The Hippie Lieutenant


Seymour M. Hersh | Substack – TRANSCEND Media Service

US troops of the 23rd (Americal) Infantry Division ford a river about 11 miles west of Chu Lai in South Vietnam in August 1971. Photo via Getty Images

One soldier’s unsparing vision of life and combat in the Vietnam War

31 Aug 2023 – My dispatch of last week about General Tony Taguba, Abu Ghraib prison, and the perils of telling the truth led to more responses than usual, including an extraordinary unpublished manuscript from reader Anthony St. John. A bright and patriotic graduate of St. Bonaventure University in upstate New York, he believed in America and the need to fight communism in South Vietnam. He was in the Army ROTC as a college student, and after a year of officer training he entered the Army as a second lieutenant.

He ended his tour in mid-1968 as a first lieutenant in combat with the Americal Division—by far the least desirable assignment in that war and the division with the lowest morale. It was a company in the Americal Division that committed the My Lai massacre of up to five hundred peasants in March 1968. It was a horror I exposed as a young journalist eighteen months later. St. John knew nothing of that horror, but his manuscript, entitled The Hippie Lieutenant, tells the truth when it comes to the day-to-day life of the grunts, the young men who were drafted or volunteered for combat. St. John, who now lives outside of Florence in Italy, where he teaches English, has a lot to say about the lack of integrity, as he saw it, in the officer corps, but the book is at its best in depicting life for the GIs in the triple canopy jungles of South Vietnam.

Here, with the author’s permission, is an excerpt:


At three o’clock in the morning on a moonlit November 1967 day, Bravo Company and I were chest high in the turbid waters of an irrigation ditch adjacent to a rice paddy somewhere near the Cambodian border. We had been called to (Saddle up!) in the middle of the night because the S-3, our infantry battalion’s operations officer, had received an “intelligence” report indicating a massive enemy build-up some ten kilometers from our night position. With the moans and groans of one hundred and twenty men chewing and biting as if with toothless gums, the unit proceeded cautiously, but noisily, along the way and slushed through the long, narrow excavation’s soft mud.

To the right were acres and acres of rice paddies, and to the left a thick curtain of seemingly impenetrable jungle. The moon’s reflected light bounced off rice paddy waters, the sometimes sheeny leaves of jungle underbrush, and the shiny wet necks and hands of the men who marched disgustedly through the night. FTA. Some men kept their weapons and ammunition above their heads to keep their fire-fight equipment dry; most didn’t care and permitted their offensive instruments to sink, along with tired arms, into the roily waters.

It was not too long before the leeches made their climb up legs to crotches and backs of the weary and disgruntled grunts. There was no way to remove them—yet. Waterproof matches could not be lighted because they could reveal the company’s position; and, scorching insect repellent could not be applied in the gloomy waters.

Suddenly, overpowering fright gripped the entire company as men made futile efforts to pick off the hangers-on whose suckers had embedded themselves in thighs, calves, shoulders, and even the sensitive skin of the scrotum. The unit was out of control. It was in an uproar. It was terrorized. Snakes had also been spotted in the marshy waterway. Some men jumped out of the water onto the slimy, tree-rooted ground bordering the left side of the irrigation canal. They discarded their weapons and ran bewildered into the nearby thickets where they ripped off fatigue shirts, then boots, then pants, and culled away at bloodsuckers with knives, mosquito repellent, and the butts of cigarettes which had been set aflame against regulations and common sense, all the while warning the stealthy scouts of a North Vietnam Army regiment, bedded down from the grunts versus leeches melee.

Against the company commanders’ wishes and orders—he could go take a flying f******o—the men continued the march refusing to reenter the trench filled with water that reached up to their necks. Instead, they groped along the muddied, wet banks making occasional falls into the water when they lost their grips on the roots of the trees adjacent to the banks of the narrow canal. Progress was severely impeded, and before long, the S-3 radioed his impatience and threat of relief from command if the company’s CO did not get to his objective posthaste. I actually felt sorry for the CO, but I remained content with the notion that I had not been in command.

The CO could do nothing to speed the men up. He knew their tempers were very labile, and keeping himself as less authoritarian as he should have been, he did nothing to stir them into action which might have caused further panic and perhaps insurrection. He was thinking, thank goodness. He knew he had a simmering case of mass hysteria on his hands, and the delicacy of the predicament plus the irritated stance taken by the S-3, kept the infantry commander in a worried state as he expected the worst from his undisciplined, scared-to-death men.

