On the third day I was there, this guy who had picked me up in the Jeep, a corporal who I was ultimately going to replace, he and I were in the battalion intelligence section, we were sent down to the tractor park, the amphibious tractor park to meet a bunch of detainees. It was our responsibility to take care prisoners, and detainees were a classification of civilians, they were not combatants; they could be detained for questioning, which is why they were called detainees.
And Jimmy and I went down to the tractor park and two tractors came in, they had a whole bunch of Vietnamese up on top high flat-topped vehicles about eight or nine feet tall, and as the tractors wheeled into the park the Marines up on top immediately began hurling these people off, and they were bound hand and foot, so they had no way of breaking their falls, and they were old men, women, children, no young men, and I couldn't believe these guys were treating these people this way, and I turned to Jimmy and said, I grabbed him by the arm and said "What are those guys doing? We're supposed to be helping these people." And Jimmy turned to me and he looked at my hands on his arm, I sort of took them off, and he said "Ehrhart, you better keep the mouth shut until you know what's going on around here." I think it was at that point that I realized things were not quite what I was expecting.
It went downhill from there, and again I can't even begin to explain in the space of time that you have all the things that went into it, but I began to understand, it became obvious that the enemy was the very people in these villages around us, and we were in a very heavily populated area at that time, they were the enemy, or at least the enemy was out there somewhere and we couldn't tell one from another. And day after day our patrols went out and we ran into snipers and mines and snipers and mines and snipers and mines. I saw four armed soldiers the first eight months I was in Vietnam, and yet our battalion during that same period of time sustained 75 mining and sniping incidents per month, over half of them resuling in casualties. This is for a unit of about a thousand men. But there was no one to fight back at, and you begin to think, these people are the enemy, they're all the enemy. And then you go through villages and, you know, you get sniped at and so you call an airstrike in on the village and the whole village goes up, or you go through a place and you search it, and you burn houses and blow them up. The common perception, the notion I had when I was in high school was it was the Vietcong terrorized the Vietnamese population, forced them to fight against the Americans on pain of death. What I began to understand in Vietnam was that they didn't need to do things like that, all the had to do was let a Marine patrol go through a village and whatever was left of that village, they had all the recruits that they needed. I began to understand why the Vietnamese didn't greet me with open arms, why they in fact hated me, but of course that didn't change the fact that my friends were getting killed and injured every day and the only place that you could focus your own anger and fear was on those civilians who were there, and so it was this self-perpetuating mechanism: the longer that we stayed in Vietnam the more Vietcong there were, because we created them, we produced them.
None of that distilled itself into the clear kind of expression that I'm presenting now. What I began to understand within days and which became patently clear within months was that what was going on here was not what I had been told, what was going on here was nuts, and I wanted to get out. I knew if I was still alive on March the 5th 1968 they'd stick me on an airplane in Danang we used to call it the freedom bird and I could fly away and forget the whole thing. Turned out not to be quite so easy to forget it, but that was the notion, and certainly my last eight to nine months I ceased to think, I quite literally ceased to think about why I was there, or what I was doing. The sole purpose for my being in Vietnam at that point was to stay alive until I could get out.
And the reason for that is, you know, the kinds of questions that began to present themselves were just.. the questions themselves were ugly and I didn't want to know the answers. It's like banging on a door, you knock on a door, and the door opens slightly and behind that door it's dark and there's loud noises coming like there's wild animals in there or something. And you peer into the darknees and you can't see what's there but you can all this ugly stuff.. do you want to step into that room? No way, you just sorta back out quietly, pull the door shut behind you, and walk away from it. And that's what was going on, those questions, the questions themselves were too ugly to even ask, let alone try to deal with the answers.