By Richard Gaines Graham
Three months into the dry season and every hint of humidity had vanished. Around each howitzer emplacement the monsoon mud of summer had been pounded to a slippery clinging grit, and with each step globules of powdered clay splashed forward to crater the downy carpet underfoot. When the guns fired, the ground quaked, and the fluid earth erupted in a brief boiling frenzy before settling back to its red-ochre serenity.
Nearby, piles of discarded debris littered passageways, and sand trickled from faded woven plastic bags. The metal surfaces glistened, inviting and blistering, and the tang of decayed filth and human waste drifted by at every turn. Well-fed rats as round as softballs and as long as small cats squeezed through the cracks in the revetments. A scratchy recording of a sad country tune played softly, and lethargy lounged in the improvised shadows and the sweltering shelter spaces—heat and boredom the real enemy.
First Lieutenant Alexander Marwick looked down at his boots; the dried clay covered them to the ankles. He thought about his hooch maid back at II Field Force and how she would react when he presented them to her for cleaning once again. She would smile and turn away to rejoin the other local Vietnamese girls crowding together in the shade of the water tower where she washed his uniform and shined his boots. Their conversation would be filled with laughter. She would point to him and call out something in Vietnamese that Marwick would not understand, and three or four of her girlfriends would look his way and giggle. They were all so young, those simple peasant girls—seventeen or eighteen at most.
Marwick followed closely as General Caywood toured the 105-millimeter howitzer battery at Fire Support Base Diane northwest of Saigon. The general moved awkwardly through the troops, as if touching someone might spoil his starched fatigues. His questions were perfunctory, his comments mechanical, and his eyes wandered as the junior officers responded crisply to his inquiries. Short and thick around the middle, Caywood hardly fit the image of the warrior-general. He had emigrated from England in his youth, Marwick had learned, and though naturalized and near the top of his class at West Point, he retained a mild but obvious British accent. As Marwick discovered early on, his verbal criticisms could be withering.
During these inspections Marwick was often uncomfortable, and he wondered what these junior officers thought of his boss. But what really troubled Marwick was what these soldiers in the field thought of him—these half-naked, sweating, sun-baked teenage boys, their officers, and NCOs. A grudging respect for authority restrained a smoldering contempt, he knew. Marwick, parading around in his freshly-pressed uniform, had been spared the hardships of war for nine months, sleeping in sheets at night, eating hot meals at a real table, and taking daily showers for granted. Angry envy of the privileged, he imagined. And here he was, worrying about the grime on his boots.
The general had turned toward his waiting helicopter when the wind suddenly gusted, and a blinding cloud of Georgia-red filth engulfed them, mixing with beads of sweat. Marwick wiped his forehead, leaving a smear of mud on the sleeve of his fatigue jacket. As they passed the bunker housing the Fire Direction Center, the FDC, someone shouted “Fire mission!” The soldiers, who had been standing rigidly for inspection, broke ranks and rushed to their assigned stations. Radios and telephones came alive. Orders were issued, maps consulted, slide rules manipulated, and dozens of formerly languid artillerymen scurried in all directions, executing their assigned duties with polished efficiency. At the nearby emplacement, a sinewy bronzed kid darted in front of the general and leapt over the sandbags that formed a protective perimeter around each howitzer. He assumed his crew position just in time to catch a thirty-pound projectile handed his way. The guns were manned, charges calculated, fuses set, elevations determined, breaches loaded. Marwick was impressed, witnessing up close the firing of howitzers in support of infantrymen somewhere in the nearby jungle. The tedious practice drills at artillery school back in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, had lacked the same urgency.
Caywood stopped to observe the battery. Two howitzers to his left let loose an ear-piercing salvo. A gust of compressed air buffeted them. The guns fired a second time, adjusting range, bracketing the target. The acrid odor seeping from the gun barrels was unmistakable. Marwick tried to visualize the rounds bursting at the tree tops, sending shards of wood and deadly shell fragments down upon the enemy.
He did not hear the first of the incoming but saw artillerymen diving for cover. As he turned, an enemy mortar round, a small fin-fitted bomb with the potential to sever limbs, dropped from the sky with no warning and impacted to the front and outside the barbed wire perimeter. The adrenaline took hold. He grabbed General Caywood by the arm, pulled him around, and pointed to a protective bunker to their left. A second round landed inside the perimeter behind them. The concussion was deafening, and both Marwick and the general were knocked to their knees. Marwick jumped to his feet, his pulse racing. “General, the bunker!”
