During the period when This Great Nation of Ours was bombing the medieval fundamentalists of Afghanistan back two notches into the Stone Age, I visited my friend David Oswald Edgerton on the West Coast. His apartment is near the abandoned squid base on Alameda Island, across the bay from San Francisco, where warships once gathered in large schools for a last sip of bunker oil before chasing the sun toward their destiny and the Japanese Imperial Navy. Edgerton is known in Alcoholics Anonymous as David the Psychotic Serial Killer, a nom de boire I coined when he was living among the Lilliputters back in Johnson Township, Kansas -- Richard Rhodes' immortal Cupcake County -- in recognition of his beady, steel-gray serial-killer eyes and unwavering malevolence. I was drawn to David by his entertaining habit of smashing snotlockers, a practice I watched get him 86'd out of half the Skid Row AA halls in western Missouri as well as the one in Lawrence, Kansas. Since he remains devoid of even a flicker of remorse for all the fine fellowship and so-called "self-help" he thus deprived himself of, many in AA still refer to David the Psychotic Serial Killer as "Devoid," for short.
I was fetching myself another O'Doul's from the refrigerator when he called to me from the living room. "Hey Cooljerk, get in here. You gotta see this. Some CNN whora whora whora is giving us the Tora! Tora! Tora! on Tora Bora." I have always considered David a poet, though you can bet he doesn't know it.
I came to the doorway and checked out the rube tube. Some talking-head retired brigadier, dressed for success in a blue business suit and matching tie, was yammering about how "American forces, operating in concert with our Northern Alliance allies" were cleaning up some cave complex in eastern Afghanistan.
"We ought to clean it up," I told David. "We built it for the assholes in the first place, back in the '80s when the mujahideen were bleeding the Reds white with those shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles we loaded them up with -- missiles which, I might add, just might come whizzing back to haunt us."
"This guy has the gift of gab, I'll give him that," David said. "They say he commanded a platoon in Nam, brigade in Desert Storm. They showed a shot of him in uniform, decorated like a Christmas tree, though my beady, steel-grey serial-killer eyes spied no heart-shaped ornaments, purple or otherwise, bejeweling his breast. Looks like an Academy grad with a talent for getting a little bit shot at and missed, all in the interest of collecting just enough combat chits to get more brass pinned to his hat."
"And does he, like our poet from Paumonok, 'report all heroism from an American point of view?'"
"Seems to. And solitary, singing in the West, I strike up against all that happy horseshit."
"What? You don't see the light at the end of all those tunnels?"
"I do. And damned if it don't look like the bright mountain sun coming up over Pakistan. The only people 'cleaning up' in Tora Bora are our Northern Alliance allies, hustling bin Laden a hefty honk per head to let the Talibangers hot-foot it over the border."
"You mean our hired mercenaries might actually accept money to betray us? David, that ... that's mercenary!"
"Q.E.D., pilgrim. And whatever our Special Forces and Delta Forces and forces on horses with sources remorseless are doing over there with all their fancy-fuck laser targeting and night vision shit and GPS navigadgetry and Johnny-7 OMAs, there's one thing I can tell you they're not doing."
"What's that, David?"
"Cleaning out tunnels."
"Why do you say that?"
"We're not taking nearly enough casualties."
- - -
My vote goes to David for expert commentator, any day. David's been shot at and missed, too, although his record on "missed" is not as good as CNN's one-star. David had almost completed his one and only tour as a combat Marine when he earned his third Purple Heart on an I Corps hilltop, standing on his hind legs in front of God and the universe guiding a Huey medevac onto a tiny landing zone.
"Had my hands up over my head like we'd just scored a touchdown, although the score was actually dinks six -- about to be seven -- and jarheads three," he told me. A guerrilla behind him and too far away for the shots to be heard emptied a full clip of Combloc 7.62x39 at the big green machine with the red cross on the side, an act of shooting known among real marksmen as the "Hail Mary." He missed the helicopter altogether, but David heard zingers snapping past his ears at the same instant one smacked the right cheek of his ass and plowed into the head of his femur. David likens the sensation to being hit squarely in the butt with a broadaxe. Our hero fell to the ground, ripped off his pants, and checked to see if he still had his nuts, which seemed to be where the pain was coming from.
