Not My Enemy
by Vito Tomasino
The guard escorted Whitfield to a hut commandeered by the Vietcong platoon leader for his temporary headquarters. Lt. Thanh was sitting behind a small unpainted wooden table, his hands clasped in front of him. With the exception of the empty chair opposite him, and an old straw mat on the dirt floor to his right, the room was bare. A lighted oil lamp on the Lieutenant’s desk provided some illumination, and unintentionally added a measure of warmth to the drab surroundings.
He saw that Whitfield’s hands were still tied. “Remove his bonds,” he ordered.
The guard, a mere boy, hurriedly complied, then stepped back with his AK-47 held at the ready.
“Please, sit down Colonel.” Thanh gestured to the chair in front of his improvised desk.
Whitfield remained silent, and stared into the eyes of his interrogator, trying to read his next move. Thanh met his stare with equal resolve. He too wanted to get some sense of the man in front of him before beginning.
He broke eye contact first, but only to scan through several pages of the manila folder lying on his desk. Closing it again, he looked up at his captive with the confidence of a man who seemed to already have all the information he needed without asking a question. When Thanh made a suggestion he wasn’t expecting, Whitfield’s stoicism was visibly breached.
“Before we begin Colonel, let us have some tea.” He motioned to the guard, who ushered in a peasant woman carrying a metal tea pot and two small white ceramic cups. She bowed to Thanh, who acknowledged her presence with an almost imperceptible nod.
Her hands shook as she poured the tea. After filling both cups, she bowed again, then took her leave. Whitfield saw the fear in her eyes, and felt compassion for her, and the others like her whose lives were being turned into a nightmare by a war that should have never been.
His mind travelled back to Korea, when a North Korean pilot allowed him to float to the ground in his parachute, unharmed. There may be honor among warriors, he reflected, but there is no honor in war.
“Drink Colonel, the woman makes very good tea.” Thanh picked up his cup and drank to show him that there was nothing more in the pot than tea. “There, maybe that will reassure you.”
Whitfield conceded a slight smile and thirstily emptied his cup. Than refilled their cups. “Perhaps, now, you can tell me your name.”
“William T. Whitfield, Lt. Colonel, United States Air Force, service number 1-2-0-3-2-6-8-2-3, date of birth June 6, 1922.”
“What unit do you command, Colonel?”
“William T. Whitfield, Lt. Colonel, United States…”
“Yes, I know. The Geneva Accords require that you only give your name, rank, service number, and date of birth. It is your duty to offer nothing more. I understand. However, I had hoped you might be as interested as I am in knowing more about the enemy, not as prisoner and jailer, but as a human being.” He paused, waiting for a response, but got none. Nonetheless, the look in Whitfield’s eyes told him that he had tapped into the older man’s intellectual curiosity.
Than reopened the manila folder. “Never mind, I will tell you. It appears there is little that Hanoi intelligence does not already know about the Commander of the 429th Squadron, and the in-famous ‘Black Falcons.’ You have been a subject of interest for them since your arrival in Vietnam almost three months ago. The combat effectiveness of your unit was soon noted and reported to our leaders. It was not difficult to compile this dossier. Most of it is a matter of public record.”
Whitfield displayed no emotion, but he was surprised by the thoroughness of North Vietnamese intelligence gathering. He was even more impressed with the sophistication of the Lieutenant’s interrogation technique—very mature for one so young. Thanh was also right in assuming that he would be interested in knowing more about “the enemy.”
“According to this, Colonel, in World War II you shot down twenty eight German aircraft, making you an ace five times over. Quite an achievement for someone who could not have been any older than I am now. And, seven years later, during the Korean conflict, you shot down another fifteen Migs. With such an outstanding personal record, it is not difficult to see why your squadron is one of the most respected in Vietnam.”
Thanh paused momentarily to turn a few more pages in the folder. “I could go on, tell you where you went to school, what sports you excelled in, that you were number one in your aviation cadet class, and more, but it isn’t necessary. You see my point.”
“Yes, I do, and you can see mine,” Whitfield replied, no longer able to hold back—nor wanting to. In a free democratic society—as we enjoy in the United States—such information is relatively easy to obtain. Admittedly, at times like this, it puts us at a disadvantage. However, no American would forfeit his freedom merely to protect against the small advantage it may give an enemy.”
Whitfield’s candid response pleased Thanh. He tried not to show it, but a slight smile gave him away. “You need not fear revealing any secrets, Colonel. “There is little we do not know about every American combat unit in Vietnam, the weapons and tactics they use, and their fighting capabilities.
