“You know sometimes I think there should be a rule of war saying you have to see someone up close and get to know ‘em before it’s ok to shoot ‘em”.
Colonel Potter, the character portrayed by Harry Morgan in the TV series MASH
Colonel Potter’s remark reveals an ugly truth of war; dehumanize and demonize the enemy and it becomes easier to kill them.
I grew up in essentially an all white neighborhood with all the creature comforts that Americans take for granted. Vietnam was quite a culture shock. The life and environment of the Vietnamese rice farmers and fishermen that I encountered was a world away from mine. For example, I once saw an old lady take a crap out in a rice paddy. Lacking plumbing facilities, I assume this was a common practice over there. We Americans sat on furniture instead of squatting on the ground; a degrading pose, I thought. The Vietnamese chewed betel nut in order to turn their teeth black. They considered blackened teeth a mark of distinction. I thought it disgusting! Many soldiers, stressed by the circumstances of war and never knowing who the enemy may be, were often cruel or disrespectful to the civilian populace. Although I never committed acts of cruelty, I viewed the Vietnamese as uncivilized and primitive. Like my fellow soldiers, I called them gooks or dinks.
Although it occurred over forty years ago and some details are lost to memory, a twenty minute episode in Vietnam still resonates deeply in my psyche. The only term I can think of to describe the experience is epiphany. One day, our unit was sent on a combat assault mission. Helicopters dropped us off in remote foothills covered by dense bamboo and palm forest punctuated with meadows. Most of the time, our patrols through villages were uneventful. We searched for weapons, an interpreter interviewed the residents or dogs sniffed around, and finding nothing suspicious, we moved on. However, sometimes we discovered caches of weapons or received enemy fire. Sometimes in the aftermath of a battle, we set fire to the village huts, which we called hooches, and let them burn to the ground. While on patrol this day, our platoon came upon a village consisting of a handful of hooches along with a couple of acres of rice paddies. I doubt these isolated Vietnamese had experienced much contact with American soldiers.
It began to rain; no surprise in this tropical climate. The rain became more and more intense and in no time we were soaked to the bone. We couldn’t see beyond a few yards. In a panic of pounding rain, our squad sought shelter and made a bee line toward a nearby hooch. I don’t recall that we knocked first, but I do remember that all seven of us burst inside at once! A man, his wife, and two small children glared at us in shock. What a sight we must have been—foreign soldiers standing a foot taller than the adults and draped with rifles, grenades, and bandoleers of ammo—I’m sure we scared the hell out of them! However, once the initial shock wore off, the man and his wife began nodding politely and even offered us food. We politely refused. I suggested to the others that because we scary soldiers burst in uninvited, we be as gracious as possible to our hosts. Of course, we couldn’t speak Vietnamese and what little communication we shared was in the form of gestures. I don’t recall what the parents were wearing, but the typical villager wore black or cream colored pajamas. No, they weren’t really pajamas, but that is what we called this simple attire consisting of a pair of silk pants and a long-sleeved, button-down silk shirt. The two children were clean and sat together in a crib-like, shallow box. They appeared between one to three years of age. Their hair, cut short with a small crop like a pony tail toward the back, indicated that this was a Buddhist family. Just a couple of months earlier, I witnessed a child about their age die from a shrapnel wound, and I still have nightmares about that episode. However, this day my heart was warmed by these two wide eyed infants so irresistibly cute and cuddly. I doubt they felt the same way about me!
I looked around the one room structure, which was about the size of the average American bedroom. The walls, two small beds, and table were constructed from local materials; mostly cross weaved palm fronds supported by bamboo struts and bound by strips of strong plant material. Many crude looking implements hung on the walls. However, upon closer scrutiny, I could see that they were skillfully hand crafted. I’m not mechanically inclined. My dad used to joke that I didn’t know which end of a screwdriver to use! I was quite impressed because this man, perhaps with some help from family and neighbors, had built everything—the hooch, furnishings, and all but a few of the implements. The interior was well organized and neat as a pin. Like the home I grew up in and missed dearly, this hooch was cozy and homey, and I came to feel comfortable there.
After twenty minutes or so, the rain let up and it was time to leave; back to the war. I was the last of our squad to exit. Just before leaving, I gestured with open hand toward the children and the home, smiled, gave the parents a big thumbs up, and said, “Number one”! Almost all Vietnamese understood that term as a positive acknowledgement.
I learned early upon arrival in Vietnam that rice farmers, eking out a bare bones living without modern conveniences, endured a hard life. However, none of this hit home until I entered this modest hooch and took the time to observe and absorb my surroundings; and allow reality to sink in. This humble family and their quaint home made a lasting and deep impression upon me. I felt an overwhelming sense of humility, and recall thinking that in many ways this ‘peasant’ was a better man than me! If I had to trade places with him I would be in way over my head.
I felt pride that day because I treated this family with the respect and dignity that they deserved. At the time I couldn’t have known it, but I was fulfilling Colonel Potter’s wish; I was beginning to know and appreciate the Vietnamese as people, not gooks.
In those twenty minutes crammed inside that tiny hooch, my eyes, heart, and mind were opened wide. I gained maturity and wisdom well beyond my twenty three years!