.5.The Power of Reason
STRENGTH OF MIND
"HEY!" Bowmar shouted. "Look!"
Following the line of the medicís pointing arm, the others in the truck saw a figure at the side of the road. Amid a clutter of dis- carded clothing an American soldier picked his way. They were now on the UN side of the demilitarized zone. Amazing, how one lone American soldier, in such surroundings gave such an impression of strength and power! The sentry smiled and waved at the men in the truck in answer to their shouted greetings.
Bowmar cried out again, "Look up ahead!"
A convoy of American trucks, the uncovered beds jammed with Chinese repatriates, came toward them down the road. Strangely, as the two convoys neared each other, clothing began to fly from the American trucks, and hands came up holding crude little flags. When the trucks passed close by, the Americans could see something more.
The shouting and waving chinamen were bunched at the front of the trucks and were quite exuberant there. In the back of the trucks the situation was different. There was one little fellow of whom the Sergeant took particular note. He stood in the rear-left corner of one of the big American trucks. The passing vehicles, meeting on a curve, slowed almost to a stop, and at the shouted order from the agitator within the group, the little man raised his hand along with the rest. In it he held one of the crude flags. He didnít wave or shout; he only held the painted rag aloft. He was still clothed, though his shirt was torn. No doubt the poor fellow disliked the idea of discarding good clothing. This may well have been the best he had ever worn, and he knew thereíd be very little to replace it. He might as well rip the clothes off, though; if he didnít, somebody else would.
Never, thought the Sergeant, would he forget the wistful sadness in that little fellowís face. How like him were many of our own "pinkies"poor fellows unable to resist domination of their minds by others. Unable because they were unprepared. And the Ser- geant thought of America, priding herself on high standards of education, yet with people, some of them college graduates and beyond, totally unarmed in communismís "battle for the minds of men." It wasnít a pleasant thought. The Sergeant rid himself of it, by turning his thoughts to Kert.
Lieutenant Kert had shared Bowrnarís enthusiasm in exchanging greetings with the American sentry and the guards in the other convoy. Yet the Sergeant wondered if Kert fully understood what was happening. It was intriguing, trying to fathom what might be going on in the lieutenantís mind. He really was a "crazy kind of crazy." In talking with the fellow you knew that his mind was out of balance; yet there was so much sense in part of what heíd say. There was a strange mixture of sound memory and illusion, of logic mingled with hallucination. The enemy had found it an unfathomable sort of craziness, tooeven though they had brought it about.
When first captured, Kert was subjected to interrogation much the same as others were. The enemy hadnít much luck with him. They treated him pretty rough for a week or ten days; he couldnít remember just how long. That was normal; when you got to a certain point of fatigue you lost all track of time. You didnít have to be crazy for your memory of such things to be vague. But then, you expected to get shoved around a bit during interrogationsort of took it for granted that you would. If you expected the worst, which you very well should in dealing with communists, anything less seemed not so bad. When they tired of their efforts at interrogation, the enemy put Kert with a small group for a time. Then one dark night they removed him to a small, bare room in the end of a Korean house.
Left alone, Kert slept well beyond daybreak. He was awakened by a chink flunky bringing his breakfast. The flunky couldnít speak Englishor at least didnít. After breakfast, the same fellow brought a small crude table and chair. Apparently Kert could expect company.
A visitor arrived at mid-morning. The chinaman who entered was tall and rawboned, with narrow head and face atop a long neck. He sat down on the chair, and placed a portfolio on the table before him. For a time, he just looked at the prisoner, studying. At the same time, Kert, seated on the floor, studied the chinaman.
"Ah, Lieutenant Kert," the chinaman said. He seemed to be musing.
Kert noticed the close-set appearance of the eyes.
"U. S. Air Force," the chinaman added.
The ears were large and protruding, Kert noted.
High forehead; narrow, hanging jaw.
"Captured near Pyongyang."
Large nose and prominent cheekbones.
"Wellanswer me!" the chinaman shouted suddenly. Placing his hands on the table, the interrogator half rose from his seat. The narrow, sharp-featured head projecting from the long neck, with the jaw jutting forward, made Kert think of a hatchet. "Hatchet Face," Kert labeled the chinaman.
