On Looking Through a Photo Album (of Viet Cong Prisoners)


These pictures show us a ragged, un-uniformed enemy,
Many too old to fight but strong in defiance,
Many frightened, hurt, dazed,
Many despairing,
Some squatting numb and expressionless,
Some dead.

Their captors surround them in big boots.

Note that most of the faces are looking off stage;
They see something unpleasant approaching.
But in this one the dog is too tired to look,
And the woman in front is done looking.
She has seen it, whatever it is, and turned off; her eyes
Are not focussed; she dreams
      of no mortgage foreclosure,
      of no missing relief check.

And here is one of mother and child beside stretcher,
Looking at corpse,
Presumably daddy.

And one of a tall American sergeant with scholarly glasses
Holding foe by scruff of neck.

Then there are pictures of blindfolded females,
And slim males with their heads in sandbags,
      their hands tied behind them,
And fierce youths plotting against us,
And graybeards with sealed lips.
All with tags on them.

I am American, middle-aged, with college degree.
I have been to war, I have studied war.
I know war to be part of man, death part of war,
And cruelty, deprivation, slaughter of innocents
Part,
Visited on both sides.

Yet I am sold out to this enemy; I like his small ears.
I am struck by his wide forehead, his high cheekbones.
His suppleness pleases me, and his spirit.
When I look at the gun at his chest, the knife at his bowels,
I fear for him.
When I see him hung by the heels I am sick.
The griefs that I find in his wrinkles, his patience in crossed legs,
The sullen undauntedness issuing from him
Swamp me with traitorous feeling.
Don't I know that this is a war? that this is the enemy?


Reed Whittemore.