I was a Marine, in lots of ways I still am. I was never taught or trained to kill the innocent. Granted, my training was way back in '67, during the Vietnam era, but it was based on the English regimental model from the 1800's. Instant obedience to orders and so forth, but also belief that officers would never issue immoral orders. This did not reflect the situtation I found in Vietnam. True, part of military training is to dehumanise the enemy. They aren't people like you, they are sub-human, "gooks" in effect. The great delusion was that armies fought other armies for military objectives. Nothing could be further from the truth, and WW One not only proves that but changed the way military and political higher-ups thought.
So I'm in Vietnam, on a night patrol through a hill village. The locals know that there is a curfew beginning at sunset. Anyone outside of their hootch after sunset will be shot, no questions asked. A free fire zone, it's called. But there, just beside her little hut is a six year old little girl, naked and peeing. I react by leveling my M-16, but I don't pull the trigger. She stands up, sees me and smiles. She gestures 'Wait a minute' with her hands, then ducks inside her door. I move a few feet closer to the hootch and switch my weapon from semi to full automatic. Nothing happens, 20 seconds, fifty seconds.
Then there she is, still naked but now she's got a grenade in her hands. I don't see a pin or a spoon. She's bringing this to me as if it's a gift. There's a small bit of smoke, telling me its fuse is burning. The kill radius is five yards, and we are no more ten apart, and she's walking towards me.
What do I do?
Do I shoot her and save my life? She is dead, anyway, when the grenade goes off, torn to pieces by whoever gave her the thing. But for me to put a bullet between those smiling eyes and in effect blow her head off, goes against everything I stand for. There's no time to think about it, you have to decide right now, two seconds from now is too late.
What would you do?
No, nobody can answer this until they face it, but it is the soldier's delemma. I gave her an instant death, two seconds later the grenade blew up and I ate some steel. Her blood still haunts me.
You loose a little bit of yourself, and I should have been sent to the nut house by the end of my tour. Yeah, somebody in that house gave her the grenade, somebody else pulled the pin, because it's not an easy thing to do even for a grown man. The Communists had no regard for human life. To them she was no more than a way to strike at us, and everybody in the bush wanted to kill us. It's the same now, no doubt, and it was so from the very beginning.
At dawn we made camp at an old LZ. Two minutes after I left the CO and the Radio Operator on my tour of the rest of the platoon, the RO took a bullet in the heart. He died very quickly. The CO stood up and started to turn toward the report. His bullet was in the neck, and he died there, too. I crawled back to the radio and called for air support. It turned into a minor engagement. We lost two more guys, but they were only wounded, not killed. By noon we were extracted and back at a fire base, eating lunch. Insane.
We all made our decisions, and those who refused the draft followed their consciences. I chose to serve. I expected to die for that decision, but I could never have faced myself otherwise.
* This is a true story. Will has agreed to let us include his account here, for which I thank him. Ed