I’ve recently been pestered by a couple of old and familiar ghosts which have wafted over here from Southeast Asia. I thought that these spirits from the past were buried where I once left them, in the place where I served in the US Army as a young enlisted man, and ten years later as a humanitarian relief worker. But it seems that I’m once again obliged to conjure up and scribble down the memories evoked from that patch of God’s green earth – a 30-kilometer swath of jungle and parched rice patties, scratched out along the Thai-Cambodian border, just north of Aranyaprathet in eastern Thailand.
Aran, as it is known locally, is a small town on the Thai-Cambodian border, situated midway on the bulging western Cambodian frontier, about mid-way up from the Gulf of Siam to the south. I’ve spent over six years of my life in that spot, under broad-leafed trees and on red laterite trails which snake their way into the jungle and across the porous border between the two countries. Some might rightly ask for an accounting of such dissimilar occupations in the very same place, separated only by time: one involving deconstruction, the other, a building up; one involving war, the other, the aftermath of war; one centered on personal survival, the other focused on helping others. I’m not sure how to answer that question with precision, and even if I could it would probably boil down to circumstances and luck, a change of heart, and a need to “make right” the earlier wrongdoings by a distant (and in the end, disinterested) country on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.
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Life in a “PsyOps” Company
Near the Thai-Cambodian border town of Aranyaprathet, I spent two years of my unguarded youth with the US Army (1972-1973). Back then, I was with a small company of about 25 other soldiers who set up a base camp on the Thai-Cambodian border as part of a “PsyOps” unit (psychological operations). Our main job was to shore up the flakey government of Cambodia, and its equally flakey president, Lon Nol. One remarkable thing about Lon Nol is that his name spelled backwards is Lon Nol. Another remarkable thing, if only to me, is that he died in the same LA town where I grew up. In fact, Lon Nol died in the same hospital where my high school buddy, Darrel Hunt, died in 1967. I think Lon Nol also owned a liquor shop in Southern California. Perhaps my erstwhile best friend Hank and I bought Coors there. Anyway, back in the bush in 1972, it was our job to help him stay in power by conducting PsyOps in western Cambodia.
Part of that “thing” involved radio propaganda in a hearts-and-minds campaign, and the boys at the base would blast the airways with all kinds of pro-Cambodian government propaganda. The Embassy in Bangkok brought up reels of pre-recorded, pro-government tapes in Khmer that were supposed to be heard by the Cambodes over AM radios – not sure how the locals got their hands on those radios, but that was the idea. But the late-night airways in western Cambodia in the early 1970’s were, from-time-to-time, saturated with the tunes of Neil Young and Jimmy Hendrix. We figured that the musical interludes provided a nice break from the government tapes that none of us could understand. We used to imagine a little “Cambode” dude having dinner with his wife, when he turns to her over a bowl of rice and fish-heads and asks, “Who in hell is ‘Cinnamon Girl,’ honey?” To this suggestion we’d all laugh like jackasses, as the joint was being passed around our general-purpose, five-man tent.
We came to know that the base’s AM transmitter was also used as a navigation beacon by B-52 pilots flying straight overhead, en route at night to drop their bombloads over Vietnam. If the sky was just right, you could see the contrails of the aircraft at night. They usually flew in sorties of three planes out of the US airbase at Utapao, on the Gulf Siam. While on R&R down there, I would sometimes sit and watch these massive, big bastards eating every inch of that long runway at Utapao and then lift off, carrying enormous tonnage of bombs in their bellies. Back at camp, again at night, you would sometimes see only two contrails returning from Vietnam. Perhaps there were only two aircraft on that run? We’d hope so. We weren’t thinking then about Kissinger and Nixon, smugly siting around the White House, having a few drinks, and wondering who in Cambodia they were going to bomb back into the fucking Stone Age that night.
[And 20 years later (in 1993), in flights up and down Cambodia in UN helicopters – beat-up, old Ukrainian MI-8’s – you could still see the clusters of perfectly round “water holes” created by the 500 pounders, dropped by the 52s back in the day. Hundreds of these bomb-crater clusters pockmarked the eastern Cambodian countryside. And ten years after Nixon’s and Kissinger’s wicked mischief (around 1981), their chickens came home to roost when hundreds of thousands of Cambodia refugees fled the war-torn destruction in their country and streamed into Thailand. It was all connected. Shoring up Lon Nol and all the human strife and the suffering of the refugees that ensued. I was merely a small speck, riding the tide in and out of the place. But it was connected alright, and the poor Cambodians were the unwitting victims.]
