Hanson joins the Green Berets fresh out of college. Carrying a volume of Yeats's poems in his uniform pocket, he has no idea of what he's about to face in Vietnam--from the enemy, from his fellow soldiers, or within himself. In vivid, nightmarish, and finely etched prose, Kent Anderson takes us through Hanson's two tours of duty and a bitter, ill-fated return to civilian life in-between, capturing the day-to-day process of war like no writer before or since.
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THE LAUNCH SITE
A sheet of paper was tacked to the wall over Hanson's bunk:
Every day in the world a hundred thousand people die. A human life means nothing.
General Vo Nguyen Giap, Commander-in-Chief, North Vietnamese Army
"In order to despise suffering, to be always content and never astonished at anything, one must reach such a state as this"and Ivan Dmitrich indicated the obese peasant, bloated with fat"or else one must harden one's self through sufferings to such a degree as to lose all sensitivity to them: that is, in other words, cease to live."
Hanson stood just inside the heavy-timbered door of his concrete bunker, looking out. There was no moon yet. The only sound was the steady sobbing of the big diesel generators, but Hanson heard nothing. Had the generators ever stopped he would have heard the silence, a silence that would have bolted him wide-awake, armed, and out of his bunk if he were asleep.
He stepped from the doorway and began walking across the inner perimeter toward the teamhouse, a squat shadow ahead of him in the dark. His web gear, heavy with ammunition and grenades, swung from one shoulder like easy, thoughtful breathing. The folding-stock AK-47 in his right hand was loaded with a gracefully curving thirty-round magazine.
As he got closer to the teamhouse, he could feel the drums and steel-stringed guitar on the back of his sunburned forearms and against the tender broken hump on his nose. Then he could hear it.
Hanson smiled. "Stones," he said softly. He didn't have enough to pick out the song, but the bass and drums were pure Stones.
He slid the heavy, light-proof door open and stepped into the bright teamhouse. The song, "Under My Thumb," was pumping out of Silver's big Japanese speakers.
Quinn was pouting and strutting to the music, one hand hooked in his pistol belt, the other hand thrust out, thumbs down, like Caesar at the Roman games sending the pike into another crippled loser. His small blue eyes were close-set, cold and flat as the weekly casualty announcement, as he mouthed the words.
Hanson shrugged his web gear to the floor, shouted, "Let me guess," and pressed his hand to his freckled forehead. He pointed at Quinn and shouted into the music, "Mick Jagger, right? Your new Jagger impersonation." His snub-nosed combat magnum glinted from its shoulder holster.
Quinn ignored him, pounding the floor like a clog dancer.
The battered white refrigerator was turned up to high in the damp heat, and gouts of frost dropped to the floor when Hanson opened it to get a Black Label beer. The seams and lip of the black&red cans were rusty from the years they had been stockpiled on the Da Nang docks. Years of raw monsoon and swelling summer heat had turned the American beer bitter. But it was cold; it made his fillings ache when he drank it.
Hanson took a flesh-colored quart jar from the top of the refrigerator, screwed off the top, and took out two of the green&white amphetamine capsules. He knocked them back with the icy beer.
Beats coffee for starting the day, he thought, smiling, recalling the double-time marching chant back at Fort Bragg: "Airborne Ranger Green Beret, this is the way we start our day," running the sandhills before dawn, the rumor that one team had run over a PFC from a supply unit who had been drunkenly crossing the road in front of them. The team had trampled him and left him behind, never getting out of step, chanting each time their left jump boot hit the ground, "Pray for war. Pray for war. Pray for war."
He sat down on one of the wooden footlockers and began thumbing through the Time magazine that had come in on the last mail chopper.
The Stones finished "Under My Thumb," paused, and began "Mother's Little Helper." Quinn turned the volume down and walked over to Hanson. He moved with ominous deliberation, like a man carrying nitroglycerin. People got uncomfortable if Quinn moved too close or too quickly.
"Keepin' up with current events, my man?" he asked Hanson. "How's the war going these days?"
"This magazine says we're kicking shit out of 'em. But now," Hanson said, tapping the open magazine, "what about the home front? They've got problems too. Take this young guy, a "Cornell Senior' it says here, "I'm nervous as hell. I finally decide on a fieldeconomicsand then I find out I'm number fifty-nine in the draft lottery.' Rough, huh? Just when he decided on economics."
Hanson thumbed through the magazine, singing softly, ". . . My candy man, he's come an' gone. Mah candy man, he's come an' gone. An' I love ever'thing in this godomighty world, God knows I do . . ."
To the west a heavy machine gun was firing, the distant pounding as monotonous as an assembly-line machine. Artillery was going in up north. Three guns working out. They were good, the rounds going in one on top of the other, each explosion like a quick violent wind, the sound your firestarter makes when you touch off the backyard charcoal grill. Normal night sounds.
Hanson read the ads out loud. ""There's a Ford in your future.' "Tired of diet plans that don't work? . . .'"
"Then come to Vietnam, fat boy," Quinn shouted, "and get twenty pounds blown off your ass."
A short, wiry man came into the teamhouse. He wore round wire-rim glasses and had a thin white scar running from his lip up to the side of his nose like a harelip.
"Silver," Hanson yelled to him, then almost said, how much weight did you lose on the Vietnam high-explosive diet plan, but changed his mind. Silver had lost half his team, and his partner was in Japan with no legs.
"How's that hole in your ass?" Hanson asked him.
Silver couldn't talk without moving, gesturing, ducking, and jabbing like a boxer. He talked fast, and when he laughed it was a grunt, like he'd just taken a punch in the chest. "I like it a lot," he said. "Thinking about getting one on the other side. For symmetry, you know? Dimples. A more coordinated limp," he said, walking quickly forward then backward like a broken mechanical man. Then he stopped and stared at the reel-to-reel tape deck.
"Listen to that," he said, cocking his head slightly. "Background hiss. And that tape's almost new."
"How much longer you gonna be on stand-down, you skinny little gimp?" Quinn asked him.
"Couple weeks. I'll fake it a little longer if I have to. Captain says he's gonna try and get Hanadon up here from the C team for my partner. I don't want to go out with some new guy."
". . . Candy man," Hanson sang to himself as he leafed through the magazine, "he been and gone, oh my candy man, he been and gone. Well I wish I was down in New Or-leens . . ."
"And look here," he said, holding up the magazine. "President visiting the troops over at the Third Mech fire base."
Silver had a slight limp as he walked over. He looked at the two-page color spread. "Shit," he said, then laughed. "I was there. After they fixed me up, but before they said I could come back here. The troops down there? They spent three weeks building wooden catwalks around the guns so the Prez wouldn't get his feet muddy. Of course, huh, they weren't able to use the guns for fire missions for three weeks, but they looked good. Issued all the troops brand-new starched fatigues an hour before The Man was supposed to get there, and made 'em stand around at parade rest so they wouldn't get wrinkled.