Ord Elliott was one of the mighty leaders at the PNWD UU Leadership School I attended in the Seventies, a strong factor in my becoming a minister for a decade. In the school setting, which was intense and transformative, he never said ANYTHING about his years as a Marine in Vietnam. Now comes this book with the ironic title “The Warrior’s Silence”-- ironic because it is testimony.
In fact, it’s nearly a bill of indictment against those who forced the Marines to use the shoddy M16 that regularly jammed in a way that could only be unjammed by forcing a cleaning rod down the barrel, so that the soldiers were found over and over with their ramrods in their guns and a bullet in their heads. Repeatedly Ord saw his men shot because they were using the equivalent of 19th century ball-and-powder guns in the face of modern dependable weaponry. He feels that this was ONLY because of the power of General Westmoreland who had endorsed the new guns and would not back off from that, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that he was wrong. In short, the General was also using a 19th century mind-set that leaders must never be seen as wrong.
This is not a young man’s book. It is not passionate and emotional; the writing is almost like a police report in its insistence on facts, and the constant death, rot, and life-threatening thirst, is simply noted. There’s no anthropological account of the locals or the enemy. Terrain and strategy are the focus.
Ord is one of three Vietnam veterans who write and who sometimes correspond with me. Davidson Loehr (DavidsonLoehr.com) was a classmate at Meadville/Lombard, the UU seminary, the only student my age (40). He came in under the protection of a powerful minister and was able to bring his entire woodshop with him, which he set up in one of the basements. Incredibly gifted as a singer, a fine carpenter, and a host of other skills, he was defiant and iconoclastic in many ways but sentimental and craving prestige. If he found an authority figure he could trust, he was on fire with enthusiasm. (Langdon Gilkey and Martin Marty filled the bill. So did Westmoreland.) If not, he was intolerable and M/L threw him out. He simply transferred to the U of C Div School directly since he had the scores to do that. He is the author of one book, America, Fascism & God: Sermons from a Heretical Preacher, (Chelsea Green, 2005), and was the “Best Minister/Spiritual Leader of Austin” in 2005. He’s retired now.
In Vietnam he had a blast but was nearly shot by a sniper in a tree when his convoy passed by. He kept the bullet that was in the gun when the sniper was dropped. His actual job was photography and shepherding celebrities. But also he once pulled the assignment of assembling blasted-apart bodies into something that approximated one body for each body bag. He and his buddy were so rum-dumb from fatigue and shock that they began playing games, creating three-armed men and guys with giant lower halves and teeny upper halves. But there had to be a body count.
The third Vietnam vet is Gary J. Cook, a Montana renegade who lives in the Flathead Valley and has been a law officer. He writes wild horrific buddy novels, gripping and vivid. He’s not a church-goer but the reason he began emailing me was to find out authentic information about Blackfeet warriors of the past because one of his characters was Blackfeet and had a spiritual supernatural flashback in a time of danger. He was as contentious as David. He’d ask me something, I’d tell him what I knew, he’d say I was wrong, I’d say, “screw it -- I’m not even Blackfeet so why ask me?” Then he’d write my information into the book -- accurately and effectively. Luckily I’m used to dealing with grandiose narcissists -- I even like it. (I kind of am one.) So now, as though writing didn’t stir up enough trouble, he and his buddy are trying to design a perfect publishing house.
Back to Ord. He and I have both been disappointed by the UUA, which is as full of human shortcomings as any other corporation. But both of us have found that the magical spiritual awakening during that long-ago week at Fort Worden has stuck with us. It’s just hard to know how to get it into daily life. How does it translate to power? Or does it?
Sexist in the sense of thinking women are different from men and want to know things about women, Ord told me a friend of his helped create a movie called “The Invisible War” (streams on Netflix) about female soldiers who have been raped. It wasn’t the rape that was the atrocity so much as it was the total denial by all officers and other officials that rape was an assault or that it ever happened or that the women were human beings in the first place. Women were an inconvenient imposition by non-warriors, so might as well get a little use out of them. Once force and sex get linked, they can overwhelm all but the most impassioned moral pushback. (Too bad there’s not much sexual use for an M15, though to a soldier a gun is his “woman” in the sense of faithful lover. A gun that will not fire is -- to switch genders -- impotent. The men who went into battle with impotent guns had been castrated.) The movie worked. Rapes are now prosecuted by civilian criminal investigators and courts outside the military, the same as many attacks on children by priests are now processed outside the Catholic church.
In the book Loehr is developing online (you’re welcome to follow it and can comment if you register with the blog company) he has a chapter called “The Big Red Knob” which to him is a reference to a big control instrument that’s not attached to anything so it’s only an ornament, God’s current status. David’s curiously blind to the association to the phallus. Loehr doesn’t do sexy. Maybe I was initiated to the idea when I read Mackinley Kantor’s “Spirit Lake” whose evil anti-hero warrior was not a blue duck, but Inkpadutah, “Enflamed Red Penis.” The African terrorist criminals are sending their warriors into villages with amphetamines in one hand and viagra in the other.