Caywood ignored him and began marching briskly toward his helicopter. Exposed and vulnerable at an isolated fire base somewhere in the jungle, fear gripped him, and a terrifying thought occurred to Marwick for the first time since his arrival in Vietnam: he might be killed.
The pilots scrambled as the general climbed aboard. The door gunner helped him into his seat harness just as more mortar rounds landed inside the perimeter. The Huey shook from the concussions. One round blew apart the sandbagged roof of the command bunker nearby, exposing shattered wooden supports. Angry moans drifted their way, then desperate screams, “Medic, medic!” Marwick remembered the story told to him by an instructor at Ft. Sill: how an exploding VC mortar round had peppered the small of his back and legs with eighteen pieces of burning shell fragment. It had all seemed so abstract then. Now . . .
The turbine engine of the helicopter fired up and began its high-pitched whine. The blades turned, slowly, accelerating. Marwick fastened his seat harness, put on his headset, turned on the radio. Despite the enemy attack, the artillerymen of Fire Base Diane managed to get off the first six-round salvo. The boom, ka-boom from the big guns jolted the aircraft once more.
“What the hell’s going on?” Caywood shouted at Marwick from the seat next to him. “Get this goddamn thing in the air.”
The general’s tone was fierce and frightening, and Marwick got Warrant Officer Henderson, the helicopter pilot, on the intercom.
“Tell him this bird ain’t liftin’ off ‘til the guns stop firin’.”
“Bullshit!” Caywood screamed, his ashen face twisted, teeth bared. Another salvo and the general slapped Marwick’s knee to get his attention. “Tell that idiot to get this thing moving. You hear me? Now!” He started fighting with his seat harness like a patient in a straitjacket.
Caywood continued cursing. Marwick nodded in compliance but ignored the general while he tried to control the nausea, his shaking hands, his fear. He flipped through the radio frequencies, forgetting which one to use to contact headquarters, screwing up the call signs, clumsily toggling back and forth between the radio and the intercom, flustered by the ranting of his commanding officer and near panic himself.
The barrage ended, and the helicopter spiraled up and away. Marwick looked back at the fire base, a shrinking circle of confusion carved from the jungle green. Columns of smoke rose from two fires, and a dense cloud of dust drifted over the compound. Caywood calmed down, and Marwick composed himself long enough to radio ahead to make sure that the general’s vehicle would be at the helicopter pad when they arrived. Five minutes out, they passed a MEDEVAC Huey headed in the opposite direction.
The general said nothing during the return flight to II Field Force, just stared straight ahead, his jaw working back and forth. They deplaned, and General Caywood marched toward the waiting jeep. Suddenly he turned and jabbed a finger at Marwick. “You, your job is scheduling!” he barked. “It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to get me in and out of a fire base on time. You either get your act together, or I’ll find somebody who can.”
“General, I’m sorry. I didn’t expect a mortar attack,” Marwick responded, then realized his mistake.
“I don’t need some clown with no combat experience telling me about mortar attacks,” Caywood shouted, then climbed into the front seat. “Move it,” he ordered the driver, and Marwick had to run to catch up with the moving vehicle.
In calmer moments, Marwick reminded himself that a lieutenant trained as an Army artillery officer usually ended up as a forward observer in Vietnam and had a thirty percent chance of getting wounded or killed. Still, the weeks of daily, gut-churning stress that came from working as the aide-de-camp to General Philip L. Caywood had poisoned his spirit and inflamed his cynicism. Marwick had begun to wonder if he might have been happier slogging through the boonies with an infantry company.
At arrival back at the headquarters building he was called into the general’s office. He stood patiently before the massive mahogany desk. He waited, watching Caywood read a document, mark it up, throw it into his outbox, then pick up another and do the same. Marwick saw that the man was back in control, entrenched behind his desk in his air-conditioned office with his hair slicked down, his writing utensils lined up neatly. Finally, he looked up, annoyed, reached into a drawer, and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper. “Who the hell is Samuel Hughes?”
“You mean Senator Samuel Hughes, General?” Marwick inquired, stepping back a little, surprised at the mention of the name. “That’s my stepfather, sir.”
“Stepfather? What the hell does he want? You’re requested at the embassy,” he squawked, shaking a printed telex sheet and scrutinizing his aide in a strange way.
