Monday, April 27, 2009

Habiiti Dawo Ga'an, Habi'do'atiil

I Didn't Choose These Ghosts, They Chose Me

One of the strange things about haunting is that one doesn't get to choose the shit that sticks.

I am nobody's hero, I'm flawed grievously. There were a few times when I performed well and was noticed. There were many other times when I fell very short of any mark or goal. Probably those times of shortfall were the bulk of experience.

The main reason I am so worked up over the failure to take a firm, and legal stand against torture is that I know very well the price to be exacted from doing nothing.

While I was in Vietnam, and later Africa, I saw instances of atrocity, murder, torture, and rape. I either did nothing at all, or when I was told it wasn't my business, I shut up, rucked up, and moved on.

Moved on I thought anyway. I knew that this post was going to take me to some very uncomfortable places so I took steps.

The first step was to buy a quart of organic strawberries from Takahashi's farm outside of Leucadia. I cleaned, hulled and sliced them. I put them into a glass bowl and sprinkled them with raw sugar that has been stored with vanilla husks, some lemon zest, some vanilla extract (actually it's some Cuban rum that has some split vanilla beans in it), a splash of Chambord, and almond extract. I covered that closely and stuck it into the fridge overnight. I figure since I don't drink or do dope anymore I better have some ice cream handy. My first sponsor in AA, Jessie Joe, used to preach the value of ice cream to newcomers. The sugar, the silky mouth feel, all work well when cravings for alcohol or other oblivions come to call. One of the tricks I picked up in recovery is that my head can be a very dangerous neighborhood, I know better than to go there alone and unarmed.

The memories that bother me when it's late at night, when I'm tired and want only to rest, aren't the scenes of combat. Force on force action not only doesn't bother me all that much, some of it was beautiful. There were some times when we found fuel cached on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Our SOP was to booby trap the hell out of it and leave somebody behind to trigger the kaboom when the trucks were there. That produced lots of bang for the buck. Rather than just blowing fuel and other supplies we were blowing up fuel, supplies, trucks, truck drivers, and infantry. At night it was beautiful to see, especially on acid. (some of my most memorable letters from California friends started out with "Eat the stamp.")

I called in an arclight on an entire valley. The place was crawling with NVA, heavy equipment, and they were all embedded deep into the civilian population. There wasn't any other choice. The civilians would have been causalities of a raid by conventional forces. The cost in human terms for us would have been horrific. Later, as I did an eyes on recon of the place after the bombing one thing struck me. Even the bugs were dead. Central Highland rainforest with no bugs. Spooky.

I killed my fair share of the enemy. Sometimes with a long rifle, sometimes up very close and personally with a knife or garrotte for the sake of silence. That's OK too, it's all part of war.

Even though it was outside the conventional parameters of warfare I applauded when we started adding mustard gas to the mix of noxious shit we pumped down the tunnels. I was glad to see the canisters of tear gas because that meant I didn't have to take a pistol, a sawed off shotgun and a knife in my teeth to crawl down into those fucking tunnels anymore. Since I was almost always the smallest guy on the team, even without being the guy who spoke the language, I was always the first one picked to go down there. I hated those fucking tunnels. Thing was, when only CS was pumped the VC and NVA came up out of the ground all over the fucking place and they were very pissed off. When mustard gas was added along with the CS, even though by the letter of the law it was a war crime and the use of a forbidden weapon, I didn't mind a fucking bit back then, and I don't give a Hong Kong Hoot today.

I remain fairly at peace with the things that I did. I was a soldier, it was war, and I tried mightily to adhere to a code of conduct. I could be ruthless, violent, even brutal in response to the situations as they happened. I tried to not be cruel.

The things that I didn't do, aye, there's the fucking rub ya'll.

