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Let the boy try along this bayonet-blade
How cold steel is, and keen with hunger of blood.…
“ARMS AND THE BOY”
At the age of twenty-four, I was more prepared for death than I was for life. My first experience of the world outside the classroom had been war. I went straight from school into the Marine Corps, from Shakespeare to the Manual of Small-Unit Tactics, from the campus to the drill field and finally Vietnam. I learned the murderous trade at Quantico, Virginia, practiced it in the rice paddies and jungles around Danang, and then taught it to others at Camp Geiger, a training base in North Carolina.
When my three-year enlistment expired in 1967, I was almost completely ignorant about the stuff of ordinary life, about marriage, mortgages, and building a career. I had a degree, but no skills. I had never run an office, taught a class, built a bridge, welded, programmed a computer, laid bricks, sold anything, or operated a lathe.
But I had acquired some expertise in the art of killing. I knew how to face death and how to cause it, with everything on the evolutionary scale of weapons from the knife to the 3.5-inch rocket launcher. The simplest repairs on an automobile engine were beyond me, but I was able to field-strip and assemble an M-14 rifle blindfolded. I could call in artillery, set up an ambush, rig a booby trap, lead a night raid.
Simply by speaking a few words into a two-way radio, I had performed magical feats of destruction. Summoned by my voice, jet fighters appeared in the sky to loose their lethal droppings on villages and men. High-explosive bombs blasted houses to fragments, napalm sucked air from lungs and turned human flesh to ashes. All this just by saying a few words into a radio transmitter. Like magic.
I came home from the war with the curious feeling that I had grown older than my father, who was then fifty-one. It was as if a lifetime of experience had been compressed into a year and a half. A man saw the heights and depths of human behavior in Vietnam, all manner of violence and horrors so grotesque that they evoked more fascination than disgust. Once I had seen pigs eating napalm-charred corpses—a memorable sight, pigs eating roast people.
I was left with none of the optimism and ambition a young American is supposed to have, only a desire to catch up on sixteen months of missed sleep and an old man’s conviction that the future would hold no further surprises, good or bad.
I hoped there would be no more surprises. I had survived enough ambushes and doubted my capacity to endure many more physical or emotional shocks. I had all the symptoms of combat veteranitis: an inability to concentrate, a childlike fear of darkness, a tendency to tire easily, chronic nightmares, an intolerance of loud noises—especially doors slamming and cars backfiring—and alternating moods of depression and rage that came over me for no apparent reason. Recovery has been less than total.
* * *
I joined the Marines in 1960, partly because I got swept up in the patriotic tide of the Kennedy era but mostly because I was sick of the safe, suburban existence I had known most of my life.
I was raised in Westchester, Illinois, one of the towns that rose from the prairies around Chicago as a result of postwar affluence, VA mortgage loans, and the migratory urge and housing shortage that sent millions of people out of the cities in the years following World War II. It had everything a suburb is supposed to have: sleek, new schools smelling of fresh plaster and floor wax; supermarkets full of Wonder Bread and Bird’s Eye frozen peas; rows of centrally heated split-levels that lined dirtless streets on which nothing ever happened.
It was pleasant enough at first, but by the time I entered my late teens I could not stand the place, the dullness of it, the summer barbecues eaten to the lulling drone of power mowers. During the years I grew up there, Westchester stood on or near the edge of the built-up area. Beyond stretched the Illinois farm and pasture lands, where I used to hunt on weekends. I remember the fields as they were in the late fall: the corn stubble brown against the snow, dead husks rasping dryly in the wind; abandoned farm houses waiting for the bulldozers that would tear them down to clear space for a new subdivision; and off on the horizon, a few stripped sycamores silhouetted against a bleak November sky. I can still see myself roaming around out there, scaring rabbits from the brambles, the tract houses a few miles behind me, the vast, vacant prairies in front, a restless boy caught between suburban boredom and rural desolation.
The only thing I really liked about my boyhood surroundings were the Cook and DuPage County forest preserves, a belt of virgin woodland through which flowed a muddy stream called Salt Creek. It was not too polluted then, and its sluggish waters yielded bullhead, catfish, carp, and a rare bass. There was small game in the woods, sometimes a deer or two, but most of all a hint of the wild past, when moccasined feet trod the forest paths and fur trappers cruised the rivers in bark canoes. Once in a while, I found flint arrowheads in the muddy creek bank. Looking at them, I would dream of that savage, heroic time and wish I had lived then, before America became a land of salesmen and shopping centers.