Marwick realized that during the four months since his transfer to the general’s staff, this was probably the first time his boss had thought of him as something other than just another lackey. “I have no idea, sir.”
“Well, I don’t like it. You work for me. They should know I need you here.”
“You’re absolutely right, General,” Marwick replied with overdrawn seriousness. “I suppose he just wants to say hello. No need. I’ll see him soon enough when I get home.” Marwick worked hard not to sound smug, judging that it was highly unlikely that the general would refuse a visiting U.S. senator a meeting with his stepson. The thought of creating a minor disturbance in his boss’s methodical routine by requiring him to give up, even for a day or two, his first lieutenant aide-de-camp was downright delicious. This small victory in his private war with General Caywood, Marwick mused, was the first time some good had come from his mother’s remarriage.
“Well,” the general said with a huff, going back to his inbox, “I’ll take it under advisement. That’s all.”
Marwick paced back and forthon the sidewalk of Thong Nhut Boulevard opposite the embassy entrance, admiring the massive, block-long American presence in downtown Saigon. The protective concrete wall featured small hourglass-shaped openings, which softened the compound’s fortress-like exterior with its corner turrets manned by sentries behind machine guns. He hesitated, trying to overcome his reluctance and to summon the courage he would need to face his stepfather again.
He crossed the street and passed through the main gate, where a Marine corporal and a Vietnamese military policeman checked his ID. Inside, another Marine behind the circular desk in the reception area pointed Marwick to a seat below a large bronze plaque on the wall. The inscription commemorated the four military policemen and one Marine who had died defending the chancellery building during the Tet offensive two years earlier. A young Vietnamese woman appeared—pretty, demure, professional. Dressed in a short, dark blue skirt and white blouse, she spoke English with no perceptible accent.
“The senator is expecting you.”
She escorted Marwick to an elevator, up to the third floor, through a second checkpoint, and finally deposited him at the door of a conference room. Inside he found the senator sitting behind a massive glass-topped desk, talking on the telephone. He looked up and waved Marwick in. “No, I won’t be back in time for the vote. Stall it, can you? Speak up, man, I can’t hear you. OK, OK, call you tomorrow.” He put the phone down and stood.
At six-foot-one the senator was an inch taller than Marwick. He had broad shoulders and a soaring voice that only added to an already imposing presence. Marwick had always been intimidated by him, and he imagined that Samuel Hunnicutt Hughes was a persuasive man in the dark alcoves of the United States Senate. He had a rugged face and a confident smile, and he projected a carefully cultivated image of maturity and senior statesmanship. He was about forty-eight, Marwick guessed, a year or two older than Marwick’s father. As he came around the side of the desk, he limped a little, a souvenir from World War II.
“Well, glad to see you, son,” the senator said as they shook hands. “Damn, that uniform becomes you. Over here, have a seat.” He pointed to two chairs next to a coffee table covered with a dozen current magazines and newspapers. Marwick eyed them longingly. His Time magazine was rarely less than two weeks old.
Marwick moved to his seat reluctantly. The relationship with his stepfather had never been easy, and was certainly not friendly. That they happened to be together in the same distant country did not seem ample reason to hope for an improvement.
“How the hell you been anyway?” the senator boomed. “Sit down. Tell me about the war.”
I’ll tell you about the war, Marwick thought. Tell you that I’ve been bored silly for nine months. That there’s nothing to do in this hellhole but arrange helicopter trips for a disagreeable boss, get drunk at the officers’ club every other night, and count the days until my tour ends. But that would be pointless. Marwick had learned early on that his mother’s second husband paid little attention to anything Marwick had to say.
Without waiting for an answer, the senator continued. “First of all, your mother sends her love. Said to tell you she misses you terribly and is very upset that you haven’t once written since you left. Is that really true?” He tilted his head a little as if sizing up one of his thoroughbreds out in the Virginia countryside and said, “Well, from the looks of you, I guess I can report that all goes well. Is that fair to say?”
“Just tell her I’m fine, and I’ll be home soon.”
“Oh, right, important. Your mother handed me a camera as I was walking out the door and told me to get a picture of you. Don’t let me forget. I’ll be crucified if I show up without one.” He reached into his breast pocket, pulled out a cigar, and leaned back in his chair. Marwick could tell that he had already forgotten about the photograph.
“You don’t smoke these, do you?”