"What is there for me to answer?" the prisoner asked. "You havenít asked any questions."
"You are Lieutenant Kert, arenít you?" Hatchet Face asked.
"Then why did you not say so?"
"I didnít see any reason to. You have the information. It didnít seem to me that you were asking questions."
The chinaman searched the prisonerís face for a while. Then: "That is reason for not saying anything?"
"Your only reason?"
"Sure, thatís my only reason. Thereís no reason for me not to answer those questions, if Iíd known they were questions."
"Good," the chinaman said. "It will not be advisable for you to refuse to answer. I shall be certain after this that you will know when I am asking a question." Hatchet Face sat back in his chair.
Kert did not reply to that. It wasnít a question.
There followed a typical "sparring" sessionmuch talk of seem- ingly inconsequential things, with the chinaman doing most of the talking. Kert answered the questions simply, with "No," "Yes," or "I donít know"simple answers. There were questions about home and family, to which the prisoner answered only vaguely, if at all. Kert didnít want the enemy to have information about any of his relatives. Occasionally a military question would be thrown in.
"I have told you before, I wonít discuss such matters," Kert said.
"Why are you afraid to talk of military things?"
"It is against regulations and international law."
"You owe to your countryis that it?" The tone was derisive.
"Wake up, fool! What do you owe your country? They donít care what happen to you!"
Kert remained silent.
"What other reasons do you have?" the chinaman asked.
"Thatís reason enough."
"Hmph!" Hatchet Face snorted. "Do you think there is anything you could tell us we donít already know?"
"Maybe not," Kert replied. "But if I canít, it seems rather foolish for you to waste all this time asking me. I donít know anything worth all your trouble."
"Then why not talk about it? Just make conversation and for better understanding of each other. Maybe you even learn some thing from what we know."
"No, thank you. Iím not that anxious to learn."
The chinamanís attitude suddenly changed. "Your little game is ended, Kert. We have found the real reason you refuse to talk of your mission all this time!"
Kert looked wonderingly at the chinaman.
"You are acquainted with Lieutenant Bender?" Hatchet Face said questioningly.
"Not that I recall," Kert answered. That was a lie; Benderís plane had gone down only a few days before his.
"You lie!" Hatchet Face glared.
Kert was silent.
"I should have you beaten for lying to me! You know I can do that?"
"Yes." Kert wondered if the chinaman might. It seemed best not to unduly antagonize this fellow, if he could avoid it. Still, he had no doubt that the chinaman might very well have him roughed up even without provocation, if he felt so inclined.
Hatchet Face clenched and unclenched his fists as he talked. "I cannot stand lies!" he hissed. "A contemptible liar I would beat with my own hands!"
As the chinaman threatened, Kert tried to evaluate his situation. "I can stand the insultsignore them," he decided in his thoughts; "but if the bastard ever hits me when weíre alone, Iíll kill him."
The chinaman glared in silence for a while. "So you do not know Bender, eh?" he asked finally.
"He says that he knows you."
Kert glanced at the chinaman, then away, and wondered if Bender had really been foolish enough to admit to knowing an- other prisoner. You should never do that if you could avoid it.
"And it is strange you would not know him, since your missions were the same."
Kert said nothing, but he wondered what the chinaman was getting at. His mission and Benderís had been essentially the sameroutine night attack. But what difference did that make? How did that prove they knew each other, and what if they did know each other?
"We know now why you are so secretive about your mission." Hatchet Face paused and glared again, as though the prisoner should know what he was talking about. "Bender has told us about your mission."
"What would he know about my mission?" Kert asked. "He went down a week before I did."
"Ah! Then you do know him, after all?"
Kert realized he had slipped. It wasnít too serious, but he must cover up. "I saw his name on the Ďmissingí list; that doesnít mean I know him."
"Humph! You do not fool me, Kert. Now I suppose you will say you donít know what Bender could have told us of your mission."
"Well, I donít," Kert asserted. That was the truth; he didnít. Bender couldnít have known anything about his mission.
"Then I will give you something to refresh your memory," Hatchet Face said. "You have such a poor memory," he added with heavy sarcasm.
