Everybody knows that when the going gets tough, the tough get going, and it’s also true that when the going gets tough, the fearful get going too—out the door, if they can. That strategy kept the cowardly opportunist Capt. Earl Chanser alive during the Vietnam War. That strategy and his extraordinary good luck in avoiding good commanding officers. The most brilliant of his many close escapes just might be the time in 1967 when he accidentally pioneered a new tool in the Army’s fight against public scrutiny.
Capt. Chanser walked past the landscaped plastic flower garden and the Sacred Patio of Heroes into The Old Dependables’ headquarters building, not knowing if he were going to be simply reassigned, court-martialed, or garroted, given his recent misadventures. That all depended on who had gotten to Maj. Nettles first.
Chanser walked up to the major’s desk, stood at attention and saluted. Maj. Nettles looked him over for a few seconds before casually returning his salute.
“At ease, Chanser. Sit down, goddamnit, and be quick about it.”
“Thank you, Sir.”
Maj. Nettles tossed a stapled sheaf of papers on his desk and frowned.
“I should be reviewing this nice new intelligence report from some shaman down at MACV headquarters, but here I am interrupted by you. Figuring out what the hell to do with you.”
Chanser tried to look benevolent, deferential, and admiring, half at attention and half at ease. He wasn’t sure yet what posture might light Maj. Nettles’ super-quick fuse. Chanser remembered what he had been taught about ambush patience. Wait quietly.
“We meet at last. I almost expected three Chansers to show up.”
“I got a report somewhere around here says that Earl Chanser is the finest tactical leader since Ethan Allen. I think they mean luckiest.”
“Thank you, Sir. Actually, combat is not really the very best place for me because…”
“And a second report says that you are the most devious and unethical businessman since Bluebeard.”
“Thank you, Sir. I owe it all to…”
“But I also got a third report that says you are nothing more than the boldest and luckiest and most shameless con artist since P. T. Barnum, a menace to America who should be handed over to Ho Chi Minh himself—so you can wreck his army instead of ours.”
“Thank you, Sir.”
I mean, for confirming that my enemies are envious liars.”
“Shut up, Chanser.”
“That good warrior hero you are calling an envious liar was my classmate at West Point.”
“Sorry, Sir. I didn’t mean him at all. Utmost respect. A great soldier.”
“Shut up, Chanser.”
“I said shut up! Now I’ve got to figure out what to do with you. Most of my choices do not smell sweet.”
Chanser stayed shut up.
“I could transfer your weaseling ass to I Corps, put you in command of an understrength company near the DMZ. We need replacement infantry officers there real bad—the ones we send always get themselves killed right away.”
Maj. Nettles began rocking in his chair. His eyes were half closed, and he almost seemed to be very slightly smiling. To Chanser it looked creepy.
“Chanser, not everyone serving in-country has had the manly pleasure of hearing North Vietnamese tanks crushing the perimeter wire and collapsing bunkers over their heads. Army cooks and clerks envy the soldier who looks up into the sky through his bandages to see MiG tracers streaming his way. Those protected rich kids down at Cam Ranh Bay can’t even imagine the glorious possibility of getting trapped on some barren hill, within range of North Vietnamese artillery, being the only survivor, despite crippling wounds. That’s a man’s world up there in I Corps—God, I envy you, you lucky bastard.”
Chanser had to go to the latrine, but he tried to look cool. Not eager, not afraid. He wanted to mop the sweat off of his brow, but he held back.
“Do you want to go up there as much as some people want to send you, Chanser?”
Chanser knew this was one of those turning points in life. Doors one, two, three, or four. Death, death, death, or life.
“Sir, my own combat experience is within entirely different circumstances. My strengths lie elsewhere. I would hate to weaken our winning war effort in Vietnam by snatching that transfer from a man whose combat skills are more appropriate to the situation in I Corps. As you know, Sir—you don’t train a man to storm the beach and then send him to fight in the mountains.”
Maj. Nettles lurched forward to a stop, staring at Chanser.
