There Was No Rules At All
Stories from Vietnam
T. "The Kid" Kirkland from Bloods: An Oral History of
the Vietnam War by Black Veterans (1984)
an article in the New York Times Magazine on March 24, 1968,
reporter Sol Stern observed, "In Vietnam between 1961 and 1964,
Negroes accounted for more than 20 percent of Army fatalities, even
though they represented only 12.6 percent of Army personnel in
Vietnam" and even less in the general U.S. population. "Simply
put, the statistics show that the Negro in the army was more likely
than his white buddy to be sent to Vietnam in the first place; once
there, he was more likely to wind up in a front-line combat unit; and
within the combat unit was more likely than the white to be killed or
wounded." Black Vietnam vets who were not killed in Vietnam
returned from the war to encounter persistent racism and widespread
unemployment. Many became openly critical of the war and joined
organizations fighting against war and for civil rights. Stern quotes
one returned Black veteran from Vietnam as saying, "I would
never fight on a foreign shore for America again. . . . The only
place I would fight is right here." Here Haywood Kirkland
describes the Vietnam war and its aftermath from the standpoint of a
—Introduction from Zinn and Arnove's Voices of a People's History of the United States
got drafted on November 22,1966. I had been working for a book
distributor and as a stock boy in some stores coming out of high
school. A lot of dudes were trying to do things to get deferments.
One of my brothers put some kind of liquid in his eye and said he had
an eye problem at the physical. He never went.
didn't try anything. I knew when I got drafted I was going to
Vietnam, no matter what I did. I knew because of the vision I had
when I was twelve.
soon as I hit boot camp in Fort Jackson, South Carolina, they tried
to change your total personality. Transform you out of that civilian
mentality to a military mind.
away they told us not to call them Vietnamese. Call everybody gooks,
they told us when you go over in Vietnam, you gonna be face to face
with Charlie, the Viet Cong. They were like animals, or something
other than human. They ain't have no regard for life. They'd blow up
little babies just to kill one GI. They wouldn't allow you to talk
about them as if they were people. They told us they're not to be
treated with any type of mercy or apprehension. That's what they
engraved into you. That killer instinct. Just go away and do
the chaplains would turn the thing around in the Ten Commandments.
They'd say, "Thou shall not murder," instead of "Thou
shall not kill." Basically, you had a right to kill, to take and
seize territory, or to protect the lives of each other. Our
conscience was not to bother us once we engaged in that kind of
killing. As long as we didn't murder, it was like the chaplain would
give you his blessings. But you knew all of that was murder anyway.
May 15, 1967, I came into Vietnam as a replacement in the Third
Brigade of the Twenty-Fifth Division. The Cacti Green. It was the
task-force brigade that went anywhere there was trouble. The division
was down in Cu Chi, but we operated all over II Corps and Eye Corps.
the time I basically had a gung ho attitude about being a soldier.
But could I get in the best situation and not get hurt was a
legitimate concern of mine. So I checked out that the line
companies—ones making all the heavy contact—are the ones
who are getting overran. I thought maybe I should avoid that and
volunteer for one of these long-range recon patrols. It was a smaller
group, and I had an opportunity to share my ideas and help make some
decisions. With a line company, you're really just a pin on the map
recon unit was basically to search out the enemy and call in air
strikes or a larger military force to engage the enemy. Most of our
activities was at night. We was hide by day, and out by night.
politics of the war just had not set in when I got there. They told
us not to fire unless fired upon. But once we enter into a village,
we literally did anything that we wanted to do. There was no rules at
all. I began to see a lot of the politics....
would see the racialism in the base-camp area. Like rednecks flying
rebel flags from their jeeps. I would feel insulted, intimated. The
brothers they was calling quote unquote troublemakers, they would
send to the fields. A lot of brothers who had supply clerk or cook
MOS [Military Occupational Specialties] when they came over ended up
in the field. And when the brothers who was shot came out of the
field, most of them got the jobs burning sh-- in these 50-gallon
drums. Most of the white dudes got jobs as supply clerks or in the
we began to talk to each other, close our ranks, and be more
organized amongst ourselves to deal with some of this stuff. The ones
like me from the field would tell the brothers in base camp, "Look
man, you know how to use grenades. If you run into any problems,
throw a grenade in their hootch."
I came home, I really got upset about the way my peers would relate
to me. They called me a crazy n----- for going to the war. And I was
still dealing with Vietnam in my head.
they sent me to Fort Carson in Colorado to do the six months I had
left. I really didn't want to give no more of myself to the Army. So
I played crazy.
told people I ain't know what rank I was. I told them I was busted in
Vietnam. I didn't wear no emblems. I was a buck private. I don't know
where the papers at.
made me cut my bush. What I did, I did not get another size hat. So
the hat was falling all over my eyes.
I convinced the doctor that my feet was bad. I had jungle rot. I
couldn't run, couldn't stand for a long time. I couldn't wear boots.
All I could do was wear these Ho Chi Minh sandals I had.
I would fall out in formation in my sandals, my big hat, and my
shades. I rode them right to the point they was about ready to kick
me out of the military.
on my twenty-first birthday they said they was going to the
Democratic convention. Our unit was going to Chicago to be the riot
squadron. I told them I'm not going there holding no weapon in front
of my brothers and sisters. The captain said, "Kirkland, you
going to Chicago if I have to carry you myself." But I went to
the doctor and told him I had a relapse of malaria. He said he
couldn't really tell me anything. I would have to stay in the
hospital for the weekend. He thought he was getting me. I said,
was successful playing crazy. I got an honorable discharge. Because I
was a veteran with medals and an honorable discharge, Washington city
had a job offer for me. The police force or the post office. The
police force had too much military connected to it. My whole thing
was to get the military out of my system. I chose the post office.
Basically I was sitting on a stool sorting mail. Stuffing mail,
sorting mail, do it faster. The supervisors were like the first
sergeants. Six months later I resigned. I just got tired of it.
was also enrolled in a computer-operations school. They fulfilled out
none of their promises. It was a $2,200 rip-off of the VA [Veterans'
Administration] money I got for school. They folded at the graduation
of my class.
I was getting more of a revolutionary, militant attitude. It had
begun when I started talking with friends before leaving 'Nam about
being a pan of the struggle of black people. About contributing in
the world since Vietnam was doing nothin' for black people. They
killed Dr. [Martin Luther] King just before I came home. I felt used.
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