In the Presence of My Enemy: A Reflection on War and Forgiveness
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies. Thou anointest my head with oil. My cup runneth over.
As this, the 43rd anniversary of my wounding in Vietnam approaches, and I once again try to find meaning in that day and the days which were to follow, my thoughts return to the northern bank of the Cua Viet River on Jan. 20, 1968. It is a day that will change my life forever.
I am medevaced from the battlefield to the intensive care ward in Da Nang, Vietnam. For the next several days I struggle with everything inside me to live. The dead and dying are everywhere. I am in and out of morphine every four hours. I awaken to the screams of the wounded all around me — young men like myself, 19, 20-year-olds. I am told by a doctor that I will never walk again, that I will be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life.
Still I am grateful to be alive, to still be breathing. I dream of my hometown, of my mother, my father and my backyard where I had played as a boy. All I want to do now is survive, to get out of this place somehow and return home. I completely lose track of time; I don’t know if it is day or night. They keep bringing in the wounded and carting out the dead.
It is the eve of the Tet offensive. A young Vietnamese man who has been severely wounded is brought into the intensive care ward. I can still remember that day clearly — his face, the fear in his eyes. One of the nurses tells me that he is a Viet Cong soldier who had been shot in the chest only a few days before. I look into his eyes as he is carefully placed in his bed directly across from me. “He’s the enemy, the Viet Cong, the ‘Gook,’ the Communist,” I think to myself, “the one my country sent me to fight and kill. The one I must fear, the one I must hate, the man who is not even human.”
That belief and hatred had been reinforced in Marine Corp boot camp, at Parris Island, S.C., where we had chanted, “I’m going to go to Vietnam. I’m going to kill the Viet Cong!” Perhaps he was the one who had pulled the trigger a few days before, trying to kill me, the one who had shot and paralyzed me from my mid-chest down for the rest of my life. I will never know for sure. Yet as I lie in that hospital bed and our eyes meet, I feel no hatred or animosity toward him. On the contrary, I feel compassion for this man I had been taught to hate, this man who is my enemy.
Each day upon awakening from the morphine I look at him and he looks back at me, our eyes meeting, our gaze a recognition of each other’s presence, our humanity, an understanding that both our worlds have been turned upside down and we are now in a far different place than we had been only a few days before. We reach an equality of sorts in this place of the wounded and dying, that great leveler, where distinctions vanish, where there is no prejudice or hatred, where all becomes equal. We are two wounded young men in late January of 1968 simply trying to survive, two human beings who only want to live.
A sort of unique bond begins to develop between my “enemy” and myself over the next several days, a strange and at first somewhat uneasy camaraderie without words, which is both unsettling and at the same time seems completely natural to me. I do not think of him as my enemy anymore. I begin to care about him more and each time I awaken from the morphine, and with the screams of the wounded and dying all around me, I reach out to him with my eyes, with my heart, as he lies across from me in his bed. I now want him to live just as much as I want to live.
“Keep fighting,” I think as I watch him trying to communicate. We are together in this now, and none of those other things seem to matter anymore. “If you don’t give up I won’t give up,” I think, pressing my lips together, reaching out to him, one human being to another, no longer enemies — two young men struggling to live and go home, leave all of this sorrow behind, back to our families, our homes and our towns where it was simple again, where it was safe.
The days and nights and hours pass. The lights are always on and I never know if it is night or day, and after a while it doesn’t really matter anymore. I awake one day and look across and see the empty hospital bed. He is gone, and the nurse tells me he has died. There is no emotion in her voice. She is very tired, and there will be many more dead and many more wounded before it is all over. I stare at his empty bed for a long time, feeling a sadness I could not fully comprehend.
In the years that have passed, I have often thought about those days on the intensive care ward and about that young Vietnamese man, my “enemy,” who lay in that hospital bed across from me, and how we are all perhaps much closer to each other as brothers and sisters on this Earth than we realize. Despite all our differences, there is, I believe, a powerful connectedness to our humanity — a deep desire to reach out with kindness, with love and great caring toward each other, even to our supposed enemies, and to bring forth “the better angels of our nature” — that is undeniable and cannot be extinguished, even in death.
This, I believe, is the hope of the world. This is the faith we now need in these times.
In the years that followed, I would attempt to write about the war and about that long and often difficult journey home, trying to give meaning to what I and so many others had gone through. There would be other profound moments of reconciliation and forgiveness to come, but almost always my mind would drift back to that young Vietnamese man who laid across from me for those few brief days on the Da Nang intensive care ward in 1968.