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“The Killing Zone: My Life in the Vietnam War” by Downs Report

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Updated: May 5th, 2022

The book The Killing Zone by Frederick Downs depicts life troubles and fears experienced by American soldiers in Vietnam. The events described in the book took place at the platoon of Delta One-six. The book is divided into four sections, “the Bridges”, “the Jungle”, “Back to the Bridges” and “North to Tam Ky”. Each of these sections describes the unique experience and war events witnessed by the author. Downs underlines that nothing contributed more to the retreat from meaning in Vietnam than the military strategy (or lack thereof) employed by the United States Armed Forces. Although the average American assigned to combat duty in Southeast Asia was hardly a subtle military tactician, it scarcely required the genius to appreciate the futility in which Downs engaged.

The first section of the book, “the Bridges” begins with events of 8 September 1967 and a description of landing. At the very outset, it was clear to the soldiers that the war in Indochina was not being conducted in terms of the glory myths on which they had been raised. The fundamentally different kind of war that Americans fought in Vietnam is best articulated in two succinct formulations culled from the narratives: “Opposite our naive line stood another line of soldiers, waiting to go home. The soldiers hooted disparaging remarks at us. “It’s a lick, motherfucker!” “You’ll be sorrryyy!” (Downs, p. 16). There are a number of salient features in these descriptions. The most significant is that the war was perceived as formless, without order and purpose, obeying none of the dictates of war logic that a generation of Americans had come to accept as proper and fitting. Rather, the Vietnam War was conducted as a series of “contacts” with the enemy–brief, ferocious, unpredictable–which, the soldiers agree, were pointless.

The second part of the book, “the Judge” depicts life sufferings and real war experienced by soldiers in Vietnam. This perception dramatizes how the Vietnam War defied efforts to subsume it under both the practical and idealistic categories of World War II. Unable to rationalize the brute fact of men killing each other more or less randomly and continuously, the certainties the soldiers brought to the war zone deteriorated. “The range of those guns, within a specified area, the Central Highlands had for a brief moment changed from the jungle it had been for thousands of years into the particular insanity of man” (Downs 100). This confusion provoked the retreat from meaning. The participants viewed the war as shapeless, disjointed, fragmented–a reality wholly other than any they had known or were prepared to meet. The perceptions of the Vietnam War as a separate universe in which the forms of everyday reality are absent are neatly captured in their own descriptions. The narrators point out the formlessness of their war in a variety of ways, each emphasizing the retreat from meaning.

The third part of the book “Back to the Bridges” depicts the fears and horrors of war, emotional and psychological experience of soldiers. “His eyes were wide with excitement and fear. He pointed toward the flooded paddies to the northeast. “Over there,” his voice quivered” (Downs 204). In this section, Downs depicts that most disorienting is their apprehension that the traditional goals of war are absent, as are the standards by which to determine effectiveness. The underlying assumption is that war is inescapably eschatological, deriving its meaning from its outcome. In Vietnam this assumption took the form of an immediately recognizable strategy that was relatively simple to implement: push the enemy back to his point of origin, capture that point of origin, declare yourself triumphant.

The fourth section “North to Tam Ky” gives a detailed description of operations and relations with native populations. “There was some incoming fire when we made the LZ A dink tried to cross the dike last night. These people look innocent enough” (Downs, p. 215). War, in this conception, is a relatively manageable affair of front lines, rear areas, hostile armies, and demarcated campaigns. It is war with plot, plan, and pattern. Soldiers are not traditionally fluent in the language of phenomenological social scientists. Yet soldiers, like all humans, strive to make sense of their experience in accord with the felt needs of their situation. The most basic of those needs is a body of taken-for-granted knowledge that is confirmed by ongoing social activity.

In sum, the author vividly portrays that in Vietnam, the experiences served to disconfirm their previously held assumptions. The formless war did have its own distinctive contours, although those contours became visible only in retrospect. The Vietnam War was perceived as formless because of the discrepancy between the loose form it took and the form the soldiers had been trained to identify and label as such. This unfamiliar form involved two sorts of combat engagements, the “fire-fight” and the “search and destroy” mission, neither of which conformed to WWII battle scenarios. A fire-fight usually occurred as a sudden, unplanned event, the result of an ambush or accident. The essentially sporadic and purposeless nature of the fire-fight gave impetus to the retreat from meaning. It did not take long for the soldiers to realize that the firefights weren’t at all analogous to the heroic charges and decisive confrontations of their fathers’ war. In fact, it quickly became evident that the fire-fight didn’t result in any discernible difference beyond the casualties produced.

Works Cited

Downs, F. The Killing Zone: My Life in the Vietnam War. W. W. Norton, 2003.

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