"There it is, you got to taste it, and that's the thing with Mary Anne.
She was there. She was up to her eyeballs in it. After the war, man, I
promise you, you won't find nobody like her."
Suddenly, Rat pushed up to his feet, moved a few steps away from us,
then stopped and stood with his back turned. He was an emotional guy.
"Got hooked, I guess," he said. "I loved her. So when I heard from
Eddie about what happened, it almost made me . . . Like you say, it's
"Go on," Mitchell Sanders said. "Finish up."
What happened to her, Rat said, was what happened to all of them.
You come over clean and you get dirty and then afterward it's never the
same. A question of degree. Some make it intact, some don't make it at
all. For Mary Anne Bell, it seemed, Vietnam had the effect of a powerful
drug: that mix of unnamed terror and unnamed pleasure that comes as
the needle slips in and you know you're risking something. The
endorphins start to flow, and the adrenaline, and you hold your breath
and creep quietly through the moonlit nightscapes; you become intimate
with danger; you're in touch with the far side of yourself, as though it's
another hemisphere, and you want to string it out and go wherever the
trip takes you and be host to all the possibilities inside yourself. Not bad,
she'd said. Vietnam made her glow in the dark. She wanted more, she
wanted to penetrate deeper into the mystery of herself, and after a time
the wanting became needing, which turned then to craving.
According to Eddie Diamond, who heard it from one of the Greenies,
she took a greedy pleasure in night patrols. She was good at it; she had
the moves. All camouflaged up, her face smooth and vacant, she seemed
to flow like water through the dark, like oil, without sound or center. She
went barefoot. She stopped carrying a weapon. There were times,
apparently, when she took crazy, death-wish chances—things that even
the Greenies balked at. It was as if she were taunting some wild creature
out in the bush, or in her head, inviting it to show itself, a curious game
of hide-and-go-seek that was played out in the dense terrain of a
nightmare. She was lost inside herself. On occasion, when they were
taken under fire, Mary Anne would stand quietly and watch the tracer
rounds snap by, a little smile at her lips, intent on some private
transaction with the war. Other times she would simply vanish altogether
—for hours, for days.
And then one morning, all alone, Mary Anne walked off into the
mountains and did not come back.
No body was ever found. No equipment, no clothing. For all he knew,
Rat said, the girl was still alive. Maybe up in one of the high mountain
villes, maybe with the Montagnard tribes. But that was guesswork.
There was an inquiry, of course, and a week-long air search, and for a
time the Tra Bong compound went crazy with MP and CID types. In the
end, however, nothing came of it. It was a war and the war went on.
Mark Fossie was busted to PFC, shipped back to a hospital in the States,
and two months later received a medical discharge. Mary Anne Bell
joined the missing.
But the story did not end there. If you believed the Greenies, Rat said,
Mary Anne was still somewhere out there in the dark. Odd movements,
odd shapes. Late at night, when the Greenies were out on ambush, the
whole rain forest seemed to stare in at them—a watched feeling—and a
couple of times they almost saw her sliding through the shadows. Not
quite, but almost. She had crossed to the other side. She was part of the
land. She was wearing her culottes, her pink sweater, and a necklace of
human tongues. She was dangerous. She was ready for the kill.
Henry Dobbins was a good man, and a superb soldier, but
sophistication was not his strong suit. The ironies went beyond him. In
many ways he was like America itself, big and strong, full of good
intentions, a roll of fat jiggling at his belly, slow of foot but always
plodding along, always there when you needed him, a believer in the
virtues of simplicity and directness and hard labor. Like his country, too,
Dobbins was drawn toward sentimentality.
Even now, twenty years later, I can see him wrapping his girlfriend's
pantyhose around his neck before heading out on ambush.
