Illustration by Andy Friedman.
By Nick Turse
This article originally appeared at thenation.com.
Richard Brummett was born into a family of true believers—in Jesus, in war, and in a particular idea of America. He spent his youth at odds with, and trying to live up to, his father, a combat veteran of World War II and a Marine Corps drill instructor. He started down the path to be a Catholic monk, but then enlisted in the Army in 1966, eventually volunteering for service in Vietnam as the United States was rapidly escalating the war there. He was deployed to Southeast Asia in 1967, as a true believer in the US military.
Brummett didn’t speak Vietnamese, and the Vietnamese he met didn’t speak English, so violence became his language of choice. When a Vietnamese woman grabbed at his arm while he was in the process of burning down her village, he responded by slamming the flat side of his .45 caliber pistol into her forehead. That she understood, he thought to himself. Another time, when a group of Vietnamese civilians ignored his shouts to move, Brummett leveled his M-79 at them as if to fire. This time, his platoon sergeant stepped in. “Brummett, don’t you point your weapon at no civilians! What’s the matter with you?” the sergeant scolded. Too many other superiors, however, had no such scruples. His commanding officer, Brummett said, had a penchant for ordering tanks to destroy entire villages. Then there were the beatings and rapes and killings of noncombatants by other men of the unit. Brummett loaded the munitions that killed 13 people for nothing more than running. Maybe they were enemy snipers. Maybe they were just farmers frightened for their lives. In the end, they were dead and Vietnamese, so they were chalked up as enemy “kills.” All of it took a toll; 1968 changed Brummett forever.
“Get off it, Brummett,” said buddies when he later insisted that they were all complicit in the crimes being committed by their unit. He told a visiting Catholic chaplain about it and the priest replied: “These things happen in war.” Brummett soon traded Sunday mass for nights spent numbing himself with alcohol and weed. After loading a white-phosphorus shell—an incendiary tank round—that was fired into a distant village, Brummett recalled that his captain offered his congratulations. “You got arms and legs with that one,” he cheered. Incensed, Brummett grabbed his submachine gun and sat on the turret of his tank staring him down. At that moment, he considered killing his commanding officer.
He didn’t, but two years later, Brummett wrote a letter to Defense Secretary Melvin Laird. He called on the former congressman from Wisconsin to take action against those responsible for the wanton violence he witnessed. Brummett told Laird that his unit
did perform on a regular basis, random murder, rape and pillage upon the Vietnamese civilians in Quang Tin Province…with the full knowledge, consent and participation of our Troop Commander.… These incidents included random shelling of villages with 90mm white phosphorus rounds, machine gunning of civilians who had the misfortune to be near when we hit a mine, torture of prisoners, destroying of food and livestock of the villagers if we deemed they had an excess, and numerous burnings of villages for no apparent reason.
I asked Richard Brummett to reflect on Vietnam, the war and the country, and to tell me a little bit about the year that transformed his life and what came after it.
Richard Brummett: In 1966, I was exempt from the draft, and I traded that exemption in for three years in the US Army. Being a volunteer who tested well, they said I could do pretty much anything I wanted. They asked if I wanted to go to language school in Monterey. I said, “Thanks, but I’d rather have tanks.” After tank school at Fort Knox, I volunteered for Vietnam. Of course, the Army then felt compelled to send me to Germany, where I again volunteered for Vietnam. A couple months later I got my wish, and was on my way to the war. I arrived in Vietnam as a 20-year-old Goldwater Republican. I turned 21 in Vietnam in March 1968.
Nick Turse: You had the “golden ticket.” So many young men were trying get out of military service and, especially, service in Vietnam, but you actively sought out both. Why?
RB: Well, I came from a religious and militaristic family. My mother was more Catholic than the pope, and my father was a Southern redneck and a career marine, a drill instructor at Parris Island [the training facility in South Carolina depicted in Full Metal Jacket]. He and his brothers served in World War II. My father let it be known, throughout my childhood, that I could never be an adequate warrior; that I was a sissy. I guess I had some typical issues about proving myself to my father, but it was a number of Vietnamese who paid the ultimate price of that feud.
