Americans Abroad

The Officer’s Club in the Air Force Compound, Danang Air Base, is a singular structure. On the outside, a weedless lawn is neatly trimmed, right up to the American suburban sidewalk; beyond, a cement paved street with covered sewers. (The Air Force Compound, Danang Air Base, enjoys what is perhaps the only fully covered sewer system in all of Indo-China.) The Club itself is constructed of the best materials, and kept in excellent repair. The kitchen, fitted with the latest of coolers and ranges, could be a showroom for a restaurant supply house. The bar, the lobby, the rest rooms (piped in Muzak), the TV lounges (Dean Martin crooning, “Everybody loves somebody sometime…,” The F.B.I. without commercials), the vast nightclub floor are like the most lavish Holiday Inn.

While some pertinent questions might be asked as to who makes how much doing what, the visitor is ultimately disarmed. Unlike the Vietnam war, the Officer’s Club in the Air Force Compound, Danang Air Base, is a paying proposition. You seldom see it less than packed. At tables on the night club floor, plump nurses sit about playing cribbage during the raunchy floor shows; legions of spreading staff officers soak up tax-free scotch, scoop extra large portions of chocolate ice cream; and twenty-thousand-dollar-a-year fraternity-boy pilots, drunk on beer, whoop and sling their meals at each other…and then buy seconds, often as not, to sling again.

Yet the hilarity is largely forced, hardly true Gemütlichkeit. (Vacantly obedient young Vietnamese waitresses indulging lingering slaps on the backside, beery passes from miserable colonels.) For all the comforts the Club offers, no one really likes it, simply because it is where it is. So an implicit question hangs about the place: “Is it War, or is it this particular war?” along with the implicit answer, “It’s War. War is hell. We all want to go home.” As with the enlisted men, their favorite song, peeled in unison at the end of drunken evenings, almost wailed, is the hard-rock paean: “We Gotta Get Outa This Place.”

On the evening of October 12, 1968, as a grim young honey-blonde from Buffalo bumped mechanically to fraternity house cheers. I heard one young pilot giggle that he’d “turned his camera off” just after the morning run. He had apparently been flying tactical air support, though it would seem more likely that he’d been on a bombing mission over the North. His F-4 Phantom was equipped with a gun camera shooting cine-film.

Turned your camera off?” I said.

Surplus ordnance,” he said. “Mission’s over. On the way home, and I see this slope ville (Vietnamese hamlet). So I switch the camera off. Make my pass. Black pyjamas down there scattering like ants about to get stepped on. Ordnance away.”

The point has been made, and it must be well taken, that the real Vietnamese atrocity is atrocity by high policy, the uninvolved, Eichmann-like dictation of free fire zones for artillery and aerial …

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