It was his one eccentricity. The pantyhose, he said, had the properties
of a good-luck charm. He liked putting his nose into the nylon and
breathing in the scent of his girlfriend's body; he liked the memories this
inspired; he sometimes slept with the stockings up against his face, the
way an infant sleeps with a flannel blanket, secure and peaceful. More
than anything, though, the stockings were a talisman for him. They kept
him safe. They gave access to a spiritual world, where things were soft
and intimate, a place where he might someday take his girlfriend to live.
Like many of us in Vietnam, Dobbins felt the pull of superstition, and he
believed firmly and absolutely in the protective power of the stockings.
They were like body armor, he thought. Whenever we saddled up for a
late-night ambush, putting on our helmets and flak jackets, Henry
Dobbins would make a ritual out of arranging the nylons around his
neck, carefully tying a knot, draping the two leg sections over his left
shoulder. There were some jokes, of course, but we came to appreciate
the mystery of it all. Dobbins was invulnerable. Never wounded, never a
scratch. In August, he tripped a Bouncing Betty, which failed to detonate.
And a week later he got caught in the open during a fierce little firefight,
no cover at all, but he just slipped the pantyhose over his nose and
breathed deep and let the magic do its work.
It turned us into a platoon of believers. You don't dispute facts.
But then, near the end of October, his girlfriend dumped him. It was a
hard blow. Dobbins went quiet for a while, staring down at her letter,
then after a time he took out the stockings and tied them around his neck
as a comforter.
"No sweat," he said. "The magic doesn't go away."
One afternoon, somewhere west of the Batangan Peninsula, we came
across an abandoned pagoda. Or almost abandoned, because a pair of
monks lived there in a tar paper shack, tending a small garden and some
broken shrines. They spoke almost no English at all. When we dug our
foxholes in the yard, the monks did not seem upset or displeased, though
the younger one performed a washing motion with his hands. No one
could decide what it meant. The older monk led us into the pagoda. The
place was dark and cool, I remember, with crumbling walls and
sandbagged windows and a ceiling full of holes. "It's bad news," Kiowa
said. "You don't mess with churches." But we spent the night there,
turning the pagoda into a little fortress, and then for the next seven or
eight days we used the place as a base of operations. It was mostly a very
peaceful time. Each morning the two monks brought us buckets of water.
They giggled when we stripped down to bathe; they smiled happily while
we soaped up and splashed one another. On the second day the older
monk carried in a cane chair for the use of Lieutenant Jimmy Cross,
placing it near the altar area, bowing and gesturing for him to sit down.
The old monk seemed proud of the chair, and proud that such a man as
Lieutenant Cross should be sitting in it. On another occasion the younger
monk presented us with four ripe watermelons from his garden. He
stood watching until the watermelons were eaten down to the rinds, then
he smiled and made the strange washing motion with his hands.
Though they were kind to all of us, the monks took a special liking for
"Soldier Jesus," they'd say, "good soldier Jesus."
Squatting quietly in the cool pagoda, they would help Dobbins
disassemble and clean his machine gun, carefully brushing the parts with
oil. The three of them seemed to have an understanding. Nothing in
words, just a quietness they shared.
"You know," Dobbins said to Kiowa one morning, "after the war
maybe I'll join up with these guys."
"Join how?" Kiowa said.
"Wear robes. Take the pledge."
Kiowa thought about it. "That's a new one. I didn't know you were all
"Well, I'm not," Dobbins said. Beside him, the two monks were
working on the M-60. He watched them take turns running oiled swabs
through the barrel. "I mean, I'm not the churchy type. When I was a little
kid, way back, I used to sit there on Sunday counting bricks in the wall.
Church wasn't for me. But then in high school, I started to think how I'd
like to be a minister. Free house, free car. Lots of potlucks. It looked like
a pretty good life."
"You're serious?" Kiowa said.
Dobbins shrugged his shoulders. "What's serious? I was a kid. The
thing is, I believed in God and all that, but it wasn't the religious part
that interested me. Just being nice to people, that's all. Being decent."
"Right," Kiowa said.
