When will these godawful wars end and what’s with this current pack of politicians and wannabe warriors who are competing to see who can be the most bellicose? If you liked the results in Iraq and Afghanistan, you’ll love Iran and Syria.
This past Saturday I went to a book signing in Staunton, Va, some 70 miles from where I live. I wanted to meet the author who has written Vietnam Mailbag: Voices from the War 1968-1972.
According to the press release in the Augusta County Free Press, “This particular story began in 1968, when a young college graduate took a job writing for the Wilmington News Journal. In the newspaper Nancy Lynch invited the men and women serving in the combat zone to correspond with her about their experiences, with the simple instruction ‘Tell it like it is’ … and they did. Her column, ‘Nancy’s Vietnam Mailbag,’ first appeared on May 20, originally once a week … then twice … then three times, as the volume of mail continued to grow; it ran until December 1972, when the troops were coming home. When it ended, almost 1,000 letters & excerpts and hundreds of photos from the troops had been printed.
“Decades later, Nancy wanted to again tell the stories and remind everyone of the sacrifices of those who seem so often forgotten. She began to cull through the letters, photographs and memorabilia she had carefully saved in order to create a book that tells first-hand accounts of everything from combat to everyday life in a war zone to the weather in a very different corner of the world. She also tracked down 12 of the veterans who had corresponded with her ‘back when’ and interviewed them about their memories, how the war had shaped their lives and what they are doing today. Their voices are once again heard in the full-color, 456-page book Vietnam Mailbag.”
Whenever I think of Vietnam and my involvement in that war, my heart is heavy. In leafing through the book, I am taken back to that time and wonder about the earlier periods in our history that set the stage for this mistaken war and for the social unrest that exploded in 1968. Such a revisit to the past of 1968 intermixed with what is happening in our country today have taken me on a journey back to the 19th century presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes when the seeds of discord were sown by a different set of politicians set upon fiddling with critical issues of race and power that were outcroppings of the Civil War. The results of these schemes played out for nearly a century until they came back to haunt us all in 1968.
Bear with me as I try to weave together these various threads of institutional racism, militarism and head butting politics in a way that questions why we have resorted to violence, both to our own people and those in other lands, so frequently.
My memory of what I experienced during the tumultuous year of 1968 when I was drafted is echoed in the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities,
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
Now over 43 years later, I am still conflicted over much of what happened to me and other soldiers that I knew then. I stayed in touch with some over the years but sadly they faded with time. Those whose names are on The Wall have not faded.
But more so, I am troubled that the chaos and discord of the sixties resembles much of what is happening in our present period.
I was an unlikely soldier, a college graduate and nearly 23 when I was drafted, long before there was a lottery. I still have the original letter of “Greetings.” Please report to Fort Hayes, named in honor of Rutherford B. Hayes, an Ohio boy who became our 19th president in 1877.
Rutherford is my first stop into understanding our times today. His incipient presidency is critical to understanding how the racism and bigotry of the post Civil War era was codified in Jim Crow “laws” and set the stage for the racial riots of 1968.
He was elected in one of the most contentious and hotly disputed elections in American history. Although he lost the popular vote to Democrat Samuel J. Tilden, Hayes won the presidency by the narrowest of margins after a Congressional commission awarded him twenty disputed electoral votes. The result was the Compromise of 1877, in which the Democrats acquiesced to Hayes’ election and Hayes accepted the end of military occupation of the South. Bad times lay ahead.
As a young man in the 1960s, I had little interest in the military and I shamefully confess that I had no “respect” for those in uniform. They seemed to be of such a different culture from mine that I held them in low esteem. With this kind of youthful arrogance, I was drafted and reported for duty on a cold day in March and began my military “career.”
In reflecting on how divided the country was then when draft cards were openly burned and people chanted, “Hell no, I won’t go!,” I remember the strong pressure to conform and “do your duty.” It was the age of Archie Bunker and open conflict between blue collar guys and students.
As I remember how divided the country was in 1968, I can only imagine the tension in 1877 when the Compromise ushered in the terrible Jim Crow era for the South. Politicians in Dixie wanted an end to military occupation and a return to a life where the races were separate. I can only wonder what foreboding there was then about what the future would bring.
