This essay was first published, in an earlier form, in my original “Genderwonky” blog. I then included it as a chapter in my memoirs book. In resurrecting “Genderwonky,” I am now returning this piece to it’s proper home.
Until my wife decided to transition from female to male, I thought that war was the one situation in my life that would lead me most to question, contemplate, and refine my own ideas about manhood. After all, war is the archetypal context for testing courage and cowardice, strength and weakness, the litmus tests of masculinity. And, of course, there is the killing thing. Men are supposed to kill, at least be willing to do so, even if as a very last resort.
Our man-images are almost always killers, after all. Even Roy Rogers and Gene Autrey shot down a bad guy now and then, though I think the Lone Ranger always managed to shoot the pistols out of the bad guys’ hands. One can apparently avoid killing if one’s aim is good enough.
Really good men were not only reluctant to kill, but very reluctant: forced to it, after all. The Rifleman, Lucas McCain, was the widower farmer who lived outside of North Fork. A pinnacle of masculine goodness, he was tall, strong, God-fearing, a loving single-parent father. He wouldn’t hurt a flea, except when driven to it by confrontation with unadorned evil. And then his weapon, his simple rancher’s carbine, loosed its fateful lightning, week after week, round after round, and bad guys’ bodies filled the ditches and watering troughs and alleys and galleries of North Fork. Before the blood had stopped running, Lucas would stow his highly modified Winchester, with its large hand-loop lever modified to fire rapidly―a cowboy’s assault rifle―in his buckboard, then he’d grab his son, Mark, and ride home to complete the day’s chores.
The Rifleman television series was created by a master of the subject of violence and our cultural ambiguities about a man’s obligations to, and reservations against, life-taking. Sam Peckinpah is best known for writing and directing The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs, and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. All of his best-known works explore violence, especially men’s violence. I remember seeing Straw Dogs, certainly his most controversial work, in 1971. I thought, then, that the film was reflecting a national obsession with violence stimulated by seven or eight years of the Vietnam War. That same year the country encountered A Clockwork Orange, Dirty Harry, and The French Connection. But, for me, that was post-Vietnam. My developing years were informed by The Rifleman, not The Wild Bunch, and certainly not by Vietnam. Proper violence was the redemption of manliness and the essence of goodness. It contrasted starkly with the cruel, senseless, evil violence that brought suffering to the innocent.
My formative visions were in black-and-white. Bloodied black faces and club-wielding white sheriff’s deputies in Southern towns. Civil-rights marchers set-on by police dogs. And there were the newsreel visions of Nazi death camps, enemy’s films captured by the white hats, of bulldozers plowing naked bodies, stacked like cordwood, into vast trenches. These evils demanded counter forces of good. They came in two very different forms. The fascist evil was countered by G.I.s, Tommies, and the French Resistance: the good guys. Our bombs were the good bombs, cast like the Rifleman’s carbine, only when evil demanded it. On the other hand, the evils of American segregation and racism were countered by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, by the Freedom Riders, by Martin Luther King, Jr., by a doctrine of non-violent confrontation. I was completely confounded by the competing rightness of the “Good-guy” force of the Allied military struggle over Nazism and Fascism versus the “soul force” of Gandhi’s spirit. I just could not figure out how to be a proper man. Would I walk quietly with a big stick, or be one to shout out loudly for what is right with empty hands, and a willingness to die for that right?
I did not want to enter the military if it meant participating in the war. I did not feel even slightly threatened by Uncle Ho. I was afraid of being killed or maimed. I was even more afraid of being incompetent as a man and getting someone else killed or maimed. This last fear, I realize now, was the fear that I might not be willing to do the killing thing when, or if, it became necessary. Oh, I was afraid of other sorts of unmanliness, too, such as physical weakness or clumsiness, or a lack of courage, but the Army pretty much trained those away.
On the rifle range in Basic Training I learned a trick. The pop-up steel targets could be knocked down more easily by aiming low. Either I would hit the target, or my round would land in front of it, kicking up a shower of sand and stones that, in turn, would hit the target and actuate the scoring mechanism. While I had been unwilling to “kill” targets on the bayonet training course, shooting into the sand and getting guilt-free scores on the rifle range suited me fine. And it won me a Sharpshooter’s Badge. Several months later, while training recruits on the machine gun course at Fort Leonard Wood, I discovered I could do the same thing with the M-60 machine gun. My moral pangs about sighting a weapon on a man could be alleviated by firing into the ground in front of the target.
Bong Son Plain
My company was attached to the 70th Combat Engineer Battalion. Because we owned a fleet of dump trucks, we were used more often as a dump truck company and a general purpose combat engineer company than as a bunch of bridge builders. It was early in my year in Vietnam when the call came that my platoon would be working a mission in the Bong Son Plain, northwest of Qui Nhon. Bong Son was “Indian Country.” Not only were there numerous Viet Cong units, but whole regiments of North Vietnamese regulars were thought to be headquartered up there. The First Cavalry Division was engaged in a major campaign to secure this Province, and we were going to help.