He did. The bullet, after playing hell with his hip, took a hard left and tumbled straight for his jewels, miraculously missing his femoral artery before running out of oomph just inside his thigh. His testicles were only wracked by the hydrostatic shock. David could see the full-metal-jacketed slug, slightly deformed, lying lengthwise just below the epidermis on the inside of his leg. In the sort of characteristic gesture for which he was famous both in the service and afterward, David took out his K-bar, sliced through the skin, and extracted the round, then tossed it to the corpsman waiting to load the wounded on that Huey.
"Lose this token of Charlie's affection, fat boy," David said, "and I'll come back, hunt you down and cut out your liver." The corpsman hit him with three amps of morphine, one for pain and two to shut him up, then started bandaging his butt. "And don't let anyone touch my dog," David said, as he faded into the arms of Morpheus.
Next thing David remembers, he is waking up on a Navy orthopedic ward in Japan. There are plenty of corpsmen around, though not the one he tossed the bullet to. It took David six months to track the guy down, only to find the poor bastard had gone MIA three days after David got hit, along with the rest of his squad and David's lucky bullet. They never did find those people.
"I miss that bullet," he told me one time. "I really do." He got a little teary -- even steely-eyed serial killers have their emotional moments. "And I really miss my dog."
- - -
David and I bookend the Vietnam war. Had he managed to graduate from high school, David would have accepted his diploma two months after the first American combat Marines waded ashore in Vietnam. In the event, though, through every fault of his own, he came swashbuckling through the surf, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, right along with them. I graduated from high school five months after the last American combat troops were withdrawn, a "tactical adjustment" the conservative wing of the Republican Party still refers to as "peace with honor." By then, of course, I would have lit out for the territories if called -- the Northwest Territories. But it's actually my tardy birthday, not guts or good sense, that has me relying on David for the straight skinny on all things Indochine et militaire. Screw ruff 'n' tuff retired brigadoccios. David actually fought the war I could have gone to.
Back in the good old days, you didn't need a high school diploma, straight teeth, a respectful attitude toward authority and a clean drug screen to get a green suit and boots from the government. The grunt's role in that war was simpler, with requirements correspondingly lower. Combat in 1965 was not a matter of cruising around in Bradley fighting vehicles, freeze-framing raghead teenyboppers in Toyotas on the thermal imaging gear just prior to pulverizing them with 25mm automatic cannons. In those days, war was no big shoot 'n' scoot, no vast, overmatched game of laser-tag with live ammo, TOWs, GPS, Longbows and JDAMs. In Vietnam, the good guys often got to the battlefield the same way the bad guys did, on foot, and the enlisted man's job on both sides was essentially to stop bullets before they got to the officer ranks.
David did his duty: He stopped three.
- - -
David began his military career on a warm spring afternoon in 1963, walking home after cross-country practice with his friend William Peter Heuman, later known as Willy Pete for his love affair with the white phosphorus hand grenade. They were dragging up Massachusetts Avenue in their home town of Larry, Kansas when what should they spy but a hot pink Cadillac convertible, top down, which on closer examination proved to have a full case of Asti Spumanti in the back seat. A cold sweat beckoned deliciously on the shoulders of the smooth, green bottles.
"Jesus H. Christ," said David, glancing around. "Let's boost a bottle of this champagne."
"Screw that," said Willy Pete. "Let's take the whole damned case."
"Fuck that," said David, noticing a ring of keys dangling from the ignition. "Let's take the whole damned car."
So they did. As they say in the infantry: Their hearts were young and gay.
Whoever Mary Kay Cosmetics had rewarded for participation in their Ponzi scheme came out of wherever she was hustling face paint just in time to see her Caddy's ruby-red tail lights turn the corner at the end of the block. The authorities were notified immediately. David and Willy Pete's 15 minutes of fame lasted less than 10. It was just as well. By the time a stern-faced Kansas Highway Patrolman forced them off the eastbound on-ramp to the Kansas Turnpike, they had already downed their first bottle of bubbly, chucked out the empty, and were halfway through a second.
Like most people who wind up in AA, David showed lots of early signs.
Kansas, a frontier state, deals severely with crimes against the rolling stock. People still alive in 1963 could remember horse thieves and even a couple of train robbers hanging from the large oaks just south of town, their necks stretched sometimes by order of the judiciary, but more often not. These latter-day horse hijackers were lucky to get better treatment, illustrating just how far a nation can stumble toward civilization in a few short decades. David and Willy Pete were released to their parents' custody the same day. Three months later they stood before a judge in circuit court, having both turned 17 in the interim. The judge gave their parents a choice: Either sign papers permitting the boys to enlist in an armed service of their choosing, or the miscreants could go study a trade for three years -- anything but auto mechanics -- at the Kansas State Penitentiary at Lansing.
