In the Fall of 1968, the Marine Battalion with whom I was serving as an artillery forward observer in Vietnam had been given a relatively quiet assignment during which to collect itself after some intense fighting near the Demilitarized Zone. Our new mission was to provide defense for a helicopter and artillery base at the edge of a broad plain separating the populated coastal area from foothills and mountains.
The base the battalion was securing was on a low hill overlooking the plain. A quarter mile to its front was a smaller hill, slightly lower, but obscuring the view of some of the plain and potentially giving cover to an attacking force. The hill also interfered with part of the mission, which was to deny use of the plain to the enemy. North Vietnamese army units were in the hills beyond the plain. We made it an obstacle to their infiltration of the populated areas. To do that, we had to deny its use to the villages on our side of it as well. It was called a Free Fire Zone. The local people had been warned to stay out of it.
A platoon was given the task of occupying and securing the small hill, and I was assigned with them, not only to provide artillery for defense but also to observe the plain and call artillery fire on any “movement” on it. I was 23, a Second Lieutenant. It was very hot; the landscape was dry and brown. I spent my days scanning the plain through a tripod-mounted telescope, rarely seeing anything. At night, as one of two officers on the hill, I made rounds of the lines, seeing that the Marines on watch were awake and alert, talking in low voices about sounds heard or imagined out in front. Lights moved tantalizingly on the hills on the far side of the plain. There were mosquitoes, lots of them, and our lines could have been detected by the smell of military-issue repellant. It was quiet, except for the occasional firing of the artillery battery on the larger hill behind us.
The platoon was reinforced by various additional weapons and a two-man sniper team. The sniper team consisted of a sniper, with the rank of lance corporal, and a spotter/radio operator. The sniper was an expert marksman and graduate of specialized training. He carried a hunting-style rifle with a telescopic sight. Like other military specialists, he was eager to do what he had trained for, which was to kill individual enemy soldiers from hiding. Also, in the culture of the Marines, especially the privates and lance corporals, the young men in the trenches and on the patrols and manning the ambushes, to be cool was to be Bad, to be Mean, to be a Killer.
The sniper was one of these, and he wanted notches on his rifle stock. The sniper team would go out half a mile or so from our lines into the Free Fire Zone, and there they would find a hidden position from which to observe, and from which to fire if opportunity arose. Most days, they saw nothing.
When the platoon commander was called back to the company, I would become the senior person on the hill. This happened frequently but only during the day, and I felt no additional stress when it did. The likelihood of attack during the day was very slight.
One such day, though, the sniper radio’d. I took the radio. He and his spotter were off on the slope of the higher ground on our side of the plain. He had spotted two people out in the Free Fire Zone. He requested authorization to shoot. Did they appear to be Viet Cong (guerrilla soldiers), I asked. He couldn’t be sure; they were too far away, and Viet Cong don’t wear uniforms anyway. Were they carrying weapons? They were carrying things, but he couldn’t tell what they were. What were they doing? Walking out in the Free Fire Zone.
I suddenly felt a terrible responsibility. How could I be the judge of these two Vietnamese people? I had nothing to go on; I couldn’t see them, and I couldn’t trust the judgment of the sniper. If they were Viet Cong, I had no great reluctance to letting the sniper shoot them. If they were Viet Cong, they knew the risks, they were players in the game of war, and their game was to kill us. But I thought it equally likely that these were just ignorant farmers who didn’t get the word or didn’t understand where they were not to go. I seemed to have three choices: give the sniper permission to fire, deny him permission, or throw the decision back to him. I knew, though, that these were only two. If I did not deny permission, he would kill one or both of those people. He was a sniper, he was a Mean Marine, and he wanted to shoot.
I told him that since he was the only one who could see these two, he would have to judge whether they were Viet Cong or not. If he thought they were enemy soldiers, he had permission to fire. And I knew he would.
He did. He shot them both.
It was not sniper doctrine to go look at the bodies, which were three or four hundred yards away from him. To have done so would have exposed him and his spotter to unnecessary danger. A report went to the company and the battalion that the sniper team had killed two enemy soldiers in the Free Fire Zone, a successful use of their special skill and training.
So I didn’t know, and still don’t know, whether the two were farmers or enemy soldiers. But I knew I had condemned them.
In later years, the question of whether they were farmers or soldiers faded in importance. But my responsibility for their deaths never did.