Peace with the ‘Enemy’

NBC News has been running a compelling series on the return of American Col. Jack Jacobs to Vietnam, where he was wounded forty years ago. I recommend this insightful essay by Col. Jacobs, a Medal of Honor recipient and former West Point faculty. It describes his meeting with the former commander that ambushed his battalion, as well as his general reflections on the ‘enemy.’

But the enemy is an amoebic mass, a single-minded monolithic inhuman force. Killed in action, they are only a logistical problem, and you get a feeling of them as individuals only when you capture them, scared, wounded and shivering. They are no longer part of the enemy organism, and it is only then they come to life as people.”

The above quote is reminiscent of one by JRR Tolkien, who inserted some of his own views on war into the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Though the books are obviously fictional and fantastical, Tolkien’s writing  clearly stems from his experiences as a soldier in the First World War. In one chapter from The Two Towers, the hobbit Sam witnesses a battle between men from Gondor and Harad, when one of the Haradrim is killed nearby.

It was Sam’s first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace…”

Here Tolkien allows Sam to express on his behalf the humanity of the individual soldier, who happens to be caught up in larger forces beyond their control. It’s often said that soldiers fight not for some grandiose cause, but for the people next to them – their friends and comrades. My father served in the Navy during the Vietnam War, and has told me this frequently. I’ve heard it from other veterans as well, including from some students at UMass Boston who have been to Iraq and Afghanistan. Jacobs himself says as much in his interview with NBC’s Brian Williams. In his essay, Jacobs acknowledges that the same principle applies to soldiers on the other side. They are all just people, but we have an unfortunate psychological tendency to group each other into ‘us’ and ‘them.’

The journalist Chris Hedges (2003) has distinguished between what he calls ‘mythic war’ versus that of  ‘sensory war.’  Mythic wars are portrayed as confrontations with some almost abstract evil force, in contrast to the actual sensory experiences on the ground, which Hedges alternatively calls ‘organized murder’ (he pulls no punches). When one steps back from the narrative of war as mythic, sanitized, and righteous, it is easy to see how it devastates, and ends, so many individual lives

The video clip at the bottom of Jacobs’ essay is also worth watching, as it shows his meeting with 82 year-old Pham Phi Huang, who commanded the attack that killed many in Jacobs’ battalion. It also severely wounded Jacobs himself. Despite that fact, the affection and respect that they show each other is quite moving, as two former ‘enemies’ make strides toward understanding events from decades ago. To me, it’s yet another example from Vietnam that reconciliation is possible, similar to that of Kim Phuc and John Plummer or Pham Thanh Cong and William Calley. The list of examples may not be a long one, but it is full of significance and meaning.


Related Posts:

Reconciliation, Biology, and the Second Indochina War (Mar 11, 2011)

Lessons from the Christmas Truce of 1914 (Dec 23, 2010)


Hedges C. 2003. War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. Anchor Books.

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