“I’m going to get those bastards,” I said aloud, rushing down into the bunker. Jones looked at me quizzically. “The VC, Jones, I’m going to get them.” I was laughing. From my map case, I took out an overlay of the patrol route which 2d squad was to follow that night. It took them to a trail junction just outside the village of Giao-Tri. It was perfect. If the two VC walked out of the village, they would fall into the ambush. I almost laughed out loud at the idea of their deaths. If the VC did not leave the village, then the squad would infiltrate into it, Crowe guiding them to the house Le Dung had pointed out, and capture them – “snatch” in the argot. Yes, that’s what I would do. A snatch patrol. The squad would capture the two VCs and bring them to the outpost. I would interrogate them, beat the hell out of them if I had to, learn the locations of other enemy cells and units, then kill or capture those. I would get all of them. But suppose the two guerrillas resisted? The patrol would kill them, then. Kill VC. That’s what we were supposed to do. Bodies. Neal wanted bodies. Well, I would give him bodies, and then my platoon would be rewarded instead of reproved. I did not have the authority to send the squad into the village. The patrol order called only for an ambush at the trail junction. But who was the real authority out on that isolated outpost? I was. I would take matters into my own hands. Out there, I could do what I damned well pleased. And I would. The idea of taking independent action made me giddier still. I went out to brief the patrol.
In the twilight, Allen, Crowe, Lonehill, and two other riflemen huddled around me. Wearing bush hats, their hands and faces blackened with shoe polish, they looked appropriately ferocious. I told them what they were to do, but, in my addled state of mind, I was almost incoherent at times. I laughed frequently and made several bloodthirsty jokes that probably left them with the impression I wouldn’t mind if they summarily executed both Viet Cong. All the time, I had that feeling of watching myself in a film. I could hear myself laughing, but it did not sound like my laugh.
“Okay, you know what to do,” I said to Allen, the patrol leader. “You set in ambush for a while. If nobody comes by, you go into the ville and you get them. You get those goddamned VC. Snatch ‘em up and bring ‘em back here, but if they give you any problems, kill ‘em.”
“Sir, since we ain’t supposed to be in the ville, what do we say if we have to kill ‘em?”
“We’ll just say they walked into your ambush. Don’t sweat that. All the higher-ups want is bodies.”
“Yes, sir,” Allen said, and I saw the look in his eyes. It was a look of distilled hatred and anger, and when he grinned his skull-like grin, I knew he was going to kill those men on the slightest pretext. And, knowing that, I still did not repeat my order that the VC were to be captured if at all possible. It was my secret and savage desire that the two men die. In my heart, I hoped Allen would find some excuse for killing them, and Allen had read my heart. He smiled and I smiled back, and we both knew in that moment what was going to happen. There was a silent communication between us, an unspoken understanding: blood was to be shed. There is no mystery about such unspoken communication. Two men who have shared the hardships and dangers of war come to know each other as intimately as two natural brothers who have lived together for years; one can read the other’s heart without a word being said.
The patrol left, creeping off the outpost into the swallowing darkness. Not long afterward, I began to be teased by doubts. It was the other half of my double self, the calm and lucid half, warning that something awful was going to happen. The thought of recalling the patrol crossed my mind, but I could not bring myself to do it. I felt driven, in the grip of an inexorable power. Something had to be done.
And something was done. Allen called on the radio and said they had killed one of the Viet Cong and captured the other. They were coming in with the prisoner. Letting out a whoop, I called Neal on the field phone. He said he had monitored Allen’s radio transmission. He congratulated us:
“That’s good work your men did out there.”
I was elated. Climbing out of the bunker, I excitedly told Coffell “They got both of ‘em! Both of ‘em! Yeeeah-hoo!” The night was hot and still. Off to the west, heat-lightning flashed like shellfire in the clouds that obscured the sky above the mountains. It was clear directly overhead, and I could see the fixed and lofty stars.
Waiting by the perimeter for the patrol to return, I heard a burst of rifle fire and the distinctive roar of Crowe’s shotgun. Allen called on the radio again: the prisoner had whipped a branch in Crowe’s face and tried to escape. They had killed him.
“All right, bring the body in. I want to search it,” I said.