We have not only survived your superior arms and technology, we have grown stronger. Eventually, no matter how long it may take, we will win this struggle because we believe in our cause. Do you?”
Whitfield pondered Thanh’s remarks. He’s right. We may not have the will to see this war through to the end, to win it! All he had to do to reach that conclusion was read our newspapers and watch our television.
“Your silence gives me my answer, Colonel. In a way, I sympathize with you. You are a hero of two very different, yet justifiable wars fought by your country; wars in which the lines were clearly drawn and the goal was victory. You know, perhaps better than I, that is not the case here, and that is your weakness, one that will ultimately lead to your defeat.”
“I don’t need, nor do I want your bloody sympathy, Lieutenant. I have questioned every war I’ve ever been in, and this one is no different. I too have beliefs. I believe in freedom and democracy, that these things are the birthright of every man, woman and child on this planet—good, honest people who want nothing more than to be allowed to live in peace, to express themselves without fear, and to grow without the oppressive weight of any form of dictatorial government.
“This is why I am in Vietnam today. It was why I was in Korea, and why I fought in World War II. I am a soldier who loves his country, ready to give my life to protect the democratic ideals it represents—not only for my people, but for yours. Can you assure me that the communist regime you are trying to install in South Vietnam will guarantee these freedoms for its citizens?”
An angry Thanh sprung to his feet, knocking over his chair. The guard, confused by his commander’s reaction, stepped forward with his rifle raised to strike the prisoner, but was waved back by the Lieutenant. Whitfield’s impassioned discourse took the guerilla leader by surprise, and he silently cursed himself for showing emotion. He took a deep breath, picked up his chair and calmly sat down, allowing himself a few seconds to regain his composure.
Whitfield watched him with studied interest. “Your reaction, is my answer, Lieutenant.”
“Not quite, Colonel. I too am a soldier who loves his country, who also believes in freedom and democracy. That is precisely why we fight, because the corrupt administration in Saigon—illegally installed and supported by your government—denies us these very things. Nothing is black and white, as you Americans say. Everything is colored in many shades of gray.
“You are right freedom is a precious gift, which is why it cannot be doled out to anyone not ready, or unwilling to accept the responsibility that comes with it. In any society, freedom without individual accountability leads to anarchy. Ours is an agrarian culture largely populated by illiterate peasants, who are more concerned about feeding their children than they are with what form of government sits in Saigon.
“These people—my people—view time in terms of centuries, not years. They are not ready for a fully democratic, one man one vote political order. Vietnam is better suited for a system that can channel the energies and talents of its people in a direction in which each of us can best contribute to the growth of our society, to raise it, and us, to the next level. Karl Marx put it best: ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.’ That system is communism.”
Whitfield was impressed with Thanh’s logic and grasp of communist ideology. He is not simply repeating propaganda fed to him by Hanoi, he believes it, he thought. “Your defense of communism is admirable Lieutenant, but it has one serious flaw.”
“And what is that, Colonel?”
“It doesn’t work. Communism, as it was envisioned by Marx
and Engels more than a century ago, does not exist anywhere in the world.”
“But, you are wrong. What of the U.S.S.R., China, Cuba…?”
“Dictatorships all, and not of the proletariat, but of one man, who rules with an iron fist. The people have no say in their government. In countries where they do have the vote they have no choice. They either vote for the candidate selected by the Communist Party leadership, or they do not vote at all. Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of travel, the right to bear arms, and so many other freedoms that democratic societies take for granted are denied to them.”
“It is true,” Thanh admitted. “Communism is not yet practiced
in its pure form—although China’s commune system may come close. However, it is still new. It simply needs more time.”
“New? The idea was first put into practice in Russia in 1917. Can it be said, that the people of the U.S.S.R. are any better off now than they were under the Tsar? I don’t think so.”
Thanh felt the anger rise within him again, but held it in check. “I do! All we need is time. Fifty, one hundred years…this is nothing.”
“Measured against the universal clock you’re right. Maybe your people are willing to wait centuries for the ideal to become a reality, but it’s not likely. Human history suggests the opposite; that they will not wait forever for their promises to be fulfilled. Their tolerance is not without limits, and they will eventually act to dispose of the existing government—if not by vote, than by force.”
“You surprise me, Colonel. I did not think you to be a revolutionary.”
“My country was born out of a revolution more than two hundred years ago. Every American citizen has a responsibility, indeed, a duty to protect against the loss of his or her rights and freedoms, whether they are threatened from without, or from within.
