The youth hostel at Avignon is on an island in the Rhone River. During my first visit there, in May or early June of 1963, I had a long talk one evening on the embankment by the edge of the water with a young man, a German, of about my own age. We were both in our early twenties, born at the beginning of the Second World War. He had hitch-hiked from Hamburg and was going, I believe, to Marseille.
As often happens in such conversations, there was a quick establishment of trust, and we were soon talking about personal topics. He asked me about my early childhood; I said my first memories were of a porch full of toys at a friend’s house around the corner, and tarred alleys and running under the hose in the summer.
“You were in the States, I suppose, all during the war?”
I said yes, I was born and grew up there.
“And the war didn’t make much impression on you, as a small child?”
“No. I’m not sure I even knew there was a war going on. I don’t remember anything about it except V-J day; there was a parade. And ration stamps, but I guess my memories of ration stamps are from afterwards. There was an embarrassing moment in kindergarten or the first grade when it developed that I didn’t really know the difference between ration stamps and money.” He smiled.
I asked if he had been in Germany during the entire war. “Yes. My earliest memories are of the air raids: sirens in the night, running down stairs, explosions in the distance. Waiting, everybody frightened. Sometimes nearby explosions and crumbling walls. My father was killed on the Russian front and my cousin, one of my older cousins, died in an air raid a few blocks from where I was. It was terrible. I dreamed about it for years afterwards. Sometimes I still do.”
My first impulse—and it was a foolish one, I admit—was to envy him for his early memories. I thought vaguely that it might be better to begin one’s life with something decisive, something that cut into the depths of existence, rather than the trivial embarrassments I remembered from my suburban childhood in the United States. I had the idea that I was living only on the surface of my life and that my shallowness was partly the result of a banal childhood. My German friend appeared neither shallow nor trivial.
We went on to talk about Germany in the years immediately after the Second World War, and I tried to imagine the feeling of waking up after the end and finding oneself still alive. We also talked about the German Youth Movement: its beginnings in the early part of this century, and what’s left of it now. When we got back to our own travels I said I had spent the winter in Spain and was now on my way up the Rhone, by bicycle, going to Germany. By the third week of June I had to be in Frankfurt, to take a pre-induction physical at a U.S. Army hospital. If I passed, as I surely would, I expected my induction notice by the end of the summer.
“Are you going to let yourself be drafted?”
I said yes, I didn’t like the idea but there wasn’t much I could do about it.
“You could refuse.”
“And go to jail? I suppose I could, but that would be even worse than being in the army. And it wouldn’t really accomplish anything.”
“At least you wouldn’t kill anyone.”
I scoffed. “I won’t kill anyone in the army, either. I’ll be given a desk job, I’ll put in my two years of mindless busywork, and that will be that. The only thing that remotely resembles a war right now is in Vietnam, and all we’ve got there are a few ‘military advisors.’ They’re all volunteers, career men. Marines and such.” I had read articles saying they weren’t sending any American draftees over there, because the Vietnamese were doing all the fighting. Like most people in 1963, I had only a vague idea where Vietnam was and what was going on there.
The sun had set behind us, and its glow was fading from the massive stone palace of the medieval popes, across the river to the east. Now the pale aluminum light from a half moon was reflected in the swiftly moving water between us and the pont d’Avignon, the remains of the bridge that was danced upon in the French folk song.
“I know so many people,” he said, “who have drifted into the army—various armies—thinking the same thing. ‘There’s no war. I’ll have a desk job. I’ll just serve my time.’ And then they find themselves in the middle of something they want no part of. When my father was drafted there was no war, and everyone said there wouldn’t be one, der Fuehrer wouldn’t allow it. I never knew my father, but I’m told he had no intention of fighting. He just got entangled in the military, and then it was too late.”
I nodded, but said nothing.
“Suppose you do find yourself in a war,” he said. “Suppose someone was aiming a gun at you. Would you kill him?”
My answer was that I really didn’t know.