"It's Parris Island for your ass," said David's father, grinning grimly as he remembered where he'd trained for his quick round-trip to Iwo Jima. Dad had lasted four days in combat before having his own fanny ventilated by a Nambu light. He lost a foot to a mortar round while awaiting treatment at the aid station. Willy Pete decided to tag along with David. He hated to break up a winning team.
None of the parties had any idea we were about to go to war.
- - -
Today's all-volunteer military knows that convicted felons rarely embrace the iron-fisted discipline of boot camp. David helped teach them. It was at Parris Island that David discovered his own iron fist, a wicked right jab perfect for pulverizing the unsuspecting snotlocker. The first one in a long career was situated midway between the beady, steel-gray serial-killer eyes and screaming mouth of the Marine staff sergeant in charge of David's recruit platoon. David told me how he got addicted to rerouting nasal septa one night at the Shield of Service Salvation Army rehab in on Seventh Street in Kansas City, Kansas, shortly after the 6:00 p.m. Serenity meeting. David had just hosed the nose of some loudmouthed pavement barnacle named Boxcar, dropping the old bum in his tracks with a single punch.
"Aye, Boxcar here takes me back to my doe-eyed youth, pilgrim. How well I remember that first schnozzola. Kind of like first prom, you know? I get all mushy just thinking about it. Little bantam-weight Texican drill instructor named Alvarez got up in my face during pugil stick practice. 'More aggressive, you puke! I want to see more aggression!' the bastard yells, then yanks the stick out of my hands and whacks me up side of the crash helmet with it. I'd had about all the Marine Corps I could eat by then, so I took the bastard at his word, stepped back, and busted him in the beak. Had no idea noses folded up like that when you hit them dead on. I became fascinated to find out if they were all that fragile, or if it was just this particular macho gaucho what had the glass snout. After all, I could see his nose had been busted before."
"All the ones I've hammered have proven pretty pliable, provided you punch them solid. Boxcar here makes, hmmm ... 23, I think. Maybe 24."
"Qualifies you as kind of a serial nose-killer, doesn't it, David?"
"Everybody's got to have a hobby. Beats collecting miniature whiskey bottles. Anyway, much to his credit, Alvarez picks himself up and says in this gurgly voice, since his mouth is full of blood and snot and God knows what all, cartilage maybe, he says, 'Not dat aggreffife, ya goddab puke. Ya'on repote.' So I go to the brig, and he goes off to sick bay to get some gauze up his schnoz."
As fate would have it, David finished his 30 days' bread and water the same week Alvarez returned to duty. In their inimitable Marine Corps manner, the personnel pogues at Parris Island reassigned David to the new recruit platoon Alvarez was forming. Alvarez rode David mercilessly, which our hero took in stride -- some of the training was beginning to take -- until Alvarez made the mistake of questioning David's manhood, again at pugil stick practice. After snatching the stick away from David and smacking him up side of the head one more time, Alvarez stuck his face in David's and screamed, "What's the problem, puke? Brig take the fight out of you?"
It hadn't. David flattened the sergeant's nose faster than you could say "José Rodriguez." This time he drew 90 days in the crossbar motel. On release, David was again assigned to another of Alvarez's recruit platoons, in honor of that famous Marine tactical dictum, "Hey diddle diddle, straight up the middle." This time Alvarez kept David at arm's length -- some training was beginning to take on Alvarez, too -- allowing David to complete boot camp without further incident. Once graduated, the Marine Corps decided that since he played so rough with the other children, David might better be deployed among creatures with more robust sniffers. David had wanted to go to sniper school. He liked the solitary aspect of that line of work, and their motto appealed to a reluctant cross-country competitor: "Don't bother to run. You'll just die tired." But it was not to be. David drew Military Occupational Specialty 4618.
The Marines sent David to dog handling school.
