AN AMERICAN PRISONER IN VIETNAM

Chapter 11

– “I’m very sorry, James.”

– “Do I have to rewrite?”

– “Yes.”

– “I will write again.”

– “That’s good.”

– “What shall I write?”

– “From your tenth birthday until the day you were captured.”

– “Can you lend me the thing I wrote yesterday?”

– “Sorry. I can’t.”

– “Do you mean I have to start from scratch?”

– “Yes, with thirty new sheets that have been numbered.”

James begins to write his declaration again, starting with his first footsteps along the Rio Grande. Although still being inspired, his speed is decreasing. His right fingers have started to swell. It takes James two days to rewrite his life from the age of ten until the day he was captured. Chi Mai doesn’t bother him while he is writing. James still has cigarettes to smoke, and Coca-Cola to drink. He has complete freedom to write in that cool and quiet office. Chi Mai reads his writing and shakes her head with another “I’m sorry, James.” James writes it the third time. He tries to finish thirty sheets of paper. His fingers don’t hurt as much now. James doesn’t know why Chi Mai is not pleased with what he has written. She doesn’t even tell him the reason why he has to rewrite it.

– “I’m sorry, James.”

– “You don’t agree with what I write?”

– “I must say it is you who doesn’t agree with you.”

– “I’ve written it three times.”

– “The three versions are different from one another. They are like the life stories of three persons.”

– “May I borrow those three versions so I may see the differences?”

. – “James, you have been complying, so far. I hope you will continue to behave properly. You probably know that prisoners don’t have the right to demand anything, don’t you? Have you read the regulations of this prison?”

– “No, I haven’t.”

– “Strictly obey the orders of prison officials. You must rewrite it.”

– “From the beginning?”

– “Yes, from your tenth birthday until the date you were captured.”

James writes his declaration the fourth time, then the fifth time, the seventh, the eight, the ninth, the tenth time, about his life from age ten until the day he was captured. When it is the thirtieth time, all the things about himself- his childhood, his youth, his teachers and friends, his hopes and dreams- are being dragged on the pages of this weird self-declaration process. The past comes and goes, walks and runs, crawls and jumps on the pages. James’ rosy memories are bludgeoned. His most beautiful days and months are assaulted. James is scared now. He is terrified to write about the things that are very dear to him: family, school, friendship, and love. James, the American soldier who symbolizes the Good, the Truth, and the Beauty of the USA, came to Vietnam without any ideology. He only responded to the call of his country. His country needed him, and he went to war. Now the poor man is being tossed around in the games of ideology. He has to participate in its most vicious form of torture- “self-declaration” in an era when darkness has closed in on human common sense.

James looks weary and emaciated. This form of soul torture has taken a toll on him. James is afraid thinking of tomorrow; for tomorrow always brings him more pain. James can feel the claws of ideology nipping on his brain; its sharp teeth gnawing at his nerves. Just looking at the stack of white paper brings him a feeling of terror. The tiny pen sends chills along his spine. James wishes he could be executed today so that he won’t have to write another page tomorrow. Now he understands what the communists mean when they talk about the humane treatment in their prisons and their lenient policy towards prisoners. During the eight years in solitary confinement underground, James suffered cold and hunger; and he was able to endure that kind of suffering. But with this new game of “self-declaration,” James knows he has exhausted his mental strength.

Chi Mai doesn’t seem to be moved by the torture he’s suffering. When it is the fiftieth time of writing, thirty pages are too many for him. James can no longer write anything. He’s going to have a nervous breakdown. Chi Mai doesn’t relent. While he’s asleep, she has the guard wake him up to write. As he begins to have his meal, she calls him to her office to write. When he’s lying sick in bed, she has him rewrite his “self-declaration.” James gradually loses his appetite. He can no longer sleep at night. He becomes thin and pale. There’s a dark circle around his eyes. James doesn’t know what he has written. He can no longer control himself. James becomes unconscious while having to write. He puts nonsensical things on the paper. James writes a letter to his parents. He writes “I love Susan” all over the pages. He writes the lyric of the national anthem and draws the map of the U.S. James composes poems. He writes down his prayers to God and asks his Lord Jesus to deliver him from this place.

Right at the moment James’ mind is almost paralyzed and ready to do anything just to be out of this “self-declaration” torture, Chi Mai takes him to her office.