"Visit sick people, stuff like that. I would've been good at it, too. Not
the brainy part—not sermons and all that—but I'd be okay with the
Henry Dobbins was silent for a time. He smiled at the older monk,
who was now cleaning the machine gun's trigger assembly.
"But anyway," Dobbins said, "I couldn't ever be a real minister,
because you have to be super sharp. Upstairs, I mean. It takes brains.
You have to explain some hard stuff, like why people die, or why God
invented pneumonia and all that." He shook his head. "I just didn't have
the smarts for it. And there's the religious thing, too. All these years,
man, I still hate church."
"Maybe you'd change," Kiowa said.
Henry Dobbins closed his eyes briefly, then laughed.
"One thing for sure, I'd look spiffy in those robes they wear—just like
Friar Tuck. Maybe I'll do it. Find a monastery somewhere. Wear a robe
and be nice to people."
"Sounds good," Kiowa said.
The two monks were quiet as they cleaned and oiled the machine gun.
Though they spoke almost no English, they seemed to have great respect
for the conversation, as if sensing that important matters were being
discussed. The younger monk used a yellow cloth to wipe dirt from a belt
"What about you?" Dobbins said.
"Well, you carry that Bible everywhere, you never hardly swear or
anything, so you must—"
"I grew up that way," Kiowa said.
"Did you ever—you know—did you think about being a minister?"
"No. Not ever."
Dobbins laughed. "An Indian preacher. Man, that's one I'd love to see.
Feathers and buffalo robes."
Kiowa lay on his back, looking up at the ceiling, and for a time he
didn't speak. Then he sat up and took a drink from his canteen.
"Not a minister," he said, "but I do like churches. The way it feels
inside. It feels good when you just sit there, like you're in a forest and
everything's really quiet, except there's still this sound you can't hear."
"You ever feel that?"
Kiowa made a noise in his throat. "This is all wrong," he said.
"Setting up here. It's wrong. I don't care what, it's still a church."
Dobbins nodded. "True."
"A church," Kiowa said. "Just wrong."
When the two monks finished cleaning the machine gun, Henry
Dobbins began reassembling it, wiping off the excess oil, then he handed
each of them a can of peaches and a chocolate bar. "Okay," he said, "didi
mau, boys. Beat it." The monks bowed and moved out of the pagoda into
the bright morning sunlight.
Henry Dobbins made the washing motion with his hands.
"You're right," he said. "All you can do is be nice. Treat them decent,
The Man I Killed
His jaw was in his throat, his upper lip and teeth were gone, his one
eye was shut, his other eye was a star-shaped hole, his eyebrows were
thin and arched like a woman's, his nose was undamaged, there was a
slight tear at the lobe of one ear, his clean black hair was swept upward
into a cowlick at the rear of the skull, his forehead was lightly freckled,
his fingernails were clean, the skin at his left cheek was peeled back in
three ragged strips, his right cheek was smooth and hairless, there was a
butterfly on his chin, his neck was open to the spinal cord and the blood
there was thick and shiny and it was this wound that had killed him. He
lay face-up in the center of the trail, a slim, dead, almost dainty young
man. He had bony legs, a narrow waist, long shapely fingers. His chest
was sunken and poorly muscled—a scholar, maybe. His wrists were the
wrists of a child. He wore a black shirt, black pajama pants, a gray
ammunition belt, a gold ring on the third finger of his right hand. His
rubber sandals had been blown off. One lay beside him, the other a few
meters up the trail. He had been born, maybe, in 1946 in the village of
My Khe near the central coastline of Quang Ngai Province, where his
parents farmed, and where his family had lived for several centuries, and
where, during the time of the French, his father and two uncles and
many neighbors had joined in the struggle for independence. He was not
a Communist. He was a citizen and a soldier. In the village of My Khe, as
in all of Quang Ngai, patriotic resistance had the force of tradition, which
was partly the force of legend, and from his earliest boyhood the man I
killed would have listened to stories about the heroic Trung sisters and
Tran Hung Dao's famous rout of the Mongols and Le Loi's final victory
against the Chinese at Tot Dong. He would have been taught that to
defend the land was a man's highest duty and highest privilege. He had
accepted this. It was never open to question. Secretly, though, it also
frightened him. He was not a fighter. His health was poor, his body small
and frail. He liked books. He wanted someday to be a teacher of
mathematics. At night, lying on his mat, he could not picture himself
doing the brave things his father had done, or his uncles, or the heroes of
the stories. He hoped in his heart that he would never be tested. He
hoped the Americans would go away. Soon, he hoped. He kept hoping
and hoping, always, even when he was asleep.
