AN AMERICAN PRISONER IN VIETNAM

Chapter 5

The barber uses clippers and scissors to give him a haircut. His hair is combed neatly. Lathered soap is applied to his beard before it is shaved. A mirror is given to him. James looks at himself. He can hardly recognize his own face. James was in solitary confinement for eight years, completely cut off from life. James has been moving backwards while the world is going forwards. The USA has been defeated. It has lost Nicaragua, and is going to lose El Salvador. How is his country now? Eight years in prison here is equal to how many thousand years in America? James cannot believe how he can lead such a vegetating life that long. James looks at his face again. He gets scared. His eyes are hollow and dull. The two cheeks are emaciated. And his teeth! They had never been in contact with toothpaste or toothbrush until two weeks ago, when Chi Mai began to interrogate him. James returns the mirror to the barber. He is led to the bathroom for a shower. A new prison uniform is given to him.

At dinner, James finds his food more abundant and nutritious. The food quality keeps on improving. According to Chi Mai, he needs to regain his strength while waiting to go back to America. He believes what she says. Chi Mai has never threatened him. She has never forced him to sign any prepared statement to admit any war crime. Neither has she requested him to tape his “confession.” Chi Mai has been quite reasonable and nice to him. James feels that most of the inner pain is caused by him alone. He wants to find the truth; and the most painful truth he has found is that his country has lost the war in Vietnam. After dinner, James lies down on the bed; his hands are on his forehead. James sighs. He looks at the dim, desolate light bulb on the ceiling. Tears are welling in his eyes. Suddenly, the door opens. A guard brings in a bottle of whiskey, a packet of Winston, and a box of matches. He opens the bottle, pours its content into a plastic bottle, and leaves everything on the table. The guard goes out and locks the door. James sees a piece of paper at the bottom of the plastic cup. He gets up, and goes to the table to pick up the paper. He reads silently. “I know you are feeling sad and wish to forget the pain. I think you may need this bottle to ease your sorrow. Although consuming alcohol is against the prison regulation, don’t worry, I will take full responsibility.”

James pours the whiskey into the cup, and drinks a little sip at a time. He lights a cigarette. Having nothing to lose, he doesn’t have to be on guard. As he hasn’t had a drop of alcohol or beer during the past eight years, James grimaces at the first few sips. James didn’t use to drink. He has never been drunk. James used to be the ideal type of American youth. At college, he spent most of his spare time at the gym. James loved sports. What attracted him most was the football field. In a few rare occasions, when having good company, James would drink a bottle of beer. Now, in this unimaginable place, he drinks to forget the pain that has haunted him: America has been defeated.

James lights another cigarette. He draws in a large puff of smoke, and swallows alcohol to suppress it. He wants both alcohol and cigarette smoke to be buried deep in his stomach. His lips and tongue have been affected by alcohol. They seem to be numb now. James no longer needs the plastic cup. He drinks straight from the bottle. James lights one cigarette after another; a match for each cigarette. He feels ecstatic now. James suddenly has a craving for cigarettes. He reaches for the pack. There’s nothing left in it. The box of matches is empty, too; for they have counted just enough matches for him to light the cigarettes. The guard is still watching him from some hole in one of the four walls around him. James is feeling giddy now. The sadness inside him has become more intense than ever before. It seems like a flood is swelling out of him, rising, rising, and filling the room. James buries his face in his hands. He weeps bitterly. His sobbing is choked with tears. “Oh my dear country, America, which has never known defeat.” James has poured the last drops of whiskey into his throat. He staggers around the room, reciting poems, singing his national anthem, and calling out the name of his beloved country. James in now shouting violently. He kicks the chair, and turns the table upside down. He rolls over on the prison floor. “My dear America, do you understand how I feel about you? Oh, my beloved nation! Dear President Eisenhower, why didn’t you join the Vietnam war? Mr. Martin, and Mr. Dean, why did you fold up the flag and run away? Why am I the only one who is left behind in darkness? Who are the war criminals?” James asks the prison walls. He asks the dim, desolate light bulb. And he weeps again. Then he collapses, and sleeps like a log.

James wakes up. His throat is burning dry. All around him is loneliness. Using all his strength, James manages to sit up, and fumbles around to look for a cup of cold water. He gulps down the cup of water. Its coolness makes him feel better. James can see, through the air vent, that it is still dark outside. James wishes he could be in a dark room now. He hates the dim light on the ceiling. Going back to his bed, James closes his eyes, trying to think of the wonderful time living with his parents. His effort is interrupted by the painful present that makes him unable to concentrate on his past.

“I think we should know how to distinguish real pain from an imaginary one, and natural pain from a fabricated one,” Chi Mai has said. “James, think about it.” She always ends the interrogations with the same instruction. James has suffered an inner pain each and every time he goes back to his room to “think about it.” Chi Mai has shed light on his search for the truth. She has not made him suffer physically. So far, she has been quite nice. She has taken him out of the foul-smelling solitary confinement cell. She has made arrangements to improve his living conditions. There is no more truth he needs to search for. Losing the war is the end of everything. It’s finished. Maybe the only truth that he can wish for is the date of his departure for America.

So many thoughts come to James’ mind. Finally he is able to doze off. The clanging of the metallic bar and the twittering of birds wake James up. Coffee and cigarettes are brought in. James drinks the coffee quickly, but doesn’t smoke. His throat still hurts. Another cup of steaming coffee is brought in. This time James sips it slowly, enjoying the flavor of every drop. As soon as he finishes, the door is opened. A guard comes in to take him to Chi Mai’s office.

