Baby Killers

Last week I wrote a piece called "Chimps with Nukes." When I had a draft I e-mailed it to a bunch of old soldiers to see if anybody thought I had left anything important out. Only one person had a problem with the piece, and his problem was with my use of the term "dead babies."

The guy who objected to the term was Kenn Miller, author of my favorite Vietnam novel, Tiger the Lurp Dog, and also author of volume two of what is perhaps the most engrossing unit history ever written, Six Silent Men, the three-volume story of the 101st Airborne Long Range Patrol unit in Vietnam. All three authors of these books were young NCOs, and it covers the entire history of the unit from activation to deactivation. No self-serving general's memoir here, just the straight, painful, profane, fascinating truth.

I've also seen Miller's team picture from 1969. He was 19, and he looked older then than he does now, totally game-faced and grim as death.

When most guys came home from that conflict, they caught a lot of flak. "Baby killers" was a term that was bandied about a lot.

Probably the most hurt I ever was in my life was when the hardcover of my book War Story came out with a painting on the cover of a Special Forces guy holding a wounded child. Both my publisher and I had been in SF in Vietnam. (The book has been in continuous print since 1979 and has sold over 200,000 copies, but at the time no conventional publisher would touch it.) He took the hardcover on a tour of paperback reprint houses in New York. The first editor he showed it to, a young woman, just took it for granted that the illustration suggested that we had killed that child deliberately and that we were proud of it. When he told me that, it was sort of like being chopped in the gut with an axe.

I missed most of that harassment by being wounded and coming home in hospital channels. I came home to Oklahoma, a conservative state where there was a lot of anti-war sentiment, but no anti-GI sentiment.

Miller went to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, one of the most virulently anti-war campuses in the country.

None of the GIs since Vietnam have been so vilified. For one thing, there has been no KGB disinformation campaign against American forces since then. And there has been no army of millions of draft dodgers projecting their collective guilt on those who served. I doubt that soldiers against Saddam will catch that kind of flak. But some will always believe that we do such things.

I have to assume that the people who have such grim imaginings have a vision of a bunch of power-mad thugs blasting everything in their path.

The truth is that when you go in on a combat operation, you are scared to death. Nothing I've ever encountered in civilian life has scared me like that -- not skydiving, car wrecks, cancer scares, or jealous husbands with guns.

Picture a company-sized (100 to 200 men) assault into a hot LZ. There's the whop of many helicopter rotors, choppers landing and disgorging men. There are gunships in orbit around all that, firing rockets into the bush. There are the explosions of rockets all around. There's automatic-weapons fire coming from the jungle. In Iraq it would be from wadis (dry creek beds) and from behind dunes, or maybe from buildings, but you get the idea. And there's your trusty (I meant that sarcastically, but they're better now) M16, chattering its little song in your hands. Add to that the minor irritation of being sandblasted by dirt kicked up by the rotors. Under those circumstances fear becomes another thing, a live thing that takes your body for its own. The decision-making process so taken for granted in daily life is as forgotten as Ozymandias. An untrained man would simply cower and shit his pants, no matter how brave, because he wouldn't know what to do. A poorly trained man would, and many have, lie in the weeds and shoot wildly in the air. The well-trained man searches his sector for targets, takes up a good prone position, has good sight picture and sight alignment, takes a breath, lets half of it out and squeezes the trigger so slowly that when his weapon fires, he's mildly surprised. Whoever he was shooting at then either dies or starts calling for a medic.

But the well-trained man is also on autopilot. If a psychiatrist, sitting calmly behind his expensive desk, could somehow examine an infantryman in the throes of combat, the only conclusion he could reach is that the man is clinically insane.

American troops are well trained. They're trained not to commit war crimes and seldom do.

In January of 1964 my commanding officer, Crews McCulloch, a brilliant slab of Missouri cotton farmer, was "advising" a company-sized patrol of Montagnards. He and his headquarters were behind the first platoon when firing broke out ahead. It was just a few rounds. He surged forward through the ranks and met the Montagnard company commander, Nay Re, coming back toward him. "We shoot two VC," Nay Re said, "one dead, one wound."

Crews continued forward to view the enemy casualties. The dead one was a two-year-old baby boy, the wounded one was his mother. Crews had two daughters, one then a bit younger, one a bit older than the dead boy. He grasped Nay Re by the front of his shirt and jerked him a foot off the ground. "If any member of this strike force shoots another unarmed civilian I will kill him myself, on the spot. Do you understand?" Nay Re gulped and bobbed his head up and down. Then we broke a lot of rules to get a medevac chopper for the wounded mom.

But they view these things differently in Asia. Four months later Nay Re let a hard-core VC cadre we had captured escape. "Where is he?" Crews demanded.

"Oh, he run 'way."

"Why didn't you catch him?"

"He run very fast."

"Then why didn't you shoot him?"

Nay Re gave Crews a hurt look. "You say no shoot man he no have gun. This man no have gun. We take away."

The whole point of a rifle is that you can see what you're shooting at. There's no point in shooting unarmed people because they're not shooting at you. Most civilian casualties are caused by artillery and bombing, which are by definition area weapons and indiscriminate. When they're used in conjunction with infantry attacks, they're called "suppressive fires." Their function is to keep the enemy's head down so you can take his position without getting a lot of your own guys killed. When the enemy position is in an inhabited village, well...

The Rules of Engagement vary from war to war and battle to battle, but in Vietnam the rules were designed to minimize civilian casualties, very much at the expense of the GIs. When you don't use suppressive fires, the enemy has a big advantage. There is nothing but what the GI has with him to keep the defenders from killing the attackers.

I was talking to Mark Berent, a retired Air Force fighter jock and bestselling author (Rolling Thunder, Steel Tiger), bemoaning the fact that our GIs were called "baby killers" when they lost so many trying to avoid civilian casualties. "I'd say at least half the casualties on the Wall were a direct result of our efforts to avoid civilian casualties."

"I'd say all of 'em," Mark replied.

From an Air Force perspective we could have turned all of Vietnam into blasted earth and dead people and not lost a man.

If you knew all the relevant factors (which nobody ever does) beforehand, you could just about work out the casualty figures on a calculator. So the question is, "How many GIs are you going to sacrifice to avoid how many dead babies?" Is it worth losing ten GIs to avoid one dead baby? Is one for one okay? One dead GI for a hundred dead babies?

If the combat actions since Vietnam are any indication, the determining factor is television. The American public will accept any number of dead babies if they're just numbers in a newspaper. But if they're a pattern of colored dots on a cathode ray tube, then we have to back off, a lot of GIs die, and we lose the war.

I was home on terminal leave when Lt. William Calley was being tried for the My Lai massacre. I was so outraged at what he had done, at the disgrace he had brought on the U.S. Army, that I actually thought about putting on my uniform and going to Ft. Benning to blow him away. I was being retired of wounds, but I still had my .45, and I shoot pretty well left-handed.

I cleaned the weapon and sat looking at it for about four hours. I didn't do it, of course. It would have just been more of the same. Now I'm glad I didn't. I'd rather be dead than have Lt. Calley's dreams.

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