Alpha Company was resting in a village, using water from a deep well, when one of the men found an NVA rifle. It was hidden under a shrub. “Jesus, looky-looky! A little toy!” The man danced up and down, delighted. It was an AK-47, beat-up looking. A single banana-shaped magazine of ammunition was wrapped in cloth beside the weapon. “And we thought this village was so nice and cozy! Ha, the sneaky bastards!”
Captain Johansen ordered us to search the rest of the village, and we searched until sundown, not finding a thing. The villagers watched sullenly. We tore up the floors of their huts and overturned huge jugs of rice and kicked straw out of pig styes. We poured sand into the well.
At dusk, the captain and his lieutenants conferred, finally deciding to take some prisoners for the night. “Where there’s an AK-47, there’s Charlie,” the captain said. “Chances are he’s here right now, living in the ville. And chances are he’s got friends.”
The lieutenants went into a hut and pulled out three old men. It was just at dusk, the sun gone. The lieutenants wrapped rope around the prisoners’ wrists, then tied more rope around their ankles. They stood the three old men against three saplings and tied the men fast to the trees. “Better gag them,” one of the lieutenants said. So they stuffed wet rags into their months. When all this was done, it was night.
“Okay, that’s good,” the captain said. “Charlie won’t attack tonight. We’ve got Poppa-san.”
The night was clear. We ate C rations and drank some beer. Then the guard started, the ritual come alive from our pagan past—Thucydides and Polybius and Julius Caesar, tales of encampment, tales of night terror—the long silent stare into an opaque shell of shadows and dark. Three men to a foxhole: two asleep and one awake. No smoking: The enemy will see the light and blow your lungs out. Stay alert: Courts-martial for those dozing on guard. All the rules passed down from ancient warfare, the lessons of dead men.
Twice that night I was on radio-watch, once at midnight and again near morning. I sat by the radio and watched the three men strapped to their saplings. They sagged, trying to sleep. One of them, the oldest, was completely limp, bending the little tree sharply to the ground, supported against it by a rope around his belly and another around his wrists. He looked like pictures of Ho Chi Minh. A fine pointed beard, a long face, wide and broadly set eyes covered with drooping lids.
Bates, one of my good friends in the company, came over to sit with me. “It’s appalling, isn’t it? Making these old duffers dangle there all night.”
“At least no one beat on them,” I said. “I sort of expected it when the Kid found the AK-47.”
“Still, what good will it do?” Bates said. “The old guys aren’t going to talk. They talk to us, tell us where the rifle came from, and ol’ Charlie will get to them. They don’t talk and our interrogation teams rough them up. Wait till tomorrow, that’s what will happen. I’d like to cut them loose. Right now.”
“Maybe nothing will happen. If we aren’t hit tonight, maybe we’ll just let the old men go free.”
Bates grunted. “This is war, my friend. You don’t find a weapon and just walk away.”
He went to sleep, leaving me with the radio and the three old men. They were only a few feet away, hanging to their saplings like the men at Golgotha. I went to the oldest of them and pulled his gag out and let him drink from my canteen. He didn’t look at me. When he was through with his drinking, he opened his mouth wide for me and I tucked the rag inside. Then he opened his eyes and nodded and I patted him on the shoulder. The other two were sleeping, and I let them sleep.
In the morning one of the lieutenants beat on the old men. Alpha’s Vietnamese scout shouted at them, whipping them in the legs with a long stick, whipping them across their thin, bony shins, screaming at them, trying to get them to say where the rifle came from, whipping the old men and making long cuts into their ankles. One of the old men, not the oldest, whimpered; none of them talked.
Then we released them and went on our way.