"Oh, man, you fuckin' trashed the fucker," Azar said. "You scrambled
his sorry self, look at that, you did, you laid him out like Shredded fuckin'
"Go away," Kiowa said.
"I'm just saying the truth. Like oatmeal."
"Go," Kiowa said.
"Okay, then, I take it back," Azar said. He started to move away, then
stopped and said, "Rice Krispies, you know? On the dead test, this
particular individual gets A-plus."
Smiling at this, he shrugged and walked up the trail toward the village
behind the trees.
Kiowa kneeled down.
"Just forget that crud," he said. He opened up his canteen and held it
out for a while and then sighed and pulled it away. "No sweat, man. What
else could you do?"
Later, Kiowa said, "I'm serious. Nothing anybody could do. Come on,
The trail junction was shaded by a row of trees and tall brush. The slim
young man lay with his legs in the shade. His jaw was in his throat. His
one eye was shut and the other was a star-shaped hole.
Kiowa glanced at the body.
"All right, let me ask a question," he said. "You want to trade places
with him? Turn it all upside down—you want that? I mean, be honest."
The star-shaped hole was red and yellow. The yellow part seemed to be
getting wider, spreading out at the center of the star. The upper lip and
gum and teeth were gone. The man's head was cocked at a wrong angle,
as if loose at the neck, and the neck was wet with blood.
"Think it over," Kiowa said.
Then later he said, "Tim, it's a war. The guy wasn't Heidi—he had a
weapon, right? It's a tough thing, for sure, but you got to cut out that
Then he said, "Maybe you better lie down a minute."
Then after a long empty time he said, "Take it slow. Just go wherever
the spirit takes you."
The butterfly was making its way along the young man's forehead,
which was spotted with small dark freckles. The nose was undamaged.
The skin on the right cheek was smooth and fine-grained and hairless.
Frail-looking, delicately boned, the young man would not have wanted to
be a soldier and in his heart would have feared performing badly in
battle. Even as a boy growing up in the village of My Khe, he had often
worried about this. He imagined covering his head and lying in a deep
hole and closing his eyes and not moving until the war was over. He had
no stomach for violence. He loved mathematics. His eyebrows were thin
and arched like a woman's, and at school the boys sometimes teased him
about how pretty he was, the arched eyebrows and long shapely fingers,
and on the playground they mimicked a woman's walk and made fun of
his smooth skin and his love for mathematics. The young man could not
make himself fight them. He often wanted to, but he was afraid, and this
increased his shame. If he could not fight little boys, he thought, how
could he ever become a soldier and fight the Americans with their
airplanes and helicopters and bombs? It did not seem possible. In the
presence of his father and uncles, he pretended to look forward to doing
his patriotic duty, which was also a privilege, but at night he prayed with
his mother that the war might end soon. Beyond anything else, he was
afraid of disgracing himself, and therefore his family and village. But all
he could do, he thought, was wait and pray and try not to grow up too
"Listen to me," Kiowa said. "You feel terrible, I know that."
Then he said, "Okay, maybe I don't know."
