In the summer of 1968, as a 21-year-old soldier in Vietnam, I became an acknowledged killer.
We had come across a mean little ambush which had cost us a lieutenant and a sergeant, along with our scout dog, a German shepherd I’d taken a liking to.
It was one of those strange firefights that grew from the few random shots in to a disorganised raging storm of bullets.
And now it was becoming a lot more than that – a mean little ambush create between our two platoons that could result in a dangerous crossfire.
I was under no obligation to do not keep my head down and allow it work it self out. Yet I strongly felt I had to accomplish something, or this would really turn ugly.
Oliver Stone (pictured) was a solider in Vietnam, having arrived in September 1967. He would continue to document his story in the Oscar-winning film ‘Platoon’
In an extract of the soldier-turned-director’s new memoirs, Stone reveals how he went from Vietnam to film-making and how his experience on the front line changed him
Maybe I was just cold and angry about the dog’s death, or the futility of it all. Or maybe I just had a headache and the sun was burning too hot in my eyes. Who the f*** knows these things? All I knew was that was my moment to behave.
Exposing myself to the enemy, I moved up quickly on a one-man spider hole between our two platoons – from which I sensed someone had just fired. On instinct, from 15 yards out, I pulled the pin on my grenade and hurled it.
It was a crazy risk. If I’d overthrown the grenade it probably would’ve wounded or killed a number of our own men crouched beyond the hole.
But it was a perfect pitch, and the grenade sailed into the tiny hole like a long throw from an outfielder into a catcher’s mitt, followed quickly by the concussed thump of the explosion. Wow. I’d done it!
Warily I moved in closer, thinking he may still be alive, but when I looked into the hole the young man was mauled, torn and very dead. It felt good. I actually saw the man I killed, which was rare in this jungle warfare.
The dozen men who saw the action seemed astonished by my move. Somehow word got around, and I was quite surprised seven days later to find out that I was planning to get a Bronze Star, awarded for valour in combat. For what? Doing what I was supposed to do.
My description may seem callous, nonetheless it isn’t – that moment will stay with me for the rest of my entire life. I see the moment again and again in my consciousness.
I feel no guilt. He’s dead. I’m alive. That’s the way it works. We all trade places, if not in this life then in another time and place.
I’d volunteered for the US Infantry in April of ’67 after quitting Yale University for an additional time a couple of months earlier. I didn’t understand what I desired to do with my life. But I knew what I didn’t want – and that was to resemble my stockbroker father Lou Stone, dearly though I loved him.
To my parents’ puzzlement, I insisted on enrolling as a private, rejecting Officer Training School. I wanted to resemble everybody else: an anonymous infantryman, cannon fodder, down there in the muck with the masses.
It’d be a long journey before I’d get back. And none of us, whenever we went, reckoned with the after-effects of Vietnam.
Nineteen sixty-eight was annually most of my generation remember. For us, it started with a genuine bang on January 1. We’d been out patrolling the Cambodian border, chasing ‘Apaches’ without much luck. We rarely saw significantly more than two of these at the same time.
But we knew they were there because we found stores of weapons, rice, maps, paperwork – but never ‘them’.
As night fell, our two-battalion perimeter came under massive attack from a North Vietnamese regiment coming across the Cambodian border. The battle would last till not quite dawn. The sound of small-arms fire, heavy artillery and bombs hardly let up forever, bigger than any fireworks I’d ever seen. Stunningly beautiful, in its way.
And there was a huge roar, like I suppose the end of the world sounds.
Like a shark cutting through water, an F-4 Phantom jet fighter was coming in very low over our perimeter out of the night sky. So low, that doomsday sound. They were going to drop their payload on us and we were all going to die.
Stone (pictured right on patrol in Vietnam with a M60 machine gun in 1980) volunteered for the US Infantry in April 1967 after quitting Yale University
I jumped into the closest foxhole and buried myself as deep as I could in the earth, which trembled and shook as a 500 lb bomb dropped somewhere close.
There was nothing for me personally to do except stay alive. Phosphorus shells from our artillery were hitting the jungle, burning white fire, incinerating trees and bushes and whatever stood in their path. The smell was chemical and horrific. Suddenly, at about 4am, the noise subsided.
The next hour hung there in the torpor, the sweat of the jungle. Soldiers, dazed, appeared here and there. There had been a battle. ‘They’d’ been here, that’s for certain, but I hadn’t seen a single one of these.
