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A dream of war
In 1962, the author, a young American Army officer, served as a military advisor in a small civil conflict in Southeast Asia
A 23-year-old first lieutenant in the U.S. Army, and just out of special training at Fort Bragg and six weeks of language school, I was an unwanted burden for Captain Beng, the Vietnamese officer to whom I was assigned as an advisor near Can Tho, in the Mekong Delta, in September 1962.
Beng, 45, had been in the military since he was 20. He had fought the Japanese, French, Vietminh, and now the Vietcong. Trim and five-foot-four, he spoke no English, had never been outside of Vietnam, strutted when he walked, and stood a little wide at the knees. Though he had decades of military experience and sole command of a 500-man Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) battalion, he was expected to listen to the suggestions I made in simple Vietnamese and to consult with me before and during operations. I was a volunteer from another country’s army, and barring wounding or death, I knew to the day when I would be going home for good. My authority lay in my ability to call in U.S. air strikes and medical helicopters and to talk to my superiors and, through them, his superiors.
Recognizing his uncomfortable position, I tried to put my advice in the form of questions. “Why don’t we have flankers out to protect us from ambush? Why don’t you put the point 50 yards out instead of at the head of the line of march? Why don’t you put listening posts around the camp at night? Should you inspect the equipment? The outhouse is full; should it be moved?”
Captain Beng would listen with his eyes fixed on a place beyond my left shoulder. When I was finished, he would smile, nod, mumble, and walk away.
In addition to putting up with my questions, Beng had to house and feed me and provide me with a jeep, driver, and bodyguard. The bodyguard, Plum, was a Montagnard, a member of one of the aboriginal tribes of Vietnam who were a small minority in the country. The Vietnamese often referred to Montagnards as moi, meaning savage.
Plum was 33 and had been in the army since he was 16. Sometimes he was behind me, sometimes in front, but always close. His loyalty was a product of culture, training, and self-preservation. He would be treated badly if I were hurt. Plum carried a Thompson .45-caliber submachine gun, which weighed nearly 10 pounds. He also carried three 20-round ammunition magazines. He was always whispering to me to be cautious: “Lieutenant, stop, don’t go, don’t go.” He became excited during shoot-ups, and after firefights he would run up to the dead Vietcong and shoot the bodies. Perhaps he thought this was prudent, or maybe it was a way in which he showed that he was protecting me. Or maybe it was a custom of his tribe. The Vietnamese soldiers laughed.
Pham, my driver, was Vietnamese. It annoyed him that I drove the jeep, made him sit in the back, and had Plum—a moi—sitting up front with me. But I wanted the shooter up front. I was also assigned a translator when I arrived at Beng’s battalion. He spoke Vietnamese and French but not English. I asked for him to be reassigned. There was no replacement.
In late 1962, the ARVN was conducting battalion-size operations in the Mekong Delta with the aim of locating and killing Vietcong. Generally, these operations were characterized by poor planning, slow execution, and compromised intelligence.
Returning to the battalion from regional headquarters, Captain Beng would assemble his officers around a table on which he’d laid out the operational map and then deliver the orders in staccato bursts, jabbing with his finger, pointing at canals, roads, and other locations, which I assumed were assembly points, objectives, and pickup points. A typical briefing was over in 20 minutes, and usually the battalion was on the move within an hour. I followed what was said as best I could, but most often I learned only my code name, the radio frequency for communications, the name of the city nearest to where the operation was to take place, and how we were to get to the point of departure. Setting out on these missions, I was never once sure that I understood the battalion’s objective.
Operations consisted of hikes down jungle paths, across canals and rice paddies, and through villages. These hikes were interrupted by enemy fire, booby traps, foraging for ducks and chickens, and long, unexplained delays. The ducks and chickens were placed in backpacks, their heads free, the squawking adding to the carnival atmosphere of an ARVN battalion on the move.
On most days we made no Vietcong contact; on some days we were struck by sniper fire. Sometimes the villages we’d been sent to search were deserted when we entered them. Sometimes villagers would tell us that the Vietcong had left an hour earlier because they had known we were coming. The Vietcong weren’t the only ones who knew. While our route and objective were supposed to be secret, the soldiers’ women would meet us along the line of march if we were in the field more than a few days. Joyous and affectionate reunions would ensue.
