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An Autopsy of War

By John A. Parrish, M.D.
9/5/2017 • Vietnam Magazine

A doctor’s stint in the bush reveals to him the grunts’ reality, why they say ‘it don’t mean nuthin’’ and worship the god DEROS.

In August 1967, Dr. John Parrish, a Yale Medical School graduate trained in internal medicine, was thrust into the blood and gore that is the intended result of combat, where the most horrendous wounds are routine and dozens of life-and-death decisions are often made in mere minutes. When he received his orders to Vietnam, the 26- year-old Parrish actually felt relief to leave his residency in an adolescent leukemia ward. “It shows how clueless I was about what I would be facing,” he said. “I went to Vietnam so I wouldn’t have to watch teenagers die.” Parrish’s first days in triage at Phu Bai, treating young mangled Marines barely clinging to life, brought him face to face with the harshest reality. Shortly after the Marines had retaken Hue in 1968, Parrish was transferred to a medical facility near the DMZ, from which he was sent wherever a doctor was needed. In the following excerpt from his just-published memoir, Autopsy of War, Parrish describes his first assignment with Marines in the field.

On my first excursion from a military base to a new assignment in the field, I went by jeep over miles of flat country to the Wash Out, just beyond the Cam Lo River. As we passed the outer perimeter of the Dong Ha base, the driver and the Marine in the backseat put clips into their M-16s. The other passenger in the backseat, a corpsman who had just arrived incountry, slipped a clip into his rifle, too. His hands were shaking so badly that I was afraid he was going to shoot one of us.

Previously I had only carried a gun on my trips into Hue, but in the field I carried one with me nearly all the time. Trying to act like I knew what I was doing and trying to hide my own fear, I slid a clip of shells into my .45.

As we bumped along, I studied every bush and tree on the side of the road. I turned my collar insignia into my shirt so my rank wouldn’t flash in the sun and aid a sniper’s selection of candidates for death.

What the hell was I going to do if the enemy did start firing? What good would a .45 be against a sniper or, worse, a surprise attack? I hardly knew how to use it anyway. My thighs ached from the tension and from trying to keep my balance in the bouncing jeep. I expected to be shot at any minute or to hit a land mine and be blown away. I wanted to ask the driver about our chances of being fired at or getting blown up, but I knew his answers would not have helped. I also felt obligated not to express anxiety. Nothing happened on the trip, but I felt no safer when I left the jeep to enter my newly assigned tent. My body was on full adrenaline alert.

Eventually I grew accustomed to the fear. Sometimes I found it boring.

In the field I began to identify with “the wisdom of the grunts,”the philosophy of teenaged American kids, the foot soldiers who were actually fighting this war and carried it with them every minute of every day. They reminded me of the random nature of the war’s killing machine, where soldiers died each day, not for a great cause but primarily because someone failed to observe some small detail he had either forgotten or could no longer be bothered with. Too exhausted in spirit to snap a flak jacket closed; a shard from a grenade penetrated the heart. Too depressed to clean a weapon; it jammed and left the soldier defenseless. Too spaced out to care and too tired to give a fuck; chronic anxiety and dull routine existed side by side in the Marine’s mechanical, systematic search for the Vietnamese, an enemy who was everywhere and nowhere, one whose presence was announced in explosive bursts of brutality, killing and violence coming at any time and at any place, then retreating just as quickly. The end of a skirmish or battle brought little relief, just the knowledge that the next fight was out there, a second, an hour, a day or a week away, as certain as the sunrise.

The grunts saw the war up close, in its most stark and basic terms: To most of them, missions to“search and destroy”seemed much more authentic than“pacification.”They were in Vietnam to kill gooks, period, not make friends with the Vietnamese. Some did it well, and some enjoyed it—often making up the rules as they went. Target practice from helicopters. Close contact and killing by hand. Shoot. Explode.

Burn. Blow the fuckers up. Kill by day, come back for a movie at night. Stay alive. Do what you have to do. Trust nobody. Go home.

“It don’t mean nuthin’ ” was their mantra. The grunts who did the fighting and those who supported them in the rear were not concerned with abstract morality, politics, opinion polls or military strategy. Once they were in the field their goal was simple survival, to do what they were told to do, to make war, to protect their buddies, to wear down “the enemy” and to kick ass. They did not see themselves as liberators, bullies or imperialists. However, after being in Vietnam a very short time many came to feel the country could not be saved, only destroyed. In that mission there was clarity.