The chinaman withdrew some papers from his portfolio. "I will leave you to read this and consider your own position," he said as he handed a document to Kert. Hatchet Face did not leave immediately, however, but stood waiting for Kert to look.
The notation on the cover sheet only stated that what was con- tained therein was a "deposition" by an American pilot named Bender. Turning the cover, Kert read the more revealing title on the first page"A Confession to Bacteriological Warfare."
Kert was puzzled; he had never heard of such a thing. His face showed the puzzlement by a change of expression. It was for that change the chinaman had waited. What the expression might be, didnít matter; to Hatchet Face it was only important that there be some change.
"Ah, you are surprised, I see! Perhaps you are even shocked and frightened that your secret is revealed." Hatchet Face chuckled.
"My secret? What the hell?"
"It is too late for you to pretend innocence. I was not certain of your guilt until I saw the expression on your face. Now is clear. I leave you to read what your brother in crime has written." The chinaman looked threatening again. "And to consider your own position."
When the chinaman had gone, Kert looked again at the paper and read. He glossed over the part where Bender identified himself by full name, rank, serial number, and unit, but read several times the rest of the opening paragraph: "as pilot of a U. S. airplane I flew over peaceful towns and villages of North Korea and dropped bombs containing deadly bacteria on the innocent inhabitants!"
He went on to the next paragraph: "When I was shot down and captured, I fully expected to be killed immediately by my captors in vengeance for what I had done. Instead they fed me and treated me kindly. Now my conscience directs that I confess my crimes and place myself upon the mercy of the peace-loving peoples I have betrayed" On and on it went
The falsity was obvious to Kert from the first. Yet he was puzzled. "Why?" he asked himself. "What is the purpose of something like this?" He glanced over it again; then tiring of the monotonous, senseless absurdities, he laid the paper aside and tried to figure.
Since it appeared that the enemy was attempting to get him to make a similar "deposition," Kert had to determine their purpose in order to know what he should do. A fellow might be prepared beforehand for interrogation; it was something he should reason- ably expect. But who would anticipate something like this? This was unheard of. There had to be a purposesome reason for the enemy to want this thing. The communists wouldnít exert so much effort, if it wasnít of value to them somehow.
Propaganda? Who would believe it back home? Just the way it was written, some of the trick phrases in it, made the whole thing an obvious lie to any but the most gullible in America. For people in communist lands? Yes, they might believe it; perhaps many of them would. Such people had no way of learning otherwise. But if that were the case, why did they need a real signature? Why not make the whole thing up? Kert thought for a moment that was the answerthe "confession" was a complete phony. The chinamen had simply used an American name, maybe copied the handwriting and did the whole thing themselves. Kert relaxed a bit at the thought and, placing the paper on the table, lay down and stretched out on his bedding.
A lone fly buzzed around the room. Kert wondered that there werenít more ffies in the place and was grateful. After several attempts at swatting the pesky insect with his hand Kert rolled up the papers and succeeded on the first attempt. He replaced the papers on the table, lay back down, and drifted off to sleep.
Awakened by footsteps, he sat up just in time to see Hatchet Face come in. The chinaman looked at the table and saw the papers.
"You finish reading?" he asked.
"Yes." Though he hadnít read all, Kert had no desire to read any more.
"What do you think of it?"
Kert thought a while. He wanted to say he thought it made a good fly swatter. To some of the other interrogators heíd known he might have said that, but not to this fellow so anxious for an excuse for violence.
"Not much," the prisoner answered.
"What do you mean, Ďnot muchí?"
"I mean I donít think much of it. Itís a phony; just somethingmore propaganda."
"Propaganda, you say? An American wrote it! Do we have Americans writing propaganda for us?"
"An American didnít write that stuff."
Hatchet Face snatched the paper from the table and jerked it open at the final page. "Did you not see the signature?" he shouted angrily. "How can you say an American didnít write this? Here is the signature!"
"That doesnít mean anything. Anybody could write a name like that."
"You know this man, Bender, and you know that is his signature!"
