What follows is an edited revision of something I put up in /r/AskReddit ten years ago in response to the question, “How do you comprehend the loss of consciousness and memories after death?” It tells the rest of the story - and then the rest of the rest of the story. Turns out these events stick with you longer than you think.
Sorry, not too much heroic action here. Brave men got knocked down like nine-pins. The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers were Russian trained. Lots of rehearsals, no deviation from the Big Plan, no idea in command circles that the situation might change while you’re busy practicing. Tough on the troops. Xin loi, boys. Next time.
The End of the Story
I spent most of a day with a dead guy. All I can tell you is what I observed.
I was on a firebase on the edge of an abandoned Michelin rubber plantation in III Corps, Vietnam 1969. We had been alerted to a pending attack by Intelligence. The firebase had the butt end of a landing strip inside the wire, so part of the perimeter was across the landing strip from the rest of the base. This weakness had evidently been spotted, and according to our intelligence people, preparations were being made for an attack by North Vietnamese regulars (NVA). Maybe a regiment - about 1500 soldiers.
So we made preparations of our own. Among them, each night a brand-new M102 howitzer was moved to a sandbagged position just on the interior edge of the landing strip. The attack was a long time coming, but when it came, the NVA approached the isolated side of the perimeter through the remnants of the Michelin rubber trees, exactly the way our intelligence people had predicted.
The howitzer commenced a low-angle continuous fire, deflected about 200 mils per round on an arc of about 2400 mils and back again, using HE with time-fuses set on “0". The artillery rounds went out about 250 meters from the perimeter and exploded over the treetops. Between the direct fire from the perimeter and the artillery shrapnel coming from the opposite direction, the NVA infantry attack was shredded before it started.
Tip o' th' Hat
Which is the long explanation of how the next day I ended up in the Michelin rubber next to the body of a youngish NVA soldier with his back against the side of a rubber tree away from the firebase. He was leaning up against the tree, kind of slouched. The tree was weeping rubber sap, so it’s possible he was stuck to it. Someone had obviously gone through his pockets, but unaccountably left his AK-47 in his hands. The same someone had put his bush hat back on his head.
I knew this because the sight of him sitting there with a submachine gun worried me, so I removed his hat. There was a big hole in the top of his head, and what was left of his brain was puddled at the bottom of his skull. It just seemed courteous to put his hat back on.
I assume someone came and got him later, but for the daylight portion of that day, he and I kept company. I was coordinating fire support for the guys cleaning up the battlefield. There was no fighting, but it was my job to plot artillery fire and be ready if a fight started.
Dead Poet's Society
Once I got set up there was not much to do, so I studied the dead guy. I’d love to tell you I thought of something profound, but all I saw - what startled me - was just how dead he was. Really, really dead. With his hat on, he looked like some guy taking a nap under a tree. His face was intact. I would tell you he looked at peace, but he didn’t. He looked dead. No peace. No anger. No feeling. No sorrow. No pain. Big cipher. Nada. Zero. Vacant.
Whatever had been there was gone. Really gone. Gone beyond redemption. Gone. It was alarming. I have been to enough funerals where people were saying things like, “He’s at peace now.” Nuh-uh. No peace here. No war. Dead “He’s in a better place.” Nope. Not this part of him anyway. This part wouldn’t know better from worse. Dead.
I kept trying to imagine him back to life. But the guy who patriotically joined the North Vietnamese Army to liberate his homeland from the capitalists and colonialist oppressors, the guy who had a notebook full of what looked like poems, the guy who lugged those bones 250 miles down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the guy who thought he was lucky to be able to put that tree between himself and the .50 calibers and M-60's on our perimeter, the guy who took his hat off for some reason while he was steeling himself to get up and run through the hole his sappers had blown in the wire, the guy who didn't have time to even look up as the treetops overhead lit up.... Near as I can tell, that guy was gone.
It surprised me that all the funerals I had been to or that I had seen on TV had made me expect something more. A tear. A sad expression. I dunno, more. But there wasn’t more. He was just dead.
Around a decade and a half later, I got all up into my head with chronic depression and PTSD, and made a suicide gesture. I ended up in a VA psych ward mulling how in the hell I somehow couldn’t manage to kill myself. First couple of days inside I was talking to one of the therapists. “I feel like I’m deep in a well, holding onto the sides, wondering if I should just let go, wondering if maybe I’ll be at peace when I hit bottom.”
The therapist (who was probably tired) said, “Well, why not let go? See where it takes you.” Then she said “Um... no, don’t do that. Forget I said that.”
Too late. Later that evening I sat in the dining area alone, just kind of leaned back in my chair and let go. I felt numb with depression. It felt like I was dying - or what I imagined dying would be like. I. Just. Let. Go.
And never reached bottom. Was weird. Got down so far and discovered that I was buoyant. I wasn’t almost dead. I was alive. I was juicy. I had shit going on, daughters to love, things I cared about. I could feel myself trying to think leaden dead thoughts. I had too much going on to sink any lower.
So I floated there, and I thought about the dead guy. Drama queen that I am, I had imagined death at the bottom of this well. No such thing. Dead Guy was not anywhere near my pit of despair.
I was not dead. I was not even mostly dead. I was insanely alive, full of electricity, full of drama, full of shit. I was a freakin’ 4th of July parade, fireworks and all, compared to Dead Guy. He wasn’t even on the same continent with the celebration of electricity and goo that was me. He wasn’t anywhere I could detect. He was dead. I was not. I was glad we got that cleared up.
The Stairway to Heaven is Closed
So, I observed Dead Guy on two occasions. He was dead. He convinced me, without converting me. I think when it’s over, it is so over. I think if I want to remember anything, give it meaning, I’d better do it now. Not saying there isn’t life and memory after death.
I’m saying that the antechamber to what comes after death, if anything, appears doorless. My $0.02. YMMV.
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