That is what I wanted, to find in a commonplace world a chance to live heroically. Having known nothing but security, comfort, and peace, I hungered for danger, challenges, and violence.
I had no clear idea of how to fulfill this peculiar ambition until the day a Marine recruiting team set up a stand in the student union at Loyola University. They were on a talent hunt for officer material and displayed a poster of a trim lieutenant who had one of those athletic, slightly cruel-looking faces considered handsome in the military. He looked like a cross between an All-American halfback and a Nazi tank commander. Clear and resolute, his blue eyes seemed to stare at me in challenge. JOIN THE MARINES, read the slogan above his white cap. BE A LEADER OF MEN.
I rummaged through the propaganda material, picking out one pamphlet whose cover listed every battle the Marines had fought, from Trenton to Inchon. Reading down that list, I had one of those rare flashes of insight: the heroic experience I sought was war; war, the ultimate adventure; war, the ordinary man’s most convenient means of escaping from the ordinary. The country was at peace then, but the early sixties were years of almost constant tension and crisis; if a conflict did break out, the Marines would be certain to fight in it and I could be there with them. Actually there. Not watching it on a movie or TV screen, not reading about it in a book, but there, living out a fantasy. Already I saw myself charging up some distant beachhead, like John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima, and then coming home a suntanned warrior with medals on my chest. The recruiters started giving me the usual sales pitch, but I hardly needed to be persuaded. I decided to enlist.
I had another motive for volunteering, one that has pushed young men into armies ever since armies were invented: I needed to prove something—my courage, my toughness, my manhood, call it whatever you like. I had spent my freshman year at Purdue, freed from the confinements of suburban home and family. But a slump in the economy prevented me from finding a job that summer. Unable to afford the expense of living on campus (and almost flunking out anyway, having spent half my first year drinking and the other half in fraternity antics), I had to transfer to Loyola, a commuter college in Chicago. As a result, at the age of nineteen I found myself again living with my parents.
It was a depressing situation. In my adolescent mind, I felt that my parents regarded me as an irresponsible boy who still needed their guidance. I wanted to prove them wrong. I had to get away. It was not just a question of physical separation, although that was important; it was more a matter of doing something that would demonstrate to them, and to myself as well, that I was a man after all, like the steely-eyed figure in the recruiting poster. THE MARINE CORPS BUILDS MEN was another slogan current at the time, and on November 28 I became one of its construction projects.
I joined the Platoon Leaders’ Class, the Marines’ version of ROTC. I was to attend six weeks of basic training the following summer and then an advanced course during the summer before I graduated from college. Completion of Officer Candidate School and a bachelor’s degree would entitle me to a commission, after which I would be required to serve three years on active duty.
I was not really ambitious to become an officer. I would have dropped out of school and gone in immediately as an enlisted man had it not been for my parents’ unflinching determination to have a college graduate for a son. As it was, they were unhappy. Their vision of my future did not include uniforms and drums, but consisted of my finding a respectable job after school, marrying a respectable girl, and then settling down in a respectable suburb.
For my part, I was elated the moment I signed up and swore to defend the United States “against all enemies foreign and domestic.” I had done something important on my own; that it was something which opposed my parents’ wishes made it all the more savory. And I was excited by the idea that I would be sailing off to dangerous and exotic places after college instead of riding the 7:45 to some office. It is odd when I look back on it. Most of my friends at school thought of joining the army as the most conformist thing anyone could do, and of the service itself as a form of slavery. But for me, enlisting was an act of rebellion, and the Marine Corps symbolized an opportunity for personal freedom and independence.
Officer Candidate School was at Quantico, a vast reservation in the piny Virginia woods near Fredericksburg, where the Army of the Potomac had been futilely slaughtered a century before. There, in the summer of 1961, along with several hundred other aspiring lieutenants, I was introduced to military life and began training for war. We ranged in age from nineteen to twenty-one, and those of us who survived OCS would lead the first American troops sent to Vietnam four years later. Of course, we did not know that at the time: we hardly knew where Vietnam was.
The first six weeks, roughly the equivalent of enlisted boot camp, were spent at Camp Upshur, a cluster of quonset huts and tin-walled buildings set deep in the woods. The monastic isolation was appropriate because the Marine Corps, as we quickly learned, was more than a branch of the armed services. It was a society unto itself, demanding total commitment to its doctrines and values, rather like one of those quasi-religious military orders of ancient times, the Teutonic Knights or the Theban Band. We were novitiates, and the rigorous training, administered by high priests called drill instructors, was to be our ordeal of initiation.