He lit the cigar with a well-worn Zippo engraved with some kind of insignia Marwick did not recognize. He finally got it lit properly and blew some billowing smoke up in the air over Marwick’s head. “So, tell me, how’ve you been getting on with your general? General Caywood. That’s it. Isn’t it?” he asked, staring down his cigar at Marwick, his eyes squinting, like a hawk fixing on its prey.
How the senator knew his boss’s name puzzled Marwick. He had never mentioned him to anyone but close friends. “He’s difficult, but I’m coping.”
“Good. I want to tell you,” he continued, switching subjects without a pause, “that your mother’s become quite the Washington socialite, throwing receptions and dinner parties faster than a fox goes through a hen house.” Hughes waved the cigar around in a broad swath in front of him. “Can’t keep up with her. She’s a real asset to me, and I think she’s happy. You’d be proud—”
Marwick abruptly turned away toward the courtyard window, not wanting to hear about the marital adventures of his mother and the senator.
“Don’t call me ‘son.’ I’m not your son.”
The senator seemed surprised, even hurt, Marwick thought, then blew out another large cloud of smoke and got up. He stepped behind the chair and looked up at the corner of the room, nodding slowly. He was frightening like that, and Marwick imagined that he was now really pissed. Underlings half the senator’s age did not order him about.
He turned back. The tone was blunt, icy. “All right, you don’t care for the small talk. That’s fine. So, let’s understand each other.” He moved back toward the desk and turned. Marwick noticed the limp again. “And you don’t like me. OK. That’s your privilege. I suppose you don’t like what’s happened between your parents. I understand that. But you’re not going to change it by acting like a grieved little prick the rest of your life.” He returned to the chair and sat down. “The truth is, I don’t much like you, either. I’m here for two reasons: first, because your mother asked me to check on you. She’s a fine woman who loves her son, and you’ve made her pay a steep price so you can vent some childish outrage about honor and justice or whatever it is that gripes you about her new life.” He drew deeply on the cigar, preparing to continue.
“Thanks for the morality lesson,” Marwick said, refreshed by the candor because he suddenly felt free to say what was in his heart. He stood and looked squarely at his stepfather, pointing a finger. “For a guy who carried on a deception for years, who waited until my father was over here serving his country so you and my mother could plot the divorce of the man she’d been married to for twenty-two years, you have no right to lecture me about honor and justice.” Marwick turned his back and walked across the room. “What’s the other reason?” he demanded, hoping to get the meeting over with and get out of there.
“Come back and sit down . . . please.” The senator’s tone was conciliatory, maybe even sincere.
Marwick returned and sat warily.
“All right, we’ve both said what we had to say. Now, for a moment, will you try to put all that aside and listen carefully to what I’m going to tell you?”
Marwick nodded, but he made no effort to hide the disgust that consumed him.
“Now, the other reason I’ve asked to see you is . . .” The man swallowed hard, and Marwick realized right afterwards how difficult it must have been for his stepfather to say the words, “because I need your help. And I hope you won’t think I’m over-dramatizing this, but your country needs your help.”
They eyed each other for a long minute while Marwick ran his upper teeth over his lower lip, a habit he could not control when he was nervous, trying to decide if the son-of-a-bitch was just manipulating him as if he were some wavering Virginia voter. “OK,” he said finally, “I’m listening.”
The senator groomed his cigar on the edge of a crystal ashtray etched with a State Department seal and leaned across toward Marwick. “First of all, what I’m going to tell you is strictly confidential—in fact, it’s top secret. If this were to end up in the press . . . well, listen and judge for yourself.” Senator Samuel Hunnicutt Hughes took a deep breath and began. “We’ve had combat troops over here since ‘65—that’s five years. Victory’s not in sight. It ought to be obvious to anyone who’s following the news that the Nixon Administration is desperately looking for a way out, an honorable exit, if you will. We’ve tried several approaches. The peace talks in Paris and the Vietnamization program are the two most obvious ones. There are others that the public doesn’t know about.” He paused, leaning closer, lowering his voice a little. “I’ve been asked by a highly-placed government official to bypass Paris and contact the North Vietnamese directly. The purpose is to communicate a new proposal to end the war. This peace plan, let’s call it, includes the withdrawal of all foreign troops from South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, an international peacekeeping force under UN auspices, a massive aid campaign—sort of a Marshall Plan for Southeast Asia, including North Vietnam, and eventually, elections throughout the region.”
