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Ken Williams: During War, Hatred Becomes the Enemy

Veterans pay the price as dark realities manifest in the heart

The sweet smell of diesel fuel hung heavily in the air. The muted sound of rock music could just be discerned. It was left to the imagination to taste the ice-cold beer even when, deep down, we knew it would be warm. Even tanks and armored personal carriers didn’t have that luxury — it was something reserved only for officers back at base. The delusion of ice-cold beer fit in better with our multifaceted dislikes — the hatred we had of everybody who wasn’t us.

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Ken Williams and his dog, Sampson. (Williams family photo)

Only Marine grunts — the ground-pounders, the riflemen, and machine-gun and light-mortar crews of our company — escaped this hatred. We hated the flyboys in the Phantom jets, Broncos and Puff gunships unless they were saving our skin by killing the enemy wholesale. But even they got only a brief reprieve. We hated the guys in tanks, APCs and choppers because they never had to hump the tortuous mountains or the humid killing lowlands. We hated Ricky Recon and the woolheads of the Green Berets who, after spending a few days in the jungles and mountains, were able to return to somewhat secure rear-bases where hot showers, real food and bunks with blankets awaited them — luxuries that bordered as a fairy tale for us.

Years later, I realized we hated everything because, mostly, we hated ourselves. We hated the hopeless situation we found ourselves in. We hated the fact that our idealism, or the raw circumstances of life, had us entangled in a deadly web of lies and deceit while the rest of the country went on with their lives as if we didn’t amount.

We hated the fact that we had volunteered for duty and country while the rich got their kids deferments or into the National Guard. We intensely hated the hatred we found within ourselves, the things we did out of fear, and the brutality that the human race is not only capable of but at times seems to wallow in.

Finally, we hated the fact that we were stuck 10,000 miles from our families, with perhaps no way home except a cold and indifferent coffin.

I sat on guard duty that night so many years ago at Con Thien, a fire support base just below the demilitarized zone — the thin strip of land that separated North from South Vietnam. Fifteen APCs and tanks had drawn up into a circle just outside the razor wire that surrounded the base that offered us a faint illusion of security. The mass armor of the vehicles gave them a beastly threatening essence, an arrogant air about them that death awaited anyone stupid enough to cross their path.

They were like gods of destruction from the days of the Vikings, daring the mortals of Earth to play the game of death with them. With cannons defiantly striking upward and a sea of machine guns leveled low, with mounted spotlights and heavy steel draped about them, they seemed invincible to a lonely Marine on guard duty at 2 in the morning. Yes, hatred and envy came easy — at least until the next evening, when I again pulled guard duty.

During the day, we heard that the caravan of armor had ventured north looking to deliver destruction and mayhem upon the enemy — the men of the 324B North Vietnamese Division. I had a little less envy of them now. At dusk, when I relieved the Marine before me of guard duty, I looked out at the wire looking for death. Nothing. Looking left to where the road left Con Thien and inside the wire were three green APCs pulled up tight next to one another. The Marine I was relieving followed my line of sight, saw the question in my eyes and said, “That’s what’s left of them.”

I’m sure I tried to hide my shock and then my shame from the night before. Pain rang out loud in my heart. The armored beasts looked forlornly, beaten down, sad. They had found the enemy and only partially was it the NVA. The real enemy was pride and the harshness of violence.

Death was the real victory. I wondered what the young Marines inside the APCs and tanks felt when rocket-propelled grenades rained down on them like hail, when the APCs, as they were want to do, turned into a deadly inferno of flames as their thin skins succumbed to the storm of explosives, torching off the onboard fuel. We used to call them crispy critters — the badly burned and horribly mutilated Marines who had been caught inside those fiery death traps.

Fear also played me. If those primordial beasts could so easily be reduced in 24 hours to the pitiful remains before me, what chance did I — or any of us — have? Plus, a new thought found fertile ground: What of the people of this land? What chance did they have as the ancient war-gods played their twisted games of fate, with all of us as pawns? Could I not have even the pure emotion of hatred to hold on to?

My contempt for the men of armor — and air and ship and eventually of the enemy themselves — turned bitter in my throat. I had judged others harshly for the stupidest of reasons. I had traveled 10,000 miles to kill those who believed different than myself also for the flimsiest of reasons.

As Joseph Conrad, author of The Heart of Darkness, so insightfully wrote: “The enemy was to be found within our own hearts. If the price of hatred was to be found anywhere, it was here.”

Postscript: Shame

“The pending backlog of unprocessed Veterans Administration disability claims now stands at over 400,000, up from 253,000 six years ago,” The New York Times reported. “The VA’s claims backlog, which includes all benefits claims and all appeals at the Veterans Benefits Administration and the Board of Veterans Appeals at VA, was 803,000 on Jan. 5, 2009. The backlog hit 915,000 on May 4, 2009, a staggering 14 percent increase in four months.”

— Ken Williams has been a social worker for the homeless for the last 30 years. He is the author of China White and Shattered Dreams, A Story of the Streets.

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