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.

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