An average day in the field might go like this. Rise at 6:30 a.m. Eat a can of fruit for breakfast. March in rut formation (single file, more or less) perhaps 5,000 meters to a day position. Sweat, sweat, sweat. Set up a "day logger," a perimeter configuration of men designed to protect us from attack. Set up the poncho liner for a sun shield. Sweat, sweat, sweat. Mix a LURP (dehydrated food ration) for lunch.
One platoon would make a sweep of the immediate vicinity. The other two platoons would remove their perspiration-soaked boots, socks and fatigues to dry them in the sun. Eat dinner and guzzle Kool-Aid. March another five klicks (a klick is 1,000 meters) to a night position. Set up a "night logger," a camp. Inflate the air mattress and build a tent with mosquito netting, which blocked the breeze and sometimes made me unbearably hot, but it was better than 10 million mosquito bites.
If you think that sounds more like the Boy Scouts than the U.S. Army, so did I at first. I felt so silly "playing soldier." But I came to understand and appreciate the fact that our area, Hiep Duc, was simply quiet.
The lack of activity persuaded some guys to cut corners. Night guards fell asleep in the field. Other guys just refused to fight the war. "Short-timers" (those who had a short time of service remaining) played it extra cautious and spent most of their days inventing excuses to get to the rear. Guys dispatched on a squad sweep would convince each other that they didn't have enough manpower, then kill four hours in a point bunker, radioing in fake messages about their progress. It was a ludicrous way to run a war.
Meanwhile, our officers were feeling pressure. Even though ours was a relatively cool AO (Area of Operation), they felt the demand for production, KIAs, killed in action. Statistics. Officers' careers and promotions depended on them: "How many KIAs did you have last week?" "What's your percentage?" "Did you get any action?"
Nobody talked about methods. Only results were important. Pressure came from above and multiplied geometrically at each level, until it reached the lower echelons. There on the bottom were lieutenants and sergeants, young and maybe impetuous. In their early and mid-20s. Ambitious. Eager to distinguish themselves, establish a good record.
Below them were the "grunts," the privates, some of whom wanted to move up, all of whom knew that the soldier with the most KIAs each week went on "stand-down," a three-day orgy of barbecues, drinking, floor shows and pornographic movies in Chu Lai. Kind of like an incentive clause in a football contract.
It was this sort of mentality that led to the creation of the destructive form of action known as the search-and-destroy mission. The My Lai massacre of 1968 resulted from such a mission. In my tour of duty, thankfully, there was only one search-and-destroy. I can pretty accurately re-create the sort of conversations that brought it into being.
Battalion headquarters would have called a company commander and said, "All right, we have a mission for you. We have this area that has to be covered. A lot of enemy activity has been in that area. We know it's there. It's been there before and, damn it, let's do something about it. It's in my AO, and I want it cleaned up. I want it out of there. Use whatever means you need. Burn everything that's standing. I don't care what you do, just clean it up."
In turn, the commanding officer would have gone to a lieutenant and said, "All right, tomorrow at 0700 hours we're going down into the field. There's a lot of enemy activity in this area. The old man wants it cleaned out once and for all. And it's our job."