by David E Owen
It was early in the Vietnam War, when we were clearing the Viet Cong out of the Mekong Delta. I remember six of us hiking all night from the river, where the swift boat had let us off, loaded down with weapons and ammo and two days rations. It was a forced march of about 10 klicks through the jungle’s sticky heat and bugs. Sweat ran in rivulets down the inside of our clothes and into our boots. It trickled down our foreheads, stinging our eyes, and after hours of steady plodding through the blackness, we became very hungry and thirsty, and very tired, but we could take only a few short rest breaks.
In the predawn, that period of gray light just before the sun comes up, we finally reached our objective. There, about 40 meters away, surrounded by rows of neglected rubber trees, we could see it, a typical French colonial plantation house. Built on cement piles a couple of feet off the ground, it had the usual red tile roof and a wide verandah running around it. Now dingy white paint was peeling off the walls and shutters of the once happy home of a French planter and his family. On the gravel drive in front stood a beat-up American jeep with the white stars painted over, and a worn Citroen sedan, like you see in those old World War II movies. There was no sign of life, but even in its silence the house looked sinister and alive, because I didn’t know what we might encounter inside.
After a quick meal of C-2 rations and water, we crept closer and concealed ourselves in the tall grass, and after a while we began to hear noises from inside, and from the cookhouse, a few meters from the main house. Pretty soon we saw the cooks carrying breakfast over to the main house. Then after a tense wait, Puffer finally signaled that it was time to move. MacKay and I got up and ran in a crouch toward the house. We each carried an AK-47 and a Makarov pistol, so that any VC hearing our gunfire from a distance wouldn’t identify it as American.
Without a sound we bounded up the steps, across the verandah and into the central hallway, quickly looking into each room as we hurried through the house. Then we burst into the dining room, and I remember every detail of the next couple of minutes.
About eight or so VC sat around a table eating, and their eyes peering over their rice bowls went suddenly round with surprise and fright. Then we started shooting, full automatic. We literally mowed them down where they sat frozen with fear. The tinkle of our expended brass hitting the floor playing delicate counterpoint to the crescendo of our firing. And suddenly there was only silence, with the smell of cordite lingering in the air. It was awful.
We identified our target, the VC district chief, by his ring and wristwatch, and MacKay drew his Makarov and sent a single bullet through his head, just to make sure he was dead. Then we took the ring and watch and everything in his pockets as proof that we had got the right guy, and ran out the French doors, across the verandah, and through the rows of rubber trees. Once in the cover of the jungle we flopped down, breathless. I hoped MacKay didn’t see that I was shaking.
We listened, but all we heard was utter silence — no alarms, no shooting, no yelling or screaming — just silence. Now when I looked at the house it looked different — not like a house, but like some great beast that we had just slaughtered, sitting there all still in the gray dawn, empty and silent.
Following standard procedure, we killed not just our target, the VC boss, but everyone who was with him. That included three or four guys in green uniforms. But it also included some other people too. Like a woman about his age, and a girl, I guess about fifteen years old, and two boys, I reckon they were about nine and thirteen — probably the VC boss’s wife and children.
So now you may be wondering, how can I live with myself, with those innocent people on my conscience. And I have to tell you that it doesn’t bother me. When I think of that VC family all bloody and dead in a heap over the breakfast table where my partner and I had shot them, I have to tell you — truly, it doesn’t bother me.
But the fact that it doesn’t bother me —
that’s what bothers me.