Act from Fear and Die or Trust in Our Higher Nature
by Neil Fiore, 1st Lieutenant, 101st Airborne 1965-1966

I’d been in Vietnam exactly four months with an advanced unit of the 101st Airborne, when Francois invited a Special Forces Lt. Colonel, me and two other lieutenants to his exclusive bistro at the edge of the jungle.

We first met Francois at his Mickey Mouse bar in Nha Trang, a beach town 300 miles north of Saigon (now, Ho Chi Minh City). We’d go there to drink beer and listen to Francois tell of his exploits with the French Foreign Legion throughout Indo China.

Since our only meals for weeks had been the dried dog food the U.S. Army calls C Rations, we salivated like four hunting dogs when Francois described the filet mignons of water buffalo, the real French fries, the giant spiny lobster, and the wines he would serve us at his “Parisian-jungle” bistro.

As the sky glowed orange from the setting sun, we pointed our jeep north over a dirt road to a jungle clearing. Soon we came upon the entrance to a palm-thatched bungalow right out of the movie South Pacific. In this amazing setting our minds were lulled into forgetting about the dangers of war and political hostilities. We were only thinking of the lavish feast Francois had promised us.

But our sweet dreams were rudely interrupted by the sound of the jeep skidding to an abrupt halt on the damp jungle floor. None of us were prepared for what we saw next: at least 30 Vietcong squatting around the restaurant, in their standard uniform of black silk pajamas, cradling AK47 assault rifles in their arms. The VC eyed us cautiously, but seemed more interested in their opium pipes than in the four of us who, armed with 45 caliber pistols, were no competition.

We were clearly outnumbered and out-gunned. Luckily, no one on our side was foolish enough to give in to the belief that we must act as enemies because our governments were at war. I could sense that this was one of those moments in which I could act out of fear and die or assert my trust in the higher, peaceful nature of all human beings. Nonetheless, I knew this could be my last meal and thought: “If I make it inside that hut I'm going to savor every bite of my dinner. After that, I'll worry about getting out alive.”

Climbing the four steps up to the doorway took an eternity. I struggled to find the courage to place one boot after another on the wooden planks. With each step the sound of my heart grew louder as I anticipated that this could be the moment when all hell will break lose.

With my mind focused on every sound and movement, I moved through the open door. Once inside, my body relaxed and my senses absorbed the exquisite fragrances from the kitchen and the astounding sight of a table set with real silverware. The aromas, the flavors, the firm texture of the giant lobster, the sweetness of the water buffalo, pommes frites unlike any French fries I every had in Jersey City, and a red wine with the scent of southern France all coalesced to temporarily erase the threat of death or, even worse, capture by the VC.

All too soon, Francois looked at his watch and announced our chilling wake up call: “C'est dix heures. It’s ten o'clock, time for the VC to come in.” Without a word, the four of us walked out into the jungle night ready to accept our fate.

I followed the colonel’s lead and nodded respectfully to our well-armed counterparts and, in my best high school French, wished them a Bon soir et bon appétit. Somehow, I managed to walk to our jeep without breaking into a mad dash or looking back over my shoulder at the VC.

In spite of the suffering and deaths that followed during my remaining months in Vietnam, I held a sense of wonder about those few hours when combatants on both sides silently agreed to stop the war and allow each other to savor the gifts and beauty offered by this life.

Within a month of that remarkable evening at Francois’s, the American and North Vietnamese generals arrived in South Vietnam. All gentleman’s agreements between ordinary soldiers and local guerilla fighters were broken. The more “civilized war” was replaced by the usual heartlessness and dehumanizing nature we expect of mortal combat between governments. The new troops arriving were never given the chance to see their foe patiently waiting to be served a gourmet meal by a former enemy who chose to stay among them, marry one of their own, and raise two beautiful French-Vietnamese children.

Permission to reprint is granted provided this copyright and contact information is included: © 2009, Neil Fiore. All rights reserved. 510 525 2673

Author's Bio: 

Dr. Neil Fiore is a psychologist and coach from Berkeley, California. He’s the author of 4 books, the latest from McGraw-Hill: Awaken Your Strongest Self: Break Free of Stress, Inner Conflict, and Self-Sabotage.

Neil was a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division, a manager for Johnson & Johnson, and is a cancer survivor. He has published in The New England Journal of Medicine, Working Woman, Boardroom Reports, and The San Francisco Chronicle; and been cited in the Wall St. Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Elle, Self, and Psychology Today.
Neil is the recipient of the University of California’s Distinguished Achievement Award and was selected by Boardroom Reports as one of their Top-10 Self-Help Gurus.

Neil has presented keynotes and training to Amgen Pharmaceuticals, AT&T, Levi Strauss, Stanford Hospital, UC Berkeley Extension, and The Smithsonian. He has conducted seminars to audiences in Spain, Mexico, Germany, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Ireland, and Prague.

voice: 510 - 525 2673