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March/April 2020

Guerilla Wars: An Excerpt from ”Dad’s Maybe Book”

I met Tim O’Brien at the 1987 VVA National Convention where he received the Excellence in the Arts Award for If I Die in a Combat Zone and Going After Cacciato. Three years later he published The Things They Carried, which became the most critically acclaimed fictional treatment of the Vietnam War.

In Dad’s Maybe Book, O’Brien’s first book in 18 years, the one-time Americal Division infantryman meditates on the consequences of becoming a first-time father at age 50.

Addressed to his sons, he writes about the vagaries of middle-aged parenting, his own childhood, his father, his service in Vietnam, and its influence on his life and work. He also considers the deadly nature of war, the literature of war, and retells the Revolutionary War Battles of Lexington and Concord. 

Some parts of Dad’s Maybe Book can be the reading equivalent of a blow to the stomach, but it’s something all veterans—and their children—should read.

— Marc Leepson

Around nine o’clock on the cool, starry night of April 18, 1775, some 700 British grenadiers and light-infantry troops were roused from their encampments on Boston Common, Boston Neck, and the warehouse barracks near Long Wharf. Groggy and half asleep, many of the men with no sleep at all, twenty-one companies of redcoats found themselves tramping through the town’s narrow streets to an assembly point on a small beach at the foot of the common.

Mutterings and complaints filled the chilly dark. Why so much secrecy? Why the late hour? Why couldn’t the king’s army ever do things in a plain, straightforward way?

At about ten o’clock, under a nearly full moon, the men began boarding twenty longboats that had been brought to shore from war vessels anchored nearby. A detachment of British sailors lashed the boats together and began rowing the troops across the Charles River basin to a swampy landing area at Lechmere Point in East Cambridge. The crossing was a bungle from the start. Insufficient boats were on hand, which required a tedious shuttle operation, each boat making the mile-long passage and then returning to the Boston shore to pick up more troops.

Among the soldiers, as always, there was surely grumbling. The military’s centuries-old cluster-fuck had taken hold. Units that had been separated during the landings now had to be located and reassembled. Provisions had to be loaded aboard longboats, ferried to the Cambridge shore, and handed out to the men.

Altogether, the crossing ate up nearly three hours. By one o’clock in the morning, after all their troubles, the British regulars had traveled barely a cannon shot’s distance from their encampments back in Boston.

And then, typically enough, things went from bad to miserable. Moving out into the dark, the column followed a dirt road that occasionally dipped down into marshes and tidal inlets. Already cold and weary, the troops found themselves wading through icy, thigh-deep waters, struggling under sixty pounds of gear—muskets and ammunition and haversacks and bayonets and woolen coats and cooking utensils and water bottles and rations.

It was approaching two in the morning. The twenty-mile march to Concord had just started.

Some things never change.

Close my eyes and I’m there again: an evening in early May of 1969.

The foxholes had been dug, the trip flares and claymores were out, and we were watching the last sparks of twilight do magic over the mountains to the west. It had been a difficult day. The usual bullshit—rice paddies and sullen villages—and all we wanted  now was a decent night’s sleep.

Except this was a funhouse called Vietnam.

At full dark, around 2100 hours, Alpha Company received orders to saddle up for a search-and-destroy operation in a string of villages along the South China Sea, about nine or ten kilometers from our night encampment. We were already zeroed out on sleep. Now we would be getting less than none at all.

Quietly, in the spongy dark, we went through the familiar rituals. Checking weapons. Strapping on the rucksacks and ammo and canteens and flares and grenades and helmets and mess kits and radios and numerous other odds and ends.

The weight was enormous. And, of course, there was the war, too, which had its own mass and density. I had been in-country only a couple of months, but Vietnam was already a stone in my stomach. I hated the place. I hated myself for being there. Beyond that, as a purely practical problem, we were caught up in a confusing and deadly civil struggle. No front, no rear, no clear battle lines, no clear military purpose, no way to distinguish friend from foe. The enemy was everywhere and nowhere, vanishing into tunnels and popping up behind us and then sliding away again. We didn’t know the language. We didn’t know the culture. We didn’t know where we were at any given time or why we were there.

Now, saddled up for a night march, Alpha Company began plodding east into the Vietnam dark, at times following a narrow clay trail, other times sloshing through thick, knee-deep rice paddies. Nearly three hours passed. I remember sticky wet heat, mosquitoes everywhere, a leaden numbness in my feet and thighs. Humping, we called it, which meant the endless march, soldiering with our legs. This was the infantry, now and always, the legions of Caesar and the columns of Napoleon, one step and then another and then another.

At one point, on the far side of midnight, we skirted a small sleeping village. Orders were passed down to keep quiet—the place was bad news, the VC owned it. I remember one of my buddies glancing over his shoulder at me, making a funny face, as if to say, “What’s not bad news?”

It took a half hour or more to maneuver around the tiny ville. I remember a dog barking, a gauzy yellow moon, and how oppressive the night was.