Back to the ghosts. . . Our company’s Army medic then was a master sergeant named “Doc,” of course. We called him “Doc D” since his last name was Donaldson. He was a plump little dude from the Special Forces Group in Okinawa. All of the medics that passed through our camp were Special Forces. That was a very good thing because they knew their shit. Their swagger was earned. Doc D likely had a sketchy past and we all guessed that’s why he wound up with our band of knuckleheads. He, like Lon Nol, had two local claims to fame. The first one came after he made an epic, short-cut trek back to our camp, following a night out in the local town of Aranyaprathet where he was boozing it up at a beer-joint we called Somsak’s. (Somsak was a local man who had a little wood-and-tin-roof shack where you could get Singha beer and Mekong Whisky – and a plate of fried rice if his wife was in the mood.)
Doc D figured that he didn’t need the front gate to get back into the base that night. Somehow, he got through five rolls of razor wire, passed undetected under our guard towers, through the defensive perimeter, and got into the base completely unseen. Such an accomplishment immediately elevated our estimation of him which was already near-legendary. He wound up going into the mess tent that night (a place where many of us used to hang out in the evenings) and proceeded to stitch himself up; he had deep “souvenirs” received from going through the razor wire. We all figured he had huge, hairy pelotas, but left the matter to speculation.
The second remarkable thing about Doc D was that he once went to the market in Bangkok, about 250 “klicks” to the West of our camp, and bought about 100 ducklings. He took these to the Grove Hotel in Bangkok (which, miraculously, is still there to this day) and let them loose in the hotel swimming pool. Doc then went to his second-story room which overlooked the pool and jumped out of the window, performing “cannonballs” into the water – and on top of the ducks which were swimming around and otherwise minding their own business. After about four or five of these plunges into the pool, he shooed away the survivors and did a body count of the less fortunate which were laid out in a row. Don’t ask me. Nobody said you had to be nice.
Back at the base, Doc had a favorite. It was a one-legged duck named “Dexter” which sort of hopped and flew at the same time in some kind of semi-airborne, spastic movement. A few thought that Doc had found a soft spot for animals – or at least this particular animal. But secretly most of us knew that he was raising that duck for its extra-large, solitary drumstick.
At the Grove Hotel back then, there was juke box in the corner of a crummy little coffee shop that was attached to the hotel. They made passable club sandwiches and had ice-cold beer. Several times a day someone would drop a coin in the slot and Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler’s tune, “The Ballad of the Green Berets” would blast everyone in the place. If you were unfortunate enough to be inside when this happened, you were obliged (military and civilians) to “get your ass up” and off the red Naugahyde stools and stand up, preferably at attention. It could be bad for you if you didn’t. I once saw a couple of French tourists given some hearty encouragement by two Special Forces cheerleaders who happened to be in town. There was nothing physical and violent, more like having some seriously drunk person in your face, giving you patriotic dribble in a loud voice. Very annoying.
Gus Digman was from Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, and was our guy with “the old man,” our company commander. He knew how to push the old man in just the right way so we could get what we wanted, whether that was extra food, less work, more beer – the major concerns of your common, every-day grunt. As if that skill wasn’t enough, Gus had a special talent for ferreting out the snakes that inhabited our bunkers: bamboo vipers, pit vipers, banded kraits, cobras, you name it.
Gus used to go into to the bunkers and come out with a snake. Never failed. He knew how to handle them and, better still, he knew how to kill them. His technique – and I’ve never seen this replicated anywhere, by anyone – was to grab the snake by the tail and then crack it like a bullwhip. The head would snap off clean as a whistle. The problem was, you would now have this recently-snapped-off snake head zipping across the bunkers with its mouth open, fangs and venom glands intact. If you got hit by that thing, there was a good chance you were going down. No one ever did, and we all stood around like morons and laughed our asses off every time he did this. The old man kept his distance. Maybe that is why Gus had his way with him. Gus was crazy. Nobody said you had to be sane.
Speaking of snakes, one of our cooks, Forrester, was screwing around with a spitting cobra one evening, but the cobra hadn’t had the same amount to drink as our cookie had. Its spit was right on the mark – and Forrester got it in the eyes. Thank God for Doc D. You could forgive him the ducks at such times.
When I first arrived in the camp, there was some suspicion that I was some kind of “narc” who was going to bust up the grunt’s free-wheeling pot-smoking. At least that was the rumor that had circulated before I arrived. Nothing could have been further from the truth. I got into camp in the evening – a newbie, and probably a narc. I was immediately whisked off to see SP5 Birdman, the self-appointed local chief, where he and his tribe would size me up. Birdman was a Jim Croce look-alike from Salt Lake City, except he had beady red eyes like juju beads. He gave me the standard GI handshake, and I gave him back the sporty, brotherhood version (still in vogue then) and he asked, “Oh, is this the peace-love thing?” To which I replied, “It is whatever you want it to be, brother.” Don’t ask me where that line came from, but it was cool enough – and the tribe loved it. Birdman gave the nod. I was thereafter golden.