He paused and Marwick took the opportunity to ask the obvious question. “Why hasn’t this been proposed in Paris?”
“Because any way you look at it, the South Vietnamese will interpret the plan as an abandonment. That we’re cutting our losses and running. You can imagine the effect on the morale of the South Vietnamese government, not to mention its military, right at a moment when we’re doing everything we can to prop them up.” He stopped for a minute to run his hands over his face. “Look, I’m trying to make something very complicated as simple as I can. You following OK?”
“Yeah, I’m with you,” Marwick said, still suspicious but mostly just puzzled.
“In trying to advance our proposal, we have to take into account that the North Vietnamese might try to use it against us somehow, leaking the details to the press to gain the exact demoralizing impact I just described. Therefore, secrecy is crucial. But equally important, in the event that rumors of such a plan begin to circulate, denial must be convincing.”
The senator got up, walked to the desk, picked up the phone, and looked back at Marwick. “Want something to drink?” he asked. “I’m parched.”
“Water, anything,” Marwick replied, starting to get nervous and realizing suddenly that the senator was dead serious about needing his help.
“Chuck? You there? Yeah, think you can find us some iced tea? Plenty of sugar.” The senator returned to his chair.
“All right. ‘Why am I involved?’ you’re wondering. Because there’s a certain North Vietnamese I know. We met during the big war in the late spring of ‘45. You remember I told you I was with the OSS at the time and was dropped into what is now called North Vietnam and . . . well, forget all that. The short of it is I came out with a bum leg. Anyway, I met this fellow there, an officer in the Viet Minh. That’s what the Commies called themselves then. This North Vietnamese and I have stayed in contact, on and off, for more than twenty years.” He paused and took a long moment to delicately roll the tip of his cigar in the ashtray again. Marwick suspected that the senator was processing old memories. He took another long draw and then continued. “From the reports we have, my friend is now an extremely successful businessman who heads an extensive empire of trading companies operating throughout Southeast Asia. More importantly, he’s closely allied, we believe, with certain members of the North Vietnamese Politburo, the guys who run the show up north. He’s the conduit we want to use to get this proposal to the Communists. Only trouble is, we can’t find him.”
Hughes leaned back in his chair, and as he did, Marwick made an effort to be polite. “Well, I guess I’m just a little confused why it is you need my help.” He had begun sweating under the arms, and his stomach churned.
“Patience. I need something to drink first. This climate’s a bitch.” The senator picked his briefcase off the floor, put on his reading glasses, and looked through some papers while waiting.
A few minutes later, the Vietnamese receptionist from downstairs entered, carrying a tray with a pitcher of iced tea and a plate of miniature pastries. She set the tray on the coffee table.
“Good, I need this,” the senator said with no more than a passing glance at the girl, then reached for the tea.
“Cám on, Cô,” Marwick said and looked up at her. She seemed surprised, then bowed slightly and smiled at him before turning.
“Pretty little filly, huh?” the senator said, looking at Marwick mischievously. “Got a weakness for these Oriental girls, I see.” Marwick wondered if there was more to the senator’s comment than a simple tease. “Damn. It’s unsweetened. What kind of tea is this, anyway?”
Marwick watched Hughes as he added three spoons of sugar to his tea and stirred it until the light brown liquid ran up and over the edge of the glass. Nervous, uncomfortable with the thought of what might be said next, Marwick drank most of his tea without lowering his glass.
“So, back to my guy. We’ve tried every diplomatic channel and intelligence source available to contact him. Nothing. But all these efforts have been at a distance.” He paused, then pointed two index fingers at Marwick, thumbs up—a gesture Marwick remembered: playing war as a kid and manning a machine gun. “I want you to find him for me.”
Marwick studied the carpet between his feet, shaking his head, stunned, bewildered, forcing himself to suppress an urge to laugh out loud. Finally, he looked up and said, “Senator, I have two questions.” He paused to make sure he had his thoughts straight. “First, why me? I mean, with all its vast resources, if the U. S. government can’t find this guy, what makes you think that I can? And second, why, after months of being cooped up behind a barbed wire fence in this rat-hole corner of the world, why would anyone think I’d want to volunteer to run around who-knows-where for who-knows-how-long looking for some rich gook you haven’t seen in twenty years? Really, Senator, you’ll excuse me if this all sounds a little ridiculous.”
