“Let me tell you guys a story,” said the old man. He spoke with a twinkle in his eyes and a voice that was gruff but laced with the mysterious grains of a thousand experiences.
“During the vietnam war, two young men from the air force went on a mission to take down the Thahn Hoa bridge. Their F-4 was shot disabled and they decided to eject themselves from the plane once it was low against the water. One of the men landed in mud and the vietnamese tortured him for hours before taking him prisoner. The main pilot landed safely but was taken as well. They managed to survive. Years later, a journalist took interest in their story and published a book called Phantom in the river. The book made no profit, probably costed the author more money to write than what he made. I’ve read the book for over two times. The pilot is a personal hero of mine.”
He paused and looked around at our tour group, a slight smile playing around his thin lips.
“Ladies and gentlemen. Look there. There’s a man wearing a blue shirt. Oh he just sat down. See him? That’s the pilot from the plane. He doesn’t like to brag about this but I do.”
With wide eyes, I turned to look at the main character of the narrative. He was short, athletic looking, with a head of greying hair tucked into a baseball cap. If it was not for this story, my mind would have grouped him with all the other veteran guides.
But then again, what if all the other veteran guides were part of dangerously heroic and emotional tales like this pilot was? Are their contributions to their nation and positions in people’s critical eyes somehow less significant just because their stories were never told? Or even more confounding is that did the vietnamese simply have cruel natures like American soldiers have described? How would they tell their stories?
I recently read A Rumor of War, a book about a Philip Caputo’s experience in the Vietnam war. War is an abnormality of life. It is a time that strips away at men’s humanity and compassion, unleashing a raw, animalistic nature that is not becoming of people in this civilized world. It is a time that blurs mens’ visions until they can only view this world as “us” and “them” instead of mutual human beings.
Philip Caputo wrote in his book, I saw their living mouths moving in conversation and their dead mouths grinning the taut-drawn grins of corpses. Their living eyes I saw, and their dead eyes still-staring… Asleep and dreaming, I saw dead men living; awake, I saw living men dead. A man may go to war young with hopes of adventure and a solution to his restlessness but he will come back older and more serious, as if all those aspirations of youth left with every single bullet he’s fired. His idealism is crushed with a lethal dose of hard reality and he realizes that sometimes, his actions are not up to him to decide but the consequences only his to withstand. I don’t believe that every soldier who kills or harms another human being is acting according to his mind or moral compass.
As for nonparticipants like us, we often only see the horrible results of war- the deaths, the rationing, the destruction- and not the human beings behind the helmets and machine guns. We have only hatred for people who have caused our loved ones harm when what we really should aim for is understanding for what this soldiers went through. The way to do so is by telling more of their stories. Only by telling the story from all angles can we propagate understanding. Only by humanizing every person can we propagate compassion, and forgiveness.
American novelist Richard Bach once said, Don’t believe what your eyes are telling you. All they show is limitation. Look with your understanding, find out what you already know, and you’ll see the way to fly. If we can only reach out a little further and dig a little deeper, we may just discover that the truth is bit more complicated than what we once so adamantly believed.