I spent my free time in the next few months digging into Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his trilogy of books that I had stashed at the bottom of my duffle bag. In fact, I had dabbled in theology and “things religious” back in the late 1960’s, spurred on by a professor I had at the University of California named Nelson Pike. I loved his classes. He was on fire. I remember in particular his segment on the “dark night of the soul.” I fancied myself in such a rut during my Army days.
So, when we had an Army chaplain come up to give the boys a pep talk, I took it upon myself to raise questions about the “dark night” and what he might know about that. It seems he thought I was being impertinent because, after he flew off, I was called before the old man for “harassing” the visiting chaplain. When the chaplain actually lodged his complaint, the old man was nowhere to be seen. Most likely he was down at Somsak’s. Anyway, I explained to our commander that I was merely trying to get a few pointers for my journey, and by the way, what was his impression of the chaplain’s talk? (I was emboldened by Digman’s snake escapades.) But he wasn’t taking the bait, or he just wasn’t in the mood to deal with nonsense, so my time before him that day was cut short.
I would stand there in front of him a few more times, most notably for a memorable AWOL in Bangkok. For that stunt, I was reduced in rank and fined three month’s pay, all suspended in exchange for being confined to base – as if being assigned to that shit-hole camp wasn’t bad enough. Needless-to-say, and despite the confinement order, I split for the village every night that the opportunity came up. If I stayed clear of Somsak’s and brought some food or smokes for the main gate guards, all was cool. I couldn’t afford to piss off the old man again, even if he was a reasonable Joe – and he did have his good points. In fact, the old man came up through the ranks, which is a quality that lowly grunts respected immensely.
Our second-in command was, on the other hand, a dufus. He was the last guy you would want to be in a tight spot with and, even worse, he was from up-town New York City (strike 2). He wanted to be one of the guys, but we weren’t having it. He was a “shake ‘n bake,” an officer who receives minimal training before they get their “butter bars” – the gold bars of a 2nd lieutenant. We had a lot of time for those officers who came up through the ranks, as well as any West Point officers – they knew their stuff and were generally fearless – at least the ones I met. But this guy didn’t cut it.
The one smell I remember the most in our base camp was the fuel. The fumes were everywhere. Whether it was spilt diesel on the ground near the large generators that powered the camp and our lights, or the smell of the JetA, jet turbine exhaust from the helicopters which came and went from our LZ, it hung heavy in the air like a hydrocarbon curtain on hot, humid days. It wasn’t grandma’s apple pie cooling on the windowsill. It was an oily odor that stuck in your nose, but it could be oddly reassuring and welcomed since it let you know you were at the base, and somehow OK. Don’t ask me. On the other hand, it could be downright disgusting. It got into your clothes, and it even seemed to get into the food. When you’d go to sleep at night, you could dream of being on an oil rig somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico.
There was also the obnoxious smell of burning latrine cans, the 50-gallon diesel fuel barrels that were cut in half and placed under the latrine’s seats. Every now and then they had to be pulled out and burned, which required dumping about 10 gallons of fuel in them and then lighting them on fire. You wanted to be sure you were well upwind of that operation. God help you if you got a face full of that smoke. This was a task usually set aside and performed by the “newbies,” or someone confined to base for getting out of line.
None of us was particularly motivated towards “getting ahead,” although we had one guy who was a linguist and studied Mandarin Chinese in his spare time; there was another named “Chicago” who played a pretty cool bass guitar and was studying music in hope of making a name “back to the world.” The fellow walked on the balls of his feet and therefore looked like he was wearing high heels. There was a guy who would hook up a crank-style field telephone to some wires, and then connect these some unsuspecting soul or animal and give the crank a whirl. Boredom was a dangerous thing. Our second Doc, Fred Rawlins from Boston, got a dental kit from who-knows-where and would practice dentistry on anesthetized local dogs. Then there was Big Ben, our head cook, the more pot he smoked, the more creative he became. He was once literally scared out of his shoes by one of Digman’s dead snakes, strategically placed on the camp’s only road. Just for fun, we wanted to scare the shit out of him. The shoes were a bonus.
“PsyOps” certainly has a mysterious ring to it. It sounds very dark and mysterious, full of risk and danger. But most of what we did was not like that at all. There were indeed some hardcore combat experts as well as bona fide nut-jobs in the mix. And then there were others, like me, just biding time in the most non-belligerent way possible. And that usually meant a heavy reliance on booze and smokes. Life centered on self-adsorption and survival and was very much in-step with the prevailing Zeitgeist and moral injunction of the early 1970’s to “do your thing for the joy it brings.”
For me, it was a period marked by meandering and aimless mischief in the company of some odd-ball characters. Not one of them, including myself, possessed any measure of moral underpinning, and there was a general lack of philanthropic virtues, or virtues of any sort – unless points are given for decency and loyalty. We were of a different ilk, much more benign than our mission implied (if that can be said about an Army organization in a time of war.) We had no need to salve our consciences nor seek absolution. We were merely a collective bunch of misfits – and the Army must have had my number because I fitted right in.