If I were writing Incident at Muc Wa today, I'd start on the spot, in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam. Books were more leisurely in the 1960s, so I began at the beginning, before the excitement builds. I didn't envision a time when the "Look Inside" preview on Amazon would allow a reader to decide in the opening paragraphs whether to buy the book or not. So here I am, with a secondary character in a secondary location, in a chapter that doesn't get to the point until the very last paragraph: “I wonder what it’s like over there. I wonder what it’s really like.”

1 Fort Bragg

COULD YOU DIRECT ME to the Raider School?” Rebecca asked.

“You want the Covert Warfare Center, Miss,” the gate guard told her, trying to look down the front of her dress.

“Covert Warfare? Where’s that?”

“Just follow the signs, Miss.”

Rebecca returned to her Volkswagen Beetle. She was a sweet little body, as she well knew, and the gate guard stared after her while she drove the car into the sprawling, sandy reaches of Fort Bragg. She saw him in the rear-view mirror, leaning so far into the roadway that he almost fell out of the guardhouse. I am Mata Hari, she thought. I drive men wild and steal their secrets, the fools.

Rebecca was a reporter for the Chapel Hill Observer, and also a stringer for The Nation, although that prestigious, low-paying magazine had yet to publish any of her articles. The arrangement was likely to continue, however. Rebecca was interested in The Nation because it was prestigious, and the editor was interested in her because she was happy to work for little or nothing. She was twenty-three, and one year out of college, and her father owned a Cadillac Oldsmobile dealership.

It was a bright day, and North Carolina was heavy with spring. As Rebecca drove along, following the signs that directed her toward the Covert Warfare Center, she passed bayonet ranges and assault courses where perfectly nice, ordinary young men were learning how to kill one another. They made barking noises while they plunged their bayonets into sawdust-filled dummies. Drill sergeants in broad-brimmed hats were urging them on. The cries reached Rebecca over the hum of the engine: “BLOOD! KILL! AARGH!” Rebecca felt close to tears. She wanted to wheel the Volkswagen around, drive home, and never come near Fort Bragg again. But she didn’t. You have a job to do, Mata Hari, she told herself.

Rebecca’s reasons for doing anything were generally complex. She had entered Fort Bragg on her press card from the Chapel Hill Observer, intending, if she could see enough and hear enough, to write an article for The Nation. But what she really wanted to do was make her peace with Private First Class Stephen Courcey, whose shins she had kicked the last time they met.

Yes. She’d been sitting happily in jail, soaking up material for an article about the treatment of civil-rights marchers, when the steel door swung open and there was Stephen Courcey, in a policeman’s uniform that didn’t belong to him, saying in a Southern drawl that didn’t belong to him either: “Yawl go home now, hear?” Thinking she would be terribly pleased. Hah! She had kicked him, first in the right shin, then in the left. Then, while he was doubled over with surprise and pain, she had pounded his ugly, marvelous face with her fists. Yes. Damn him. But now she was ready to make her peace with him.

I’ll seduce him if I have to, she thought. He wants to devote himself to something; very well, he can devote himself to me.... Kiss me, fool!

Rebecca wriggled her tail in the bucket seat. Except that Stephen had never been backward about kissing her. Such nice lips, too. And gentle, powerful hands. Oh, I should have gone the distance with him, that time on the Cape, she thought. He would have been wonderful, I know. But of course I was engaged to be married, so it wouldn’t have been right. He’ll be glad he waited. I’ll make him glad he waited.

She glowed like brandy in front of an open fire.

Rebecca had just been jilted by her fiance, who worked for a publishing house in New York City, and who had been responsible for introducing her to Carey McWilliams, editor of The Nation. Now Robert planned to marry a blonde, empty-headed, gentile bitch who would make him miserable, which would serve him exactly right. Rebecca didn’t care. Not really. She was delighted, in fact, because now she could give herself in good conscience to Stephen Courcey.

Such were her reasons for visiting Fort Bragg that day in spring, 1964, ten years after the French had been gallantly and thoroughly whipped in Vietnam, and less than a year before American combat troops were committed to that same interminable war.

After half an hour of driving across sandy hills and through groves of great, long-needled pines, Rebecca came upon a tall board fence that seemed to stretch for miles. The fence was about twelve feet high. There was a small door facing the roadway, and upon this door was a sign:


Property of the Raider School


Do Not Enter

From inside the fence came the sound of gunfire and strange, birdlike cries.

Well done, Mata Hari! Rebecca parked the Volkswagen on the grass strip between the road and the fence. This was much better than going to the Covert Warfare Center, where she would be faced with a lot of surly questions. In her year as a reporter Rebecca had learned that the good people were never to be found in front offices. Humming contentedly, she walked to the door and opened it.

Good heavens!

She was standing at the edge of a primitive village, with bamboo huts set high on stilts, and pigs, chickens, and half-naked men running about. The men were shouting and firing rifles into the air. Most of them were very small and very Oriental, but there were a few Americans among them. The Americans ran more slowly, shouted less, and generally did not seem to be enjoying themselves, perhaps because they were wearing boots. The Orientals were barefoot. Apart from that, they were all dressed alike, in olive-green waistcloths that came down to their knees. Each man was also carrying a cartridge belt, slung across his chest or buckled over his waistcloth.

Rebecca strolled uncertainly through the village, hoping to find Stephen Courcey in this mad carnival. A pig trotted up to her, grunting curiously. But none of the soldiers – she assumed they were soldiers – seemed to notice her.

The village, she found, was backed up against the board fence on only one side. The other three sides were fashioned from barbed wire and bamboo stakes. Beyond the village, but still inside the board fence, soldiers in green uniforms were advancing through the pines. They were shouting and firing rifles, too, but in a more orderly way.

“Hey!” cried a voice at Rebecca’s feet. “Watch it, huh?” She jumped back: she had almost stepped through a bamboo grill. There were other grills nearby, each covering a hole in the ground, and weighted at the corners with rocks. Rebecca knelt to peer into the hole from which the voice had come.

“Hello there,” she said.

“Yeah,” the voice said. It belonged to a marvelous truck-driver type, paunchy, his face creased and battered. He was wearing a green fatigue uniform like the soldiers who were attacking the village. Too big for the pit, he was lying with his knees drawn up and his head propped at an uncomfortable angle against the far side. This gave him a perfect vantage point for staring up Rebecca’s skirt, which he did with honest fascination. She tried to pull the skirt over her knees, but it was too short, so she hugged them with her arms instead. “You got a cigarette, lady?” the soldier asked. “Them damn gooks took mine.”

continued in part 2