Brought into their units one at a time, made to fight for 13 months and sent home alone, the grunts had difficulty connecting their personal tours of duty with the aims of America’s war effort. Some soldiers began to see themselves as victims not only of a guerrilla enemy but also of American foreign policy, and for the first time by talking to recent arrivals I began to sense the degree to which the war had become unpopular back home.

I never heard talk of fighting communism or saving or protecting the Vietnamese unless it was said in derision, as a sick joke, graveyard humor. Most Marines could not state a coherent political position or debate or defend their personal philosophy, but their attitudes were clear. I saw “uuuu” written on helmets and carved on wooden tables and trees and “4u” as a tattoo on battle-scarred arms. I soon learned that the acronym meant“The Unwilling, led by the Unqualified, doing the Unnecessary, for the Ungrateful.” That was the logic of their war. I, the educated university man, was a student, and they were the teachers.

When I was with the infantrymen I could feel their intense anticipation of battle, of contact with the “enemy.” Even among supposedly friendly local villagers, the Marines knew there were bands of people who wanted to kill us, and it was difficult to know the difference between a friend and an enemy. There was constant anxiety as every Marine knew that at every instant someone was scheming and dreaming of ways to kill us.

“Charlie” was out there to be hunted, or at least defended against. He had to be killed, or tricked. He was everywhere and nowhere. The Marines feared, respected and hated him.Yet they wanted and needed to kill him. That was their job. It was a deadly game, a high-stakes hunt. In the early part of each new play, we were bait and he was predator. Then, when the time was right, we called in air power to reverse the roles.

In the bush anything not essential was forbidden. They lived as primitives. Yet the way the environment could switch from the deprivation of the field to the beer, hot dogs and ice cream available at a base was jarring. A brief helicopter jump into a safe landing zone or a jeep ride farther to the rear could change a primitive jungle to an American mall, or a war zone to an all-male picnic. A Viet Cong (VC) rocket could change it back to hell again. Kill by day, come back for a beer and a movie at night—and any day could be your last.

My respect for the grunts continued to grow. “It don’t mean nuthin’” was an admission of the absence of a clear mission but also a surrender to reality, to all the forces outside one’s control: chance, chaos and evil. Absurdities outweighed conventional expectations. Things just didn’t add up. “It” actually meant everything, but there was no better way to express or explain it. The soldier focused his energies on staying alive and gave up on the larger issues.There was no other language that could articulate“it.”

I hated what the soldiers in the bush were doing, but I admired their willingness to do it and felt very connected to them. Part of me wanted to get even closer, loved what they were doing and longed to go with them on every mission. I didn’t just want to hear their war stories. I wanted to participate in them. Yet, at the same time, I hated the war and I was very fearful. I wanted to strike out and strike back, fight and fight back, but I was confined by my role as doctor.

Paradoxically, when I was assigned to infantry units in the field I often had very little to do. The severely wounded or very sick were usually medevaced to medical support facilities before I even saw them, and Marines in the battlefield do not often complain of minor illnesses, aches or pains.

At times when I was in the field, separated from direct care of the wounded, I came to love being a soldier. I kept my .45 on my hip at all times. I had an M-16 acquired from a dead Marine. Compared to giving first aid, the war of a soldier was a more dramatic, exciting and dangerous occupation.

The grunts taught me to pray to a new god, DEROS, which stood for Date Eligible for Return from Overseas. The fact of the fixed, 365-day (13 months for some grunts) rotation influenced everything, including to whom one related, and how, and whom one trusted. DEROS slipped into all conversations with new acquaintances as an aside, a sotto voce statement of faith—“I’ve got 96 days left.”

The concepts of bravery, honor, heroism, justice, war and even peace were overwhelmed by a personal plan to survive for one year. Any concept of winning was secondary. All thoughts, feelings, commitments, loyalties, goals and values served DEROS. This was especially true for the Army draftees—less so for the Marine volunteers.

The grunts accepted constant fear and worshipped DEROS. Everything that kept one alive mattered, and everything mattered only because it kept one alive. Calendars became sacred writings with their own metrics. DEROS was a cult. It controlled body and mind absolutely and was much more important than capturing hills or fields or villages. Body counts were to please the CO and pass time. Stay away from FNGs (fucking new guys), whose mistakes could get you killed, and “short-timers” because they were jinxed and often got blown away with only few days left to go.

The faith of DEROS was this simple: Enter—stay alive—exit.

Preserving one’s life, maintaining one’s personal honor and executing our country’s policy were not only exceedingly difficult but also sometimes contradictory. Temporary dangers began to feel arbitrary, a feeling heightened by that fact that warriors were shuttled back and forth from war zones to “rest and relaxation” centers in exotic foreign ports. In between deadly assaults on villages or hills with numbers and no names, 18-year-old boys were treated to a sexual, alcoholic Disneyland. Military objectives became less impelling, classic war stories became less romantic and military scorekeeping became less interesting and relevant.

I tried to integrate my two worlds, incorporating the shock of a single seriously wounded man and the personal devastation of a single untimely death, remembering and embracing the full impact of the death of my own brother. I got lost in ideas of proportionality, legalisms, national will and acceptance of war as a legitimate tool for politics.Why did I not protest with all my might?

During one assignment, each morning at dawn, a large group of expressionless Marines with full packs, extra ammunition, heavy gear, radios and mortars walked, half awake, single file, past my tent and out into the trees in the distance. Each night they returned tired and dirty, the salt of dried sweat on their fatigues and faraway, blank stares frozen on their faces. At times fewer returned than left. It was always the Marine carrying two M-16s that looked most hurt, confused and bitter. The sick, wounded and dead were taken by helicopters directly from the place they fell. I rarely noticed anything but their absence.

When Marines are surprised in jungle terrain they first dive for cover, but rather than stay in place to be picked off one man at a time, they are trained to advance toward the enemy and respond with a frontal assault. Fewer will die if the enemy guns are extinguished quickly. The individual is prepared to take on risk for the good of the group. This tactic makes sense to the company commander, the gunny sergeant, the drill sergeant and the Marine unit as a whole. What is so unbelievable about the Marines is that it also makes sense to the kids up front—the boys who charge the machine guns. Such training makes the Marines an efficient killing machine. Such rearrangement of young men’s thinking wins battles.

The same group identity, carried to its extreme, makes each individual in the unit important. Rather than leave a dead or wounded Marine behind, the entire group may take heavy additional casualties to retrieve him. The group may even risk being sacrificed for the individual. Loyalty to fellow soldiers prevails over everything. By comparison, patriotism, captured land, spoils, treasure or any concept of winning the war means little.

Most of the action happened while the Marines were on patrol. The patrols, which took place nearly every day, seemed unconnected from any larger battle plans. Some were lonely missions to update military intelligence. Others were intended only to maintain a “presence” for local farmers and villages, and others were designed to disrupt the communication and supply lines of the enemy.

The major reason for patrols was “search and destroy,” or to “find, fix and destroy” the enemy. The object for the infantry was to lure the enemy into contact, often at great risk of casualties. Marines often felt they were used as bait. Then, once the enemy was located, air power and artillery did most of the destroying. In the places I served, once they made contact, the soldiers themselves were rarely involved in prolonged firefights. When they did, there were usually horrendous losses and casualties on both sides.

The VC and the North Vietnamese, in contrast, had a much different strategy. Unless they felt they had the advantage of superior numbers or position, meaning a great ambush site or protection from airstrikes by the weather, forest canopy or proximity to friendly troops or villes, they did not permit their patrols to make contact. They felt they could win the war simply by remaining out of reach, by outlasting us. They did not worship DEROS, but they used it to their advantage, knowing that many of our soldiers wanted nothing more than to serve their year and then leave. Enemy warriors were more willing to sacrifice themselves for nationalism. They believed that they were fighting for a cause and that we were fighting to keep from getting killed.

The grunts described their days according to levels of “bad.” On a simple“bad”day, the grunts’ only real enemy was the country itself: hills, mountains, humidity, rain, insects, jungles and rivers. They each carried 60 to 100 pounds of gear through thick growth and treacherous footing with heat, mud, snakes, leeches and razor-sharp elephant grass as hazards.

On a “badder” day, they lost a few men to booby traps, killed when they took a step without looking, walking into some kind of barbed punji trap or setting off a trip wire attached to a grenade or stepping on a mine. On the“baddest”days, the soldier on point was killed, picked off by a sniper, a few more died in the initial firefight, and others were killed or wounded as they waited for the firepower to arrive by air and kill or chase away the enemy.

There were no “good” days.

These patrols’ exits and returns were without conversation, drama or question. Those who died, died. Those who lived, lived. They filed back past me, ate, cleaned their weapons and went to sleep. At dawn, like factory workers, they sullenly went back to the rice paddies, the woods, the jungle and the hills. They would walk and sweat through another day, and most would end up again back at camp. They spoke of their task in euphemisms. Patrol was “a walk in the sun,” “dangling the bait,” “baiting the bush” and “humpin’ the boonies.”

Each phrase meant the same thing: Find the enemy, make contact, kill or be killed and return. Trap, block and hold. Air support and artillery support. Movement, forward observers, reports and intelligence. A game played from the colonel’s tent or by a senior officer in a helicopter, moves communicated by telephone, radio and courier and then executed by the grunts.

In my first three weeks in the field,we lost two corpsmen—one killed,one wounded.I lost count of how many Marines were killed. The helicopters took the dead and the wounded directly from the place they fell to my friends in Phu Bai or back to Dong Ha.

Whenever a grunt was killed, his buddies said he had been “wasted,” a word that was not a euphemism at all but unusually specific and accurate. It was also used for all forms of killing by both sides and sometimes applied to the needless destruction of homes as well. Patrols, sweeps, missions and search and destroy operations continued every day as if part of life itself. Absolute boredom was shattered by brief episodes of intense terror. Killing time between killing times was a problem.

For one three-week period my tent was only 10 to 20 meters from a giant artillery gun. At random times during the night, Marines fired shells to harass and cause fear, aimed at no fixed target but the blackness. Each night I was among those who fell victim to their goals. There would first be a sharp crack that seemed to lift me off the ground, stop my heart and fire every synapse in my brain all at once. Then there was a quick mental convulsion followed by a psychic weakness as I felt the shock wave pass through my body. At times I felt pain in my ears and throat or chest that lasted for hours. I did not hear well for days at a time.

On one occasion I accompanied a corpsman and his driver on a trip to the ville to run errands, which usually included a visit with a Vietnamese family the corpsman had adopted and was supporting with food and money. As we drove slowly down one crowded street, a very young boy threw a crude wooden box with metal casing, wires and a flashlight battery taped to its side. It landed in the jeep right next to my feet. I froze. The driver quickly but carefully picked up the device and flung it into an opening between two huts. It did not explode. The driver stepped out of the jeep and aimed his M-16 at the boy running away, but the corpsman grabbed the barrel of the gun and pointed it toward the ground. Amid simultaneous profane exclamations, they struggled with one another until I told them to let the boy go. Days later on the same street, another driver was fatally wounded by a simple bomb thrown into his jeep.

On one assignment, I attended the colonel’s daily briefings. He explained how effectively we were keeping the enemy off balance, not allowing them to move closer to us. He didn’t seem to hate them. They were simply insects that had to be kept away by antiseptic vigilance.

The colonel did not consider dead Marines as “wasted.” Death was a part of war. He spoke of KIAs (killed in action), WIAs (wounded in action) and body counts (dead Vietnamese of any age or sex). His scorekeeping was so unemotionally methodical, I was tempted to think he sometimes saw his own men as replaceable units.

A thin man in his late 40s, with piercing eyes, a sardonic smile, a big cigar and a nasty disposition, the colonel was unable to speak to anyone, even the chaplain, without using abusive and profane language. This lack of tact was so obviously practiced it insulted no one. The officers tolerated him and did everything he said without question and, usually, without much resentment. The enlisted men did not seem to hate him, but his rank made them avoid eye contact. He called me “Doc,” as did everyone, for even though I wanted to be seen as just another soldier, I was not.

Sometimes the patrols stayed out in the bush for days at a time. I only went with them when the colonel went.When he asked me to go, I was never sure if it was a request or an order. In any case, I always went, eager for the action but afraid for my life. Luckily or unluckily, nothing much happened. Once when I was helping to medevac a wounded Marine, a bullet went through the aircraft immediately above my head. I was surprised how little noise it made—like a small wooden stick hitting an empty tin can.