For a long, empty time, we kept slogging on. I was terrified, of course, but in another sense, nothing felt real. Fatigue dulled the senses. A strange

fogginess seemed to swirl through my thoughts, except my thoughts were not really thoughts, just scraps of thought. Moving slowly, trying for silence, we trudged on toward the South China Sea, a company of donkeys, stiff and mechanical and dumb.

The expedition of 700 British troops passed quietly through parts of what is now Somerville, waded across Willis Creek toward Union Square, and then turned almost straight north toward Cambridge. At Massachusetts Avenue the column swiveled right and followed the road in a northwesterly direction into present-day Arlington. The town (then called Menotomy) had long been asleep. Here and there a few candles burned in houses along the road.

It was now close to three-thirty in the morning. Counting the river passage and several long waits, the weary troops had been on the move for more than six hours. Most had been without sleep for nearly a full day. Still, they kept grinding forward, loaded down with drums and flags and leather boots and ammunition pouches and ten-pound firelocks.

By now rumors of their destination had trickled from man to man: a prosperous little farming town called Concord. The unit’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith, had been issued orders to proceed “with the utmost expedition and secrecy to Concord, where you will seize and destroy all artillery, ammunition, provisions, tents, small arms, and all military stores whatever.” Oddly, though, Smith’s orders did not include stipulations regarding the possibility of armed resistance, despite signs that hostilities might break out at any moment. Earlier sorties into the countryside had led to confrontations with angry colonists, each side posturing and baiting the other, and for weeks there had been compelling evidence that the Provincial Congress was preparing for outright war.

Almost certainly, then, Colonel Smith had at least discussed the possibility of resistance with his superior in Boston, General Thomas Gage, the man responsible for conceiving the plan of action for April 19. Gage himself had predicted the details of an armed rebel response. “Should hostilities unhappily commence,” he wrote, “the first opposition would be irregular, impetuous, and incessant from the numerous Bodys that would swarm to the place of action, and all actuated by an enthusiasm wild and ungovernable.”

The 700 British regulars had to be wound tight as they tramped through the dark toward Concord. Up ahead, a few warning shots rang out. Later, outside Menotomy, a British patrol trotted up on horseback to report that some 500 armed colonists had assembled on the green at Lexington. A dispatch rider named Paul Revere had been captured. Prudently, Colonel Smith sent back a message to Boston requesting reinforcements from General Gage—a message that would later save his force from annihilation.

In fact, only seventy-five to eighty colonists were waiting at Lexington, but the exaggerated report did not reassure the oncoming British troops. For months, they had been garrisoned in Boston under conditions of growing unrest and hostility. The port had been shut down to commerce; rebel leaders Samuel Adams and John Hancock had gone into hiding; the self-declared Provincial Congress had formed a Committee of Safety with the power to “alarm” and “muster” local militia. More ominous yet, the rebel Congress had recently authorized the creation of a regular army, organized into formal regiments and battalions.

The ordinary soldier is not stupid. He may be illiterate, but he knows danger when he sees it.

Foot-weary and back-weary, the twenty-one companies of British regulars had every reason to feel edgy as the first ripples of sunrise spilled out to the east. The men were largely untested in battle. Some had been on the North American continent only three months, others six or seven months. They did not know the terrain, or the back roads, or the stone walls, or the paths across pastureland, or the likely sites of ambush. They had no artillery support and no means of resupply. They carried only thirty-six rounds of ammunition apiece. Worse yet, the 700-man column was composed of units that had never operated together. Companies had been drawn willy-nilly from various regiments, a patchwork led by officers with unfamiliar habits and routines.

Around five in the morning, with dawn spreading out fast, the column approached the outskirts of Lexington. Six light-infantry companies were sent ahead under the command of Major John Pitcairn.

On the town’s green some seventy-five or eighty colonial militiamen waited.

At that point, as the British advanced, a kind of gravity took command—exhaustion and frayed nerves. As always, time collapsed and history squeezed itself into an instant.

In 1970, six months after returning from Vietnam, I arrived in Cambridge to begin graduate studies at Harvard University. In many ways, the war was still with me. Any sudden noise would fill my belly with acid. Other times, without much reason, I’d feel the need for a nice deep foxhole, a place where I could curl up and close my eyes and wait for forgetfulness.

Talking about the war just wasn’t possible. I could speak, yes, but I couldn’t say anything. I did not know where to start or where to stop or which story to tell. And who wanted to hear about it anyway?

At some point during those first weeks in Cambridge, I happened upon a map tracing the British route from Boston to Concord almost two hundred years earlier. The sheer distance startled me: some forty miles there and back. I remember showing the map to a friend, trying to explain how dreadful that long march must have been, just the labor alone, and how mere mileage did not take into account all the detours and countermarches and flanking movements, nor the cold swamps at Lechmere Point, nor the fear, nor the feel of a ten-pound firelock in your hands, nor the weight on your back and shoulders and spine, nor the spiritual burdens, nor the drudgery, nor the spookiness of a march through Indian country, nor the inarticulate drone of your mortality.

My friend gave me a pleasant nod, but he didn’t seem to feel what I was feeling. It was asking too much.