So as to allow the battalion to cover the day’s required distance and also take the midday siesta, Beng often moved the battalion in a single line. Imagine 400 soldiers walking one behind the other over paddy dikes and canal bridges and it is not hard to understand why we encountered few Vietcong to the front and only the occasional sniper fire from the flanks.
It is possible that we seldom encountered the enemy because the South Vietnamese government and the ARVN were full of spies. It is also possible that the ARVN deliberately planned operations for areas where there were no Vietcong. Or perhaps some ARVN soldiers compromised intelligence deliberately so the Vietcong would leave the operations area before we got there. American advisors believed all of these things. We joked that the words “search and avoid” were a better description of the operations than the commonly used “search and destroy.”
When the battalion was on operations, a farmer in a field who ran from us would be shot, and the battalion score for dead Vietcong would increase by one. Farmers who stayed were either harshly questioned by the soldiers or sent to the province chief for interrogation, or both.
Defiance and apprehension were evident in the eyes of the peasants when we entered their villages. They remembered the outcome of prior searches. They were fearful and spoke only when spoken to. Eventually someone would ask about the tall Westerner. The questions were always similar: “Is he a Frenchman? Is he in charge? Why is he here?” They were surprised to learn that I was an American. Even when told that I spoke Vietnamese, they never spoke to me directly, but through the soldiers.
On the morning of February 8, 1963, we were ambushed. Three truckloads of battalion soldiers were traveling in convoy from Bac Lieu to Soc Trang, and the Vietcong detonated a claymore mine under one of the trucks.
The truck, which had been carrying 20 soldiers, fell on its side into a canal. My jeep was immediately in front of the truck, and I helped organize the defense and got the soldiers to return fire on the Vietcong, who, Plum showed me, had set up along a nearby tree line. On taking cover, the ARVN soldiers raised their rifles over their heads and fired, without aiming, in the general direction of the Vietcong.
I went into the canal and began to pull the wounded to the bank, from where they were hauled onto the road by their buddies. Bullets continued to strike the truck as we worked. Eventually the Vietcong broke contact, but not before destroying another truck and wounding more soldiers.
The wounded were transported to a nearby airfield to await an American cargo plane that would fly us to Saigon. One of the soldiers wounded by the claymore was nude—his clothes had been blown away in the explosion—and he had numerous gaping wounds that we did not bandage because it was clear he was going to die. We carried him onto the plane in a dark-green plastic poncho and laid him on the floor. The plane had no seats. I sat with the wounded soldiers on the floor, leaning against the plane’s bare, uninsulated walls. After a few minutes in the air, I looked up and saw that the other soldiers were staring at the soldier on the poncho. They were staring because he had an erection. Minutes later he died.
When the plane landed, an American major, seeing my blood-soaked uniform, insisted that I get into an ambulance. I refused. He let me go when I undressed on the airfield so he could see that I was not wounded. I took a taxi into Saigon, stopping along the way to buy slacks and a shirt. I went out that night to sample Saigon’s treats. The hotel had my uniform cleaned and pressed for the next morning. I returned to my battalion a day later.
After this incident, when I traveled in a convoy I made it a point to drive my jeep in front of a truck full of soldiers, a more rewarding target for Vietcong mines.
One of my jobs was to direct American pilots on bombing runs in support of our operations. This was no easy matter amidst rifle fire and the confusion of battle. Moreover my radio antenna itself drew fire as I ran and stumbled forward, looking for cover from which I could still see the target.
After gaining a protected view, I needed to agree with the pilot on a reference point, so the bomb could be placed accurately. Sometimes a smoke grenade would serve the purpose. Other times, the pilot and I would talk back and forth until we agreed on a land feature. But our perspectives were not the same, and distinctions among rice paddies, canals, and tree lines were difficult to make from a moving airplane hundreds of feet in the air. Static made matters more difficult, as did the advice often shouted at me by Beng and passing soldiers. Pilots and I made mistakes. Bombs did not always land on, or even near, the target. But every impact was followed by cheers from the ARVN.