“Are you saying that revolution is not only inevitable, but a duty? Interesting…very interesting.”
“If it is the only way left open for the people to reclaim their freedom, yes. But that’s not the point I wish to make here.”
“And what is the point, Colonel?” Thanh asked, impatiently.
“For pure communism to exist, or any other ideal from of government, it must have perfect people…totally unselfish human beings who put the good of the whole above themselves, their friends, even their families.
“They must live, eat, and breathe its precepts; which are not unlike those of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, and all the other major religions. In the million or so years human beings have roamed the face of this earth, few, very few, have measured up to that ideal.”
“But communism is not a religion. It in fact, renounces it.”
“Isn’t it? If you examine the great religions closely you will find that they all make the same demands and require the same unquestioning devotion and allegiance of their followers as communism. The only real difference is they believe in a god; one that is sometimes merciful, sometimes vengeful, but always loving. You do not, and that makes your task of creating an ideal society all the more difficult and less likely to succeed.”
“You make a compelling argument, Colonel, but nothing you have said has changed my belief that a communist government, under the wise leadership of President Ho Chi Minh, is the best one for a unified Vietnam. As to whether it can, or will prevail…”
“You seem very sure of victory in this war, Lieutenant.”
“I am, and for the reasons I gave you earlier. I noticed you had little to say to refute them, notwithstanding your patriotic diatribe. But we are through here. Guard!”
“You have something more to say, Colonel?”
“Yes. What do you intend to do with Brown and me?”
“I see no reason not to tell you what you must have already guessed. Our leaders in Hanoi believe that the Commander of the infamous ‘Black Falcons,’ the renowned hero of two previous wars, will be of great propaganda value. They want you in North Vietnam.”
“What about Brown?”
“He will go with you. As a black American, and one of your pilots, he will also be useful. Our radio propagandist, the woman you call ‘Hanoi Hanna,’ is broadcasting word of your capture as we speak. When my people hear it they will rejoice, their spirits lifted. You will be seen as one of our finest victories.
“For me it is more personal, not because of the recognition and reward I may receive, but for what it cost us in lives and broken bodies to achieve. I can only hope that this will provide at least partial redemption for the men who followed me into a rice paddy a few days ago in a costly attempt to capture another of your airman.”
Whitfield was stunned. This is the same man Kracek spoke of. “Yes,
I know about that, and I also regret the loss of life. As a commander, I know how you feel; but you must not blame yourself. You and I were only doing what we had to do; you, to carry out your orders, and I, to bring one of my men home safely. On that day we prevailed. Today, you did.”
“You are an unusual man, Colonel; as unusual, I suspect, as the man I faced in that rice paddy. Were it not for him we would have captured your pilot, and the helicopter crew as well. But, he flew like a man possessed, thwarting our every attempt to reach him. Never have I seen such flying. He is one of yours, is he not?” Thanh had already concluded as much, but he wanted confirmation.
Whitfield didn’t answer. He didn’t have to.
“I’d like to meet him.”
“But, he was trying to kill you.”
“Yes, and I him. But he didn’t, and I must know why.
“On his final strafing pass he dropped so low to the ground that his jet exhaust lifted the water from the rice paddies high into the air. It appeared as though a giant water-breathing dragon was descending upon us—a vision so terrifying my men threw themselves to the ground in fear. I could not fault them. It was a sight we will never forget.
“Apparently he lost the use of his guns and was ready to do anything to keep us from reaching his wingman, even if it meant sacrificing himself. I was so frustrated, so filled with rage, that there was no room left in me for fear. In a futile attempt to shoot him down I emptied my AK-47 at him, then waited for the impact of his aircraft against my flesh.
“Instead, he pulled up at the last second, missing me by inches. I was thrown down by the force of his jet exhaust and the mass of water that followed, but was on my feet in time to watch him fly off. As he turned away, the Black Falcon painted on the tail of his aircraft was clearly visible.”
“You knew all along.”
“Yes. It was my hope that, by telling you these things, I could learn more about the man in the flying dragon.”
“You know I cannot, and will not, give you any information about him. However, I can tell you that his description of the encounter was remarkably similar to yours. Indeed, he was relieved he did not have to take your life.”
“I knew it! It was as though I was in the airplane with him and he on the ground with me…as though we were of one mind.”
Whitfield was struck by the remarkable parallel between two men from opposite sides of the world. “I understand.”
“Yes, Colonel, I believe you do.”