Sometimes the lessons we learn aren’t what we would expect. You would expect to hear about faith or courage from a former prisoner of war. You wouldn’t expect a POW to talk about the destructive nature of hate, but that’s the lesson from Tom Moe, a Capital University graduate and Vietnam War POW, who served as Director of the Ohio Department of Veterans Services from 2010 to 2013.
Moe’s lesson for us is one of three ironies within his story, and, as we celebrate Memorial Day, it’s appropriate to learn from him.
Moe’s F-4 Phantom went down in January of 1968 in the Vietnam War. The first irony is that he wasn’t downed by the enemy. His wingman was carrying a bomb with a faulty fuse, a relatively inexpensive item that detonated prematurely; the bomb exploded while airborne, destroying two multi-million dollar jets and forcing four aircrew to eject.
Moe spent three days in the cold, wet jungle evading the enemy. After being discovered hiding under a log, Moe was forced to march 100 miles to a POW camp. The trek was difficult but tolerable.
Once Moe arrived at the camp, his world was turned upside down, starting with nine months of solitary confinement and torture. POWs were regarded as war criminals and subject to one rule: “Criminals will strictly follow all regulations or will be severely punished.”
Not providing military information when interrogated was a violation of the rule and resulted in torture. That meant sitting on a stool for 24 hours a day for 10 days straight. Sometimes Moe would be tied to the stool, with his wrists strapped to his ankles. Sometime he was not tied, but forbidden to move. If he moved, other than to use a waste bucket in the corner, he would be beaten with fists and gun butts until the guards tired.
Other times, Moe was forced to stand immobile “around the clock,” and then kneel for up to six hours at a time, a process that went on for days. This was supposed to motivate him to sign a war confession, but Moe refused, which led to 20 guards beating him. After that, he was waterboarded.
Here’s the second irony. America was outraged when we later learned how men had been tortured in Vietnam, but we later waterboarded the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Former Vice President Dick Cheney characterized it as “enhanced interrogation,” but that’s a story for another day.
There were more beatings that caused internal bleeding and broken ribs. Moe was gaunt, his skin festered with rashes and fungus, and his eye sockets were “two puffy slits.” Poking your finger into his flesh would leave a hole that would slowly fill with fluid. He was given little to eat and putrid water to drink and lived in a barren cell, sometimes shared with rats.
Finally, the beatings lessened, and Moe knew he was “over the hump,” which brings us to the third irony in Moe’s story, his thoughts about hate: “I had to cope with one of the most corrosive elements of the human spirit—hate. Hate is a terrible distraction, a horribly destructive human enterprise. Hate invades the consciousness when the mind’s reasoning power fades. Hate is a way we assign blame for our plight when our faith weakens and our resolve becomes clouded. Pain intensifies hate, making us want to strike out at something.” A fascinating concept from a man who we would think is justified in hating his captors.
Look around you and it should become clear that Moe’s lesson is relevant to us. We’re no longer just a society of differing views. We’re a society that is divided into several camps of strident views where people refuse to find common ground and instead engage in endless exchanges of angry rhetoric.
Try this experiment: turn on the TV but turn off the volume. It doesn’t matter what you’re watching or that you can’t hear the words. You’ll see angry faces. Whatever the news story— taxes, abortion, immigration, guns—it’s all the same. People will be talking—no, yelling—at each other. If that isn’t hate you’re watching, it’s just a shade less.
This hate—or whatever you want to call it—clouds our thinking and weakens us. It prevents us from reaching consensus because it makes enemies out of those with whom we disagree, and once we have created enemies—well, you can’t give in, because they’re enemies. Of course, no one wants to call it hate. It’s “fighting for principle,” they’ll say. No, Moe was fighting for principle. We’re squandering precious time hating.
Jack D’Aurora writes about a variety of social issues in Considerthisbyjd.com
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