After a pause he said: “Actually I shouldn’t have asked you that. It’s the sort of question they ask at hearings for conscientious objectors, to determine if you’re ‘really’ a pacifist: ‘What if someone attacked your grandmother on the street?’ Any way you answer is wrong.”
I asked if he was a conscientious objector himself.
“Inside, yes. But if you mean do I have the official status of a C.O., no I don’t, not yet. I’ve applied, and had some hearings and appeals, but nothing’s settled yet. Of course I haven’t served and don’t intend to. If all else fails I’ll stay out of Germany, or go to jail. I haven’t really decided if a direct refusal is essential, or if it’s enough simply to avoid service by whatever means. Maybe I’ll just move to West Berlin. We have that advantage, in the Federal Republic, that if we move to Berlin we can no longer be inducted. But of course you Americans have no such island.
I said I had considered just staying in Europe. “In many ways I prefer Europe to the States, anyway …. But still, it is my native country, and if I could never go back there it might be quite a hardship.”
He asked if I had considered conscientious objection, and I said I hadn’t, as it was very difficult in the States except for members of certain religious groups. But I wasn’t religious, and couldn’t really claim to have any great moral principles. “No,” I went on, “the one possibility is being deferred as a student, and I’ve done that to the point where I just can’t go on doing it any more. I’ve graduated from college in the States, I’ve studied in Switzerland and Paris, and last fall I enrolled at Barcelona but I couldn’t go through with it. I rode around Spain on my bicycle all winter instead. The trouble is that by now I know what I want to learn and I know how to go about learning it. The more I study in universities, the more they seem to get in the way. I’d have given up on universities a year or two ago, except that I wanted to stay out of the army. But now I’m so sick of doing pointless things to avoid it that I think I’ll just let myself get drafted, serve my two years, and have done with it.”
“Of course, that’s just the way they want you to feel.”
“I suppose. Or it may be that they don’t care how you feel, just so they get you one way or another.”
The moon had risen higher in the sky. It was nearly closing time for the youth hostel, and groups of people were drifting inside.
“I know how you feel,” said my German friend, “but if I were you, I wouldn’t do it. Somehow, I’d refuse.”
Later, when I was in Vietnam, I often thought of our conversation by the river in Avignon. I wished I had written down his name and address, so I could write him a letter.
One thing I was right about: I didn’t kill anybody. At least I didn’t kill anybody directly, personally, with my own hands or my carbine. Like everyone else, though, I was involved in complex processes that resulted in people being killed—many more people than I could possibly have killed just by shooting them.
Sometimes when I was working nights in the radio shack at Ngheo Nan there was a light observation plane overhead, and the pilot would call me on the radio and say: “This is Hawk one-seven. I see some lights, they look like campfires, by a bend in a small river south of your location. I believe they’re within your artillery radius. The coordinates are . . .” and he would give me six numbers indicating the location on the map. Occasionally I thought of changing the numbers in some way before passing them on, but I never did it. Mainly I was afraid of getting caught, I suppose, but another reason was that I didn’t know the area well enough, and I was afraid I might bring down artillery fire on some innocent people, other than those the pilot had in mind. At any rate I plugged a jack into the hole marked “ARVN OCC” on the field switchboard, turned a crank to ring a phone on the other side of the compound, and read the six numbers to an American lieutenant on the other end. “ARVN OCC” meant “Army of the Republic of Vietnam, Operations Control Center.” Why the people at OCC couldn’t have had their own radio and talked to the pilot directly I don’t know, but they didn’t. The American lieutenant who took my call had to give the numbers to a Vietnamese lieutenant who in turn had to phone them out to the Vietnamese artillery crew. Usually everyone at the artillery position was asleep, and the Vietnamese lieutenant had to go out and wake them up.
After a while the pilot called again: “Are those people ever going to fire?” I said I’d ask, and then I called the American lieutenant over at OCC, who said: “Beats me, I gave them the coordinates and that’s all I know. Hold on a second.” Then I would hear the American lieutenant calling to the Vietnamese lieutenant: “Hey, Thieu Uy, why aren’t they firing?” Pause. “They’re sleeping? Then why don’t you go wake them up?” Pause. “Well? Why don’t you?” Pause. “Do you want me to go with you?”