– “I’m sorry, James.”

He is surprised.

– “Why? Wasn’t it all my fault?”

There’s a stern look on her face.

– “Yes, it was. I thought I could help you forget your sadness. I didn’t expect you would behave that way. I have been reprimanded.” James looks down.

– “Ms. Chi Mai, I apologize.”

She grins.

– “I guess the whiskey wasn’t enough, was it, James?”

He replies,

– “There was more than enough.”

– “I mean not enough to banish your sorrow.”

– “That’s right.”

– “Do you remember what you said while being drunk last night?”

– “No, I don’t.”

– “While weeping like a child, you asked a very innocent question: “Who are the criminals?”

Acting as though she has forgotten something very important, Chi Mai looks at him, and pulls a pair of nail clippers out of her pocket:

– “You shouldn’t let your nails grow long.”

Handing the clippers to him, she says,

– “Use this one to cut your nails right here. Sorry I cannot let you keep it. The camp regulations don’t allow prisoners to keep metal things. They are afraid you may cut your arteries.”

James smiles.

– “As a Christian, I’m not supposed to commit suicide,” he says.

While he was clipping his nails, she asks,

– “Did they issue soap, detergent, toothpaste, and a new uniform to you yesterday?”

James nods.

– “Thank you. I received them all.”

– “I hope you know that my country is still poor. We have suffered for thirty years, during the two wars. It will take a long time for reconstruction. Do you know, James, that the money we spend to feed you in one day can buy a month’s supply of food for people like me?”

James was silent.

– “The chemical sprays that the Americans used in South Vietnam have destroyed the natural resources there. Mountains and forests have been defoliated. After your release, you may have a chance to visit our country again. Then you’ll see the effects of the war on our children’s bodies.”

He returns the nail clippers to her.

– “Are you sober now, James?”

He looks bashful.

– “Yes, Ms. Chi Mai.”

– “Then we can talk for a moment.”

– “Yes.”

– “Drink your soda, and smoke if you wish.”

– “Thank you.”

Chi Mai looks at him.

– “James, don’t think that I’m interrogating you. I’ve been assigned to this camp to prepare for your return to America. You have the right not to answer any questions you don’t feel comfortable with.” James smiles.

– “I don’t think I will refrain from answering any questions that you ask.”

Chi Mai’s voice sounds cheerful.

– “Thank you, James. What do you think about me?”

– “You’ve been good to me.”

– “I’ve not made you suffer, have I?”

– “You’ve helped me a lot.”

– “It’s an honor for a citizen of a small country to help someone from a world power. By the way, James, do you know of any US general being killed in action in Vietnam?”

– “Not that I know of.”

– “Any general being kept as a POW?”

– “No.”

– “Even in case they were captured, your government would negotiate for their immediate release. Only low-ranking officers died in the battlefields or became POW’s. Is that right, James?”

– “Yes.”

– “The US president, department secretaries, senators and congressmen don’t have to go to war, do they?”

– “No, they don’t.”

– “Only young people and students who are drafted have to be thrown into the hell in Vietnam?”

– “We came here to fight.”

– “The White House and the Pentagon make decisions about the war, don’t they?”

– “They need the approval of Congress.”

– “Look, James. Both Ambassador Dean and Ambassador Martin escaped at the last moment. None of the staff in either embassy suffered any wound. None of them were held as prisoners. Only the innocent, drafted students-turned-soldiers like you died, were wounded or imprisoned. Their youth was destroyed, and they suffered. Do you think it is fair, James?”

James feels awkward, and remains silent. Chi Mai has said he doesn’t have to reply if he doesn’t feel comfortable. She sighs, and continues,

– “Everything goes on as usual. The earth still rotates. No sooner has a eulogy been read than a speech is made. Bells in churches ring to mourn the death of someone in the morning, and ring again in the afternoon to share the joy of the newly-weds. In your country, Mr. Carter replaced Mr. Gerald Ford. And now, Mr. Reagan is going to take over the presidency. There have been three presidents in your country; yet, you are still here. Poor James! Over there, they have been so busy with the election and the inauguration that they have forgotten you. Wall Street is still busy as usual. People are worrying about the ups and downs of their stocks and the depreciation of the dollar. The Middle East is the main concern of US politicians. They are so concerned about the state of Israel that they have ignored you. I feel sorry for you, James. By the way, James, your father, Congressman Allan Fisher, has been reelected. Why do they keep you here for so long?”

Chi Mai looks at James; her eyes are filled with compassion. He blinks.

– “Because I’ve refused to confess that I had committed war crimes.”

Chi Mai bites her lips, appearing to be displeased.

– “Nonsense! That was an unreasonable excuse to detain you. You are just a tiny part in that great war system. You haven’t committed any crime. You are just a poor victim of the Vietnam warmongers.”

She shakes her head.

– “They have treated you very unfairly. I’ve come here to undo their mistakes and do everything I can to expedite your return to America.”

James seems moved by her enthusiasm.

– “Thank you.”

She looks at him, and gently says,

– “I’ll get some English magazines for you to pass the time.”

Chi Mai walks towards her desk. Her voice suddenly turns resentful.

– “Those warmongers and world criminals should be held accountable. You need to take a stand against them.”

She pushes the button. The guard comes in.

Chi Mai turns to James.

– “James, think about it.”

—> 6

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