Full daylight unveiled charred bodies, dusty napalm and grey trees. Men who died grimacing, in frozen positions, some of them still standing or kneeling in rigor mortis, white chemical death on the faces.
Dead, so dead. Some covered in white ash, some burned black. Their expressions, when they could be seen, were overtaken with anguish and horror.
In the next hours I grasped the extent of what had happened. Most of the dead were fully uniformed, well-armed North Vietnamese regulars.
Those who were relatively intact we brought in on stretchers, walking out to find them, or items of them. A bulldozer was airlifted in to dig burial pits. I helped throw the bloating bodies in to the giant pits late into that day.
There were maybe 400 of the dead. We’d lost some 25 men, with more than 150 wounded, yet I hadn’t fired a single shot or even seen one enemy soldier. It was bizarre.
We worked in rotating shifts, two men, three men, swinging the corpses just like a haul of fish from the sea. Later we poured fuel on them, after which the bulldozers rolled mounds of dirt over them, so they’d be for good extinct.
I was too young to understand. No person should ever need certainly to witness so much death.
Almost a year later, in November 1968, I left Vietnam. By now I’d served in three different combat units. I’d been wounded and evacuated twice – the first when a bit of shrapnel (or possibly a bullet) went clean through my neck in a night ambush; the 2nd after a daylight enemy ambush, where shrapnel from a charge planted in a tree penetrated my legs and buttocks.
They finally released me at Fort Lewis, Washington.
Still in my khaki uniform, I took the Greyhound bus south and walked aimlessly around San Francisco, as if considering everything for the first-time. Suddenly I missed my companions in the army. I don’t think anyone ever reckoned with coming home.
I took LSD in Santa Cruz, bussed right down to Los Angeles and, after several dreamy, stoned days, crossed in to the Mexican border town of Tijuana, terrified already of the country I’d just came back to.
I hadn’t even called my father or mother, anybody. I was happy to disappear. All I wanted to do was party, drink in order to find myself a Mexican woman, like any sailor or soldier boy.
With a 2oz bag of strong Vietnamese marijuana I was carrying I was feeling no pain, together with the world – no officers or sergeants to inform me how to proceed. I was free – and stupid.
One night, after midnight, I grew depressed and uninterested in the seedy Tijuana scene and, gathering my few belongings, wandered back across the border into the US. What was I thinking? Did I have a screw loose? I did. I was 23.
At the near-empty border crossing, an old, nervous customs agent asked me to step into the station. It must’ve been easy. I looked the part. Within an hour I was handcuffed to a chair, being interrogated by FBI agents.
Clearly I needs to have left the damn Vietnamese weed in some footlocker in the US. But, then again, I didn’t know if I was going further south or finding its way back.
Within a day or two I was processed into the downtown San Diego County Jail with a capacity of about 2,000 beds, but which was now occupied by between 4,000 and 5,000 mostly tough black and Hispanic young ones. Many of these were still waiting for trial after half a year. No money, no bail, nothing.
A day or two later I was chained to eight or nine other young guys and marched in our prison uniforms through San Diego’s streets, eyes down to avoid the stares.
Ashamed, I was led in to a courtroom where I was indicted on federal smuggling charges, facing five to 20 years.
It was as being similar to my first days in Vietnam. No one told you any such thing. The guards were icy. I hadn’t even reached make my one permitted call.
I wrote a note to my captors pleading: ‘Vietnam vet. Just back. I’ve been gone 15 months. My family doesn’t know I’m straight back. Please allow me to make my first call.’
Finally, it just happened. There was one number I knew by heart – my father’s, in New York. Thank God he answered, because if he hadn’t it might’ve been days till they got me to a phone again.
‘Go ahead,’ the operator said.
‘Kiddo, for Chrissake, where’ve you been? Two weeks hence – they told me you’ve got out in Fort Lewis?’
Hearing his voice, I felt a surge of emotion. There was no way to apologise for perhaps not calling. I just said: ‘Dad, listen – I’m in trouble.’
Years later I’d try to capture this moment in the scene in Midnight Express, with Billy Hayes’s father in Long Island gushing over his son in prison in Turkey, assuring him that everything will be all right now he was involved, that the lawyer would take charge.
A long week after the call to my father, the charges against me were mysteriously processed and ‘dismissed in the interests of justice’. I was extremely lucky, but my experiences had left a deep mark.
When I surely got to New York that December, I was coiled and tight, a jungle creature, living 24/7 on the edge of my nerves, even when I slept.