They came in shortly. The five men were winded from their swift withdrawal and a little more excited than such veterans should have been. Allen was particularly overwrought. He started laughing as soon as he was inside the perimeter wire. Perhaps it was the release from tension that made him laugh like that, tinny, mirthlessly. When he calmed down, he told me what had happened:
“We sneaked into the ville, like you told us, sir. Crowe guided us to the house where he’d talked to the informant. It was empty, so we went to the hooch where the VC lived. Me, Crowe, and Lonehill went inside. The other two stayed on the trail to guard our rear. It was dark in the house, so Crowe turned on his flashlight and there’s the two Cong, sleepin’ in their beds. Lonehill goes into the other room and this girl in there starts screamin’. ‘Shut her up,’ I said and Lonehill cracks her with his rifle barrel.” Allen started to laugh again. So did Crowe and a few of the men who were listening. I was laughing, too. How funny. Old Lonehill hit her with his rifle. “So about then, one of the Cong jumps up in his bed and the broad starts screamin’ again. Crowe went in and slapped her and told her to keep her damned mouth shut. Then he comes back into the room and pops the Cong sittin’ up with his forty-five. The dude jumps up and runs – he was hit in the shoulder – and Crowe runs after him. He was runnin’ around outside yellin’ ‘Troi Oi! Troi Oi!’” (Oh God) “ and then Crowe greased him and he didn’t do no more yellin’. The other dude made a break for the door, but Lonehill grabbed him. ‘Okay, let’s take him back,’ I said, and we moved the hell out. We was right at the base of the hill when the gook whipped the branch in Crowe’s face. Somebody said, ‘He’s makin’ a break, grease the motherfucker,’ and Lonehill greased him and Crowe blasted him with the shotgun. I mean, that dude was dead.” Madly and hysterically, we all laughed again.
“Okay,” I said, “where’s the body?”
“Right outside the wire, sir.”
The dead man was lying on his belly. The back of his head was blown out, and, in the beam of my flashlight, his brains were a shiny gray mass. Someone kicked the body over onto its back and said, “Oh, excuse me, Mr. Charles, I hope that didn’t hurt,” and we all doubled over with laughter. I beamed the flashlight on the corpse’s face. His eyes were wide and glowing, like the eyes in a stuffed head. While Coffell held the flashlight, I searched the body. There was something about the dead man that troubled me. It was not the mutilation – I was used to that. It was his face. It was such a young face, and, while I searched him, I kept thinking, He’s just a boy, just a boy. I could not understand why his youth bothered me; the VC’s soldiers, like our own, were all young men.
Tearing off his bloodstained shirt, shredded, like his chest by shotgun pellets. I looked for his papers. Someone quipped, “Hey, lieutenant, he’ll catch cold.” Everyone laughed again. I joined in, but I was not laughing as hard as before.
There were no documents in the boy’s pockets, no cartridge belt around his waist. There was nothing that would have proved him to be a Viet Cong. That troubled me further. I stood up and, taking the flashlight from Coffell, held it on the boy’s dead face.
“Did you find anything on the other one?” I asked Allen.
“No documents or weapons?”
“No, sir. Nothing.”
“How about the house? Did you find anything that looked like booby-trap gear in the house?”
“And no forged papers or anything like that?”
“No, sir. We didn’t find nothing.”
The laughter had stopped. I turned to Crowe.
“Are you sure this was one of the two that kid pointed out?”
“Yes, sir,” Crowe said, but he looked away from me.
“Tell me again why you shot him.”
“Whipped a branch in my face, like Allen said.” Crowe would not look at me. He looked at the ground. “He whipped a branch in my face and tried to make a break, so we wasted him.”
The air seemed charged with guilt. I kept looking at the corpse, and a wave of horror rolled through me as I recognized the face. The sensation was like snapping out of a hypnotic trance. It was as jarring as suddenly awakening from a nightmare, except that I had awakened from one nightmare into another.
“Allen, is that how it happened?” I asked. “The prisoner tried to escape, right?”
“As far as I know, yes sir. Crowe shot him.”
He was already covering himself. “Okay, if anyone asks you about this, you just say both these guys walked into your ambush. That’s what you’ll say, and you stick to that, all of you. They walked into your ambush and you killed one and captured the other. Then the prisoner tried to escape, so you killed him, too. Got that? You don’t tell anybody that you snatched him out of the village.”
“Yes, sir,” Allen said.
“Shove off and pass that on to the others. You too, Crowe.”
“Yes, sir,” Crowe said, hanging his head like a naughty child.
They walked off. I stayed for a while, looking at the corpse. The wide, glowing, glassy eyes stared at me in accusation. The dead boy’s open mouth screamed silently his innocence and our guilt. In the darkness and confusion, out of fear, exhaustion, and the brutal instincts acquired in the war, the marines had made a mistake. An awful mistake. They had killed the wrong man. No, not they; we. We had killed the wrong man. The boy’s innocent blood was on my hands as much as it was on theirs. I had sent them out there. My God, what have we done? I thought. I could think of nothing else. My God, what have we done. Please God, forgive us. What have we done?
Clicking off the flashlight, I told Coffell to get a burial party together. I did not know what else to do with the body of Crowe’s informant, the boy named Le Dung.