“ALL RIGHT CAPTAIN Clay, it’s your turn to drink from the bitter cup. You need to weave your peculiar brand of Southern Gothic magic and turn this acerbic cup into a wine that’ll astonish the palate and amaze the mind. You do understand me?”
I’m standing at attention, the only JAG in the Office that’s required to do so. This Yankee colonel has a distinct bias against everything Southern.
The uncouth three-hundred pound polar bear in an Army uniform belches.
“You have the unparalleled good fortune to represent our most infamous client, Corporal Samuel James Wilson. This is a career maker son—or a heart breaker. Your simple task is to save that young soldier from the noose. You understand that, Tulane?”
The Yankee’s a graduate of Yale Law School. How he must despise the very sight of my lily white Southern ass.
Still at attention, I take a deep breath. “Colonel, Sir, if this soldier did desert his unit as charged, if he did provide critical intelligence to the enemy that resulted in the devastating defeat at Camp Oswald, and if he was the consort of General Pham it may be beyond my power to—”
The Colonel comes out of his chair like some great white ICBM launched to bring death and destruction down on me and mine. It’s a frightening sight to behold.
“Do you understand your orders Captain?”
“Captain, do you understand your orders?”
“Yes, Sir. I understand my orders, Sir.”
He clenches and unclenches his paws. He looks at me as if I were a new, odd breed of imbecile. He shakes his head in disgust and points to the case files on his desk. I step forward and pick up the files. I stand at attention.
“Do not fuck this up, Southern Comfort. A man’s life’s at stake here. In the eyes of your Southern God of wrath, Wilson’s worth more than the both of us combined. Understand that.”
I don’t understand that at all. Where did that observation come from? What does it mean?
I escape the Colonel’s office with the disturbing idea that God has somehow found us wanting and favors a Negro deserter, coward and traitor over me.
I WORK BETTER from my quarters than in the office. I start with the pictures in the case file. I let them spill out of their envelopes and folders onto my kitchen table and the floor without order or direction. Some are covered by other pictures. Others are upside down. It doesn’t matter. The important ones will reveal themselves. They always do.
God does not favor the Negro corporal. He’s going to hang. I know that. The Colonel knows that.
I reach down and pick up a picture of a younger, pre-enlistment Wilson. He stands beside a tiny, gray-haired black woman. She’s shooting an ice pick look at me, piercing my eyes, lacerating my heart, stabbing my soul.
I fling the picture away, jump back from the eyes. I’m shaking and short of breath. I leave the picture on the floor. I dash into my bedroom. My shaking hands remove the picture of me and my grandmother from the frame. I take care to avoid looking into her eyes.
I return to the kitchen and use my picture to scoop up that other picture from the floor. I put them both in a manila envelope and seal the envelope with my spit. I hide the envelope under my underwear in my dresser. Still shaken, I retreat to my big comfortable chair; the brandy is warm and wonderful. After the second one I return to the other pictures.
I PICK UP a letter from an Army intelligence captain from the pile. It explains that there was no open case on Pham, but they have some pictures of her that were taken when investigating other bar girls as possible spies. The captain has circled Pham in these pictures.
The picture I pick up is of four bar girls posing in a Negro bar. Two of the girls are ravishing. The third is big breasted with a pretty face, but not in the same league with the other two. I do not need the circle to recognize Pham. She’s tiny, thin, shabbily dressed, poorly presented. She dominates the picture. The girls on either side leave ample distance between themselves and her out of respect. The two girls on Pham’s right look at her to understand how they should behave in this photo. Pham looks straight ahead: sly, intelligent, in control. She’s fearless. I do not try to stare her down. I handle the picture with great care.
Another brandy or two. How could Army Intelligence miss her? She has such presence in the picture! How the fuck could they miss her? A spy? Looking for a spy? Stupid fucks! There she was, the commander of the Home Defense Forces in Ha Binh Province, on display with all that power and authority, and they were looking for spies. I’m shaking with anger and frustration. She has the same kind of presence and power as the two grandmothers in my underwear drawer. How in the world could anyone miss that?
THE KNOCK ON my door takes me by surprise. I check my watch, it’s Seventeen-thirty hours. I have spent the whole day studying two pictures.
THE COLONEL HAS summoned me. He asks me how Wilson is holding up. I confess I’ve not yet visited Wilson.
His voice is kind, his tone mild. “Wilson has the whole weight of the United States Army crushing the life from him. He’s in a hopeless, hapless position. He’s a pariah. He’s alone. He might just appreciate contact with the one person in the whole world who’s obligated by law and morality to defend him.”
