The guy in the bar claimed he worked for the CIA north of the DMZ during the war (for me the war is forever Viet Nam) as an assassin targeting high ranking Viet Cong. It may have been true. I was never sure. He worked for me tenuously, marketing a charter boat I was running out of Monterey. For several weeks after I fired him I carried a knife and kept clear of the shadows.
The truly deadly men I’ve known were unrecognizable. They looked like the guys I surfed with at Rincon and Ventura County Line or the kindly uncle with a Jerry Colonna mustache. They were decent, reasonable sort of men; one of them was in the crowd when Jane Fonda paraded down the streets of Hanoi. He was waiting for the order to pull the trigger.
The kid I roomed with in San Diego was blond, freckled, and quick to smile. He didn’t seem haunted by what he had done nor especially proud. If I persisted, he would tell about traveling up the Mekong in a rubber boat to the headquarters of a VC regiment, stealing into a hooch where the officers slept on a bamboo floor, murdering the one in the middle without waking those on either side, and leaving the ace of spades as a calling card. PsyOps they called it. It was supposed to have a more demoralizing effect than a simple body count.
My commanding officer in the 621st Nuclear Artillery Battalion was a lanky, six foot guy named Lt. Bean. In country he had been a LRRP (Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol.) They were called lurps and they were deadly. Supposedly every dead lurp cost the enemy 400 of their own dead.
As a lurp Bean would dress in black pajamas and bamboo hat and spend weeks at a time in North Vietnam. His job was reconnaissance, ambush, and assassination. He was very good at it, so good they gave him a battlefield commission.
What surprises me most is how ordinary these men appeared, and how dangerous they were in reality. They seemed to have transitioned effortless from killing as an occupation. I don’t know if they were haunted by nightmares. If so, I suspect they dreamed more of the death of their friends than of their enemies.
Perhaps that is one measure of what we are and the discrepancy between what we wish to become.