In a backdoor way, no doubt, I was trying to say something about my own war, and about the ordeal of foot soldiers in any war. Even without much detailed knowledge, I identified with those British troops. The parallels seemed obvious. A civil war. Faulty intelligence. An enemy without uniforms. A distrustful, often hostile rural population. A powerful world-class army blundering through unfamiliar terrain. A myth of invincibility. Immense resources of wealth and firepower that somehow never added up to a happy ending. A sense of bewilderment and dislocation. Cultural haughtiness. Overconfidence gone sour. Smugness replaced by terror. A tough, homespun, ragtag enemy that for years had been grossly underestimated. Growing frustration and rage at guerrilla tactics—the constant sniping, the deadly little ambushes.

Down inside, in some deeply human way, I had more in common with those long-dead redcoats than with the living men and women all around me. I felt like a member of a mysterious old Brotherhood—all that shared knowledge and shared terror. I could hear British boots on the road. I could hear my own boots. The circumstances were not identical, of course, but identical was not the point. The point was how much I had in common with 700 men tramping through the dark two hundred years ago. We were walking targets. We were conspicuous in our fine uniforms. We kept humping. We endured it all. And so somewhere in my stomach, or in my dreams, Vietnam and Battle Road intersected and began to merge into a single ghostly blur across history.

At Lexington that morning, eight colonists lay dead or dying. No one knows, or will ever know, who fired the first shot. What seems certain is that Major John Pitcairn called on the rebels to lay down their arms, that at least some of the militia began dispersing, that the British infantry continued to press forward, and that a single shot rang out. In quick succession, without orders, British troops fired two sharp volleys. One colonist was bayoneted to death. Others were killed or wounded as they sought cover. At that point, although Pitcairn signaled for a cease-fire, the dawn was full of gunfire. According to one eyewitness, the British regulars “were so wild they cou’d hear no orders.”

Altogether, it lasted only a few minutes, but a terrible inertia had taken hold. One volley led to the next. Ordinary field discipline collapsed. In various measures, the first bloodshed that day can be traced to the rawness of the troops, to the hodgepodge composition of their units, and to the unfamiliar leadership of Major Pitcairn. Ultimately, though, the causes were pedestrian. History is made not only by plan or policy, but also by fear and fatigue and adrenaline.

The fight at Lexington was lopsided. The colonists suffered a 23 percent casualty rate: eight dead, nine or ten wounded. Only a single British soldier had been injured.

When it was over, at roughly five-thirty in the morning, the British formed up and resumed their march toward the small town of Concord off to the west. An exuberant, almost heady confidence filled their ranks. They had received only the lightest resistance at Lexington, none of it lethal, and they had swiftly routed an assemblage of farmers and merchants. For weeks, they had openly ridiculed the rebels, using language of contempt. One British officer sneered at the colonists’ deficiencies of “patience, coolness, and bravery.” Another officer, commenting on an incident only a month earlier, had expressed amusement at the rebels’ lax discipline: “They got 2 pieces of Cannon to the Bridge and loaded ’em but nobody wou’d stay to fire them.”

For the moment, the redcoats’ scorn for the colonists seemed justified. There were hurrahs and thumping drums. There was singing.

But the 19,000-man Massachusetts militia was no pushover. Drilled and trained by competent officers, organized into 47 formal regiments, the colonial force far outnumbered the British troops stationed in Boston. In addition, the Provincial Congress had recently developed a new rapid-deployment system called “the minutemen,” by which a full quarter of the militia had been assigned to units capable of responding “at a minute’s warning” to any emergency. The towns and villages of Massachusetts had been directed to provide each minuteman “with an effective firearm, bayonet, pouch, knapsack, thirty rounds of cartridges and balls, and that they be disciplined three times a week, and oftener, as opportunity may offer.” Moreover, on the early morning of April 19, 1775, the rebels had the formidable advantages of nearby reinforcements, an intimate knowledge of the region’s roads and woods and fields, and a smoldering—now boiling—indignation at years of perceived British tyranny, corruption, and arrogance. Most powerfully, however, the colonists were now stirred by outrage at the one-sided casualty count in Lexington. Politics aside, men will kill for revenge.

For five more miles, the twenty-one companies of redcoats toiled through the early-morning hours, and it was close to eight in the morning when the column finally marched into Concord. The men had been roused from their Boston encampments eleven hours earlier. They had come twenty hard miles. Now, the most difficult moments of their lives lay ahead.

I remember crossing the Diem Diem River late in the night, turning north for a time, then back to the east. We did not know where we were, exactly, or the names of the villages we passed, or where the enemy might be, or which trails were mined and which were not, or how the night would end. The moon was still up there, still gauzy yellow, but now it seemed to cast no light at all, and for short bursts of time I lost touch with myself, as if another guy had suddenly occupied my boots, some dumb dipstick who let himself get drafted and ended up here in this tropical killer-dreamscape. I tried counting my steps. I tried pretending I was elsewhere.

A chunk of eternity swept by, then another chunk, and then I smelled salt. Somewhere ahead was the South China Sea—maybe a mile, maybe a step or two.

