Old warriors bridge a bitter gap

Senator John McCain received a remarkable endorsement for his presidential candidacy recently, as reported in an Associated Press story by Margie Mason.

Tran Trong Duyet, an aging resident of Haiphong, Vietnam, says that if he were an American, he would vote for John McCain. Duyet was one of McCain’s jailers during his five and a half years of captivity in the Hanoi Hilton, but now he thinks of McCain as an "old buddy." He says that he never tortured McCain and that when he was off duty, the two of them would argue about the war. Sometimes McCain would correct Duyet’s English. I haven’t heard how McCain feels about Duyet’s support.

But this is only an extreme, tragicomical version of a phenomenon regularly reported in newspapers and elsewhere about other wars. Last spring, Associated Press reporter Raf Casert told the story of a meeting between Sgt. Shep Waldman, an 85-year-old American veteran of World War II, and Alois Wuerzer, 83, a former member of the German Wehrmacht. As Casert puts it, "Weathered hands stretched out, and one of the past century’s bitterest divides was bridged with a hearty handshake." Wuerzer said, "It is good for two enemies to talk to one another."

In the summer of 1913, on the 50th anniversary of the battle at Gettysburg, the state of Pennsylvania hosted a reunion in commemoration of that pivotal Civil War conflict. Every honorably discharged Union and Confederate veteran was invited and more than 50,000 came from all over the country and camped at the battlefield for a week in facilities furnished by the U.S. Army.

On the Internet you can find pictures of these grizzled, bewhiskered warriors — the oldest one claimed to be 112 years old — walking together across the battlefield, some in their faded blue uniforms and some in gray, and posing for photographs on stone walls that had served as fortifications 50 years before.

I like stories like these, but at the same time they’re disquieting because they imply the possibilities for human connection among ordinary people that might have made the battle unnecessary to begin with. Old enemies look back 30, 40, or 50 years and realize that what they have in common in their senescence far outweighs many of the values they saw fit to fight over during the great battles of the past.

It’s hard to imagine these sorts of reunions in the future among the common soldiers of our current wars, but who knows? We might have said the same thing about the Japanese, the Germans, and certainly the Vietcong. And 50 years from now, when we’ve thoroughly exhausted our oil reservoirs and moved on to other ways of powering the world, we may wonder why we spent so much human suffering battling over petroleum, territory, and religion.

Nobody says this better than Thomas Hardy, who wrote "The Man He Killed" in 1902 to express the bewilderment of the common soldiers swept up in the Boer War. Some of Hardy’s language sounds quaint to the contemporary ear, but this poem rewards patient re-reading, and its message is timeless:


"Had he and I but met

By some old ancient inn,

We should have sat us down to wet

Right many a nipperkin!

"But ranged as infantry,

And staring face to face,

I shot at him and he at me,

And killed him in his place.

"I shot him dead because —

Because he was my foe,

Just so — my foe of course he was;

That’s clear enough; although

"He thought he’d ‘list perhaps,

Off-hand like — just as I —

Was out of work — had sold his traps —

No other reason why.

"Yes; quaint and curious war is!

You shoot a fellow down

You’d treat if met where any bar is,

Or help to half-a-crown."


(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail him at jcrisp(at)delmar.edu)