Around the Bend: The enemy is human


My piece on the butterfly over Scott Stadium got the most response of all my letters published in the Daily Progress. The following, worth repeating, was number two.

When people call on the phone in appreciation, that is significant. Immediately after the shootings in Tucson, people held forth on how the nasty rhetoric in our current politics might encourage violent acts like this. Mark Shields, a public tv commentator and as reasonable a man as you can find, believed it could influence unstable

His main point was that the dehumanization, even demonization, of those on the other side makes it so much easier to hate and dismiss them as people. This, of course, is the propaganda technique used during wartime.

I recently learned of an inspirational story of someone who transcended that impersonal barrier. He is Jim Zumwalt, son of renowned Naval Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, brother of Elmo III who died from Agent Orange in VIetnam and himself a Vietnam veteran. He had great resentment toward the enemy and it was a burden to him. In 1994, he was in Vietnam on hid father’s insistence and he met a former North
Vietnamese general.

In the course of their conversation, a tear came to the general’s eye when he mentioned his own brother’s death. They both had lost brothers. A door had opened. Jim, for the first time, saw the human side of the enemy. It was the beginning of
a mission. He went to Vietnam 50 times interviewing the Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army. The result is a remarkable book, Bare Feet, Iron Will… Contrary to some vets’ criticism, his goal was to humanize the enemy, not glorify them.

There has been a lot of hateful talk in this country. Even some of the Tucson tragedy talk has veiled venom in it. Yet, if even the most hateful sat down for an informal talk to get to know one of those demonized enemies (your daughter went to UMich., too?, my uncle lived in Erie, been there many times, you have back problems, too?, your
father died in Korea?), this primitive dialogue might become civil.

Look how Orin Hatch and Ted Kennedy were pals, one of the most unlikely duos of all time. The got to know each other beyond political stances. One of Kennedys’ greatest strengths. Jim Zumwalt is a proud warrior and a gentle, thoughtful man. For me, he is a hero. From early on, I thought that the VIetnam war was an ill-conceived, awful endeavor. It has been the moral touch stone of my life. However, I always understood and respected the guys sent over there. In a touching gesture, Jim asked me and another vet, also burdened as Jim was, to go with him on a book tour of VIetnam That is beyond civility. It bespeaks wisdom.