Not much later, in a silvery gray predawn light, we stopped along a paddy dike outside a hamlet that lay hidden behind trees and thick brush.

We waited for a time. Officers conferred. We waited a little longer, then two platoons circled around to the far side of the village, and a few minutes later, after another wait, the rest of us formed into a rank and moved across the paddy and into brush surrounding the village.

Off to my left, as we pushed forward, I heard a muted, almost gentle-sounding thud. There was an instant of silence. Automatic gunfire then picked me up, or seemed to pick me up, and threw me, or seemed to throw me, headfirst into the dark. I remember spinning sideways. I remember men yelling. A great noise exploded between my eyes, which was the sound of my own weapon, and then everything else became crawling and squealing and hoping to stay alive.

I’m not sure how long it lasted. Not long.

Later, we found two dead VC. One was a boy, maybe fifteen, but maybe not a VC, maybe just fifteen. The other’s age was impossible to guess.

We spent another half hour in the ville, searching for weapons, then we straggled off toward the next village of the day.

In Concord that morning, Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith divided his expedition into three parts. Six companies were dispatched to seize the North Bridge outside town and then to proceed to a nearby farm where the provincials were suspected of storing military supplies. The second unit marched west to capture and hold another bridge. The bulk of Smith’s command remained in Concord itself, where troops began searching for hidden weapons, gunpowder, and other provisions.

It was just after nine in the morning.

North of town, on a ridge overlooking the Concord River, about 300 militiamen had already gathered under the command of Colonel James Barrett, a local farmer. Warned of the British approach, the colonists had already relocated most of their supplies, and now they stood glaring down at the detachment of six redcoat companies holding the bridge below. After a short while, three of those companies continued across the bridge and headed up a narrow road toward the Barrett farm. The remaining three British companies—between 90 and 100 men—took up positions on and around North Bridge. For the first time that day, raw numbers swung in favor of the colonists. Armed militiamen were still streaming in from Acton, Lincoln, Westford, Littleton, Groton, Stow, Chelmsford, Bedford, and Carlisle. The 300 angry colonists soon became 400, then closer to 500. For the British troops waiting below, there was the pinch of unpleasant arithmetic. Captain Walter Laurie, in command of the British detachment at North Bridge, estimated the total provincial force to be about 1,300—an exaggeration not unknown among officers in my own war. As the rebel force strengthened, Laurie rushed a request for reinforcements back to Colonel Smith in Concord. But requests are only requests: a rider had to be dispatched, Smith had to be located, the request had to be approved, orders had to be issued, reinforcing units had to be scrabbled together, officers had to arrange and straighten the ranks, and tired men had to move by foot from Concord to North Bridge.

Meanwhile, north of town, Captain Laurie’s 100 or so redcoats eyed a growing force of rebels only a few hundred yards away. Neither Laurie nor the militia commander, James Barrett, seemed willing to initiate hostilities, and except for an accident of history, things may well have ended there—a standoff. But around nine-thirty, rebel gun carriages and heavy cannon were discovered in Concord. Hastily, Smith’s redcoats put the carriages and other supplies to the torch, and plumes of black smoke were soon rising high over the town. Among the militiamen about a mile away, there were rumblings that Concord itself might be razed and burned. (In fact, British troops were trying to extinguish fires that had spread to the town’s meetinghouse.) Colonel Barrett, a Concord native, met with his officers and instructed a regiment to advance down to the bridge. According to one colonist, “We were all ordered to load, and had strict orders not to fire till they fired first, but then to fire as fast as we could.”

Hostilities were now nearly inevitable. On both sides, retreat was out of the question.

Quickly, as the militia pressed forward, Captain Laurie brought his three redcoat companies to the Concord side of the bridge. He had little room to maneuver. A few planks were torn up; flanking units were sent out along the riverbank. “By this time,” Laurie wrote, “they were very close upon us.” With battle imminent, it is doubtful that the British responded with amused or disdainful comments about an enemy refusing to stand and fight. “They halted for a considerable time, looking at us,” Laurie wrote, “and then moved down upon me in a seeming regular manner.” Another British officer described the rebel force as “very military” in its bearing and comportment.

If discipline broke down at all, it was among Laurie’s own men. Badly outnumbered, tense and weary, the British troops watched the colonists approach to within fifty yards. A moment passed, and then, almost at the same instant, several redcoats fired without orders. Two militiamen fell dead; two or three others were wounded. Slowly at first, then rapidly, the colonists returned fire at almost point-blank range.

Within seconds, more than a tenth of the British force at North Bridge went down under intense musketry. Half the officers were hit—four out of eight. Three privates lay dead or dying. Five others were wounded.

The much-celebrated professionalism of the British army evaporated. Orders went unheeded or unheard. Standard infantry tactics were abandoned.

According to Lieutenant William Sutherland, himself among the wounded, “Captain Laurie desired the men to form a line to the right and left of the bridge, and the soldiers to keep up their fire. I jumped over the hedge into a meadow just opposite to the enemy as they were advancing to the bridge and beg’d they [his own men] would follow me… which only 3 or 4 did.”

