Tom Keating spent a tour in the U.S. Army in Vietnam in 1969–1970, returned home, and said very little to others about his experiences over there . After the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans’ War Memorial in 1982 (called by Veterans “The Wall”) in Washington, D.C., Tom decided he had to visit and look up the inscribed name of his friend who had been killed in the war.
A group of Vietnamese tourists stopped to take pictures. They wanted Tom in their photos. A man in the group, about the same age as Tom, asked if Tom had been in Vietnam. Tom replied that he had been there. The other man said, “Me too, other side” and smiled. They shook hands. He was not the first former enemy Tom had met, but he thought it particularly appropriate to greet him in front of the Wall.
And Tom was not the only Vietnam Veteran who met and greeted former enemy soldiers. Michael Gormalley had just graduated from his local community college when a letter came in the mail that he was about to be inducted into the U.S. Army and sent to Vietnam . That was 1971.
Gormalley became a teacher after returning from the war, and retired in 2007. When he learned of the need for volunteer teachers of English in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), he volunteered to help.
Every once in a while, Gormalley, now 72, encounters someone of his own generation who, as an enemy soldier, fought on the other side. He recalled a chance meeting in Dong Ha, north of Hue, early one morning with an elderly man wearing a suit and a North Vietnamese Army officer’s cap.
“I said ‘Xin chào’ [‘hello’ in Vietnamese],” said Gormalley, and the gentleman answered, “Good morning.” That was all the English that he knew, but he saluted Gormalley and Gormalley returned the salute. They encountered each other for several mornings. Then, one day, the Vietnamese gentleman stopped Gormalley and took out some pictures of Dong Hà 50 years ago. When a picture of his family came up, Gormalley was startled to see that his granddaughter had been one of his students.
Gaormalley took out his iPhone and showed the other man some class photos. And there she was, the granddaughter. The two men laughed. Gormalley took a selfie with the other man, and then they both saluted and left.
The old man was hard of hearing, and the next day, when he was talking loudly to Gormalley, some people came by and expressed concern that he was yelling at Gormalley. At this point, Gormalley said, “No, he’s my friend,” and showed them the selfie. The next year, Gormalley found out that the other man had passed away, but for a time there, Gormalley considered the other man, this former North Vietnamese Army soldier, to be his friend.
How could it be possible for former enemy soldiers, who fought on opposite sides of a long and drawn-out war, to befriend each other? Under different circumstances, they could easily have had their weapons trained on each other and killed each other without so much as an afterthought. A few years back, they would not have considered the other as a whole human being worthy of an ounce of consideration.
But, once the political imperative of war, and the duty of each soldier to fight for his country was no longer a factor, things were so much different, They had so much in common, these former enemies. They had shared experiences, and met similar challenges. Each had to have faced his own mortality and to survive the mental demons that come when realizing that each moment might be his last. Each had committed the inevitable atrocities forced upon them by the circumstances of war, actions that would have not been socially acceptable in civilian life. Each had displayed courage, had overcome fear, and had done the jobs that they were expected to do when sent by their home countries to dominate the other side. In short, each of these men had so much in common with the other that they highly respected what the other had gone through, and found in the other qualities that cannot be easily appreciated by those who have not seen combat.
If these former enemies can forget their past differences and recognize their similarities, is it not possible that we can do the same with others by overlooking the things that separate us and recognize the human qualities that we share with them? Despite that unlikely scenario, it is a real possibility. If only it were more common…
- T. Keating, “The wall, then and now,” VVA Veteran, vol. 41, no. 2, Mar./Apr. 2021.
- G. McNamee, “Michel Gormalley’s second ‘tour of duty’ in Vietnam,” VVA Veteran, vol. 41, no. 6, Nov./Dec. 2021.