The Stinking Residue of Vietnam

I did not go to Vietnam. Although I was of an age when many of my generation did. And to explain why I did not would be a long story. A complicated story. It would be a story about the privilege of birth and the way we choose who goes to war and who fights our battles.

It would also be a story about the twin myths of this country. The first one said that “Americans always fought on the Right Side”. That there was indeed a moral high ground, and we always held it. We had a divine right, an imperative in fact, to do whatever we wanted to do, without moral qualms or much self-examination. In whatever place we wanted to do it.

Vietnam was such a place. It was a conflict that we had somehow inherited from the French, a conflict that was left over from their Colonial Period. That period when vast numbers of native populations around the Globe functioned as the servant class for Europeans and their interests. We inherited a war that the French had failed to win, had in fact found unwinnable. We went there ostensibly to assert our dominance, to “stem the tide of Godless Communism” in the midst of the Cold War. It was the “Right” thing to do, they said. It was a decision made by men who would not be required to put on a uniform, carry a gun or get their feet wet.

The other myth was that “America never lost a war”. Or more accurately, America could not lose a war. God was on our side. It turned out that this was mistaken arrogance. Pardon me, but God didn’t give a rat’s ass who won that war. Or any other war for that matter. It is so implausible now as to be laughable. But no one was laughing back then, least of all draft-age young men. We were the warm bodies required to fight that Cold War.

There were many involved in selling this twin bill of hogwash. Some I assume were earnest enough. Some may even have had the long-term interests of the country at heart. But many more knew that both of these axioms were flawed, duplicitous and treacherous as we sent more and more trusting young men into a jungle from which they would never return. And many more who left parts of their bodies and a good deal of their souls there.

And the war drug out for years as both elected officials and military generals tried to prove that both of these myths were True. When neither of them was. And they knew it.

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Concerning my own Vietnam non-history, I will be brief. It was 1966 and I was in small-town America, where I had grown up. It was a fine place, a region that worshipped the Christian God and the Flag and believed in the moral stance of America. It had worshipped Eisenhower and then gave the same allegiance to John Kennedy.

All of my roots were there. My values were their values. My brother had graduated from West Point. I played football and bare-knuckle country baseball and subscribed to a code of discipline, hard work, moral rectitude and dance halls and ribald drunkenness on Saturday nights. If I had been drafted at that moment, I would have unquestionably gone. As it was, I took a suit, a blazer, two sports-coats and a lot of ties away with me to college. I took my religion and a good haircut as well. But not a lot of introspection.

And the world was moving under my feet. In December of 1964 there had been about 23,000 American servicemen in Vietnam. By December of 1965 there were over 184,000. Twelve months later, in the middle of my freshman year, there were close to a half million young Americans there. Mostly not by choice. The Beasts of War were raging, and They demanded fodder. That ugly word, the unspeakable word, Defeat, was being whispered in closed-door, strategic meetings, and it scared them so enormously that they demanded thousands upon thousands of young men to stuff into an ever-widening breech.

We would win this war, they decided, by killing so many of the enemy that they could not continue. It became a War of Attrition. Body Count was the name of the game. It was dirty business.

We were not a group of boys necessarily looking to put our lives at risk for God or Country or any other damn thing for that matter. We were young men who probably had never heard of Vietnam. Who, if we were given a world map and a stick pin and 45 minutes, couldn’t have come within 5000 miles of Southeast Asia. We were young men who certainly felt no overriding animosity toward Vietnamese people, North, South or otherwise. Other than the propaganda that was being fed to us. It was the prevailing storyline, the same one that is fed to all people in times of War. Our boys were the Peacemakers. The other side was brutal, cruel and vicious. We were the Good Guys, sent to quell the disturbance and set things right.

As I recall it, there were not a lot of heroes in our group. Least of all me. The youngest son of college educated parents, people of means, schooled at St. Joe Prep by Xaverian Brothers, I had long been slated for college. It was where I wanted to be. And the War hardly changed those plans.

College was a deferment from the Draft. And why is that? you ask. Which I never consciously did. Was it because those of ‘higher intelligence’ and ‘greater learning potential’ were more essential to keep alive? Was an English major more valuable than a mechanic? A Psych major less dispensable than a plumber? Or because the ‘less educated’ were easier to train and manage? They made less noise when called up. Or cynically, was it because the sons of those making war-time decisions and creating Capital were more likely to be in institutions of higher learning? None of these options are ethically very appealing, but I yet do not know the real answer.

In any case, I retained my deferment for those four years. But as I neared graduation, my Draft Board and I were on a collision course. A decision was at hand. When miraculously, the Selective Service devised a Draft Lottery that would determine arbitrarily the order of call to military service. The order was to be tied to your birthday. So on December 1, 1969, a fateful day for many, a representative from that agency plucked little white balls with days-of-the-month on them out of a rotating drum. Just like Bingo but with much more at stake. ‘April 20th’ was the 345rd picked out that day. I was for all practical purposes a Free Man. Free to roam about the country. To do as I might.

All of this condensed means that Vietnam, for me, was never an issue. I never had to decide whether to flee or fight, resist or submit. I made no courageous decisions. No decisions at all. In the hand I was dealt, there were no Vietnam cards. Others, close friends and kin, were not so lucky.

And the truth is I feel bad about it. I feel bad that some served in my stead. They pulled my duty while I did keggers and studied Chaucer. They joined the Marines while I played rugby and joined a fraternity. It was a rigged system, and many paid a dear price for my privilege.

I do not intend here to try to explain this horrible fiasco of a war to anyone. I do know however that I am still angry. Because They deceived us. They lied to us. For Their own ends. The rage persists, and I do not yet know who THEY were.

For those who would suggest it, I do not hate this Country. Far from it. I actually have a great amount of respect for it, for its fundamental values, its underlying structure, its core strengths.

But I do question, strongly question, those individuals who would divide this Country for their own selfish benefit. As was done during the Vietnam War. Who would pit group against group and faction against faction for their own political gain. As was done during the Vietnam War. I call to task those who today put their own personal, financial and career goals above the best interests of America itself. As was clearly done during the Vietnam War.

None of these are new phenomenon. But they are part of a persistent System that perpetuates, retains and preserves wealth in the hands of a very few, to the detriment of everyone else. It is a System that 50 years later, a half-Century after the horrors and inequities of the Vietnam War, persists. It remains rigged. And I confess, by God, that I am thoroughly pissed that we allow it..