NT: And what did you expect out of service in Vietnam?
RB: The attitude I had, which I assumed everyone had, was “Oh, there might be some big battle and just about everyone on both sides would be dead after, but I’d be alive.” That’s how, as a 20-year-old, I viewed the possibility of combat in Vietnam. It didn’t quite work out that way. Although for me personally, it worked out very well. I was bracketed by death. When I arrived in the Fourth Cavalry in July ’67, the first sergeant and troop clerk looked at me really strange. It took a while before someone finally told me that I strongly resembled some guy who just got killed and I was his replacement.
NT: That’s eerie.
RB: Yes, it was very strange and people never quite accepted that we were different people. They used to scold me for things that he did. “You don’t eat apricots out of a C-ration can, they cause land mines, you moron!” I heard this from them, because that’s how my predecessor died.
NT: How’s that?
RB: My predecessor had jumped down into the moving track [an armored personnel carrier or APC] to get some apricots, opened it up and—boom—they hit a landmine and since he was inside the track, he was killed.
NT: That must have been surreal.
RB: Yes, it was. Of course, I got sent to another Cav unit halfway through my tour, and they had no such prejudice or superstition about apricots, which was a relief.
A few weeks after arriving in the 1st Cavalry, I received a letter from the gunner on the tank I had left behind [in the Fourth Cavalry]. The unit had gone into Saigon for the Tet Offensive and was using countryside rules in an urban fight. We rode on the outside of the tank, because we were so afraid of land mines. There were no land mines in city streets, but there were anti-tank guys firing RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] from second-story windows. The soldier, who was sitting where I always sat, got an RPG dead in the chest. I replaced a soldier “killed” by apricots, and the guy who replaced me was killed by an RPG during Tet.
Assigned to Alpha Three Five in the 1-1 Cav, I replaced a guy who had killed himself after a successful battle. Finishing my year in the war in July, I did not even get out of the country before my replacement died. Two land mines—one with an apricot assist—one RPG, and one self-administered .45 to the head. That’s what I meant by bracketed with death.
NT: Did you have a vision in your head about what military service in Vietnam would be like? Did it bear any resemblance to reality?
RB: I thought it would be glorious. I arrived totally on board with the program of the war. But I found that we were mostly committing war crimes in civilian villages.
NT: Was this a gradual realization or did a switch flip for you?
RB: John Guzik III, the gunner in my tank, told me that I was never the same again after witnessing the incident of “the old man in the well.”
NT: When was that, and what was that?
RB: Let’s see, the My Lai massacre was March 16, 1968, so this was March 17, 18, and 19, 1968. Some really bad things happened each day. The first day, a sergeant from the 1st Platoon, A Troop, 1st Squadron, 1st Cavalry cut off a man’s head with a machete and then posed with it, like that classical statue of Perseus with the head of the Gorgon, Medusa. The next day I saw [another sergeant of that same platoon] pick up an old man by the scruff of the neck, drag him over to a well, drop him in, and then drop a hand grenade in the well and then just to make sure, he emptied his .45 [caliber pistol] down the well and into that old man’s body. The following day, that sergeant’s tank hit an enormous land mine—killing nobody, amazingly. Then, once things calmed down, they left my tank and another tank to guard that wreck while the rest of the unit went to the nearby village to kill as much as they could. I could hear the machine guns, but the action was totally out of my sight. However, as we were guarding the wreck, a column of women and girls with their don ganh—bamboo shoulder poles—was streaming past. Then one of our guys—not a kid, a 26-year-old middle-class guy from St. Louis, Missouri—jumps up with a grenade launcher, screaming, yelling, and waving his arms, and then drops two of the girls. So those are three of my worst days. They were quite a shock.
NT: Your friend John Guzik said you were never the same after those three days, but did you see change this in yourself?
