History and the people who make it: Scott Camil (Part 2)

This month, we continue highlighting a Gainesville activist, veteran, honored hero, and friend of SPOHP, Scott Camil. Scott is a member of the Gainesville Eight: the group of seven Vietnam War veterans and one civilian caught in a conspiracy by the FBI, who attempted to frame them for terroristic threats. 

In this 2005 interview with John Aversono (A), Scott Camil (C) shares about his upbringing, his time in the Marine Corps from his training to engagements in combat, and touches on how he became an antiwar activist. Be advised this includes profanity and graphic descriptions of war. Transcript edited by Donovan Carter.

A: How long after basic training were you sent to Vietnam?

C: I graduated boot camp in September of 1965. Then I went to ITR, for October of 1965 and November of 1965, that’s infantry training. It is like boot camp but not as strict except now you are learning tactics, mountain climbing and that kind of conditioning. I arrived in Vietnam on something like March 20, 1966.

A: How could you best describe your first few days in Vietnam?

C: This first thing was a kind of disbelief because growing up as a kid you see all these war stories [and] all these war movies and it is all WWII and Korea. It is all the boats coming up, the guy is running through the water and getting on the beach [and] having to fight your way. Going to war and getting off a plane at the airport just seemed strange to me. 

The second thing would be the heat. Walking down the ramps of that plane the heat was just overwhelming. That was really my first impression. Then you get your job specialty and mine was direct fire artillery. Then I get my first duty, and as the new guy in the unit, my first duty is guard duty. So, I have thirty days guard duty. That was my first month.

On April 18, which was like my third week there, we were attacked and overrun. In less than a month I was in my first battle, [and] the enemy won. I was on guard duty when they attacked and they came through our position and they destroyed camp. 

That is a huge, traumatic event for a person. It was a learning experience, a growing up experience. For me it changed who I was. The day before that I was a boy with Marine training and the day after that I was a man, in the sense of how men were looked at then. 

I pulled the ponchos off each of the Marines to see who they were, and I saw one of them was Manes [a fellow Floridian Camil met while in the service]. I was 19 years old, and I thought this is really real. There are people whose job it is to kill me and they are allowed to do that. There is no timeout and there is no second chance. This is a really serious thing I got myself involved in and I have to really pay attention if I want to be alive. 

The people who attacked us were called sappers. They were suicide bombers. They had explosives strapped on their bodies and they just jumped into the bunkers and blew themselves up. I thought that I was there because the South Vietnamese were being invaded by the North Vietnamese. So, I decided at that moment, when I was looking at Manes, that I hated the fucking Vietnamese. So I was not a nice person after that.

Then we followed the blood trails trying to find the ones that got away. We came upon this man sowing a field in a rice paddy. [He] was an old guy, and he had black pajamas, pants rolled up so they would not be wet, he had a long mustache, hair coming out of his chin [and] he had a white turban on. 

I went up to him and I said where did the VC go. He said “cambiet,” which means I do not understand. I went to Vietnam without learning one thing about their culture, without learning the language, without learning the history of Vietnam. Anyway, I asked him a second time, where did the VC go? And he said “cambiet.” I pulled out my bayonet and slit his throat. [He was] an unarmed old man, but I was really pissed about what happened that night. I just had become a different person.

Technically, there are rules of war about what you are supposed to do, about what you are not supposed to do. But there are no referees out there throwing a flag giving you fifteen yards because you clipped. The job of the Marine is to destroy the will of the enemy to resist and you do that by making the price he is willing to pay, more than he is willing to pay. So, we just fucked these people. 

Sometimes they were rounded up and we gave them to somebody else and I do not know what happened to them. Sometimes we just killed them We burned down villages, we burned the crops so there would be no food for the guerrillas, we threw the dead bodies into the wells so there would be no water for the guerillas. Now you are not supposed to do that kind of stuff.

You are measuring your success by who can pile up the most dead bodies, [then] you end up with lots of dead people. To me, now that I look back on that it was extremely barbaric. What is civilized about that? How can you call yourself a civilized world, when you are measuring success by who can kill the most human beings. 

But at the time I did not see it that way. At the time they were like bowling pins. I wanted to have a high score. That is how Marines are measured, you win medals, you kill the fucking enemy. The more ruthless you are the more you are looked up to.

