by Richard Denne
“SORRY ABOUT THAT” Aug. 30, 1969
As I stepped off the bus, I could smell the sea breeze slip streaming up off the beach of Carmel by the Sea. I walked across Ocean Blvd. to the small city park and sat down on a bench. My long sojourn was finally over, or so I believed.
I reached into my left vest pocket and pulled out my discharge papers. It was still hard to comprehend what I had to do to earn these. Looking over the papers, I could not help but recall back to my first class in basic training. Groups of us were marched into a large room facing a desk and an American flag. After a few minutes, in walked a large black officer. We were all ordered to come to attention and yell out “Sir.” He was holding some papers in his hand and started telling us this story.
‘Soldiers, there was a man who was just beginning his first day in the military, just like all of you. During the first company formation, this dude walked out of formation and started picking up papers he found on the parade ground and yelling ‘this is not it, this is not it!’ The Top marched over to him and ask him what he was doing?
The man just kept on picking up pieces of paper and screaming ‘this is not it, this is not it’. Top grabbed him and dragged him into the main barrack where he started grabbing any and every paper he could find again yelling out ‘this is not it,’
Top dragged this poor soul into the C.O. office and to his amazement this person started picking op papers off the officers desk saying; ‘this is not it.’ The officer ordered Top to drag his sorry ass over to mental hygiene to see what is up. As soon as the man is in the headshrinker office, he jumps up on the headshrinker table and looking at papers and screaming ‘this is not’ over and over again. They lock the man up and in a few days, the headshrinker hands the man his’ 86’paper (meaning a mental discharge). The man grabs the papers and proclaims; “This is it.” Now I have ‘IT.” Well I have it now and what a wild and crazy ride it has been.
“I walked aimlessly down Ocean Ave., killing time and growing blisters inside my stiff patent-leather jump boots. One of the bars, ‘The Manhattan Club’ had a sign indicating there was a payphone inside, but it was only 2 p.m., hours before I was to walk down to the beach and do my thing. I decided to stop for a drink to kill some time. As I opened the door, the sunlight shone brightly on the pale, wrinkly faces of three or four seasoned alcoholics sitting at one of the tables, all of whom shot angry glances in my direction. One of them muttered “jerk-off,” and his friends nodded in approval.
The only other patron was a scraggly-haired, red-faced drunk in his 30s or 40s, who wore the leather vest and colors of the “Fixers” motorcycle club. He was yelling at the Korean bartender over money he had lost in the jukebox. The bartender kept repeating, “You get out! I call police!” in his loudest possible broken English. This short-statured Korean man had a white-knuckled grip on the handle of a little-league-sized wooden baseball bat, which he pressed tightly against his leg, just outside the biker’s view. He was trying to stand up to the much larger and menacing-looking biker, but his trembling lip gave away how scared he was. After about 30 seconds went by, the biker stopped yelling and just stood there, huffing breath and staring bullets into the back of the bartender’s head.
The biker took a step forward, and the Korean responded by raising the head of the bat a few inches upward, but still outside the biker’s view. None of the old alcoholics said or did anything. One of them even looked mildly amused, as if he enjoyed watching the bartender tremble. Before Vietnam, viewing a scene like this one would have resulting in me running into the street to look for help, desperately trying to ensure that the Korean bartender didn’t get beaten to death by this maniac. Now, however, I looked on calmly, almost academically, at the way each man was acting toward the other, weighing their likely strategies and trying to predict which of these two human animals would win this competition for the most nominal of resources: twenty-five cents.
Rationally speaking, the cost-benefit analysis for both men made the whole contest ridiculous. After all, who wouldn’t pay twenty-five cents rather than risk a severe beating, or maybe give the beating, and then go to jail? However, this small contest said more about human nature than cost-benefit analysis ever could. What I learned in Vietnam was that human aggression is the product of fear on two levels, one crafted by nature’s hand and the other based upon lies.
On the first level, the bartender’s fear was primitive and immediate, a pure fight-or-flight situation. In his case, there were no safe alternatives to swinging the bat, given the size disparity and the biker’s seething rage and desire to lash out violently. The smaller and weaker bartender was not in a position to call the police or get out from behind the bar, unless he wanted to risk provoking the biker into making an immediate decision to attack or retreat. In addition, if the biker attacked, the bartender would be more likely to be in a position where he would be harmed. Given the circumstances, swinging the bat and injuring or killing the aggressor would be a visceral and primitive response to an immediate threat.
