Telling Our War Stories, We Need to Be Honest

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Telling Our War Stories, We Need to Be Honest

As Richard Blumenthal recently found, being dishonest about our own personal histories during the time of the Vietnamese War can backfire.  Mr. Blumenthal, Democratic candidate for Senator in Connecticut, claimed to have been a veteran of that combat.  This simply wasn’t so; all he had been was a reservist during that period, and those of us who can remember it know that being a reservist pretty much assured that you weren’t going to fight in that War.  Time will tell whether this bit of prevarication sinks his candidacy.  But he has done us no favors by not being honest.

Why?  Because this nation keeps being confronted with invitations to go to war.  Choosing our response to those invitations is not a simple task.  It requires wisdom.  And unhappy experiences breed the surest kind of wisdom.  As a generation, Blumenthal and his contemporaries (including me) certainly had some unhappy experiences that are relevant.  We ought to share what we remember, not pretend to remember what never happened.

There was a divide in this generation.  To oversimplify, on the one side we were the Woodstock Nation; on the other, the Warriors.  Almost all of us were on both sides to some extent, at one time or another.  The Warriors largely took drugs and enjoyed the license of the Sexual Revolution, and most of them liked the same music as the Nation.  Many of them ended up opposed to the War.  The Nation, as we all know, for all its anti-Establishment and altruistic rhetoric, ended up providing most of today’s bosses — and came to be called the Me Generation, not without some cause.

And as far as the War part went, many of us Woodstock Nation types had originally favored the War because of its early associations with the idealism of the New Frontier and the Great Society, then come to oppose it — not irrelevantly, about the point when it became apparent we might be called upon to serve.  A change in position is not necessarily discreditable.  You could say it was about people concerned to save their skin, or you could say that it was a case of the personal being political.  Surely both were true to some extent.

Take my story.  When I graduated from high school in 1967, I supported the War.  On February 8, 1968, during my freshman year in college, though, I happened to attend a poetry reading and lecture by Allen Ginsberg.  After sitting though excerpts from Wichita Vortex Sutra, I saw the matter differently.  Ginsberg was able to convey the chaos, the waste, the inhumanity of the enterprise.  And as the additional evidence piled up (the secret illegal bombing of Cambodia, the corruption of the Vietnamese government, My Lai), I turned firmly against it.

And yes, there was the Draft.  It was far from the only thing on my mind when I rejected the War.  But the Draft was certainly on my mind.  It was more a matter of feeling guilty and angry than of feeling scared.

All during my college years, I was exempted from the Draft by a student deferment.  I saw my share of contemporaries who were going Over There.

I did not want to be someone who let others bear his fair share of the risks and burdens.  But I sensed in a half-articulated way that in a truly free county, the choice to make fighting and dying in a war an accepted part of those risks and burdens would be decided by the marketplace.  If enough young men chose to fight, then there would be a War and some sort of consensus behind it, otherwise not.  But nobody had asked me.  And as long as there was a Draft, it wasn’t necessary to ask.  That not being the case, I felt the demands of good citizenship a good deal lessened.

This weakened the pull of civic impulses, not only for me but for untold numbers of my contemporaries.  And yes, there was a strong class component to it.  It’s no secret that the fighting and killing and dying was done mainly by guys whose parents couldn’t afford to send them to college or fight for deferments.

In my own case, long story short, when my deferment ran out, I had a low lottery number and faced certain induction.  I applied for and was denied two more deferments, and then was spontaneously given one I hadn’t sought.  I probably qualified for one of the denied deferments, but my applications for both were infected with a kind of insincerity that left a terrible taste in my mouth.  Telling half-lies to preserve my freedom was not the way I wanted to live.  Had I not received the unsought deferment as a gift from heaven, I would certainly have gone to Canada; no question about it.  I would never have fought in that War.  And I don’t think I would have ever forgiven the United States for forcing that kind of decision upon me.

The alienating experience of my generation with the Draft has been taken to heart.  The volunteer army certainly makes wars more legitimate from that standpoint, though it is again noteworthy that social class is as strong a determinant as ever in sorting out who serves.

But solving this one issue papers over all the others.  The War had been promoted by can-do types who really believed that you could control and predict all important variables, and that it was the right and duty of our nation to interfere in insurgencies around the globe. People from my half of my generation recognized these same kinds of personalities again starting the wars in which we are currently engaged, but we were not listened to.

The utter predominance of the Executive Branch in war-making, without effective judicial review, was another hallmark of our experience.  We couldn’t get a court to invalidate the Draft despite the 13th Amendment, we couldn’t get a court to invalidate the War though it had not been declared, we couldn’t get courts to do anything useful.  Without judges in the loop, we had no way of checking exercises of presidential power against our basic social and legal norms.  That problem has only intensified in the years since.  And no one listens to us on that subject either.

The military-industrial complex goes right on doing what it did then too: making shiny new gadgets and promising to alter the tides of history with them — while making a buck.  Again, the note of caution this spectacle should elicit is not struck.

Part of the reason we don’t get heard is the hagiography of military service, the feeling that only those who served deserve a voice in the national dialogue, and that special attention is reserved for those who took fire.  That fallacy is obviously why Blumenthal lied.  The messy truth — that there was experience valuable to legislative policy-making in reserve service, in protesting wars, in running to Canada, for that matter, that’s what Blumenthal should have had the guts to articulate.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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  1. Nathaniel Fick says:

    Jack, another solid, thought-provoking piece.

  2. Nathaniel Fick says:

    ………… and, I enlisted in October, 1968.