Around us the cries of the remaining wounded gradually faded. Some of them metamorphosed statistically from Wounded In Action to Killed In Action, dying quietly on either side of us. Others either passed out or gave up moaning when no one came to aid them. After a while I took a gun from a dead soldier, told the others to wait, and headed across the napalm-scorched clearing to the abandoned tank. From the ground a badly burned soldier called to me. There was nothing I could do for him. I went to the tank, and the metal hatch was still too hot to handle. The hatch was unfastened, which meant either that those inside had not bothered locking it, since after all they were not engaged with ground forces, or that they had escaped from the vehicle, or that they had died while trying to escape. I couldn’t tell without opening the hatch. There was a general stench of burned flesh, but there was no way of knowing whether it came from within the tank or was merely part of the general aroma of roasted humanity that pervaded the entire region.
I went back to Tuppence and Dhang. It had been a while since our last meal but no one was very hungry. Tuppence was particularly shaken. Her eyes swept the battlefield, and she kept shaking her head. “Why doesn’t everybody leave everybody alone,” she said. “I do not dig jungles. Remember how I told you they ought to take every jungle and rip it up and pave it with asphalt?” She had said this several times in the course of the journey. “I’ll take it all back now. Any jungle’s better than this.”
“All the jungles will be gone soon.”
“Because of this? Bombs?”
“Not just that. Call it the advance of civilization. There’s no room for jungles anymore. Too many people. There won’t be any jungles or deserts left. We’ll clear the jungles and irrigate the deserts, and I suppose someday we’ll even level all the mountains, except for the ones we save for ski slopes. And instead of snakes and insects and animals and birds, there will be rows and rows of little square houses where there used to be jungles and deserts and mountains. And everyone will have enough to eat, and no one will die of sickening diseases, and everyone will speak Esperanto and have 2.7 children and pensions when they’re old and nondenominational services when they die. And they’ll all join bowling leagues and complain about crabgrass and watch color television, and when they talk to each other, Esperanto will be as good as anything else because they won’t really have anything to say.”
“Every town will have a park for the children to play in, and the park will have trees and shrubs for the people to look at. And the larger towns will have zoos so that the children can go to them and look at all the birds and animals that used to inhabit the earth. Everybody will buy frozen food at the supermarket and drink dietetic cola and get thirty-four percent fewer cavities and die of lung cancer. Everybody will be able to travel to far-off countries where everybody else lives in the same houses and goes to the same schools and speaks the same language and eats the same food.” I looked at the scorched earth, and I turned around and looked at the wild green jungle. “And it doesn’t even matter who wins here,” I said, “because either way it will turn out the same. If America wins, they’ll pour in foreign aid until the whole country turns into one big Levittown. If the Communists win, they’ll create the sort of worker’s paradise you find all over Eastern Europe, with every house a perfect gray concrete block cube. It’ll take them longer because they don’t have as much money, but they’ll make up for it by making it even uglier. There’s a suburb of Cracow built since the war that looks as though it belongs on the outskirts of Cleveland. You can’t blame it on any one nation. It’s creeping monotony, it’s the wave of the future.”
“There’s a part of Nairobi that’s getting like that.”
“I think I’m getting hung up.”
“Look at the bright side,” I said. “For all that’s wrong with today’s world, it’s still better than tomorrow’s.”
The next time I checked the tank, it was only slightly warm to the touch. I opened the hood and closed it again in a hurry. The tank had been carrying a full crew of three, and they were still inside it but in far poorer condition than when they stalled out. I made Tuppence stay where she was while Dhang helped me empty the tank and disinfect it with petrol from one of the troop carriers. Then we both went into the jungle to vomit and returned to collect Tuppence and find out whether or not the tank still worked.
It was in surprisingly good shape, considering the condition of the crew. A triumph of modern warfare, I decided – one could destroy people without ruining valuable machinery. I played with the various gadgets inside the tank until I found the right combination to start it. The engine turned over but stalled dead after a few seconds. I guessed that it was out of fuel. Perhaps the heat had caused the fuel in the tank to vaporize, leaving a little in the carburetor to get it started. I’m not enough of a mechanic to know whether or not that’s what happened, but Dhang and I collected fuel from two of the bombed-out tanks and put it into ours, and I started it up again, and it ran.
We climbed in, bringing along the jewels and a few guns salvaged from dead Vietnamese soldiers, including a sort of modified Sten gun. We also collected several cans of fuel that had been aboard one of the troop carriers. The Chinese writing on it meant nothing to me, so I didn’t know whether one was supposed to run tanks on it or start charcoal fires in a barbeque pit. I also didn’t know how many miles a tank got on a gallon of fuel and hated the thought of running dry in the middle of the demilitarized zone.
