There is a veneer between civilization and the jungle that is very thin. The
human soul put it there, and it is the only thing that makes life, as we know
it, possible. Without the protection of this thin shield there is no kindness,
understanding, compassion, or love.
In a heartbeat, the blink of an eye, or the explosion of a satchel charge, the
veneer can be shattered. I've seen it happen just that fast, and once it does,
there is nothing left but survival by whatever means necessary.
It's amazing what humans are capable of when they're reduced to the survival
only mode. I had no idea what kind of animal was inside me until that animal was
released. I call it the dragon. It's an incredible ally, but a dangerous
On the evening of July 4th, 1967, we were setting up for a routine night,
harassing the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army who we knew were in the area.
We'd seen activity around our position during the day in places where no one
should have been. We were in a pretty good spot. We had artillery support from
155 mm and 8" howitzers and air support whenever we needed it. The main
drawbacks were the jungle that ran up to the very edge of our perimeter, and the
fact that we'd been in the same place so long that it was easy to figure out our
strengths and weaknesses, and determine exactly where to hit us.
And hit us they did, faster than I'd have believed possible if I hadn't been
there. A full company of North Vietnamese Regulars and Viet Cong sappers
attacked our re-enforced platoon. They were able to strike so quickly because we
had no kill zone between the perimeter and surrounding jungle. We had no chance
to react before they were all over us. We were immediately overrun.
That was the first time I met the dragon. I knew he was there because I'd seen
glimpses before, on the football field and in fights on street corners. But,
even then, it was only a glimpse. He was never in control until that night. I
allowed him to be in control because I needed him. His strength, reflexes, and
brutal determination meant survival. He created a feeling of tremendous
confidence. His reactions were based entirely on reflexes. His decisions were
determined by instinct. His concentration was total, and distractions didn’t
effect his judgement.
Simply put, humans are not that long out of the trees. In our basic form, we
have every instinct and survival skill of animals that have never known
civilization. These instincts and skills were developed over thousands of years
of evolution, and they are deadly. In an instant I changed from an easy going,
laid back, free and easy guy into a killer. And, the dragon and I killed with
amazing coldness and efficiency.
We were able to push the N.V.A. back out of our position before morning. Through
out the night I used the jungle the same way the Vietnamese used it to move in
on us. Its thick tangled foliage became a part of me, and it saved my life. I
wore it like armor, and moved through it as if I’d been there all my life.
During the clean up operation I saw a North Vietnamese near the landing zone
where the fighting started. I don’t remember anything about him. I only recall
his image in the rifle sites. There was no hesitation on my part. No evaluation
of his condition, or consideration of how much of a danger he still posed. I
simply shot the young man to death.
I always thought taking a human life would bother me more. It wasn’t what I
expected. There was no hatred, not even anger. I reduced another human being to
a problem that could be eliminated by squeezing a trigger. There was no
kindness, understanding, compassion, or love. The dragon has no use for them
because they get in his way. He was a brutal son of a bitch.
Generals, admirals, field marshals, and military leaders by whatever name, have
known about dragons for as long as there has been human conflict. They use them
with surgical precision. They are masters at putting young men into harms way,
and turning them into killing machines. The United States armed forces does it
as well as it has ever been done. They used me the same way that young men have
been used since the beginning of time.
I chose to release the dragon. Even after seeing what he could do, I allowed him
to stay in control. I made the choice between humanity and survival, and chose
survival. God forgive me.
Over the years men have justified the rule of the dragon by saying that they had
every right to survive; and, if the dragon provided the only means, then he was
the right choice as an ally. I have used that logic for over thirty years. I've
told myself that if I hadn't survived my children or grandchildren wouldn't have
been born. I've also told myself that even though my contributions to mankind
have been small, every little bit helps. And, in the grand scheme of things,
I've done more good than harm. I probably got the idea from crap that some
jackass once wrote, one who never saw young men die.
Don't misunderstand. I'm not apologizing for staying alive. I believe that it is
the right of everyone to protect themselves. Even today, I wouldn't stand by and
allow my loved ones or myself to be harmed. But, I've come to understand that if
the conflict is intense enough the dragon will appear. There is a price for his
services, and he will collect in full. I've been paying for a long time.
I'm not an expert on animal behavior; and I don't even claim a working knowledge
of psychology. I only draw from personal observations and experience. I've seen
cornered prey turn and attack with savage intensity when there was no place to
run. I didn't understand when flight turned to fight until the change occurred
It was dark that night on Nong Son, the kind of darkness that worked for cats,
rats, snakes, the North Vietnamese, wounded U.S. Army sergeants, and anything
that used the night time to its own advantage. There was no moon, the foliage
was damp, and there was a breeze to help cover the sounds of movement through
the brush. I was cut off from the unit and completely alone. Other guys were
also cut off, and one had been captured. I heard him screaming as he was killed.