Most of the Vietnamese lieutenants were city boys from well-to-do families in Saigon. They appeared to be afraid of the dark or afraid of the enlisted men in their own units, or both. Sometimes the Vietnamese lieutenant would leave the room (ostensibly to wake up the artillery men), remain outside for a few minutes, then return and slip behind his desk without saying anything. “Well?” “They no wake up? How come they no wake up? Did you yell at them? Did you shake them? You tell them you’re the Thieu Uy, they damn well better wake up.” Some of the American lieutenants were infuriated, some only amused, depending on their temperament.
Even I got impatient sometimes, because all this talking back and forth on the radio and telephone was keeping me from my reading. I kept telling myself I should encourage inefficiency; at least no one was getting killed while the Vietnamese were sleeping and fooling around. But I was worried (as the U.S. command doubtless wished me to be) that this habitual inattention might be the death of us all, in case we ourselves were ever attacked.
Some nights, in spite of everything, the artillery eventually fired.
“Hawk one-seven, this is Tunafish Control,” I said over the radio. “One round on the way.”
“Roger. About time. I’m getting low on fuel. Stand by to adjust fire.” I clicked my microphone button twice, which meant all right.
Our call sign had been “Tunafish Control” for so long that no one found it the slightest bit odd. Eventually it was changed to “Able Mabel” and still later to “Antique Bed Five-Zero.”
Soon I heard the pilot’s voice again: “Up two hundred, right three fifty.” “Roger.” I relayed the instructions to the American lieutenant, who told the Vietnamese lieutenant, who phoned the artillery crew. A moment later there was another loud bang. “Hawk one-seven this is Tunafish Control, another round on the way.” “Roger.” He gave a further adjustment, I relayed it, another round went off. Invariably I felt an odd satisfaction now that everything was finally clicking, now that the system was finally working the way it was supposed to. Somewhere I once read that rhythmic interdependent motions performed by a group of people, such as workers in a factory, can be satisfying regardless of what is being accomplished. In my case, this was certainly true. I didn’t like what was being accomplished, but I couldn’t help enjoying the rhythm of doing it. “Tunafish Control, this is Hawk one-seven, they’re putting out some of those campfires. Tell them up fifty and fire for effect.” I relayed the message and soon heard a series of explosions: boom-boom, boom-boom, boom-boom. . . . There were two artillery pieces that fired one right after the other, then reloaded and fired again. It always reminded me of a Gregory Corso poem: Boom-bam ye rivers., Boom-bam ye jungles …. Boom-bam ye Vietnamese peasants who happen to be in the way.
Some nights the colonel, who lived in an adjoining building, came over in his pajamas to see what was going on. He was small, grey-headed, and slightly pigeon-toed, but even in his pajamas he somehow managed to look authoritative, at least to me. “What was that artillery a while ago? Just H-and-I?” That stood for Harassment and Interdiction; it meant firing a few rounds at random into the jungle. “No, sir. Hawk one-seven was up, and he spotted some campfires to the south.” “Any trouble with the artillery?” “No more than usual.” The colonel nodded, glanced at the radio log on my clipboard, and then said: “Very good. Tomorrow I’ll try to talk my counterpart into sending a battalion or two in there, to see if we hit anything. Maybe we can at least get a body count.”
His counterpart was Colonel Quan, the South Vietnamese zone commander, an enthusiastic tennis player. Our colonel’s job, as Colonel Quan’s advisor, was to advise him over and over again to do something: strengthen the defenses, conduct an operation, send out patrols, anything besides play tennis. When I was running the switchboard I often listened to their conversations: “… oh, yes, Colonel Williams, we do that right away, maybe middle next week.” “I really think, Colonel Quan, that since your last operation was, ah, such a success, you really should, er, strike again while they’re still off balance.” “Oh, yes, but men tired. All the time operations….”
