Escalation 16

But there was none of that romantic agony for many GIs as the unseen enemy harassed them with mines, booby traps and mortars. Ronald J. Glasser, an army doctor, compiled some of their combat experiences in a book entitled 365 Days, describing the kind of search- and-destroy mission that killed and crippled American soldiers every day in Vietnam—without bringing the United States any nearer to its vague and elusive goal of victory.
By early morning, a suffocating dry heat hung over the rice fields, making it nearly impossible to breathe. The men chewed salt tablets as they walked, trying as well as they could to shelter the metal parts of their weapons from the sun. “A little before noon, the point man, plodding along a dusty rise, sweating under his flak vest, stepped on a pressure-detonated 105-mm shell, and for ten meters all around the road lifted itself into the air, shearing off his legs as it blew up around him. The rest of the patrol threw themselves on the ground.” That evening, the company was mortared—only two rounds but enough to keep the men awake despite their exhaustion. The heat continued to hang over them as they lay on the ground, smoking marijuana or just looking vacantly up at the empty sky. It was the fifth night that week they had been hit. They would suffer more losses the next morning, when they began sweeping again.
They moved out on line, humping through the gathering heat, chewing salt pills as they had the day before, looking out over the same shimmering landscape. A little after ten o’clock, they began moving through a hedgerow. A trooper tripped a wire and deto¬nated a claymore set up to blow behind him. It took down three others, killing two right off and leaving the third to die later. The survivors rested around the bodies till the dust-offs came in and took out the casualties, then started up again.
Soon afterward, one of the platoons entered a tangled jungle area. The thick overhead foliage filtered out almost all the sunlight, making it difficult to see, while the matting of vines and bushes held onto the heat, magnifying it until the men felt that they were moving through an airless oven. The sweat poured off them as they trod cautiously. At places the growth was so thick that they slung their weapons and pulled the vines apart with their bare hands. Thorns caught onto their fatigues and equipment, and they had to tear themselves loose. Scratched and bleeding, they pushed on.
Three quarters of the way through the tangle, a trooper brushed against a two-inch vine, and a grenade slung at chest height went off, shattering the right side of his head and body. The medic, working down in the dim light, managed to stop the major bleeders, but could do nothing about the shattered arm and the partly de¬stroyed skull. Nearby troopers took hold of the unconscious soldier and, half carrying, half dragging him, pulled him the rest of the way through the tangle.
The Communists invented an extraordinarily lethal arsenal of mines and booby traps. The “Bouncing Betty” was so called by GIs because it leaped out of the earth, exploding as its firing device was triggered. More destructive were mortar and artillery shells hung from trees, nestled in shrubbery, or buried under the mud floors of Vietnamese huts. Others included booby-trapped grenades tripped by wires and fragmentation mines detonated by enemy guerrillas crouched in the jungle; and there were primitive snares, like sharpened bamboo staves hidden in holes. Cautious and fearful, GIs constantly attempted to second-guess the mines, as Tim O’Brien wrote in his memoir of the war, If I Die in a Combat Zone:
Should you put your foot to that flat rock or the clump of weeds to its rear? Paddy dike or water? You wish you were Tarzan, able to swing with the vines. You try to trace the footprints of the man to your front. You give it up when he curses you for following too closely; better one man dead than two. The moment-to-moment, step-by-step decision-making preys on your mind. The effect is sometimes paralysis. You are slow to rise from rest breaks. You walk like a wooden man . . . with your eyes pinned to the dirt, spine arched, and you are shivering, shoulders hunched.
It was less a fear of death that nagged the American soldiers, as one of O’Brien’s buddies put it, than the absurd combination of certainty and uncertainty—the certainty that the mines were everywhere, the uncertainty about how to move or sit in order to avoid them. The Vietcong had so many ways to plant and camouflage mines, he mused. “I’m ready to go home,” he added.
So were many other GIs as the war floundered, and their original sense of purpose became clouded by doubt. Looking back, Ehrhart spoke for others:
After a few months, it began to seem crazy but you didn’t dare to draw conclusions that might point in terrifying directions. Maybe we Americans weren’t the guys in white hats, riding white horses. Maybe we shouldn’t be in Vietnam. Maybe I’d gotten my ass out in these bushes for nothing. Still, it never occurred to me to lay down my rifle and quit. Instead, you develop a survival mentality. You stop thinking about what you’re doing, and you count days. I knew that 1 was in Vietnam for three hundred and ninety-five days, and if I was still alive at the end of those three hundred and ninety-five days, I’d go home and forget the whole thing. That’s the way you operated.

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