ANDREW ATHERTON

DRAFTED by Andrew Atherton

(See Andrew’s photos of Vietnam here.)

PRAISE FOR DRAFTED

“Totally free of the cliches that tarnish so many other books … highly recommend Drafted for those who wish to learn what the majority of us did in Vietnam, the 80 to 90 percent who were in the rear with the beer and the gear … one of the best of the small heap of REMF books that have been written about that part of the Vietnam War.”
– David Willson, Books in Review

A tour de force
- Timothy J. Lomperis, author of Reading the Wind: The Literature of the Vietnam War and The Vietnam War from the Rear Echelon: An Intelligence Officer’s Memoir, 1972-1973

“The best account of a headquarters company at war since James Jones’s The Thin Red Line.”
– Patrick Coffey, author of American Arsenal: A century of Waging War

Andrew Atherton is the pen name of a retired philosophy professor and Vietnam vet. Although he was trained as an infantryman, Atherton was instead assigned as clerk in  a battalion headquarters office while his infantry buddies ended up fighting in the infamous battle for Hamburger Hill. During his off-hours, he wrote vignettes about his experiences. After battling depression upon his return home, he published several of his stories in literary journals and has now combined them into one narrative.

About DRAFTED:

Married for several years and just shy of twenty-six, philosophy student Andrew Atherton receives his draft notice and suddenly finds himself immersed in a military culture for which he is neither well suited nor prepared. After surviving basic and advanced individual training, he is sent to Vietnam as an  infantryman. Instead of humping in the boonies with the 101st, however, he is assigned to be a clerk and ends up editing Bronze Star and Purple Heart recommendations and publishing his battalion’s newspaper. And at night, he goes back to the office to type letters home to his wife and stories—both amusing and disturbing—that reflect his awakening to the heroism and horror, tedium and terror, and the incompetence and banal cruelty of life in a war zone.

Here’s an excerpt:

Turns out I’m not humping in the boonies. I’m not using my infantry training, or guarding truck drivers, or scrambling down tunnels looking for VC or even digging ditches. Instead, I’m pushing paper as a clerk in the headquarters office of the 182nd Engineer Battalion at Cu Chi.

If I’d known five months ago I’d end up wielding white-out behind a desk instead of my M16 behind enemy lines, I would have danced in circles, waved my hands in the air, and lit burnt offerings to every deity I could name. Especially Major Roberts.

When I arrived incountry my MOS was Eleven Bravo, meaning I was trained as an infantryman. What a damned farce that was. I wasn’t even good at pretending to be a grunt in Basic and AIT. I’m not joking. I was fully persuaded I wouldn’t return to the States in one piece, if at all. In fact, before I left, I almost told my wife to find another guy, because if I wasn’t killed in Nam and I woke up in a hospital without an arm or a leg, I’d blow my brains out. I saw half-bodied men in Madigan Army Medical Center when I got pneumonia in AIT, and I swore I’d never come back like that. So stop loving me, I almost told her, and shack up with somebody who’ll stay around for the long haul.

Now I’m glad I didn’t tell her that. Of course I could still get my nuts blown off from a mortar round in Base Camp or a land mine on the road when I’m covering a story, but the percentages are a lot better than humping in the boonies.

For the first couple of weeks, I was assigned to perimeter guard duty on Long Binh Base Camp. That was a holding pattern for me and a bunch of other Eleven Bravos. Then thirty of us got reassigned to the 182nd Engineer Battalion here at Cu Chi. Why? Nobody knows. But not knowing in the Army isn’t unique. Nobody in the Army knows squat about shit. But in this case you can do a little figuring once you know a little more about the way the Army works.

We newbie grunts were parked for seven weeks in the 182nd because some brass-assed tidy-butt wanted to wait until enough men were killed and injured in the 101st Airborne Division so he could assign thirty hunks of fresh meat, clean and neat, without overloading the 101st Airborne Division’s reserves. We were the fresh meat he didn’t want clogging up the books.

Anyway, during our processing into the battalion, a personnel clerk was looking through my records and saw I had a college education. He walked into the processing room where I was sitting with the other don’t-wanna-be grunts.

Now this is how it was. We were scared shitless. We didn’t know what to expect. We were praying to be guards for truck drivers and asphalt pavers. We’d have been happy digging ditches. Anything’s better than humping the boonies.

So this clerk walks up to me all crisp and clean and smelling of Old Spice. “You wanna work in battalion headquarters? You got a college education according to this.” He waved my personnel file in my face.

I looked around at the other Eleven Bravos sitting at the tables where we’d filled out all those forms. They looked at me like I was a can of piss they had to drink.

Their reaction was to hearing I had a college education, not to the question of whether I wanted to be a clerk. Nobody took that question seriously. It was a joke played on naïve cocksuckers who think their fancy degrees entitle them to safe clerical jobs.

The ones lucky enough to get those safe jobs are called Rear Echelon Mother Fuckers by the grunts. REMFs for short. They’re held in high contempt even by the men on road paving crews who are constantly exposed to potential danger. In return, a lot of clerks get mean and cocky with the grunts and paving crew members and any other kind of “field worker.”

So, anyway, the other newbie grunts sat there, disgusted by the clerk’s privileged smell, and waited for me to lunge for the bait to be just like him—but surprise, surprise—I’d be assigned by this mean-assed cocky clerk to clean shit cans every day, even Sundays, and the grunts would laugh themselves silly. So there was only one answer I could give this loud-talking, sweet-smelling jerk that might save me a place at the table.
“Fuck you, asshole. I’m not grabbing no shit end of a stick.”

