Tony was sent to Danang three days ago, serving with an American infantry unit as a helicopter gunner.
Different from the other American soldiers, this isn’t Tony’s first time in Vietnam. He is a Vietnamese-American. He came with his mother to Vietnam seventeen years ago, to visit his mother’s hometown and his grandparents, who then lived in a small village near Danang, exactly the same area where Tony is now.
At that time, he was five years old. He spent a whole Summer in that village. The majority of his memories about that summer have faded for a long time; he only remembers his grandparents were very kind to him—They couldn’t speak English, and he didn’t know Vietnamese, so most of the time, they just smiled at him, trying hard to cook various food for him.
The grandparents’ house was small, as was the village. Tony loved to play outside with his cousins. Being kids, they always could find ways to communicate and understand each other. There were vast rice fields. At that time of Summer, the rice wasn’t ripe yet, and the fields were filled with water. Every morning Tony and his cousins went to catch eels there. If they were lucky, they could catch twenty eels in one hour. Then they brought the muddy eel basket to their grandparents, watching them cut the live eels into two to three-inch-long parts. As one of the few kept memories, Tony still remembers vividly that when he first saw those eel parts, which had been chopped half an hour ago, were still moving in the bowl, he was scared into crying.
His mother told him that eels had a very strong vitality, just like many wild species. They had to struggle through a lot of suffering and pain to survive. Then Tony asked, “Why should we eat them? Why not just let them go?” His mother said, “That’s their destinies, even if we don’t eat them, someone else will.” But after deep frying those eels, they tasted so good—Even though Tony still felt sorry for those eels, on the other hand he couldn’t refuse to eat them.
There are always issues a man has to deal with in his life; with some issues you can face more than one choice, but some not. Tony never thought that there would be war between these two countries: His father’s country, where he was born and raised; and his mother’s, whose roots were there. As an American young man he had no other choice—He was drafted into the army. After three months’ training, his feet stepped on his grandparents’ land for the second time; what was different was that, as an American soldier, he came here to defeat the Vietnamese, or Vietcong, in their own country.
Yesterday an incident happened to Tony’s troop. A ten-man squad of infantry were ordered to search for Vietcong in a wooded area. They were approaching their target noiselessly, then a soldier in the squad screamed out—he was so nervous that he mistook a rope for a snake. Immediately there were continuous gun shots coming from the wood. The squad was forced to retreat. But after they came back to the camp, they found that two members were missing. Thus they went back to that battle scene to look for them, nothing could be found except for two canteens of the two missing soldiers’. They must have been captured by the enemy!
And this morning, they saw two bodies hanging upside down on a tree at the border of their camp. They were the two missing soldiers: Their eyes were taken out; their tongues were cut off; the bodies were slit all over. There was neither bullet wound nor fatal cut on the bodies, so obviously these two soldiers were tortured to death!
Then one American soldier was shot in the head in the camp. It was done by another soldier—he said that the soldier he shot was the person who caused the deaths of the two: If not because he was so damn nervous, he wouldn’t have yelled out; then they wouldn’t be heard by the enemy, thus these two soldiers wouldn’t be caught! One of the two dead soldiers was the shooter’s best friend; he couldn’t bear the fact that his friend was killed so cruelly just due to another’s cowardice. Therefore, he avenged the two men’s deaths on that solider by shooting him dead.
This incident was reported to their commanding officer immediately. Then an urgent meeting was called for the whole troop. The meeting was short and quick: The officer didn’t punish the shooter, he just criticized him for killing his own crew member hastily; he urged every solider to be calm; and he pointed out that it was the enemy’s strategy to make them scared. At the end of the meeting, the officer declared: “We will take action as reprisal!”
It was Tony’s first time to see dead persons so closely, and who died in such an inhumane way. He was shocked. More than three months ago, he was just a happy easy-going young man in LA; his dream was to be a doctor. But now, he is thousands of miles away from there, and he feels he will never be able to go back. He is full of fear: They are not dead bodies laid on the operating table waiting for his dissection; they are live people, with blood and flesh; once before they laughed, cried; they loved someone and were loved by others. It is neither a joke nor a game, it is life or death that he will have to face every day in reality!
He thinks of the eels he saw in his childhood, in his grandparents’ village: Wild species, strong vitality, they were still struggling and moving after being killed half an hour ago. What they wanted was only one thing: Survival!
