The Atlanta Constitution, July 28, 1990:
Note: Straight ASCII text Please check paragraph end markers before reformatting "_" marks beginning and end of italics
Travis Charbeneau 3421 Hanover Ave., Richmond, VA 23221 firstname.lastname@example.org Phone: 804 358 0417 www.travischarbeneau.com
Have You Hugged a Killer Yet Today? Travis Charbeneau 1289 words
PULL QUOTE: "I realized I was talking with a man who had actually killed people; pulled their heads back, looked 'em in the eye and blown their necks off. And he did it for me."
Hey kids, have you heard the news? Robert S. McNamara's new book admits Vietnam was all a mistake. The little stinker says, "We were wrong, terribly wrong," something he neglected to mention when he resigned as Secretary of Defense in 1967. What a boon to the anti-war movement such a statement would have been at the time! And, on the purely selfish side, ending the war earlier might have cut my wife and me some slack a while back when we sauntered into our local beanery, The London Cafe. A guy named Bobby was sitting at the bar complaining to no one in particular about the woman two seats down who "didn't wanna talk to nobody." "Nobody" meant Bobby, who was drunk. And well-practiced drunk, too. His speech didn't slur. He didn't wobble on his bar stool. Only his derailed train of thought gave him away. Still, who's going to talk to a train wreck? My wife and me, as it turned out. We were seated nearby, and Bobby turned his attentions from the locomotive-shy woman to us. He extended a paw from his bearish frame and introduced himself. We hurriedly introduced back and as hurriedly returned to our Watney's. Maybe he'd go away. No deal. "'Mind if I ask how old you are?" We sighed and faced the inevitable. 'Didn't mind. I was 45. My wife, Janene, was 33. "You like Dylan?" Bobby asked. Sure. We liked Dylan. Bobby got his pal the bartender to put on some Dylan. "You in 'Nam?" "No," I said. "But I watched it on TV." Bobby lurched into reverse. "The thing about Dylan ..." Then, gears grinding, he slammed back into first: "The thing about 'Nam ..." "The thing about 'Nam," the wreckage of our national train wreck, was all over Bobby, and, like so many of us, he was still trying to crawl free. We stopped trying to look away as he proceeded to rummage through the debris, looking for some breathing space; maybe even some long-hidden route of escape that didn't lead right back into the mouth of a bottle or some other engine of forgetfulness. Over the course of the next 30 minutes we got a demonstration of just how impossible this was. And not just for Bobby. In 1967, the same year McNamara resigned in his damnable silence, the CIA's William Colby set up Operation Phoenix, a counter-terrorism program ostensibly designed to assassinate rural Viet Cong leaders. In reality the scheme was designed to "counter-terrorize" village chiefs into denying aid to the VC. Bobby, as he put it, signed on as one of Mr. Colby's "pistoleros," a member of a "Provincial Reconnaissance Unit." Bobby had assassinated 17 village chiefs, up-close and personal. He had a special shorthand gesture for his killing technique that he repeatedly pantomimed. Apparently the typical victim would be lying face down on the ground with Bobby's boot in the small of his back. Bobby would yank the guy's head back by the hair and blast a bullet through his neck. Bobby mimed these two motions for us again and again. They had merged over the years into one, very quick gesture, almost a nervous tic: "Whup-bang." Bobby wasn't proud of this. He said so many times. And, every time he did, some rationale would follow. Most of Bobby's victims were not communists. The families who witnessed the murders certainly weren't. Colby's idea was to intimidate villagers, not kill commies. After Bobby's visit, the next guy to become hamlet chief would have a sorry tale to tell the communists when they came around wanting to cache weapons or set up an ambush. Perhaps the VC listened sympathetically. Bobby swore that after his team paid its little visit, American troops passing by these villages never came under fire. That's it! Bobby was actually _saving_ lives! More likely, the VC had their own "whup-bang" team who told the hamlet chief that politics was an unfortunate career choice right now, and they were real sorry, but ... "whup-bang." All we know is that, ultimately, they out "whup-banged" us. Now, in the bar all this while, as per Bobby's request, an anthology of Bob Dylan was playing over the house stereo. "Masters of War" came 'round, and no film producer could have chosen a more brutal musical subtext to his story: "Damn y'masters of war ... Y'that hide behind desks. I jus' want y't'know I kin see through yer masks." Like I said, I just watched the war on TV, attended rallies, signed anti-war petitions, and sat at my desk writing indignant letters and articles to legislators, newspaper editors and the like -- often while listening to Bob Dylan records. Suddenly, Dylan in one ear and Bobby in the other, I realized I was talking with a man who had actually killed people; pulled their heads back, looked 'em in the eye and blown their necks off. And he did it for me. Through my taxes, I even paid for Bobby's boots and bullets. Now my hired gun had come back to haunt me. Of course, better to be the haunted than the ghost. Like a ghost, Bobby's not really among the living. He's certainly not "home." The piecemeal, grudging offerings of homecoming America has made have not brought guys like Bobby home. Our pathetic orgies of self-congratulation after the release of the Vietnam POWs or the Iranian hostages, our efforts to "kick Vietnam Syndrome" by "kicking ass" in Grenada, Panama and Iraq, all the hoopla in red, white, and blue and the miles of yellow ribbons have rewritten neither public nor personal history. Deep in his cups, here at the bar, Bobby's still a pistolero with one notch in his brain for every human being he snuffed during two tours in Vietnam thirty years ago. And deep in his dreams he still works for William Colby. And William Colby? Does William Colby dream of exploding necks? Or does he dream of "hiding behind desks," stifling yawns as he initials papers in embassy blue ink on which are typed euphemisms like "terminate with extreme prejudice?" Or does it take eye contact and one or two close-in "whup-bangs" to derail a person's soul; make a train wreck out of a patriot? I'll bet Colby and Kissinger sleep just fine, even if Mr. McNamara apparently does not. And Bush and Reagan, Cheney and Baker probably sleep OK, too, having made the world safe for cheap petroleum. And maybe Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon didn't go straight to Hell. After all, why should any one individual be singled out? These folks were merely America's public servants, working for you and me to help eliminate boogiemen and win the Cold War. Remember? The "Silent Majority" of us supported the war in poll after poll after poll. We paid for our public servants, just like we paid for Bobby's ammo; just like we paid for the Contras in the '80s and for Panama and "Gulf Coalition" forces in the '90s. And, like I said, _we_ all sleep OK. Mostly. So what was the matter with this guy? Getting drunk every day and causing a train wreck? When we got up to leave, my wife, who can hardly "whup-bang" a cockroach, walked over to Bobby and embraced him. I followed her. Bobby's hug was warm and gentle for a state-sponsored terrorist. I heard myself say, "Be home." Bobby too quickly replied, "I hear you." But I'll bet tonight, wherever he may be, all he hears is, "whup-bang." I sure hear it. McNamara's obviously been hearing it since 1967. Again, too bad he didn't tell anyone at the time. Bobby is only one of millions who would have liked to know how "terribly wrong" it all was _before_ climbing aboard.