- - -
At that time the United States Marine Corps had three established specialties in dog handling: generic guard dogs, discretionary attack dogs, and non-discretionary attack dogs. A fourth, new specialization was just being developed, on the advice of Army advisors already engaging the yellow hordes in the paddies and rubber plantations of French Indochina: mine and tunnel dogs. These four specialities are mentioned in order of desirability, as young David ranked them. Even as a green PFC fresh out of boot camp, David knew he didn't want any part of mines or tunnels, for which, being a small guy, he was a logical choice. He was claustrophobic, for one thing, and figured that even small errors in mine detection would be hard on both dog and handler. He tried to get into guard dogs, but the Marine Corps wanted him in non-discretionary attack dogs, since these creatures, like David, needed to be kept muzzled and on a long leash. In the end they compromised: David ended up in discretionary attack dogs.
After American combat troops arrived in Vietnam, discretionary attack dogs, though few in number, quickly proved their worth. The Viet Cong had been fighting the Japs, then the French, and finally the Americans for 25 years, and had developed some killer skills in the art of ambush. Marine Rottweilers and German shepherds often caught wind of such mischief, saving many a jarhead patrol from a sudden, violent demise. Unfortunately, the dogs proved to be a short-lived tactical advantage. Some Vietnamese civilian, trying to make a market for the bar soap he was stealing from the PX, turned Victor Charlie on to the fact that if his cadres bathed with Irish Spring before hunkering down for an ambush, they smelled like U.S. Marines who, as part of the Corps' iron-fisted discipline, were required to shower and shave immediately before and after each patrol. Thanks to olfactory camouflage by Proctor & Gamble, the VC were soon back to potting Marine patrols with impunity, saving a scratch behind the ears for any discretionary attack dog that came up and tried to beg a biscuit or a scratch behind the ears while they lay in wait.
- - -
Back in the mid-60s, before the war became unpopular but after it became expensive, the Department of Defense started running TV commercials featuring a tired, dirty Marine E-3 creeping behind a paddie dike, rifle at the ready, searching intently for the enemy. "Do you buy war bonds where YOU work?" the Edward Murrow voice intoned from off camera. "He does!"
What the commercial didn't explain was why that gyrene lance corporal was investing in war bonds. David found out his third month in-country, when his platoon sergeant brought a battalion-level NCO in starched class-A khakis around with pink cards for everyone to sign, authorizing payroll deductions for a "savings plan."
"I may have to fight this fucking war, but I'll be damned if I'm gonna pay for it," David said. He had already picked up his first Purple Heart, and was still sore about the experience.
"Very well, Marine," David's Papa Sierra replied. "You can't afford mere pennies a pay period, we'll make it a pound of flesh. You got every night patrol for the rest of the month. Now fill out the goddamned card, or I'll make it night patrol for the rest of your tour!"
There was no way to get the order countermanded without shooting the platoon sergeant, the personnel pogue, and every man-jack motherhumper in the squad which, given they were sitting safe and sound in the squad bay at their base camp at the time, would be hard to explain. Besides, David liked a couple of guys in his squad -- Willy Pete, for one.
He signed the card.
At the conclusion of one of those punitive dusk-to-dawn patrols, David got his chance to play tunnel rat.
- - -
"So help me understand why we need to lose half a battalion to put the snora snora snora on Tora Bora," I asked David, in my best corporate-facilitator voice.
"Like infantry combat in general, a little effort spent cleaning out tunnels provides a lot of insight, provided you survive. Perhaps my limited experience will qualify me to comment on this brag-adier's bullshit.
"Aye, Cooljerk m' lad, the sun was just glimmering over the rim of the South China Sea when me, my dog, Willie Pete and eight other tired Marines crested the last rise separating us from our fire base outside Danang. Our relief at wrapping up another uneventful but none the less terrifying nighttime stroll was cut short by a burst of tracers from an AK-47, fired by a fellow most likely headed home himself after his own night out. I suspect his mission that evening was counting aircraft moving in and out of the airfield, since as ambushes go, this one was not up to their usual high standards. Willie Pete and I hit the ground, me because I was walking point with the dog and saw the muzzle flash, Willie because he'd taken a round through the spine which ended his patrolling days forever.
"I was shifting the dog's leash from one hand to the other when the shooting started, causing me to drop the damned thing as I hit the ground. That cued hound to take off running, straight for the shooter. In a flash, I was back on my feet, screaming and waving my shotgun at the squad. 'Anyone hits my dog, I'll waste every one of you and let God identify the guilty party.' Since I was generally considered crazy enough to do it, our return fire stopped. The enemy soldier popped over the crest and out of sight, down the far side of the berm.