Now, he isn’t that ambitious young man swaggering on the streets of LA anymore; he is in the jungle. He must follow the principles here: Either be the predator, or the prey. No matter how fearful he is, he can’t show it on his face or in his behavior; or else, he will cause others’, and his own death, just like that soldier who was shot by his own side. There is no sympathy here, only discipline and obedience.
One day later, Tony receives his first mission with his crew members: They will fly air support for the ground troops to attack a village where a large number of Vietcong are hiding. Most likely those men are the murderers who killed the two soldiers. This mission needs to be done early the next morning when the enemies are still sleeping, so nobody in that village can escape! Then the commanding officer shows them the location and the name of that village on a map—It is where Tony’s grandparents live!
Tony’s mind instantly becomes blank, he can’t see or hear what is happening around him. Slowly but clearly, the images of that village in his childhood arise in his brain: A little village surrounded by trees and rice fields; there were woods and jungles; he ran into the village with his cousins, throwing the other villagers far behind; his grandparents’ house appeared in the dusk, he could see the cooking smoke rising from the chimney, his grandfather wearing a leaf rain hat and a white tank top waving at him; behind the grandfather stood a muddy water buffalo, whose eyes were calm and kind. He cried out joyfully, wanting very much to sit on the buffalo; and from the salivating aroma in the air, he knew that his grandmother was cooking something delicious in the kitchen…
“Tony, what’s the matter?” All of a sudden, he hears the commanding officer’s loud voice, which drags him back to reality. He hesitates for a few seconds, then answers: “It is my grandparents’ village.” The officer stares at him, speaking firmly: “So you want to excuse yourself from this mission?” Tony straightens up: “No sir. I took my oath when I joined the army. I will go!”
Tony and his crew members get up at midnight. They prepare everything well and enter their helicopters: Two helicopters are assigned for this mission; each one includes two pilots and two gunners; they will fly as low as possible to target and fire; then the ground troops will enter the village to search.
Tony’s helicopter flies toward the village. The morning air is crispy. One trace of dawn shows from the horizon, from there the sun will pop up very soon. The sky is a light turquoise, some stars are still twinkling curiously. "Somebody won’t have the chance to see the morning sun.” Tony sighs.
Gradually the landscape materializes: the river, the woods, the rice fields, and the village! It is the village where his mother was born and grew up; it is the village where he spent a happy and an unforgettable Summer when he was five; it is the village where his grandparents are living, and his cousins, and that water buffalo. Those people are always kind and quiet, humble and diligent like the water buffalo; those people are also the murderers who executed the two American soldiers cruelly; those people are his enemies who must be wiped from the map!
The helicopter starts to lower: three hundred feet, two hundred fifty feet, two hundred feet…Tony hears his heart beating fiercely—Each beat is supported by his rushing blood, and half of it belongs here. His eyes are searching for his grandparents’ house, but he fails to identify which one it is. Those little houses, huts, all look very similar; the path to his grandparents’ house is so vague in his memory. Seventeen years skipped by, he feels like in a dream, where he has lost himself. If his mother has the chance to know that he is in a helicopter, carrying the mission to attack his grandparents’ village, what will she think about him? After being killed either by napalm or other’s bullets, what will his grandparents say about him in heaven? Perhaps some of the Vietcong are his cousins, his unknown relatives. Who knows? Goodbye, my dear grandparents! Goodbye, my cousins and friends! Goodbye, my happy memories of this village! Goodbye, my innocent youth! I will have to rewind myself to this moment all the time, all my life! How can I free my damaged soul from it?
Tony hears someone shouting in his headphone: “Fire!” “Pop!” The first napalm can’t wait any longer in his gun, instantly the house he targeted is on fire! The other gunners are also firing, the violent flames against the dawn look so horrifying. And from the fire Tony sees a few burning men rushing out of the houses: They are running and crying on the country paths—they will be burnt alive! They are like those struggling eel parts!
The world has gone mad!
by Yuting "Lotus" Zhang
Yuting "Lotus" Zhang, born in Henan, China in 1983, came to New York in 2017 with her
American boyfriend who now is her husband. Self-taught oil painter, poet and prose writer,
designer, she has always had great passion for everything that pokes, prods, and stimulates the
imagination, particularly stories. She began with telling her own stories to her friends and
neighbors when she was a child and later maintained a blog in China for many years. During the pandemic lockdown she began to explore writing in English and has written three
novels. Her second novel, "The Collapse of Rosemary" is under publishing contract and will be
released this year. Her day job is as Supply Chain Executive of a New York multi- brand upscale fashion company. She resides in Trenton, New Jersey in a vintage early twentieth century house with a great
garden and even better food.