AN AMERICAN PRISONER IN VIETNAM

Chapter 15

– “James, do you want to become a kind of Jesus for the people in the White House and the Pentagon?”

– “That’s an exaggerated comparison, Ms. Chi Mai.”

– “It’s obvious that you pay the penalty for the warmongers.”

– “I’m only paying the penalty for myself.”

– “You aren’t the culprit here.”

– “Yes, I am.”

– “What are your war crimes?”

– “My crime was being born a human being. Even worse, an American.”

– “I think you have become disoriented.”

– “I’m fully alert. Let me say this. We Catholics believe everybody was born a sinner, so we were christened at birth. As we were growing up, we continued to confess our sins, for we are always haunted by the feeling of guilt against God, other human beings, and ourselves. I can call it the sin of being a human being. Due to that constant feeling of guilt, we try not to sin. But today, I’ve learned that besides the sin of being a man, I also have the sin of being an American.”

– “Then you are the Jesus of the American people?”

– “I don’t think I deserve that honor.”

– “You haven’t confessed for a long time, have you?”

– “That’s right.”

– “Then you must have accumulated a lot of sin. Right?”

– “I haven’t confessed to a priest, but I have done so to my suffering, and to the punishment from you. I hope that my sins are reduced thanks to that. I had thought man only sinned against God. But now I understand he also sins against his fellow human beings. Whatever the punishment is, I believe a man will be saved if he is honest and true to himself. Whoever is true and honest deserves to be called a human being. And only God is able to judge the sins a person actually committed or the sins that others blame on him.”

– “How do you like God to judge you?”

– “As a true human being.”

– “You have been true, and honestly stupid. You would rather be blamed for the wrongdoings of others. What reward do you hope for in your paradise?”

– “The reward for those who thirst for righteousness.”

– “Do you mean righteousness for the wicked?”

– “For both the wicked and the meek, Ms. Chi Mai.”

She looks straight into his eyes, trying to detect in them any sign showing he has been bewildered because of fear due to the punishment of the past few weeks. She only finds honesty in his eyes. He maintains his composure, and no where can she find any trace of hatred in his look. Chi Mai feels uncomfortable. She hasn’t been successful in really understanding his soul. The art of police work that she has learned form the police academy in Moscow hasn’t helped her very much. Chi Mai knows she is facing a real challenge.

– “James.”

He looks up.

– “I’m listening.”

She smiles gently.

– “Do you need a cigarette to keep you alert?”

He replies.

– “I am alert without a cigarette. But I wouldn’t be honest if I turned down your offer.”

She feels relieved at his comments.

– “Are you craving a cigarette?”

He smiles.

– “I am.”

Chi Mai hands a pack of Winston cigarettes and a box of matches to him. He lights up a cigarette and smokes it with pleasure.

– “It is wonderful to smoke at this place. I don’t think I will enjoy it as much when I go back home.”

– “Can you tell me why? she asks.”

– “Because the cigarettes there won’t have the fragrance of suffering.”

– “You have made progress, James. Do you know why America lost the war in Vietnam?”

– “No, I don’t.”

– “American soldiers are a bunch of dandies. It takes a dozen people to support a GI going to war. All they are concerned with is physical comfort. They would take refrigerators and air conditioners to the battlefields if they could. No wonder they are afraid of death. Our soldiers think very little of those bulky guys.”

– “What about your communist soldiers?”

– “Our soldiers are lightly equipped. Each man carries two roots of manioc: one is to be eaten, the other is to be put into the ground.”

– “Put into the ground?”

– “That’s right. Three months after it is planted, one manioc will grow into many maniocs, to be used by other soldiers on their way to the battlefield.”

James chuckles at what Chi Mai says. She asks,

– “You don’t believe it?”

He shakes his head. She says,

– “Our country is poor in many ways. But we are rich in suffering.”

– “And hatred, too.”