"Our acting squad leader -- that same platoon sergeant that had sentenced me to night patrol in the first place -- got the squad up and in a skirmish line, less one guy and a corpsman who were looking after Willie Pete. We charged back over the berm just in time to see a pair of black pajamas and a rifle disappear down a well concealed rabbit hole, with Larry O'Fairy, my 97-pound Rottweiler, hard on the bastard's Michelin-clad heels. 'Fuck him, Fairy!' I yelled."
"Larry O'Fairy?" I asked.
"Yeah, well, I had secretly trained Larry to hump everything he could get his paws around, with special attention to the pant legs of officers and sergeants, while claiming his behavior was a habit no training could break -- thus winning Larry a reputation as the only gay discretionary attack dog in the Marine Corps.
"Anyway, the squad surrounded the tunnel entrance, M-14s at the ready. A hastily discarded black cartridge belt lay at the entrance. 'Spread it out, keep your intervals,' the sergeant yelled, motioning everyone back from the hole. 'OK, butterfingers,' he says, turning to me. 'You know the rules. The gear you sign for, you're responsible for. So dump your pack, strip down, and go fetch that hound.'
"I did as I was told, not that I had a choice. My job was to follow orders, no matter how suicidal. His job was to shoot me if I didn't. The sergeant took my shotgun and handed me his .45 and a flashlight, both of which we carried for just such occasions. I immediately squirmed into the tunnel entrance and started crawling as fast as I could. The way I figured it, I had to catch my quarry by surprise, a Marine tactical doctrine occasionally responsible for astonishing victories against overwhelming odds, but usually just the source of the highest casualty rate of all the services. I also wanted to hear the shots if the dog bought it. I wasn't risking my dick for a dead Fairy.
"The tunnel I found myself crawling down at double time was small, tight, dark, and wet, with a slight downward grade. By the time I was ten yards into it, I could hear Larry in the distance, barking and snarling amid terrified cries in the Vietnamese language. Employing the flashlight with extreme parsimony, I flipped off the safety on the .45 and continued crawling as fast as I could. Any mines or booby traps should have been tripped by the dink or the dog. I was curious as hell why the VC hadn't popped the dog yet. Was he out of ammo? Did his weapon jam?
"I damn near broke my neck running into a dirt wall in the dark, then groped about to find that the tunnel had turned 90 degrees to starboard and begun angling down more steeply. Once around the corner, Larry's barking and the shouts of the VC were much louder. I crawled as fast as I could in the dark toward the sounds of a terrific fight -- sounds which, I hoped, masked the noise of my approach. Finally, I felt Larry's webbed leash in the mud, and summoning all my courage, I flicked on the flashlight.
"Mostly what I saw was the hairy, puckered bung of Larry O'Fairy's butt. Pulling myself next to dog, I shoved him aside with the flashlight, getting a nasty bite on the arm for my trouble. Larry had chewed off a good chunk of the Viet Cong’s calf, which was bleeding profusely. I looked into the large, white eyes of the terrified soldier, who was kicking for all he was worth and punching with one hand, while yanking furiously on his rifle with the other. The AK was jammed across the tunnel beyond him. 'So that's what saved my dog's bacon,' I thought, not to mention mine. The VC had started down the tunnel with the AK muzzle forward, and the tunnel had become too narrow for him to turn the weapon around. The poor bastard had sure tried. I could see several deep gouges in the wall where he had jerked on his rifle, trying different orientations to swing it around. A better trained cadre might have ignored the dog eating his leg, disassembled the rifle, then snapped it back together business end backwards in time to waste the dog before I arrived. But this rice-ranching bumpkin didn't have that much presence of mind, or discipline. Or maybe I just turned up too fast.
"I had to laugh out loud. 'I win, you bastard,' I says. 'See you in hell.'
"So I scoot back a foot or so to keep clear of his hand, then shoot him in the biggest target he's presenting: his butt. He screams. The way he was thrashing around, I don't know if I've drilled him a new asshole, or shot off one of his femurs -- which, I don't mind telling you, just hurts like hell. I shove the dog aside again, earning myself another bite, crawl forward over the VC's writhing legs, stick the pistol under his chin, and fire twice. My second shot splatters blood and bone all over stock of the AK. The guy thrashes one last time and lays still.
