May 1, 2000
"A war free from any taint of self-seeking, a war that will secure the triumph of democracy and internationalize the world!" Randolph Bourne, 1917.* I was born on the presidential election night of 1952, in the final days of the Korean War. I was a war baby. I am a war survivor. My father fought in the U.S. Army Air Corps in the war to make the world safe for democracy; my grandfather fought in the American Expeditionary Forces in the war to end all wars.
During the first years of my life, when sensation is at its most intense but memory has yet to develop, other military conflicts occurred. I was unaware of them. When I reached the age of reason, the expression we were so prematurely acquainted with during Confirmation training, my most vivid memory is of my mother forcing my brother and me onto our knees to pray, as World War Three was about to commence. It was the time of the Cuban missile crisis.
It didn't occur, of course, unless everything since my birth has been one prolonged world war, as I'm often inclined to think it is. Immediately afterward, gleaned from the front page of the Youngstown Vindicator or from the pages of the ubiquitous Readers Digest, I read of troubling events in the Belgian Congo and in an exotic place called Laos. I had only the vaguest notion of where those places were, but I knew that my country, clean and pure and a beacon to the world's suffering humanity, lead by the bold and youthful John F. Kennedy, was struggling against dark, sinister and brutal forces.
Pathet Lao seemed a suitably romantic name for the sort of bandits they were portrayed as being. In my child's mind I tried to imagine if they wore turbans or conical hats, had yellow or brown skin. But at any rate they soon gave way to the harsher syllables of Viet Cong. It was now 1964 and and our heroic crusader-leader was dead.
The Congolese and Laotians and, now, the Vietnamese villains were all shadowy presences; their conspiracies had names, their members didn't. We weren't killing them, we were saving others. Words like geo-political and counterinsurgency and strategic positioning aren't in the vocabulary of an eleven-year old. No more than was the word assassination in November of 1963, though I and my classmates on that day intuitively understood its meaning. (My first response: "Are we going to war with Russia? China?")
The following year President Johnson, not nearly as swashbuckling, or trustworthy, as his predecessor had seemed, sent troops into the Dominican Republic. My father, rarely given to harsh language, erupted. "We have no damn business being there!" That was the first time I learned it was all right to disagree with a president's actions. A lesson vividly, almost constantly, recalled in the intervening years. Besides, what did the behavior of the Dominicans I saw on television, all normal looking people, albeit manifesting the saint's glow of righteous ardor, have in common with the insidious Laotians and sanguinary Congolese I had been taught to fear?
That same year another event occurred that still leaves me shaken. After the example of the Buddhist monks in Vietnam protesting against President Ngo Dinh Diem and his successors, a young American Catholic pacifist, Norman Morrison, set himself on fire in front of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's office in the Pentagon. He died a true martyr's death and the image of his flaming body remains in my memory. His self-immolation raised the benchmark against which all true, as opposed to half-hearted and insincere, commitment is measured. The war of hearts and minds was now the war of mud and blood.
In 1966 two hundred-odd U.S. marines were killed in a single fire fight. I was stunned, grasping for an answer to this prodigal waste of young crusaders' lives. I looked for assurance. What I found, in a subhead of the Toledo Blade from an American Marine commander was, "They were too damned aggressive." Our boys' lives were as expendable as those of the Vietnamese. We were going from the heady days of body counts to the disillusioning days of body bags...
In 1968 the Tet Offensive occurred and the photograph that came to symbolize it was that of South Vietnamese police commander Nguyen Ngoc Loan firing a revolver through the head of a young "Viet Cong suspect." The picture must have appeared in the Sunday newspaper, because I remember my family being together in the kitchen and my father, who, not untypically, had eased from "we don't belong there" to "but as we've started it we have to finish it," becoming enraged. Soldier that he had been, the idea of this brutal, summary, almost casual snuffing out of a young life was beyond his moral tolerance.
1969 arrived, the summer of Woodstock, a man on the moon, and sneaking into a giant tent to see Led Zeppelin on their first American tour. Somehow the war receded from view and the glittering facade of Corvettes and color television, of outdoor concerts and the frightened donning of black armbands made us forget The War. Those things and a panoply of artificial paradises made conveniently available to us. Besides, it now seemed endless, something that would always exist. If I gave it a thought it was with a wistful sigh after the lines of Rimbaud: "Poor fools! - dead in summer, in the grass/ On Nature's breast, who meant these men to smile...." A brief interlude of oblivion. And of cowardice. But unlike the mother's advice to her children, the ghost didn't go away once you stopped thinking of it.