And ordeal it was, physically and psychologically. From four in the morning until nine at night we were marched and drilled, sent sprawling over obstacle courses and put through punishing conditioning hikes in ninety-degree heat. We were shouted at, kicked, humiliated and harassed constantly. We were no longer known by our names, but called “shitbird,” “scumbag,” or “numbnuts” by the DIs. In my platoon, they were a corporal, a small man who was cruel in the way only small men can be, and a sergeant, a nervously energetic black named McClellan, whose muscles looked as hard and wiry as underground telephone cables.
What I recall most vividly is close-order drill: the hours we spent marching in a sun so hot it turned the asphalt field into a viscous mass that stuck to our boots; the endless hours of being driven and scourged by McClellan’s voice—relentless, compelling obedience, a voice that embedded itself in our minds until we could not walk anywhere without hearing it, counting a rhythmic cadence.
Wan-tup-threep-fo, threep-fo-your-lef, lef-rye-lef, hada-lef-rye-lef, your-lef … your-lef … your-lef.
Dress it up dress it up keep your interval.
TothereAH HARCH … reAH HARCH … bydalef-flank HARCH!
Dress it up keep your dress DRESS IT UP SCUMBAGS.
Lef-rye-lef. Dig those heels in dig ’em in.
Pick-’em-up-and-put-’em-down DIG ’EM IN threep-fo-your-lef.
DIG ’EM IN LET’S HEAR IT DIG ’EM IN.
Square those pieces away SQUARE ’EM AWAY GIRLS. YOU, SHITHEAD FOURTH MAN IN THE FRONT RANK I SAID SQUARE THAT FUCKIN’ PIECE, SQUARE IT AWAY Wan-tup-threep-fo.
YOU DON’T SQUARE THAT PIECE I GONNA MALTREAT YOU BOY KNOCK UP UP THE SIDE O’ THE HEAD threep-fo-your-lef SQUARE THAT PIECE! YOU FUCKIN DEAF? EYES FRONT! DON’T LOOK AT ME NUMBNUTS! EYES FRONT! SQUARE YOUR PIECE! Now you got the idea, nummie Wan-tup-threep-fo.
Threep-fo-your-lef, lef-rye-lef, hadalef-rye-lef, lef-rye-lef. Lef-rye-lef, lef-rye-lef, your-lef, your-lef YOUR OTHER LEF SHITHEAD. Lef-rye-lef, lef … lef …
The purpose of drill was to instill discipline and teamwork, two of the Corps’ cardinal virtues. And by the third week, we had learned to obey orders instantly and in unison, without thinking. Each platoon had been transformed from a group of individuals into one thing: a machine of which we were merely parts.
The mental and physical abuse had several objectives. They were calculated first to eliminate the weak, who were collectively known as “unsats,” for unsatisfactory. The reasoning was that anyone who could not take being shouted at and kicked in the ass once in a while could never withstand the rigors of combat. But such abuse was also designed to destroy each man’s sense of self-worth, to make him feel worthless until he proved himself equal to the Corps’ exacting standards.
And we worked hard to prove that, submitted to all sorts of indignities just to demonstrate that we could take it. We said, “Thank you, sir” when the drill sergeant rapped us in the back of the head for having a dirty rifle. Night after night, without complaint, we did Chinese push-ups for our sins (Chinese push-ups are performed in a bent position in which only the head and toes touch the floor). After ten or fifteen seconds, it felt as if your skull was being crushed in a vise. We had to do them for as long as several minutes, until we were at the point of blacking out.
I don’t know about the others, but I endured these tortures because I was driven by an overwhelming desire to succeed, no matter what. That awful word—unsat—haunted me. I was more afraid of it than I was of Sergeant McClellan. Nothing he could do could be as bad as having to return home and admit to my family that I had failed. It was not their criticism I dreaded, but the emasculating affection and understanding they would be sure to show me. I could hear my mother saying, “That’s all right, son. You didn’t belong in the Marines but here with us. It’s good to have you back. Your father needs help with the lawn.” I was so terrified of being found wanting that I even avoided getting near the candidates who were borderline cases—the “marginals,” as they were known in the lexicon of that strange world. They carried the virus of weakness.
Most of the marginals eventually fell into the unsat category and were sent home. Others dropped out. Two or three had nervous breakdowns; a few more nearly died of heatstroke on forced marches and were given medical discharges.
