Survivor’s Guilt

by Bruce Patterson, June 2, 2010

If the Viet Cong could shoot straight, I’d have been killed at least twice in the same morning long before my 19th birthday.

Of course, having grown up a wild and reckless child, I’d had close calls before then. When I was seven I got hit by a car. While growing up I got rescued off a cliff and — my big sister is my witness — nearly eaten by a bear (our trusty cocker spaniel Rusty saved me). Once a riptide grabbed me and, just as quickly, let me go, and another time I got slammed into the sand by a crashing wave. When I was 12, I nearly drowned over in Hot Creek east of the High Sierra. Long before I joined the army I’d been chased, caught, thumped, rat-packed, clubbed, kicked, bit, scratched and whipped with my dad’s belt. I’d been shot with a pellet gun and got my head cracked open in a rock fight.

In short, I was typical of the sort of boys who, in times of war, volunteer for the infantry (no sissies need apply). But that morning when I walked into a VC am­bush and then walked back out of it was the first time I realized I was somebody special. When God was hand­ing out body parts, He gave me more than one life. While I had no idea just how many extra lives God had bestowed upon me, looking ahead to my going-home-date stuffed deep into a bullet hole in what seemed like an impossibly faraway wall calendar, I sincerely wished it was more than three. So while I should have been mightily grateful for God’s gift, instead for the first time in my life, from the tip of my nose to the tips of my toes, I was scared shitless. In the aftermath of that ambush, I got the full body shakes.

That morning I was welcomed into the ancient club­house. I got my back slapped, my hand stamped and sat down for the feast. From now on, like everybody else who’d been in the bush long enough, I’d defeat my fear by pretending I was already dead. While I resolved from that day forward to do my absolute best to never again make it so easy for Charlie to kill me, I knew if he did it wouldn’t mean shit. You can’t hurt the dead and every­body knew that. You can kick ‘em, burn ‘em, run ‘em over with tanks, pulverize them with artillery and it don’t mean shit.

We feared the prospect of getting mutilated and crip­pled more than we feared death. We feared getting gut shot and going out in screaming agony or, worse, going out crying for our mommies. But getting zapped through the head? How easy was that? You didn’t even hear the bullet that got you. So, at least in the moments when we were at our soldierly best, death didn’t scare us none. Unlike our tours, death was over before you knew it.

Since every American military hospital in East Asia was stuffed with casualties because of the VC’s Tet and Spring Offensives of 1968, when I got malaria I leap­frogged across the Pacific until I reached pay dirt inside Letterman Army Hospital in the Presidio of San Fran­cisco. Virtually everybody I’d bunked with during my sojourn through five hospitals was a whole lot worse off than I was and I couldn’t help but feel guilty. I spent a month in Hawaii and, while was I there, I received a let­ter from Don, my old holemate. Shortly after I’d gotten medevac’d, our other holemate, Chuck (we were a machine gun crew) had taken a bullet about an inch above his right eyebrow. The bullet blew the top and back of his head off, and an instant later Don took a bul­let through his leg bone and nearly bled out. Now Don was in a hospital in Japan awaiting a flight back home to Georgia. He thought I had a right to know about Chuck, and he hoped we’d meet up again in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. (We did.)

After tearing the letter into bits and whacking the wall with a flurry of punches, the warrior in me instantly resolved to regain my weight and strength and go back to Nam to finish what I’d started. To wipe from my soul the stain of dishonor, I’d need to go back to the war and do some serious killing. Had I still believed in America’s holy Manifest Destiny, that’s what I’d have done, too. But I’d been turned around in my boots and I no longer believed in Mother Goose or Christ the bomber pilot. And so, about as quickly as the homicidal warrior rose up within me, I shot it down and then shot it some more to make sure it was dead. I was a human being and not a killing machine, and — sure I felt guilty — you could shoot me before I’d go back. If a nation of peasants so beaten down by war, poverty-stricken and outrageously outgunned needed to be slaughtered wholesale so the folks back home could feel safe and sleep sound at night, maybe the big gooey bunch of them weren’t worth kill­ing for. Maybe the best that could be said for them was that, like me and mine, they’d been duped.

Coming back from combat has always been the dead returning from the dead. You yearn with all your being to feel fully alive again; to feel alive like you’d never gotten your nose rubbed in the blood, guts, evil and insanity, or seen through the veil, or done anything wrong, or failed to do something right, or left behind on the other side of the world any sort of unfinished business. You are supposed to be just like the civilians, and profess to hold dear the very same truths that they, as you once did, don’t hold as dear as much as take for granted. But now it’s hard for you to take anything for granted, least of all anybody’s claims to righteousness. Maybe life itself isn’t worth fighting and killing for, and no way is it worth begging for. Once expendable, always expendable, and you take solace in that. It can seem eas­ier to keep pretending you’re dead than to pretend you’re all golly-gee primetime glad to be alive and in such fine company, and that’s where the booze, drugs, the raging against the fates come in.

I’ve been back from war so long that decades ago my very occasional nightmares stopped coming with faces. I’ve still got hair trigger nerves but loud noises and sud­den moves have ambushed me so many thousands of many times it doesn’t bother me anymore. I haven’t for­gotten but I have forgiven, not the least because virtually all of the vile creatures who manufactured and cheer­leaded my war are dead and rotting in their gold plated coffins. Also, it didn’t take me long after my return to realize that my “personal responsibility” amounted to a spit in the ocean, and that the evil was systematic and societal, and that my war, like all those that came before and those being waged today, was the fruit of a corrupt tree. Stripped of a social conscience, mass society is the dead living among the dead, human aspirations snuffed out by tribal fantasy, and no one is held accountable because everybody is as blameless as twigs washing away in a flood.

At the outbreak of the American Civil War a village in New England enlisted all of their able-bodied young men and boys into a single infantry company. As the newly minted soldiers marched in brisk ranks and files heading south in their beautiful new uniforms with their shouldered rifles glistening, bands played, flags waved and the road was lined with cheering crowds. In those days the government posted their casualty lists by nailing them to Post Office walls, and one afternoon the people in the village read that every last one of those soldiers had been killed at a place called Bull Run. I can’t remember when or where I heard that story, but it struck me: did those people feel guilty? Did they feel like dupes? Or did they, after their period of mourning and in order to mend their broken hearts, feel proud? The unre­lenting bloodletting we have engaged in over the 150 years since then provides the answer.

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