Among Marine Corps infantry—0311s—there was a desire to collect souvenirs; a badge, a flag, a belt with a buckle sporting a red star; they kept their eyes opened. An engineer came forward to blow up a pile of grenades. The CO was on his way for a look. The rest of Charlie Company worked its way down the jungle slope and filed by St. Jean’s platoon. Congratulations were in order; a job well done. “Oorah! Get some! Semper Fi!”
Bravado spread throughout the ranks of other platoons. Their behavior was primal, instinctive. Charlie Company had tasted blood and they enjoyed the sensation; a Marine-thing; a rite of passage. Lieutenant St. Jean wasn’t sure what he felt. He loved this job; he was a leader of men, of Marines. His skipper, Captain McMahon, seemed mighty happy when they’d spoken over the radio.
Suddenly, St. Jean’s thoughts drifted to his professor; the pretty one he’d had a fling with. What would she think right now? She was four years his senior and had hated the Vietnam War. He wondered if she’d hate him now, hate his men. Thoughts of her aroused him. That’s not all that aroused him. The big turn-on that really got him hot and bothered was when he watched the enemy walk into the kill zone and he gave the signal to fire; he almost had an orgasm as he watched them get cut to ribbons. This shocked him, yet turned him on. Now he wondered if he was some sort of pervert. He quickly shifted his thoughts back to his professor friend, Karen. He focused on his last night with her, what they’d done together, to each other. This made his feelings seem more normal—covered up his perversion, if that’s what it was. He stayed mentally focused on her and told himself that it was thoughts of her that made him feel as he did. He wondered if she’d call them all Nazi baby-killers. His nostrils flared as he pictured her. He asked himself if she and people like her were even capable of understanding that life and death in a combat zone was the ultimate sport, the ultimate challenge, the ultimate turn-on; fucking life? He felt excited and his breathing became heavy. His mind wondered back to the ambush, but quickly he tried to refocus. Forcing himself, he fantasized about Karen and the two of them together, alone somewhere—in a place like this, just before the carnage. His thoughts were a conglomeration of ideas. He was making love, giving the signal to fire, making life, taking life. He couldn’t help mixing the two and returning to the idea of killing as sex. He had to admit that the ambush had seemed sexual—did it? Was he sick? And there was Karen of course; sex and war represent life and death. They both turned him on.
He tried not to think about it. Everything else in life was also-ran/make-work. St. Jean felt lean and mean—he felt sexual. He was shocked and puzzled. His reactions seemed out of place; inappropriate. At twenty-four and educated, he did suffer the side effects of being philosophical, but this wasn’t philosophy 101 or anything close to it. He felt confused about his feelings.
Deep down, he could imagine echoes of his eighth-grade teacher admonishing him back when he was thirteen; “One day you’ll get a rude awakening … Lieutenant St. Jean.”
Of course she wouldn’t have called him Lieutenant; he was thirteen for chrissake. But he still could hear her saying it as though his lieutenant-ness was somehow baked into his genes, from birth, like the color of his eyes and hair. He remembered her wagging her goddamn finger like the scary old battleaxe she was. He half expected her to come out from behind the bushes, wagging her finger and demanding to know, “Just how dead do these poor souls need to be?”
As dead as we can make 'um, bitch.
“Have you no feelings?”
When I pull the trigger on my M-16 ... all I feel is recoil!
His eighteen and nineteen-year-old Marines didn’t seem to over think any of this. They appeared ready to go out and do it all over again. While he thought that he was ready for more, he didn’t want to push it. Now he wondered about Luck, Chance, and Fate; the Cosmic Trinity. They were the exact opposite of the Holy Trinity—chaos versus order. If any one of several things had been different, Charlie Company's Marines would not have been successful today. Out of chaos comes order. Can order be random?
As he surveyed the dead Viet Cong, he came to the realization that he lusted for the power of life and death over others.
He also felt that he needed to get a grip on the sexuality of killing.
Sounds like a college course.
This needed to get out of his head; it was just wrong. He scoffed with perverse amusement wondering how this skill translated into a civilian job. Grasping for normalcy, he told himself it was about power and control over others; ultimate, total, final. Yeah, that was kind of sexual, maybe; who’s on top?
Suddenly, the issue of overkill and investigations popped into St. Jean’s head. These thoughts turned off his aroused feelings as if he’d just taken a cold shower. Things like overkill could be considered crimes, he vaguely recalled from his training back at Quantico. Should he worry? He began another mental tug-of-war with himself; Cover your ass. The CO had mentioned a lot of unnecessary firing when they’d spoken over the radio some fifteen or twenty minutes ago. That was about wasting bullets, right? What if the CO was alluding to overkill, hinting that St. Jean was on his own if an investigation came to pass?
He began mentally hashing out a legal defense just in case. He imagined that his Perry Mason-like courtroom opening argument was taking place:
Lieutenant St. Jean: An unspoken part of overkill, gentlemen of the jury, is that much of the firing was due to a desire to unload the weight of the ammunition Marines are required to carry in combat under hot, grueling jungle conditions. Wearing a flak jacket, pack, helmet, and weighty ammunition is exhausting in hot, humid weather where temperatures can reach a hundred degrees with humidity at ninety-five percent. The ammo was something that tended to get dumped, as it were, under combat conditions, like this ambush.
