In the highlands, individual napalmed regions could be seen burning just before dark. The air smelled sweet with rot, a kind of charred perfume that’d make you gag after too long. Dan and I waited for news on the evening with our C-rations until a young girl, 15 or 16, brought us water, insisting we follow her home. We ended up seated in a hut, served a stew by a sweet but anxious old lady who smiled respectfully as long as we were watching. Dan ate it gladly to make sure she knew we were grateful, and it smelled better than anything else we’d had since we made it to the front. I caught the eyes of an old man the moment I walked in, and he watched carefully as we ate. He had this quiet, intimidating disdain. Dan couldn’t stand it and kept antagonizing him but no one understood a word.
We knew the VC had much of the central highlands, so we kept our service rifles with us as we sat. But this man had no ideals, no values, no government. He only had a wife and a young girl to take care of and we were only intruders. He watched us as though he knew the outcome, as though the war was something the Americans needed to get out of their system. I felt like a child. I wished I could’ve explained but I knew he wouldn’t understand and it became harder for me to justify any part of it as I sat in his home with his wife’s cooking. I felt no semblance of authority, struck by the sense that I did not belong. It was indicated by our bowel movements and our night sweats, but I wasn’t positive that I really wasn’t meant to be there until I saw him. He allowed his wife to take care of us, but couldn’t give in to her fear. His recognition of our vulnerability felt dangerous, and I felt sick. I was embarrassed because I couldn’t decide a single thing that separated him from anyone we’d killed, and it began to feel much more like murder. I didn’t touch the stew.