Once the strawberries had macerated I mooshed them good with a hand potato masher. I scalded a couple cups of heavy cream, a couple good glugs of 1/2&1/2, while I beat six eggs until they were a nice lemon yellow. I tempered the hot cream into the eggs with the stand mixer on its lowest stir setting. Then I added the strawberry moosh. It all went into the canister of my ice cream freezer, I topped it off with more cream and 1/2&1/2 to reach the full line. Then back into the fridge for a few hours.

After the siege of Dong Ap Bai was lifted I was out with other survivors walking the killing zone that surrounded us. I gathered bodies of friends, along with the bodies of men I didn't know. The smell of burning, and the stench of gut woundings, along with the rot that starts quickly in the southern tropics was vile. I shut down my feelings, I tried to turn off my soul too. There was a job to be done. Our guys were tagged and bagged so that reports could be written and filed, our final goodbyes were said at the heliport. We treated our own with honor and respect. The enemy dead were tossed into piles, after they were counted of course, the REMF's got hard ons from high body counts, the piles were doused with diesel or JP5 and lit. Even the hardest fight is no excuse for an unnecessary outbreak of disease. There were times when the enemy we found wasn't all the way dead. They died on the way to the piles. Most of them anyway. More than one pile had screams coming from it when the fires were lit. Weak screams. Pitiful screams. I never complained about them. I never reported them. There are nights after all these years when I hear those weak, pitiful screams. The hurtful part of that is that I did nothing about it. I saw it. I knew it was wrong. I did nothing.

When the ice cream base had cooled off I put the canister into the freezer pail. I layered it with ice and rock salt. Not a lot of rock salt to start off. I want the freeze to start slowly.

During the fight to take back the Citadel at Hue, I saw instances of torture. It was being done by the ARVN forces as a matter of course. They did it because they were fucking furious and the CIA spooks and other "advisors" were standing there doing nothing. When I complained I was told to shut the fuck up. I shut the fuck up. At Hue I also saw my first instances of women, or even very young girls, being raped by U.S. personnel. Again, I did nothing.

Again, those instances are what has stayed with me.

In Quang Ngai we were sent in after a seven month rampage by members of an army unit. For seven months they had been killing everything that moved. Livestock, dogs, cats, children, old men and women, everything that moved. The region had been declared a "free fire" zone, and those lads fired very fucking freely. The entire place was psychotic. We came across little villages, or even small clusters of four and five huts, where the survivors had all been kneecapped, or tongues cut out. More than a few of them were missing ears and fingers. The few folks who survived in that region hated everybody. They hated us for sure, but they also hated the VC and the NVA. Those guys got the blame for bringing the damdam down on them.

We didn't catalogue the record of atrocity. We simply reported that the area was no longer a haven for the enemy. It wasn't a haven for anybody. At one time it had been one of the most productive rice and fruit farming regions of South East Asia. Now it was a fucking wasteland populated by bitter cripples. Freedom. On the fucking march. Too bad we didn't have any Lee Greenwood or Toby Kieth songs to play for them. We had to make due with singing "The Ballad of the Green Berets."

When I heard the pitch of the motor on the ice cream maker change, about 45 minutes into the freeze process, the ice cream base was very thick now, I started to really load on the rock salt as I kept the ice topped off. The total freezing process took about an hour and a half. I transferred the ice cream to another container, I spooned gobs of ice cream off the dasher down my throat until it went past numb and into sharp ache. I put the rest of the ice cream into the freezer to set.

The ice cream is glorious. By itself though, it wasn't enough to take the bitter taste out of my mouth. I know it will ease a bit with time. I also know it will always come back.

It's easy to tell yourself that "it's not my job or my business," or, "It's more important to move forward, this isn't the time for looking back."

I always have to look back. Too much of what I see I don't like. We cannot afford to make our national memory like mine.

Investigate the crimes. Bring the criminals to account. Give them the fair treatment and trial that they denied to so many. If convicted give them a just punishment under the law. Then give them a decent incarceration. Fuck dude, go fucking nuts and pardon some of the bastards. I won't care. Pardon means that they have been made to accept that they broke the law and did wrong.

The price of doing nothing is too fucking high.