Once, only the fact that I forgot my code name kept me from calling in a bombing raid on 30 or so men in a distant rice paddy who turned out to be allied troops from the district’s civil guard. At times the bombs I directed to a target killed or wounded civilians. When the noise of combat stopped, I could hear cries of pain and grief.
Captain Beng’s wife and children lived in Saigon. His mistress lived with him wherever the battalion was located. A woman of indeterminate age, she was fond of makeup, high heels, and brightly colored clothes—in the field, no less. One afternoon a message arrived by ARVN radio that the captain’s wife was nearby, coming with their two young children for a visit. The mistress made a noisy, theatrical departure from the captain’s quarters with her belongings under her arms. Beng’s bodyguard, in full voice, supervised her move. The wife returned to Saigon after two days and the mistress returned to camp immediately. That night there was a commotion at the captain’s quarters. He had been stabbed in the stomach by his mistress because he had given her radio to his wife. I called in a helicopter to take him to Saigon. Captain Beng returned six weeks later, but without his mistress. She was in jail. His only comment to me about the incident was that his mistress was more dangerous than the Vietcong, Vietminh, Japanese, and French combined, because none of them had ever wounded him.
The battalion conducted operations on the delta waterways at night. These were dangerous missions. Something always went wrong: unclear orders, lost boats, broken landing ramps, broken engines, bridge or boat collisions, groundings, and men overboard. Even if we made no Vietcong contact, soldiers would be injured or drowned.
The canals, rivers, and tributaries were ominous and silent as we passed through. Overhanging tree limbs on both sides restricted navigability, and the boats—U.S. World War II landing craft—crashed into banks, gunned engines, backed up, and sloughed around, while men yelled into a night that stank of engine exhaust.
It generally took two or three hours to reach our landing site, where we would rake the banks with cannon fire before lowering the ramps. The troops would then charge up the muddy, slippery bank and conduct a sweep for Vietcong.
Assuming we had landed in the right place, we still had to orient ourselves by shining flashlights on maps. Sometimes the maps were wrong. More often we just did not know where we had landed. The result in either case was that we could not locate our objective. The village we were sent to search could not be found.
Late one night, as we motored down a canal in an old French-built cargo boat commandeered for our transport, we happened upon three sampans. We fired on them after they refused to stop, and killed two Vietcong, wounded two, and took two uninjured prisoners. Rifles and ammunition were found on the sampans. I was proud of my people; they had done everything right. What I next watched unfold, however, was not right. Captain Beng, in an effort to get the prisoners to give him intelligence, had the two uninjured men blindfolded, stripped, and lowered by their arms through an open hatch onto the engine pistons. First one man was lowered, then the other. They raised their legs, but could only raise their legs so far. Then screams. They were raised from the hatch, their feet torn and bloody in the light. In the end, they both gave information, but I never learned whether it was of any value or what Captain Beng did with it. The men were not killed. We bandaged their feet.
The ARVN soldiers often tortured and killed prisoners. The first time I witnessed it, I did not interfere. All my education and training failed me. My intervention on other occasions did not prevent the torture and killing, but only delayed it.
Vietcong also tortured and murdered. Several months before I arrived, I was told, the Vietcong had captured three battalion wives who had gone to gather firewood. The following morning rafts carrying their mutilated bodies floated down the canal into the camp. Captain Beng repeated this story to me every time I complained about prisoners being tortured.
Although the Mekong Delta is flat, occasionally one sees a limestone extrusion several hundred feet tall. One morning, Captain Beng took me to see a shrine carved inside one of these mountains. He told me that the monk who cared for the shrine was crazy.
The shrine consisted of three rooms, one on top of the other, connected by steps and tunnels, all chiseled out of the limestone. The rooms and stairs were lit by candles.
The monk was an elderly, bald man with a white beard. As we entered the first room, he pointed at a wall and said he had killed and buried two Japanese soldiers near that spot during the Japanese War. I wondered whether this was supposed to be a warning and prediction for me. The second room was furnished with an altar and a large Buddha. The monk said that the third and last room was the most important shrine of all. When we entered it, he prostrated himself and prayed before an altar on which stood an empty beer can. The monk rose to explain that the can was holy because it came to earth on a rocket ship.