“Major Nettles, your own combat experience confirms this, right?
The major’s face was reddening and he made two fists on his desk, crushing his lit cigarette.
“And just why the fuck not, Chanser? That’s the Army way. We won every goddamn war we ever fought by assigning men our own fucking, irrational, stupid Army way.”
“My thinking: just send a battalion of fucking cooks and bakers and dental assistants up there to the DMZ, and they’ll have Charlie puling fast.”
“You know what the problem is with you combat vets?”
Chanser had to think quickly. Wounds? Emotional trauma? Cognitive dissonance? Disillusionment? The high cost of meds? Moral guilt? Alcoholism? Unemployment? Family collapse? Dysfunctional VA? Survivor guilt? Suicidal tendencies? Alienation?
“Uh… inadequate Congressional support, Sir?”
“No, goddamn it, Chanser! Well, yes—but what your real problem is you think that just because you have been in combat a few months, you are some kind of Ivy League expert. Are you an expert, Chanser?”
“Always right, like the Pope?”
“Never wrong, like a traffic cop?”
Maj. Nettles eased back a notch and loosened his fists. The ripped cigarette embers were beginning to smolder on his desktop. The Vietnamese orderly they called Jeeves came over, bowed, and swept the ashes into his silent butler. Chanser barely noticed him.
“If I do not ship your ass up to I Corps, I can keep you in harness here on staff. You would work for me every day—be my houseboy, maybe wear a French maid’s outfit. What responsibilities could you handle?”
“Ah, well, Sir! I would be best at running the mess hall accounting, or logistics, or the officers’ club, given my business experience and keen interest in finance and commerce.”
“Forget that, Chanser. I had in mind you running the latrine, body parts disposal, and clearing mines outside the perimeter.”
“Those are important jobs, Chanser—and some poor hopeless fucking bastard has to do them.”
“But, Sir, my only latrine experience has been at the top of the supply chain, so to speak. And I have no experience or training with defusing mines.”
“Chanser, any dumb schmuck can find a land mine, at least once in his sorry term of service. That’s the least you can do for Uncle Sam.”
“Yes, Sir, but an untrained man usually finds only that one mine.”
“It takes a manly man to sanitize a clever commie minefield, Chanser. Are you that man?”
“Frankly, Sir, no.”
“You could learn.”
Chanser had to divert attention faster than a politician caught with a bag of cash.
“Major Nettles, like all great leaders, you are burdened with cares.”
“Even my mother doesn’t understand that.”
“Maybe if you tell me some of your many problems, Major Nettles, I could solve one for you, in some other capacity more suited to my abilities.”
“Yes, Major Nettles. I can either solve one of your important problems, or I can solve some dinky Army problem by accidentally setting off a mine.”
“That does deserve some command thought. After all, what’s so important about one stinking mine? The enemy humps thousands down the Ho Chi Minh Trail every day. Even Sundays, the fucking heathens.”
“Exactly, Major Nettles. Sending me to my gory death in I Corp, or to my splattery death in some minefield here would rob you of a brilliant solution to one of your problems.”
“You solve problems? I was told you cause problems.”
“Major Nettles, my whole side business is about solutions. I am solutions.”
Chanser figured that if he survived Nettles’ assignment decision, he could use that as a corporate slogan later. Almost as cool as Paladin’s Have gun, will travel, cool but totally inappropriate for Chanser.
While Maj. Nettles warmed up his gray cells to make a decision, Chanser made a mental note of his new business-success rule: Solve your own problem while pretending to solve theirs.
Maj. Nettles looked away as if lost in thought, which he always was when thinking, very lost. And then he shot Chanser a riveting glance.
“A leader can’t even trot from the mess tent to the officers’ shitter on this base without stumbling over some fat fucking Congressman, or some small-town newspaper reporter trying to snoop out what the hell’s actually going on here.”
“That must make your latrine trips very difficult, Major Nettles.”
“Shut up, Chanser.”
“I said shut up!”
Chanser shut up.
