This Is the Way, Walk in It: The Enemy Became a Human

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This Is the Way, Walk in It

The Enemy Became a Human

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Senator John McCain's prisoner of war experience has been mentioned often in the U.S. presidential campaign. There's a story within the story, however, chronicled by Mark McDonald of the Knight Ridder News Service. I want to focus not on the senator, but on Mai Van On-the man who pulled McCain from Truc Bach Lake in North Vietnam, on October 26, 1967.

McDonald recounted the events of that morning, which, at the time, may have seemed like just one more of many bombing raids on Hanoi in the fall of 1967. Mai Van On said, "It was about 11 a.m. I had just come home for lunch and put my bicycle into the house. Then the air-raid siren went off and 60 to 70 of us ran to a tunnel to avoid the bombs. I was at the entrance of the tunnel when I saw the pilot go into the water."

Then On related the trauma of the moment: "The tunnel was still shaking from the bombing when I ran to the lake."

McDonald wrote that On had witnessed "the desperate flier, John Sidney McCain III, [who] had floated down into Hanoi's Truc Bach Lake after his Navy Skyhawk bomber was hit by a North Vietnamese missile." No one knew at that moment that the lone figure descending into the lake had been knocked unconscious when he ejected from his plane, and that both of his arms were broken and his right knee shattered.

On, a retired colonel of the North Vietnamese army, plunged into the lake after the injured pilot while the bombing raid continued on the factory where On worked as a security guard.

"He's the enemy!"

When he jumped into the water and began to swim the 200 yards to the point of impact, his neighbors yelled out, "He's the enemy! Let him die!" As On reached the impact point, all he could see was a bit of white silk of the parachute. The young American's 50 pounds of flight gear held him beneath the surface. On used a stout bamboo pole to hoist the wounded pilot to the surface while the bombs continued to fall.

McDonald continued: "On managed to drag McCain ashore, where a crowd of about 40 people had gathered. Unaware that their injured prisoner was the son of a high-ranking American admiral, they stripped him to his underwear, then began kicking him, spitting on him, screaming for him to be killed."

McDonald inserted McCain's vivid recollections of his dramatic rescue. "One of them slammed a rifle butt down on my shoulder and smashed it pretty badly. Another stuck a bayonet in my foot." Young men approached with bricks. On said, "They surely would have beaten him to death. I said I wanted to rescue this man and return him to his family."

What was the difference between On and his neighbors? Why didn't he allow McCain to drown? What motivated him to stand up to those who wanted to murder the American aviator?

"You became a human"

Long ago, Solomon shared his musings on life in Ecclesiastes 9:11-12: "The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to men of understanding, nor favor to men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all. For man also does not know his time; like fish taken in a cruel net, like birds caught in a snare, so the sons of men are snared in an evil time, when it falls suddenly upon them."

On that autumn day in 1967, "time and chance" came upon a young American warrior who was in the wrong spot for him and the right spot for the missile-and down he came.

What motivated Mai Van On? Was it fame or fortune? Not at all. It wasn't until 1970 that On began to understand that the man he had rescued came from a distinguished American family. As many Americans know, the young flier's father was a U.S. admiral and the McCain line had a long service record in the U.S. armed forces. Some of On's friends said the fallen aviator was the son of a billionaire and that he should try to obtain a reward. But he didn't.

It would be nearly 30 years before the two would meet again. John McCain, retired from the U.S. Navy and then an influential U.S. senator, encountered Mai Van On at a small gathering of politicians and veterans in Hanoi. On recognized his face immediately and said, "Hello, John McCain."

McDonald described the reunion when McCain pointedly asked On why he would rescue an enemy pilot who only moments before had been bombing his countrymen. On's telling reply, "Yes, you were my enemy and we were in opposing armies, but when I saw you were in difficulty in the water, you became a human in my heart."

War is easier at a distance

Wars are much easier at a distance. Only when we get up close do we recognize that the enemy is like us. In reading On's comments about "the enemy" with whom he came face to face, I recalled the line from the famous anti-war novel All Quiet on the Western Front, written by Remarque shortly after World War I.

Young Paul, prematurely aged by the horrors of war, is stuck in a foxhole with a French soldier that he has just bayoneted. Time and chance had occurred here, as well. The French soldier dove for cover in what he thought was the only place he could escape, only to find the end of a bayonet thrust by a startled Paul. Paul is unable to leave the foxhole due to the bombardment. So, ever so slowly, he watches the life ebb from the Frenchman whom he cannot finish off.

When his enemy is finally dead, remorse sets in. "The silence spreads, I talk and must talk. So I speak to him and say to him: 'Comrade, I did not want to kill you. If you jumped in here again, I would not do it, if you would be sensible too. But you were only an idea to me before, an abstraction that lived in my mind and called forth its appropriate response. It was that abstraction I stabbed. But now, for the first time, I see you as a man like me. I thought of your hand grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship.

"'Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are just poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and same dying and the same agony- Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy? If we threw away these rifles and this uniform you could be my brother just like Kat and Albert. Take twenty years of my life, comrade, and stand up-take more, for I do not know what I can even attempt to do with it now.'"

These are powerful moments and powerful thoughts of a young German warrior whose enemy also became human in his heart-too late. Paul would himself die just before Armistice Day.

Actions are better than reactions and the strength of proactive character is more viable than the strength of apologies. Moments of character do not always bring instant rewards. Your friends may oppose your choices. You may become a pariah. You may not realize the value of your actions until many years later—but the way of character is always right.

After being rescued, John McCain would spend five years in the notorious "Hanoi Hilton." He would survive two suicide attempts before his release in 1973.

As for Colonel On-he recently got some government money from a land sale and built a new concrete house behind the family's old thatched-walled homestead. He's worried that three of his four daughters don't have jobs. He's worried about Truc Bach Lake in which the rescue of the young American took place. The lake has become so polluted that On states, "John McCain would die of poisoning if he were to parachute into the lake today." He doesn't have a television, but he followed the news regarding the aspirations of an American politician that he once held in his arms. Yes, life with all its cares and worries goes on.

Bending minds before bending metal

Isaiah 2:4 speaks prophetically of a time in the future when "they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore." It speaks of a world that for the first time is going to be able to fully detect one another's humanity in their own hearts. The world as a whole is going to be able to capture the same vision that Colonel On focused on-when his heart met the eyes of a drowning enemy.

Before the metals of weapons can be bent or melted down into instruments of peace, human nature must first be melted down and bent in a new direction.

Not everyone will be confronted with such a dramatic moment as that which challenged Mai Van On on October 26, 1967. Our choices will likely be less obvious—although no less real.

How many of us believe that others are our "enemies"—people with whom we cannot get along, for various reasons? Are we able—are we willing—to look at others the way this North Vietnamese colonel looked at a naval aviator who had just bombed his city? He didn't see an enemy. He saw a drowning man in need of rescue.

Sometimes there isn't a lot of time to deliberate about choosing the way of character. Colonel On stated, "If I had hesitated one minute, I'm sure [Senator McCain] would have died." We have the opportunity to plan and prepare to make the right choice in advance.

These are sobering thoughts, but I hope that they also give an encouraging picture of what can be. As Colonel On swims out to an unknown enemy pilot, his every stroke reverberates with the millennial refrain, "this is the way, walk you in it."