How I Ran the War in Vietnam — Part One


Nov 17

I’ve read Catch 22 five times. First in high school, then in basic training (army), next in flight school (I flew choppers in Nam), and then twice in Vietnam. It made more sense with each reading.

No one will ever be able to top that book when it comes to fiction about how screwed up the military is. All soldiers know that the screwy gags Joseph Heller came up with were based, loosely albeit, in actual fact.

I wasn’t crazy about Heller’s style. It was awkward at times, but easily forgivable because of the horribly funny and, at times, poignant fables he presented. It stands as a monumental piece of fiction.

As stated, no one will ever top him at what he did. He set the bar way too high for mere mortals. And this is why, we mere mortals, can only present to you actual facts about how fucked up our military can be.

There will always be novels and essays telling us the horrors and insanity of warfare.

Pascal once wrote, “Can anything be stupider than that a man has the right to kill me because he lives on the other side of a river and his ruler has a quarrel with mine, though I have not quarreled with him?”

And though philosophers have opined for eons that the only reason for war is to take something from somebody else by force, it was General Dwight D Eisenhower who shrunk the global exchange of gunfire into the simplest terms understandable by mothers around the word: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.”

My purpose is, on a grand scale of events, scraping the dried earth compared to the wisdom of Ike. I simply wish to present to you a story of how I, Warrant Officer David Bonello, once ran the fucking war.

Well, it wasn’t the whole war, but if you take it as a metaphor, it gets close.

And it wasn’t for a very long time. Just a month.

You see, I was part of an Air Cav outfit whose main job was to scout out the enemy and kill them, and if we ran into a significant force, insert ground troops to rout them.

Did I mention that when I got my wings I was the youngest officer/pilot in the entire armed forces?

That sort of plays into my story, because I got very little respect from officers in my unit and everything I did was wrong and I was just too immature to play their adult games. So when a liaison officer was needed to pop down to HQ for a bit, my name was the first one on their lips. Get rid of the teenager for a while.

Perhaps I should mention that as those “older” gentlemen left the unit (served their time) my position in the unit gradually evolved to where I was looked upon for guidance. I eventually broke the chains the oldsters had fastened over me, and I soon built up a bit of fame as the guy who never missed a target (I flew Cobras), and before I left the country I had been decorated 5 times for valor, including the Distinguished Flying Cross.

But for now, I’d only been in country about six or seven months, had recently advanced to piloting the Cobra, rather than sitting up front as the co-pilot, and I was just starting to gain a bit of respect from fellow pilots.

But needing a liaison, it was my name that kept popping up and soon I was being flown to, cripes, I don’t even remember the name of the city or the base.

I guess it’s time to tell you that the story I’m about to relate could almost be called fiction, even though I’m trying like hell to tell you facts.

It’s been well over 40 years since I fought in Vietnam, and if you know anything about memory, you’ll know that what I’m saying is fantasy. Our minds manipulate memories like politicians manipulate the truth. Any two people relating an incident that happened to them both years earlier would seem to anyone listening like two different incidents.

So what I am going to tell you is how I remember it. As best I can, I will stick to what I remember without embellishing.

As I stepped off the chopper, I was greeted by a spec 4 (everywhere I went in Vietnam I was greeted by a spec 4 . . . that must be their job…to greet incoming officers). During the jeep ride he told me about a famous general who used to love to jump out of choppers before they set down, and one time, at the very spot where I’d been picked up, that same general leapt from a chopper, and the pilot, not knowing anyone was going to leap out, felt the chopper tilt quickly to the right and immediately overcompensated by slapping the cyclic back to the left, forcing the rotor blades to dip downward, and sent the general’s head a few hundred feet down the runway.

I also remember the massage parlor/whorehouse being pointed out as we passed. I learned, from the spec 4, that they had some of the best looking whores in Nam.

Later that day, I would meet with the officer in charge of the project and he’d fill me in on my role.

I’d already been briefed back at my base as to what my job would be. It was quite simple. I’d get my missions from HQ, pass them back to my unit, and then when the missions ended, if there were some good results, they’d pass them along to me and I’d pass them along to the higher-ups and they’d devise upcoming missions, all designed to get the Vietnamese forces more and more involved. You see, this was that period when our main mission was to Vietnamize the war. Everything we did was aimed at training the Vietnamese to take over the war so we could eventually all go home. This was that famous Vietnamization of the war. And even my spellchecker has that word, so it must have been a thing. At least as I remember it.

Again I can’t for the life of me recall the city or the name of the base, but it had been nearly two years since they’d had a rocket land within the wires. The Tet Offensive was the last time they’d even been under fire. It resembled a tropical paradise. Nice swimming pool. Great officers club. And a top rate whorehouse.

I don’t recall if I met with my higher-up that day or the next day, but I remember him comfortably sitting on the corner of his desk as he told me my job. He was a major, I remember that. My higher-up, my boss, was a major. He was very congenial and smiled a lot. These guys had never actually seen a war and I guess most of them were there just to earn a few combat ribbons before it all ended.

But what he told me was terribly, terribly interesting.

He informed me that I’d be getting my missions from my unit, and that I would brief either him or a bunch of generals once in a while, as to what we were doing and how well we were doing it, and they would be supplying tactical support and Vietnamese troops to help out in every way possible.

I remember going to the Officer’s Club for a nice dinner, a couple of beers, and then later that evening, I sat in my wonderful quarters reading science fiction. (I’d discovered Sci-fi, along with Heinlein, Bradbury, and Asimov in Vietnam.) But my mind was not on the book at all. Over and over in my head ran the circular train of thought that nobody knew what was going on here and I could either inform them of that minor fact, or I could actually try to do something significant.

I mean, who knew the area more than someone who’d been fighting there for the past three months? I’d been trained extremely well in the tactics of the Air Cav, and now seeing things from the broader perspective, I was in a position to design an overall strategy.

I decided to keep my mouth shut.

Here is your link to Part Two.