"I flip the .45's safety on, then turn and slam the barrel across Larry's snout. 'Will you give it a rest, already?' I yell, and unhook his leash. Larry goes howling and hauling ass, backwards, up toward the entrance of the tunnel.
"I relax, try to catch my breath, when suddenly it occurs to me that maybe this tunnel isn't the best place to take my R&R. I try a couple of times to get turned around before realizing that, just like the AK, I'm nose-in and stuck that way. So I reach across the corpse of the VC, hook Larry's leash to the trigger guard of that AK, yank it loose from where it's jammed into the wall, and, gripping the leash between my teeth, begin inching backwards out of the tunnel. Fortunately, I was able to turn around at that first bend.
"When I stuck my head out of the tunnel and into the daylight, I was thrilled to see Lance Corporal Banks had grabbed Larry.
"'You owe me,' Banks says, raising his arm. Larry had put the chomp on him, too, while he and his fire team were wrestling my dog down, trying to get his muzzle on.
"'Looks like you won us a trophy of war,' the platoon sergeant says, snatching the AK-47 with one hand while offering his other to pull me to my feet. 'Where's the soldier that goes with it?'
"'He's about 60, 70 yards down that hole, taking a nap.' I tell him.
"'How'd he miss shootting you and the dog?' he asks.
"'He wanted to, but I changed his mind. Why, there's a piece of it now,' I said, wiping a scrap of gore from the stock onto my finger.
"'Yech,' I remember Banks saying. He could see what it was, clearly. It even had a little grey matter in it. The sergeant flips the safety off the AK and points it into the air.
"’I wouldn't shoot that if I were you,’ I says. ‘Barrel's liable to be –‘
"Before I can finish my sentence, the idiot pulls the trigger. The first round goes off, over-pressures the barrel behind several inches of Central Highlands loess the previous owner had jammed down it while having his leg eaten, waiting for me to blow his brains out. The resulting detonation blows the stamped Chicom exterior receiver housing backwards into the sergeant's bicep, opening a nasty gash large enough to win him his very own Purple Heart. I would have called that wound self-inflicted, but standards get looser the more rank you got. Score now stands at VC 2, Marines 1. Not counting dog bites.
"'Goddamn. Medic!' he yells, and then turns to me. 'All right, wise guy,' he says, as if blowing up that rifle were my idea. 'So where'd you put the guy that belongs to this rifle?'
"'Last I saw him, he was lying face down in the mud with a .45 slug up his ass and two through his melon.' I says.
"'Dead?' he asks. I don't think he believed me.
"'That's what Uncle pays me for, isn't it?' I says. 'But, yeah, unless he got some great first aid, I'd say he's pretty dead.'
"'OK,' the sergeant says. 'Fetch him up and show me.'
"'Aye-aye, sergeant,' I says, "Semper Fi, do or die.' I should have shot the bastard. I had four chances left in the .45. But no, I'm feeling like Johnny Rambo, ten foot tall and bulletproof. You know how a kid is with his new BB gun -- just gotta bring home that first dead sparrow to show mom. Plus, I got a reputation to maintain, you know? We always carried 100 yards of climbing rope. I says, 'He's in there less than a hundred yards. Banks, feed me the rope, I'll tie his feet, give three jerks, and you all can pull him out. Might as well let everyone share the fun.'
"So I'm soon hustling back down the tunnel with the end of a three-eighths inch nylon rope in my teeth, .45 in one hand -- which, for some reason, I had the presence of mind to reload -- and a flashlight in the other. I decide to follow the same strategy: Get in quick, and get out. I make that bend in the tunnel and head down the second stretch until the flashlight reveals a sight that catches me up short.
"'Oh, shit,' I say out loud, there in the gloom. In the middle of the passage there's a large pool of blood, some hair, a fragment or two of bone ... but no dead VC.
"Now pay attention, here, Cooljerk. This is how the 'fog of war' will frost your cake every time.
"I pause for second, then crawl straight through the pool of blood and continue down the tunnel. When I was a kid -- as if 18 years old is not still a kid, but I mean when I was a kid like maybe 14 – dad and I were deer hunting, and an eight-pointer I thought I'd killed jumped up and ran off while I was climbing out of my tree stand. We never did find the bastard. This was back in the days when deer were not easy to come by, when antlered deer were the only ones legal to shoot. Early trauma sticks with you -- I was not going to let that happen again. 'Don't think you're going to run on me, you son of a bitch,' I'm yelling. 'I could have sworn I killed your ass.'