RB: No, I couldn’t really see it. Just imagine yourself walking down Fifth Avenue and you see someone get their head chopped off right in front of you, and all the other passers-by acting like nothing’s happening. I just couldn’t believe I had seen that. A lot of these things I didn’t really think about again, consciously, until about six months after I got back.
NT: When you left the field, you had trained your replacement?
RB: Right. The first sergeant told me to train the new guy, Patrick Scognamilio from Brooklyn, New York, to be a tank driver. Well, I told Paddy that this was his lucky day. He’d be riding in these tanks, not in one of the light scout tracks, and he’d survive the war. But 30 hours after I let go of him, he got killed. A soldier on the following track who had been injured by that same explosion was sent to Chu Lai, where I saw him that same day. Later, I spent the summer of 1969 in Europe with the commander of the armored vehicle right behind Scognamilio’s tank. They told me what happened in detail.
The crew on the top of the tank were blown clear by the big explosion. But the driver not so, because he’s inside the hull, and they didn’t recover his body. I go home, and since I’m from New York and Scognamilio was also, I called up his mom in Brooklyn to tell her I was with Paddy just before I left Vietnam. She asked, “Do you know where he is?” The Army had listed him as missing in action. And the story the family had patched together was that their son’s tank was found abandoned in the jungle with engine idling, its crew having wandered off. It wasn’t the case, of course. It had been a violent death in front of the eyes of many other people.
In a couple days, I go down to the Pentagon. I’m still on active duty with seven more months to serve, so I’m in my uniform. I wind my way through many corridors of the Pentagon and come to a kindly major with Scognamilio’s file open on his desk. He said, “All we have is his left hand and his eyeglasses. We don’t even have his dog tags.” And I said, “He’s dead. And you know he’s dead. But his family thinks: tank in jungle, engine running.” I told him: “You’ve got to tell the family, because if you don’t, sir, I will.”
So, there was an Italian funeral in Brooklyn. It was a classic Brooklyn neighborhood. Every house had a flag out. Things were very emotional. Many tears. They buried him in Long Island. There is a tombstone with his name on it, but there’s not much of him there.
So, I’m in college, and in my dreams, I see Scognamilio. It’s like a classic scene out of The Twilight Zone where the protagonist is walking through the fog. The fog clears, and there’s a tank crew working on a track. Scognamilio is beckoning, saying, “Brummett, we need your help. Come on.” And I know what he wants, and it isn’t for me to fix a tank.
In May of 1970 I bought a ticket to Saigon on Pan Am. I managed to get myself accredited as a photojournalist, which gave me the run of the war and, as a noncombatant, a prohibition from touching any weaponry. So I went back to Vietnam between freshman and sophomore years in college.
In July, a chopper dropped me off next to an armored column in the field, A Troop, 1st Squadron, 1st Cavalry, the very same troop in which I had served two years previously. The captain altered their route at my request and the wreck of Alpha Three Five came into view.
When Alpha Three Five detonated that mine, the inverted hull, minus the turret, burned all day and prevented the platoon from retrieving Scognamilio’s body. It had been too dangerous to stay in that area after nightfall, so the platoon moved on.
Scognamilio was still behind the driver’s wheel of that tank. His dog tags were in his bootlaces—where we kept them—so we knew it was him. In addition to Scognamilio, there were fragments of bone all around. So, we gathered them all up. The soldiers I was with dug a deep hole and put it all in there, along with Scognamilio’s dog tags. Since there was a grave on Long Island with his name on it and the family had already had a funeral, I didn’t think it necessary to put them through that again. Neither I nor the US Army captain on the scene made any report that caused difficulty down the line.
NT: Once you buried Patrick, did the dreams stop?
RB: Yes. That must have been what he wanted. He didn’t want to be dragged off to Japan to be made into a dishwasher.
NT: That that was your great fear, right? That the tank would be turned into scrap metal and melted down—Scognamilio’s remains with it. The mission to rescue Scognamilio’s remains aside, what was it like to be back in Vietnam as a civilian?