The flak jacket was mandatory; a hot, sweaty experience, restricting movement, and it was heavy. By the way gentleman, many of the injuries suffered are not prevented by wearing a flak jacket. Some people might even consider wearing a flak jacket under hot jungle conditions to be a form of torture for no reason. Yet, we expect our Marines to cope with such things without complaint while risking their lives for their country.
St. Jean imagined that Hamilton Burger asshole: Objection, Your Honor. The argument is incompetent, irrelevant and immaterial. America does not torture its servicemen and women. On the contrary, these flak jackets help keep them alive.
St. Jean-Mason: Sometimes a flak jacket does indeed help keep our Marines alive, but at what cost, Your Honor? It does harm to their judgment, decision making, and temperament.
He turns toward Ham Burger, pointing, accusing. Then prosecutors like you come along and here we are! A mountain out of a mole hill! Blaming our heroes and not our enemies!
Burger: This is not a mountain out of a mole hill. It’s no such thing! Your Honor, this comes down to leadership. It is ultimately the officer in charge who is responsible for his men.
Suddenly St. Jean wondered again if his CO would hang him out to dry.
Perry St. Jean: Your professorial judgment from the comforts of an air conditioned room, sir, is to be commended. But, instead of leaning back in that cozy armchair with that glass and a pitcher of ice water in front of you, try making your judgments in the hot, steamy jungles of Southeast Asia under fire, and under the weight of all that gear, just once!
St. Jean was angering himself over a fanciful courtroom scene that existed only in his head. He calmed himself by remembering a reality: his CO was known to be loyal to those under him by taking heat when things got hot. He would not hang St. Jean out to dry. No way.
Suddenly, Cpl Avery handed St. Jean a folded paper he’d gotten off a dead VC. It broke his train of thought. “Anything else?”
“We found a map and some notes in Vietnamese.”
St. Jean took the paper and shoved it into his shirt pocket. He unfolded the map and glanced at it quickly adding, "Thanks. Keep me informed.
“Yes sir.”Avery turned and went over to a squad leader.
St. Jean’s men were almost done with the search. He was about to continue with his courtroom fantasy. He thought it was getting good. Maybe he should have studied law, but then again, he was tiring of all the mental masturbation and thought, fuck it. We’re Fifth Marines. Our job is to kill. This riverbed is to hell and gone from any MACV investigator. Christ, one of them might actually have to come into a combat zone. God forbid if some admin-jockey had to risk life and limb.
Another realization came to Lieutenant St. Jean. In this ravine and throughout the whole District of Quế Sơn and beyond, the men in Charlie Company, First Battalion, Fifth Marines, were the baddest of the bad in the history of warfare, and his men and his platoon were the cream of the crop.
The enemy generally feared Marines more than any other combat unit they had ever encountered. This would include—prior to their demise—these long-time, old soldiers who now lay dead at the hands of much younger, and a more temporary type of American fighter. These old pros were good enough; it’s just that their luck ran out when they faced the United States Marines, because we’re the best. Once again, Professor Karen Chamberlain came into St. Jean's mind. He had flashes of sex and machine guns, bondage and dead bodies. What would Professor Chamberlain think of that, with her hands tied tight behind her back? What would Sigmund Freud think? I don’t even know what to think of it! Thank Christ no one can read my mind.
It took a moment for St. Jean to settle himself and get back to the business at hand. He put the enemy map away. His men were finishing up the searches and were preparing to exit this jungle scene. He couldn’t help adding a bit of morbid humor with a Shakespearean touch; A Tempest in a Tea Pot, Much Ado about Nothing, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Deader than a Door Nail, Guppy Bait Dead, The Eyeball and the Fish, Ambush Sex, My Gun is Bigger than Yours. My men leave, the dead enemy remain—to rot in place—applause with a standing ovation; exit stage left as the curtain falls.
St. Jean began to realize that his emotions were bouncing from one extreme to the other. He also became aware that once you turn a trigger-pulling Marine on, it was not so easy to turn him off. Killing is what Marines in combat got to do for a living, on a good day. What a deal!
He absentmindedly took out the folded paper Cpl Avery had given him a few minutes earlier. As he unfolded it, his eyes widened, and he involuntarily whispered, “Holy shi…”
“The CO’s on the hook, sir.” Peterman, interrupted him from behind, and handed him his radio handset.
After a moment speaking with the CO, and still clutching the paper in one hand and the radio handset in the other, Lieutenant St. Jean suddenly shouted out, “Cpl Avery, have the squads move out in the order of one, two, and three.” He gave the handset back to Peterman, skimmed the paper he was holding and mumbled, “How in the hell did this get here?”
The final act—on stage—happened as the search teams finished gathering up what they’d found. It would all be sent up the intelligence chain of command. A few items were of some use. Among them was a map with location points, a VC diary, and as Lieutenant St. Jean could attest to, a very surprising letter.
St. Jean folded the letter, put it back in his pocket, and then impulsively picked up an AK-47 lying on the ground. The rest of Charlie Company had already filed by. St. Jean’s platoon would be picking up the rear; they’d done their job. Now another platoon would take over as point.