There Was No Rules At All
Stories from Vietnam

Haywood T. "The Kid" Kirkland from Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans (1984)

In an article in the New York Times Magazine on March 24, 1968, reporter Sol Stern observed, "In Vietnam between 1961 and 1964, Negroes accounted for more than 20 percent of Army fatalities, even though they represented only 12.6 percent of Army personnel in Vietnam" and even less in the general U.S. population. "Simply put, the statistics show that the Negro in the army was more likely than his white buddy to be sent to Vietnam in the first place; once there, he was more likely to wind up in a front-line combat unit; and within the combat unit was more likely than the white to be killed or wounded." Black Vietnam vets who were not killed in Vietnam returned from the war to encounter persistent racism and widespread unemployment. Many became openly critical of the war and joined organizations fighting against war and for civil rights. Stern quotes one returned Black veteran from Vietnam as saying, "I would never fight on a foreign shore for America again. . . . The only place I would fight is right here." Here Haywood Kirkland describes the Vietnam war and its aftermath from the standpoint of a Black GI.
—Introduction from Zinn and Arnove's Voices of a People's History of the United States

I got drafted on November 22,1966. I had been working for a book distributor and as a stock boy in some stores coming out of high school. A lot of dudes were trying to do things to get deferments. One of my brothers put some kind of liquid in his eye and said he had an eye problem at the physical. He never went.

I didn't try anything. I knew when I got drafted I was going to Vietnam, no matter what I did. I knew because of the vision I had when I was twelve.

As soon as I hit boot camp in Fort Jackson, South Carolina, they tried to change your total personality. Transform you out of that civilian mentality to a military mind.

Right away they told us not to call them Vietnamese. Call everybody gooks, dinks.

Then they told us when you go over in Vietnam, you gonna be face to face with Charlie, the Viet Cong. They were like animals, or something other than human. They ain't have no regard for life. They'd blow up little babies just to kill one GI. They wouldn't allow you to talk about them as if they were people. They told us they're not to be treated with any type of mercy or apprehension. That's what they engraved into you. That killer instinct. Just go away and do destruction.

Even the chaplains would turn the thing around in the Ten Commandments. They'd say, "Thou shall not murder," instead of "Thou shall not kill." Basically, you had a right to kill, to take and seize territory, or to protect the lives of each other. Our conscience was not to bother us once we engaged in that kind of killing. As long as we didn't murder, it was like the chaplain would give you his blessings. But you knew all of that was murder anyway.

On May 15, 1967, I came into Vietnam as a replacement in the Third Brigade of the Twenty-Fifth Division. The Cacti Green. It was the task-force brigade that went anywhere there was trouble. The division was down in Cu Chi, but we operated all over II Corps and Eye Corps.

At the time I basically had a gung ho attitude about being a soldier. But could I get in the best situation and not get hurt was a legitimate concern of mine. So I checked out that the line companies—ones making all the heavy contact—are the ones who are getting overran. I thought maybe I should avoid that and volunteer for one of these long-range recon patrols. It was a smaller group, and I had an opportunity to share my ideas and help make some decisions. With a line company, you're really just a pin on the map for sure.

The recon unit was basically to search out the enemy and call in air strikes or a larger military force to engage the enemy. Most of our activities was at night. We was hide by day, and out by night.

The politics of the war just had not set in when I got there. They told us not to fire unless fired upon. But once we enter into a village, we literally did anything that we wanted to do. There was no rules at all. I began to see a lot of the politics....

You would see the racialism in the base-camp area. Like rednecks flying rebel flags from their jeeps. I would feel insulted, intimated. The brothers they was calling quote unquote troublemakers, they would send to the fields. A lot of brothers who had supply clerk or cook MOS [Military Occupational Specialties] when they came over ended up in the field. And when the brothers who was shot came out of the field, most of them got the jobs burning sh-- in these 50-gallon drums. Most of the white dudes got jobs as supply clerks or in the mess hall.

So we began to talk to each other, close our ranks, and be more organized amongst ourselves to deal with some of this stuff. The ones like me from the field would tell the brothers in base camp, "Look man, you know how to use grenades. If you run into any problems, throw a grenade in their hootch."

When I came home, I really got upset about the way my peers would relate to me. They called me a crazy n----- for going to the war. And I was still dealing with Vietnam in my head.

Well, they sent me to Fort Carson in Colorado to do the six months I had left. I really didn't want to give no more of myself to the Army. So I played crazy.

I told people I ain't know what rank I was. I told them I was busted in Vietnam. I didn't wear no emblems. I was a buck private. I don't know where the papers at.

They made me cut my bush. What I did, I did not get another size hat. So the hat was falling all over my eyes.

Then I convinced the doctor that my feet was bad. I had jungle rot. I couldn't run, couldn't stand for a long time. I couldn't wear boots. All I could do was wear these Ho Chi Minh sandals I had.

And I would fall out in formation in my sandals, my big hat, and my shades. I rode them right to the point they was about ready to kick me out of the military.

Then on my twenty-first birthday they said they was going to the Democratic convention. Our unit was going to Chicago to be the riot squadron. I told them I'm not going there holding no weapon in front of my brothers and sisters. The captain said, "Kirkland, you going to Chicago if I have to carry you myself." But I went to the doctor and told him I had a relapse of malaria. He said he couldn't really tell me anything. I would have to stay in the hospital for the weekend. He thought he was getting me. I said, "That's fine."

I was successful playing crazy. I got an honorable discharge. Because I was a veteran with medals and an honorable discharge, Washington city had a job offer for me. The police force or the post office. The police force had too much military connected to it. My whole thing was to get the military out of my system. I chose the post office. Basically I was sitting on a stool sorting mail. Stuffing mail, sorting mail, do it faster. The supervisors were like the first sergeants. Six months later I resigned. I just got tired of it.

I was also enrolled in a computer-operations school. They fulfilled out none of their promises. It was a $2,200 rip-off of the VA [Veterans' Administration] money I got for school. They folded at the graduation of my class.

Well, I was getting more of a revolutionary, militant attitude. It had begun when I started talking with friends before leaving 'Nam about being a pan of the struggle of black people. About contributing in the world since Vietnam was doing nothin' for black people. They killed Dr. [Martin Luther] King just before I came home. I felt used.

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