How We Lost the War

Terry Hertzler
Horizontal photo of a tree silhouette.
Photo by Roman Averin

The hamlet sat at the north end of a long valley, squad 
taking a break, LT talking to the village headman. 
A young radio operator stood near the lieutenant, 
watching the ridgeline, half-click away, a dozen shades 
of green broken near the top by tan and black of shadowed 
rock faces, individual trees crowning the canopy like camel 
humps, edges silhouetted against a sky the blue of old jeans. 
A papa-san squatted near him, face wrinkled and impassive, 
black marble eyes reflecting everything. The soldier wondered 
what the old man had seen in this small Vietnamese hamlet 
in his 70 years, what changes inscribed the map of his face, 
what victories and sorrows etched those lines and fashioned 
the patience of his posture, squatting buttocks-to-heels in the 
red dirt, arms relaxed across his knees. He’s seen this sun rise 
25,000 times. Suddenly, the soldier felt absurd—19 years old, 
dressed in olive-drab fatigues, jungle boots, web gear, 
bandoleers of ammunition, canteens, M16, PRC-25 radio 
on his back, code words and call signs echoing through his brain, 
a trained communications expert who spoke only one language, 
but who on the LT’s command could call in artillery, gunships, 
air strikes, could turn this village to smoke and ash. 
He wondered how many languages the old man spoke: 
Vietnamese, possibly French, Chinese, some of the dozens 
of dialects spoken by various Vietnamese ethnic groups, maybe 
even English. But he’d probably never driven a car, flown in a jet,
watched a sitcom. And the young soldier waited for some epiphany,
something to justify the air he was breathing, the sun on his face—
but then Sergeant Jaines walked by, cigarette dangling from the 
corner of his mouth, wondering out loud if there was any gook 
pussy to be had in this shithole, and the young soldier turned 
his back, embarrassed, moved away from the old man, missing 
his quick glance, those eyes filled for a moment with an emotion 
the soldier might have almost recognized had he still been looking. 

Terry Hertzler has worked as a writer, editor, and teacher for more than thirty years. His poetry and short stories have appeared in The Writer, North American Review, Margie, Literal Latté, Nimrod, and Stand Up Poetry: An Expanded Anthology. He has published numerous chapbooks as well as two books of poetry and short fiction: The Way of the Snake and Second Skin. He has been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize.