Monday, January 15, 2007


[A friend gave me a subscription to The Sun for Christmas. One feature solicits essays from readers on specified topics. The next topic is "Guns". Here's what I came up with.]

Seven-six-one-nine-two-seven. That serial number was stamped on the M16 issued to me in January 1971 at Fire Base Mace in Vietnam. It wasn’t my first M16. I’d had one in basic training at Fort Campbell, Kentucky and another in infantry training at Fort Lewis, Washington but that particular M16A1 rifle, serial number 761927, would be the one I carried into combat, the rifle I would fire at another human being. The others were for practice. This was the real thing.

As a kid I had shot targets with a .22. I wasn’t very good with it but as a red-blooded American male child of the 50's, learning to handle a firearm was part of growing up. My father taught me to regard all firearms as loaded and to always point the barrel toward the ground, two principles I never heard from my Army trainers. My prior experience didn’t do much for my marksmanship, though–I barely qualified, scoring one point above the minimum during basic training. My score may have improved during infantry school but I never qualified for more than the lowest marksmanship badge.

But in January 1971 that didn’t really matter. Mine was only one of about eight or ten M16's in my squad–we also had a M60 machine gun. Four squads made a platoon, three platoons made up Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion 8th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division. We packed immense firepower; my limited marksmanship skills made little difference. That became clear to me in my first “firefight”. I use the term loosely since we took almost no return fire. But we sure poured it out even as our targets melted into the jungle. Our first salvo swept away the small brush in front of us. Our continued fire pruned away larger vegetation while the M60 rounds chewed through small trees. The entire engagement lasted no more than one very long minute and left the air filled with smoke and the smell of cordite. Our follow-up patrol found drops of blood but no other sign of the two individuals who had the misfortune to intersect our path.

Although I did not know it at the time, this was the only time I would fire my rifle in combat. I began firing single shots, aiming each shot as I had been trained. After a few seconds I realized that I had no target. I switched to automatic and held the trigger for long bursts, emptying several magazines before a cease fire was called. Something about shooting at another human being both excited and repulsed me, leaving a psychic wound that has never healed. And I have no doubt that, had the occasion demanded it, I would have fired again and again.

Maybe that’s why 761927 is imprinted on my brain. I know that’s why I didn’t fire a rifle for almost 30 years afterward. When I did shoot again, my targets were tin cans and bottles but in my head there is always a human being in my sights.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very good post. I too remember our father imparting safety principles about firearms. To this day I have never picked up any gun without assuming it was loaded until I checked it myself. And even afterwards I followed our father's guidelines.

Most of my shooting has been tin cans, targets, trap & skeet. Your post reminds me how much fun I had doing this type shooting--and how gulty I felt the very few times I killed an animal--even though it wound up as food.

I hope never to face another person having to make a "trigger" decision. But I also know I could do it in a life or death situation.
Neil (Mark's brother)

6:36 PM  

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