For some operations, helicopters ferried soldiers to landing zones. Each chopper carried 10 to 12 soldiers, and three or four choppers would land at the same time so as to disperse possible Vietcong fire. Bullets made a wrenching, screeching sound as they gored a chopper’s metal skin. Choppers that had recently been in hot landing zones could be identified by pieces of masking tape that kept out the rain.
Everyone on a chopper was afraid, and particularly fearful of the bullet from the rice paddy, canal, or verdant jungle below. Soldiers perched on their helmets, and pilots sat on metal plates. The noise of the engine was earsplitting. Engine fumes filled the cabin. Sudden plunges, rises, and banks made the craft slope wildly, and the door was always wide open. In these choppers, I learned that fear has a dry, metallic taste.
Fearful or not, I was expected to inspect equipment, encourage the soldiers, and show general bravado while on these flights. I learned to walk on a puke-covered floor, knees bent, hands grasping convenient metal or flesh. I walked in front of the seated soldiers, pretending to inspect their equipment, shouting giet cong—kill the communists—and other things. Because of the noise, none of them could hear anything I said. Some nodded, acknowledging my effort. Others were wide-eyed, staring vacantly; they were literally terror struck.
One day, we were operating in an area known to be sympathetic to the Vietcong. The battalion came under sniper fire during the day, and three soldiers were wounded by booby traps. It was the middle of the afternoon, and we were walking through an abandoned village—the third we’d come upon that day. We passed tethered water buffalo and wandering chickens and pigs. Indoor charcoal cooking fires were still hot. We were tense and alert. A clanging noise came from a thatch house off the path to the right. One soldier fired, then six or seven of us fired.
Inside the thatch house a young woman and a tiny newborn were dead on the dirt floor. We had killed them. Maybe she had knocked something over that made the noise. Probably she was unable to leave with the rest of the villagers because she had just given birth. We continued the operation, but not before Captain Beng’s bodyguard “found” Vietcong documents in the house. In a frenzy, the soldiers torched the village and shot the animals.
Late one morning, a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel arrived by chopper and asked to go on an operation. I told him that none was scheduled that day. He insisted. I spoke to Captain Beng, who repeated that none was scheduled but that he would check with his regimental commander. At six p.m., after the lieutenant colonel’s request had, I’m sure, gone up the Vietnamese chain of command to Saigon and probably crossed over to the U.S. side and back, Captain Beng announced that there would be an operation that night.
The lieutenant colonel had brought with him an automatic shotgun of which he was proud. During the operation we received fire and took cover in the muck behind a paddy dike, from where we returned fire. The lieutenant colonel discharged his shotgun in the direction of the Vietcong, and the extraordinary barrel flash lit up our position. I could feel the dike trembling as bullets struck it. The ARVN soldiers moved away from the lieutenant colonel. We were in the field most of the night and took casualties.
On December 24, 1962, as we were concluding an operation somewhere in the delta, Captain Beng asked if I wanted to go to Christmas Eve Mass. “Yes,” I said. He arranged for me and a dozen soldiers to take sampans down a nearby canal to a road that crossed the canal. A truck was waiting there. We rode for half an hour and then walked in the dark for 15 minutes.
Mass had just begun when we arrived. The soldiers surrounded the small bamboo and thatch church, and I went in. The church was illuminated by candle lanterns made of rice paper that hung from the bamboo rafters, and about 30 people were seated on a dirt floor.
When the priest at the altar saw me, he asked in French, “Why are you here?” When I said in Vietnamese that I did not understand French but wanted to hear Mass, he sent a man to find a chair. The chair was placed at the front of the congregation. At the priest’s insistence, I sat in the chair, my rifle on my knees. He asked me in front of the seated peasants if I wanted to confess my sins. I answered yes, but I did not know the words; my Vietnamese was not good enough. What vexed my conscience? he asked. What didn’t? I thought. He asked if I was sorry for my sins, and I said yes. Without further conversation, the priest gave me absolution.
I was able to follow the Mass because it was in Latin, but not the sermon, which contained many Vietnamese words I had never heard before. During the sermon, one of the lanterns caught fire. A man appeared and placed a ladder against the bamboo rafters. He climbed up and extinguished the fire, and the Mass continued.
