Friday, November 13, 2009

The Varieties of War

Last Wednesday was Veteran's Day. Each year when it comes around I feel quite detached from the celebration. Fresno, a city of half a million that's an hour from where I live, has a big parade. I just can't imagine myself staggering down a street with a bunch of old dudes decorated with bits and pieces of my ancient uniform. I'm glad they do it I just can't bring myself to participate. As worthy as they are, I've never been involved in veterans' organizations.

On November 9th of 1967 I arrived in Vietnam. I was a second lieutenant, a graduate of the Infantry Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, GA, trained to be a combat rifle platoon leader.

Your first week or so in Vietnam was spent at a reception station getting acclimated to the heat and awaiting orders. Mine came late one night. My assignment was to a combat battalion that was flying out the next morning. The 4rth Infantry Division was in a major battle in the Central Highlands and we were going to back them up. As officers must do I had to report to the battalion commander. It was after midnight when I arrived. I found him and all the officers of the unit in their private club, a very large tent with a bar. And all of them were getting drunk. I could have hoped for a better moment to make my introduction.

So I came in and saluted Colonel Baldwin. That was his name. Now when you're the newbie junior lieutenant in a battalion you expect a certain amount of harassment. It just goes with the territory. You learn to take it and give it. After I reported to Colonel Baldwin (who was well into his cups), he invited me to have a beer. Now this was a problem. Having grown up in a conservative religious community, at that time I didn’t drink alcohol at all. My previous experiences with military drunks did not incline me to begin, so politely I asked for a Coke. The good Colonel did not appreciate this request.

Now there are three kinds of drunks. First, you have the guys who just get quiet and sink into themselves. Second, there are the party boys who think everything they do and say is screamingly funny. Last, and most dangerous are the belligerent SOB's. Very quickly I discovered that Colonel Baldwin fell into that category. He demanded to know why I wouldn’t accept a beer. Without going into detail I told him that I just didn’t drink. He proceeded to stand me at attention in front of all the other officers and gave me a direct order to drink a beer. At that point I would have drunk acid first. Politely I refused. For the next hour he proceeded to berate me: 1) for not drinking beer, 2) for being a second lieutenant, and 3) for being married of all things. Drunks are such pleasant people. The louder he got the more quietly stubborn I got. Clearly, the man was a buffoon, but put this into context. In a few hours he was going to lead us into battle. It was like entering the Twilight Zone. Thank God we didn't confront the enemy the next day. Later some of the other officers told me that they admired the way I had stood up to him. Of course they didn't have the guts to say a word that night. A week later came my birthday. I turned 22.

After several months Colonel Baldwin was reassigned. The man who replaced him was even worse. Not a drunk, just an arrogant egomaniac out to make a name for himself as a battalion commander. I will never forget his last day with us. We were operating as part of the Mobile Riverine Force in the Mekong Delta. Our rifle companies were on a search and destroy mission and as usual the Colonel was flying overhead in a helicopter. I was leading a rifle platoon. That afternoon my platoon was holed up in a bombed-out Catholic church, so I didn’t see what transpired. But I heard it as it happened over the battalion radio net.

By then a much older captain had joined the battalion. (Probably around the ripe old age of 42.) He was very experienced and he was leading one of the rifle companies. Well he wasn't moving his men fast enough for the Colonel in the helicopter. All of us moved slowly because we were up to our waists in rice paddy mud and the temperature was about 120 degrees. He ordered the captain to get his men up onto the dikes so they could run where he wanted them to go. The captain refused, telling him that the dikes were all booby-trapped with mines. His soldiers would die needlessly. The battalion commander grew furious. Ordering his helicopter to land, he screamed at the captain that he would show him how to lead. Then he proceeded to rush down a dike all by himself. He didn’t go fifty feet before he was blown to pieces. All of us listening on the battalion radios cheered. The reward for his arrogance and stupidity was a trip home in a body bag.

I have always said that my time in the army was excellent preparation for Hollywood because I learned how to fight and how to deal with idiots. The army has its share of bullies but there are far more of them in Hollywood, little martinets who rise up and strut for awhile making everyone's life hell. Then, they vanish away. I discovered long ago that you can do your very best to live at peace with these people, but if they feel you are not properly intimidated there's going to be trouble.

Years ago I had a deal with a production company at MGM. I had been brought in to write the pilot for a TV series and be the showrunner guiding other writers in the development of episodic scripts. The company had several series in production so there were a number of writers at work. The man in charge of it all had a reputation for being a bully, but my relationship with him had been fine.

As the weeks passed I brought in writers and we began to develop stories for the series. Finally I felt that one was ready to present for approval. I sent the detailed story over. A day or so later the man called for a meeting with the writer. The meeting took place in my office. To my surprise this little bully walked in, sat down and literally threw the story at my writer. Then he began berating him.

The writer was an old friend of mine. Years later he loved to describe what happened next. He said that my eyes grew wide, then they narrowed. I rose up and almost came over my desk. He thought I was going to grab the man and strangle him. In a quiet voice I informed him that he could yell at me and throw things at me all he wanted, but never again was he going to treat one of my writers this way. Like all bullies he shriveled. Well, the word got out to everyone in that company. From that moment the man was terrified of me. Apparently no one had ever stood up to him. After that I tried to be friendly and professional, but our relationship did not blossom. A month or so later he did some unethical things that forced me to leave. I was glad to be gone. Later he was fired from the company for illegal activities.

As a Christian I have discovered that when I am attacked I have a hard time defending myself, but when others are attacked I have an absolute responsibility to defend them if I am able.

When soldiers returned after a year in Vietnam so many confronted total rejection. In large part this was a result of the traitors in the media and the insane radicals in the streets. But it got very personal. Men came home not only to be spit upon by strangers, but to wives who had left them and families who didn't care whether they were home or not, to old friends who rejected them as "baby killers." It is one of the greatest disgraces in the history of America and it went on for years.

But I was blessed. I didn't face any of those things. The week I came home I was asked to speak in uniform at a chapel service at the Moody Bible Institute. After my talk, which was well received, the students were about to leave. My sweet wife was in the audience sitting with an old friend who was a professor. They decided to clap which was something that just didn't happen in those services. Suddenly, all 1100 students were clapping and cheering. That was my welcome home, that was my parade, and I will always be grateful.

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