Thurman P. Woodfork

A QUESTION OF EMPATHY

One night, a large enemy force surrounded my camp in Vietnam, and the village adjacent to the camp mortared and set afire. Many of the villagers were wounded and killed. We Americans, in the camp only a short distance away, were unable to go their assistance because we were penned in by the Viet Cong force surrounding us. We could only watch and curse.

The VC left as quickly as they had come, once their inhuman business had been completed. Do you know what I felt while I stood watching as the village was destroyed? Do you know how I later reacted to one wounded and burned man I helped carry to a waiting Medevac chopper? He reached back over his head and grasped both my wrists in an iron grip and started to talk to me in Vietnamese.

Can you tell me what it was I felt toward him as, not understanding a word he was saying, I listened as he spoke to me in agony, his widened eyes, whites glistening, fastened unblinkingly on mine? Do you think the soothing English words I spoke to him in return conveyed in any great measure the empathy, anger and frustration I felt as I looked back at him?

Do you think it possible that I, completely unwounded and physically unharmed, felt none of his suffering? Was he asking me if any of his family survived? Was he asking me if I could do anything to alleviate the pain he must have been feeling? Do you think, possibly, he was asking why I had not prevented the attack on his home?

Do you think I felt nothing of his suffering because my quarters still stood intact, my skin was not blistered and burned, and my family was safe back home? I could smell his burnt hair. Do you think only he and his fellow villagers had any emotional investment in the awful events that had just occurred, and were still going on as I and another American carried him toward relative safety?

Do you think, as soon as the village was rebuilt, none of the Americans in the camp ever again gave a thought to the horrific happenings of that night? Do you know if I felt anything at all, and, if I did, why?

If so, perhaps you can explain why I awoke more than once feeling walls collapsing in on me, and my agonized flesh burning as flames and chaos raged around me. After all, none of that ever actually happened to me. How could I ever know how it felt; how could it possibly affect me?