The rest of us, about seventy percent of the original class, came through. At the end of the course, the DIs honored our survival by informing us that we had earned the right to be called Marines. We were proud of ourselves, but were not likely to forget the things we endured to claim that title. To this day, the smell of woods in the early morning reminds me of those long-ago dawns at Camp Upshur, with their shrill reveilles and screaming sergeants and dazed recruits stumbling out of bed.
Those who passed the initial trial went back to Quantico two years later for the advanced course, which was even more grueling. Much of it was familiar stuff: more close-order drill, bayonet practice, and hand-to-hand combat. But there were additional refinements. One of these was a fiendish device of physical torture called the Hill Trail, so named, with typical military unimaginativeness, because it was a trail that ran over a range of hills, seven of them. And what hills—steep as roller coasters and ten times as high. We had to run over them at least twice a week wearing full pack and equipment. Softened by the intervening two years of campus life, dozens of men collapsed on these excursions. The victims were shown no mercy by the DIs. I remember one overweight boy lying unconscious against a tree stump while a sergeant shook him by the collar and shouted into his blanched face: “On your feet, you sackashit. Off your fat ass and on your feet.”
Recreation consisted of obstacle-course races or pugil-stick fights. The pugil-stick, a thick, wooden staff, padded at each end, was supposed to instill “the spirit of bayonet”; that is, the savage fury necessary to ram cold steel into another man’s guts. Two men would square off and bash each other with these clubs, urged on by some bloodthirsty instructor. “Parry that one, now slash, SLASH! Vertical butt stroke. C’mon, kill the sonuvabitch, kill ’im. Thrust. Jab. That’s it, jab. JAB! KILL ’IM.”
Throughout, we were subjected to intense indoctrination, which seemed to borrow from Communist brainwashing techniques. We had to chant slogans while running: “Hut-two-three-four, I love the Marine Corps.” And before meals: “Sir, the United States Marines; since 1775, the most invincible fighting force in the history of man. Gung ho! Gung ho! Gung ho! Pray for war!” Like the slogans of revolutionaries, these look ludicrous in print, but when recited in unison by a hundred voices, they have a weird, hypnotic effect on a man. The psychology of the mob, of the Bund rally, takes command of his will and he finds himself shouting that nonsense even though he knows it is nonsense. In time, he begins to believe that he really does love the Marine Corps, that it is invincible, and that there is nothing improper in praying for war, the event in which the Corps periodically has justified its existence and achieved its apotheosis.
We were lectured on the codes marines are expected to live by: they never leave their casualties on the battlefield, never retreat, and never surrender so long as they have the means to resist. “And the only time a marine doesn’t have the means to resist,” one instructor told us, “is when he’s dead.” There were classes on Marine Corps history, or, I should say, mythology. We learned of Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon storming the fort of the Barbary corsairs at Tripoli, of Captain Travis seizing the fortress of Chapultepec—“the halls of Montezuma”—during the Mexican War, of the 5th and 6th Regiments’ bayonet charge at Belleau Wood, of Chesty Puller whipping the rebels in Nicaragua and the Japanese on Guadalcanal.
Around seven hundred and fifty men began the advanced course; only five hundred finished. The graduation ceremony took place on a scalding August afternoon in 1963. We stood at attention on the liquefying asphalt of the parade field on which we had spent countless hours drilling.
A squad of field grade officers began taking their places in the reviewing stand, campaign ribbons adding a splash of color to their khaki shirts. The sun glinted off their brass rank insignia and the polished instruments of the band. There was a small crowd of civilians, mostly parents who had come to watch their sons take part in this martial rite of passage. Awards were presented, the usual messages of congratulation read, and someone made a brief duty-honor-country valedictory speech. We stood patiently, sweat trickling from our noses and onto our ties, the heat wilting the creases in our shirts.
Finally, the order to pass in review rippled down the line. We marched past the stand, snapping our heads at the command “Eyes right” while the gold and scarlet guidons fluttered in the breeze and drums rolled and the band played the Marine Corps Hymn. It was glorious and grand, like an old-fashioned Fourth of July. Bugles, drums, and flags. Marching across the field in battalion mass, with that stirring, soaring hymn blaring in our ears, we felt invincible, boys of twenty-one and twenty-two, all cheerfully unaware that some of us would not grow much older.
* * *
I was commissioned on February 2, 1964, and returned to Quantico in May for Officers’ Basic School, where new second lieutenants served a six-month apprenticeship before being sent to their first commands. I was assigned to Company H, Basic Class 2-64.
