Collateral Damage and Children in War
As perverse as it is, and as much as I hate the idea, there
may actually be a good reason why children should fight in a war: If they are caught in the middle of it, this may be the
only chance they have for survival. With a gun, they may have a chance to survive. Without it, their only role
in it can be as victims.
In Vietnam, children did fight on both sides of that conflict.
I was responsible for killing one of them, and was unjustly accused of killing several others, and my (perhaps) sixty four
year old medic lost his adopted son there.
I don't know how old the child was whom I killed. I
am guessing that he must have been about three. That is, I thought I had killed him, for the possibility of his survival seemed
At Trung Lap, at the edge of the so-called "Iron Triangle",
we were mortared every night by our enemy, almost always with 60 millimeter mortars. Usually, this was not a big problem,
since all of my team members, for which I was the advisory team leader, had adequate protection. Although we had
individual concrete bunkers just outside each man's room, these tended to have at least one or several snakes in them at night,
and my medic assured me that all of these were poisonous.
So, one of the teams which we had replaced, had made
a bunker out of each of our beds. Around our box spring matresses, they had built a wall of two or three foot long and
one foot wide, ten inch high boxes in which artillery shells had been stored. The boxes were filled with
sand, that had been compacted by soaking it with water. Instead of a straight shot into the bed, we had to make
a sharp turn in order to bed down.
The shelter at Trung Lap base was topped by a layer of solid
steel planking, which had been used to cover the small airfield within our base, which was probably about
800 by 1,200 meters in overall size. The airfield length ran in the 800 meter direction, and was adequate for small
fixed-wing craft. In the 1,200 meter direction were mostly abandoned bunkers, from the time that the
Vietnamese Ranger Training Center had been located there.
To defend this rather large piece of real estate, we only
had forty or so ARVN Regional Force soldiers. In addition to these soldiers and our six man team, as
well as an occasional American unit, there were at least 200 or so Vietnamese people in our base, but most of these were
officers and NCO's, and their wives and children. Because we had such few men, we were forced to locate them in each
of the four corners of the base, about six Vietnamese soldiers in each spot, armed with their own M-16 rifles, as
well one 50 caliber heavy-barrel machine gun as a crew-served weapon. The latter had a lot of killing power, and an
effective range of 2,000 yards (1,829 meters), and a maximum range of 7,400 yards (6767 meters). However, they
were poorly maintained. On this weapon, both headspace and timing have to be set, and we worked hard to persuade the
Vietnamese to let us teach them how to do this, and we were only partially successful in this.
I had been ordered to take command of the training mission
at Trung Lap, after the previous Team Leader had been seriously wounded during an enemy ambush, just as he left the main gate
to our base. Based on the description by my men, I doubt that he survived the helicopter evacuation to the military
hospital at Cu Chi.
During my second or third evening at Trung Lap, I decided
to check the Vietnamese defending our perimeter. I was challenged and halted about a hundred yards from the first crew
position. When my interpreter told the men that the American team leader wanted to visit with them, they demanded
that I say a few words in English, to prove that I was that I was an American. Only then did they roll back the barbed
"concertina" wire, and we were permitted to enter their position. My interpreter confided in me, that the Vietnamese would
not even allow their own NCO's and officers to inspect them at night.
The men seemed very happy to see us, and I was able to check
the state of their sandbag defenses, and the fields of fire for the heavy machinegun. We shook hands, and I smiled a
lot, but my enjoyment of their pleasant company was tempered by the knowledge, that only two weeks earlier, one of our unit's
outposts, only four hundred yards in front of our wire, had been abandoned, after three of the defenders were
found with their throats cut, and the fourth had disappeared. It seemed obvious that the fourth man had been a Vietcong,
and the other three had favored our side. I wondered whether any of the men I was now visiting with also had Vietcong
sympathies, but would not reveal their political preference until our unit came under heavy attack. Our recruiting system
was very simple: Whenever we swept the Vietcong - dominated area within two or three miles of our base, any young men of military
age were drafted into the government army, and instantly joined our unit. One of my sergeants always tried to cover my back,
whenever we were involved in a combat patrol, and I tried to do the same for him.
Today's video games just can't provide that degree of excitement,
and after our patrols, we always took our nightly mortaring in stride. There were no casualties, either on he part of
our advisors, or on the part of the Vietnamese in our base, but we did have quite a few close calls:
My jeep, parked only ten feet from the entrance of our bar,
was shredded one night, and some shrapnel from the 60's took a couple of chunks or so out of the painting of a tiger,
which had been near the window. I took that painting home with me. You saw it on the front page of this web site, the
picture above shows one of the points of impact.
My team seemed puzzled: "Why do you want that picture - it's
got shrapnel in it?". My response: "I want it, because it has shrapnel in it. Every time I see it, I shall be
grateful for our good fortune".
One night, when the mortaring seemed to be more robust than
usual, an American soldier braved the unhealthy environment to bring me, he said, the precise coordinates of the mortar
positions. He and his small team were living and working in a heavily protected bunker less than a hundred feet from
our own bunkers, and they were manning a very sophisticated counter-mortar radar.
Although their function was really to protect the 25th U.S.
Infantry Divsion base a few miles away, they seemed to resent hiding in a bunker every night, or be turned into ground
beef. I had had as much of the excitement as they had by then, so I put on my flak jacket and steel helmet, and ran
the two hundred yards to our Vietnamese 4.2" heavy mortar pits.
Actually, that was a very stupid thing to do. After
all, I was leaving a perfectly safe environment, in order to take my chances while shrapnel was raining into our compound. Only
one thing could have motivated me to take that sort of risk: It was rage, pure and simple.
