Why was I not Mad at Him?May 4, 2012

I’ve waited 43 years to tell this story and I can’t wait any longer.

During the war in Vietnam I was assigned to a fighter squadron whose mission was to kill as many Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers as possible. I flew 328 sorties to that end and would describe my abilities as being average among the pilots, which means I was very good. All of us were highly trained volunteers with soaring morale. We were ideal fighting machines operating on orders from the President of the United States, who was Commander in Chief of the strongest military and economic force in the world. I assume that our soldiers, sailors and marines also were highly trained. So why did we lose that war? I think there are many answers. Let me tell you about one.


A holding camp for prisoners of war was several miles from Tuy Hoa, South Vietnam, where I was stationed. A friend and I happened upon it while visiting a wounded buddy who was in a nearby army hospital. The prison consisted of a ten-foot-wide circular plot of dirt surrounded by razor wire. It looked like some lazy jailer’s afterthought. There was no door, no bed, no toilet, no water, and no nothing except one lonely-looking Viet Cong prisoner. Although he appeared to be a young man, his face looked archaeological, with mud and wrinkles for definition, and he had a profusion of long black hair that suffered no organization on his head. 

My friend and I walked up to him with blank faces and he forced a guarded, blank face back. As there was no one else around, we studied him from three feet away. We had not seen a prisoner before and this one was easy to pity because he looked so frightened. I felt empty inside and wished for earlier times when distinctions between right and wrong were simpler made.

He had been newly captured by South Korean soldiers and wore only flimsy, short pants and shoes. His malaise was acute, probably with good reason, and he didn’t appear to be enjoying any of the routine advantages of fantasy.

When a jeep pulled up and a sergeant stepped out with food, water, a portable outhouse, some socks and a pair of GI brogans, I felt better. That’s when I noticed what the prisoner had on his feet and I was quickly introduced to the cold, grim face of life for jungle warriors. He was wearing sandals carved from a truck tire with straps from a rubber inner-tube. After all of my training I could not help but feel inadequate.

After he put on his new boots his grin said that he was elated, not only because he had footwear that would last him many years, but because he could now wallow in the realization that no one was there to kill him.

When my friend lit a cigarette the prisoner indicated that he also would like one. After a few minutes of hand haggling and grinning, we traded a package of cigarettes for his sandals. It seemed that we had become friends and were strangely satisfied, especially me because I was the proud new owner of a pair of war souvenirs that would give me bragging rights back home, and two reminders of a lost cause.


As I sit here by my little fire, forty-three years later, my mind harkens to that innocent event. I wonder what happened to my friend behind the concertina wire, and hope that he’s at home with his family. For some reason I feel like the college boy who crammed all week for a test, then flunked it. Why had I flown so many missions trying to kill this man?

I had fought in a war that was waged mostly for philosophical reasons designed by men who never allowed their sense of morality to get in the way of what they mistakenly thought was the right thing to do.

With a tenuous peace in Iraq and a war in Afghanistan that continues to weary us, I can’t help but wonder how historians will write the final accounting of those conflicts. Perhaps in the future we should more carefully weigh our possible gain from similar involvements against the probable toll, lest we suffer punitive atomic reprisals on our own soil. With all of our military superiority we lost the war in Vietnam, in part because we were fighting an enemy who was less encumbered by politics, and whose soldiers could readily make their own shoes from old truck tires.

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