RB: You would think that a year there would have cured me of it, but I would go back to the same tank unit and ride with them or other tank units in other parts of the country to see what it was like. I got myself accredited with MACV [the US military]. I was the equivalent of a major in the US Army, which was great fun when a warrant officer was bent out of shape because I wouldn’t salute him. I told him, “Sir, I’m a PFC, a proud fucking civilian! I don’t salute anyone under major general.” It was an enlisted man’s dream. I could get away with all kinds of stuff. I was untouchable. And I accidentally became an actual photographer. I knew that you had to get accredited as a journalist. It was the only way any American civilian is going to be allowed to go wandering around the countryside. So, I took pictures and sold some to news organizations and became a photographer. But it was initially my cover story.
NT: What’s it like to cover a war that you’d only just been fighting?
RB: It gave me an outsider’s view. I was kind of a minor celebrity with the enlisted men, because I was one of them just a year before: “You came back here, man? Voluntarily? You’re crazy!” I was. No doubt about it.
NT: What were the reverberations of 1968 in your life, and how did that year end up affecting all that came after?
RB: It definitely was the most significant year of my life. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about Vietnam. When you’re 20 years old and you have such experiences in life, death. I came out of it, but, of course, it changed me. For years, I was a lost, wandering hippie, living in a Volkswagen bus, alone and miserable. But life has gotten better. I met a woman, got married, got a job, and eventually I started going back to Vietnam. From 2006 to 2017, I took 10 month-long trips to the Da Nang area of Vietnam. I saw a whole different Vietnam and met people in a different way than at the point of my gun.
NT: It’s one thing to go back once and to help people out, but it’s another to make a decade-long investment of your time. What kept you going back?
RB: I went back in 2006 to find the name of “the old man in the well” and find, again, the spot where Alpha Three Five blew up and Patrick is buried. I failed to find that site. But then I made this accidental connection with this other village, and saw some small needs that I could fill. So I decided to visit once a year.
NT: Can you compare and contrast your first trip to Vietnam in 1967–68 to your trip in 2006?
RB: Well, you drive into someone’s village with a tank, you’re destroying things. It’s not like there’s a central main street with little side streets. It’s houses set among a copse of trees. Their footpaths are not designed for automobiles, much less tanks. So the people weren’t real happy to see us, to say the least. Just our presence there was bad enough—we’re also screaming and hollering as we’re destroying their food and burning down their homes. So I go back to Vietnam long after the war as a civilian and to anyone under 50 years, I’m Uncle Richard. I go to the village of An Son, and the children run out to greet me, and they’re yelling and jumping up and down.
NT: You’ve stopped going back, due to health issues, but the scholarship fund you set up goes on?
RB: Yes, the Dragoon Scholarship Fund [which funds 55 children to attend school through high school] goes on. Local chapters of veterans’ groups, individual veterans, other folks who hear about it just donate.
NT: You grew up in the shadow of World War II and served in Vietnam. And you lived through the maybe the closest thing this country had, even if only for a few short years, of being at peace. Looking back over your life now, what does it feel like to be almost 20 years into an era of perpetual war?
RB: I feel intense sadness that we’ve gotten the country into this. All these naive 20 year olds, 18 year olds are getting chewed up by these wars and then there is what we’re doing to the people of all these countries and the list gets longer all the time—Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Syria. Who is benefiting from all this agony? I had the naive hope, in the years after Vietnam, that when I died, as a really old guy. the obituary would read that “America’s last combat veteran of any war died today.” Obviously, that’s not going to be the case.
NT: And do you think that Vietnam still holds lessons for us today?
RB: Vietnam definitely holds lessons for us today, and they are the same lessons my parents angrily refused to hear from me in late 1968: It is rather easy to kill. Some men will take greater pleasure in the act than others, but nearly everyone will kill. Another lesson is that if given license by authority, some men will go far beyond simple killing. Others will not.
Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch.com and a fellow at The Nation Institute. An award-winning investigative journalist, he has written for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Nation, and is a contributing writer for The Intercept. His latest book is Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan.