He had eighty-six days to go and it wasn’t real anymore.
None of it.
Like any short-timer, Dolan tried not to think about it. Getting killed was bad enough but getting killed when you were short was worse. The problem, naturally, was that trying not to dwell on it just made him do it more.
All that mattered now was the blessed bird. The freedom bird, coming for him now, slow but steady. To welcome him and bless him. Absolve him and spirit him home.
Sooner if the Army was feeling generous.
He pushed back from the desk and pulled the sheet from the typewriter. Scanning it once more, he gave it a sober nod then went and dropped it in Pulaski’s basket.
The story had practically written itself. Three hundred words about an ARVN Ranger battalion that had taken on an NVA unit twice its size and – reinforced by American air strikes – had triumphed. The NVA had really leaned into the fight and were torn apart for it. A textbook example that the plan, such as it was, could work.
Finished for the day, Dolan lit a cigarette and drifted back to the desk. He should head home, he supposed. Return to his rented room five minutes away. Shower and shave. Put on his off-duty gear and go somewhere. Anywhere.
Sighing, he sat again and re-read his notes. The habit was deeply ingrained now. Reflexive as scratching an itch. His restless return to his documentation of the extraordinary and the banal. The astonishing and the absurd.
Flipping toward the end, he stopped on a forbidden page. The one with the invisible events and unknown places. The dates and names no one would ever know, all of which he could recall without effort. Each one straight as a razor’s edge and entirely off limits.
On the same day, eight miles to the east, two ARVN companies had ambushed a mixed unit of Cong and NVA regulars – and lost.
The area was rife with tunnels and the opposition refused to play fair. Many were killed, but enough disappeared underground then popped up again elsewhere. Firing off a few rounds then vanishing again. In the confusion, several South Vietnamese shot each other.
After calling in a long fire mission, the companies rallied. Pushing forward through the blasted landscape, they ran straight into a rocket attack. Not the usual kind with a few men and a weapon braced on bamboo poles but a carefully planned barrage. Bleeding the Republic units so heavily that one ceased to exist.
Combat ineffective, officialdom would declare – as if over a hundred men maimed or killed warranted the same concern as a dead truck battery.
Dolan got there right after it finished. He had hitched a ride with a reinforcement company tasked to “resume the advance.” No one wanted to talk about it. What particulars he gained came from the medics as they directed triage and treatment. He asked a little and listened a lot, then he did what he could to get the wounded out.
For the next two hours he held his end of the stretcher, carrying men absurdly young out to the medevacs. His arms aching red hot then white then not at all. Keeping low, desperate not to trip under the rotor blast. Two kids died while Dolan was carrying them.
Blankly he had written a quick draft then handed it off to someone he trusted to get it back to Pulaski’s shop. After ruthless edits, the finished piece was a shadow of his work. The implication from this makeover was that, yes, the ARVNs had taken their hits but then they gave back twice as hard. It read like his actual report as much as Dolan looked like Robert Redford.
Absently he put the notebook away.
On the far wall the latest headlines from home were put up for all to see. He got up and went to read them.
None were about the war.
Jack Nicklaus now made more money than Arnold Palmer – playing fucking golf.
Apollo 16 had landed two more astronauts on the moon.
Congress finally passed the Equal Rights Amendment then handed it off to the states to ratify – where it would wallow among them for years.
An Elvis movie was all the rage. Not babes and beach stuff now but a full concert. No longer the lean hip-shaking kid from the Ed Sullivan show, the king now sported massive sideburns and flowing white suits swarming with gems or glitter.
Not to be outdone, Evel Knievel jumped his motorcycle over fifteen cars.
Then he crashed.
Twenty-seven years after the war – the good one – America was ready to hand Okinawa back to the Japanese.
Polaroid had invented a camera that made self-developing pictures.
And a runner from Finland had won the Boston Marathon.
Suddenly needing coffee, Dolan shook his head then turned away.
Since he always carried what he needed, Dolan had no assigned desk and thus no fixed possessions. Correspondents like him would arrive, type up their pieces then head out again. Knowing no one would give a damn, he opened one drawer then another until finding a cracked souvenir mug from the French Open Cup in ’59. He blew the dust off it then departed.
The alcove had been a phone booth once. Every time Dolan went in he envisioned an old French colonial bellowing into the mouthpiece on the wall. The earphone was gone but the mouthpiece remained, along with an ancient coffee urn on a warped steel table.
As he began pouring, the table shifted ominously. The heater in the urn was absurdly hot and if it toppled over Dolan wanted to be outside the kill zone. Then he frowned and looked down.
Under one of the legs someone had shoved a triple-folded sheet of paper to prop up the table. It had come loose, hence the tilt. Curious, Dolan bent and picked it up.