– “James, do you remember how many times you have written your life story?”

– “Seventy.”

– “No.”

– “Sixty?”

– “No. Try to remember.”

– “I don’t remember.”

– “One hundred and twelve times.”

Chi Mai smiles.

– “You haven’t broken the record yet.”

James is nervously waiting for the comment he abhors. She knows that, and deliberately keeps silent. She enjoys prolonging his worry. It’s like a wolf toying with a lamb to exhaust her prey before eating it.

– “James.”

– “Yes.”

– “I’m very sorry, James.”

James Fisher is stunned.

– “Your writings, especially the most recent ones, are so confusing. You are worn out already, aren’t you?”

He replies,

– “Yes, I am.”

She pauses a moment and says,

– “I’d like you to write one more, just one more.”

James startles.

– “From my tenth birthday until the day I was captured?”

She shakes her head.

– “No. Not unless you want to do it again. You have a choice of writing a new topic or the old one.”

James wriggles in his chair

. – “I’d like to write a new topic.”

She rests her chin on her hand.

– “The new thing is very short. As you are exhausted already, let me read it to you.”

He asks,

– “ What is it about?”

She replies,

– “It’s quite simple. The same thing that other POW’s had written before they left for America.”

She pretends to tap on her forehead.

– The same statement Lt. Colonel Kirt Powell had written. The other POW’s copied his statement, signed their names and read them into the tape recorder. You’ll do just that before we let you go home. Let me read it to you: “My name is James Fisher, serial number 66/156885, rank: second lieutenant, mechanical engineer, B52 crew member. I was shot down on December 10, 1972 over North Vietnam. I strongly condemn the warmongers in the White House and the Pentagon for waging the dirty war in Vietnam. I had refused to go back to America. Instead, I volunteered to stay in Vietnam to help these heroic people rebuild the country of Ho Chi Minh. Today, I’m going back to the USA. Signed James Fisher.”

James suddenly realizes. The serpent is sitting right in front of him. She is tempting him to eat the forbidden apple. A certain mysterious impulse has just run past his brain, invigorating him, helping him to stay alert. Chi Mai jerks her chin up.

– “It’s easy, isn’t it, James?”

James stands up, his voice is firm.

– “Ms. Chi Mai, I’m very sorry.”

Her voice sounds curt.

– ‘You mean you aren’t going to write it?’

Still standing upright, he looks straight at her.

– “Ms. Chi Mai, I’m very sorry.”

She seems undisturbed by his refusal.

– “That’s fine with me. Now you can rewrite an account of your life from your tenth birthday until the day you were captured.”

He bows graciously.

– “With pleasure, ma’am.”

She purses her lips.

– “And you may expect something else in the days ahead.”

James is taken back to his room. He blames himself for not reflecting on this game of self-declaration. If James had thought about it, he could have come to a conclusion about that barbarous game. Its aim is to destroy his morale and exhaust his strength, forcing him to betray his country. His captors want him to confess his war crimes and denounce his country. They haven’t succeeded, so far. They are going to cause him more miseries as punishment for his refusal to be subdued. James knows he must continue his struggle for survival. The game they play is becoming more vicious every day. They want to break my beliefs and cause doubts in myself. James is grateful because God has come to rescue him. He can feel His presence very near him. James knows he must persevere in this battle to be worthy of God’s calling. His country may lose the war, but its soldiers will never lose it. James the soldier will not be defeated. He will win. He must win.

His determination is put to the test right away. Chi Mai has the guard bring him in to write his declaration during the day, without letting him eat his meals. She orders him to write during the night, denying him his sleep. James calmly puts up with all that. He slowly writes and rewrites his childhood and youth. James is determined to struggle and strengthen his pride in his country. Chi Mai has waited for the moment James falls down before her, begging her to let him write whatever she wants him to write. She is disappointed. James is not the dandy type. Being a soldier by choice, James has been turned, through suffering and humiliation in prison, into a bar of steel. It’s more difficult for her to trap him than she has thought. His sincerity, integrity, and courage have helped him overcome the game of ideology. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

After two weeks of torturing James day and night with the vicious game of “self-declaration” and unable to break him, Chi Mai stops the game. She is not ready to give up yet. Hasn’t she told him that there will be other things waiting for him in the days ahead ?

—> 12

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