The senator studied his tea as he stirred it slowly, never looking up. “You recall the name Le Van Khanh?”
Marwick stared at his stepfather for a long moment, and then, desperately trying not to think about the woman he had not seen in almost two years, he looked up at the chandelier hanging in the middle of the room. Le Van Khanh.
“Le Van Duc is the guy we’re looking for.”
“And Khanh is—”
“I see,” Marwick said, swallowing hard, picking up his tea glass, realizing it was empty, struggling not to look surprised.
“Excuse me for getting personal here, but you may remember that when you left for school in France—what was it? ‘67?—I suggested that you look up the daughter of a friend who was studying in Paris. At the time I didn’t anticipate that you two would become . . . well,” he searched for the right word, “intimate.”
Marwick said nothing but pressed his lips together, feeling like a kid caught behind the barn with his pants down.
Senator Hughes sat up. “In fact, in Duc’s last letter to me in the summer of ’68, he mentioned his daughter and said he was worried that she’d gotten herself caught up in some kind of hopeless romance. Of course, it meant nothing to me at the time. Later your mother filled in some missing details. Small world, huh?”
“OK, we were involved. It’s history. Let’s just leave it at that,” Marwick offered, suddenly very angry with his sister for having divulged a confidential story to his mother. Marwick slumped back in his chair, recalling the spring of 1968, the May revolution in Paris, and Khanh—lovely Khanh, the most exotic and fascinating woman he had ever known. But he also remembered the very messy separation, the hysteria, the all-night arguments, the threats, the last-minute scene in the departure lounge at Orly in front of a planeload of people. She had definitely earned her nickname—Dragon Lady of Paris.
“Well, to get back to your first question: why me?” the senator continued in a suddenly patronizing tone, “I’m hopeful that, if you were to make personal contact with the three or four of Duc’s known business associates who operate throughout the region, explain who you are, whom you represent, and impress upon them the urgency of your mission, the message would certainly get back to Duc. Perhaps then he’ll respond to my inquires.” Hughes paused to remove his reading glasses, pointing them at Marwick. “Family’s important to these people, and in a strange way, I suspect that, to Duc, you and I represent family. At least I hope so. You with the daughter in Paris and me in Tonkin twenty-five years ago. I saved his life there.” The senator sat back in his chair, took out another cigar and toyed with it.
“Frankly, Senator, all of this is idle speculation. I mean, even if it all were to work out like you hope—and that’s an awfully big ‘if ’—why would I want to get involved, for Christ’s sake? When I left Paris, Khanh and I were not on the best of terms, to put it mildly. You want me to go find her father, remind him I really enjoyed his daughter’s company in Paris for a few months—used her is probably how he thinks of it—how I dumped her when I left, and then explain that for a year I’ve been in Vietnam killing his countrymen? This whole thing is nuts.” Marwick shook his head in disbelief, looked at the floor and then back at the senator. “Honestly, you don’t really expect me to volunteer, do you?” But even as he said it, he fought to suppress a menacing feeling that all of this was very real. Why, Marwick wondered, would a United States senator travel half way around the world if he were not absolutely serious about what he was asking? All at once a sense of foreboding hung over him like a monsoon rain cloud about to burst.
“I do,” Hughes announced, his baritone voice more sonorous and persuasive than ever. “I do, because, despite our differences, I know that you’re an honorable young man—a bit naive and rigidly idealistic about some things, but honorable, nonetheless. And your country is calling you.”
“Senator, really, this is too far-fetched. I’m not qualified. I’m not a diplomat. I don’t know a thing about peace negotiations,” he pleaded. But Marwick knew he was losing the argument. The senator relit his cigar—a sure sign, Marwick imagined, that he sensed victory.
“You’re smart and you know the daughter.” He blew another cloud of smoke up in the air. “Those are all the qualifications necessary. As for this thing being far-fetched, see that closet over there? There’s a secure telephone inside. I can get the assistant national security advisor in the White House to talk to you, if you insist.” He paused. “But that won’t be necessary because you’re going to agree to help. This is something very big, very important, and you will act responsibly. Besides,” he blew more blue-hazed smoke into the air, “you owe me. Big time.”
“What do you mean, ‘I owe you’?” Now comes the coup de grace, Marwick thought.