The redcoat resistance was feeble at best. Captain Laurie exhorted his troops to stay steady, but the men soon broke and ran “in spite of all that could be done to prevent them.”

It was the beginning of a bloody, headlong retreat that would last another twenty miles, another nine or ten excruciating hours.

For the British, their opponents were “demons,” or “devils,” or “savages.”

For us, in Vietnam, they were “dinks,” or “slopes,” or “gooks.”

Today, they are “ragheads,” or “camel jockeys,” or worse.

The enemy is never wholly human. Never civilized, never virtuous, never honorable or righteous.

The enemy is barbarous, and we are not.

The enemy is fanatical, and we are not. The enemy is godless, and we are not.

“What do you get,” went the joke in Alpha Company, “if you breed VC with rats?”

Midget rats.

“Sneaky little critters,” a tired old master sergeant once said. He was going home; he’d had enough. “I mean, hell, they don’t even got the nuts to duke it out, they don’t never barely stand up. Like snakes or something. Slither around and stick their fangs up your ass and then slither away.”

Snakes. Rats. Devils. Demons.

The enemy isn’t human, and we are.

Easier to kill a rat than a man. And afterward, easier to sleep at night.

In Vietnam, much as the British had two hundred years earlier, we viewed the enemy with a bizarre mixture of contempt and awe. Ridicule suddenly became terror. A rat suddenly became a demon. Moreover, again like the British in 1775, we hailed our army as the most powerful and proficient on the planet. We were the inheritors of Patton and Eisenhower and MacArthur. No vitamin deficiencies. Good bones, good teeth, good all-American genes. And if genes didn’t do the trick, there was always the glorious fruit of American industry, the choppers and jets and napalm and five-hundred-pound bombs and scrambler radios and starlight scopes and endless crates of ammunition, C rations, and whatever else the doctor ordered.

The typical VC carried a rifle, two or three magazines of ammunition, maybe a pouch of rice.

We chuckled at this, and then later we didn’t.

Contempt and awe, ridicule and astonishment—these dizygotic twins have coexisted in armies down through the ages, and the same double-sided image of the enemy lived on in Alpha Company during the month of May 1969 as we made our way from one hostile village to the next along the South China Sea. Roy Arnold was shot dead. Chip Merricks and Tom Marcunas were killed by a rigged artillery round. Several others, whose names I didn’t know, were badly wounded by gunfire. A kid named Clauson, whose first name long ago escaped me, was wounded by a homemade VC grenade. There were others, too. It was a terrible time. In a way, all these years afterward, it’s as if none of it ever happened, but in another way, it’s still happening and will never stop. I remember the dust-off choppers settling down, and how we carried our casualties aboard and then stood back and watched the helicopters lift off and dip their noses and bank out over the South China Sea. In those moments I’d imagine grabbing a skid, hanging on tight, and taking a long, high ride out of the horror. Maybe others in Alpha Company found comfort in the same fantasy. I don’t know.

Either way, we saddled up and plodded on—more villages, more dead, more wounded. The sniper fire never seemed to stop. We took fire from tree lines, from bamboo hedges, from the banks of the Tra Bong River, from paddy dikes, from pitiful little hooches out on the Batangan Peninsula, and yet through all that, we had very little to shoot back at. The VC were ghosts. It was their land, and they knew it well, and they disappeared without ever appearing.

Partly we were terrified, but we were also full of tight, hot payback fury, especially as the dead and wounded were choppered away.

At one point in mid-May, diving into a ditch, I somehow lost my glasses, and instantly, as if a gas burner had been turned on, a searing rage bubbled up inside me—my goddamn glasses—and it was those lost glasses, or my own incompetence, not just the endless gunfire, that made me truly and dearly want to kill and keep killing. I remember crabbing around in the ditch, full of fury, yelling at God and the war because I couldn’t find my goddamned glasses.

In different ways, we all felt it. Sometimes there were jokes, which was one way of feeling it. Mostly, though, we felt it in less pleasant ways. Shooting dogs and water buffalo, for instance. Calling in the Cobras and jets and artillery, for instance, and watching things burn.

About noon on April 19, 1775, the British expedition began its long march back to Boston. With flankers off to each side of the road, the column retraced its route back toward Lexington, now shadowed by militia units along a ridge just to the north. A mile or so outside Concord, at a road junction called Merriam’s Corner, the militia took up positions behind stone walls and farm buildings, waiting for the British to cross a narrow bridge to their front. According to a militiaman, “As soon as the British had gained the main road and passed a small bridge near the corner, they faced about suddenly and fired a volley of musketry upon us. They overshot, and no one to my knowledge was injured by the fire. The fire was immediately returned by the Americans, and two British soldiers fell dead at a little distance from each other in the road near the brook.”

In total, eight redcoats lay dead or dying. Not a single colonist had been hurt.

Heartened by ineffective British fire, the militiamen ran ahead to establish new positions along the road to Lexington. At a place called Hardy’s Hill, five full companies of provincial soldiers opened up on the redcoat column, killing two, wounding several others, while at the same time, to the rear, snipers and small groups of colonists kept up a steady harassing fire.