“If you solve that problem for me, I might see to it that you do not have to personally, and by yourself, all alone, defend some doomed, malarial, quicksand stink-pit deep in that hellish grease-trap black-hole corner of misery between Laos and North Vietnam.”
“Sir, of course I will solve your problem. Guaranteed. Never fail.”
“Well then, solve the fucking problem! Stop dicking around!”
“I have to make sense of this damned intelligence report this afternoon, or Col. Kass will serve my ass for breakfast bacon!”
Maj. Nettles and Chanser looked down at the desktop. There was no intelligence report. All Chanser could see were some black smudges from the cigarette and the latest Playboy magazine.
“Now where the fuck did that report go? My staff is incompetent.”
Maj. Nettles half rose out of his chair.
Chanser heard a chair scrape its complaint behind him, but he resisted the impulse to turn around. He could almost hear the chair asking what is it this time? Then Cpl. Filas appeared next to the desk, looking relaxed behind his thick GI glasses, despite Maj. Nettles’ trembling jowls and reddening face.
“Filas! Where’s that fucking intelligence report!”
“I left it here nine minutes ago, Sir.”
“No, you didn’t!”
“Yes, Sir, I did.”
“You can’t prove it, Filas.”
“You signed for it, Sir.”
“Filas, I specifically did not ask you what happened nine minutes ago, I asked where is the fucking intelligence report!”
Cpl. Filas came to attention, in that slow and sloppy way that shows the least amount of respect and the most independence possible without outward defiance.
“I do not know, Sir, but I will find out.”
“Make it fast, Corporal.”
Cpl. Filas saluted, but it looked to Chanser more like a Benny Hill salute than a Van Johnson salute. Filas did an about-face that looked like a spastic Bojangles out-take and goose-stepped back to his desk.
Cpl. Filas halted. Chanser took desperate advantage of the interlude to compose a job description for himself.
“Get back here. I want you to listen to Captain Chanser here, and help solve our problem. We might as well put your fancy fucking Wharton master’s degree to use doing something besides rigging my fucking World Series pool.”
Cpl. Filas was back standing at the desk, and Maj. Nettles turned back to Chanser.
“So, Chanser—just what is my brilliant plan?”
“Sir, you will decide that the best thing to do is to sidetrack those Congressmen and reporters to a fire support base that doesn’t have any important military business for them to mess up.”
“Chanser, there’s a fucking war on here, so all the firebases have stuff to do. Blow people up, raze villages, threaten grandmas, shoot chickens, destroy infrastructure, poison crops—you know, win hearts and minds, whatever the fuck.”
“Correct as usual, Major Nettles. So you want me to build a new, bespoke firebase whose only purpose is to distract visitors.”
Maj. Nettles actually seemed about to consider smiling.
“And why do I want to do that?”
“Well, Sir, if we set up a fake fire support base, we could make it look like what a firebase should look like, not like the ones we actually have. We could keep nosy visitors safe, and we could do world-class reputation management.”
“Reputation management—what the fuck does he mean, Corporal Filas?”
“What the captain means, Major, is that you could trick those Congressmen into seeing the war the way you wish it were, not the way it is.”
“You could influence public opinion about the war.”
“I hate leaving public opinion to civilians, all those hippies and eggheads.”
“And you could make your battalion look like the best in the Army. You could make us a legend, get us free drinks and back slaps at VFW bars all across America.”
Now Maj. Nettles actually smiled.
“General Bazilisky would like that, wouldn’t he, Corporal Filas?”
“Yes, Major. And he would promote whichever white staff officer thought of this.”
Maj. Nettles stopped smiling.
“This faker Chanser here? Why should this conniving slacker get all the glory!”
Chanser sat upright.
“Oh, no, Sir! This is your brilliant idea! I am merely the man you wisely handpick to run the operation. I want to solve your problem, with your solution.”
Maj. Nettles leaned back and began a slow, lewd rocking again, lost in thought.
“I imagine, Sir, that you recommend that we set up this firebase a few klicks south of Tan Thuc village. That area is safer than a baby crib.”
