If he had been sitting on a lazy cloud, looking down at the world, it might almost have looked nice. The patchwork of rice paddies could have been a green quilt thrown over the earth. Henry’s rifle hung heavily from his shoulder, and silently he wept—knowing that I could not weep aloud.
Guns and smoke were tattooed over his mind, blurring the image of five young faces. Even through the haze of regret, he remembered the way the eyes had looked as were jolted out of this world by soldiers’ bullets. Death should be peaceful, a gentle settling, the end to a long journey. Not accompanied by groans and shouts. Not full of agony like flares erupting in their skin. Not pain. That wasn’t the way to die—certainly not at eighteen years old. Damn kids were to young to grow beards. Now they’re dead because their skin and uniforms were the wrong colors.
Henry walked on, surveying the land and the approaching huts, his head held high, his pride evident, and his wretched guilt consuming him more quickly than war. The civilians scattered as he stepped through the settlement. He watched a woman gather up her child and set off in the opposite direction, leaving him only a hollow glance.
That’s how he felt. Hollow. Like a rotted tree. I’m a medic for God’s sake. I’m not a soldier. Henry slipped into an empty hut. He leaned his rifle against the wall and unfastened his bandoliers, letting the deathly spirits slip away from his body. But he could not dispel them from his presence. They lingered—as though they were meant for him. He wiped a bead of sweat from his forehead and held a cigarette to his lips, frowning at his shaking hands and the lighter that refused to catch flame.
He tasted the smoke before exhaling. It didn’t taste like blood.
He inhaled again.
“…nineteen civilians…” The lieutenant’s shrewd voice over the crackling radio. “What should I do with them, sir?”
Henry held the cigarette a few inches from his mouth, waiting for their company commander’s response.
Four seconds later, the cigarette struck the floor. Twenty seconds later, Henry had gathered his equipment and was stepping out the door, the cigarette still burning in the dirt. Twenty-two seconds before the daytime light struck Henry’s smoke-filled eyes, the steady voice of the company commander had come hissing through the radio:
“Kill anything that moves.”
A small group of women and children stood outside the hut, huddled together as though that could protect them. Among them was the woman who had glared at Henry as he’d entered the settlement. She was still holding her child, but her expression had lost its edge. She stood and shook as badly as Henry’s hands.
If he had counted the souls assembled before him, he would have counted nineteen.
If he had counted the goose bumps crawling steadily over his body, perhaps he would have been distracted long enough that he would not have seen as U.S. soldiers slaughtered nineteen women and children of the Quang Nam province. Perhaps he would not have heard as they shrieked and begged for help, groveling in the dirt as the bullets took from them all they had left to give. Perhaps he would not have watched them drowning, throwing up their hands and flailing in misery.
A few moments later, they were dead.
From the silence and despair, emerged a cry—the piercing squall of a newborn. The soldiers watched as Henry stepped toward the child, picking his way over bodies, and pieces of bodies. He took the child in his arms and listened while it screamed. A rough necklace was settled around the fatty neck of the infant, a tarnished charm reading, Rose. Gently, so gently, he laid the child on the ground and pressed his rifle to its belly. Tiny hands grasped the barrel, as they would grasp a toy.
Henry looked down at the desolate child, surrounded by a halo of death. And he knew that his green uniform meant nothing drenched in blood.
His uniform meant as much as Old Glory flying over a cemetery, as much as an Uncle Sam poster in a high school cafeteria, as much as applause for a veteran who hears gunshots in every car’s backfire.
It meant nothing.
He pulled the trigger and walked away, leaving a dead baby Rose and her dead mother in the Quang Nam Province. Alongside the remains of his humanity.
He didn’t need it here.