Women in combat means something entirely different when the weapon is a predator drone controlled from a gamer’s dashboard and screen in an anonymous building in the American Midwest. An airplane does not care whether the pilot is wearing nail polish. Now that Title IX has been in effect for a generation, women play team sports. Perhaps for the first time strategy really IS more important than hand-to-hand combat.
Ord’s specialty is organizational design, organizing groups of people so that they can keep focus on the desired outcome, work together, maintain a kind of “morality” meant to prevent damage to each other while remaining effective. He is part of a new effort to design software and provide support for organizations, probably mostly corporations. If corporations push the idea that they are people (I disagree) they desperately need this work. IMHO many of them are still operating under 19th century terms, so that they jam, let alone the collateral damage to the rest of us. The next book I read will be his organizational design theory.
(All these books are available on Amazon.)
David Loehr had a strong reaction. I have his permission to add it to the post rather than putting it in the comments.
David Loehr had a strong reaction. I have his permission to add it to the post rather than putting it in the comments.
I want to comment on some things, and correct some others.
Ord Elliott sounds very interesting and intense! Most warriors remain silent about "their" war -- I didn't talk about it in any detail until 17 years after coming home (when Marty suggested I prepare a Wednesday luncheon talk, after I'd finished all my exams and before starting the reading for the dissertation). As I wrote, I really think the main reason soldiers remain silent is because at some level the experience was sacred for them -- at least more powerful than anything before or since -- and they don't think they can do it justice in talking about it (plus the fact that, for Vietnam vets, just mentioning the war can draw angry and self-righteous bellowing by those who can't understand).
I absolutely agree with Ord about the M-16. It jammed a lot, especially when compared to the far superior Russian AK-47. The M-16 was built around a different theory than the older rifles -- AK-47, our own M-14) that all used NATO rounds (so one side could steal ammo from the other and use it against them -- the bullet aimed at my head from the NVA officer's AK-47 was stamped in English on the base. What the M-16 offered was this new theory of putting WAY too much gunpowder behind a very small bullet (the M-16 fired a bullet around .22 caliber). This made the bullet VERY unstable in flight, and when it hit something it kind of splattered, reducing bones and sinews into liquid. The injuries were far worse than with an M-14. I saw bodies with a 1/4" entry hole in their forehead, with the back of their skull blown off. Others talked of soldiers shot in the butt, with the round exiting from their stomach, liquifying most of the stuff on the way. So while the M-16 was a horrid weapon for a war in a dusty sandy country, the theory behind it was solid. Yes, if it hit a tall stalk of grass on the way, it could be deflected, but when it hit the target body -- anywhere -- it did some awful damage.
That reminds me of Cathy's nephew. In January of 2010, this big guy (23, 6' 4", maybe 40 lbs. too heavy) went deer hunting with an uncle and a couple other kids. He was using one of the modern hunting rifles built around the M-16 theory. He forgot to unload the gun before getting in the van for the drive home. Then something got caught on his sleeve, he jerked it, the gun went off, entered the top of his foot at the instep, and sort of came out the bottom of his foot. When we heard about it and were driving to San Antonio to see him -- the Army hospital there is regarded as one of the best in the country for war wounds -- I told Cathy I wouldn't worry too much, at that range the bullet would just go straight through. I didn't know about this new generation of M-16-like rifles. That bullet liquified the bones in his foot -- the doctor said there was literally nothing solid there at all to hold his toes on. So the front half of his foot had to be amputated. That result -- a massive and debilitating wound from an essentially tiny bullet -- is why the Army was enamored of it. Forgetting the pay-offs from gun manufacturers to elected officials, of course. Personally, I only heard of the M-16 jamming a few times, but I was with the armored cavalry, which fought a much cleaner war (dust-wise) than the Marines -- the elite core of macho men, who get sent in first, and generally have a much more dangerous time in war than Army soldiers. How much Westmoreland played a role in all this is something I don't know anything about.
On the idea of the Army using 19th century ideas, this is always true: the military is always preparing for the previous war. We're still fucking up in Iraq/Afghanistan for a similar reason. We would have to have killed every damned Vietnamese to beat them. We still don't know how to fight a guerrilla war well. And, of course, the weapons manufacturers make a killing selling huge weapons. The best book I've read on Vietnam was about a remarkable man -- John Paul Vann -- who was sent to Vietnam in 1963 as an advisor, and quickly saw that we had completely misunderstood the situation there. He came back, was respected enough (he was just a captain) to get an audience with -- either the Joint Chiefs of Staff or a bunch of generals with pull) to make a presentation to them, in which he said the biggest weapon we should allow in Vietnam was the rifle, so soldiers had to see who they were shooting. (The book is A BRIGHT SHINING LIE: JOHN PAUL VANN AND AMERICA IN VIETNAM (1988). That's the book that finally turned my thinking about the war around, and made it easier to see how we had completely fucked it up through ignorant arrogance.