So in the middle of my own extremely polarized 1968 society, my new military life jarred me personally into the immediate aftermath of the Tet Offensive. The nightly casualty reports on the news grew as the number who had been killed, wounded or gone missing increased dramatically. And the numbers were in triple digits. Giving credence to the old saying about the law of unforeseen consequences, the violence from General Westmoreland’s “search and destroy” missions did more than kill Viet Cong and North Vietnamese regulars. Those missions eventually shook the windows and rattled the walls of America.
Within this backdrop, the country came to a crash in 1968. The Vietnam Letters has brought back to me the question of what was happening to soldiers like me in Vietnam and my fellow citizens fighting on the streets of our country. Many of the letters home reflect the confused questions that troopers had who had been asked to put their lives on the line while others their age held them in contempt and spat on them as they passed through Oakland when returning to this country. What were they doing in Vietnam in the name of protecting liberty and ensuring freedom when those abstracts were being burned and jailed in this land?
Soldiers old and young alike became polarized like the rest of the country and expressed their frustrations in their letters. In the midst of the 1968 chaos, many letters echoed the contradictions that had long woven their way into the seams of the American fabric. I know my letters ranted about the war and my anxiety about what was happening at home.
Like the perfect storm, it was in 1968 that we had this confluence of opposing struggles in race, uncompromising attitudes toward the war, and the caustic politics of Johnson and later Nixon that finally ripped the fabric.
In this context, I see fateful similarities in how the decisions of two presidents over a span of nearly a century led our country down two different but linked wrong paths. Rutherford Hayes’ decision condemned generations of Blacks to near non-citizenship status in the segregated South. The protests against racial hatred fulminated around the country, not just in the South, and blew the top off in that fateful year of 1968.
As soldiers in one war zone, we heard that the streets of our own cities had become war zones themselves, from Detroit, to LA, to Chicago, to Baltimore and all points in-between. Political venom and racial confrontation became the main themes. So many souls had been lynched over the years and now many were being beaten, dog bit, fire hosed, gassed and brutalized in so many ways, all in a futile attempt to gag their voices.
Letters traveled from Southeast Asia crying for answers why all this was happening. The irony was not lost on many that a good number of rich white boys got deferments while poor blacks made up a disproportionate percentage serving in the infantry in Vietnam. More irony jumped out as all this was happening at the same time that our official policy in Vietnam proclaimed that the goal there was to “win the hearts and minds of the people.”
Poor old Rutherford probably never had an inkling what demons he had unleashed from Pandora’s box of 90 years of institutionalized segregation with his Compromise of 1877, just as Lyndon Johnson, “a barefoot country boy who became our king,” was probably just as clueless as to what was to come when he conned the Congress into signing the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964. I can still see the picture of him holding one of his beagles up by the ears in a photo op. How ironic that the dogs of war that he had unleashed would come full circle round to consume him.
One theme my letters carried repeatedly was that we as a nation were in a moment of great change. As a young soldier so far away, though, I had no idea what all this would portend, but my fellow troopers and I talked about it all the time. We were of America but not in America, a distinction that was critical in so many ways. Even though our lives had been suspended for a period of time, we felt the electricity in the air.
And like most soldiers today, we yearned for the end, if not “The End” of the war, at least the end of our participation. We were playing out the time in two theaters, too, since the simultaneous “big shows” were running morning, noon, and night here and in the jungle.
When we sang along with Dylan, we asked in our letters who could be apathetic or not involved in some way, since more than just people were dying both here and there. A whole culture was up for grabs, perhaps even entire ways of life would die and vanish from the earth.
“… keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no telln’ who that it’s namin’”
In my own up close and personal introduction to life in 1968, I went in no time from “long-haired peacenik” to closely cropped soldier who would arrive in Tan Son Nhut airport outside Saigon in October. And I was an inveterate letter writer, even then, so I can go back now and read about it. In-between March and October, Eugene McCarthy had won the New Hampshire primary against a sitting president, civilians were massacred at My Lai, Martin Luther King Jr was killed, Defense Secretary Clifford announced a new troop ceiling of 549,500 American soldiers in Vietnam, the Paris Peace Talks began, police stormed Columbia University and violently removed students from buildings where they were protesting the University’s affiliation with the Institute for Defense Analysis, President de Gaulle made strident radio addresses against students and strikers as he authorized large movements of military troops within the country, Robert Kennedy was assassinated, the Prague Spring took on momentum, Abbie Hoffman’s “The Yippies Are Coming” was published, Arlo Guthrie performed his 20-minute ballad “Alice’s Restaurant” to rave reviews at the Newport Folk Festival, Mayor Richard Daley opened the Democratic National Convention in Chicago (“The policeman isn’t there to create disorder, the policeman is there to preserve disorder.”), the 30th anniversary was marked of Neville Chamberlain’s Munich agreement ceding Czechoslovakia’s Sudatenland to Hitler, George Wallace named General Curtis E. LeMay to be his running mate, Apollo 7 was launched, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, US athletes and medalist in the Mexico City Summer Olympics raised their hands in the Black Power salute during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner, Russian tanks rolled into downtown Prague, Jackie married Aristotle, and LBJ announced a total halt to US bombing in North Vietnam.
Wow…what a time and what descriptions were shouted out in our letters home!
Sadly, we know that the war went on till April 1975 when makeshift South Vietnamese President Duong Van Minh delivered an unconditional surrender to the Communists in the early hours of April 30. North Vietnamese Colonel Bui Tin accepted the surrender and assured Minh that, “…Only the Americans have been beaten. If you are patriots, consider this a moment of joy.” As the few remaining Americans evacuated Saigon, the last two US servicemen to die in Vietnam were killed when their helicopter crashed.
So in coming full circle in this discourse and as I relentlessly push nearly half a century since leaving the battlefield, I have dragged out an old box of letters from my attic. They are to loved ones and friends, but I feel that I am reading the lines of a ghost from another time. Such sentiments and unabashed feelings! But like now, I said in those letters how greatly troubled I was by misbegotten wars and people who had been trod upon, both here in my own country and abroad.
Today, I am saddened beyond any words when The News Hour on PBS announces the latest round of young men and women killed daily in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many are young enough to be my grandchildren. I stare back at their official photographs, their beaming and proud faces complete with names, service and rank displayed, and I weep for them.
The overlaps and ironies of our our current time, the past Vietnam era, and Hayes’ period in the late 19th century should not be lost.
In the midst of all this warfare and cries for even more conflict as the political season begins, I wonder why so many policy makers and wannabe presidents think that military action is the best way to confront our adversaries. Someone is going to die, for sure, whether the war is one of necessity or one of choice. And as the old saying goes, “Old soldiers never die; young ones do.” And a lot of innocent bystanders, too. Just read the letters to know what goes through the head of a young man or woman at war.
I believe a simple lesson has been lost. Again, how can you ask a man or woman to die for a mistake?
So when I shook hands with Nancy Lynch at the bookstore on Saturday, all I could tell her was thanks for her interest in an “ancient war” of old geezers like myself. I confessed that I didn’t have the courage to chuck it all and go to Canada. I was just too caught up in what was happening in my time to drop out. After all, Vietnam–the “big show” for my generation– taught me an untold wealth of lessons. Just too bad it had such high occupational hazards.
Someone once told me that warfare was like hanging from your thumbs in some filthy prison with little hope of rescue. You might learn a lot, but I’d rather read about it in a book.
On the up side, though, as we continue to exorcise our demons, there is always time to atone for past sins and to avoid new ones, especially for old guys like me. I just wish the motley gang pushing the buttons today know this lesson.
Some of the guys who corresponded with Nancy manned the heavy artillery, men who were earth bound and who operated out of small pieces of foreign real estate called Fire Bases that provided indirect artillery support to infantry operating in areas beyond the normal range of support from their own base camps. Nancy has one named after her.
I was in the 1st Cavalry (Air Mobile). We flew over the land and set down in landing zones. When there was hostile fire, the LZ was called red. When there was no “reception party” to greet you, the LZ was green.
As I look back and mourn the losses of those who marched with me and were lost, gone before their time, and as I stare today at the faces of those kids on the TV screen who have also been taken before their time, I pray that our leaders quit pushing any of us into harm’s way because of stupidity, political expediency, bravado, arrogance, or the ignorance of the limits of power.
I pray that some day we will never have to worry whether our LZs are red or green.