Based on the author's first-hand experience, Falloff is a fictional account of the Viet Nam War and other diverse worldwide locations and of the experiences of the soldiers of the U.S. Army Security Agency (ASA), an intelligence entity that no longer exists. This is the third and concluding volume of The ASA Trilogy.
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This scene is from “Free Fire Zone,” Chapter 21 of Falloff, Book III in
The ASA Trilogy, and is set in I Corps, Viet Nam, in August 1969.
From the OP through binoculars, Winter observed with detachment the decimation of NVA in the open paddies luxuriant with tender, green growth. Life through the glasses was one long, silent movie of muted drama or high comedy, depending upon one’s relationship to those observed. He watched a wiry, middle-aged enemy officer competently pull together a scattering of dazed and wounded stragglers, disengage from the ARVN trap, and charge unexpectedly up the trail that descended from the village on the hill. Winter thought he knew that village. He had, in his earlier tour in ‘Nam, in a constant quest to understand the war, accompanied a Marine CAP Team there. Or, perhaps, some place very like it. But he knew from the briefing, this was not a village friendly to the NVA. Why go up there into another trap?
Watching the engagement playing out, he was not overly concerned for the village. The briefing indicated they had integral defense forces. The enemy officer and his few survivors would soon be cast out of there, back into the arms of encircling government forces.
Winter called to the spotter, a Marine gunny who shifted his eyes away: "Make sure the guns hold their fire . . . that's a friendly ville. Tell your F.D.C."
Twenty-fourth Corps hadn’t been enthusiastic about his request to spend a couple of days in the boonies with the Marines. Even inoculating babies, treating glaucoma, and teaching dental hygiene of that now-defunct CAP policy would have been unwelcome, he realized. Winter’s pitch was that providing support to these III MAF Marines, in his crazy cat assignment, justified any interaction that would expand understanding and improve support. With the Marines’ complicity, Timid Tess Trueheart was overridden.
He wondered if having a visitor thrust upon them without explanation, the grunts would give his hold-fire request any credence. And a goddamned Army pogue to boot.
Nothing happened for eight or nine minutes. The Marine Fire Direction Center was being amazingly responsive to a doggie warrant officer, Winter mused. An Air Section weenie, at that. They waited.
Then, far off he heard a dull crack. Seconds later a marking round of Willie Peter, mocking the hold-fire request, exploded on a ledge high on the cliffs above the village.
Winter waved his arms and screamed, "Cease fire! Cease fire! Friendlies in that ville. Get the F.D.C." The phosphorous trailed down long white ribbons against the dark hill.
It remained quiet on the OP. The gunny had absented himself. Only Winter’s voice sounded across the hilltop. He heard a crackle in the earpiece of a nearby radio and looked at the RTO who, eyes gone round and questioning, said, "Sir, El Tee says the people in that ville are dead. Or done di-di-ed out?" His voice rose on the statement as a second spotting round exploded farther down the cliffs, barely on the upslope edge of the village.
"Lieutenant's ass," Winter screamed. "He lies. The bastard is lying; he makes his living with the guns." The Lieutenant, he knew, sought a fitness report with tangible, measurable numbers, and would risk the sin of commission over the failing of omission. Like the frustration of an obscene phone call, Winter felt a powerless, undirected anger.
"He says it's double-Foxtrot Zulu, anyhow, Mister Winter." The radio-telephone operator added lamely, "A free fire zone." He listened, jerked his head around and smiled into the handset, and looked up at Winter. "But he's suspending arty, all the same. How 'bout that?" While the radio operator basked in the distant lieutenant's humanity, Winter leaned into the glasses again, recalling a strange night on Nui Ba Dinh four years ago. At once, within the village, he saw the flash and smoke of grenades, green tracers from small arms fire, and below, the ARVN infantry company, broken into maneuver units, sprinting for cover. The lieutenant's career-enhancing lie had begun a self-fulfilling truth.
"They're killing the village! Stop them! Cease fire! Goddammit, why isn't ARVN moving in?" Winter shouted to no one. "What's that C.O. doing? Charlie's slaughtering the village." Snapshots, memory clips of tiny forms, bird-like arms and legs, eyes tight with tears against the sting of the needle, came to him in disjointed, jerky replays. At first he heard no distinct sounds from the village—no screams or cries—a void followed only occasionally by the sharp rip of automatic weapons fire, the hollow crack of a grenade.
And then, in a rapidly blossoming crescendo of thunder, a thrust of awful beauty, Winter suddenly understood the advance stopped, the arty suspended.
The Phantoms came in a graceful parabola over the adjacent mountain, already hugging the deck on the initial pass—first the leader, then his wingman in echelon—signaling a courtesy call. A mere statement of good manners. Proposing: Here's what's coming, Charles. You poor silly bugger, you now have thirty seconds to consign your bloody little soul to Buddha or Marx, Confucius, Mao, Ho—whomever!
He could only watch. The logic was inescapable: the village . . . the NVA . . . the opportunity. And if some friendlies are still alive in there, what then? he thought. But because, and then he thought despite that he felt the impossibility of such devotion, he knew it was already a matter of statistics. Eye Corps chic mandated the killing-season style.
Later, he watched the play of flame across the dwindling remnants of village, napalm fusing all into one shabby, final consecration, and he felt, without understanding but also without question, a faint, elusive thrill. Of accomplishment, of identification, somehow. Of . . . love even, as if some meaningless conjoining of unrelated words in his mind had coalesced suddenly into a strophe of poetry.