Romeo and Juliet for Real

by Richard Dieterle

JUNE _, 1967 — Early in my tenure in Vietnam, our company went on a "sweep" through a village accompanied by a group of ARVN's. Their role was to discover just how much enemy activity in the region was centered on this village. I say "village," when "town" might be more appropriate. Unlike the villages of thatched huts we routinely encountered, this town had a number of small buildings with stucco finishes, a reflection of wealth not too often encountered in the countryside. The ARVN's were just ahead of 1st Platoon, which was acting as the point element of the company. The man directly in front of me was Joseph Archuleta, without doubt the most respected man in the company.

 
Joe Archuleta  

Archuleta was the company interpreter. He had learned Vietnamese at the in-country Language School at LZ English. He not only excelled everyone by far at the school, but continued to pick up the language at an impressive rate, until he was reasonably fluent. He had been drafted when he was only about 5 units short of getting a degree from the University of New Mexico. He was, I believe, part Scotch or Irish, as he had orange hair and freckles, and his pale skin contrasted with his rather mestizo features. He certainly could have been an officer had he wanted to take the trouble. In character he was the noblest man I had ever met. He was well versed in Spanish philosophy and could play the Spanish guitar with impressive skill. One evening back at LZ English, he had somehow gotten hold of a guitar, and played Spanish music for about an hour. Most of us had smoked some weed (he himself never touched the stuff), and I found it the best concert I ever attended, even though it was held inside the dirt floors of a sand-bagged bunker. He was a classic Gentleman. He more than anyone saved the honor of our company. Judging from what others have said about their Vietnam experiences, many units committed war crimes with an unsavory frequency, a charge that could not be laid against our company. Why? Archuleta was the man who gave a voice to the Vietnamese. Our men would approach him and say, "Ask this guy ..." and give Archuleta a question to pose to their Vietnamese interlocutor. Then he would translate the response back to us. So people were able to communicate with the Vietnamese whenever Archuleta was present. This may seem inconsequential, but the chief culprit in war crimes is dehumanization. If the enemy are inscrutable aliens they might as well be from Mars. By changing them from the Borg into real people with opinions and passions, it became very difficult to think that their lives had no value, let alone negative value. We could not acquire the mind-set that it meant nothing to shoot a Vietnamese. "Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee." Despite his youth, Archuleta was for all of us the great Humanist, a living Sir Thomas Moore.

As we went through this town, we soon reached its center. There next to the locally luxurious house, right around the corner, was a very large bunker, perhaps dug into a naturally occurring knoll. It was covered in grass and a few shrubs. We suddenly halted. Archuleta peeked cautiously around the corner. The ARVN's were standing around the giant bunker talking loudly. I asked, "What's going on?" "They're talking to two people inside the bunker." "This is interesting," I thought, "they've cornered a couple of gooks in a bunker," so I got out my camera and stepped right out into the open to take a picture. This got an immediate rebuke from Archuleta, "Don't do that, you could get shot!" He waved me back behind him. "It's a man and a woman cornered in the bunker, and they're trying to talk them into coming out." The ARVN's spent quite some time trying to persuade this couple to cheu hoi, but they were having no luck. "They say they are in love and if they can't live together, then they will die together," Archuleta reported in hushed tones. From that point on no translation was needed. The ARVN's became increasingly strident. No luck. A couple caught in a family feud on a grand scale, a civil war, and their fate was sealed. Soon came the ominous "thud" sound, the muffled voice of a grenade, whose word is the final judgement in a saga of two kinds of fanaticism, love and hate.