The Colonel puts his heavy arm around my shoulder. At that moment I fear for my life at the hands of this mad Colonel. I make it to the stockade in record time.
WILSON IS DARK chocolate brown with perfect white teeth and an athletic build. He’s a handsome man, with a smile that lights up his whole face. I dislike him on sight. No, I disliked him on seeing his picture the first time. No, I disliked him from the first time I heard his name. It’s not just that he’s a Negro. I grew up in the company of Negroes. For the most part, I found them lazy and unreliable. There are exceptions to every rule that prove the rule. He may or may not be the exception. But, I dislike him in a more fundamental way that I find difficult to define.
He takes all this in at a glance. He understands I despise him. He has Southern ways in his blood. We are kin. He still smiles at me and offers me his hand. I’m ashamed of myself. I can see, feel my grandmother turning her scorching gaze on me. It makes me hate him even more.
Introductions over, we sit there in a comfortable silence. We know where we stand. I like it like this. No lies yet. I ask him to tell me his story.
She approached him in a bar. She insulted him. He teased her. Weeks later he saved her from an attack by a Special Forces Sergeant. She was not grateful. He met her again in the company of some of his friends. They spoiled her transaction with a young GI and laughed at her.
He went back to “check on her.” He touched her. They were wed at that touch. They fucked over the next few months as often as they could, until he realized who she was. They fucked one last time after that, while the three Northern Provinces were starting to fall and Camp Oswald was being decimated. Bad, bad timing. She arranged a car to take him back to an Army-controlled area.
They never talked about military issues. She never asked. He never volunteered. They’re not in love. It’s much stronger than love. We leave it at that.
I report back to the Colonel. It’s seven-thirty. He’s still in the office, waiting.
I BELIEVE WILSON, every word. I know he’s going to hang now. The other charges don’t matter. Wilson was having carnal knowledge of Pham at the very moment her troops were devastating Camp Oswald. He’ll hang for that. All four charges against him are hanging charges. Even if I succeed in getting one or two dismissed or reduced, which is highly unlikely, he will still hang. He’ll not lie about his relationship with her. That’ll put the raw rope around his tender neck.
Back in my room, I unseal the two photographs. He’s standing with his grandmother. I know that without asking. He has his arm around her with his hand on her shoulder. She’s uncomfortable with that small show of affection. He knows it. He’s teasing her. She’s annoyed. They’re happy to be with each other. I turn to me and my grandmother. We’re standing side-by-side. We’re not touching. We’re looking straight ahead. I’m uncomfortable around her. I would never, ever dare tease her.
Both grandmothers are bigger than they appear. They dominate the pictures if you look closely. Both old women ignore me. I’m beneath contempt to them. Fuck them. What can I do? His words and deeds will hang him. Fuck them. I seal them in a new envelope. I hide the envelope in my book case.
OUR SECOND SESSION covers life at Camp Oswald. Oswald was our most isolated post with two hundred troops, six Airlift troop-cargo copters and a small Cessna for forward observation. The Provincial Capital of Vimh, a town of several thousand, was less than ten miles from the Camp.
According to the US Army, the 9th Infantry Company was at Oswald to “secure the Province against enemy incursion and to protect the inhabitants from coercion and exploitation by enemy forces.” They carried out their missions with regular patrols and “quick air response to incidents of aggression.”
The Corporal has a different view. He calls Oswald “Happy Camp” because everyone was high or drunk most of the time. Patrols did go out on a regular basis, but only to find a quiet, relatively safe spot to get high or sleep off a previous high. The Happy Camp troops and the insurgents took great pains to avoid each other. Casualties were low and mostly self-inflicted. The Happy Camp troops were very religious. They prayed to the insurgents to let them come back from each patrol and to let Happy Camp survive another day. Camp security was a joke. Why pretend to be secure when there was no way in hell you could keep the enemy out or even tell who the enemy was most of the time?
If you weren’t on patrol or some other assignment you could leave the Camp at will, just be back in time for your next assignment. The rumour was that the insurgents were providing them with the high quality weed, Green Witch. It was pretty much a live and let live arrangement until the Special Forces showed up and actually wanted to “kill some gooks.”
I check it all out. I substantiate each and every one of his claims. The picture is worse than he presented. Happy Camp is place of despair where men have been abandoned to perform an impossible task, hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned by the enemy. Happy Camp exists because the insurgents allow it to exist. Happy Camp is a bad joke played on the men and officers assigned there, and everybody knows it.
