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My Vietnam War, 50 Years Later (Part One)

A REMF Way Out In The Front (A Personal Essay)

Our protectors set out trip flares around the base of the rock. One night one went off, scaring the hell outa me. We concluded it was an animal; I imagined a very surprised roaming tiger tripping the flare. Sometimes, we’d hear firefights going on at the base of the mountain, but there didn’t seem much chance the NVA would come up the mountain for us. One day, F4 Phantoms were screaming low over our heads and dropping like missiles down the side of the mountain, firing 40mm guns at the NVA below us. We began to hear noises like rustling leaves in the woods below us. Holy shit! They’re coming up the mountain! We all jacked our weapons and got ready, laying down on the rock and pointing them down into the forest below, waiting for Charlie to break through the trees fleeing from the F4’s guns. We waited and we waited. Each time an F4 came over we’d hear the rustling again. Eventually, we figured out the noise was empty shell casing hitting the ground. I went back to my duties listening on earphones to Morse code and getting bearings on NVA radio operators. But in those minutes waiting for Vietnamese men to appear out of the forest, I realized I was quite capable and willing to shoot a human being. Of course, I had no clue why I was really there on that mountaintop doing what I was doing. But I came to quickly understood the thing that drives war: Someone wanted to kill me, and he’d do it if I or my comrades didn’t kill him first.

Most of the time up on that incredible rock amounted to amusing myself from the boredom. I remember reading a dog-eared copy of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 I’d found laying around. I’d also climb down from the rock and walk into the woods, where I’d sit on a log and just listen and look around, amazed that I was on a huge mountaintop along the Cambodian border in the middle of a bloody war zone. The forest along the ridgeline atop that mountain felt peaceful. I’d hear little critters scurrying around. I saw flying monkeys soar from one tree to another. I ran into lizards and peculiar insects. I saw a strange-headed, very large predator bird gliding over us and riding the wind currents. It was not until the 1990s and a reading of The Sorrow Of War, the magnificent novel by Boa Ninh, that I realized, for the Vietnamese, the forests were animated by spirits and ghosts. I’m not sure if the spirits Ninh’s character Kien speaks hauntingly of inhabiting the forests of the Central Highlands stayed in the valleys and avoided the mountaintops or whether I was, again, too dumb to be aware of them. Or maybe they just left me alone, figuring (erroneously) that I was harmless. Here's how Ninh describes the forest and the ghosts from the 27th Battalion in The Sorrow Of War:

“It was here, at the end of the dry season of 1969 that his 27th Battalion was surrounded and almost totally wiped out. Ten men survived from the Lost Battalion after fierce, horrible, barbarous fighting. ... [Ghosts] were born in that deadly defeat. They were still loose, wandering in every corner and bush in the jungle, drifting along the stream, refusing to depart for the Other World. From then on it was called the Jungle of Screaming Souls. Just hearing the name whispered was enough to send chills down the spine.”

story | by Dr. Radut