In the bush, we were able to feel good about what we were doing in battle because the VC and NVA troops were a constant and direct threat to our lives, and we had no choice but to sit there and fight it out with them. They could say the same thing about us, because we were threatening their lives as well. On the most primitive level, we were all doing what was necessary to survive, and neither side was able to simply pick up and leave the battlefield, which was set up by officers who were much higher in the chain of command than we were. There really wasn’t much choice in the matter, unless you look deeper into the lies, which in my case produced the tree that bore the fruit of the second type of fear, a fear based upon lies and deception.
The biker’s fear was real, but it was the far from noble. He did not need to be in the position of aggressor against the smaller Korean man, who only wanted him to leave. However, considering his convoluted logic, the biker was simply defending himself as well, only in a different way. The biker was retaliating against the theft of his influence, fearing an even greater loss of influence in the future. The amount of money was irrelevant, because any threat like this struck at the core of the biker’s perceived status in society, a status that required him to violently react to all threats or lose the ability to achieve his goals through threatening and extorting others. In his mind, the fact that the smaller, weaker bartender refused to pay him back the quarter was a very serious challenge, and if he let this weakling get away with taking his money, he would lose face as a local bully. A bully only gets what he wants by inspiring fear in a large group of targets, and each of these targets must believe that the bully’s violent threats are credible for the scheme to work.
Although my reasons for going were noble, I was sent into the jungles of Vietnam based upon the biker’s type of fear: the fear of a bully, who fears only a loss of influence. History demonstrates that there was no other reason for our participation. Our entry into the Vietnam War started with the defeat of the French, after World War II, when the Vietnamese people shrugged off the bonds of colonial rule. To avoid being controlled by the Russians or Chinese, Ho Chi Minh asked us to forge an alliance with his government, which was Communist, but was also not part of the set of dominoes controlled by the bigger Communist nations to the north. In fact, the Chinese and Vietnamese are historical enemies, and the contentiousness of this relationship predated the birth of Marx by more than two thousand years. By taking Ho’s offer to align our nations, however, we would have alienated the French, a historical ally, as well as legitimized the independence movements in our own colonies. Even more importantly, our leaders would have had to admit that not all Communists are the same, and shattered the illusion that gave us the necessary political backing to maintain a huge military force, which was used for extracting economic concessions throughout the world, but built upon a fear of Communism.
However, that’s not why we were told we were fighting over there. Instead, we were told myths of an all-powerful enemy, one who’s nearly endless military might was coupled with an insatiable lust for conquest and domination. This enemy had no family, no religion, no culture, no history, no morality and no mercy. What was affirmed in basic training was the same thing that was taught during air raid drills in elementary school: We must annihilate this enemy, before it succeeds in annihilating us. In light of this grave threat to our very existence, questioning whether the enemy existed, or even its capability to achieve its objectives, was worse than questioning the existence of God. To even ask these questions was a sign of mental illness, maybe even an evil mind. And like a limb with gangrene, the questioner would have to be cut off, to avoid spreading this disease to the rest of the political body.
But let’s return to the bar for a moment. Just as the tension reached its peak, I walked up and said, “Excuse me” to both the biker and the bartender, then ordered a drink. The biker stared at my medals, and then told the bartender to get me a drink. My presence was obviously unwelcome, but being a bully and not a real warrior, the biker wasn’t going to say or do anything to challenge someone he knew he couldn’t defeat through fear and intimidation alone. Seeing an opportunity to leave without losing too much face, he checked his watch, stormed out of the bar, as if he were late for a meeting, and couldn’t waste any more time on the bartender, at least not that day. In a sense, this confrontation was a microcosm of all that happened in Vietnam, where over time our leaders showed how little they believed in the necessity of the mission, but not until after hundreds of thousands of human bodies littered the battlefield, having given their lives so that our leaders could prove the existence of something that they knew was a myth all along.
Richard F. Denne
A/327. No Slack