aadler: (DoneThat)
[personal profile] aadler

I’m fairly sure I was in junior high school when I first began seriously hearing about Vietnam, but of course the conflict there had been going on for a long time by that point. (As an example, a friend of my parents was on one of the last planes — he said THE last — out of Dien Bien Phu before it fell.) I may have had some awareness before junior high, but by the time I got there, Vietnam had become a big enough deal that it was near-impossible not to hear about it.

It was part of what was going on. It was part of the life we lived. The older brothers and older boyfriends of some of my schoolmates were being sent over. I personally knew only three of them. One was stationed in a supply area, and — at least according to him — was far enough away from any combat that his most hazardous duty was dodging the local prostitutes so he could go home to his new bride with a clean conscience. One was on roving patrols, and came back without harm but with bitter memories (and his opinions on My Lai were unpopular then and would get him a politically-correct public stoning now). The last was wounded during a massive base attack; temporarily blinded and deafened by explosive concussion, he pulled himself up onto a half-track, located the mounted machine gun by feel, and — knowing that the vehicle was pointed away from friendly areas — held down the firing paddles and hosed the arc in front of him; when the attack was repelled and his squadmates tried to pull him down, he fought them because he thought the base had been overrun. (He lost an eye and received a Silver Star and an invitation to join the Special Forces, which he declined.)

By my last years of high school, I had a draft lottery number. I wasn’t one of the people protesting the war (I despised them and still do), but I could see it was a bad situation I didn’t want to be in. Dodging the draft was unthinkable — though not for some of those around me, and piss on ’em more or less forever — but I gave some thought to enlisting in the Navy to keep myself clear of ground combat. (With my luck, I’d have wound up as a medical corpsman to a Marine team in-country, or on a patrol boat in the Mekong Delta). As graduation neared, however, America’s involvement in that war had been winding down for some time, and my draft lottery number seemed to me to indicate that I wasn’t at a high priority (which I quite possibly misunderstood entirely), so I decided to just take my chances.

Whether or not my understanding of the situation was correct, it worked out for me. The call never came, and my life played out without any involuntary military commitment.

It had an effect, though. It took a long time for me to even suspect that effect, much less recognize its general shape, because it wasn’t anything, but the absence of something. I felt Vietnam guilt because I hadn’t been over there: because the most massive force affecting my entire generation wound up never touching me at all.

That’s one of the reasons I eventually enlisted, albeit in the Air National Guard. That’s why — even though my initial opinion of him had been high — I eventually saw Bill Clinton’s presidency as a continuing obscenity: I felt shame over my non-involvement in Vietnam even though I hadn’t done anything to avoid it, and he felt no shame whatsoever about having lied and broken his promises and gamed the system to avoid a military obligation he had already made. (He gave plenty of reasons thereafter for me to regard him as a smirking sociopath and a genuinely evil man, but that was where it began for me.) That was why I quit the Guard after the Gulf War spun up and I wasn’t allowed to go; that was why I joined the Army Reserve following the fall of the Twin Towers, specifically so I could go to war.

I did my deal, and now I’m out. I never really satisfied myself, but I did what I could, and am sorry only that I wasn’t able to do more. I thought it was done, that I was past all that.

There’s a traveling memorial, a scaled-down version of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington (the Black Wall that was so initially unpopular, and yet somehow managed to work out in the long run). Recently, it made a few-days’ stop at a VA close enough that my veterans’ group was able to travel together to visit it.

It didn’t touch me. It had no effect on me at all. I hadn’t been there, and I didn’t know any of the names there. It was an indelible part of my generation, but never part of my own experience.

One thing did happen, though.

In Rodney Dangerfield’s 1986 movie “Back to School”, there’s a scene where Sam Kinison plays a college instructor (and combat vet) who asks a question about Vietnam in class, and one of the students happily (and clearly proud of herself) recites the accepted politically-correct summation of that war … and he goes off on her, an epic rant that’s easy enough to find on YouTube. It was a done-for-laughs exaggeration of a hard reality, which is that smug faculty-lounge post mortems may differ strongly from — may even consciously reject and hold in contempt — the perceptions of those who have never bought into ‘what everybody knows’.