I want to correct some things you wrote about me.
-- I didn't come in "under the protection of a powerful minister". You must mean John Wolf, but I had last seen him in 1963, he wouldn't even have remembered my name or face. I was just arrogant and obstinate on my own. Greta Godby offered part of their basement for the shop -- she must have regretted it, because I kept it so dusty, in the room with her big deep freezer. I left Meadville for a combination of reasons. The biggest was that M/L wouldn't approve my internship at University Church because it was "too close to home." I said I'd lose my free room and board if I left for a year (I got $200/month plus the 800 square foot apartment for being caretaker for the 36 co-op apartments). I decided to do the internship at University Church, was sure I could get past the MFC with that -- they never even raised a question about it -- and was pissed at Shengle anyway. Gene had suggested I stay at M/L as long as possible, to let them pay most of the tuition cost of the U of C, but we both knew I'd have to change either in 1981 or 1982 -- in other words, after my 2nd or 3rd year at M/L. Also, I wasn't going to get the D.Min. there anyway.
-- I'll own the "defiant and iconoclastic" and "sentimental," though "craving prestige" doesn't fit right. Maybe craving respect or legitimacy. But M/L didn't throw me out. I left after my 2nd year (I'd already received the M.A. from the Div. School, and since I wasn't pursuing an M/L degree, it didn't make much sense to stay there. Though I did think there was an awful unhealthiness there.
-- The guy aiming at my head wasn't a sniper. He was crouching behind some tall grass about 15 feet in front of me. Our convoy had stopped while I and two soldiers with guns got out to check out the brand new, very big and pretty, bunker. Of course it was empty -- a whole damned convoy of armored vehicles can be heard from a long way off. The guys wanted to "check out the area," so I stood on the bunker, they went out in a "V" from me, saw the two officers with their fingers on the triggers, shot them. I did have two very different, unrelated, jobs. First 5 months were in Saigon as "The Vietnam Entertainment Officer." After an OCS classmate got wounded, and got a Silver Star for behaving heroically, I felt cowardly and ashamed for being in Saigon, put in for a transfer to the field, pulled some shenanigans (all court-martiallable) and then spent my last 7 months in the field, attached to the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, a small 6,000-man unit.
Yes, ten days before coming home, the shithead Captain I worked under ordered me to go out and "get the story" of the huge ambush. This was shitty on a couple counts. First, it's an unwritten, but well-known, rule that you don't send people out into combat situations when they have less than 30 days remaining, because they'll probably be worthless anyway. The Captain was hoping I'd get killed (several months later, it cost him his career). I can't really blame him, though. I had pulled a really shitty (and funny) trick on him, my first night in the unit. Nobody liked him anyway, and I just helped let him show the commanding officer that he was a complete fool.
-- You completely invented the bit about creating "three-armed men and guys with giant lower halves and teeny upper halves." It is true that the sergeant and I, who carried the 13 dead bodies from their vehicles back to the road to be zipped into black body bags, carried the individual halves of two soldiers blown in half, and initially got the wrong bottoms on. I said we had to switch them. The sergeant, who knew everything about these guys, and told me their stories as we carried their bodies, or halves, was way overloaded, kind of exploded at the idea that we had to switch them, but of course we did.
-- One important story you left out was that I talked LIFE Magazine into doing a photo feature on our unit. Co Reentmeister probably took 99% of all LIFE photos of Vietnam. He was just a year older than I was, but he was clearly a photographic genius. That story was one -- probably the main -- reason the commanding officer liked me. I remember a night in the Officers' Club -- by chance, Captain Ditchfield and I, and two more of our tent mates, always wound up at the large round table where the commanding officer (Colonel, later General) and his XO sat -- anyway, Ditchfield heard me talking about the many steam baths I visited while in Saigon (I probably spent 3-4 days every two weeks there, maybe more). I called them SBM&BJ's -- steam bath, massage, and blow jobs. This really offended Ditchfield's very straight-laced nature, so one night at the round table he told the two colonels about it. (He didn't know that the XO had asked me to recommend a good steam bath a couple weeks earlier, or that I subsequently bumped into him coming out of my favorite steam bath while I was going in.) The Colonel had no patience with Ditchfield, and said "Ditchfield, when you get us into LIFE magazine, you can go get your whistle blown at a steam bath too!" A rare moment!