October 30th, 1966
I never wanted to have to write this letter, but it’s what needs to be done. Too much has happened. I’ve been exposed to much human viciousness; things can never be the same. I arrived here five months ago under the premise that I was fighting for my country, that this was a worthy cause. I wanted to be a harbinger of good. They made it seem as if joining was the virtuous and proper thing to do, but I have found it to be entirely the opposite. If I could go back in time, I couldn’t say I would. Fore I have now realized the atrocities and the selfishness of our species. To go back, would just be to shield myself in delusion. Now, I am shattered and transformed, yet I am aware. My eyes can no longer deceive me, my heart can no longer mislead me. I know the horror that is life.
This week has been the most awful week of my existence. Monday, my only friend in this cesspit was killed. He was a week away from his twentieth birthday and was going on R&R on the first of December to meet with his wife in Hawaii. He was humorous, knew strange facts about the world, marveled at the night sky, and wanted to start his own roofing business when he returned. If he’d only pulled the trigger a half second sooner, he would still be alive. Implausible how short a time a half second is, yet the difference between life and death.
Just an hour earlier we had been discussing our love of cars. It brought back a lot of memories. As far back as I can remember I was fascinated with cars. Whenever it was a birthday or Christmas someone would approach my parents. ‘What do you think William would enjoy as a present this year?’ It was always something related to cars. From when I was a child I remember my small collection of plastic model cars, how easily captivated I was back then. I got dubbed with the nickname Wheels and that is who I was and always thought I would be. I said when I returned to the states I was going to open my own shop. I’d be able to work on all the finest cars and make a damn good living off it too, because it was something I had real passion and curiosity about. I’d have a wife, a couple kids, a plot of land where we could grow our own vegetables, and we’d regularly go on road trips.
Wheels… Tanks aren’t very useful here because the soggy terrain limits their use, however we try our best to utilize them in things like securing contested roadways. Tuesday, a patrol belonging to my platoon was engaged by the enemy. The darkness sets fast in this twisted jungle, and they panicked in the midst of being fired upon. They directed the tank fervently before it became stuck in a mossy pit, where they expended all their ammo. They were then surrounded. The Charlie lobbed three grenades for good measure. None of the men survived. A captain explained that guerilla warfare is akin to genocide. There are no ethics, no rules. Morality and decency cease to exist. Yet who are we then? Even if we win, how much do we really lose along the way?
Wednesday morale was low, but we strode forward as we are trained to do. We clutched onto our M16s, who have become our closest, yet often most unreliable friends. We are always in danger of running out of ammo during a firefight given the twenty round cartridges most of us were supplied with. This makes us add unbearable weight as we must always carry as many clips as we can without collapsing. The fussy rifles also perform very poorly in wet and dirty field conditions, constantly becoming jammed, which has resulted in frequent fatalities. Most of us are also carrying grenades, which is wild thing to do when navigating through thick jungle conditions. It was just before sunset Wednesday when our Lieutenant had a grenade fuse catch on undergrowth, resulting in a deadly explosion. He and two privates were immediately killed, with another being severely injured. His left arm and leg having been entirely blown off.
The explosion had given away our location and we soon heard the Charlie shouting in the distance. There were too many of them, it all happened so fast. We had to leave him behind. I still see him when I close my eyes. How long was he laying there? What were his final thoughts? For him to be abandoned like that. Did he understand it, or perhaps human nature cannot be understood? Perhaps he had found out the same truths I now have in those moments. The remainder of our platoon ended up on the outskirts of a village where everything seemed normal. Children playing, women washing clothes, men repairing a shelter. Yet this wasn’t normal life. When a small child ran over and spotted me, I shot him without hesitation. We had a squadron obliterated by a small Vietnamese child, an innocent girl who sat playing in the road. She couldn’t have been more than seven, they didn’t believe she could be a threat. Yet she threw a grenade before any of them could ever have such thoughts again. None of us were willing to make the same mistake, even at the sacrifice of our spirits.
Early Thursday morning I kept watch while the others slept. The jungle was quiet and still. For a small moment one could even imagine it was peaceful, but that thought only momentarily flickered like a lightbulb saying its final farewell. I heard a rustling in the trees, immediately pointing my rifle in the direction from which it came. My nerves steadied when I saw it was simply a barn owl. His brown and white coloring seemed to shimmer in the moonlight, his eyes glowing as he focused his gaze on me. The people of this country seem to have strange lore encompassing these barn owls. They see them as omens, some say, they are harbingers of death. I found that ironic, as it was indeed the owl who was looking down on such an evil. Did he know? I believe he did, there seemed to be great wisdom in his eyes. He made me think about it all…
Do monsters ever believe they are indeed the monsters? In the story of the Earth, who was responsible for brutality and viciousness all through their existence? Would mankind ever admit to this? If we are to believe that humans are of superior intelligence and are capable of compassion and astounding acts, doesn’t that make all the shameful and despicable decisions we’ve repeated in perpetuity all the worse? The owl spread his wings, tilting his neck to take a final look at me before disappearing into the endless sky. I wonder, would he ever look back and think about the monster he laid eyes upon that night?
I suppose I could never really put into words all I am trying to say, I could never truly describe all I have experienced. The breaking of my very being, the awakening of what really is. I am writing to say goodbye. Whether I ever make it out of this jungle or not, I will always be here. I am sorry for all the plans you had, all those dreams that were conjured through naivety. That was before knowing the truth of the world. All I know now is a fine line between suffering and numbness; the horrors within this jungle, the horror that is humanity. Goodbye Wheels.
-Pfc. William R. Caplow