It was a map of the South. Part of one of one, anyway. It was yellowing and brittle and had been torn neatly from the rest. The scale was massive. Far bigger than any Dolan had ever seen, and because it was only a fragment he couldn’t place the region. The terrain elevation looked mild enough to be near the coast but with no part of the gulf or any other waterway was visible. There were a few villages, but he didn’t recognize the names.
The colors were strange. Looking closely, he saw the map had been marked with colored pencils many times. Several markings had been erased then re-written. Here and there, ghosts of original letters and numbers were over-written by others. Lines and shapes with shifting dimensions had been drawn, modified, partially eradicated. The original notes lingered like a bad memory.
The effect was haunting. Symbols barely visible indicated advances here, withdrawals there. In places the paper was so worn it seemed held together by faith alone.
It took a moment before Dolan realized what he was seeing. Two contenders fighting over the same turf. Gaining and losing. Rallying and maneuvering and attacking again. Along the margin were traces of what might have been dates. If so, the fight had lasted three days at least.
Determining any winner was impossible.
More tired than ever, Dolan refolded the paper and shoved back in its place. Then he filled the mug and left.
Back at the borrowed desk, he put the scalding cup aside then reached for his cigarettes. Lighting up, he drummed his fingers idly, then studied the far wall again. As he did the words and images began to merge. Losing shape and texture. Looking but no longer seeing, he felt himself drifting through it. Falling beyond into a world dark and distant.
That morning a memo had gone around, stating that by the end of ’71 more than 57,000 Americans had died. Following this was the sobering fact that South Vietnamese troop losses were three times as high, at least. And as the draw down continued – nearly half a million Americans were now gone – the Republic’s losses would only get worse.
There was no mention of civilian deaths.
Dolan had long since decided that the goals of the South Vietnamese were simple:
There were none.
Aside from fighting not to lose, no plan existed. Certainly not one that would matter, even after all this time and ghastly suffering. The wheels churned on in Paris with the eternal promise that peace was coming. That peace was at hand.
Maybe it would be different through some brutal awakening. Maybe if the VC hadn’t just taken Hue in ’68 but occupied countless cities and towns and hamlets. Beating and maiming and slaughtering people by the tens or hundreds of thousands, simply for having the gall to be alive. It would be a violation of decency to rival what the Japanese inflicted on Nanking.
Or maybe something less quantitative but equally inspired. Like the British in India, shooting just enough of their subjects to remind everyone who was in charge.
Or maybe a loss so catastrophic it would dwarf Hiroshima. A blood-churning call to action like none other in history. But there wasn’t. There had been no Pearl Harbor attack and so no Pearl Harbor speech. No iron resolve to set aside differences and rise together. No will to conquer that would leave their enemy’s own passion far, far behind. The players were too divided. Too many disparate loyalties. Too many interests at odds with others.
Same as us, Dolan mused darkly, then wondered why he would be any different.
His father still had the flag his parents displayed while Pop was overseas. A white rectangle with red border, and a long blue star at the center. Families all over the neighborhood had them. Banners raised for sons fighting in Italy or Okinawa or any of countless places in between.
Only one had been gold.
The boy had died on Guadalcanal, and his mother not long after. A cousin had inherited the house then leased it to a young lawyer from Chicago. A married man with three children, he left the flag where it was. During his quieter moments Dolan would wonder, if it came to that, whether Pop would do the same.
Despite the pain and suffering, America came out of the good war better than anyone. And when it was over, not only joy and relief swept the nation, but the certainty that the hardest work the country could ever know was over.
The faith it inspired was simple:
Dolan shook his head at the thought. Not thought but fact. It had been the high-water mark. The price for peace had been steep. Paying more would mean fusing the will of every man, woman and child into a seamless whole, eliminating all priorities but two.
The first was victory.
The second was death from pursuing it.
But what the hell would that take?
An alien invasion might do it. A real war of the worlds, he thought absently, like in those Mars Attacks cards. He was ten when they came out, and their apocalyptic scenes left all others in the dust. Willie Mays throwing from center field or the Hulk throwing a tank had nothing on the skull-faced Martians slaughtering humanity for the sheer pleasure of it. The Martian killing the boy’s dog was the worst. The visceral hatred that inspired in him still rang true. If he could have pushed a button to kill them all, he would have. Still would.
Every American alive would have to feel it. A bloodlust unquenchable by nothing but the extermination of those who created it.
It wouldn’t happen.
And yet here, on the far side of the world . . . it could.
Many already had, but none had the Republic’s survival in mind.
As for the rest . . .