Along the trail there were small blue flowers shaped like bells. The
young man's head was wrenched sideways, not quite facing the flowers,
and even in the shade a single blade of sunlight sparkled against the
buckle of his ammunition belt. The left cheek was peeled back in three
ragged strips. The wounds at his neck had not yet clotted, which made
him seem animate even in death, the blood still spreading out across his
Kiowa shook his head.
There was some silence before he said, "Stop staring."
The young man's fingernails were clean. There was a slight tear at the
lobe of one ear, a sprinkling of blood on the forearm. He wore a gold ring
on the third finger of his right hand. His chest was sunken and poorly
muscled—a scholar, maybe. His life was now a constellation of
possibilities. So, yes, maybe a scholar. And for years, despite his family's
poverty, the man I killed would have been determined to continue his
education in mathematics. The means for this were arranged, perhaps,
through the village liberation cadres, and in 1964 the young man began
attending classes at the university in Saigon, where he avoided politics
and paid attention to the problems of calculus. He devoted himself to his
studies. He spent his nights alone, wrote romantic poems in his journal,
took pleasure in the grace and beauty of differential equations. The war,
he knew, would finally take him, but for the time being he would not let
himself think about it. He had stopped praying; instead, now, he waited.
And as he waited, in his final year at the university, he fell in love with a
classmate, a girl of seventeen, who one day told him that his wrists were
like the wrists of a child, so small and delicate, and who admired his
narrow waist and the cowlick that rose up like a bird's tail at the back of
his head. She liked his quiet manner; she laughed at his freckles and
bony legs. One evening, perhaps, they exchanged gold rings.
Now one eye was a star.
"You okay?" Kiowa said.
The body lay almost entirely in shade. There were gnats at the mouth,
little flecks of pollen drifting above the nose. The butterfly was gone. The
bleeding had stopped except for the neck wounds.
Kiowa picked up the rubber sandals, clapping off the dirt, then bent
down to search the body. He found a pouch of rice, a comb, a fingernail
clipper, a few soiled piasters, a snapshot of a young woman standing in
front of a parked motorcycle. Kiowa placed these items in his rucksack
along with the gray ammunition belt and rubber sandals.
Then he squatted down.
"I'll tell you the straight truth," he said. "The guy was dead the second
he stepped on the trail. Understand me? We all had him zeroed. A good
kill—weapon, ammunition, everything." Tiny beads of sweat glistened at
Kiowa's forehead. His eyes moved from the sky to the dead man's body to
the knuckles of his own hands. "So listen, you best pull your shit
together. Can't just sit here all day."
Later he said, "Understand?"
Then he said, "Five minutes, Tim. Five more minutes and we're
The one eye did a funny twinkling trick, red to yellow. His head was
wrenched sideways, as if loose at the neck, and the dead young man
seemed to be staring at some distant object beyond the bell-shaped
flowers along the trail.
The blood at the neck had gone to a deep purplish black. Clean
fingernails, clean hair—he had been a soldier for only a single day. After
his years at the university, the man I killed returned with his new wife to
the village of My Khe, where he enlisted as a common rifleman with the
48th Vietcong Battalion. He knew he would die quickly. He knew he
would see a flash of light. He knew he would fall dead and wake up in the
stories of his village and people.
Kiowa covered the body with a poncho.
"Hey, you're looking better," he said. "No doubt about it. All you
needed was time—some mental R&R."
Then he said, "Man, I'm sorry."
Then later he said, "Why not talk about it?"
Then he said, "Come on, man, talk."
He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay
with one leg bent beneath him, his jaw in his throat, his face neither
expressive nor inexpressive. One eye was shut. The other was a star-
"Talk," Kiowa said.
When she was nine, my daughter Kathleen asked if I had ever killed
anyone. She knew about the war; she knew I'd been a soldier. "You keep
writing these war stories," she said, "so I guess you must've killed
somebody." It was a difficult moment, but I did what seemed right,
which was to say, "Of course not," and then to take her onto my lap and
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