There is no way to describe the intensity of the fear that I felt because no one
has ever invented the words. It's pure emotion, pure adrenaline, and as basic as
The Vietnamese were so close that I could hear their footsteps as well as their
voices. My rifle was broken at the stock, and I was left with nothing but a
knife. That meant that I would have only one chance; and if I didn't kill the
one that found me without any noise, one of the others would certainly kill me.
It was hopeless.
Suddenly, the fear turned to complete calm. My focus was total and complete to a
degree that I have never felt since. All of my being was dedicated to killing
the man who found me. Nothing else existed, just me and the first one who came
close enough. I sat completely still, waiting for my chance. The situation
turned me into a killer, as savage and brutal as anything in any jungle.
The change was not due to bravery. In that situation there was no such thing.
The fear was not due to cowardice, which too didn’t exist. The reactions were
purely animal, and the animal's name was dragon.
Once the change occurred killing became second nature. Those who died didn’t
have faces. Any personal detail would have caused a distraction. Any human
observation would have made the dragon less effective, and his only concern was
survival. The rest didn’t matter. That’s why he survived.
Every moment of every day people decide which part of them will be in control. I
believe that each of us has a compassionate side, one that is understanding,
open, and kind. This part of us is in control when we are confident, secure, and
at peace. As our situation deteriorates we begin to take a defensive posture.
The worse the situation the more defensive we become. Since the best defense is
a good offense, we may even take preemptive action.
True bravery is keeping defenses down in the face of danger. It takes tremendous
confidence and self-control. The degree of confidence necessary comes from years
of dealing with difficult situations. At twenty-one I didn't have that kind of
experience or confidence. There were times when I set fear aside, and continued
on in the face of tremendous danger. That wasn't an example of bravery, it was
desperation. It was not difficult to continue on when there was nowhere else to
go. And, the generals left us with nowhere else to go.
After we were overrun my commanding officer met me on the way back to DaNang. It
was only the second time I'd seen him in the field since we arrived in Vietnam
five months earlier. One of the vehicles was destroyed and a thirty-caliber
machine gun was missing. Everyone in the platoon had been killed or wounded.
His primary concern was over the missing machine gun. He also wanted to know how
the N.V.A. were able to get so close before the attack since I was responsible
for perimeter security. I tried to explain that without an adequate kill zone
outside the perimeter, there was no way to react fast enough. He didn't buy it.
He was looking for someone to blame, and I was it.
That was my first experience with extreme self-control. The man will never know
how badly the dragon wanted a piece of him, or how close I came to letting him
go. I guess commanding officers understand dragons nearly as well as generals.
When people cooperate with one another, and give their fellow man the kind of
understanding and consideration that's required, civilization works; and there's
no need for extreme behavior. But, things breakdown so quickly that the best of
intentions can lead to misunderstandings. Even worse, there are far too many
people who just don't care. Worse yet, there are those who allow the dragon to
regularly run their lives. They delight in the damage that he does, and seem to
actually enjoy the pain that he causes.
They make such an unfortunate mistake because they never know the joy of a life
where confidence, security, and peace dominate. The dragon has no place there.
And, that kind of life is not possible while in his company. This is why he is
such a dangerous companion. This is why his services exact such a terrible
With this in mind it’s hard to understand why it's so difficult to keep him
under control. Every day I struggle to keep myself from over reacting. I
dedicate a tremendous amount of effort to keeping things in perspective. I do
this because I know what is just beneath the surface. The most important thing
is that the dragon can never come out unless I let him out. It's my choice, and
I have ultimate control.
It's not a win all loose all, one time thing. Control is built over a long
period. Peace comes from building a life where it can flourish. It's a simple
concept, but a difficult life style to achieve.
Taking a peaceful approach requires tremendous courage and self-control. It
means standing alone, and continuing on when support from others is not
available. It means abandoning the security of the mob AND THE DRAGON even
though their support carries the best chance for security.
My dragon’s company will always be tempting because he doesn’t loose. There is
always an advantage to be taken, a weakness to be found, or an opportunity to
exploit, and he is totally focused on finding them. He doesn’t get tired or
confused, and never hesitates because of concerns over others. But, dragon
victories are short-term wins, and never produce long term happiness. So, long
term happiness is the price for his services.
I wish with all my heart that this world was a place where dragons were not
necessary. But, it’s not. The generals who put young men in harms way must use
them as the line of defense against those who would rule by whatever means
necessary to promote their own selfish ends.
Was this the case in Vietnam? Did we have no other choice? Was there a reason to
turn me into a killer? Did I have to find my dragon? My heart tells me no, and
that’s the cause of my anger, resentment, and hatred for those who sent us