Basic School was fairly pleasant compared to OCS. No more harassment from profane, sadistic drill sergeants. Now they had to call us “sir,” although, with the previous summer’s experience fresh in our minds, the sight of some old salt with three stripes and a rocker on his sleeves still caused a Pavlovian reaction of terror.
Living conditions were regal. We were housed in two-man rooms in a BOQ that was indistinguishable from a modern dormitory. Large, airy lecture rooms and a gymnasium (named in honor of an alumnus who had been killed in Korea) completed the collegelike atmosphere.
Basic School was a school in fact as well as in name, a halfway house between the campus and the real Marine Corps. Its purpose was to turn us into professional officers. Because of the Corps doctrine that every marine is a rifleman, the course emphasized infantry fundamentals—weapons-training and small-unit tactics. It was dry, technical stuff, taught in the how-to-do-it fashion of a trade school: how to take a hill by frontal assault or envelopment; how to defend it once you have taken it; how to deliver searching and traversing fire with an M-60 machine gun.
For me, the classroom work was mind-numbing. I wanted the romance of war, bayonet charges, and desperate battles against impossible odds. I wanted the sort of thing I had seen in Guadalcanal Diary and Retreat, Hell! and a score of other movies. Instead of the romance, I got the methodology of war, Clausewitz and his nine principles, lines and arrows on a map, abstract jargon, and a number of bewildering acronyms and abbreviations. To be in battle was to be “in a combat situation”; a helicopter assault was a “vertical envelopment”; an M-14 rifle a “hand-held, gas-operated, magazine-fed, semiautomatic shoulder weapon.” I had read somewhere that Stendhal learned his simple, lucid style by studying Napoleon’s battle orders. Literature should be grateful that Stendhal didn’t live in the present; the battle orders we studied were written in language that made the Rosetta Stone look like a Dick-and-Jane reader.
“Enemy sit. Aggressor forces in div strength holding MLR Hill 820 complex gc AT 940713-951716 w/fwd elements est. bn strength junction at gc AT 948715 (See Annex A, COMPHIBPAC intell. summary period ending 25 June) … Mission: BLT 1/7 seize, hold and defend obj. A gc 948715 … Execution: BLT 1/7 land LZ X-RAY AT 946710 at H-Hour 310600 … A co. GSF estab. LZ security LZ X-RAY H minus 10 … B co. advance axis BLUE H plus 5 estab. blocking pos. vic gs AT 948710 … A, C, D cos. maneuver element commence advance axis BROWN H plus 10 … Bn tacnet freq 52.9 … shackle code HAZTRCEGBD … div. tacair dir. air spt callsign PLAYBOY … Mark friendly pos w/air panels or green smoke. Mark tgt. w/WP.”
I was not the only one to find this eye-glazing. During one particularly dull lecture, a classmate named Butterfield leaned over to me. “You know,” he whispered, “the trouble with war is that there isn’t any background music.”
Our Hollywood fantasies were given some outlet in the field exercises that took up about half the training schedule. These were supposed to simulate battlefield conditions, teach us to apply classroom lessons, and develop “the spirit of aggressiveness.” The Corps prized élan in its troops. The offensive was the only tactic worthy of the name. We were taught the rudiments of defensive warfare, while retrograde movements were hardly mentioned, and only then in tones of contempt. The Army retreated, the Marines did not, although they had—at Chosin Reservoir in Korea. The essence of the offensive was the frontal assault: “Hey diddle diddle, straight up the middle.” This was the supreme moment of infantry combat; no tricky flanking or encircling movements, just a line of determined men firing short bursts from the hip as they advanced on the enemy at a stately walk.
It was easy to do in the bloodless make-believe of field problems, in which every operation went according to plan and the only danger was the remote one of falling and breaking an ankle. We took these stage-managed exercises seriously, thinking they resembled actual combat. We couldn’t know then that they bore about as much similarity to the real thing as shadowboxing does to street-fighting. Diligently we composed our five-paragraph attack orders. We huddled in pine-scented thickets, soberly playing the roles assigned to us—student platoon leader, student squad leader—and with our maps spread flat, planned the destruction of our fictitious enemy, the aggressor forces. We fought them throughout the spring and summer, enveloped them, went at them with squad rushes, and made frontal assaults against the sun-browned hills they defended, yelling battle cries as we charged through storms of blank cartridge fire.