My own attitude towards Colonel Quan was problematical. Emotionally I found myself identifying with Colonel Williams’s anger and frustration — identifying with aggressive American know-how against dark-skinned native sloth — even though I knew perfectly well, intellectually, that playing tennis was more rational than leading hundreds of men around the countryside trying to shoot people. I also knew that these “operations” did nothing to increase our own security; on the contrary, at that particular stage of the war the local Viet Cong seemed generally content to leave us alone, provided we did the same to them. But my emotional response often refused to agree with my intellectual understanding.
I worked the evening or night shifts whenever I could. Between calls I read books, looked up words in my foreign-language dictionaries, drank tea that I made from an immersion heater plugged into the wall, wrote letters, and did calisthenics under the breeze of the ceiling fan.
In the rainy season there were swarms of insects, especially in the first few steaming hours after a heavy downpour. They came in an astounding variety, big and small, flying and crawling, biting and non-biting. Somehow, in my previous experience, large numbers of insects had only come at me in homogeneous hoards, one species at a time, for instance mosquitoes in Maine so thick you couldn’t take a breath without inhaling a few of them, or tiny hard-biting black flies in Canada, or plagues of grasshoppers in Colorado, where one summer a local radio station offered a free “Purple People Eater” record to anyone who brought in a quart jar of grasshoppers to the studios.
Fortunately in Vietnam the biting insects were in a minority, outnumbered by the moths and stink-beetles and especially by the clumsy golf-ball-sized monsters I privately called “Caribous” because they were slow and awkward like the fat two-engine Caribou airplanes that brought us our mail and beer and Coca-Cola every day from Saigon. These “Caribou” insects lumbered around the room, crawled all over the switchboard and the radios, flew around your face, smacked into your head and arms, fell into the tea-water and drowned, landed on the light bulb and singed themselves to death, blundered onto your open book and crawled across the line you were trying to read. Once when I was on a three-day pass in Saigon I looked through several book stores on the Boulevard Le-Loi trying to find a guide to Southeast Asian insects, but I never found one and so I never learned the official name for these monstrous flying bugs. Sometimes I closed the doors of the radio shack to keep them out, but that made the room too hot, and they got in anyway through the holes that had been drilled in the walls for antenna cables and telephone wires. It helped somewhat to turn off all the lights except the little fluorescent lamp on the table in front of me; then at least the light wasn’t visible from so far away, and that seemed to keep the numbers down. But of course those insects that were already in the room all congregated around me and my lamp. Inevitably I got annoyed and started swatting at them with a rolled-up newspaper, and before long the cement floor was littered with dead insects.
There was a spray can on the shelf, but I never used it. I insisted on swatting each insect individually with a newspaper, both because I didn’t like the smell of insecticide and because of something I called “refusal to kill with technology.” One night I was explaining this to someone when Colonel Williams came in, and to my surprise he smiled in his grim way and said: “Well, I’m glad someone has some comprehension of what’s involved over here.” He never elaborated, and I’m not sure his comprehension was the same as mine, but at least he gave me credit for some sort of understanding, and I reluctantly did the same for him.
To be consistent I should have put the newspaper aside and killed each insect with my bare hands, but I was too squeamish for that. To be absolutely consistent I shouldn’t have been there at all.
This is story that I wrote after I got out of the army. It was originally published in the Summer 1972 issue of Prairie Schooner magazine (Copyright © 1972 University of Nebraska Press) and later won the Prairie Schooner Fiction Award for 1972/73.
Subsequently it appeared in two (at least) anthologies of writings about the Vietnam war, which I didn’t even know about at the time because I was living in Europe and Prairie Schooner didn’t have my address. The story was also translated into German for an anthology that came out in 1983, but I knew about that in advance.
This story was important to me at the time because it was the only story of mine that ever won any kind of prize and one of the few that I ever earned any money from. The prize money was one hundred dollars, which was enough to keep me in postage stamps for several months.
Half a century later I went looking for the youth hostel in Avignon. I think this is it, the campsite, youth hostel and hotel Bagatelle on Barthelasse Island near the Daladier Bridge.