"I admit Iíve heard of him, but I sure as hell wouldnít know his signature. Iíve never seen it." That, of course, was true, except that Kert was seeing Benderís signature right then, without knowing for certain it was real.
"Well, this is his signature!"
"I donít know that it is."
"And you say we make this all up? Is that it?"
"Thatís the way it looks to me."
"Did you read all?"
"Enough, eh? Then you are ready now to tell us about your own mission?"
So that was the enemyís objectivefor certain nowthey wanted him to do something like that. "Why?" he wondered. "To what purpose?" Aloud he said: "Iíve already told you about that all Iím going to tell you about anything. I was on a routine night attack mission, and you know that is true."
"Ah, yes!" the chinaman mocked. "You say, Ďroutine night attack mission.í Of course against only military targets."
"Thatís right," Kert answered. All a man could do was make just a simple statement and repeat it until they got tired of asking.
"Hmph!" Hatchet Face snorted. "You think we believe your childish lie about Ďroutine missioní? Or perhaps you have flown so many of these criminal missions that dropping bacteria has become routine with you?"
"That stuff is all a lie and you know it!" Kert couldnít help raising his voice.
"Sonow you call me a liar!" Hatchet Face shouted angrily in return.
"I only said this germ-war stuff is untrue! Itís propaganda!"
"I tell you itís true. If you say it is lie, you call me liar! Do you call me liar?"
The chinaman seemed to be trying to force Kert to say something insultingsomething that might justify reprisal. The American was at a loss for a way to answer.
"Welldo you?" The interrogator jutted his face forward again.
"If you believe it, then you are not a liar when you say it," Kert finally said. "But I do not believe it."
"Hmph," Hatchet Face grunted. This prisoner wasnít easy to trip up. Kert didnít talk enough to give the chinaman a chance to twist words around.
"So" The chinaman smiled sardonically. "You think I am liar, but you are afraid to say." The smile became threatening.
"Well, it is good for you that you are afraid." Again he glared at the prisoner. Kert said nothing, and saw no point in returning the glare.
"Perhaps you should examine your conscience as Bender has done," the chinaman suggested after a time.
"I have nothing on my conscience."
"Do not lie to me!"
Again Kert did not reply. There were several minutes of silence as the two looked at each otherthe chinaman with his practiced glare and the American with a calm gaze belying the turmoil within him. Both held, until another question broke the spell, and gave opportunity for shifting the eyes without loss of face to either.
"How do you feel you should be treated by us?" the chinaman asked.
"As a prisoner of war, in accordance with international law."
"Do you not realize that because of what you have done you are not legally a prisoner of war?"
Kert looked at the chinaman incredulously.
"Your actions have made you ĎWar Criminal,í" Hatchet Face said. "You are same as spynot entitled to treatment as ordinary prisoner of war."
"Silence! I am tired of your lying denials. You! A war criminal! Asking to be treated as ordinary prisoner of war! After what you have done, you deserve to be killed! Not as honorable soldier, but as vicious criminal! A treacherous spy! With hands tied behind your back and pistol at your head! You pretend to be very brave. Perhaps you will not be so brave thinking what is in store for you."
Hatchet Face paused to watch the effect, while Kert tried to conceal all signs of the disturbance within him. He wondered how far the chinamen would go to get such a phony, useless thing. How far had they gone with Bender? How far had they gone, perhaps, with others, too?
"You had better consider yourself and your position, Kert," Hatchet Face said after a time. "I will leave you to think more about it. Also the papers so you can read more to help you think."
And Kert did think more about it. How far would they go? How much would he be able to withstand from them? If they beat him, could they force him to do it? Hatchet Face seemed eager to try. Again Kert vowed to kill the gangling chinaman if the fellow ever actually hit him. Heíd have to do it with bare hands, but he felt he was still strong enough. Maybe they would starve him first, make him weaker. Well, if they did that, heíd try anyhow. If they let him go more than a day without food it would be a good-enough indication of their intent; so heíd kill one of them then, if he got the chance. He wouldnít kill a guard or a flunky; you didnít feel that way about a coolie who was just doing his job because he didnít know any better or have any choice. No, it had to be one of the interrogators, preferably Hatchet Facenot just any chinaman.