The next year brought Kent State and the war that really came home. When I heard of the killing of my four contemporaries - and the sense of generational solidarity, of camaraderie defined us by that time - I expected the voice of moral outrage to scream to the heavens. It didn't. Instead what we heard was, "They had it coming." The military Moloch first claimed Indochinese, then young Marines, now its very children. Like Saturn, Mars devours his own children. The military metaphysic, as one of America's last heroes, C. Wright Mills, phrased it, was now triumphant, both here and abroad. It was on that day of martyrdom that the lesson of Norman Morrison took on a deeper meaning: Not only was the ultimate sacrifice to be demanded of us if necessary, but this was now a war to the death - against war. Blood had been spilt even on our own soil and the death machine that spilled it must be dismantled... But we were also frightened. And, because of the silence or assent offered by our parent's generation to this baptism of blood, we became demoralized. Protesters were assaulted in the streets, Nixon's COINTELPRO instilled paranoia. Melvin Laird and Henry Kissinger staged a dark comedy of peace negotiations, and allowed our weaker selves to hope....
And the siren song of escapism, chemical and other, sounded louder. We could march and hand out leaflets, but the final outcome depended on who won out on the battlefield. Or who would first tire of the conflict. The shamelessly corrupt Thieus and Kys whom the Defense and State Departments had appointed as representatives of the people of southern Vietnam had embarrassed even their sponsors. Besides, China had welcomed Nixon and Kissinger, and we needn't worry any longer about the Red Tide and the Thai domino falling. It was time to pack up and leave. To leave a shattered and poisoned land, and millions of graves, marked and unmarked. Consummatum est - it is finished.
We left something else behind, too. The same establishment journalists and think tankers who sounded the God Wills It of this unholy crusade now started bemoaning the loss of American innocence. The loss of American - and of Laotian, Cambodian and Vietnamese - lives was an acceptable, virtually negligible, cost to pay in the diversion of 'geo-strategic doctrine" and the grand chessboards and mutually assured destruction. But the loss of national innocence - and resolve - was something former defense secretaries, career diplomats and Cold War architects could wax reflective on as they faded into the amber autumn of their lives.
I'm not sure that America, or any of us as individuals, lost our innocence. Surely the Johnsons, McNamaras, Rusks, Westmorelands, Nixons and Kissingers had little innocence to lose. Many may have, but never risked it. One doesn't have to read William Blake to ponder the relation between innocence and experience, and whether the latter is a required step toward reclaiming the first ("Is this a holy thing to see?"). It's enough that one doesn't lose one's soul. Part of America's soul was lost in Vietnam. It's taken many of my generation years, and no little struggle, to begin, tentatively and guardedly, to learn to love our country again. All of us, veterans and civilians alike, suffer from a species of shell shock, of what is now called post-traumatic stress disorder. We've lived through war; our lives have been one continuous war.
Flash forward, 2000. The lessons of Vietnam. How often have we heard that expression? What lessons? Which Vietnam? Al Gore was quoted in the press two weeks ago, addressing a public school class, on his experiences - with the pen and not the sword - in Vietnam. It was, the vice president of an administration that has hardly let a month go by without bombing some defenseless people, '"a policy mistake." Just that. Not a tragedy. Not a catastrophe. Not cause for regret or occasion for penance or reparation. A mistake. A mistake because too many GIs were killed and that made the war unpopular. A mistake because in the unlikely event anyone of Gore's station was sent into combat they may have been injured. Or killed.
But now we've learned the lesson of Vietnam: Americans won't be killed. Everyone else will. Nicaraguans, Granadans, Panamanians, Lebanese, Iraqis, Yugoslavs. More unfortunate mistakes will be made, of course - hundreds of women and children will be killed in a bomb shelter in Baghdad and Serbian civilians will be burned to death and torn apart in bombing raids. The American people will hardly notice the deaths of foreigners and the destruction and dismemberment of other nations. That's what Clinton and his protogee, as well as their Republican counterparts, are depending on. But then again LBJ, I'm sure, never expected a Norman Morrison to set an example that never leaves me in peace. And won't, until the cause of his death and that of so many others is cleared from the conscience of mankind.
When my father died over three years ago, of a heart attack, a shock to us all, I stood by his gravesite as a neighbor, active in the Veterans of Foreign Wars, planted a small American flag and a commemorative plaque that read "War Veteran" in the ground. My oldest nephew, my father's first grandchild, was standing next to me, fresh from basic training in Fort Benning and still gung ho. ("What color is the grass?" "Green!" "What makes it green?" "Blood!") I turned to him, at a moment when nothing can be rehearsed or contrived, and, trying in my own mind to reconcile the two symbols in front of my father's headstone, said: "He loved our country, but he hated war."
* The War And The Intellectuals, by Randolph Bourne. (For complete essay, see: http://www.bigeye.com/thewar.htm)
Vietnam: A Retrospective
Introduction - by Gilles d'Aymery
The Road to Wisdom - by Aleksandra Priestfield
Through the Eyes of a Child - by Jan Baughman
The Trauma of Coming Home - by Doug Baughman
Reflections on the War in Vietnam - by Mac Lawrence
Making Sense out of Senselessness - by Eileen Rinde
An Uneasy Peace - by Margaret Wyles
Myths and Reality - by Antony Black
Stay Under the Radar Screen - by Milo Clark
Conclusion - by Gilles d'Aymery