More terror came. The early morning—illumination was nearly nil—was made for hallucinating. Strange visions were imagined by many of the exhausted men who cared to look deep within the forest to see things that had no reality. The moonlight and jungle thickets conspired to produce eerie delusions. One man mistook a water buffalo for an enemy soldier, but when he raised his dripping wet rifle to shoot at it, the weapon failed to function. The men were haggard and petulant. Desperate screams and falls from the banks into the irrigation ditch made the event pathetic, outlandish.

Relief came finally around dawn when the long watercourse, that had been such a bothersome obstruction during two long, gruesome hours, ended, and the men—surveying, at the break of dawn, their leech bites and bloodied skin and clothes—laid exhausted on the ground and exchanged shameful expressions. Breakfast was being prepared by most of the grunts, while some tried to dry weapons and other essential equipment in a vain attempt to regain their soldierly equanimity which for the past two hours had degenerated to its lowest level. The CO was depressed, wordless. He knew his “men” were not really soldiers at all—just scared youth. He knew his men would be useless in any enemy contact. He knew there was something very wrong.

[The next morning, the men, exhausted by the leech attack, awoke to the sound of a sudden volley of artillery in the distance. The company was ordered to make an immediate march in support of fellow Americans under attack.]

In the chaos, the men of Bravo Company wished they were in an irrigation ditch pulling leeches off. They watched the Charlie company bodies being brought in and placed with Graves’ Registration. They watched groups of fresh troops receive orders from colonels and majors, and then be sent out into the surrounding mountains to charge up their sides to meet the enemy. They watched Marines react with efficiency and professionalism in a manner they could only have dreamt about. They listened to artillery batteries swish volleys over their heads onto the attacking enemy positions and, very likely, unto American GIs. They looked to gray clouds in the skies and prepared for the late afternoon deluge. They watched the engineers lay sheet upon sheet of metal on the scraped surface of the runway that had been cleared away minutes ago. They filled gray sandbags with mounds of reddish dirt, and they took part in the building process of a modern war center at the foothills of the mountains that bordered Cambodia and Laos.

They watched Chinook helicopters land with wounded men. They watched men on stretchers cup their hands with the intestines that were oozing out of their guts. They watched men who had no faces. They watched men who had no arms, no legs. They watched men who would never walk again because their spines were cracked with bullets. They watched men with napalm burns. They watched men walk into first aid tents carrying their own bottles of saline solution. They watched men with their brains blown out. They watched men whose eyes were wrapped with bloody gauze. They watched and they watched and they watched all the while filling sandbags, all the while confused by shame for not meeting up with Charlie company, and relief for not having to have been caught up in the ugly fray of a battle.

They recorded images which would make them feel disenfranchised from their very own country because they now realized they had been exploited to further the causes of injustice and unethicalness. They recorded images which would be scoffed at by political leaders after the “war” when it would become fashionable to look at Vietnam as a “diplomatic, militaristic” mistake to be forgotten so the economic and military frames of reference might lumber on uninterrupted. They recorded images which would be laughed at by their fellow countrymen and women who had always disregarded the facts about World I, World War II, the Korean War, and now were looking forever to cancel Vietnam from their superegos.

They recorded images which would cause them so much agony and suffering that psychiatrists would term their behavior a syndrome, the post-Vietnam syndrome, PVS for psychiatric registration forms, and men, desperately reacting against the horrors of Vietnam, and the hopelessness of their own people, would be codified by national mental health experts so that they could join other post-war syndromic veterans who were allaying—in drunken stupors in Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion beer halls—the post-World War I Syndrome, the post-World War II Syndrome, and the post-Korean War Syndrome.

They recorded images which would later cause them to glue themselves to whatever negative issues they could cook up about their country, and they sank deeper into the mire of letdown and nihilism that would later spread further and further through all segments of American society that looked not to face the realities of Vietnam, but, rather, looked to try to blot out an awkward national error that had taken away a great deal of the prestige the United States had before had in the eyes of other nations. They recorded images which would act as a cancer and continue to eat away at the fortitude of a once vital nation that comprises not even 5% of the world’s population, but a far greater percentage of that worlds wealth.


Seymour M. Hersh’s investigative journalism and publishing awards include one Pulitzer Prize, five George Polk Awards, two National Magazine Awards, and more than a dozen other prizes for investigative reporting. Hersh won a National Magazine Award for Public Interest for his 2003 articles “Lunch with the Chairman,” “Selective Intelligence,” and “The Stovepipe.” In 2004 he exposed the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in a series of pieces; in 2005, he again received a National Magazine Award for Public Interest, an Overseas Press Club award, the National Press Foundation’s Kiplinger Distinguished Contributions to Journalism award, and his fifth George Polk Award, making him that award’s most honored laureate. He lives in Washington DC.

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