Kert started to look at the papers again, then decided against it and laid them aside. His mind was tired from the strain that was upon it, and his body was fatigued in sympathy with the brain.
Kert tried to rest, but for a long time rest wouldnít come. "Why did this happen to me?" he said aloud to himself. "Thereís guys back in the States, pulliní strings so they wonít have to come out here. And others come out here for a short tourthe VIP toura Tokyo furlough and back to the States.
"And what the hell kind of a war is it? The damn commies pile stuff up on the other side of the Yalu, and we canít touch it. We have to wait and try to pick it off a truck load at a time, instead of blasting it when itís all stacked up neat in Antung. And we have to do it at night, because just north of the river the enemy has a whole mess of jets that canít be touched until they cross to the south side."
Realizing he was talking aloud, Kert silenced himself for fear someone might be listening. But his thoughts went on. "You didnít dare come up in the day time in a World War II relic, when enemy fightersójetsócould hop across the line and cut loose at you, and then be back on the safe side of the river before whatever covering- fighters a fellow might have could do a thing. Really some war, this! Some fight! When the people who are supposed to be working your corner tie your hands to your feet and put horseshoes in the other guyís gloves. Maybe the commies were right in some of this"
"No!" Kert cried aloud and slapped himself hard on the forehead. The force of the blow made him see stars. He mustnít let himself start thinking of anything these communists said as being right. There was no denying they used little truths as basis for many of their big lies, but they hadnít told him a thing, one true thing about his country he wasnít already aware of. The communists said there were "war-mongers in America." Kert had recognized years ago that there were people calling themselves Americans who were more interested in personal profit than they were in the welfare of the nation, the world, or fellow-man. The communists didnít have to tell him that. And the fact that they did tell him didnít make it any less true, either. There was a time he remembered just after the last war, when he heard a defense-worker lamenting that the overtime work on war-contracts had ended before he got his house paid for. That was the petty type. There were also some others, sorry to have the war ended because they were about to get another "cost-plus" contract. Yes, America did have war-mongers, when you considered such self-seekers big and little ones. But for damn sure, America had no monopoly on them. Somebody inside the iron curtain wanted war, too, because they sure as hell started this one.
No. Kert wouldnít for a minute let himself think that these bastards were right, even if they did sometimes use fact in their propaganda.
But all of that didnít answer Kertís burning question"Why am I here?"
Thereíd been some back at Kimpo who used to tell him he was a fool for flying the way he did. If heíd taken their advice, perhaps he wouldnít be here. "To hell with the flares," they said. "Sure you can see the trucks under the flares, but the gunners can see you, too."
"This is a useless war," they contended. "Why take chances when you donít have to?" And some of them practiced what they preached. They made a sweep up over the assigned area, every- thing dark, dropped their load in the general vicinity of where they thought some target might be and went home. If the crew got their heads together and decided theyíd hit a dozentrucks and a locomotive in the process, who in hell could prove they didnít? Their missions added up as fast as anyoneís; and when they reached the required number, the fellows could gather up their "air medals" and "distinguished flying crosses" and head for the States to recuperate from "combat fatigue."
"But you"Kert told himself"you have to be a damned idealist; make it a matter of principles. Even if it is a useless, senseless war, you must have thought youíd win it all by yourself. So you ask for flares, and get them. With the flares, you see some trucks, and you get them. But with the same flares, some commie gunner sees you, and gets you. So what good are your damn principles doiní you now, Kert?" Suddenly Kert realized he was talking aloud again, and stopped.
But that was it! If a man couldnít find any other reason for resisting these bastards, principles would do. Just as they were reason enough for a man to fight his best in a useless war, they were reason enough here. And when you thought of that, you suddenly realized it wasnít a useless war at all. It seemed sometimes misdirectedmostly by people who shouldnít have anything to do with it at allbut it wasnít useless. And if it was worth a manís life in battle, it was worth his life here in prison, toomaybe even worth more.
With those thoughts, Kert drifted off to sleep. His was a reasoning mind, now able to rest because it had found a reason.
© 2002, 2003 by Lynn Waterman; used by permission of the author, Duane Thorin.