When I Stopped Believing in War
James Bowers
August 2005


“Here comes the sun.
Here comes the sun,
and I say, It’s all right.
It’s been a long cold lonely winter”.

It was sunrise, re-supply day in the hills west of Hue, Vietnam. Every four days we were allowed to turn on our radios and stop talking in a whisper for a few hours. Normally we had to maintain quiet so as not to give away our location. There was little point in that pretense however, when the choppers started to come in every few minutes, and smoke grenades were going off to show the pilots which hilltop we were on. It was like some medieval fair. The L.Z. (landing zone) was surrounded by trip flares and claymore mines, and there were people on guard at six positions in a rough circle. Four days worth of food, ammo, medical supplies, and most importantly mail coming in. Even guys like me that are not very reliable correspondents wrote to everybody they could think of hoping to get a letter in return. Nothing was confidential. We read our letters to one another so that our buddies would know, so that we would know, that we were loved, valued, that someone wanted us to come home.

First, however, the C-rations had to be sorted through, the stuff we hated discarded and the stuff we only disliked carefully stowed in our rucksacks (politely called that badass ruck). Once we wrote a letter to the A-1 Sauce people telling how much we loved their product and how it made the C-rations taste much better. They sent our platoon a case of the stuff. We got some tabasco sauce the same way, but the ketchup people stonewalled us. Each man also got a sundry pack, which was soap, shaving cream, cigarettes (Pall Malls for the lifers, Marlboros and Winstons for the white guys, Salems and Kools for the soul brothers), and three sodas per man. It didn’t matter what kind. They weren’t cold or even cool. None of us could even remember what cold felt like. Periodically, the men on watch would be relieved so that they could also pack for the next four days. Sometimes the Chaplain would come out with the supplies and give communion to anyone who wished it. Pretty much everyone attended if they could. Why take chances? Besides, he used real wine. Sometimes the “re-up frog” (re-enlistment NCO) would come out in case anyone was sick enough of humping those hills, fighting off leeches and mosquitoes, dealing with “jungle rot”, and even occasionally getting shot at, to do something truly stupid. You could get out of the woods and become a cook or an MP or any other damn thing that never went out to the jungle. All you had to do was to re-enlist in the “green machine” for six more years. Most of the guys who took that deal were still new to the ‘ Nam with almost a year left in the field. Nobody who had started their “short-timers” calendar (90 days or less) ever re-upped. We called him the “re-up frog” after the little tree frogs that would sing out at night “Re-up! Re-up!

Before we left, there was usually time for reading mail, opening and sharing packages from “the world”, and making some coffee or cocoa. The C-ration coffee was the worst instant coffee ever made. Each of us had perfected a recipe by combining various amounts of cocoa, sugar and powdered creamer into the mix to make it more palatable. We would squat around in a circle passing our cups around, each of us drinking from every cup. No one ever simply drank his own cup. We would swap recipes like some old ladies tea society. The radio was playing “Octopus’ Garden” by the Beatles. “We would be warm, and safe from harm in an octopus’ garden in the shade”. No shit!! Sometimes we would sing along quietly or someone would exclaim grimly “There it is, Breeze”. This was the G.I. pidgin English equivalent of “Amen”. Another popular phrase was “It don’t mean nothing”, as in “It don’t mean nothin’ breeze, I been wet before”. This was a big number during the monsoon season. Eventually, each of us would pull away to re-read our letters, or to read “Stars and Stripes” to make sure we were still winning the war. Sometimes it was just good for a laugh.

Like the time this General decided that all his clerks and typists (Rear Echelon Mother F------s, REMFs) should understand better the war experience. He had them choppered out to a “fire base”. This is a forward artillery base. Sometimes we would be pulled out of the jungle to man the bunker line on one of these bases. We thought of it as “kick back” duty in a place of relative safety. The article in the paper described how scared these clerks were for their entire three hour stint. All things are relative I guess. I still smile when I think of it.

I had just finished packing my ruck, and had shared coffee/cocoa with my usual group…minus one. Kraft was missing, and always would be. Roger, his best buddy, had to stretch a bit to pass the cups past where he would have been sitting. Kraft was cool. He had a knack for spotting booby traps. He wasn’t killed because he had made a mistake. He was where he was supposed to be doing what he was supposed to do, and doing it the way he was supposed to do it. He was taken out by one of those “to whom it may concern” bullets. He had a B.A. in psychology and a dry puckish wit. He made a damn fine cup of cocoa. He would be missed.

I settled in to read Stars and Stripes. I wanted to see if they had published my poem, “Pyhrric Victory” which I had submitted. They didn’t (ever), but there was another poem in there. It had been found on the body of a North Vietnamese soldier. It was translated into English and presented without comment. It went something like this:

“I remember sitting on my front stoop,
Watching the sunrise over the mountain.
Over my head is the morning glory vine.
My wife is clattering her pots making breakfast,
And I hear my children stirring sleepily in their bed.
How I miss them! How I miss them!”

I could remember my own sunrises over the little Methodist church across the street; my wife stirring in the kitchen, and my little daughter making infant noises in her crib. I sat and thought for a long time. I wondered if he might have been a schoolteacher like I was before they drafted me. We could have bitched about our students and our administrators if we had met. He could have shown me his pictures, and I could have shown him mine. We could have talked about how much the army sucks and ridiculed our officers. But now he was dead, as dead as Kraft. For the rest of the day, off and on, I thought about the woman in the poem trying to explain to her children. I thought about Kraft’s mom and dad, and I thought a lot about enemies. Enemies.

“Imagine there’s no countries.
I wonder if you can.
Nothing to kill or die for,
A brotherhood of man.
Imagine all the people.
Living life in peace.”

There it is Breeze!