The battalion was on the final day of a three-day operation near Long Xuyen. Booby traps, falls, and heat stroke had taken their toll, but except for occasional sniper fire, there had been no enemy contact. Three days of searing sun, choking dust, and thirst had sapped the soldiers’ stamina. We walked quietly, stooped and with heads down, carrying heavy loads through jungle and rice paddies.
Captain Beng and I were with the headquarters company in the rear. Near noon, the point stumbled upon armed men cooking rice in a clearing. Both groups were surprised. Following a scramble for cover and a chaotic exchange of gunfire, the enemy fled. One man was captured. He had a face wound, not serious but bloody. He could walk. A Vietcong was dead and three ARVN were severely wounded.
An “aspirant”—an ARVN soldier who aspired to be promoted to second lieutenant—was in charge of the point squad. My battalion had seven such men, each of whom took turns walking with the point, where casualties were likeliest. The point was where they were expected to prove themselves worthy of promotion. There were plenty of replacement aspirants.
When we arrived at the scene, the young aspirant was shouting and waving his pistol in the captive’s face. Captain Beng shouted, “The province chief wants the prisoner. Don’t shoot him.” The prisoner was to be interrogated at province headquarters and imprisoned unless he invoked Chieu Hoi—or “Open Arms.” Encouraging prisoners to embrace Chieu Hoi was government policy. If the prisoner was contrite and agreed to fight against his former comrades, he would not be jailed. Otherwise, confinement for years under dreadful conditions awaited him.
We walked through the lead ARVN company toward a nearby field where helicopters would evacuate the casualties and the prisoner. The prisoner was one step in front of me on the trail, where I could protect him. His elbows and wrists were bound behind him.
A deafening blast stunned me. Something spattered my face and arms as I stumbled. Regaining my balance, I turned, weapon at the ready. Soldiers, some grinning, were bunched up on the trail behind me. Standing among them, the aspirant held a .45-caliber pistol. He had shot the prisoner by reaching around my right shoulder. The head had exploded, and what struck me was blood, flesh, and brain. Beng disarmed the aspirant, who was then sent under guard to division headquarters.
Days later I reported the execution to my superior. He said he would take it up with the division commander and the province chief. “We are only advisors,” he said. Later Beng told me that the aspirant was forgiven—he was young and had killed the prisoner after a battle in which three of his men were gravely wounded. The aspirant never returned to the battalion but was sent for retraining and reassignment. Beng assured me that the aspirant would never be promoted. He must have imagined that I would find that comforting.
I was with the battalion for eight months, the only American with them for most of that time. I slept where they slept, ate where they ate, drank the water, used the privy.
I suffered constantly from stomach cramps, diarrhea, and fevers. In April 1963 helicopters landed at a cement plant the battalion was guarding. They brought two U.S. colonels. When Captain Beng, who had apparently called them in, brought them to my dark hut, they found me on my cot under the mosquito net, too weak to get up. I was wearing the black cotton shorts favored by Vietnamese peasants. My body was covered with the signature red welts of traditional Chinese pain remedies. I heard one comment, “What would Washington say if they saw this?” and “He’s got a skin disease.” The other colonel said, “He’s gone native.”
I left with them. Soon I was hospitalized in Saigon. Later I was evacuated to Clark Air Force Hospital in the Philippines. I weighed 121 pounds, 40 pounds less than when I arrived in Vietnam. I was at Clark for a month. While there I was treated for malaria, infectious hepatitis, amoebic dysentery, skin fungus, and worms. The first days I was hallucinating and, according to my ward mates, speaking Vietnamese in my sleep.
Martin J. Dockery ’60, a former New York City lawyer, spends 10 months a year in Vietnam, where he is a volunteer teacher in the public schools. This essay was edited from Lost in Translation by Martin Dockery, copyright © 2003 by Martin Dockery. Used by permission of Presidio Press, an imprint of The Ballantine Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.
