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It’s almost been 50 years since I fought in the Vietnam War, 50 years since I shot that man for this country. However, while he’s buried and gone, he’s with me too.
There are details that slip as time marches on. I know the nickname of the place, but the actual place evades me. I’d struggle to find it on a map. But, there are details so clear it’s as if it is happening in front of me, like it already did in 1968. The dirt on my lips, the rusty taste of fear in my stomach and the outline of the figure crouching ahead of me.
The moment itself, as honest as I can be, is muscle memory, the brain doesn’t enter into it. A violent, mindless second. However, when that furious moment rolls over to the next, that’s an entirely different thing. Throughout training, we were told that people were targets, nothing more. Think of them as targets. The outline I shot looked exactly like that. It didn’t have a face, it just looked like a cardboard cutout. As for what it looked like afterwards, it looked like nothing. It no longer looked like a person, it was just a thing.
I’ve barely discussed this outside of those who would understand, those who were there, hence the cloak of anonymity when I write this today. However, I feel compelled to display the division I still feel. If you want to know what I exactly felt afterwards…I felt elation. I was trying to keep me alive. That’s it. I was still breathing, he wasn’t. Seconds ago, this man wanted me dead; seconds later, I’m going through his pockets.
However, later on, when your mind sits idle, it wanders back to that moment, and what it meant. Through dreams, and in the darkest morning hours, I’ve often wished that we traded places, so he could live with the guilt. But, I’ve also wondered if he’d feel guilty. If he learned my name, as I did his, would he feel the same way? He was the same age as me, but, in his eyes, I was the foreign invader. That dust-sodden road was his backyard. Would we have had anything in common? Or would he have cut my throat in my sleep? What was I doing there? What if someone else had shot him? To be honest, I don’t know. Questions are supplanted by more questions.
I felt elation. I was trying to keep me alive. That’s it. I was still breathing, he wasn’t. Seconds ago, this man wanted me dead; seconds later, I’m going through his pockets.
Prior to finding myself on that sunburnt road, I had flitted from place to place back home, allowing my work to carry me from one experience to the next. It was a nomadic, soulless pursuit in hindsight, but I was young, so what the hell did I know? I did things because they felt good. I had a lot of fun, but no real future. I was living in Darwin when I was drafted. I had no roots, or compunction to get out of it. I was part of the working class, and it seemed to be the thing to do. At the time I was proud to go, so I did.
I’m often asked, as a soldier of an unpopular war, what it was it that I fought for?
That’s a lazy question to ask, and there’s no reasonable answer to it. Before I went, I didn’t buy into the whole “domino theory”, I had no interest in politics. I was asked by my country to serve, and out of love, I did. But, in as far as fighting to preserve the commonwealth, for the Queen, for Western Democracy and the sausage sizzles at the Rotary Club, all that slipped out the window as soon as that figure came into view. From there on out, I fought for me, and those next to me.
In the years since, I’ve blamed a lot of people for me being on that road. The government for conscription, myself, and the man I killed. There’s enough blame to go around, and I don’t want to comment on the larger issue of Vietnam, there are enough people who do, but the macro nature of the conflict I was truly responsible for says everything about it. It happened, and we have to live with it.
As for whether I regret it, I’ve taken a life, and I live with it.