– You’re right. Equipped with those two factors, our soldiers fight and defeat our enemies. You may not believe that many of our wounded soldiers are treated right at the battlefields, their arms and legs being cut off without any anesthetic; and the tool used is just a wood saw. Our soldiers can live away from their families for ten years without even one leave for a visit. They can endure hunger and don’t waver in their determination to be victorious. Just by the things I mention, our soldiers can defeat yours easily. As a poor country, having been through bondage and continuous fighting, many people in Vietnam, up to this day, haven’t had a chance to taste condensed milk. Quite a few don’t know what Coca Cola tastes like. Yet, the US capitalists have devastated our nation.”

James listens intently to what she says.

– “You hate crimes, I know, James. But you should do it on behalf of human beings, and not on behalf of any country or people.”

He nods,

– “You are right.”

She adds,

– “The war has its own cruel laws. It was logical that America fought and defeated Japan, because the latter struck first at Pearl Harbor. It was right for America to fight fascist Germany, because Germany invaded Europe and systematically exterminated people of another race. However, it didn’t make sense for a great power like the USA to mobilize its whole armed forces to invade a small country like Vietnam. Not only that, it hired the mercenaries from Australia, New Zealand, Korea, the Philippines and Thailand to fight the Vietnamese people. It was like a rich giant bullying a little, poor man. US fighter planes had dropped thousands of tons of bombs over our villages, killing innocent women and children. Did you know that, James?”

James blinks.

– “No, I didn’t. I was stationed at Utapao. I wasn’t aware of anything that happened in Saigon or Hanoi.”

– “If you had known…?”

– “On behalf of humanity, I would have protested.”

– “Did you know about the massacre at My Lai village, where Lt. Calley ordered his soldiers to kill three hundred unarmed people; most of them women, old men and children?”

– “No, I didn’t.”

– “If you had known…?”

– “On behalf of all human beings, I would have protested.”

– “What do you think about the common practice of some GI’s who hit and run in the streets of Saigon?”

– “That’s inhuman.”

– “What do you think about the chemical that US planes sprayed over our forest, which destroyed the living environment of animals, birds and fishes?”

– “I’m against that.”

– “It would take half a million American soldiers about one hundred years to fill all the craters caused by US bombs and artillery in Vietnam. Our cities and towns have been devastated by bombs and ammunition made in America. These bombs excavated our ancestral tombs and maimed hundreds of thousands of our people. James, do you think we had ever thrown a grenade in your country during that time? Your people, the Americans, never had the intention to fight us. Do you know who has benefited from the tragic deaths of fifty-eight thousand American young men? I guess you have read the magazine about this question?”

– “Yes, I have.”

– “US soldiers had died in vain for the dirty ambition of the warmongers and their Vietnamese hangmen in Saigon.”

She stops talking. Her eyes are deep in thoughts. Chi Mai looks at James; her voice is filled with emotion.

– “I have ordered the nurse to give you a tetanus shot; but you should also take antibiotics to prevent the injuries by rat bites from becoming infected.”

He exhales a large puff of smoke.

– “Thank you.”

Chi Mai continues her talk.

– “I pity the honest and naive GI’s. They have all been deceived. James, I hope you have come to a conclusion about the warmongers and their inhuman policies.”

He says,

– “I understand what you’ve told me. Please understand I honor the truth. We Americans have a characteristic that you probably dislike. That is our practical mind. We only believe what we personally see, hear, and touch.”

She frowns.

– “That type of American has vanished. The Americans nowadays are subject to the press, radio, and television, the tools of capitalists, those who hold power and share interests.”

He lights another cigarette.

– “Every nation has certain people who are influenced by nonsensical opinions. If you think the true Americans have vanished, at least I am the last true American who remains.”

She frowns again.

– “So you have turned down my offer again?”

He stands up, his head holds high.

– “Ms. Chi Mai, I am sorry.”

She angrily pounds her fist on the desk.

– “You will be sorry for this.”

He gently bows to her.

– “I hope not, Ms. Chi Mai.”

—> 16

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