“You just read my mind, Chanser.”
“Thank you, Sir.”
“And don’t ever fucking do that again.”
“Shut up, Chanser!”
Chanser shut up. Maj. Nettles stared at him hard.
“Well, go on, goddamnit!”
“Is it your order, Major, that I make sure that all the enlisted men stationed there are not security risks? I mean, that they won’t reveal the scam, or wear love beads, or act like they don’t love the Army?
Maj. Nettles spread his arms as if crucified by circumstances.
“Where the hell can you find enlisted men like that in this man’s army?”
“No sweat, Major. We will stock the firebase with reliable men—and solve another one of your problems at the same time.”
Maj. Nettles lowered his arms and raised his eyebrows.
“You mean our VD epidemic?”
“No, Sir, I mean—”
“The money gone missing from the slush fund?”
“No, Sir, I can explain that…”
“The artillery we let get a little rusty out in the rain?”
“No, Sir, actually—”
“The white phosphorus rounds we accidentally dropped on that stupid school?”
“No, Sir, just—”
“The combat refusals?”
“No, Sir, what I mean is—”
“Just what the fuck do you mean, Chanser! Stop stalling!”
“I mean the bad attitudes of the enlisted men. Especially the short-timers.”
Maj. Nettles looked ready to explode.
“You can’t change that! Jesus Christ himself couldn’t change that if he had a horse whip!”
“You can change it, Major, at least enough for our purposes.”
“Every problem has a solution, Sir.”
“Every problem has a solution—or a work-around, excuse, cover-up, or scapegoat. That’s one my business rules.”
“Chanser, in case you missed it, every Army unit in Vietnam has discipline and morale problems with the men who are about to finish their tours. Short-timers are too spooked to be any good in combat. We can’t do a damned thing about it, just leave them in combat and hope they don’t fuck up any more than the fucking new guys fuck up.”
Cpl. Filas spoke up, “Actually, Sir, what you do with short-timers now is get them out of combat in their last couple of weeks, and have them loiter here at the base until it’s time to send them home. You try to keep them out of the way.”
Maj. Nettles looked at Cpl. Filas.
“We do that?”
“Yes, Major. From each according to his abilities, to each according to his need, as you always say.”
“I do? That sounds pretty damned smart.”
“How come I don’t see those men walking around?”
“Well, Sir, most of them just stay quietly stoned in the perimeter bunkers.”
“Because you assigned them to perimeter guard duty during their final days, Major.”
“Yes, Sir. Do you want to see the orders you signed?”
“Shut up, Filas.”
Filas shut up.
“There is one big, fat, ugly, pulsating, grotesque flaw in this plan, Corporal—and it’s all Chanser’s fault!”
“We can’t let visiting dignitaries see crybaby short-timers in our nice new firebase! Short-timers have notoriously bad manners and bad attitudes. They don’t salute, they smoke dope, they avoid haircuts. I bet they never mentioned that labor issue at Wharton.”
Chanser wasn’t going to let a mere enlisted man run this conversation. He needed to be important enough to get this sweet job before Maj. Nettles put Cpl. Filas in charge, and shipped Chanser out to certain death.
“I can get the men with the program, Major. I can motivate them from Day One.”
Maj. Nettles looked off into the distance. “If only I had some way of motivating them from Day One.”
“That’s the beauty of your plan, Major. You give the short-timers a pure free-market choice: they fully cooperate with us like chattel slaves, or we see to it that they never go back to the States at all, period, end of story.”
“We can do that?”
“Wouldn’t they test our limits, like toddlers and relatives?”
“Not after you falsely accuse one of the men on the first day of having a bad attitude—and then slap him silly, court martial him, and send him in shackles to Long Binh Jail for a year. You know, set an example to the others. It’s a tremendous morale booster and motivator. Standard motivational practice in the Marines and in North Korea.”
Maj. Nettles smiled again.
