Ben Griffin’s Death

The protagonist of Last of the Annamese, Chuck Griffin, returns to Vietnam in 1973 to do all he can to win the war. He can’t tolerate the idea that his son, Ben, killed in combat near Bien Hoa in 1967, had died in vain.

Yesterday, I blogged about Colonel James Carver who tells Chuck how Ben died—he didn’t die in combat but was killed by another soldier whom Ben had approached for sex. Chuck is shocked. His reason for returning to Vietnam is demolished. His son didn’t die fighting the North Vietnamese. He was murdered. Chuck decides he doesn’t care whether Ben was homosexual or not. The loss of his son, the boy he loved, is all that matters.

In Last of the Annamese, the true story of Ben’s death is not told. What really happened is related in a short story called “Trip Wires” (published in the Antietam Review, Spring, 1999, and in my book Friendly Casualties, 2012). That story was the source of Annamese. I couldn’t help thinking about the soldier named Ben Griffin, killed in the story. I had a son. How could I live through losing that son the way Ben’s father had to?

In “Trip Wires,” a soldier named Kerney hates Ben Griffin, referred throughout the story only by his last name as is common in army units. Griffin is everything Kerney wants to be and can’t be—handsome, strong, an exemplary soldier. Kerney hints to their commander, Major Caver, that Griffin is gay. Griffin discovers that the unit is about to be attacked, but Carver doesn’t believe him. Frantic, Griffin decides to confront the enemy hiding at the perimeter and expose them. The following is the end of the story:

Griffin got to the perimeter first. He snatched an M-16 from the guard on duty, dashed to the jeep inside the concertina wire, started it, and smashed through the perimeter fence toward the river. Flares fired as the jeep hit trip wires. Before Kerney reached the bunker, the guard shot flares into the air. They burst, high above, and bathed Griffin and the bounding jeep in orange light.

“Griff, come back here, you bastard!” Kerney screamed.

Griffin kept going. He called toward the river as more flares burst over him. Thirty yards out, he slammed on the brakes, leaped to his feet, and sprayed the shoreline with fire from his M-16. Then he roared forward, stopped again, stood, and fired. Roused by the shouting and gunfire, the detachment came to life.

Kerney stood watching it all happen as if it were a soundless movie in slow motion. The screaming inside him drowned out everything else. He was sobbing, out of control. “Goddam you, Griffin. Goddam you, goddam you, goddam you.” Then no more words, nothing but screaming.

He shoved the guard aside and swung the M-60 [machine gun] toward Griffin. He fixed the jeep’s strapped-on gas cans in the sights through a blur of tears and squeezed the trigger. The weapon shuddered. Tracers flew from the barrel to the jeep vaulting over the grass and sand. The cans exploded in a burst more beautiful than any Kerney had ever seen. Through the smoke, the burning figure standing in the jeep tilted and fell to the ground, limbs askew, like a broken marionette.

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