There were the minority Catholics – many born in the North – wielding most of the power. Then there were the Buddhists, refusing to placidly endure. And then there were the indigenous peoples of the Highlands, all of them alien to the “true” peoples of the land. And strung through it all were countless frightened people, wanting only to survive. Nothing more.
To truly win – if that word even existed here – the South would have to up the ante. To fight not only to win but to conquer in full. To not only crush the North but annihilate them.
To kill them as they fought. Kill them as they fell. Kill them as they tried to surrender.
To destroy every resource their enemies could possibly bring to bear, no matter how slight. To destroy not only factories and fields but every drop of fuel and scrap of food. Blasting to dust every government building, every utility, every hospital, every school, every home. Every store of fuel. Every vehicle and every airstrip. Every pier and dock. Every road and footpath. To burn every garden and poison every well.
To render every inch north of the seventeenth parallel as barren as the moon. To inspire the purest animal terror. To mutilate and violate in limitless unspeakable ways. Not merely shootings and beheadings but flayings and impalings and crucifixions by the millions.
And no one would be exempt, from infants to the frailest of the elderly, unable to aid their cause in any way. To erase their worth utterly.
As this ungodly scenario unfolded, Dolan recalled two images he had seen years before. Researching for a report about the Inquisition, he came across an old book with a set of woodcut prints. The paper was a sickly blend of yellow and gray and oddly soft to the touch. Scenes created with lines so black he kept thinking he would fall into them. Gone from this world, to damnation in the next.
The first depicted a man hanged upside down from a tree. He was naked, and his torso was slashed from neck to navel. A waterfall of blood and intestines spewed from him, falling not only to the ground but creating the rope by which he was hanged. Around the pool beneath him, wolves feasted on it all.
In the second, a hooded figure approached a ragged gateway made from bones. Swathed around them all was an unbroken ribbon of human skin, as though skillfully peeled from an apple. Atop this abomination was a head skewered on a spike. One eye was gone and the scalp had been torn away. And yet, impossibly, this remnant of a man was still alive. A single tear flowed from his remaining eye. A perfect picture of agony and regret.
Beneath each image was a caption in what might have been German. Neither had a translation but Dolan didn’t need one.
A true hell on earth.
Perfect metaphors for the degree to which the Viets would need to go. Waging war in the purest sense of the word.
A total dissolution of decency. Utter dismissal of the human covenant. Surpassing the pitiless brutality of the Japanese and the industrialized hatred of the Germans. Simply slaughtering in place without the necessity to herd and corral. To deceive and dispatch.
Unless said enemies chose to surrender, of course. Pleading, begging, screeching for mercy – assuming they even had a society by then worth offering their cousins from the South.
Horrifying, he knew.
All of it.
A very, very definite war indeed, with no question about who the winners were.
The harshest rulers in history would embrace it.
The Romans would admire it.
Genghis Khan would yearn for it.
Hitler would weep for it.
A perfect blueprint for the great work.
And why not?
Mao was a fat old man, Stalin a fossilized corpse, and the luminous Ho lived only in memory now.
Someone had to do it.
The vacuum needed to be filled.
A war to render all others meaningless. The very definition of sacrilege, irrevocably defiling those who wrought such terror on their enemies. Leaving them triumphant, yet so hopelessly corrupted their own ancestors wouldn’t possibly them as brethren. Deranged victors in a world where not only the earth was scorched but the sky as well. A place where all light of charity had been stolen away. Where light could never reach.
A sharp pain jerked him awake. His cigarette had burned down to his fingers. He shook his hand violently and the glowing butt fell to the floor. With his boot Dolan mashed it out then looked around.
No one had noticed.
No one cared.
Shaking himself, he raised the coffee to his lips then blinked. Hot as steam before, it had gone cold.
All around him the furor continued. The clacking typewriters and chattering printers. The ceaselessly ringing phones. The radios and televisions that sometimes murmured, sometimes squawked. Servicemen and civilians from all over the world doing what they had done for years. If the war ended today they would push on to the next.
And the middle, there was Dolan, relevant as a flea on an elephant’s ass.
If he made it home alive, someone else would pick up the slack.
Continue the great work.
The great march in the dark. The march to nowhere.
Mike McLaughlin is a writer for Vietnam Veterans of America. His stories have appeared in The Wrath-Bearing Tree, with more to be published in COLLATERAL, The Nonconformist and UNSAID magazines. His historical features have appeared in The American Veteran, WWII History and American Heritage. Not to be outdone, he has written three novels and dozens of short stories. He lives in Boston with his family.
“At the heart of my work are characters charging toward adversity. When they fall before it, they must learn to stand again. To endure and continue. To reckon with unseen perils inherent in great plans, and the bitter wisdom gained from fulfilling them.” – MM