I didn’t know any combat vets in New York, and found myself out of my depth in a sea of civilians rushing around, creating a huge deal of money, success, jobs – which to me was petty daily stuff weighed against surviving. I was confused, in no shape to go anywhere.
With my combat bonuses I had significant savings, and I didn’t spend a lot of them on renting a number of cheap apartments downtown. One was on East 9th Street, in those days a junkie ghetto. I painted the walls a deep red and, for good measure, the ceiling.
Red for blood, red for creativity. Maybe the war had made me this way.
I bought some screenplay books, out of curiosity. I had an urge, a nervous reflex, to write. It was, frankly, the only way I could express myself. I’d already tried to write a novel before I’d visited Vietnam. But screenplay-writing was something new, sexier.
So I channelled the feelings inside me as a screenplay. It was about Vietnam, and it fitted right in with the mood of my weird apartment.
It was hard to publish in that dump. Fleet-footed robbers, mostly desperate junkies, more than once emptied out the place. Then a young mugger tried to rob me in the doorway of our building.
It was so cold that sometimes, when I left the window open, six inches of snow would accumulate alongside my dining table. But still I kept writing.
Over the next several years, my life would take off in all sorts of guidelines as I tried to produce it as a writer. I’d attend film school, write ten screenplays which would go precisely nowhere, and marry and divorce my first wife.
But the idea of a Vietnam movie never went away. Eight years after I’d first attempted to handle my feelings on paper, I tried again.
Looking for a thread, I started to peck away at a story centered on my memories of January 1, 1968. Writing quickly in longhand, building a muscle of memory mixed with some imagination. I called it simply ‘The Platoon’.
This was not merely going to be about me. This was going to be about many of us who proceeded that journey without an ending: lost men whose future in contemporary America was bleak. And I’d be the observer. My alter ego will be Chris Taylor, later authentically played by Charlie Sheen.
As I wrote, I particularly remembered two soldiers who stood out: both were sergeants. Sergeant ‘Barnes’, as I renamed him in the film, had the pride of Achilles, an avatar of war, quiet and dangerous, darkly handsome, prominently scarred, afraid of nothing.
Stone’s novel ‘Chasing the Light’, which depicts his life from the Vietnam war zone to the Oscar stage, happens next week
If Sergeant Barnes, played by Tom Berenger, was Achilles, Sergeant Elias, played by Willem Dafoe, was Hector: noble but doomed.
You’re perhaps not supposed to use the word ‘beautiful’ for a man, but Elias was: an attractive Apache combined with some Spanish. Rumour had it that he’d ‘done time’ back in the world and probably made a deal with a judge to participate up.
Whereas Barnes was hard and real, Elias was dreamy, a movie star. He was fun to be around, and everyone liked him.
I heard that Elias had been killed in action a month after I’d managed to move on from his platoon. The news came casually, just like a baseball score on an overheard radio. A grenade had unintentionally gone off.
It was certainly one of ours, not really an ambush or a firefight. A man as good as Elias wasted by someone’s mistake. My God. In time, the Elias story was layered in to my nest of memories, and I’d use his real name to honour him.
I found myself thinking, as I grappled with my screenplay, what if Barnes and Elias were in the same platoon? They’d be the undisputed alpha leaders. I had my story.
A element of me choose to go numb in Vietnam: died, murdered. My story will be about the lies and war crimes which was committed not merely by one platoon, but by many, if not most, combat units there.
In the film, I had my character Chris Taylor perform a horrible but honourable thing. He’d witnessed Barnes killing Elias, also it would sear his heart. At the climax, all through the all-night battle, which I’d experienced that January 1, 1968, he’d avenge the betrayed ghost of Elias and slaughter Barnes.
In movies, the hero is never designed to stoop to the amount of the villain. And yet in the screenplay I left myself both choices.
And when it came time and energy to shoot the film and edit it a decade later, I did what the brutality in me demanded. I killed Barnes. I killed the bastard because I desired to.
Why? Because the war had poisoned me. Because a bit of Barnes was in me.
I believe my decision shocked quite a few audiences when the film was finally seen in 1986. Some letters were written calling for my prosecution as a war criminal.
The truth, though not admitted by the majority of those who’d served there, was Vietnam had debased people. Whether we killed or not, we were element of a machine that had been so morally dead as to bomb, napalm, poison this country head to toe, when we knew this was not a real war to guard our homeland.
Though there have been many great items that have been accomplished in my country, there exists a darkness that still lurks.
