The medic stood alone in the center of a small landing strip in the midst of a jungle that looked no different to him from any other jungle terrain which he had seen The highest trees were very thin, stuck above the explosion of green growth like so many stick men with great, leafy, umbrellas. The shorter trees no longer amazed him with their number and their thickness, and the vines and creepers at ground level were simply one more obstacle to his movement. A few weeks before this, he had felt a sense of wonder at the sight of this jungle, but those feelings had gone, dying like the songs of the birds just prior to a firefight. He had already sworn he’ d been in this jungle for half an eternity, and thought he had been in hundreds of clearings like this one, but he really had seen fewer than a dozen, having been in this green, third world, and forsaken jungle country no more than a few months.
The medic had come to these small clearings with the Dust-Off choppers to retrieve wounded, and he had also flown or walked into them with the infantry grunts, before they had gotten wounded. He had seen friends and acquaintances and unknown men both wounded and dead in this jungle, and he also helped save the lives of other friends, and of other unknown men.
The medic stood alone now, waiting for yet another Dust-Off. Although he really was not conscious of it he hated his work, hated the green jungle which clouded his vision, and the red mud which ate at his boots and rotted his feet.
He even hated the people for whom his own army was fighting, but most of all, he hated himself, his ability to recognize defeat.
In just a few months of living in the jungle-covered country, he came to understand the futility of his Army’s endeavors, and the limits of his activity within that Army. He knew that he must go on being a medic, until he was badly wounded or killed outright. He felt the depths of his own fear and terror, and knew how that was a small thing compared to the fears of young boys hurt and dying half a world away from their homes. Whenever he heard the cry of Medic, he felt his soul turn all his brave feelings to ice-cold dread. He also knew there was nothing he could do about the military situation, and that he must respond to the human cries, whenever they came.
These thoughts did not bother the medic often, and, if asked, he could not have articulated them. He could never articulate the rage and pain he felt when wounded men didn’t recover, or the feelings of satisfaction he grew to enjoy, when he knew he had killed some of the faceless enemy.
The medic had plenty of opportunity to kill. Combat circumstances were such that he could not always help with the wounded, and he soon found it better to help with the fighting than to be idle and frustrated. Because he learned this well, he earned recognition as a killer medic, a term both affectionate and endearing when used by the grunts A killer was a valuable asset to an infantry squad, and a killer medic was, if not a rarity, at least a welcome addition.
Standing in this particular clearing, the medic was not especially conscious of being a killer, or of his feelings of hatred and useless endeavor. He was very conscious of other feelings. He knew it was not good to have close friends, because he might have to watch them suffer or die. He also knew he needed someone to talk with, someone to confide in, and that this was a necessary part of life. He understood how the infantry respected him, and he enjoyed that respect. He liked and even craved the camaraderie of combat soldiers; they understood his desire for distance and also his need to belong. He reveled in being treated as both a killer and a healer at the same time, feeling rather comfortable in the company of both the educated doctors at the MASH Units, and the proud, efficient killers in the infantry.
He would have laughed at the suggestion that these were morally exclusive worlds, and once, while speaking with the Chaplain, he had pointed at the jungle and claimed that out there was the only God around, that the jungle was the only judge which anyone here needed. He was needed in both worlds and if neither satisfied him, the two together made his time endurable.
His ability not to think of these contradictions made his time in that country more endurable, and allowed him not to worry over questions he could not answer. Standing in the center of the clearing, he waited for the sound of a chopper and kept his mind on more immediate worries. He thought constantly of the wounded men lying at one end of it, and he had a quick, idle thought of the men who had died on this patrol. He wondered about the faceless enemy, and where they had gone, and hoped his capable squad were watching for any signs of a renewed attack. He thought he liked the color blue rather than green, and it occurred to him a light blue jungle might be less menacing than this oppressive green. His mind flashed, for just a moment, on the Captain who was covering his actions, and on the sergeant who had called him suicidal for standing upright in the center of the clearing to call the helicopter. He thought briefly of some way to show the sergeant he was not suicidal, and then wondered whether it really mattered.
These were only quick thoughts, though, and they were gone as quickly as the little monkeys who ran from the noisy firefights. As a medic, he could not explain why he must be there to ensure that the Dust-Off would find them, just as he could not explain his trust in the ability of the squad to protect him. He could never tell the sergeant of his obligations or his self-confidence, when he was doing his job as a medic. He felt that, if attacked, he would survive long enough to evacuate the wounded safely, and if others questioned his sanity on this point, they didn‘t stop his activity.
Standing in the middle of that clearing, the medic finally heard the sounds of the chopper as it rose over a nearby hill. He swung his arm down in a signal to the men, who would pop smoke grenades and prepare for evacuation quickly. He smiled to himself and lit a cigarette, still keeping his rifle at the ready. He felt assured of another successful day as a respected killer and damned fine medic, a necessary adjunct to the war-scarred infantry.
He still did not think of the moral contradictions, or of the futility of seeing the whole war as a sort of window dressing, with no purpose behind it. After returning home he would have more than ten years to think of these things; ten years of trying to understand.
More than ten years later, he would be standing in another clearing, trying desperately to remember what it was he had meant to tell the sergeant about not being suicidal.