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Old G.I.s and Sleeping Dragons

By Doug Francescon

Author Biography



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Copyright Doug Francescon 2004


In Honor of:

Waylen Powell

Joe McCurry

Arnold Palmer

And all the guys who left a piece of themselves in Vietnam


Chapter 1

The Dragon

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 companion.

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 in me.

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 it gets.

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 price.

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 there.



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