I found that it’s possible to hear, from younger vets, some version of that same dismissive conventional-wisdom claptrap. And that it’s possible for me to want to go full-Kinison on guys I’ve been meeting with, as comrades, for nearly a year. Because they may know what it’s like to be a soldier, a combat soldier, but they don’t know that war. Neither do I … but I know they’re wrong.

The war was unnecessary. Yeah, there never would have been a war if those pesky South Vietnamese had simply surrendered on the spot when the North set to invade. What were they thinking? Oh, wait, you mean our involvement was unnecessary? But that’s not what you said. It doesn’t stop being a war just because we’re not there.

The war was immoral and unjust. Yeah, war is immoral and unjust … and it can still be better than the alternative. After the Communist victory, two million Vietnamese fled and settled in other countries to avoid what they suspected — or knew — was coming. More than two million died because they didn’t leave, or waited too long to try. Was there nothing immoral or unjust about that?

I was supposed to be past this, damn it. A war I was never part of, and it has hold of me nonetheless.

The division between vets and civilians isn’t the only division there is, or the only one that matters.

Date: 2017-05-20 02:38 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] slaymesoftly.livejournal.com
Interesting take on that war. I think one reason it stands out is that it is (as far as I know) the only one in which returning vets weren't treated as heroes. And I think the military men and women today are benefitting from a national guilt over how our returning soldiers were treated.

My feelings (I'm older than you, obviously) went from anger when the Army Col. living across the street (my friend's father and my father's close friend) was killed after the helicopter he was riding in was shot down. At that time, we were only there as military "advisors", so he was technically a non-combatant. Anyway, righteous anger that he could be murdered by the dirty commies. As the years went by and boys I knew were drafted and sent over - some to come back, some not - and my own realizations that our government had been and still was lying to us about our involvement, my feelings changed considerably. No doubt somewhat influenced by the fact that the love of my life was draftable, my antiwar sentiments got even stronger as the 60s dragged on.

For good or ill, that war and the reaction to it, still resonates today. Which is, perhaps, as it should be. Although I believe the vast divisions we have now in our country can probably be traced back to that time when US=good, enemy=bad first became something to debate, and questioning the powers-that-be became a thing that was possible and even desirable if/when the govt seemed to be going off the tracks.

I find it really interesting that it had such a powerful effect on your life, without your actually being involved in it.

Date: 2017-05-21 01:34 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] aadler.livejournal.com
> I think the military men and women today are benefitting from a national guilt over how our returning soldiers were treated.

You could see that even during the build-up to, and aftermath of, Operation Desert Storm. People were ashamed and infuriated over how soldiers had been treated the last time around, and were determined to behave in a demonstrably different manner. That continues … but some of the old attitudes have tried to creep back in, as well. Much less prominently than before, fortunately.

> … my feelings changed considerably … my antiwar sentiments got even stronger as the ’60s dragged on.

My attitude was never so much wholehearted support of the war, as visceral dislike of the most strident voices opposing it. I felt a blistering contempt for the entire ‘counterculture’ (which has only sharpened as the years passed); just as the older brothers and boyfriends of my schoolmates were being sent to war, so it was ‘students’ only a few years older than me who were ranting and screaming and setting fire to things, doing every drug available and inventing new ones while chanting beatifically about peace and love and the Age of Aquarius. I despised them and still do, and didn’t like them any better when they began becoming the government leaders and college faculty they started out opposing.

> For good or ill, that war, and the reaction to it, still resonates today.

Indeed it does. I do suspect, however, that you and I might disagree somewhat regarding the underlying meanings, and lessons that should have been learned.

