Saturday, August 20, 2005

Desert Warfare


"Attack the supply lines and you have an easy victory. Of course, it's not an easy defeat for the opponent. They die of thirst and/or exposure. People think that Genghis Khan won because of the psychological impact of impaled heads and burned villages. That was not true. He won because he was impervious to attacks on the supply lines. His army had supply caches all over the steppes in Central Asia."

Captain Harville was bored. His command had a talent for providing briefing sessions that could not possibly be more irrelevant and useless to their mission. He was preparing to pull at least 10 sorties in Laos, and, to boot, he would be charged with setting up a post in some still undetermined location, probably along the Mekong River.

It was remarkable how this brief sojourn in Saigon was proving to be so useless. He had hoped to be given some useful information: maps, contacts, information about villages, Charlie infiltration, etc. Instead, he was being ushered into a polite little gathering where a crustily professorial retired colonel was holding forth on the tactics of Genghis Khan. Harville half-expected mint juleps on the verandah or crepes suzette with crème fraiche. There was something about the French colonial architecture that put him in mind of Charleston or Savannah, but not, oddly enough, of New Orleans.

The lecture ended and the small clutch of military and department of defense gentry privileged enough to attend clapped politely in response.

"Col. Bildersnapple has time for a few questions," said the embassy's new military attaché. Bildersnapple? What kind of name was that? He must have misheard it. Perhaps it was something like Bilders-Eppel. Well, he certainly did not care, thought Harville.

He didn't dare pose the question that was in his mind, which had something to do with asking the stuffed-shirt spider monkey why on earth he thought it was acceptable to come to Saigon and play gentleman-scholar with their lives? Couldn't he stick to something more relevant like, say, peanut farming in Argentina? Suddenly he hated the man with a bleak, unbending hatred that was all the more licorice and thick for not having something objective to pin it to, for lacking even the basics of humanity - a tangible face or mappable heart.

Somewhere in America, young girls wearing red-white-and-blue uniforms were going door-to-door selling candy, but never themselves, to obtain money that would be used in ways explained in the fine print in some brochure somewhere. If they were young, they were Bluebirds, and they wore their uniforms with pride. They sported pressed white cotton blouses, dark blue skirts, red button-front vests with a light blue bluebird on the pocket, and dark blue beanie hats, each item with light-blue embroidered bluebird. Their mothers took turns being the Bluebird mother, the most enthusiastic ones focusing in on the kinds of crafts and activities they enjoyed themselves. The sad-eyed mothers who had brothers or uncles in the war would marshal the young girls into young, innocent forces for good, as they painted coasters and did decoupage of patriotic themes.

Somewhere, rather everywhere, in Saigon, young girls wearing tiny little silk dresses were being sold by hard-eyed mothers who imagined they could finally have enough money to compensate for 8 or so years of having to care for the unwanted offspring of a brief, mercenary encounter with a dumb, lonely, inarticulate man in a uniform.

"Colonel, I wanted to say, first of all, that I really enjoyed your lecture." A non-descript brunette who was obviously too young and inexperienced for whatever position she had landed at the American embassy was talking.

Harville tried to keep his face as expressionless as possible. He felt an almost irresistible compulsion to make some sort of lewd gestures with his tongue. The urge was intense, and completely out of alignment with the level of disengagement he felt. She was mousey and serious.

"Does Genghis Khan's strategy of 'punctuated caching' have any applicability for our troops in the jungle?" she asked. "Particularly in a jungle already honeycombed with enemy underground supply caches - that is to say, caves?"

Col. Bildersnapple cleared his throat and placed both hands flat on the podium in front of him. He leaned forward in her direction.

"Genghis Khan's ideas can be understood by just about anyone, which is just part of his genius. Just think of them as little desert pantries," he smirked at her.

"You are one stupid old mule," thought Harville. The image of the masterpiece mural, "Guernica," came to mind, and he thought of Picasso's image of a horse caught in incendiary bombing, writhing in the agonies of death.

"I prefer to use the word 'larder' because it derives from the word, 'lard,'" she said. "It resonates with current policies, procedures, and," she paused. "Personnel, so perfectly."

She looked pointedly at Bildersnapple's wide hips and fulsome gut. Harville smiled and held back laughter. You're good, he thought, appreciatively.

As expected, slender young attendants wearing white linen short-sleeved shirts over pencil-thin black pants milled about, proffering trays laden with drinks and hors d'oeuvres. Harville decided he would make the customary and expected polite grunting noises and leave before he got himself in trouble. It was bad enough that he was going to have to go to a place he would always have to deny he had ever entered.

As he walked down the wide, congested avenues of Saigon, he veered off on one of the narrow side streets. The old anxiety had started to return. He gripped the old but reliable Walther P38 sidearm he kept with him at all times. It was time for some target practice.

The alleys behind the brothels were usually the best. The back doorways were stinking maws that turned ordinary mortals into insatiable hunters of wormy meat and quick profits. Stupid rats, bloated with their own diminishing sense of proportion, would stand on the nasty piles of refuse and stare vacantly off into the distance.


"Gotcha, you shameless glob of puke."


"You make it too easy, you hunk of spit."


The pile of dead rats took on the form he wanted it to take. Death could indeed be purifying, he thought to himself.

You've got to get the story straight first, though, he reflected. Stupidly, unexpectedly, he felt his eyes fill up with tears. The image of the terribly plain but feisty embassy worker came to mind in spite of his desire to rid himself of all emotions except an icily controlled rage.

She would have to wait.

1 comment:

arr said...

I admire Susan's knowledge of what's going on in military briefings...The contrast between life in military offices and life in area of operations...The difference between theory and practice...