My thoughts on killing

Tom Hain

I was drafted into the Army. I didn't ask to go to Vietnam.

In basic training we were told that it was a soldier's duty to kill the enemy. We were taught to kill by shooting, bayonetting, explosives, hand-to-hand combat or any other way that seemed feasible at the time. We were taught that it was the enemy's duty to die for his country, and it was our job to see that they got the opportunity. We were told to forget what we were raised to believe, that killing was evil and a crime, and to take pride in how efficiently we could dispatch another man's life. It was hammered into us. When we marched, we sang about killing. When we trained with guns we were told that we weren't shooting targets, we were killing the enemy! When we trained with the bayonet we learned that "The purpose of the bayonet is to kill, to kill, TO KILL!

In Infantry AIT, we were told that the next stop was Vietnam; and if we hadn't decided to get with the program, we would die there. Without the right attitude about killing, I was going to die!

It was that simple. Almost a sure thing. Men were dying everyday in Vietnam. Then the Tet offensive happened during the last week of AIT. It sounded like they (the VC) had gotten their act together. In a month I was going to be a grunt in Vietnam. I decided to do the best that I could to stay alive. To kill if I had to, and deal with it if/when it happened. We all had to deal with it some way.

Most guys were more scared about dying than they were of the prospect of having to kill. Some weren't going to be able to do it, and they would die. Some would do their best and they would die anyways. Death was a fact of the job. When I went to Vietnam, I really didn't expect to live through it. I just hoped that I would be able to do my job and not look stupid. When it came time to kill the enemy, I hoped I would do what I was trained to do, and if I was to die, I wanted it to be quick. If dying was like in the movies, I could handle it.

The first dead men that I saw in Vietnam were VC. I was shocked at how little respect we showed them. I was sickened by the agony that they must have gone through. I was overwhelmed with the sight and smell of death. But they were the enemy. I didn't know them and I didn't kill them so it was easier to deal with. Men die in war and better it should be them than me.

The first dead American I saw was a guy in my company that I never met and I didn't witness his death. He was carried past me to be loaded onto a dust-off. There was no doubt that he was dead. I told myself to ignore it. I didn't know him and I didn't kill him so get over it and go back to work. I was isolating myself from it and for the moment, I could deal with it.

Then my world was turned inside out. One of the guys that I had come to know and respect, and I called a friend, was killed. He died in front of me and I couldn't do anything about it. All of the ways I'd dealt with death up to that time were of no use to me now. I felt guilty that I couldn't do anything to prevent it. I felt "better him than me," and then I felt guilty about feeling that. I felt alone. I felt the loss of a friend. I felt that if it happened to him, it could happen to me. I was sickened by the way he died. I was pissed that the enemy could do this to my friend. But we were in the middle of a firefight. I didn't have time to dwell on it so I had to put off feeling anything until later. At his memorial service I cried.

After that I was gung-ho to get revenge. I wanted to kill VC. Sat Cong! I wasn't going to be unsure about killing anymore. I wasn't going to go out of my way to find a target, but I was going to pull the trigger when I got the chance. At least that's what I thought. When the time came, it wasn't that easy. It wasn't a "him or me" choice. I wasn't the target he was firing at, but I was the only one who saw him shoot. When I tried to point him out to the guy next to me, his reply was "shoot da mutha fugga!"

My heart was beating so hard that that's all I could hear. I aimed my M16 at him and pulled the trigger. No hesitation this time. I fired again, and again, and again. I emptied a magazine on him. When I stopped firing, I started shaking. He was dead and I had done it. "Did everybody see that? I did that." I wanted the guys that he was shooting at to see that I was the one that saved their butts. I didn't want them to see that I was shaking like a scared rabbit. I never saw anyone else shake like that and I was ashamed of myself for being so scared. I wanted to be cool about it, but I couldn't. This wasn't just firing into the bushes like I'd done before. This time someone died. No time for reflections now, back to work!

The firefight ended soon after that and we moved forward to where the body was. I tried to look at him like all the other VC bodies that I'd seen, but this one was different. Thoughts filled my head. "Take that sucker!" "He asked for it!" "It could have been me." When I felt myself feeling sorry for him and what I'd done, I glazed over. I put up mental and emotional defenses. I disconnected myself from it. I forced myself to think that it wasn't just me that did this, it was all of us, it was just the way it was. I could deal with that. For the moment.

Next question; could I do it again? I didn't want to be in that position again, but unfortunately, I had more opportunities to find out. The answer was yes. I didn't always hit the target but when faced with that situation, I did what had to be done. Shitty as it was, it was my job. It didn't get easier. It was war and men die. That's just the way it was.

When I got home from the war and someone would ask if I had killed anyone, I asked them why they wanted to know. Did it make me more macho, or scary, or loathsome? Did you want all the details? Or did you just want to see me shake like a leaf? Tell me what's in your head and I'll tell you what's in mine. If it's just morbid curiosity, go away! I don't need this and you don't either! I'm not ashamed of what I did in Vietnam but I don't need to brag about it.

Now, after 28 years, I have the cushion of time to help deal with my demons. I was lucky to have lived through it. I feal that I'm living on borrowed time because of all the times that I should have died. The families of the people that died have had time to grieve and get on with their lives. They can't point to one person as the man who pulled the trigger. The war killed them. But then nor can they point to what he would have been, if that trigger hadn't been pulled.

I've had these thoughts on my computer for a long time. I've edited them down from rambling entries I've made every so often. I felt this was good place in this story to say this. I did this for myself. I'm not trying to justify, rationalize or explain anything. It's just my way of dealing with it.

Copyright © 1997 By Thomas J. Hain, All Rights Reserved