The way that we acted to those people, I would not want another country to come into the United States and do to us. I guarantee you that. So that means it could not have been right. A lot of the guys I know are pissed at what the Vietnamese did to us. Well, I was wounded twice and I was pissed about it when it happened. But now I think, what was I doing there? 

I was really occupying their country, trying to force my will upon them, my brutality. What would happen if somebody did that to the United States?

Nobody wants to be occupied. I would not want it, why would I think that they want it? Why does anybody think the Iraqi’s want it? The paper calls them insurgents. They are anti-occupation forces. They have a right to self-determination and to run their country their own way. Just because we do not agree with their form of government, who made us God? Why does everybody have to do what we say? 

When I think about Vietnam I would say, what did we buy with the sacrifices that we made? We got a black marble wall in Washington. To me, the only way that it would be worthwhile, that it would have been a sacrifice that was worth it, was if my country would have learned from it and would not have done it again. So, the fact that they are doing it again, to another generation, is like kicking sand in my face. It is like shitting on all those guys’ names that are on the wall. It really disturbs me a lot.

A: I know eventually you became a forward observer. What would you say was an average day for you as a forward observer?

C: Normally when I talk about Vietnam, I talk about the worst days. So, I spent about 600 days there and I probably talk about the twenty worst days and all those other days I really do not think about. 

Basically, as a forward observer I am attached out to an infantry company, and that company is part of an infantry battalion. So somewhere out in the middle of Vietnam, in the jungle, is a battalion headquarters and there is a map and that map has what is called a TAOR, the total area of responsibility. 

We are responsible for everything in that area, so the main battalion CP is in the middle, let’s say, and then there are four companies to a battalion, so one company stays in the battalion area, they provide security for the battalion and all of the motor pool, and sick bay and all the stuff that takes place. The other three companies each go out to someplace in that map and they are called company areas. You got a map and you have been assigned to checkpoint A, checkpoint B, checkpoint C and you walk around and look for people to kill, and that is what you do. 

So, in the daytime you are walking through the jungle, looking for people to kill [and] at nighttime you set up a perimeter and you also send out a squad patrol. So you are always basically walking around looking for people to kill and 80 percent of the time, even more than that, nothing is going on as far as enemy contact with people. 

But, everyday as you are walking along, people are stepping on things and blowing up. So you got to stop, you got to stop the bleeding, you have to setup a perimeter of security [and] you have to call in a Medivac helicopter to come in and get the wounded guy. And that goes on every day.

To me, everyone who did that deserves the Congressional Medal of Honor. Just for that. I cannot tell you how fearful it is walking around places where you have see your friends being blown up. 

Then every once and a while, we would run into some of them and fight them. They would ambush us, or we would have a nice ambush and ambush them, or we would have what is called an operational intelligence that sighted a bunch of them somewhere, and we would go with a bunch of guys and attack, and have a big battle. 

Out of those 600 days there may have been twenty battles, but all those battles were horrific kind of battles. 

In one of them I was on a nineteen-man patrol, twelve of them died, and everyone else was wounded except for three of us. Actually they sent people out to rescue us and those people took casualties. 

So when I think about Vietnam, I think about that. I do not think about when nothing was happening or when I was washing my clothes in the river, or sitting down eating a meal, or reading mail from home.

A: What made you sign up for a second tour? Could you have gone home?

C: Yes. I could have gone home, but some of what I am going to say may seem contradictory. You get kind of drunk on power, you get kind of addicted to adrenaline. It is not fun when you are losing, but it is really exciting when you are winning, and I am a little ashamed to say that I found it exciting killing other people. 

But, I am telling you the truth, but my values have changed some and I doubt you could change the feelings I had when I was over there. It was sort of like when you are bowling, and you throw the ball and you get a strike, and it feels good inside. 

When you get someone in your cross hairs, and you squeeze that trigger and you see then fall down, you feel good.

There is also a kind of camaraderie, which you cannot understand. Police would understand, firemen would understand, [but] not to the extent of another soldier. 

To be continued in the Jan-Feb 2024 Iguana. For the full interview, see tinyurl.com/Iguana1734.

The Samuel Proctor Oral History Program believes that listening carefully to first-person narratives can change the way we understand history, from scholarly questions to public policy.

 SPOHP needs the public’s help to sustain and build upon its research, teaching and service missions: even small donations can make a big difference in SPOHP’s ability to gather, preserve, and promote history for future generations.

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