I HAVE LUNCH with Corporal Wilson every day. I bring the foods he likes. I pay, but I feel like he’s treating me. I want to hear about him and his grandmother. I want to know if she overpowered him, if she ruled the entire family with an iron fist. I always end up talking about me and my grandmother. After each visit, I swear I’ll not visit him again, but I do. I visit every day. I live for those visits. Am I falling in love with Corporal Wilson or is it something stronger than that?
THE COURT MARTIAL commences. I do the best work of my life. I exceed even my own high opinion of myself. I get the desertion charge dismissed early on, and two other charges dismissed over the next three days. The treason charge stands. The prosecution’s theory is that Wilson told Pham about General Austin’s plans for a “secret” mass sweep of the northern three provinces, thus enabling the enemy to strike at the optimal time, and that by having intercourse during the attack on Camp Oswald, Wilson gave substantial aid and comfort to the enemy. It’s all bullshit. Bullshit that will leave him dangling from a rope.
Tomorrow’s the last day of the court martial. I didn’t think I would get any character witnesses for Wilson. I talked to thirteen men who served with him, and to a man they’re willing to testify on his behalf. Amazing. But he’ll still hang.
I’m in the Colonel’s office. It’s nine P.M. We’re drinking scotch straight up. The Colonel is deep into his cups. “Captain, do you see it now? Do you understand political theater?”
I nod. “I’m out of moves sir. I… I… I’m sorry.” I’m near collapse. This is the hardest I have fought for anything in my entire life.
The Colonel ignores me. “Political theater. We put those tiny little outposts up there so we can claim that we control the Northern Provinces. The American people see the map of our control. It looks like we control most of the damn country.”
“Colonel, is there anything at all we can do now? Anything?”
The Colonel is lost in his world of political theater. “The insurgents play along. Once we claim the area is pacified, we find it difficult to justify major military actions or even reinforcements for our boys. The insurgents can move troops and material through at will. It would be suicide for an outpost to take on the insurgents. Political theater.”
Happy Camp fell so quickly, in part, precisely because General Austen, the Commander of Northern Forces, had implemented that “secret” coordinated mass sweep of the three Northern Provinces, dispersing the troops from four camps and three bases. All these bases and camps fell within a seventy-two hour period.
The sweep was a crazy idea to start with. And it was far from secret. I have shown that in the court martial. It’s not enough. I have established that Corporal Wilson did not know about the attacks at the time he had his last sexual encounter with Colonel Pham. It’s not enough. He was fucking Colonel Tien Pham while his friends were dying. Tomorrow the court martial will end. The death watch will start. The colonel has passed out at his desk.
I stagger home. A small brown box sits on my doorstep. I open it in my kitchen. Pictures. I turn the box over and let the pictures fall to the table. I pick up a picture of General Austen, sharing his bed with a very nude, very gorgeous Asian woman. I recognize her instantly as one of the beauties from the bar picture with Pham. I call the colonel. He tells me to ram that picture up their collective ass.
I get the judge and the prosecutor out of bed. We meet at the judge’s home. The pictures are examined with considerable intensity. Calls are made. Coffee is consumed. Calls are returned. More coffee is consumed. We wait for one call. It comes at six A.M. Corporal Wilson will plead guilty to a lesser charge and do six years with a dishonorable discharge.
I want to run to Wilson and give him the good news, but first…. As soon as I get to my quarters, I take the envelope out of the bookshelf. The grandmothers still ignore me. Fuck them! What more can I do? I toss the pictures on the floor and collapse onto my big living room chair.
I need to see a picture of Wilson and Pham together, now. I dream the picture. She straddles his lap wearing a tight, short skirt. She pulls down his zipper. He rips off her panties. This is not a show of affection… no… no… it’s something else… lust… more than lust… uncompromising need…. I can smell them in heat… disorienting…. I have the absurd belief that the war, the whole war, was just an event to bring these two together.
I wake with a sense of alarm. I race to the stockade. Wilson comes in the interview room looking very somber. I want to give him the good news. I want to give him me. He doesn’t want to listen or talk. He embraces me, thanks me and tells me to go home. He tells me everything will be all right. But he’s not talking about himself. He’s talking about me. There’s nothing wrong with me. I’m safe. I’m almost sound.
THE TWO GRANDMOTHERS smile at me. They look proud. I don’t understand why or what happened. Still, I feel better than I can remember feeling in a long time. Something phenomenal has happened somewhere. Something epic and I have been part of it. I know that. I don’t think saving Corporal Wilson’s life is that event.
I sleep my best sleep in a long time. The last thing I remember is the musky odor of their love making.