For hours after reading The Killing Zone, I had that sick, twisted, slightly nauseous feeling in my stomach. It’s just one of those books that stick with you, at the edge of your consciousness, for days or even months after reading it.
The Killing Zone is the autobiographical story of Lieutenant Downs from Sept 1967, when he arrives ‘in-country’ green as can be, to Jan 1968 when he leaves missing one arm and so much muscle from the rest of his body after the detonation of a booby-trap, a ‘Hopping Betty’ mine, that it’s a wonder he survived. This story covers the days he spent guarding a bridge, leading attacks, fighting through the jungle, an ambush, and the bomb with his name on it.
“There’s always someone out there keeping a bullet with your name on it.
The secret is to die of old age before they get a chance to use it.” – Firefly
I came away with several different sensations during and after reading this book. First, it’s hard to believe it covers only about five months in Downs’ life in total. I kept flipping back to the beginning to make sure I was reading the dates right. I just couldn’t comprehend how much these men endured in so short a space of time. It was unrelenting. It felt like enough action, killing, and horror for lifetimes, not days and weeks.
Second, I was angered by how stupidly the war was managed, how mentally difficult that made it on our boys over there compared to WWII. War is bad enough when it’s handled moderately competently. It’s damning when it’s handled poorly. To fight and fall back, fight and fall back, never gaining ground, never winning, just bleeding out men is horrible. It psychologically presses down on men trained to win. They are not trained to lose. Forcing them to lose puts them in a position of constant contradiction.
Third, our boys are amazing. Blown to pieces, Downs, more than ten years younger than me, didn’t scream and yell. He made sure his men were taken care of while he waited for the dustoff. He saw to them and felt like a failure for leaving them even when his own Sergeants were throwing up just looking at him.
Downs was a real hero. When he got home, healed up and went to college, someone told him it served him right to lose his arm in Vietnam. How shameful to tell a soldier he got what he deserved for obeying orders, working to save the lives of his men as best he could, and then returning home to become a productive member of society. Our warriors are some of our strongest as well as weakest members of society. They fight in our wars, serve as our police men, spill their blood, and watch those around them die. After all that, they jump back in to do it again. When they come back to us it is surreal to them the things we worry about, the safe life we live. We need to do what we can to protect and help these soldiers coming home.
Do you know how infuriating it is to think about the Vietnam men coming home to the kind of abuse they did? Their fathers came home from WWII heroes. Many of them went on to build American into a great nation. The boys who came home from Vietnam already dealt with the psychological effects of losing the war. We added to that. They were disrespected, taunted, accused of murder and seen as all that was the worst about our nation. Downs was a kid who risked his own life in an ambush to save one of his men who had been blinded by a head wound and couldn’t get back to safety. Here was a man who obeyed orders, fought in a hot stinking jungle, tried to justify and think through the war, protected his men and then came home and got told he deserved to lose a limb. Can you tell it gets the blood boiling?
Needless to say, this book was a great follow-up to We Were Soldiers Once and Young and With the Old Breed. It took me to Vietnam in a very visceral way which is still twisting my guts. War is gross, sick, and dehumanizing. But, I’m forever thankful for men like Frederick Downs who served.
Sir, if you ever read this, thank you for being a great American hero.
Writing Effects: Visualizing and sensing the bloody gore that is war will help make my own battles better and help me value the lives of my enemies and heroes. I have my heroes attacked by groups of mercenaries in the Inheritance series. In my mind, though they are men, they’re nameless, soulless creatures. My focus is all on my heroes winning and losing the battles, not the men they kill. After reading The Killing Zone, I’m determined to make the mercenaries more human, make them real people. I’m determined to capture how killing another man, when you are forced to choose between his life and yours, is not always easy. I’m determined to show that when it is easy, there are still lots of psychological effects to the soul when you kill. I think a book like The Killing Zone helps a writer develop realistic reactions to the situations they put their characters in if you write warrior stories like I do.
“This is how it will always end, I thought. Men being killed in the jungle, other men dragging their bodies out, putting them on choppers, and the rest of us going back to the fighting. When they left on the chopper, it was as if they had never been. Man’s beginning and man’s end would always be attended by only a few. Those that bore him at birth and those that bore him at death. The only important thing was what he did in between. Good or bad or indifferent, he would touch those around him in some way and then be gone.” – The Killing Zone by Frederick Downs