Newcomb Secondary College
My body is jolted awake as suddenly as if I had dreamed I was falling, and I lurch upright. My heart drums in my chest and I gasp for breath like a drowning man, The room’s darkness grows less as my eyes adjust, and I force myself to look around the small, sparse bedroom to prove to myself that I’m not where I feared I was. I feel the cheap sheets clutched in my hands. I feel a bead of sweat run down my next. My breathing slows and I shake my head, as if to try to shake off the last echoes of my nightmare; green light shining through a jungle canopy. A flash of fire. A scream.
The floorboards creak as I stand and plod into the kitchen next to my room. It’s tiny, like all the other rooms are, but the apartment is cheap and I don’t need much space. I reach out to flick the kettle on but when I see my hand, pale and shaking, I decide on something stronger. I try to stop my mind going back to the dream as I fill a plastic cup with whiskey, but by the time I lift it to my lips for the first mouthful I have already failed. The drink warms my chest, and I remember.
I grew up listening to my dad’s stories of war, and I absorbed them as readily as young kids do everything. I was enraptured by these tales of courage and glory and friends made for life, where a soldier would brave enemy fire to help a wounded mate on the frontlines of France, or would hide in a grateful family’s attic from Nazi search parties. It seemed that war brought out the best in men, made them strong and brave, and my dad made it sound like battle was the only way to really become a man. It sounded wonderful. I couldn’t wait to have my own stories of my heroic feats to tell my kids, like my dad had done with me, so when news reached my town of the war in some far-off, mystical place called Vietnam, the choice seemed obvious. I had lapped up those stories all my life; I was ready. Never mind that I couldn’t find Vietnam on a map if I tried. I was nineteen years old when I enlisted, so keen to show the world what I could do. God, I was just a kid Just a kid about to discover how wrong he was about everything.
My thoughts are knocked off course by the sound of a car backfiring in the street below, and I drain the rest of my drink in one gulp. Maybe I can get another couple of hours sleep before morning. My bones groan and protest as I stand up – an old man’s bones, now. My body contains only the echo of the youthful strength it once held, strength wasted in a faraway jungle for a false cause. I think of my nineteen-year-old self and feel sorry for him, so unsuspecting that the worst battle he’d ever have to face would be the one raging in his own head thirty years after the war had ended. I creak my way back to bed. It was the wrong choice. Now I’m left alone with just my thoughts for company, and that’s never a good thing.
The kid that I was got his wish: I did change. After a few months in Vietnam I didn’t flinch at the sight of a village being lit up by bombs and napalm. I suppose you could call that brave. I developed plenty of skills just like I hoped I would – the ability to obey orders, the ability to walk past dead bodies without retching, the ability to hide tears under mud. If this was my best then it sure didn’t feel like it.
I remember one day when my company was sent to a village that was reportedly harbouring Viet Cong. I grew to hate these villagers in my stupidity; I resented how they could band together against us when our own troops were deserting us every day, how they could sing and work while we ached and cracked. How could these peasants be stronger than us? We rounded up all the men in the village and made them kneel in lines while the captain radioed base camp. Of course, none of the men admitted to being communists, but that mean nothing. I stood watch over the men, rifle in hand, when suddenly there was movement in one of the lines. A young man, maybe twenty five, stood up. I can see him as clearly now as I could that morning in the jungle.
“Get down!” I barked, raising my gun. “Now!”. He didn’t get down. He held his arms out to me and spoke to me, and I will never be able to forget his words.
“Please”, he cried. “I have never fired on anyone in my life. Ask anyone. I am a farmer, I am not a soldier!” He started to walk towards me, his arms outstretched. I was alone, my company on the other side of the village’s square.
“Stop him!” yelled my captain.
“Get back,” I cried. “I mean it!” It came out sounding weak, afraid.
“My name is Fong. I am a farmer!” The man pleaded with me, moving towards me. He reached down, maybe to reach. I didn’t know, but my captain thought he knew.
“Shoot! Phillips, shoot! FOR FUCK’S SAKE, FIRE.”
Afterwards, when I looked at that body on the ground, I thought to myself that the two extremes of humanity seemed to exist right there in that clearing, in me and Fong the farmer, lying still in a pool of blood. There was a man strong enough to cry his truth to an armed soldier, and a man too cowardly to face a lone farmer. I didn’t understand how that could be. I didn’t understand how his strongest moment and my weakest could come forth side-by-side in a single tiny moment against the vastness of time.
They told us that we were fighting communism, fighting for the freedom of the Vietnamese people. I doubt Fong appreciated my efforts. I doubt his family, watching from the other side of the village, did either. They weren’t communists, or anti-communists. They were just people who wanted only to be allowed to live and grow rice and raise children in peace, peace shattered by our presence. I realised I had no idea what I was fighting for, and I doubted that anyone else did either. The myth of my ‘best’ was shattered. I came home six months later.
The sun is up now, and I can’t try to sleep any longer. I get dressed and go to the coffee place down in the street below where I like to sit and watch the goings on of the road through the window. My days are pretty empty now, and I prefer to watch other people. Today there’s a big front page story about the latest digger to die in Afghanistan. I look at his picture, and he looks so young to me. I wonder if he knew what he was fighting for. I wonder if he had regrets like mine. If he did, then maybe it was relief for him to not have to live to feel himself be slowly buried by them.
The other regulars come and go, wishing me a good morning as they do, but I probably look distant and sound vague to them. I’m not trying to be rude. My mind is just very far away, with a farmer named Fong.
Rose Doole is a year 12 student at Newcomb Secondary College.