The pressure of superior numbers had begun to tell. In the woods and fields, everywhere, fresh militiamen from surrounding towns were arriving to swell the American forces. At a spot that would later be known as Bloody Angle, two hundred provincials triggered a savage ambush that killed eight British soldiers and wounded about twenty more. Confusion and terror filled the British ranks. They had been trained to maneuver in formal alignment, standing upright in tidy rows, and now they were both horrified and enraged at the colonists’ Indian-style tactics.

“They did not fight us like a regular army,” wrote an anonymous redcoat, “only like savages, behind trees and stone walls, and out of the woods and houses.”

The same soldier complained that the provincials were “as bad as the Indians for scalping and cutting the dead men’s ears and noses off.”

Reports—and rumors—of atrocity were not unfounded. Earlier in the day, at North Bridge, a young colonist had used his hatchet to finish off a wounded redcoat, badly maiming the man. Accounts of the incident, perhaps embellished a bit, had circulated among the British rank and file. “The rebels fought like the savages of the country,” wrote a British officer, “and treated some, that had the misfortune to fall, like savages, for they scalped and cut off their ears with the most unmanly barbarity. This has irritated the troops to a very high degree.”

It was more than irritation. It was revulsion.

Later in the day, as British casualties mounted, the “scalping” episode became a justification for revenge—what we called payback in Vietnam.

Stumbling along, carrying their wounded, terrified and half dizzy with fatigue, the once-elegant British column seemed to disintegrate under ceaseless rebel musketry. Two more regulars died in a field of boulders along the road. Minutes later, members of the Lexington militia triggered an ambush that killed four British soldiers and wounded several others—among them the expedition’s commanding officer, Colonel Francis Smith.

At a spot called Fiske Hill, still another rebel ambush ended with eight more British dead.

Low on ammunition, virtually surrounded by a mostly invisible enemy, the expedition was now in danger of annihilation. Discipline had collapsed. Troops began to break and run. A British ensign, John DeBerniere, would later write: “We at first kept our order and returned their fire as hot as we received it, but when we arrived within a mile of Lexington, our ammunition began to fail, and the light companies were so fatigued with flanking that they were scarce able to act, and a great number of wounded scarce able to get forward… A number of officers were also wounded, so that we began to run rather than retreat in order. We attempted to stop the men and form them two deep, but to no purpose, the confusion increased rather than lessened.”

Eventually, DeBerniere wrote, British officers were forced to threaten their own troops. “The officers got to the front and presented their bayonets, and told the men if they advanced they should die.”

By then, 25 British soldiers had died, dozens more were wounded, and organized resistance had almost entirely ceased. Worse, if worse can be imagined, 2,000 militiamen had converged on Lexington, with other fresh provincial units waiting along the road ahead. The unthinkable seemed minutes away—perhaps surrender, perhaps slaughter.

It’s odd how the mind subdues and sometimes erases horror. Now, after almost fifty years, not much remains of those terrible days in May 1969. My company commander bending over a dead soldier (or was he wounded?), wiping the man’s face with a towel. A lieutenant with a bundled corpse over his shoulder like a great sack of birdfeed. My own hands. A patch of rice paddy bubbling with machine-gun fire. The rest is a smudge of trails and tangled foliage and trees and red clay soil and land mines and snipers and death. I know what happened in a factual sort of way—the way other people know they attended kindergarten and learned to ride a bicycle, but it’s intellectual knowing, abstract knowing, not memory knowing. I do recall, though not vividly, that Alpha Company moved like sleepwalkers through chains of sullen, near-deserted villages, always shadowed by an invisible enemy. I know we took turns running across a bridge while under fire, but I don’t remember doing it, just the relief of making it across the finish line. I remember calling in numerous dust-offs, probably a dozen or more, but I don’t remember my voice or my words or where I was or who needed each dust-off or how I was able to speak at all. I can’t see much. I can’t feel much. Maybe erasure is necessary. Maybe the human spirit defends itself as the body does, attacking infection, poisoning those malignancies that would otherwise destroy us.

Still, it’s odd.

My own war doesn’t quite belong to me.

In a peculiar way, at this very instant, the ordeal of those British troops more than two centuries ago has an animate, living clarity that seems more authentic than my own experience. Maybe that’s what history is for. Maybe that’s why people started writing things down two thousand years ago. To  remind us. To give us back our lives.

In Hollywood, a troop of cavalry would have galloped to the rescue. In Lexington, it was the appearance of almost a thousand fresh British troops under the command of Brigadier General Lord Hugh Percy.

Accompanied by two cannon, Percy’s brigade had marched out of Boston after receipt of Colonel Smith’s plea for reinforcements. It was a coincidence of history, almost a miracle, that Percy’s command arrived very near—or precisely at—the moment of collapse. An officer with Smith’s expedition would later write that without reinforcements “not one of us would have got into Boston again.”

