Then the lieutenant would have gone to his platoon and said, "O.K., the CO wants this off his back, and it's up to us. The whole area is infested with VC. It's a hideout for them. They're all Communist, and it's our job to clean them out. I don't want any prisoners, no matter who they are. I don't want to hear about it. Don't take anybody alive."
Lastly, on the bottom level, there were the members of the platoon. They were 25 men chosen at random from this country, a representative sampling of American society. Of the 25, you might have a couple with quick tempers, maybe a teenager who saw himself as a young Audie Murphy, maybe a guy from an underprivileged background who thought he could make a name for himself, maybe a guy who thought being in the Army was license to kill anybody, maybe a guy who was truly hateful, maybe even a manic-depressive.
So they took this collection of fallible human beings, pumped them full of rhetoric, applied pressure from the military hierarchy, filled them with anticipation, and turned them loose in a Vietnamese village. How did they react?
We were informed one morning of a suspected enemy concentration in an area called Happy Valley. Orders came to search-and-destroy. We helicoptered into a rice paddy and set up a defensive position. As we moved out, our point man shouted, "I see somebody running across." So the whole platoon raced up a steep ridge, there to find a village of four to five "hootches" (grass and bamboo huts).
Frantically, guys went searching for underground shelters. Without pausing to check for someone inside, they exploded the shelters with grenades. Somebody yelled, "Burn them. We have to." Immediately, guys set fire to the little shacks. The women in the village shrieked hysterically at us. It was absurd. There were no VC anywhere. Nothing but a few harmless villagers, whose village we annihilated simply because "search-and-destroy" came down.
During the melee, a "papa-san" (Vietnamese adult male) appeared. The man was about 50 years old, and he had no weapon. One of our young kids, an 18- or 19-year-old, rushed up to him, kneed him in the groin, and cracked his skull with the butt of an M-16. The old man dropped to his knees. In a fury, the kid stood over the old man, screaming, "You slant-eyed dink. You're the reason we're over here."
Any male in the general age bracket of 12 to 40 was suspect as an NVA (North Vietnamese Army) soldier or Viet Cong, although he might also have been a South Vietnamese soldier on leave. We were instructed to ask such a man for an ID. If he could not produce it, we were to hold him for interrogation by the commanding officer. Under search-and-destroy pressure, though, some of our young guys didn't have the patience to follow regulations.
In order to avoid such confusion, the U.S. Army got into the housing industry. The natives of Hiep Due were ordered to leave their homes and move into a compound at the base of the valley. It was called "Tin City," because these people were given tin and wood to build new homes. The Army warned that anybody caught outside Tin City, especially males 12 to 40, could be shot on sight. But many of the older Vietnamese people refused to leave their homes, and dug bunkers for protection from attack. We were constantly finding little villages tucked here and there in the woods.
We discovered one such village on a sweep in July. A check of the hootches uncovered nothing. Three of us went off to find water and suddenly came across a little man, less than five feet tall. He seemed to come out of nowhere. Our point man yanked his gun to his shoulder but stopped before pulling the trigger because he thought it was a little boy. He was wrong. It was a man about 30 years old.
My two colleagues grabbed him by his black pajamas.