I finished the first draft of The Platoon in a few weeks. I knew it was a number of the most useful stuff I’d done, but I was enough of a realist to know it might be a tough sell.
There had been no movie produced from the perspective of the ‘grunt’, or infantryman, also it was still a highly unpopular war, a ‘bummer’ to the American imagination.
No one, I was made to believe, wanted to find out about it.
I wasn’t optimistic.
Stone directed and wrote the screenplay for 1986 film ‘Platoon’ which would continue to win several prestigious awards
We were up and running. Nearly ten years after I’d written it and after numerous rejections, Platoon – now minus ‘The’ – was being shot in the Philippines, with me as its director.
I was chances are an established writer and director, with credits and awards to my name for my movies Midnight Express, Scarface and Salvador. But I was apprehensive. Could I do this after so long – remember the innumerable details and actually pull this off?
In February 1986, I flew to Manila. Relieved to be working at something physical again, I plunged in to the jungle, deep in to the impossible-to-shoot ravines or more jungle-covered mountains, searching for remote spots that will look exotic but which would require arduous, back-breaking labour to haul our cameras and lights from the base camps that film units prefer.
My fears for the film mushroomed. What possible women’s audience would there be? My sense of violence was too realistic and harsh for most Americans. Maybe I was just too different, screwed up by Vietnam.
Without telling the crew, I went to the actors’ training camp and slept on the jungle floor, far from it all, as I had all those years back as a soldier – just me and the stars.
But Vietnam was always there, burning in my brain.
I closely watched Charlie Sheen’s progress. Like an authentic new combat soldier, that he couldn’t do much right and was carrying a lot of equipment with that same lost look I probably once had.
But as we shot, week by week, that he was adjusting, uncomplaining, light and graceful on his feet, just like a goat pulling long distances.
But he was also growing harder, meaner. It made me think, is that the way I changed over there? Did I become more callous, angrier, darker? What would I perhaps not do?
I’d discover if I had any sense of goodness, decency, right and wrong – or if I had rotted in the heat and pain. In the person of Charlie, Vietnam was learning to be a mirror of my own soul.
When we finally wrapped, I didn’t desire to party with the cast and crew – they certainly were having too good a period without the director being there. So I went home with a driver as the first pink light of the Asian dawn came up over the peasants in the rice paddies making use of their water buffaloes. A timeless moment in any century.
It was yet another late spring day in the ‘world’, as we called it in Vietnam, and nobody on the way to work here cared that we had just finished making a low-budget film in the jungle. Why whenever they?
Yet as I pressed my face against the window of the silently moving car, in my soul there was a moment there and I knew that it would last with me for ever – because it was the sweetest moment I’d had since the day I left Vietnam.
Oscar night was Monday, March 30, 1987. I took a tranquilliser to simply help me navigate the tortuous three-and-a-half-hour journey that was about to begin.
Platoon was nominated for eight awards, included in this my screenplay. I was also up separately in the same Original Screenplay category with Richard Boyle for Salvador – that rare occurrence of competing against your self.
Stone (pictured right along side Arnold Kopelman and Elizabeth Taylor) won the Oscar for Best Director for his work in Platoon
Each time the TV camera cut if you ask me for my reaction, like I was bound to win, it felt just like a new type of public torture. When Elizabeth Taylor stepped on to the stage to award Best Director, the audience hushed with excitement.
She was the best, and also you knew it when you saw her. My dream girl of the 1950s and 1960s, still so glamorous, the heart of the movies. ‘And the winner is… Oliver Stone!’
The camera found me. Is this a dream? ‘Kiss Liz twice,’ my mom was saying if you ask me across my partner.
Then I was gliding across the stage, making sure to kiss Liz Taylor on both cheeks, as my French mother had instructed.
And then Dustin Hoffman arrived on the scene. ‘And the best picture of the year is…’ (opens envelope) ‘Platoon!’ The ugly duckling had just been transformed in to a swan.
Platoon, at the start, had been a thousand-to-one low-budget shot. All those turndowns, all those years of indifference – the men of Vietnam spread all over the United States tonight, watching – it was all spinning through my mind.
I’d been chasing the light a long time now. I’d felt its power. I was now 40 years old. I had no idea then of the storm that was coming, but I did know instinctively that I’d reached a moment in time whose glory would last me for ever.
Abridged extract from Chasing The Light, by Oliver Stone, which is published by Monoray (octopus books.co.uk) on July 21, priced £25.