“No, no, man, this isn’t a joke.”

The clerk edged me over and sat down beside me, his voice low and confidential. “Our battalion awards clerk in S-1 DEROSED last week, and the colonel says we gotta fill this position ASAP. So if you can read and type and maybe write a little, you’ve got the job. You want it or not?”
I didn’t know what an awards clerk did or what “DEROSED” meant or where S-1 was, but I took a chance and whispered, “Yeah, I want it.”
The clerk confirmed his offer by whisking me out of the room and taking me down the hall to S-1, the battalion headquarters office. He introduced me to the other S-1 clerks, as well as to Adjutant Harris and the XO, Major Roberts, who happened to be in the clerical office at the time.

Since that day I’ve made myself invaluable to the adjutant, the major, and the colonel by editing and typing award citations, letters, memos, or anything else they give me. At first I typed word-for-word what they wrote in longhand and then I typed an edited version of my own. I submitted both, but it was my edited version they always selected. Now I just submit the edited version.

Understand, I’m not the only clerk in S-1 who does this for the top brass. The legal clerk is a dickhead, but he’s real brainy and a fast typist, and he edits everything he types, too. Apparently there aren’t many of us around here who can read, write, type, and even think at the same time. So when the brass find guys like us, they send the other men out to be killed and save us so they don’t have to write and type their own letters, legal briefs, and newspapers.

Mind you, I’m not just a run of the mill clerk. I’m also the editor of the battalion newspaper—The Road Paver—except I don’t know shit about paving roads.

That’s why Colonel Hackett likes my articles so much. I’m so ignorant I write only the basics they spoon-feed me, which is what the folks back home like to read when they get their monthly twelve pages of mimeographed propaganda our men—their sons and husbands—mail to them.
Hackett’s no dummy. Once he realized I was doing good work as the new awards clerk, and I asked reasonable questions and could write up the answers, he assigned me as editor of The Road Paver, which hadn’t been published in eight months.

That plum came with another cut to my integrity, what little I had left. Hackett had me standing at his desk in his air-conditioned office when he laid out my options.

“Specialist Atherton, in addition to being awards clerk, you are now the editor and sole reporter of The Road Paver, our battalion newspaper. Congratulations.”

“Thank you, Sir, and I consider it a—”

“But if you’d rather do your shitting over a cat hole you’ve dug in the boonies, then publish anything that says one goddamned negative thing about this battalion or any man in this battalion and you’ll be out in the razor grass with the bloodsuckers faster than you can whistle Dixie while wiping your ass in one of our six-hole shitters.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Good. We understand each other. You’re dismissed.”

He must have scared the shit out of Major Roberts, too. Roberts previews every article I write. I’m always editing something he thinks might be negatively interpreted. We don’t “repair” anything, for example. We “improve” stuff with innovative designs, unless the repairs are needed because of damage caused by the VC. Then I lock and load my adjectives on the VC.

I want to be clear about one thing, though. I’m proud of what the men in my battalion are doing. These guys are working their asses off.
The 182nd paved the Cu Chi airfield and the roads to Trang Bang and Tay Ninh, and now we’re paving fifty klicks from Lai Khe to An Loc in the midst of sniper fire and land mines and ambushes here and there along that goddamned road all day long. We’re talking quality work these men are doing, most times twelve and sometimes sixteen hours a day, and it’s dangerous as all hell. Maybe not as dangerous as being a grunt in the boonies, but it’s a helluva lot more dangerous than what I do, which is sitting on my ass in the battalion headquarters office typing memos, articles, and letters.

Four weeks after I started working in S-1, Jerry Maener, my new buddy in Personnel, strolled over to the office and told me my records no longer stated I was trained as an infantryman. I’m now trained, according to my 201 personnel file, as a clerk/typist.

“You’re shittin’ me! No, wait a minute. Don’t kid me like that. That’s not—”

“Go look for yourself.”

I jogged over to personnel. I asked for my file. All the clerks were grinning but no one said a word. And there it was. “MOS: CLK 71B30.”
Jerry said that “correction”—literally a white-out over-type—took place by unofficial directive from Major Roberts.

Three weeks later an order came down from higher headquarters assigning all Eleven Bravos in our battalion to the 101st Airborne Division, an outfit that’s famous for combat operations. Within two days, the other twenty-nine guys I’d left behind in the processing room that day were humping in the boonies, and I was still here, safe and sound. I even come back in the office late at night and write letters home—typed ones—and write stories for myself like this one. Or polish articles for The Road Paver.

I’m very, very fortunate.

So far.

I say so far just in case my luck turns sour and I’m blown away before I leave this friggin’ country. I’m writing this smack-dab in the middle of 1969. Why is that important? Because we’re still in the jungle and ain’t nobody knows how we’re gettin’ out unless we’re talking about each man’s tour when he shouts out the door of the Silver Bird of Paradise, “I’ll write you sorry bastards as soon as I get home!”

What I’m saying is this: things aren’t going well over here. Don’t make no never mind what the big brass tell the press back home, because we flat out don’t know what the fuck we’re doing.

Nobody has a clue.

Sometimes it’s even hard to remember how I got here.