AN AMERICAN PRISONER IN VIETNAM

Chapter 3

What Chi Mai tells him is true. He is lead to a room about twelve feet long and nine feet wide. Both the ceiling and the walls are made of thick consolidated concrete. The door is a heavy steel block. The window is above his head; its iron bars are as big as a man’s wrist. There is a big jar of water next to the latrine, a bunk bed with mosquito net, blanket, rush mat and pillow. A table and stool are placed in the middle of the room. James Fisher once more becomes a special guest of Ly Ba So camp. His room is lighted at night by a dim bulb. He no longer has to sleep with his arm folded as a pillow, next to a pail containing his waste. In the morning, he is treated with a cup of condensed milk coffee, and a first-class cigarette. The guard waits until he finishes the cigarette and puts it out before he leaves the room and locks the door tight. There are meat, fish and fresh vegetables in his meals. There are always a cup of tea and a cigarette after every meal. The guards are around while he is eating. They want to make sure he has no matches. James thinks that even if James Bond were here and wanted to escape, he would not have a chance. The guards are making their rounds around his room, day and night. James cannot see any piece of metal around, not even a little piece of glass. James has never thought of an escape. Neither has anyone thought that a B52 can be shot down in the Vietnam battleground.

During his short training in boot camp, James was not trained in how to survive in the jungle. He was drafted. He did not join the armed forces as a volunteer. Much less a volunteer for life-and-death missions. In response to the call from his nation, James joined the Air Force to fulfill his citizen’s duty. He hates crimes and is afraid of sinning. He does not want to blame his country. Neither does he like to evade his duty. He always remembers John Kennedy’s words: “Don’t ask what the country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”

James loves his country. He bears in mind that his country never betrays him. Only he may betray his country. James participates in the war because his country needs him. He does not know, and does not care to know, any plans or ambitions related to that war. During the week after his meeting with Chi Mai, James begins to think about the White House and the Pentagon. Even though James does not believe what Chi Mai tells him, he begins to wonder. Are the two countries at peace already? Has America lost the war in Vietnam? Has his government abandoned him and stated that he is not one of the MIA’s? James feels that the pain has penetrated deep into his muscles. He does not sleep well any longer. His mind has been strongly shaken. He misses his family and home. He is upset because his country has lost the war. Americans have never known defeat. They always have victory over their enemies. James’ tears roll down his cheeks. He weeps. No, Americans are never defeated. The history book of his people is filled with one glorious victory after another. His country cannot lose the war in Vietnam, a country whose place is hardly found in the world map. Chi Mai has lied to him. The communists are notorious for lying. Chi Mai is a communist. She has deceived him. She wants him to show signs of weakness. The war is still continuing. His country will win the war. It must defeat the enemies. He will return home in glory. He must hold firm his belief. James wipes off his tears. He vaguely sees the Stars and Stripes hoisted on the island of Iwo Jima. He sees it flying over the streets of Paris after D-Day.

James Fisher is running around his room. He sings “The Longest Day.” He sings the national anthem. James wants to chase the thought of his country’s defeat out of his mind…

The guard opens the door and leads him to Chi Mai’s office when his morale is at its highest peak. This is the same office where he first met her. James notices a tape recorder and a video player on the desk. Chi Mai is not in her uniform today. She is dressed in a short-sleeved yellow shirt and black slacks. Her bare smooth white arms bewilder him. James finds her face more tender, her eyes more fascinating. Chi Mai does not sit behind her desk. She pulls a chair around and sits on it, facing James in front of the desk.

– “Are you feeling comfortable?”

– “Thank you, I feel fine.”

A packet of Winston and a can of Coca-Cola are already placed on the desk.

– “James, please help yourself.”

He pulls out a cigarette and opens the can.

– “In my office, you are my guest. You are free to smoke and enjoy your national drink. But out of here, you’re under the jurisdiction of others. I hope you’ll understand it.”

– “I understand. Thank you.”

– “I don’t think you do.”

– “Yes, I do.”

– “You aren’t sincere.”

– “Yes, I am.”

She smiles shyly.

– “Just by looking in your eyes, I know you aren’t sincere. I mean you don’t believe what I’ve told you.”

She continues, without letting him reply.

– “Americans are practical. They have to touch, see, and feel a thing to believe it. Isn’t that right, James?”

He nods.

– “Yes, that’s right.”

– “You don’t believe the war has ended?”

– “No, I don’t.”

– “You don’t believe that a peace agreement has been signed between the US and Vietnam in Paris?”

– “That’s right.”

– “You don’t believe there have been POW exchanges between the two sides?”

– “No, I don’t.”

– “I know. You Americans aren’t accustomed to signing peace treaties. The USA has always forced other countries to surrender. But history has changed. Vietnam has taught the USA a lesson. A bitter one. You will feel that bitterness very deeply.”

James Fisher doesn’t know how Chi Mai understands all his inner feelings. He doesn’t know that he has been too naive and honest before her.

– “I’ll let you watch these videotapes. I hope you’ll recognize some of your commanding officers and fellow pilots.”

She puts the videocassette into the player and pushes a button. On the TV screen appears the title “Dien Bien Phu On The Air. ” The film is about the air battles over Hanoi. James sees dozens of Phantoms and F115’s striking different important targets in Hanoi. He notices the MIG 19’s and MIG 21’s of the Vietnamese communist air force going up to battle with US planes. SAM 3’s and SAM 6’s antiaircraft missiles are interweaving a net of fire in the sky.

