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Lance Johnson - U.S. Army

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. 

The 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. 

On 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 Lance.

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 put away.

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?      


1. Ordinary
2. Dating the class secretary
3. Artillery training
4. Special Forces Camp
5. Firing at anything that moved
6. You're not going ot believe this
7. Asked to accomplish the impossible
8. Welcomed by war protesters
9. Anger
10. Like a trapped schoolboy
11. Dissociative flashback
12. Still in love