"In another 25 yards or so, I reach the end of the rope. 'Hell with it,' I says. I drop it and keep on crawling. This bastard has got to bleed out any second. I'll come back for the rope once I catch the guy.
"The tunnel turns again, runs about five yards more, then opens into a small chamber. I flip on the flashlight for a second. The only way out of the chamber is straight up. I see some blood on the floor, a little on the walls going up. There are small indentations cut into the dirt up one side -- footholds for ascending. I'm amazed a guy that shot up can climb up a shaft like that, but if he can, so can I. Bracing my back against one side and my feet against the other, I start up, feeling my way, listening for this unarmed guy who I figure has to be really close. Maybe I even hear him up ahead, but I'm breathing so hard, maybe that's just me.
"About eight or ten feet up, I bump my head on the ceiling, and pause for a second. I feel around, and find a small opening, another narrow tunnel that continues horizontally. I bring up the flashlight, take a deep breath, and flick it on.
"Guess what I see? Four feet down the tunnel, just out of arm's reach, sitting there pretty as a picture on its little aluminum tripod, is a green convex surface grinning at me like the face of Death Himself. The ode to the ignorant infantryman is printed right across the front: THIS SIDE TOWARD ENEMY."
"Nope, Cooljerk. I'm looking at the bad-news end of a frigging Claymore mine, two pounds of C4 and 700 steel bearings pointing at my head not two meters away. And you know what I think? First thing my inquiring mind wants to know is, 'What's an American command-detonated mine doing way back here in a Viet Cong tunnel complex?'
"Then I notice the electric ignition wire running along the dirt floor of the tunnel away from me until it disappears into the darkness. Maybe I just remember it this way, or maybe it actually happened, but I could swear I saw that wire move, like someone was still stringing it out, or stripping the ends so they could hook them to the detonator box or something.
“I says, 'Uh-oh...'
"So I yank my feet out of the notches in the wall and drop ten or twelve feet to the bottom of the shaft, busting a couple of my teeth off when I hit and turning my goddamn ankle, for none of which I got a Purple Heart, thank you very much. I turn ass around and head out of that tunnel like a rocket. I'm thinking how stupid, stupid, stupid I've been, realizing that me and the dead guy ain't the only people crawling around in that elongated, prefabricated grave. I'd seen more than enough action to know these guys don't like leaving their dead on the battlefield any more than we do, though I had no idea they were that tidy. It has to be less than 15 minutes since I popped the guy. Now I'm expecting for them to touch off that goddamn Claymore any second and collapse half the Central Highlands on my sorry, stupid ass.
"So anyway, I haul balls, flashlight burning all the way this time. Hell, they know good and well I'm in there, now. I make the bend, pass through, find the rope, wrap that sucker around my arm and yank three times. The guys start pulling, but the rope binds at the first bend and they can't get it to move very fast up that slope with me hanging on it. I crawl like hell back through the blood puddle up to the first bend, then give three more jerks, which I forget is the signal for them to pull even harder. They really honk on it now, and I come shooting up that last stretch like I'm holding onto a ski rope, popping into the daylight like the cork out of a bottle of Asti Spumanti.
"Fucking sergeant says, 'You ain't the dead guy.'
"So I stand up, wincing on that sore ankle, spit out two teeth, click the safety off on that .45, and say, 'Did I ever tell you about a Papa Sierra I had at Parris Island, name of Alvarez?'
"Well, I hadn't. Apparently somebody else had, though, because sergeant decides he'll let it slide. They sent a satchel charge in on Willie's medevac so we could blow the tunnel, which I'm sure the VC dug back out the next day. Later, when I told the story about what I saw at the top of that shaft, even the sergeant agreed that a tactical adjustment was in order.
"That's Marine-speak, Cooljerk, for a retreat."
I took a sip off my O'Doul's. "And the implication of this yarn for our forces at Tora Bora?" I asked.
"It's like this. If you crawl into tunnels after bad guys, the odds on coming out alive are, I would say, about one in five. I am the exception that proves the rule."
"You are the exception that proves every rule, Devoid."
"Thanks for the recognition. My point is, intelligent people don't even try that shit, but in my Marine Corps, the proper response to gooks in a tunnel was 'Away All Boats!' And guess what? We defeated the Viet Cong militarily -- several times, in fact.