Hughes stared at Marwick for a long time before he finally spoke. “You don’t really believe that lieutenants trained and then retrained as artillery officers end up in cushy, rear-echelon jobs like yours by accident, do you? You were forward observer material, son. You must have known that. I didn’t like the idea, but your mother begged me. So I pulled some strings. Your duty was in the field like any junior officer with your background. You missed the opportunity to do what you were trained to do.” He pointed a finger at Marwick. “Now you have a chance to make up for it.” Before Marwick could respond, Hughes added, “I have to tell you. There may be some danger, some personal risk.”
“Danger. Like what? Capture? Torture? Shit.” Marwick got up slowly, walked over to the window. Three massive palm trees shaded the chancellery courtyard. He watched an agile old Vietnamese papa-san in the top of one of the trees pruning the dead palm branches with a machete—two clean chops and the branch fell. Near the top of the tree and at the base of the remaining palm branches, he had fashioned two neat rows of branch stubs, forming a dark brown collar ringing the trunk. At least here was a real expert at work, Marwick thought, someone who knew what he was doing.
Marwick tried to avoid thinking about what he had just learned, how it made him sick with guilt, how the word “danger” made his stomach knot up. He focused instead on the way he had just been bested by an older, more experienced man—in this case, his not-very-likeable stepfather. The clearest indication of how easily he had been manipulated was that the senator had begun calling him “son” again, and Marwick, though enraged, had no will to complain.
The driver maneuvered the jeep through the downtown street traffic, peopled with teenagers on motorbikes and old men and women on bicycles. They crossed Newport Bridge, and Marwick looked down at the once gracious Saigon River as it passed beneath them. It flowed in the direction of the French-built canal that bypassed one large loop in the river just north of the city. Houses on stilts topped with sagging, rusty, corrugated metal, pilfered plastic sheets, or woven grass blankets were lined up ten deep, hugging the river like a scab around a running sore, as if to form a barrier protecting the surrounding pristine paddies of rice and stands of rubber from the infection of a civilization gone berserk. Marwick longed to distance himself from this ugliness.
He could not stop thinking about how he had “been taken care of,” as the senator put it so delicately, and how for all these months some other lieutenant, somewhere else in Vietnam, had filled the slot reserved for him. Some ordinary college graduate like himself had been slogging around in a rice patty up to his waist in muck, or under triple-deep, jungle canopy in ninety-degree heat and one-hundred-percent humidity, walking over mined jungle trails, getting sniped at and mortared, wounded, or killed. All in Marwick’s place.
One guy in the big scheme of things? No big deal. What troubled Marwick was the thought of all the troops who depended on that officer to make the right decisions, to call in the artillery at the right moment, to get the “steel on the target” as they say, not to panic. What about those guys out there somewhere living with the consequences of Marwick’s mother’s behind-the-scenes manipulations? What about the ones lying cold in body bags, maimed or wounded because the officer who filled Marwick’s slot got the coordinates reversed and dropped a couple of white phosphorus rounds on his own troops? “Willie Peter” they called it, the stuff that just burns and keeps burning right through your leg and only burns more furiously when you douse it with water. The only thing to do is to cut it out with a knife.
He imagined how it came about and visualized a long list of forward observer slots to be filled. The list sat on the desk of an unknown personnel officer in a cramped windowless room at the 90th Replacement Battalion. Next to that list was a second list with all the trained artillery lieutenants newly arrived in-country, each officer ranked according to his scores at Fort Sill—the best at the top, the weakest at the bottom. This personnel officer surveyed the lists, a balding major with horn-rimmed glasses who smoked mentholated cigarettes. Marwick saw him clearly, matching each slot with an officer—first slot filled with the top guy, next slot filled by the number two guy, and so forth. Marwick was high up on the list. He had been the ROTC assistant cadet battalion commander his senior year at UVA. At Fort Sill he had been a talented forward observer, a sure map-reader, skilled with binoculars. He had leadership ability, decisiveness, and maybe even courage.
The major would have finished filling the slots and found leftover officers, the ones who went through the system, passed all the tests, met all the requirements, but lacked the command presence necessary to lead men in combat. These were the officers who were fragged in their tents by their own soldiers because the men they commanded were frightened by their incompetence.
As the personnel officer finished the work of matching the lists, the phone would have rung. Someone at the other end would have asked if he had a lieutenant named Marwick. “Yeah, that’s right, Marwick. Yank him, don’t know why, just do it.” And it was done. All the guys below Marwick got bumped up one notch, and the bottom slot was filled by the top reject, the best of the worst.
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