* * *
At the time, counterinsurgency was fashionable in military circles: it had become obvious that the next war, if there was to be one, would be fought in Indochina (that August, when the Tonkin Gulf resolution was passed, we were midway through the Basic course); and combating insurgencies gave the services a special mission in the age of the New Frontier. The Peace Corps could go off to build dams in India or schools in Bolivia, but it was up to the War Corps to do the man’s work of battling Communist guerrillas, the new barbarians who menaced the far-flung interests of the new Rome. Finally, counterinsurgency was still surrounded by the Kennedy mystique, even though the young president had been dead for nearly a year. But the glamorous prince of Camelot had given the new doctrine his imprimatur by sending the first Special Forces detachments to Vietnam, glamorous figures themselves in their green berets and paratrooper boots.
The fascination was strongest among the junior officers, who were drawn by the apparent romance of fighting guerrilla bands in far-off places. Beyond that, a feeling of inadequacy came over us whenever we compared the colorful chests of combat veterans to our own, naked except for marksmanship badges. We wanted to dress up that blank khaki with Bronze and Silver Stars, and Vietnam appeared to be the most likely place where we could win them.
The senior first lieutenant who tutored us in counterguerrilla operations had served there for thirty days as a “military observer,” which did not exactly qualify him as an expert. He had been wounded, however, and although it had happened under less than heroic circumstances—he was hit in the buttocks while squatting over a latrine—the Purple Heart pinned above his left pocket gave him an air of authority.
Anyway, he sounded authoritative as he revealed to us the mysteries of counterrevolution. His lectures were full of enough jargon to dispel the illusion that guerrilla-fighting was something like Indian-fighting, a rough, seat-of-the-pants form of warfare. On the contrary, it appeared to be a highly specialized art; complex tactics with esoteric names were required to outwit the wily insurgents. We were taught how to batter them into submission with the Hammer and Anvil Movement, to make them dance to their deaths in a Minuet Ambush, to trap them in a Constricting Cordon, and to repulse their attacks with the Triangular Defense.
These strange maneuvers we practiced in the steamy bottomlands that were as close an approximation of Asian jungles as Virginia could offer. Many months later, I would remember, as a grown man remembers the games played in boyhood, how we ran around in those woods, ambushing each other and raiding imaginary guerrilla camps. In our enthusiasm, we tried to make these playact exercises as realistic as possible, even in such minor details as our dress. I have kept a photograph taken of another lieutenant and me just before we set out on a “reconnaissance mission.” It shows us wearing what we conceived of as authentic jungle-fighter uniforms: camouflage shirts, camouflage berets fashioned from helmet covers, camouflage paint smeared on our faces. I guess we were little more than overgrown kids playing soldier, but, judging from our grim expressions, we must have thought it serious business.
A few of my classmates became counterinsurgency cultists, immersing themselves in almost all of the literature published on the subject. They made a curious sight, those crew-cut, American-looking officers studying the gospels of Mao Tse-tung as devoutly as the Chairman’s disciples in Peking and Hanoi. They were obeying the old injunction “Know your enemy.” Most of those studious officers were regulars with career ambitions, and they boned up on that exotic strategy for the same reason medical students read articles on the latest trends in surgery: they thought it would make them better at their profession if and when the time came to practice it in earnest. As for me, I had no desire to be a general. Vietnam mostly interested me as a place where I might find a bit of dangerous adventure, not as a testing ground for new military theories or for my own professional talents, which were modest at best.
* * *
Whenever I think back to those days at Basic School, the recollection that first comes to mind is always the same: A double file of green-clad men, bent beneath their packs, are tramping down a dirt road. A remorseless sun is beating down. Raised by our boots, a cloud of red dust powders the trees alongside the road, making them look sickly and ashen. The dust clings to our uniforms, runs in muddy streaks down our sweating faces. There is the rattle of rifle slings and bayonet scabbards, the clattering of mess kits bouncing in our haversacks. Our heads ache from the weight of steel helmets, and the cry “Close it up, keep your interval, close it up” is echoing up and down the long column.
