Fifty years ago last Friday, I stood over my friend and West Point classmate, Mike Snell, moments after he died. I wish I could write that it was a dramatic and memorable event, but it wasn’t. He just lay there in a pool of his own blood and stared at me with glassy, empty eyes.
Mike and I shared a fondness for disobedience at West Point. In the 1960s, many of us smuggled an occasional beer into the barracks. But Mike and I too often got caught, so we bonded while walking punishment tours. Mike was an easygoing guy with a Texas accent and a cynical sense of humor. He tolerated West Point discipline because, like me, he wanted to go to war and lead soldiers.
He got his chance — twice. His back-to-back tours of duty in the 101st Airborne Division came as a result of too many beers and driving his Corvette too fast around Fort Campbell, Ky. The division commander gave him a choice: face official punishment or “volunteer” for a second tour. He chose option two.
When we met again in 1969, I was commanding an artillery battery on Firebase Berchtesgaden, a scorched, red-clay scar on top of a mountain in South Vietnam overlooking Hamburger Hill. I had gotten the job after my predecessor, Capt. Milt Freeman, and 50 of his men were killed or seriously wounded on a neighboring firebase. By June 1969, we were down to 55 men and only four of our original six guns.
Mike strolled into my position carrying an artillery fuze canister full of ice and Olympia beer. For the record, beer was forbidden on Berchtesgaden. It was like old times. It was an off day for the North Vietnamese. We drank all afternoon. In the early evening, Mike and I shook hands and he wobbled back to his unit, a series of bunkers clustered on the other side of the helipad.
Five hours later, after midnight on June 14, our North Vietnamese friends visited us again. They came in full fury, perhaps 500 fighters, and rampaged through a hail of their own mortar and rocket fire. Nineteen of my men were dead or seriously wounded. A month earlier, my unit had been 105 strong. On this morning 50 years ago, we were down to 29.
The sun was just beginning to break through the haze of burning after-battle refuse as I watched my driver, Spec. 4 Ruben Urdialez, speak to a friend from Mike’s unit. He crawled over to me and whispered: “Sir, you know that captain you were with last night? Well, I think he’s dead.” That was the last time Ruben and I spoke. Later that morning I saw him being taken away in a body bag.
I reached Mike’s bunker within a few seconds. I learned afterward that he had stepped out of the safety of his bunker to have a smoke. A 60mm mortar shell landed at his feet. He died instantly. All I knew to do was cross his hands across his shell-torn chest. I stood for a moment saying nothing. Then I turned back to my unit. It’s hard for those who have not seen war to understand how combat and the occasional terror induced by violent death bond men together. But that boozy afternoon formed a moment in my life that will live as long as I do. In the moment, I loved that man. I still do.
What do I make of this 50 years on? Several things come to mind. A month after the night of horrors, we listened on Armed Forces Radio as Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. I remember the sense of incongruity. Mike was killed by a $20, four-pound piece of cast steel exploding at his feet while the most scientifically accomplished country on Earth was preparing to rocket a man to the moon. Little has changed. Today, the president’s budget contains hundreds of billions for missiles, fighter jets, satellites and exotic electronics. But most Americans who die at the hands of the enemy die from cheap things such as mortars, IEDs and AK-47s. Perhaps we should do more to shield those in harm’s way from death by cheap things.
My father’s generation died in the hundreds of thousands in World War II. We died in the tens of thousands. Today, four soldiers dead in Niger makes national news. I hope we haven’t gotten too used to death in small numbers. I fear that after decades of low-cost wars, our national security gurus speak too loosely about conflict with Russia and China. Wars fought in the shadow of nuclear clouds would make past sacrifices pale into insignificance.
My experience in Vietnam was repeated many times by West Point classmates far braver than me. Our class of 1966 suffered more deaths than any other in that war.
Today, as old men, we remain a unique band of brothers and occasionally reminisce about our war. We all sincerely hope that those who send today’s and tomorrow’s soldiers into battle will listen — and comprehend the tragic cost of combat.
Robert H. Scales, a retired Army major general, is a former commandant of the U.S. Army War College.