1971 – Bangkok: Two Soldiers On Leave From Vietnam

At the Bangkok airport a uniformed man held up a sign with my name on it. Imagine me, a 23 year-old with his backpack, wearing dusty boots and a well-worn safari jacket, being attended to by a limousine driver. Something wasn’t right.

Still greater surprises awaited me. At the Hotel Reno, an unassuming establishment, I was shown into a suite far too large for one person, which convinced me that an error had been made. Inside, on a beautiful teak table surrounded by a sofa and chairs, were a magnificent orchid bouquet, a bottle of champagne and an envelope with my name on it, containing a welcoming letter and coupons for two days’ worth of breakfasts, lunches and dinners. Surely, someone had mistaken me for a first-class traveller.

I decided to explore the hotel. The modestly sized lobby was quiet, but I heard animated voices and laughter from the adjacent restaurant. I expected to see business people or a tour group ending a lengthy and relaxed lunch, but instead there were several men my age eating massive Western-style breakfasts, accompanied by attractive Thai ladies sitting in front of empty plates, giggling and occasionally sipping at their tea. A waiter showed me to a table close to them and before long we started talking.

As it turned out, the young men were American soldiers, on a brief leave from their deployment in Vietnam. Two of them moved over to my table, introducing themselves as Steve and Bill. Before long, they explained the presence of the girls. “They’re incredible. They move in with you and as long as you treat them to meals, they’re happy to stay.” One of the girls, who must have overheard the conversation, smiled at me and said this was true, adding she had a beautiful friend I might like to meet.

I was fascinated by Bill and Steve, both of whom were 20. They didn’t look or act like battle-hardened soldiers, more like two scrawny, sunburned, goodnatured students on an exchange program.

I listened to them asking the girls about their families and what life was like in Thailand for a while, then answered their questions about my background and the places I had travelled to. Curiously, they weren’t the least interested in seeing Bangkok. I asked them to accompany me on my planned excursions, but they said they’d rather relax during the few days they had here. I tried to imagine what it would be like to be sent to a war so far away, from which many never returned home. For me, having served in an army whose sole purpose was to defend, this was difficult to contemplate.

As we got to know each other, we talked about our experiences more frequently, me trying to describe the vastness of Africa’s grasslands and the inescapable intensity of life in India, and they in turn satisfying my curiosity about being trapped in the everyday reality of war. Steve and Bill seemed eager to talk about Vietnam, never boasting about their deployment or glorifying their adventures. They reported on the city dwellers in Saigon, stoically accepting what was and, when an opportunity to exploit the chaos around them presented itself, taking advantage. They described the sad lot of the villagers too, suspected by each side of collaborating with the other, continuously harassed, robbed or assaulted by ground troops, and if they were unlucky, napalmed from the air.

They were infantry soldiers, Bill from Massachusetts and Steve from Minnesota. They both served in the 1st Air Cavalry Division, 3rd Brigade. Shortly before their leave came to an end, I asked whether I could interview them. My idea was to submit the record of this conversation, along with my recollections of the refugee camp visit, to a Swiss newspaper—an off-the-cuff notion that only early-twenties kids can come up with and that never went anywhere. They responded enthusiastically, and within an hour we sat in my room, a supply of beer in front of us. I was armed with pen and paper and a small, handheld tape-recorder the front-desk manager had lent me.

As I now read that interview, neatly typed up on four pages of flimsy hotel stationary, I’m sitting on our patio in Toronto, surrounded by shrubs and flowers, birds tweeting their spring chorus and a soothing breeze caressing my skin. I’m neither too cold nor uncomfortably warm and everything is well-ordered and predictable, even the sounds of the nearby city thoroughfare that reach me.

Contrasting this atmosphere of bliss with what others are destined to experience, brings up feelings of enormous sadness. I don’t know what happened to my two American friends, but even if they survived the ordeal that was Vietnam, their bewilderment and anguish at what they were ordered to do will never have left them.

Here are some excerpts from my interview:

Question: What do you think about the presence of American troops in South East Asia?
Bill Chewing: I don’t believe the Vietnamese population wants us here. Perhaps the government supports our presence, but how relevant is that? The people are not supportive of the government.
Steve Fugate: The idea to stop Communist aggression was probably right. When the U.S. sent its first troops to Vietnam, everything looked a lot different. But the history of this war has shown that everything is senseless. We have not achieved anything, yet we continue to support a corrupt government. The objectives of the South Vietnamese regime and the people of South Vietnam are not the same any longer. Our presence is unjustified.
Question: Do most soldiers think that way?
Bill Chewing: I don’t know anyone who doesn’t.
Question: Surely you must communicate that to others. How do your superiors react?
Bill Chewing: Yes, we constantly complain about the senselessness of our being here and our immediate superiors tolerate that. They don’t try to convince us otherwise, because they have no arguments to do so. Every now and then, a higher-up tries to boost our morale, usually by telling us how honourable it is to kill a gook. When an action results in many dead gooks, the colonel orders ice cream to be sent to the field, so that we know we’ve achieved something.
Question: You’ve repeatedly referred to gooks. I don’t know this word.
Steve Fugate: Gooks are the others. Think of strangers, foreigners.
Question: What do you think of the gooks? What’s your opinion about the Vietcong?
Bill Chewing: We have to respect the Vietcong. He’s a committed, convinced fighter, an exceptional soldier.
Steve Fugate: I have no feelings for or against the enemy. But the Vietcong will kill us if we don’t kill them first. They must really hate us.
Question: Surely you must have lost a soldier you knew, perhaps even a friend, in combat. What was your reaction?
Bill Chewing: When I see one of our people injured or killed, I realize how irrational this all is. Last week, one of us was hit. A gook sat in a tree and shot twice. Our man fell to the ground and later died. I wondered what they would tell his parents. I keep asking myself why we Americans should be here and what we die for. Why did my friend have to lose his life? I attended a military funeral once, in Massachusetts, when I was a civilian. I was impressed: the band, the uniforms, the flag that draped his coffin. I thought it’s honourable to die for your country. Now I think it’s absurd, especially if you’re an American in Vietnam.
Steve Fugate: Our generals say we die for our country, but is our country Vietnam?
Question: What’s it like to make contact with the enemy?
Steve Fugate: We’re sent out to find gooks, but we try hard not to find them. We often know they’re there, but nothing happens. We don’t fire a shot. If we did, we’d give our position away and that’s what the gooks are waiting for.
Question: When you pull the trigger, what goes through your mind?
Bill Chewing: The first time I was shot at, I pulled the trigger and emptied the magazine. Later I was told I may have killed two gooks. I was praised. Now, don’t think that when you’re lying in a ditch, well camouflaged, you suddenly have an enemy in your crosshairs. It’s not how it happens. At least that’s never happened to me. Usually, the gooks see us first. And when they fire, you don’t have time to think. You shoot back and if you’re lucky you kill one.
Question: What’s the most terrifying thing you’ve seen?
Bill Chewing: At the beginning I was shocked when I saw mutilated or dead bodies, whether they were gooks or ours. But I got used to that. The most terrifying thing is contact. Each time the gooks fire at us, I’m overcome with unbelievable fear. I’m paralyzed.
Steve Fugate: Yes, I feel the same. When I first came to Vietnam, a G.I. in Saigon told me I’d get used to anything. Not true, at least not with enemy contact. When they start shooting, I throw myself on the ground, raise the rifle above me and shoot in the general direction of the enemy, without aiming. I’m terrified of being hurt, of losing my life.
Question: What are your feelings about returning home one day?
Steve Fugate: Some become drug addicts here, some criminals. I often think about this. It’s difficult for a G.I. to get a job after returning from here, even when he’s clean. I also wonder what would happen if I lost an arm or a leg while here.
Bill Chewing: I have no idea what will be when I return. My parents will be wondering why I’ve changed so much.
Steve Fugate: I guess we’ll have to find something. A job, any job.

I was surprised by the two soldiers’ openness. Obviously, they reflected the private thoughts of most Americans stationed in Vietnam. On the other hand, I was fairly convinced that the bulk of the U.S. population still supported the war. That notion was quickly destroyed a few weeks later when I set foot on American soil and experienced the massive disconnect between popular will and official policy.

Has anything changed in the past half-century? As I let the soothing tranquillity of our Toronto garden envelop me, I reflect on the sad statistics by which wars are measured. I go inside and crank up my laptop, curious of what perspective the internet has to offer, then quickly notice that the data are as cooked as the official narrative that prevailed for so long. The U.S. estimates that 1.3 million were killed, just over half of them soldiers. The Vietnamese government puts the figure at three times that, with the vast majority being civilians. If we consider statistics released by those who weren’t involved, like the prestigious British Medical Journal, we get a number of war dead of just over three million and are reminded that the U.S. also dumped 18.2 million gallons of Agent Orange on Vietnam, leaving the affected land poisoned to this day. A link to the hypocritically named Malayan Emergency shows that the British did the same a few years earlier, in the same part of the world.

The Western powers’ foreign adventures since then make for equally discouraging reading: Cambodia, Lebanon, the Persian Gulf, Iraq, Yugoslavia, Iraq again, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya—tens of thousands of soldiers and hundreds of thousands of civilians killed, and millions more displaced. The pretences and deceitful narratives used to initiate each of these slaughters make war appear far more like an irresistible business model than the moral crusade it’s sold for.

The see-saw in my sentiments about the human condition continues to this day, following much the same patterns that I formed in the early years of my adulthood. What I lived in South Africa, witnessed in the Calcutta refugee camp, and learned second-hand from Bill Chewing and Steve Fugate, left me deeply disturbed. Yet, the innocence and generosity that I encountered on other occasions helped me bounce back quickly and with conviction. Initially, I slotted specific countries or population groups as enlightened and others as pathetically hopeless, but that has changed.

As I look back over a lifetime of observing political and social trends around the world, only two things surprise—the ease with which those in power construct and disseminate information justifying war and genocide, and the difficulty people have to see through that. Eventually they do, and then the tide quickly changes, but only after immeasurable damage has been done.

Excerpted from Peter Cavelti’s memoir “Moments In Time: The Experience Of My Life”. Volume 1, Legacy Editions Ltd., copyright 2022. Reprinted with permission.