Date: 2017-05-21 02:13 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] slaymesoftly.livejournal.com
No doubt we would. :)

Date: 2017-05-20 11:38 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] texanfan.livejournal.com
That particular war had very little direct impact on my personal life. I have a cousin, much older than me, who went but I was too young at the time to understand what that meant and he returned relatively unscathed. I have always despised the way the vets who returned from that war were treated. I don't care what anyone thinks of the political situation, it is not to be taken out on people who were sent somewhere to be shot at!

As to the necessity of the war, our involvement is a debatable question only because we don't involve ourselves in every injustice around the globe, we never have. And so, our involvement can be a matter of debate. What I think isn't very debatable, and this may be part of the common wisdom you dislike so much, is that the war was mishandled. Political goals were placed over military objectives. Micromanagement from people whose business is not war blunted our ability to get the job done properly. At least, that's my humble opinion.

Date: 2017-05-21 02:43 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] aadler.livejournal.com
After my first deployment to Iraq, I observed to my First Sergeant that it wasn’t a matter of the army that only screwed up ten per cent of the time beating the army that screwed up fifteen per cent of the time, but of the army that only screwed up sixty per cent of the time beating the army that screwed up eighty per cent of the time. Operating on that scale, the miracle is that anything gets accomplished at all.

I note that in order to provide context for this part: yes, the Vietnam conflict was one in which essentially every agency and organization involved found a way to screw up something. There was so much inefficiency, waste, mismanagement, contradictory imperatives and irreconcilable goals, it could serve as a textbook example of how to do every part of a war wrong. And yet, we won. Richard Nixon resisted merciless pressure to simply withdraw, and pursued a program that, at long last, brought about the treaty he desired (in a war he hadn’t started, didn’t want, and hated as a distraction from his own domestic goals). That treaty included provisions for the military action that would be taken against the North if they ever violated the agreement (which Nixon well knew they were fully capable of doing). He tirelessly pursued the only end that would satisfy him, an honorable conclusion to America’s undesired Vietnam involvement; he fought and sacrificed to achieve this, DID achieve it …

… and, once he was forced from office (through a combination of his own flaws/wrongdoings and an insatiable determination on the part of his enemies to bring him down by any possible means), saw a Democrat congress throw it all away.

They passed laws forbidding any further aid to the South, in direct violation of explicit treaty obligations. They deserted a people who had been our allies for a full generation, because they could profit from doing so. When the North invaded in 1975 — a smaller, weaker, and less coordinated invasion than one that had been previously repelled — the South fought them to a standstill, and then collapsed because it ran out of ammunition. Its ‘ally’ had shrugged and turned its back, while the Russian and Chinese allies of the North had continued to provide them with arms and supplies.

Among my own veteran’s group, I’ve heard that described as the only war we ever lost. Except we didn’t lose. The American military didn’t lose. The American nation didn’t lose. South Vietnam lost — because it was betrayed — but in order for us to lose, we’d have had to still be there in the fight. We weren’t, because we withdrew under an agreement, and were then forbidden by our own government to return and fulfill our part of that agreement.

We were not defeated. Even if we had been, there can still be honor in defeat. Here, there was nothing that could even be mislabeled as honor.

Yes, the war was mismanaged. The end of the war, however, was not mismanagement. What was done there was done deliberately, and its architects have a place waiting for them in Hell.

Date: 2017-05-21 08:32 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] texanfan.livejournal.com
Sadly, when someone is as vilified as Nixon became everything he touched gets painted with a "bad" or "evil" brush and much that was good is swept away. I have a rather unpopular liking for Nixon, flawed as the man was. Regardless, I suspect that there would have been no congress, Democrat or Republican, who would have upheld the treaty. America was war weary and congress way too in fear of their jobs to support anything that might see us embroiled in a war in Vietnam again. It was political poison and politicians only care about being reelected. There are a few notable exceptions but they stand out because they are so rare. Had things been different we might have done more in the way of providing supplies, but there is no way we would have put boots on the ground.

Date: 2017-06-12 07:49 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ozma914.livejournal.com
Nixon was a remarkably successful and effective president in some ways ... try finding that out in today's news cycle, or even in the history books.