Under Percy’s skilled direction, using cannon fire to keep the rebels at bay, the combined British force regrouped and began moving out of Lexington at about three in the afternoon. At that point, members of Smith’s expedition had been without sleep and on the move for eighteen hours, and as a consequence, even with fresh troops, the retreat was slow, laborious, and lethal. British lieutenant Frederick Mackenzie reported afterward that large numbers of armed colonists “were continually coming from all parts guided by the [gun]fire, and before the column had advanced a mile on the road, we were fired at from all quarters, but particularly from the houses on the roadside, and the adjacent stone walls. Several of the troops were killed and wounded in this way.”

In fact, Mackenzie understated things. The fighting soon became some of the most vicious of the day, with flanking companies racing through fields and backyards to dislodge rebel sharpshooters. Over the next four miles, the British suffered another sixteen casualties.

Everywhere, in the fields and woods and all along the road, provincial resistance remained disciplined and deadly. These were more than “embattled farmers,” and Lord Percy later went out of his way to debunk the condescending stereotype:

Whoever looks upon them as an irregular mob, will find himself much mistaken. They have men amongst them who know very well what they are about, having been employed as Rangers [against] the Indians & Canadians… Nor are several of their men void of a spirit of enthusiasm, as we experienced yesterday, for many of them concealed themselves in houses, & advanced within 10 yards to fire at me & other officers, tho’ they were morally certain of being put to death themselves in an instant… For my part, I never believed, I confess, that they would have attacked the King’s troops, or have had the perseverance I found in them yesterday.

Respect for the enemy, however, was rare that afternoon. The militia’s tactics infuriated British officers and enlisted men. Colonel Francis Smith, whose command had faced annihilation, seemed almost petulant in his anger: “Notwithstanding the enemy’s numbers, they did not make one gallant attempt during so long an action, though our men were so very much fatigued, but kept under cover.”

The exhausted redcoats began taking revenge. One British witness called it “a fury of madness.”

Lieutenant Mackenzie would later write that many “houses were plundered by the soldiers, notwithstanding the efforts of the officers to prevent it.” And plunder was the least of it. Outrage exploded into murder. Mackenzie wrote that his men “were so enraged at suffering from an unseen enemy that they forced open many of the houses… and put to death all those found in them.” Another British account declared that redcoat units “committed every wanton wickedness that a brutal revenge could stimulate.” Four days after the battle, an officer issued a blistering indictment of his own troops: “On the road, in our route home, we found every house full of people, and the fences lined as before. Every house from which they fired was immediately forced, and EVERY SOUL IN THEM PUT TO DEATH. Horrible carnage! O Englishmen, to what depth of brutal degeneracy are ye fallen!”

Late in the afternoon of April 19, in the small village of Menotomy, the day’s savagery reached a point of almost incredible wildness. Thirty-five new rebel companies lay waiting for the British column, with armed militiamen arriving from Watertown, Malden, Norfolk, Dedham, Roxbury, Brookline, Weston, Danvers, Lynn, Beverly, Needham, Medford, and Menotomy itself. Altogether, some 4,000 provincial troops had taken up positions in the village and along the road ahead. Lieutenant John Barker, a member of Smith’s original expedition, reported that the redcoats were “obliged to force almost every house in the road… All that were found in the houses were put to death.” In one case, at the home of Jason Russell in Menotomy, British flanking units attacked a group of militiamen from the rear, trapping them inside, eventually killing eleven men—seven from Danvers alone. Jason Russell lay dead in his doorway, mutilated with almost a dozen bayonet wounds. Worse yet, colonists would later charge that British troops had begun executing prisoners of war. One

captured militiaman named Dennison Wallis reported that, although he had escaped, three or four others “were butchered with savage barbarity.”

Plainly, war crimes were committed. A few days after the battle, General Thomas Gage acknowledged gross misconduct, issuing orders that the troops under his command immediately cease such behavior “upon pain of death.”

To an extent, at least, British atrocities were born of astonishment that mere farmers and shopkeepers had the temerity to pick up their weapons and fight back. Professional hubris, mixed with a generous dose of cultural hubris, lay like a hard, deep foundation beneath the terrible events of that afternoon. Also, convenient forgetfulness was in play. After all, it was the British, not the colonists, who had done the first killing at Lexington. And it was the British, not the colonists, who had first marched, 700-strong, on Concord.

Clearly, though, the causes went deeper. It is easy to underestimate, and easy to ignore, the effects of raw fatigue: How exhaustion impairs intellectual and moral judgment. How eighteen hours of sleeplessness can erode the barrier between decency and brutality. How physical exertion can dull the conscience just as it does the body—eighteen hours of marching and running and jumping and bayoneting and humping sixty-pound packs and firing ten-pound weapons and carrying the wounded and then running again and jumping again and marching again. A man’s legs, if pressed hard enough, will tremble and fail, and so too, eventually, will the mechanisms that govern restraint. British witnesses, including Colonel Smith and Ensign DeBerniere, called explicit attention to fatigue as an ingredient in the day’s concoction of criminal butchery, and I will add my own testimony to theirs: Exhaustion can turn the conscience to stone.

April 1775 slides into May 1969.

Time puts on a new uniform, revs up the firepower, and calls itself progress.

We were angry. We were scared.

