradition, a bugler sounds the call for a chopper attack on the VC ville. Outfitted with loudspeakers blasting out Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’, the lethal Hueys charge out of the sun, .50 cal machine guns blazing and rockets swooshing into the seemingly peaceful ville.

The surprise attack a success, the choppers land on the beach to carry out mopping up operations. Noting the waves where the Nung empties into the South China Sea, the cowboy colonel—decked out in a frontier-style campaign hat—begins planning a surfing exhibition. He’s been told that one of Willard’s crew is a famous Los Angeles surfer. Steaks and beer are choppered in, and the combat mission turns into a beach party as Willard, shaking his head in disbelief, and the PBR depart the unreal scene and head upriver.

Let's go surfin' now
Everybody's learning how
Come on and safari with me


Robert Duvall as Colonel Kilgore

As the boat makes its way upriver, Willard periodically reads Kurtz’s file in narrative voiceover, and we gradually hear the renegade colonel’s story and glimpse his ‘unsound’ philosophy of war. We learn that Kurtz was a soldier’s soldier, third generation Army, West Point, Green Beret airborne ranger, highly decorated. He had first been in Nam early in the war, ’64.

Tasked to assess the prospects for greater US involvement in the then still low profile guerrilla conflict, Kurtz disappointed the Joint Chiefs by handing in a pessimistic report. It was not what President Johnson (LBJ) and the Pentagon wanted to hear, and the report was buried in Washington. LBJ’s escalation followed in ’65.

The PBR steams on through the dense tropical terrain, unexpectedly coming upon more strange encounters – a run-in with a huge, snarling tiger ashore, a USO show with Playboy bunnies at a remote combat base strung with colored lights like a country fair, and a rendezvous at the last US outpost on the Nung where Willard is advised, ‘You’re in the asshole of the world, Captain’.

Willard continues reading Kurtz’s dossier, which reveals bit by bit his draconic approach to bush war. Key to Kurtz’s departure from the Army’s way of war was the first tour in Vietnam in ’64. Willard wonders what he saw that ultimately led him to become a hunted fugitive.

According to Pentagon documents in the file, Kurtz’s alienation from the military’s ‘good order and discipline’ occurred gradually. Returning to Nam for another tour as a Special Forces commander in ’67, he pulled off a highly successful, but officially unorthodox, operation against the VC using his Montagnard force without authorization from HQ. The Saigon generals were about to come down hard on Kurtz, but stateside publicity for his notable victory caused them to back off.

From his file, Willard understands that Kurtz scorned US policy of limiting GIs to one-year tours, which he felt only produced dilettantes, tourists passing through Vietnam. In contrast, for the VC the war was zero-sum. They had only two ways home – death or final victory. Hence, to fight the diehard VC the colonel relied on his savage native troops who were also in for the duration.

In late ’68 Kurtz finally went over the edge from his superiors’ point of view. His outfit had been suffering frequent ambushes, so he conducted a thorough investigation, identifying several South Vietnamese personnel as double agents. He ordered them assassinated. Obviously he was right because enemy activity in the area dropped dramatically, but for Saigon HQ he had finally gone too far – they charged him with murder.

By then, Kurtz and his ragged force were beyond reach – he had gone deep into Cambodia, out of bounds for US personnel. Thus, when Willard received his lethal assignment, he was told his mission did not officially exist. The Army was operating off the books to get one of their own.

As for the fugitive colonel, in a letter to his son that somehow found its way into his official file, Kurtz defended himself against the charges. As Willard thought to himself, charging someone with murder in Vietnam was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500. To his son, Kurtz expressed the same opinion of the charges, which he found ‘under the circumstances of this conflict, quite completely insane’.

As the PBR makes its approach to the river’s end and Kurtz’s compound, surprises await Willard and his naval comrades. The first is an attack on the boat by hundreds of natives hidden along the banks. Thousands of arrows rain down on the crew as they frantically return fire with their M-60s and twin .50 cal machine guns raking the tree lines.

None of the arrows hit their mark, but a spear kills ‘Chief,’ the boat captain and helmsman. As Willard soon discovers ashore, the attackers were fearful he was coming to take away their man-god, Kurtz. They were, of course, right.

As the boat closes on the dock, ghastly sights, obviously intended to ward off intruders, greet Willard – dozens of skulls on poles, dead bodies dangling from trees like so much strange fruit, flaming torches, and most gruesome, numerous bodies impaled on sharp stakes. At the edge of the river, he sees piles of corpses, half in, half out of the water. Already apprehensive, Willard can have little doubt of what lies ahead.

