I’m going to tell you something now you’re not going to believe but I swear is true. The army came up with a program to pay money to Vietnamese civilians for loss
of life, limb or property resulting from American operations near their village. The
brass called them “salation payments.” I guess they thought
bribes would win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people. As battery
commander, it was my job to deliver the cash.
In Vietnam, when a village
took a stray round, we heard about it several days later, after the Vietnamese
inventoried their victims and reported up through the province chiefs. Then,
I got into a jeep with a Vietnamese translator and a bag of money, traveled
out to the village and paid off the parents or loved ones for their losses.
army gave the province chiefs a menu – a list of prices we paid in
local currency. For example, destroyed hooches were the equivalent of
$25. If someone lost an arm or leg, the price was double that. Most
expensive was the death of a child, $100 for a boy, and $200 for a girl.
the appointed day, the village elders gathered in the road to greet me. The
translator, an ARVN usually from the same province and often known by the villagers,
offered a few pleasantries, and then dispensed the usual dogma about VC terrorists
and how patriotic Vietnamese did not support their evil. That done, one
at a time, the elders presented me to the families with claims.
This part is
really strange, and I never got used to it. The people treated
me like a visiting dignitary. Even when torn by grief, the Vietnamese
peasant farmers invited me into their hooches where we sat on bamboo mats or
rickety old chairs while they served tea and cookies and chatted about the
weather or the rice harvest. Very often, the injured family member lay
bandaged in a corner staring silently at me, the 500-pound gorilla in the room.
- This grotesque situation stripped away any psychological defense
Lance could have maintained against the guilt he felt for the senseless
killing of non-combatants – a dichotomy of the Vietnam War that
contributed to his later psychological and emotional disintegration. Destroying
the very people they fought to protect pained American soldiers like
It was always the same – we sipped tea, and they smiled. I carried
a speech provided to me by headquarters, which I then read aloud apologizing
on behalf of the governments of the Republic of Vietnam and the United States
and expressed regret for the losses the family suffered. Then, I produced
an envelope, which, without making eye contact, the family accepted and discreetly
Can you imagine? Can you imagine sipping tea in a man’s
living room while you pay him for killing his child? More money than
those Vietnamese peasants had ever seen? Sure, but try to imagine the
situation reversed. What’s
the life of your child worth? What’s adequate remuneration for
a loving spouse blown to bits by a 40mm cannon round?