We threw cartons of milk at old men. We pistol-whipped prisoners and detainees. We tied people to saplings and beat on their shins with sticks. We shot chickens and pigs and water buffalo. We peed in village wells. We called in gunships and artillery, took cover, and watched villages fry. We—or too many of us—cut off noses and ears. We—or too many of us—called the enemy animals, and worse, and more or less believed it. Although to my knowledge Alpha Company never intentionally slaughtered the innocent, not face to face, we certainly and repetitively caused the innocent to die with our radios and code books, calling in jets loaded with napalm and bombs of many types and sizes. We certainly and repetitively sprayed automatic fire into hedgerows and villages without thought of the innocent who might receive our wrath. For us—or for too many of us—there were no innocent. “If it squawks and walks,” a friend said to me, “it’s a gook.”

Now, among the memories I bear is that of a village elder—a monk, I believe—carrying the body of a shot-dead little girl into Alpha’s night perimeter. She had been killed by H&I fire, which was a nightly ritual, all of us firing out into the dark at nothing and at everything, firing blindly, hoping to “harass and interdict” an unseen phantom enemy.

A year before I arrived in Quang Ngai Province, in a village that Alpha Company knew well, a village called My Lai 4, our American predecessors had gunned down and otherwise put to death hundreds of unarmed civilians, including babies, including teenagers, including old and middle-aged and young women, including grandfathers and aunts and uncles. The soldiers who committed these crimes justified their actions very much as the British had done in 1775, often with precisely the same language—“hidden enemy,” “devils,” “savages”—and any historian who would claim that history is purely singular, that human behavior cannot be repetitive over the centuries, that the present cannot inform us of the past, or the past of the present, is an idiot or a demagogue. The events of 1775 and 1969 are not identical. But those events are similar in important causative, experiential, historical, and moral ways. A zoologist might cry out that a giraffe is not a zebra, but, cry out as he might, both are mammals, and both have flesh, and both can be eaten in a pinch. A zoologist who claims otherwise is not a starving zoologist.

So, yes, 1775 isn’t 1969, and Battle Road isn’t Vietnam. But for me, and for others who have seen war, the din of Bedlam and moral nullity echoes across the centuries.

Through the late afternoon, with darkness approaching, the British column made its way across the Menotomy River and down the long road toward Cambridge. Even with Percy’s reinforcements, ammunition was running low, and here and there bloody skirmishes broke out along the flanks. At a road junction outside Cambridge, with fresh militia units to his front, Percy ordered his beleaguered troops to turn left toward Charlestown. To Percy’s rear, a force of 3,000 militiamen kept up steady pressure, which slowed the retreat, while at the same time, to the east, other provincial units were arriving from as far north as Essex County. It was not until nearly seven in the evening that the column finally rounded Prospect Hill. Despite orders from Percy, and despite approaching nightfall and the threat of entrapment, British soldiers continued to force houses along the road, stopping to loot and plunder. Lieutenant John Barker wrote that his men “were so wild and irregular that there was no keeping them in any order… the plundering was shameful.”

Around eight in the evening, in deep twilight, the column straggled across the neck of land that connected the mainland to Charlestown. Defensive positions were established on Bunker Hill. Moving slowly through the dark, British officers began the grim task of tallying up their casualties. Ensign Jeremy Lister, himself wounded in the arm, described a scene of almost hellish desolation: “A sergeant of the company came to me and informed me he had but 11 men and could not find any other officer of the company.” The final British casualty count, which was not complete until days later, came to an astonishing 16 percent: 73 dead, 174 wounded, and 26 missing. The great bulk of those casualties were suffered by Smith’s original 700-man expeditionary force, whose casualty rate probably exceeded 30 percent.

As one measure of the terrible violence on April 19, 1775, the butcher’s bill that day was similar to that inflicted on U.S. forces in May 1969 at a place called Hamburger Hill in Vietnam, where 72 GIs died and 372 were wounded. However, the casualties at Hamburger Hill were incurred over ten days; the British absorbed their losses in under twenty-four hours. Moreover, British casualties fell one shot at a time, with muzzle-loaded musketry fire, while at Hamburger Hill the killing was done with modern automatic weapons, modern grenades, and modern mortars.

For the dead, of course, none of this matters.

And even for the living, both Vietnam and Battle Road have largely faded from collective memory, dissolving into a few sterile facts to be trotted out on Patriots’ Day and the Fourth of July. The horrors go unfelt. The death gurgles go unheard. Often, instead of sorrow, and instead of outrage at what one human being will do to another, the events of April 19, 1775, are now celebrated with a strange blend of cheery delight and solemn reverence, which in my recollection are not the emotions of terrified and dying men.

Names of the Alpha Company dead are preserved in marble. Names of the British dead are not so well preserved.

Either way, a name in stone is not a man, and even if it were, stone finally crumbles and slides to the sea. In the end, what soldiers must share with all others is the anonymous oblivion of Black Hawk’s warriors, Kitchener’s brigades, the defenders of Troy, and the aging men of Alpha Company.

“Home School” from Dad’s Maybe Book. Copyright © 2019 by Tim O’Brien. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved. An earlier version appeared in Boston magazine.





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