I do not know which was worse, the monotony or the effort—the monotony of putting one foot in front of the other hour after hour or the effort of keeping five paces distance from the man in front “so’s one round don’t get you all.” Even among the most disciplined troops, a route-column has an “accordion effect.” It stretches and contracts because of differences in stride. At first, the company moves at an easy pace; then it stops suddenly. We bunch up, bump into each other and wait, leaning far forward to ease the ache in our backs. The column begins to move again, in the jerky fashion of a train pulling out of a siding. Gaps open in the files. We run to close them up, that maddening cry in our ears. “Close it up, damnit, people, keep it closed up.” At last, a five-minute break is called. Shedding our packs, we drift off the road and slide down an embankment to lie exhausted on the cool grass. There is just enough time for a few swallows from our canteens, a few drags on a cigarette, before the dread command comes down the line. “H Company, saddle up! Off your ass and on your feet. Saddle up, move out!” We pick ourselves up, slowly, unwillingly, like convicts in a workgang, and are at it once more. One foot in front of the other. Pick ’em up and put ’em down. Sometimes I could not remember ever having done anything else. My college years receded, and it seemed as if I had spent almost all my life humping a too heavy pack beneath too hot a sun down a road that was too long. The essence of the Marine Corps experience, I decided, was pain.
But there were moments of exhilaration that compensated for the hours of marching on blistered feet. I remember one evening when we were trudging over a hilly firebreak toward a bivouac site. Coming to the top of one rise, I looked ahead at the lead platoon laboring up yet another. They were strung out along the trail like two lengths of chain, one behind the lanky figure of Major Seymour, the company CO, the other behind the bobbing, scarlet pennant carried by the guidon-bearer. When the latter reached the crest of the next hill, the flag caught a breeze, momentarily revealing a gold H, then furled again and gradually sank out of sight as he went down the slope. The column followed, shambling through a faint pall of dust that moved with it, uniforms mottled with black patches of sweat, webbed cartridge belts faded to a dull yellow from constant scrubbing, haversacks framed by blanket rolls, the stocks of slung rifles showing as brown daubs on the backs of the marines’ olive-drab utilities.
Right of the firebreak, the woods stretched unbroken to the horizon, where the sun hovered over a serrated line of trees: a giant orange balloon floating above a green sea. The air was growing cool and smelled of pine, with the drowsy stillness of a summer evening in the South. I clambered down into the saddle between the two hills, climbed again, went down again, and was gratified to see nothing but level ground ahead. About a quarter of a mile away, the trail joined the hard-surface road that led to the bivouac. It was a welcome sight, that patch of asphalt showing through the trees. Now that it knew it was on the last leg, the company began to march faster, almost jauntily. A few marines near the point started singing the verse to a marching song and the rest of the column answered with the chorus.
I gotta gal that lives on a hill …
Oh, Little Liza, Little Liza Ja-ane.
She won’t do it but her sister will …
Little Liza Jane.
Whoa-oh-oh-oh Little Liza, Little Liza Jane
Oh, Little Liza, Little Liza Jane.
I gotta gal in Lackawanna …
Oh, Little Liza, Little Liza Jane.
She knows how but she don’t wanna …
Little Liza Jane.
Whoa-oh-oh-oh Little Liza, Little Liza Jane
Oh, Little Liza, Little Liza Jane.
The song was like a cry of defiance. They had just humped through thirty miles of wilderness in intense heat with forty pounds on their backs, and they were coming in singing. Nothing could subdue them. Hearing that full-throated Whoa-oh-oh-oh Little Liza, Little Liza Jane roaring through the woods, I felt proud of that spirited company and happy that I was one of them.
* * *
Autumn brought a week in Norfolk for amphibious warfare school: seasick days on the choppy Atlantic, drunken nights on South Granby Street. Then a return to Quantico for training in house-to-house fighting and night attacks, mock battles fought in the wan and fitful glow of illumination flares. Week by week, month by month, we learned our violent craft, each lesson a step in our evolution from civilians to professional soldiers. The change would not be complete until after we had served in Vietnam, for there are facts about war which cannot be taught in training, no matter how realistic and strenuous it is. But Quantico carried the process about as far as possible off the battlefield.
Like all evolutions, ours was accompanied by mutations. The Marine Corps had made highly efficient fighting men of us, and we had begun to look it. Gone were the shaggy, somewhat overweight children who had stumbled off the buses at OCS a long time before. They had been replaced by streamlined marines, whose hardened limbs were adapted for walking great distances or for thrusting a bayonet into a man’s ribs with ease.