Going ashore he walks toward a vast throng of heavily-armed natives, many with bows and spears, others gripping modern weapons. A spaced-out American, part of Kurtz’s exotic entourage, serves as his guide as he seeks out the colonel to talk with him. Willard is guided to an enormous ancient Cambodian temple on a rise dominating the sprawling encampment.

It’s Kurtz’s headquarters, his command center, his sanctuary from the civilization he left behind downstream. Before Willard is ushered into Kurtz’s presence, his hands are bound, and two loin-clothed warriors bearing AK-47s fall in behind him.

Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz

What followed was more an ‘audience’ than a meeting between two officers of the US Army. Sitting in a shadowy recess, Kurtz does most of the talking – at first his questions to the captain are prosaic, but then turn ominous:

Kurtz: Are you an assassin?
Willard: I’m a soldier.
Kurtz: You’re neither. You’re an errand boy sent by grocery clerks to collect a bill.

On an unobtrusive signal to the escorts, Willard is hauled off and confined to a tiger cage in the scorching sun. Nearly losing consciousness, after a time he is brought before Kurtz again who is reading aloud from T.S. Eliot, a poem foreshadowing what his departure from civilized norms and the adoption of brutal methods of warfare have cost him personally:

We are the hollow men,
The stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw.***

Willard realizes that the strange, highly articulate man before him has slipped the bounds of sanity into madness. He grasps that, for the generals, Kurtz’s assassination of the South Vietnamese double agents was merely the pretext for his own deadly mission.

In reality, the Army has to get rid of the mad colonel whose ‘unsound methods’ in prosecuting the war – his private war – have made a mockery of the ‘rules of engagement’ as well as the standing directive on avoiding collateral damage whenever possible.

Instead, Kurtz faces the VC, a ruthless and implacable foe, by adopting their harsh norms absent the superficial ‘etiquette’ of Western-style warfare. In effect, the outlaw colonel gives the lie to the policy of ‘limited war’, instead conducting his own war within the war writ large as one of total annihilation.
As Willard sits passively before him, Kurtz opens up further, revealing the traumatic scene that first unhinged him and became the source of his progressive alienation from higher authority. Unmoored by his experience, Kurtz had become a deeply troubled figure ruling a primitive empire, alone and adrift in a bottomless sea of darkness.

The colonel describes the moment at which he broke with his previous persona and career. It was in ’64. Aside from assessing the situation for Washington, part of his mission was to win the ‘hearts & minds’ of villagers in his area of operation – to garner good will for the South Vietnamese government in the capital by good deeds on its behalf.

Kurtz’s A-team entered a ville where his medic inoculated the children against polio. After the team returned to its camp, a village elder came running to tell them a terrible thing had happened. Kurtz and his men rushed back and beheld a shocking sight. The VC had hacked off the inoculated arms of every child, and thrown the severed limbs into a pile. Kurtz was overwhelmed with grief:
I cried, I wept … I wanted to tear my teeth out.And I want to remember it, I never want to forget it.                  
But calming down he looked at the waking nightmare clearly, and understood the VC’s message:
My God, the genius of that! … The will to do that.I realized they were stronger than we. Becausethey could stand it. These were not monsters.These were men.
Thus, his initiation to bush war where horror and moral terror were the norm – to kill without feeling, without passion, without judgment.

By the time Willard had reached his destination, Kurtz had gone over the edge and was leading his personal legion of fierce native warriors in a private war on the VC. For Kurtz, atrocity was no longer the exception, but the norm. He summarizes for Willard his unvarnished philosophy of war:
Horror and moral terror are your friends [in war].
If not, they are your enemies to be feared.
Furtively reentering the temple later, Willard carries out his assignment, assassinating Kurtz, but he has become deeply affected by his exposure to the colonel’s primordial, uncompromising logic of war.

His grisly task accomplished, Willard makes his way back to the boat where the voice of command can be heard over the radio, awaiting the signal for an air strike to eliminate the remnants of Kurtz’s tribe from the face of the earth.

This is the end
Beautiful friend
This is the end††

However, a profoundly changed Willard flips the radio off and sails away downriver, turning his back on the Army,

*N Turse, Kill Anything That Moves (2013)
**V Canby, New York Times Movie Review (August 15, 1979)
***T S Eliot, “The Hollow Men” (1925)

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