We left the tank’s hatch open to combat claustrophobia and asphyxiation, and we made ourselves as comfortable as possible. The control panel was in Russian, which helped. I settled myself behind it and felt like Bogart in Sahara . “This baby’ll start,” I said. “All yuh gotta do is talk nice to her. We can beat the Krauts to the next water hole and hold ’em up till Waco gets back with help.” It wasn’t a bad impression, but I could have saved my breath. Tuppence had never seen the movie, and Dhang, certain that I had just said something of monumental significance, insisted on a full literal translation and then asked what it meant. I told him to think about the women he would have when we reached Saigon. That set him off, and he spent the next ten minutes saying things Tuppence was lucky she couldn’t understand.
The T-34 is a reasonably good tank. They gave us a hard time in Korea, and while I suppose they’re considered obsolete now, this one wasn’t so bad. The steering was simple and the ride, though uncomfortable, made up for it with the feeling of security it conveyed. I suddenly knew how a box turtle feels when he draws in his head and legs and closes the hinge on his plastron. All at once we didn’t have to worry about a thing. It didn’t even matter if the locals became suspicious of us. We could ride right through them while the bullets bounced off us. No North Vietnamese soldier would be foolhardy enough to fire a bazooka at one of his own tanks just because it seemed to be out of position. We had it made.
When we eventually overtook a long column of foot soldiers, the incredible value of our new vehicle made itself dramatically obvious. They must have heard us coming a long way off. By the time we were in sight of them, they had formed ranks on either side of the roadway to afford us easy passage. They took their caps off at our approach, and as we reached them a cheer went up all around us. They were glad to see us, they wanted to wish us all manner of luck on our way to meet the enemy. I fished around the control panel for a horn button to answer their salute. I guess tanks don’t have horns, perhaps because they are not afraid of collisions. I gave up the hunt, took up a pistol, opened the hatch, and snapped off a volley of shots at the heavens. The soldiers roared their approval. After we had passed them, after they were out of sight, the sound of their hoarse applause still echoed around us.
“They really got excited,” Tuppence said.
“They thought we were on their side.”
“I guess. Feels funny, doesn’t it? All that cheering because they think we’re out on our way to go shoot at us. Did you see their faces? Some of them are just kids.”
“Uh-huh. So are most of our Marines, and in a few days those kids you just saw will be lobbing mortar shells at them.”
“That’s a bad scene.”
“War,” she said, “is hell.” I don’t think she was quoting Sherman; I think the observation merely occurred to her, as it must to everyone, in every language.
I thought all the way back to Korea. The mud, bullets, the lousy rations, the bad summer, and worse winter. “I wouldn’t call it hell,” I said.
“Not really. It’s very alive and exciting, and it’s fought by young men, and if they are young enough, they are convinced that what they are doing is very important. There’s a hill, say, and the other side has the hill, and your side wants to take it, and you have to help your buddies and support them and you have to knock out the machine guns that are spraying bullets at you, and it’s all very important, taking that hill. It’s worth dying for.”
“All that for a hill.”
“You don’t get the point. It doesn’t really matter if it’s a hill or a swamp or a plastic cesspool. It’s something that seems very important and worth dying for. If you have to die, you might as well go thinking you’re doing it for a good reason. When you look at it that way, it doesn’t matter if you die in combat or in your sleep, at eighteen or seventy-eight. Either way you wind up just as dead.
“But it only works when you’re young. Because when you get older, you realize that there’s nothing worth dying for, and that it doesn’t matter very much whether you take a hill or not, because the world is full of hills, and you are the only you you’ve got.”
I thought of the old man in Tao Dan, riding his own funeral pyre into the mouth of hell for the glory of France. What, really, had he given his life for? For the safety of three strangers, none of whom was likely to do anything to enlarge the French colonial empire. For the glory of Charles de Gaulle, who would probably be at least as horrified as Ho Chi Minh himself at the thought of French reconquest of Indochina.
A wasted death? Hardly. He could have spent a few more years living on dead dreams and sucking marrow from the bones of memory. Instead he had died well, that old man.
I corrected myself. “You don’t have to be young,” I said. “It’s easier when you’re young because then it comes naturally. You can still manage it when you’re old, but then you have to talk yourself into it.”
I drove that tank all night. Tuppence and Dhang had dropped off to sleep muttering something about food and water, neither of which we had with us. We could get along without food, but water would become a problem before very long. I felt more and more like Bogart.