AN AMERICAN PRISONER IN VIETNAM

Chapter 4

James’ mind is so disturbed. He doesn’t feel hungry, although dinner today consisted of a bowl of vegetable soup, bread, steak, and two bananas. He begins to believe what Chi Mai has told him. Now he knows the war has ended. There is a peace agreement, and prisoners have been exchanged. James even recognizes a few of his comrades-in-arms from the B52 crew being released. They must be home with their families now. According to the film narrator, all US POW’s have been released. Why is he the only one who remains here? Why?

He has asked himself that same question a thousand times. He asks the four walls surrounding him. He asks the lifeless steel door. He asks the cold, immobile iron bars. He questions the solitude that is wrapping him in. He even asks the same question to God over and over again. “You still want to know the truth even though after that, you will weep and curse those who have abandoned you?” Chi Mai has asked him.

James has seen the truth. He has not wept. Nor has he cursed those who have abandoned him. But who are they? Chi Mai has repeatedly said they are in the White House and the Pentagon. No, the White House and the Pentagon didn’t ask him to go to war. He knows nothing about what she calls “the warmongers”, their schemes and ambitions. James was born and grew up in America. America is his country. The country has nurtured him. Each drop of his blood, each little cell in his body is embalmed with the fragrance of America. James believes God has created man; but it is a man’s country that gives him life, confidence, hope, love, and the pride of being a man. A man is no longer a human being when he starts to betray his country and curse his nation. As a decent human being, he should not even try to blame his country for what has happened to him. The country has called him, and he has responded. James has not won the battle for his country, and he is accountable for that. James’ country has not questioned him about his failure; how dare he blame his country? No, James cannot blame his country, even though it has abandoned him. James tries to comfort himself and guides his thoughts to other things. He thinks of the narrow way and the parables of Jesus. He thinks of the suffering the Lord was bearing on the cross. But as a weak, suffering creature, James’ mind is still tormented, and he cannot find rest. He no longer enjoys the peace he used to have during his days in solitary confinement. Is that the price he has to pay for taking the wide road? James wants to forget the two films with their distorted, staged scenes that have infiltrated his mind and affected his convictions. James keeps on repeating to himself, “Peace doesn’t mean defeat. It just means the end of the war”. James thinks of some Japanese soldiers, completely unaware of their country’s defeat and the war being over, holding on to their weapons in the deep jungles of the Philippines for years. A number of them died without a grave, in loneliness, firm in their minds was the belief that they would win the war and return to their homeland in glory. James knows he will hold on to the same belief, ready to die in solitude, even without a grave, as a deserving soldier who never blames or curses anyone.

James gradually regains his inner peace. He eats and sleeps regularly. Whenever he needs to think, James thinks about America, about his home state Texas, and his childhood by the Rio Grande. He thinks about his family, his cozy house, his kind neighbors, and the peaceful life there. James turns on the strong lamp of reminiscence to light up his path to the beloved town where he grew up. In that land of memories were butterflies and flowers in the fields, soft breeze and bird songs by the stream. How he enjoys remembering the summer days when Susan McCareen held his hand, the two running freely in the grassland. The little town in his memories has become a safe hiding place for him, away from all the mental suffering, and the vicious arrows of doubt which aimed at his honest heart. By the time James has gotten over his depression, he is brought to Chi Mai’s office for another interrogation. The tape recorder is in the middle of her desk. Chi Mai is dressed in a long-sleeved pink shirt and dark blue trousers. James can detect a faint scent of perfume from her. Chi Mai smiles.

– “Hi James. How have you been?”

– “I’ve been fine, thank you.”

– “You’ve been thinking, too, I guess.”

– “How do you know?”

– “Through your eyes.”

– “You like to look at my eyes, don’t you, Ms. Chi Mai?”

She claps her hands.

– “Bravo! You have finally pronounced my name correctly, James.”

He says,

– “I need to try harder to understand you correctly, too.”

– “Look straight into my eyes.”

She opens her eyes wide, without blinking. Then she asks,

– “What do you see?”

He replies,

– “I hope you’re sincere.”

She grimaces.

– “You know I am sincere. You have known who I am and who you are. Between you and me, the one who should have any doubt is I, not you. Have I ever been lying to you, James?”

He says,

– “Not that I know of, during the past two weeks.”

– “I never have, and never will lie to you.”

– “I hope so.”

– “You must be sad when thinking about the truth that I’ve told you. I guess you are still in search for the truth, aren’t you, James?” She suddenly changes the subject.

– “Excuse me, James. Please have a drink and some cigarettes.”

James hesitates.

– “Thank you.”

Chi Mai waits until James has lighted the cigarette and opened the can of soft drink. She says,

– “I forgot to tell you this. After our meeting, you will be given a nice haircut and a clean shave. You will have a chance to look at yourself in the mirror.”

James nods.

– “Thank you.”

Chi Mai begins her questioning.

– “I hope you have now agreed with me that the US war machine has forsaken you.”

– “No, my country has not, and will never forsake me.”

– “I’m sure that your country has forsaken you. One’s country is something very sacred. To you, and to me, of course. Let’s not talk about our countries right now, OK, James?”

– “OK.”

– “If you don’t believe that the US war machine has forsaken you, I’ll drop this issue, too.”

– “Thank you.”

– “I respect people’s belief. You can keep your belief in those who have been condemned and despised by the whole progressive mankind, even by US POW’s and soldiers who participated in this war themselves. While we’re talking here, the democratic and progressive people in the USA, the press, and Congress condemn and despise those who conducted the Vietnam war.”

– “I don’t condemn or despise anyone when I don’t have any proof of what they have done.”

– “Don’t you know that the leaders of that war machine have disgraced the American people, and caused a stain in US history?”

– “ I don’t think so.”

– “You don’t know that the USA has lost the war in Indochina, I guess.”

– “The USA never loses any war. Never.”

– “They have lost because they thought Vietnam was like the Indian tribes, the Apache’s and the Cheyenne’s. Do you want to see the film about the US defeat in Vietnam? I guarantee that this film was recorded and edited by American reporters. It has been shown all over the world; and in America, too. Shall we see it, James?”

Seeing his hesitation, Chi Mai challenges.

– “You’ve watched the truth twice already. It won’t hurt you any more, I hope.”

Sitting upright in his chair, James replies,

– “Why not? The truth may be painful, but it makes a person mature.”

Chi Mai compliments,

– “Wonderful idea!”

She presses the PLAY button. The film was made by a private news agency. The narrator must be a native speaker of English. The setting is in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. The Cambodians are fleeing as the Khmer Rouge head towards the city. They go to the US embassy, hoping to be evacuated together with the Americans. Ambassador John Gunther Dean, with the Stars and Stripes in his hand, nervously runs towards the helicopter. Ambassador Dean is an outstanding symbol of a defeated USA.

James Fisher feels himself perspiring profusely. A cold chill is running through his spine. His invincible country has been defeated in Cambodia. James sees the idol of victory collapse right in front of him. He tries to hold back his tears. James doesn’t want to weep before a woman, a young Vietnamese woman.

– “I hope by seeing the panic-stricken ambassador, you have become wiser and more mature.”

Chi Mai says, as she ejects the cassette,

– “He was lucky to have enough time for the flag!”

She puts in another cassette. This time, the setting is Saigon. The confusion here is worse than that in Phnom Penh. Transport planes are landing and taking off at Tan Son Nhat airport. On April 29, 1975, thousands of people gather around the US embassy on Thong Nhat Ave., hoping to be evacuated. US Marines are using rifle butts to beat anyone who makes an attempt to enter the embassy compound without proper documentation. Helicopters are busily shuttling evacuees to aircraft carriers. The Americans are leaving during the night of April 29th. Ambassador Martin is among the last of the people to leave. The next morning, April 30th, the communists enter Saigon. Their tanks proudly rumble on Thong Nhat Blvd. Their red flags are hoisted over the Independence Palace and the American embassy. On the afternoon of April 30th, on the streets of Saigon, thousands of military clothes, helmets, M16’s, made in USA, are thrown about in disorder. The next day, May 1st, red flags are all over Saigon. The victorious army is seen everywhere. James cannot believe his eyes. He suddenly feels dizzy. “The Green Berets,” with his favorite actor, John Wayne, comes to his mind like a flash and disappears in a fraction of a second. That Hollywood film about the invincible American heroes makes no sense now. The USA has actually been defeated in Vietnam. The Vietnamese David has beaten the giant US Goliath.

– “I believe you’ve become wiser, James.”

She pushes the STOP button and ejects the cassette.

– “You’ll be a lot wiser, James. I think we should know how to distinguish real pain from an imaginary one, and natural pain from a fabricated one.”

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

– “James, think about what we have discussed.”

He says goodbye to her and wearily follows the guard to his place.

—> 5

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