But the most significant changes were not the physical ones. We had become self-confident and proud, some to the point of arrogance. We had acquired the military virtues of courage, loyalty, and esprit de corps, though at the price of a diminished capacity for compassion. There were other alterations. In my own case, it was the way I looked at the world around me. A year earlier, I would have seen the rolling Virginia countryside through the eyes of an English-major who enjoyed reading the Romantic poets. Now I had the clearer, more pragmatic vision of an infantry officer. Landscape was no longer scenery to me, it was terrain, and I judged it for tactical rather than aesthetic value. Having been drilled constantly to look for cover and concealment, I could see dips and folds in a stretch of ground that would have appeared utterly flat to a civilian. If I saw a hill—“high ground”—I automatically began planning how to attack or defend it, my eyes searching for avenues of approach and fields of fire. A woodland meadow held no picturesque beauty for me. Instead, it presented a potential menace. If I came upon one, my first instincts were to figure out how to get a platoon safely across the exposed ground and how best to deploy the men: in a wedge, a combat-V, or line of skirmishers, two squads up and one back.
* * *
Not all the training dealt in lethal practicalities. In those pre-Vietnam days, the course proceeded leisurely, with plenty of time devoted to the ceremonial side of military life. We learned to put on reviews, the proper way to flourish a sword, how to behave at social functions; in brief, all that spit-and-polish nonsense which is totally divorced from the messy realities of twentieth-century warfare.
In spite of its uselessness, I cannot say that I found it unattractive. The romantic in me responded to the pageantry of a parade, to the tribal ritualism of ceremonies that marked anniversaries or comradeships formed long ago on distant battlefields. In the summer it was Mess Night, which had obscure and ancient origins in the British Army. To the roll of a solitary drum, officers in dress whites filed into the mess. Lit only by candles, it looked as dim and secretive as the dining hall in a monastery. Silver trophies from our ancestors, the Royal Marines, and other English regiments gleamed in a corner case. TO THE U.S. MARINE CORPS, read the inscription on one, FROM THE 1ST BATTALION, ROYAL WELCH FUSILEERS. PEKING 1900. Toasts were made, and wineglasses raised, lowered, raised again, like chalices at some strange Mass.
In the winter it was the Marine Corps birthday ball, which commemorated the Corps’ nativity in a Philadelphia tavern on November 10, 1775. The observance of this rite was the cause of my first offense against the Uniform Code of Military Justice. I went AWOL from the Quantico Naval Hospital, where I was recovering from mononucleosis, to attend the celebration. I thought it would be a night of beer-swilling camaraderie, something like the gatherings of Beowulf’s warriors in the mead hall, and I was determined not to spend it in the aseptic confines of the isolation ward.
Earlier that day, two classmates had smuggled my dress blues and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s into my room. After eight o’clock bedcheck, I made a dummy out of my baggy pajamas, stuffed it under the covers, put on my blues, wrapped the whiskey in a paper bag, and walked freely past the guards. A short taxi ride through the town of Quantico—a few bars, half a dozen laundromats, and twice that many uniform shops fronting the brown Potomac—brought me to Little Hall, where the party was being held.
I walked inside and into the nineteenth century. Junior officers wore white gloves and Prussian-blue, Prussian-collared tunics. Majors and colonels whom I was accustomed to seeing in functional khakis strutted around in waist-length dinner jackets with shoulder boards that advertised their rank in gold and red. A couple of generals swooped toward the bar, capes billowing behind them. Off to one side, like a row of cardinals perched on a branch, scarlet-clad bandsmen sat stiffly on a row of folding chairs. Through all this military plumage, wives and girl friends glided with a rustle of expensive gowns. “Good evenin’, majuh,” one of these creatures said in her honey-soft, flirtatious-but-chaste, Tidewater-aristocracy accent. “It’s sooo nahce to see you again, suh. It cuhtainly is a luhvly pahty.…” A full-dress ball. I could not make up my mind what it looked like—a scene from The Student Prince, a costume party, or the senior prom at a military academy.
I felt disappointment. The atmosphere was more one of a debutante cotillion than of Beowulf’s mead hall. And perhaps because there was so much brass around, including the Marine Corps commandant, General Wallace Greene, everyone behaved. The band stuck to a vapid repertoire of Broadway musical scores, and General Greene made a slightly slurred speech which drew some polite applause.
Inconsequential though the ball was, that night in November 1964 holds a special significance for me. I see the hall, crowded with officers in baroque uniforms, filled with fashionably dressed women. Some are dancing; some are filing past a buffet, spearing hors d’oeuvres with toothpicks; some, holding drinks, are engaged in light conversation; all are without forebodings of what awaits them: fear, disfigurement, sudden death, the pain of long separation, widowhood. And I feel that I am looking at a period piece, a tableau of that innocent time before Vietnam.
Copyright © 1977, 1996 by Philip Caputo
Foreword copyright © 2016 by Kevin Powers