The good soldier, Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz, told us that “War is politics by other means” but he should have known better. Politics, in my days and perhaps even in his, was certainly war by another means. In 1968, we witnessed the assassination of two dynamic political leaders in the space of a few months, and the disintegration of a political party at the Democratic convention in Chicago, that summer.
It was hard to know how to be a good soldier in Vietnam. I had fancied myself as a poet during college, and when I was in Quantico, I discovered that a famous poet was working in Washington D.C. as the Poet in Residence at the Library of Congress. James Dickey, who had received the National Book Award for his poetry (and later author of the book Deliverance) had also been a jet fighter pilot during the Korean War. So early the summer of 1968, with my orders for Vietnam in hand, I made an appointment with him at the Library and shared some misgivings. I asked him how, with his grasp of the terror and the beauty and the ironies, he had managed to stay sane in that environment. “Be dependable,” he said. He went on to say how being dependable was all he could hang onto, and all that those around him could expect of him. It seemed too simple. I was looking for profound from the poet. Perhaps I got it after all, and perhaps the great truths are that simple. The question was to become: Dependable to whom?
I arrived in country in time to join the 26th Marines after the first Tet offensive and just after the taking of Hue. We moved south and I was transferred to another regiment in DaNang, in a communications company that handled all the high-level communications for the 1st Marine Division in DaNang. My company commander was a Major Abercrombie. I was executive officer and as it turned out, the only one in town. Abercrombie caught helicopters to high stakes poker games all over Vietnam, and told me that I would be running everything. I should check in with him once a week if he had not returned. I had a feeling that during those weeks away he was stacking up a large amount of winnings.
The Marines in the communications specialty had the highest IQ scores. This resulted in two possible directions in Vietnam. Either they were in supreme danger in the bush, where every radio operator was a prime target, or assigned to a “Comm Center” where messages came in for Generals and other high-ranking staff officers around the clock. The Comm Center was pretty safe, until it wasn’t…if a VC rocket attack from Indian country was anywhere near accurate. There were some days it was safer in the bush.
I was just as happy to be out of the bush, and I began by instituting four 8-hour shifts, three for the segments of the clock and one on call for peak loads of message traffic. Traffic gets very busy during operations where trucks are running into ditches, and the Army is dropping artillery by mistake on the Marines, and shipments of rations arrive at the wrong ports and, somewhat ironically, planeloads of ammunition are unloaded and become planeloads of bodies for the return trip. I ran the communication center in DaNang for those couple of months, and in the course of the day inspected the living areas where the men slept. Connelly was a most interesting Marine. I noted from his books that he and I both read Dostoyevsky, but he read it in the Russian. Turns out, he had a Russian grandmother who raised him.
The communication center had sandbags high around its walls and over the ceiling, because rocket attacks from the Viet Cong were frequent, and the message center is critical to running a war anywhere. The quarters of several Generals and Colonels were nearby, with the comfort of wooden doors in the wood frame that held up canvas walls. The men came in on their shifts and I usually managed to be around at least a short time on each shift. Other times I was in my office or around in briefings. Connelly was especially good with top-secret cryptographic messages, which took careful decoding from a daily book. Occasionally those messages were between Generals on where they would golf on their next R&R, but that was secret information as well.
At the end of August, we rapidly got all the news about the Democratic Convention and its riots in Chicago. It left an atmosphere of some consternation among the troops who wondered if America was coming apart, and a slightly different attitude of abandonment among the Generals, I think. I was somewhere in the middle. My college friends were rioting back there against many things, but mostly against Vietnam. Certainly I understood, and in some ways even supported them. There in DaNang we all watched from our separate eggshells, but did not venture many opinions. Except Connelly, who was on the night shift.
The CID people called me in the middle of the night. CID was the Criminal Investigation Division and they were usually out of sight unless something bad was going on. “We’ve got your man Connelly here,” they said. Apparently they had been going through the burn bags from the communication center, which were to be burned in the morning. They had been looking for the mimeograph master for hand lettered signs that around midnight had been stapled to all the Generals’ doors. The sign had a Peace symbol, the round one divided in thirds. Its bold lettering said “What are we fighting for?”As there were few mimeograph machines in this combat zone, the CID did not have far to look. There were only three Marines on that Comm Center night shift, and Connelly admitted to it. When I got down to the CID headquarters, they had Connelly in handcuffs. He was looking pretty guilty.