"If I'd told that platoon sergeant no, he'd have just shot me, and told the next guy to go in. And if that guy had said no, he'd have shot him, too, and the next guy would have gone in. And if he'd had to shoot the whole squad, leaving himself with no one else to bark orders at, that jarhead E-6 would have just reloaded and, since an order had been issued, he would have gone in himself, because he’d waded ashore at Saipan or Iwo Jima or Okinawa with a whole slug of guys who were still sleeping the long dirt nap back on those islands, and he would have felt he owed it to them, or the Corps, maybe.
"That's how you win wars, at least on the battlefield. If you ain't willing to treat your troops like cannon fodder, don't march them into the mouths of cannons. If Lincoln had stuck with McClellan, a fine, professionally educated officer and a gentleman, Alvarez could have had a couple of slave nigras escort me to the brig. But Lincoln, seeing McClellan's results, turned the Army of the Potomac over to Grant, a coarse, drunken butcher best known for puking perfectly good whiskey all over himself. That's why he always wore privates' uniforms: He had to change them so often. Grant literally drowned the Confederacy in Union blood.
"Now, our guys in Afghanistan I'm sure are very, very good at what they do, provided it doesn't require slaughtering themselves wholesale in tunnels until the enemy gags on their blood. We're trying to pay the Afghanis to do that, just like we tried to pay puppets in 'Nam to run that country, and we'll get about the same results. When that doesn't work, we'll back off two miles, call in the B-52s, rearrange the countryside and thin out the civilians while the bad guys hunker down or slip off to Pakisnack. Guess who the surviving civilians are going to sign up with, after we chopper back to base for happy-hour?"
"If we had such a great strategy in Viet Nam, David, how do you account for the present government?"
"Same deal. It's all willingness to sacrifice. In other words, how bad do you want it? If these camel captains in Afghanistan take a lesson from the Vietnamese, they'll never quit. They'll nickel and dime us, kill us by ones and twos and threes until all the mommies and daddies in Poughkeepsie and Des Moines and Caspar, Wyoming get sick and tired of it and we give up, declare 'peace with honor,' and slink home. The North Vietnamese wanted Vietnam more than the Southerners did, who were by and large paid lackeys of a foreign government. To the communists, Vietnam was their goddamn country -- all of it. They weren't going to pack up and go home. They already were home. Yes, we won ... but they didn't quit. It's not enough just to win. You got to make the other guy to quit.
"Truman had the right idea: unconditional surrender. After Nagasaki, the junior officer corps of the Japanese Imperial Army mutinied and almost overthrew their generals, just so they could continue to die with honor. But cooler heads prevailed, and when the emperor finally said, 'Let's quit,' they quit.
"I didn't necessarily say we won't win in Afghanistan, although the Russian experience is not very heartening. What I am saying is that we won't win by clearing out tunnels. Why? Because we ain't clearing out tunnels. If we think we are, we're lying to ourselves again. That's spin, and that way lies perdition. What we're really doing is waiting quietly for the bad guys to slip away stage right, then sending our paid lap dogs in to declare victory with honor.
"Who knows? Maybe democracy will spontaneously erupt, and everyone will lay down their arms in favor of slugging it out at the polls. I doubt it, though. Our best bet is to buy the biggest, meanest bad guys in town, then set them to exterminating the Talibangers, hoping they don't do anything politically incorrect like machine-gunning women and babies or snuffing them with poison gas or herding big groups of bad guys into the ovens."
"That's a grim, cynical attitude, David."
"War is a grim, cynical business, Cooljerk. That's why peace is infinitely to be preferred, why war should be the absolute last resort. To my lights, the mackerel snappers have the best approach to war: Keep the peace. And they've got a recipe for peace, too, one that is simple, though not easy."
"What's that, David?"
"Aim for justice."
"Who, us? The most avaricious, arrogant nation on earth? Don't hold your breath."
"I'm not. Our current policy sounds like what we told those guys in the Corps who could never hit anything."
"Set it on full auto and hold low. Maybe you'll snag something with the muzzle climb."
# # #
Coolstoi is a fortysomething skid-row alcoholic and drug addict who's 20 years clean and sober. He prefers writing skanky drinking stories based on his lavishly misspent youth. A recent MFA, he has been published in several venues, both print and on-line.
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