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Welcome To The War Zone

I started writing when I was an undergraduate at Iowa, majoring in history and Latin. My first sale (in 1966) was a Lovecraft pastiche. More accurately, it was a pastiche of very bad Lovecraft pastiches by August Derleth; and I can't really understate the story's quality.

I entered Duke Law School and, after I'd completed half the three-year course, I was drafted. The Army offered me a number of choices, all but one of which involved me signing up for more time than the two years to which the draft committed me. I took the remaining option: entry into an accelerated Vietnamese language course, which would be followed by interrogation school.

There wasn't much doubt where I'd be sent after interrogation school; but there wasn't much doubt anyway. At that time (1968) every draftee who'd been to college, and who didn't sign up for a special school, went to Nam with an 11 Bravo Military Occupational Specialty.


So I learned Vietnamese and studied interrogation techniques; and, in 1970, I was assigned to the Military Intelligence Detachment of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment as an enlisted interrogator.

In general, MI personnel were rear-echelon types. Most of our people stayed in the 11th Cav's base camp at Di An (which was universally pronounced Zee An by Americans. I don't know why; in Vietnamese the pronunciation was Yee An).

If there was a safer place in Viet Nam at the time, I haven't heard of it. Di An was rocketed exactly once while I was there, and the guys in the field wouldn't believe even that.

The 11th Cav was unusual in that it did keep small units of interrogation and order of battle specialists in the field with each of the three squadrons (a squadron is the cavalry equivalent of a battalion). After a week with the detachment, I volunteered for field duty.

Not because I'm any kind of a hero. I hated the army, but most of all I hated the army's rear-echelon bullshit. It seemed to me that I'd get into less difficulty in the field.

It took a couple weeks before my request was processed, so I was sent to 2nd Squadron just after it had spearheaded the invasion of Cambodia. Two of the 12.7 mm machine guns captured at Snuol were set up as trophies in front of the Tactical Operations Center; but the remainder of the months in Cambodia were relatively quiet, as were the months after we crossed back into Viet Nam. I was moved from 2nd Squadron to 1st, but 1st was having a mostly quiet time also.

And then I was transferred back to Di An for the damnedest reason I ever heard of. An MI unit doesn't get many people who know anything about firearms. There was an Inspector General's inspection coming up, and I was the only person in the detachment who knew how to strip the officers' .45 automatics down to the bare frames and clean them.

I spent the last half of my tour in Di An as unit armorer and mail clerk. I was a very good mail clerk, and a good enough armorer for the purpose. I survived.

So . . . . I didn't have a bad war. I wasn't shot; I was almost never shot at; and so far as I know, I didn't shoot anybody else.

But I spent my whole tour believing that I was going to die. Not fearing it, exactly. Just the sort of belief you have as you watch the sky cloud up and know it's going to rain.

It could've happened easily enough. I could've been on the track that flipped over after hitting a 20-pound mine. I could've gotten my leg caught in a tank's treads the way an order of battle specialist did. The flame track I was riding could've been struck by lightning and blown up with all the fury of 200 gallons of napalm—to this day, I don't understand why we weren't struck by lightning that afternoon.

But where I live now, a woman was killed when a bicycle ran into her. Life has risks.

The difference is that normally you ignore those risks. I spent my tour believing during every waking moment in the imminence of my death. I think that was pretty common among the people I knew.

You can't live that way and stay sane.

I came back saying that I was fine. I finished law school, got a job as an attorney; and wrote, because now I had something to write about besides Lovecraft's fantasy horrors.

For the most part, I still used fantasy and SF conventions. That was easier to sell . . . and maybe easier for me to handle than the unvarnished realities of where I'd been.

Apart from the genre trappings, I didn't make up very much in my early stories (or, for that matter, in many of the later ones). I used a lot of jargon, simply because the jargon had been so much a part of my life that it didn't occur to me that it wasn't a part of other people's reality also. (An acquaintance remarked that "Contact!" read as though I thought everybody had been to Nam. I suppose I did.)

It was a couple years before it occurred to me that I didn't need to set stories in Nam in order to tell about things that had happened in-country. For the troops at the sharp end, wars had remained more similar than different over the past several millennia. That trend could be expected to continue.

I created a future armored regiment called Hammer's Slammers.

My shorthand description of Hammer's Slammers is the 11th Cav with ray guns. Early on, I tried to hide the fact that I was writing about Nam. It wasn't, some of you will remember, a popular war; and it was still going on when I started doing Hammer stories.

I said that almost all my fiction has been in the SF or fantasy genres. The one exception, "The Way We Die," is included in this volume as a new story. I wrote it within a few months of getting back to the World in 1971, and I couldn't sell it to save my life.

Both the major incidents in "The Way We Die" are true. That isn't important. What is important is that the mindset of the narrator (the psychotic mindset of the narrator) is real; and is normal under the stresses of the situation.

When they say that war changes a man, they're being euphemistic. War makes a man insane by civilian standards. When the man comes back, he may return to civilian norms again. After a while.

I'm not proud of many of the things that happened in Nam. I'm not proud of some of the things I did myself. But the men I served with were, for the most part, doing the best job they could with the cards they'd been dealt. I'm proud of them, and I'm proud to have been among them.

Anybody's got a right to criticize the things that happened. But don't criticize the men who did them unless you've been in their shoes. Ever since I came back, the object of my military fiction has been to put somebody as normal as you, or as I was, into a war zone.

And I hope to God neither you nor your son ever has a opportunity to compare my fiction with the real thing.

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