James watches some US planes being shot down. The film doesn’t show any MIG’s being shot down. The whole film, lasting 20 minutes, is narrated in English. James’ heart aches when he hears his armed forces being called the “invaders”, his nation “the invading imperialist”, “the brain of the dirty war”, “the criminal of humanity”.

Chi Mai turns off the video player.

– “You’re upset, aren’t you?”

James remains silent.

Chi Mai continues,

– “That’s what war is. But the democratic and progressive Americans aren’t involved in that dirty war. You must have listened to Joan Baez’s music and seen Jane Fonda’s films, haven’t you?”

He replies:

– “Yes, I have.”

– “Joan Baez has come to Hanoi to sing for the POW’s. Jane Fonda has witnessed our capital being destroyed by American bombers. They are the two great friends of Vietnam. They are anti-war. They oppose the US involvement in Vietnam. They speak out against US war crimes in Vietnam. Even in your country, millions of democratic and progressive people are demonstrating against the Vietnam War. The youth there are anti-war.” Chi Mai stops talking. She picks up the packet of cigarettes and hands it to James. She herself lights the cigarette for him.

– “I didn’t want to upset you, James. You are practical, and you want to know the truth. But the truth cannot comfort you. I’m sorry…”

James exhales a ring of smoke; his voice is filled with sadness.

– “There’s nothing for you to be sorry about.” Chi Mai smiles.

– “Thank you, James.”

She adds,

– “Dien Bien Phu On The Air” has been shown all over Europe. Many TV stations in America have shown it too. The whole world is supporting the resistance of the Vietnamese people against US invasion. US imperialism is being condemned by every nation. James, you were drafted into the armed forces. You are not a professional soldier, much less a mercenary. You are just a victim of a cruel war system, a tool in the hands of the White House and the Pentagon. Don’t pay attention to the name-callings on the US armed forces. Imagine you are a Vietnamese living a peaceful life in your country. Your country has never declared war on the USA; yet US bombers have dropped bombs, launched rockets on your cities, killing your people, excavating your ancestors’ graves. What would you call the Americans if you were in this situation? In any war, the right cause is always on the side of the weak, those who have to defend for their survival. James, I don’t think you want to invade my country, or kill my people, do you? I believe you have been deceived by the White House and the Pentagon to become their henchman. At last, those top leaders have abandoned you. And here, you sit in the dark, dreaming of glory.”

She talks without interruption. James feels his head is going to explode. He doesn’t know Chi Mai. He doesn’t know anything about her. Yet, it seems to him that she has full control of his soul. It appears that she knows how to guide his sentiments, able to predict when he gets angry, what will cause him to suffer, when he is homesick, and what can bring him hope.

– “James, don’t you think that you have been abandoned?”

– “No, I don’t.”

– “And you still want to know the truth?”

– “Yes.”

– “Even if after that, you will weep and curse those who have abandoned you?”

James is silent.

Chi Mai ejects the cassette, and inserts another. The PLAY button is pressed. The second film, entitled “The Distinguished Guests At Hilton”, is also narrated in Vietnamese. It begins with the scenes of American pilots being captured and taken away by communist guerrillas. James can identify himself with this, seeing his fellow soldiers, hands high over their heads; being escorted to the HILTON Hotel by fierce-looking women guerrillas, with rifles in their hands. Then comes the scene of gloomy-looking POW’s in burgundy striped prison uniforms playing volleyball, standing and smoking cigarettes, talking to one another. Joan Baez appears with her guitar and begins to sing. The POW’s listen listlessly and clap their hand reluctantly. James cannot see the “HILTON Hotel” where he was one of the “distinguished guests”. The next scene is an international press conference where POW’s are presented. Each one has to declare his name, serial number, rank, and express his impression. James watches and listens intently. He looks at the sad faces of his fellow fighters. He listens to their weary and bitter words. What upsets him most is when he sees the commanding officer of a B52 squadron, a colonel, praise Pham Tuan, the communist pilot who shot down his B52. The colonel had thought that his plane was hit by a SAM 6, and didn’t know that Pham Tuan had shot him down. The narrator has an opportunity to praise Pham Tuan and the valiant Vietnamese pilots.

It was the first time in the history of the US air force, according to this narrator, that a US air bomber was shot down by a Vietnamese pilot in an air fight. The American Goliath had to bow his head before the Vietnamese David. At last, the narrator talks about the USA being bogged down in the shameful quagmire of Vietnam, and has to begin the negotiations in Paris. According to the narrator, the Vietnamese side honors the agreement they have signed by releasing US POW’s. James Fisher watches as US pilots are being turned over to the representatives of the Department of Defense who come to Gia Lam airport to welcome them. James sees the joyful faces of the representatives, and the gloomy expression of the POW’s who are walking fast, trying to evade the radio and television reporters who want to interview them.

Chi Mai turns off the video player again.

– “The White House and the Pentagon have forgotten you, James.”

James’ voice is a little shaky.

– “Maybe.”

Her words seem to touch the end of his nerves.

– “I’m sure of that. You are not even on the list of POW’s they hand over to us for the exchange.”

Chi Mai pushes a button on her desk. The guard opens the door.

– “James, go back to your cell and think about what you’ve just seen.”

He follows the guard to his place, and forgets to say good bye to her.

—> 4

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