Most of my understanding of life in the most dangerous situations came from talking to grunts. What I didn’t learn in triage, I learned just being in their presence in base camps, mostly listening to them talking to each other. When healthy, the grunts might ignore the“doc.”Because I had no real authority over them, I tried to keep the lowest possible profile.

I began to sense that their willingness to kill grew over time. They were worn down and worked up because the enemy was everywhere, and gooks, dinks and VC gradually came to seem less human. The chain of command became diluted and fuzzy, and as fatigue increased, the rules of engagement became less clear. The teenaged boys were trained to kill and had awesome firepower in their hands at all times.As tensions built, so did a vague pressure to act, if only to fight boredom or relieve anxiety. Sleep debt, fear, grime, hunger and thirst, sore feet, self-preservation, instinct and covering your brother’s ass dominated poorly stated missions. Killing sometimes followed for mixed reasons.

On another of my assignments the western perimeter of the camp bordered on a “free-fire zone.” Anyone or anything that moved in that area could be shot, mortared or bombed. The military maps had it marked as such, and supposedly all civilians in the nearby villes had been warned to stay clear of the area. Each morning at the same time, a large military truck lumbered 50 meters into the free-fire zone to dump garbage from the camp—food, broken equipment, tattered clothes, photos of girlfriends who had written Dear John letters, tin cans, cardboard containers, wrappers and bottles.

The dump was a temptation the Vietnamese from the villes found impossible to resist. They hovered in the jungle nearby, watching, waiting for the truck to arrive. As soon as the truck left the site, the Vietnamese would nervously scamper into the dump, picking through our garbage, collecting cans and leftover food items that to them were treasures and necessities.

At the edge of the base just inside the wire, there was a watchtower overlooking the dump. The platform, surrounded by two layers of sandbags, was about five meters aboveground. The Marines assigned to the tower had free rein to shoot the looters in the dump. Over time they turned their assignment into a sick game. They used the villagers as target practice, competing with one another to see whose rifle shots could cause a villager to jump in fear, or who could shoot the closest to a villager’s feet without hitting him or her. The loser sometimes shot off a foot or a leg by accident, or a ricochet maimed an accidental victim. Others, out of meanness, hatred, anger, desire to add a notch on their rifles or just plain boredom, shot to kill.

I was restless and took every opportunity I had to roam around the base, and one day I went up onto the watchtower. I had never been there before and was having a cold coffee and a cigarette with three Marines as the villagers scurried around below, nervously looking up at the tower.

One of the Marines looked at me. He must have noticed the insignia on my collar that identified me as a physician. “Hey, Doc,” he asked blankly, “you want to shoot someone? You ought to know what it’s like to kill someone.” Then, to justify the killing, he provided the logic behind the offer. “If we don’t keep the gooks away from the dump, one of them could shoot a mortar round at the tower or onto the base, or plant a land mine and blow up the garbage truck. The only way to keep them away is to shoot ’em.”

This particular Marine had invented his own twisted stratagem to keep the dump safe. He figured out that no single approach worked for more than two to three days. If he used the same tactics every day, the peasants would figure it out and become accustomed to it.

So he worked randomly. No matter how many villagers were looting through the garbage, for a few days he would only fire warning shots. A few days of warning shots would be followed by a day of shooting extremities, then a day of kills, then maybe two days of extremities, one day of warning, and another two days of kills, a day of warnings and a day of kills and then another two days of extremities, and on and on. The Vietnamese never knew what day it was. It was like a lottery, only he controlled which ball came up, and when.

The Marine saw my reluctance and bargained with me.“I tell you what, Doc. If you shoot a dink I promise that we’ll make a special trip, go out and get him, and bring him back to you so you can fix him up.”

I refused, and after finishing my cigarette and staring down into my coffee cup for a minute, I left the watchtower. Later, I learned that the Marine had shot and killed a peasant. My refusal to wound a villager had resulted in a death sentence.

Another person wasted.

Parrish’s last days in Vietnam were in triage at Dong Ha, and it was there that he recognized “just how much I was using emotional distancing and psychic numbing to survive,” and “began to realize that a part of me would remain in Vietnam forever, and another part would die there.” Thus began Parrish’s battle with PTSD, which dogged him throughout a long and distinguished career.

Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.

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