“I am not visited by ghosts”
For the last five years, Martin Dockery has lived in a small two-bedroom row house near the center of Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City—which most residents, Dockery included, still call Saigon, its name under the South Vietnamese government that fell in 1975. After working for nearly 40 years as a securities lawyer on Wall Street, Dockery retired in 2001 and moved to Vietnam permanently, he says, to become a teacher. He knew for years that he wanted to return; he had felt bound up with the country “all my adult life.”
Dockery’s first return was in 1999. For nearly a week, he and Mike Blackwell ’59, whom Dockery befriended in the army before both men volunteered to serve as ARVN advisors in the early years of the war, revisited the Mekong Delta—their base of operations as soldiers. It had been more than 35 years since Dockery first set foot in the country; Blackwell had returned once before, in 1993. Dockery found the rice-paddy landscape of the delta largely unchanged, but the population of the country had nearly doubled to 75 million since the war’s end, and the delta’s villages were now towns teeming with pedestrians, speeding bicyclists, motorcyclists, and cars. The two men joked about maybe finding old wanted posters of themselves, in a country still largely controlled by communist Northerners. During lulls between fighting, Captain Beng, the leader of Dockery’s ARVN battalion, had teased the American about a poster he said the Vietcong were distributing that described Dockery and put a bounty on his head. Writes Dockery in his book, Lost in Translation: “Depending on his mood,” Beng “would tell everyone within hearing range whether he thought the price on my head was too high or too low.” In 1999, however, no posters were found.
In a telephone interview last December, Dockery described the greatest reward of the 1999 trip as a visit to a cement plant his battalion had guarded in 1963. What had once been a small industrial complex was now a busy modern plant, “the type you’d find right off the New Jersey Turnpike. We did manage to protect it all those years ago from the Vietcong,” he said, “and today, the place is purring.”
Dockery sought no reunions with the men of his ARVN battalion in 1999, and has no thoughts of doing so now. “If Captain Beng or any of the others survived the war, I’m sure they all went to jail,” he said. Following the war, many Vietnamese associated with the government or army of the South were confined to state “reeducation” camps, he explained, some for more than a decade. “I have no idea what has happened to those men.”
Today Dockery spends his days as the only American—and often the only male teacher—in schools all over the city. He teaches English to public elementary school students several mornings a week, and American history and law to university students in the afternoon and evening once a week; he volunteers with an organization that educates street children who are orphaned or whose families are too poor to afford public school fees; and occasionally he holds group English classes in his living room for adults. “If I had known long ago the satisfaction that comes from teaching, I would have never gone into law,” he said. “I don’t regret the [career] decisions I made as a young man, but this is certainly where I am supposed to be now.”
It has been 42 years since Dockery spoke the country’s language fluently, and because Vietnamese is a tonal language—the same arrangement of letters may have different meanings, depending on the pitch—it hasn’t been easy to relearn. He has felt, nonetheless, welcome in his classrooms and his neighborhood. “The people from South Vietnam,” he said, “have fond memories of American soldiers and great respect for teachers.” The North Vietnamese, too, “are accepting.”
Dockery began to write his book while on his first trip in 1999. Several times in its pages he speaks of contradictions between his youthful ideas and his current sensibilities. “My tour in Vietnam was self-indulgent,” he writes. “I traded principle for excitement and adventure.” He admits to making decisions under the circumstances of war that he now finds unthinkable, allowing that “my powers of observation, my tolerance, my stamina, my willingness to act contrary to my sense of right and wrong are different today than they were in 1963.” But he also maintains in his book a steadfast distaste for deeper personal introspection. “No couch and free association for me. I know enough about myself and am content with what I know,” he writes at the conclusion of the book. Elsewhere he observes, “In a moral sense, I was a spectator of all that was around me; for that matter, to a great extent I still am.”
Dockery is equally guarded when it comes to discussing his decision to live and teach in Vietnam. Pressed, he dismissed suggestions of altruism. “What I am doing is for my own benefit,” he said. “I am not visited by ghosts. I am not haunted by what I did here long ago.” His time as a soldier in Vietnam was, he says in his book, “good for me. I returned to the States confident, capable, reflective.”
“Now, being back here, I have a general sense of well-being. I live amongst wonderful people, and I teach wonderful children. I like myself, and that is not something I’ve always been able to say.”
Read more by Cara Feinberg