“Sorry sir,” Connelly offered. There wasn’t much I could ask, and not even much I could say. I turned and told the CID people that I would take charge of Connelly and they said no I would not, and that I would be receiving a call from the General, which I assumed was the three star General of the 1st Marine Division, who I had never met and never wanted to meet. “Sorry, Connelly.” I said.
Just as I got back to my sandbagged office, intending to look up this situation in the Uniform Code of Military Justice manual, the phone rang. It was indeed the General.
“Is Major Abercrombie there?”
“No sir, the Major is at a conference, in Chu Lai I believe. This is his executive officer.”
“Hon,” he was looking at the organization chart, I guessed. ”Well, Hon, I know all about Connelly and his posters and this has to be taken care of immediately. I want him written up on a sedition charges. Now.”
“Yes, sir.” This hit me like walking straight into a half opened door. Gulp. Sedition. And a General court martial for offenses in a combat zone.
“I will call you back early tomorrow morning. I want everything it takes to begin a General court martial immediately.”
“Yes, sir,” I answered. A General court martial in a combat zone could mean a firing squad for Connelly, especially in this tense atmosphere. I could see that the General might even be envisioning a mutiny of confused troops, and he was moving decisively…through me.
“Early in the morning, Hon.”
The fact was, I kind of liked Connelly and didn’t think this General court martial and maybe a firing squad would do anyone any good. Unlike most opinions about soldiers among the college crowd, I did believe we were being paid to think, so I opened the Uniform Code of Military Justice manual…and studied. And studied all night. I went through everything that could possibly relate to Connelly’s case and sure enough it looked like sedition. So I had to get the exact wording from the UCMJ manual. As I studied, (and studied,) I realized that if I did not find the right passages for a court martial, the General and his legal staff would certainly do so in the next few days. I had to find something, something that made the situation better, but something legal, and more legal than anything else, something that I had no idea how to find.
And then I read the several definitions of sedition…and glory be…there was only one that applied. “Sedition can be defined as spreading seditious literature amongst one’s peers.” I swear, it was the only one that applied. Maybe the statement is there like that, even to this day. Connelly was not distributing this to any peer. I checked and double-checked the UCMJ for hours, and that was the only true statement. I could not go any further. I fell asleep at the small set of crates that made up my desk.
Early in the morning, the weak little phone rang in my ear. It was the General, as promised. “Ok, Hon, I need to start the court martial today. What have you got for me?”
“Well, sir, Connelly can be written up on sedition charges. But there’s one thing…”
“The UCMJ says it has to be spreading seditious literature amongst one’s peers. We’d have to promote him to General.”
I swear, there was a full thirty seconds of silence as the General took this in. Thirty long seconds began to seem as if the wire had been cut.
“I’m here, Hon. Now listen up, you’ve got to do something, anything that can stick.”
“Yes, sir, “ I said, “But it may not make a court martial.”
“Well…well…” He was entirely flustered. “Do something…today.”
“Yes, sir, I will find something.”
He hung up with no further questions and no further directions to me. I assumed he would find some legal personnel to go over this and if he did, that person should come to the same conclusion I did. I was relieved that no one called with a further interpretation, and in the afternoon I wrote Connelly up on a non-judicial punishment for misuse of government property. His penalty — by the book –was one month’s pay and confinement to base (, which in a combat zone was relatively the safest place for him anyway). The CID reluctantly released Connelly to my custody and I chewed him out royally and docked his pay. He never knew the rest of the story.
My belief is that the General saw to it that I was transferred out to a combat unit, and then after that to another bush battalion near the edge of Cambodia. One day I was sitting there eating captured rice with my canned rations, and lo and behold who should report in to my platoon but…Corporal Connelly. The same Corporal Connelly. Sometimes the good news just never stops coming.