My increasing resentment at these nightly humiliations had
turned slowly to a pure and fiery hatred of our enemy, and I had not been aware of the intensity of my feelings, until the
man from the counter-mortar radar unit had given me these precise coordinates, which made my revenge possible.
The gunners of the three heavy mortars were already there, waiting
for instructions, and the Vietnamese Captain who commanded our ARVN battalion joined me in less then two minutes. Each mortar
weighed a little over 300 pounds, and could fire a 25# projectile of high explosive ammunition at the rate of 40 rounds in
two minutes. It has a maximum range of 4400 yards, and my target was located at less than half that distance.
The Vietnamese commander looked at the map, and spoke
softly: "The VC have placed their tubes in the middle of a small group of farm houses, knowing we won't hit them
I responded: "I don't care. Not only are our own lives
constantly at risk, but so are the children of your officers and NCO's". The Vietnamese commander was a music major from
Saigon university, and he hated this war probably more than any man or woman in Vietnam. He had told me earlier, that
his pretty wife was on birth control pills, because he could not bear to bring a child in to this world.
With a sigh, he read the coordinates I had brought to the
mortar crews, that were gathered around us, and gave them to the mortar crews. There was no incoming mortar
fire where we stood - At that time, it seemed to all be coming down around our advisory compound and near the American
counter-mortar radar bunker.
In seconds, the heavy outgoing shells had reached their targets,
and at least twenty shells were fired before the Vietnamese commander ordered a cease-fire.
I did not sleep well that night, and that was bad: I had
been scheduled for a combat patrol for the next morning, and I needed to be alert and quick on my feet. At dawn, as
I stood near the edge of our small airfield, I watched as a very wrinkled old man, at least perhaps 75 years or more
of a very hard life, and an equally old woman, at least 70 years or more, struggled to carry a three year old boy through
our gate, about 300 yards away.
Limping slowly toward me, he was supporting his right leg
with a makeshift crutch - a crudely trimmed forked tree branch. His companion periodically supported the boy's
full weight, whenever the man began to falter, barely saving the boy from falling on one occasion.
Since I was almost totally absorbed in the process of coordinating
the life-saving artillery fire support for our imminent patrol through the fringes of the "Iron Triangle", one of my sergeants
rushed toward this pathetic trio and offered to carry the boy, but they refused to release him.
A few minutes later, when they had finally reached my position,
they placed the child gently at my feet, and stepped back, trying to avoid my eyes. Their deeply wrinkled faces
seemed to display neither hatred, nor anger, but only the resignation and apparent apathy as those who are
still suffering from an intense and incomprehensible shock.
The boy's expression was merely a blank stare, his mind attempted
to mask the pain of a severe abdominal wound. His grandparents, if that is what they were, had tied a large dinner
plate to his tiny body with packing twine, in order to prevent his shredded intestines from spilling out.
Although I called for medical evacuation immediately, I knew
in my heart, that this was only my expression of utter futility, and my attempt to alleviate my own deeply-felt guilt.
The boy could not possibly survive, for that sickenly - sweet disgusting odor, which I had so often sensed around our
fallen foe in the Central Hicglands and in the Triangle, already clung to him like a shroud.
For me, collateral damage has a face, and it is that
of a dying three year old boy, and his frail and desperate grandparents, struggling with their pain to grant him a slim chance
I had always questioned that war, long before I received
orders for Vietnam, and I could have left the Army after my two year tour of duty in Germany was up, but I decided to voluntarily
extend my time in service, and therefore made a tour of duty in Vietnam inevitable. Certainly, I had no illusions about
that war - the American press covered its horrors in great detail.
But I felt that I needed to do my part to defend Europe against
the communist threat from the east. If that meant I had to get a little combat experience in Vietnam, so be it.
I did not come away from that as a pacifist, but seemed to be heading in that direction. Together with my childhood
memories of World War II, I finally began to see the light, and the utter futility of war became clearly burned into
my consciousness. Even in Vietnam,my attitude began to change, and I began to see things from a different perspective.
One of the brightest spots during our almost daily dose
of unpleasant excitement was a little bit of unintentional humor by our usually seamlessly unimaginative propaganda machine:
As advisors, we were furnished with a monthly copy of the
MACV Reporter, in order to keep our morale at a high intensity. In one of these issues were two stories about children
fighting in the war. The first described an unfortunate Vietcong unit, most of whose members had been killed.
Among the survivors was a twelve-year old boy, who had become one of their soldiers. The gist of this story was:
"It's obvious that we are just about to win. The enemy is so desperately short of recruits, that they are even forcing
children to fight on their thoroughly evil side".
The other story was about a 12-year old Vietnamese orphan,
who had tagged along with our American soldiers, and demanded to be given a rifle. He, too, wanted to fight the
evil Viet Cong. The gist of the story was: "It's obvious that we are about to win: Our braveVietnamese allies are so
dedicated to our noble cause, that even their children are demanding to fight on our side.
Either story would have been a fine piece of propaganda,
if they had been printed in different issues of the MACV Reporter - both were extremely well written, with just the proper
nuances of patriotism and heroism. Unfortunately someone with a bizarre sense of humor had not only put them in the
same issue, but on opposing pages of the center, and each filled exactly one page of this tabloid size newsprint publication. Nevertheless,
the message did not get through to the guys in my team, and I hated to explain the similarities of both situations, since
I was concerned that our morale might suffer.
The moral of this tale: Even when major mistakes are made
in the production of propaganda, as long as the right emotional strings are pulled, propaganda works! For me, it was
a frightening revelation.