My memories are vague. We were working on clearing forest in a low-lying, somewhat swampy area. I don’t remember other 70th Engineer folks being there, nor even any 2nd platoon folks from my company. There was a detachment from a Navy construction battalion (“Seabees”) with heavy equipment. We were working together with them preparing a landing zone or landing strip. Our trucks were hauling bundles of steel matting. Our guys were wielding chain saws, hand-excavating “dead-man” trenches, and burying huge logs to which they secured the matting.
I was in my usual position, as platoon machine gunner, on the headache board of a dump truck. However, the trucks were needed to continue hauling matériel, so I was told to prepare a small defensive bunker for the gun. I used a shovel to hollow out a shallow pit, and then I filled a bunch of sandbags and stacked them around the pit. There is where I set up the gun and the spare boxes of ammunition. Nearby there was another, similar ad hoc bunker where I think our platoon leader’s radio operator was set up. Throughout the day the drone of saws and bulldozers was enhanced by the constant buzz of distant machine guns, the crackle of small arms, and the concussive whoomps of mortars or artillery. The air overhead was buzzing with helicopters, and occasionally with the passing of jet attack fighters.
What happened next is so strangely embedded in my mind, that it’s hard to describe it without it seeming bizarre. I became aware of the whiz-thud sounds of bullets arriving around me before I was even aware of the sounds of the rifles shooting them. I feel as though I was frozen in time and I sat there on some sandbags looking around, trying to see who was shooting, and where they were shooting from. I realized they were right in front of me, maybe only 200 feet away inside the tree line. I couldn’t actually see people, just the quivering of the leaves and branches. Then some shadowy life movements I recognized as legs appearing occasionally between tree trunks and bamboo stalks.
I seemed to grasp all at once, but in extremely slowed-down time), that there were a couple or three snipers, perhaps more, perhaps many more, firing away in my general direction from the trees at the edge of the clearing. I did not know, and could not determine, if anyone else was shooting. The racket of the heavy equipment and chain saws was far louder than the rifle shots. Slowly I became conscious that someone, the lieutenant perhaps, was yelling at me to shoot the gun.
My responsibility as the only immediate defense of this site was crystal clear. I had to return fire-for-effect. I had to find people targets and kill them, or try to. But that was not possible. How in the world had I managed to get into this ridiculous position as the conscientious-objector-cum-platoon-gunner? In frozen time I plotted and schemed, trying to find ways to do both: to kill without killing, to protect those who were counting on me, myself included, without violating the lives of people I couldn’t even see, let alone hate. Rice farmers in pajamas: that’s how I pictured them.
“Lower the gun, you’re shooting the trees!” The voice again? My platoon leader? I was shooting into the tree canopy. I suppose I thought I could scare them away. Like the Lone Ranger, I thought maybe my machine gun could chase away the threat without any moral dilemma. But the threat continued. Men scattered behind trucks and bulldozers, looking for cover. The trees quivered ahead of me as enemy rifles continued firing. “Lower the fuckin’ gun!!!” And I did. Not at the quivering trees and shadowy life-leg apparitions among the tree trunks and bamboo, but at the ground just at the tree-line, just in front of the “target.”
The deafening roar of Huey helicopters came from nowhere, from behind and above me, at the treetop level. My head filled with the chop-chop-chop of rotor blades, the whine of the turbines, and a chorus of chukka-chukka-chukka from the choppers’ door guns harmonizing with my own gun’s song. Three of them banked hard just above me. As the third gunship passed, the door gunner’s left hand, which had lain across the chamber cover of his M-60 suddenly shot an exuberant middle finger toward the tree line, then morphed into a “thumbs-up” followed immediately by an “A-OK” sign aimed directly at me. “We did it! You and I,” he seemed to be saying. “We got the bastards!”
That day in the Bong Son Plain ended quickly as the Cavalry literally moved in to rescue us. We were hustled back to our trucks and back up the long mountain passes to our base camp. There was no searching for enemy dead or wounded. That wasn’t our role. We had to rest up so we could come back the next day and keep on hacking out forest and swamp and laying down steel. There was no debriefing. There was nothing but talk among my platoon mates about what had happened, and then chow, and then sleep.
Many months later I would have another chance to try out how I might handle the killing thing. That happened completely differently. Time didn’t stop. There was no conversation in my brain about philosophy. There were no words in my mind at all. It wasn’t surreal. It was, in fact, all flesh-and-blood too real. There was no wiggling or quivering of leaves or a movement of shadowy forms, it was the face of a man, a young man, not more than 25 feet from my own young man’s face. It was all so plain. Only afterward did my mind begin to create, conflate, digress, imagine, and remove itself from what had been uncharacteristically clear. Unbearably real.
For more than forty years these and other wartime incidents have kept me wondering about my manliness. I am not Gandhi, obviously. I am not MLK. These were the “real” men, in my estimation. Nonetheless, I am here and able to contemplate ethical vagaries, and other men are not. Did I prove my manhood in war, or did I fail it? I’ve never felt like the Lone Ranger, and “Mad Sam” Peckinpah never gave us any real insights into what it was supposed to feel like to be Lucas McCain.