“And then you accuse a second man of some sin of indiscipline, and send him on that secret one-way trip to that secret VD hospital on that secret island off the Philippines somewhere. Since no man ever leaves that island, the rest of the men will get with the program.”
“Damn, Chanser, that might work!”
“Yes, Sir. You don’t always need a rifle butt to get a man’s attention.”
“I am a lot smarter than General Bazilisky thinks.”
“Yes, Sir. I imagine there will be a promotion in this for you, after I do this. A medal too, maybe, and reassignment back to the States, and envious looks from other majors.”
“I have to make my command decision right now, Chanser, before the mess tent stops serving lunch. This is your last chance, Chanser, before I get Corporal Filas here to type up the paperwork. Nettles held up three fingers to count.
“Do you want (A), an exciting combat post in I Corps, or (B), this sissy reputation management job?”
Chanser waited for the third option.
“Well, goddamn it! I don’t have all day!”
“Sir, I accept option B. I will sacrifice my own opportunities for glorious wounds and a lifetime of free VA therapy—all in order to run your new firebase on sound business principles.”
“Done deal, Chanser. But your ass is on the line here. If even one visiting Congressman is honest and smart enough to see through this charade, you are going to be air-dropped into Hanoi, hog-tied, naked, and smeared with fish sauce.”
“Sir, that Congressman hasn’t been invented yet.”
Maj. Nettles settled back in his chair and looked at the ceiling.
“And what do I want to call this firebase, Chanser?”
“Well, Sir, you might follow the great tradition of the French at Dien Bien Phu, and name it after one of your girlfriends.”
Maj. Nettles jerked forward menacingly.
“Are you mocking my tragic problems with women!”
“Oh, no way, Sir!”
“No girlfriend names, Chanser! Nothing Frenchy at all! And that Dien Bien place doesn’t sound very American either. Sounds almost Vietnamese to me.”
Cpl. Filas spoke:
“Sir, you want to name it—Fire Base Potemkin.”
“What the fuck is a Potemkin?”
Chanser wondered too.
“Potemkin was a famous general, Major Nettles. He showed the Russians a thing or two.”
“Good thinking, Corporal. General Bazilisky likes things named after generals. If you were not already a corporal, Corporal, I might make you a corporal.”
“Thank you, Sir.”
“Now get back to work on my retirement portfolio. No funny stuff.”
Chanser waited for Cpl. Filas to goose-step back to his desk before leaning toward Maj. Nettles, whose eyes and mind had already lowered themselves to his Playboy.
“Sir, I need a blank check…”
“You? A blank check!”
“Yes, Sir, to priority-divert equipment and funds to get your firebase up and running fast.”
“Giving you a blank check is like giving my bulldog the keys to the butcher shop.”
“I can’t get slowed down by audits and receipts, all that accountability stuff, Sir. Accurate paperwork is for obsessive-compulsives, not bold leaders like you.”
One of Chanser’s business rules was that Paperwork is to entrepreneurs what fingerprints are to burglars.
“Whatever it takes, Chanser—just do it.
Oh, Chanser thought, that’s a pretty good rule too.
“I got some stupid, fat fucking Congressman Porter Pelfy arriving soon for a fact-finding mission, in between his fact-finding stop in Bangkok and his fact-finding stop in Vung Tau—he couldn’t find a fact if it crawled into his shorts.”
“Sounds like Congressman Pelfy is on the subcommittee for brothels.”
“Show some respect for our stupid fucking elected officials, Chanser.”
“And get the fuck out of my office.”
Stephen Sossaman is the author of Writing Your First Play (Pearson), three poetry chapbooks, and stories and poems published in such journals as Paris Review, Southern Humanities Review, and Military Review. He was an artillery fire direction computer with the 9th Infantry division in Vietnam.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “FireBase Potemkin”:
Author Stephen Sossaman delivers an excellent satire in an unexpected setting. We loved the ongoing banter between Chanser and Major Nettles, mixed with side remarks from Corporal Filas. Strong dialogue, well-drawn characters, and good tongue-in-cheek humor made this a winning story for us.