If You Walk Long Enough novel, Military Jargon and Vietnam

Every discipline has a language exclusive to their “in-group.” Usually that language is rich and descriptive, often providing sharp insight into the members.

            While my novel If You Walk Long Enough does not take place in Vietnam, there are ghosts who follow protagonist, Reid Holcombe, home. His flashbacks provide a peephole into him and the colorful military lexicon. 

            Reid thinks about “walking point” as he moves through airports on his way back. “Point person” refers to that lone soldier out ahead of a platoon moving down the trail checking for booby traps and snipers. Usually that soldier walks slowly, stops frequently, and is highly cautious. Point man could also be the first killed.

            Men in Vietnam often thought of themselves as being in “Indian country,” a hostile environment. Anything could happen at any time and no man jack knew if they’d get home alive. Their rifle and their wits the security they trusted.  

            Joe Terrell, a black sharecropper and fellow vet, banters with Reid, accusing him of “playing dominos,” a reference to the 1950-1980 military-touted theory suggesting if one Southeast Asian country fell to communism, all would fall in succession, like dominos.

            Nights, a ghostly voice talks with Reid, plagues him with images from the war, and says he wanted to leave in a “tits-up” bag, a body bag.

            Reid smokes. He carries a Zippo, a popular lighter with a metal case and hinged top, which closed with a resounding signature click. Reid smokes cigarettes but many non-smoking troops also carried the Zippo as a weapon accessory. The dependable lighters could be used to set fire to peasant huts or VC hideouts and to ignite napalm from flame throwers whenever the electronic ignition failed. Real Zippos are collector items. Knockoffs, sold in Vietnam today, are favorite tourist items.

            The term “Uncle Ho” referred to the North Vietnamese leader, Ho Chin Mien. Used descriptively, sometime affectionately, and other times in a derogatory manner, Uncle Ho was at least a defining father figure and Communist leader for many Vietnamese.

            A “Dear John” letter meant a long-distance break-up between a soldier and his girl back home.  Mail from home was a critical emotional support for civilian and military personnel thus the dear john was especially devastating—yet another signal that things could change rapidly. In modern parlance, a dear john can signal an end to a relationship by divorce or a new lover.

            Taking a buddy’s “six” meant to protect his back. A person taking a buddy’s six was deeply trusted especially in a combat situation or in confrontational circumstances.

            “Greenie” refers to a member of the U.S. Army Green Berets Special Forces often placed on missions outside of the usual combat zones. Based in the central highlands, the Berets were aligned with the tribal people known as Montagnard, sometimes called “Yards.” There was an ambivalence, held by journalists and many troops, about the Special Forces. That ambivalence was created by greenie connections to the CIA, their abhorrence of publicity, and their shadow connections with secret operations.

            After Têt 1968, a tidal wave of events washed over the country effectively shoving Vietnam off the front pages. At first, public opinion changed slowly, and then, with a deep sucking sound. The Battle of Hué, discovery of mass graves, My Lai massacre, and secret bombings in Cambodia troubled U.S. citizens.

            Filled body bags stacked higher than a man’s head, flown home on cargo planes, arrived at night and were quietly dispersed to hometowns across America. In the war’s early years, bodies came home in flag-draped coffins. Later, bodies were shipped to the U.S. and not placed in coffins until transit to their actual hometowns.  

            Big city riots, the Chicago Democratic National Convention, Kent State University killing, publication of the Pentagon Papers, public school integration, and the Richard Nixon-Watergate incident further distracted us—the American public—until Vietnam faded from the headlines. By 1970, Hollywood, television, politics, and music changed. Events moved on as the war formally ended in 1975. Language from those war decades remains in casual use today.

            No matter the length of duty or the station, those serving in Vietnam spoke of returning to “The World,” meaning to go home. Indeed, returning to the United States after a tour was, in fact, returning to another world and time. Vietnam was a complex war that gouged deep divisions in our collective psyche coming as it did on the rising cusp of the Civil Rights struggle and Feminist Movement. It is this multi-layered return home with which the protagonist in If You Walk Long Enough struggles.

            Suggested additional reading material includes Karl Malantes’ What It’s Like to Go to War, Sebastian Junger’s Tribe, and Bill McCloud for What Should We Tell Our Children About Vietnam? Links to additional military jargon can be found at Military.com.


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