I did everything I could not to fight in Vietnam. To be honest, it wasn’t really in the cards anyway. I was in grad school, married with a kid on the way. Besides, I was from the upper middle class. There were always ways out if my number came up, people to call.
Making war wasn’t for the likes of me. I was an intellectual, an artist — a liberal or even a leftist. I had read Bertrand Russell.
Was I a coward?
I should say not. (At least I didn’t think so at the time.) I thought of myself as an idealist, doing the right thing, maybe even a revolutionary of sorts. I protested the war every chance I got — while positioning myself safely, not too far, not too close, three or four rows from the police line — everywhere from Golden Gate Park to the Washington Mall to the UN to Los Angeles’ Century Plaza Hotel in June 1967 when LBJ was giving a fundraising dinner and the LAPD moved in on the demonstrators. (Yes, I was there — though far out of harm’s way). I also attended the requisite number of teach-ins and be-ins sponsored by, among others, the Mobilization Against the War and then New Mobe and then the New New Mobe (okay, kidding). I even spoke at some. I helped found some adolescent nonsense called the Peace and Freedom Party, which appears, for reasons unknown to man or beast, on the California ballot to this day. It got so I was chanting “Ho Ho, Ho, Chi Minh, Vietcong is going to win!” in my sleep.
I also represented “my generation” in debate (formal and otherwise) with that “clueless” generation of our parents, the veterans of WWII. I can remember yelling at my father, a former flight surgeon, that he just didn’t get it, that this wasn’t like his war and that we were the villains in Vietnam. After what felt like years of this, I finally got my mother to agree with me and I could see doubt in my father’s eyes. I had won.
When I think of that moment today I am sick to my stomach with shame. This must have been around 1970 and we were at a medical convention at a fancy Las Vegas hotel — at my father’s invitation, of course, and on his dime. Forget the totalitarian communisms like North Korea and North Vietnam that we were trying to stop, what this was all about for so many of us in those days was beating our fathers, showing them up.
We didn’t realize that in the process we were creating a monster — the Boomers who came behind us and thought we were cool because we were the first to protest, the first to rock till we dropped, the first to smoke dope, the first to drop acid, the first to… well, never mind.
We weren’t the first to do anything, really. We we were just the first popularizers, the first to infiltrate the American mind in such a profound way that the wrong people became the heroes. After us, patriotism was out, ROTC was out, America the Beautiful was out.
Now we have a country of Barack Obama and veterans who are wait-listed for medical care and a foreign policy — not to mention a world — in shambles because this once great land leads from behind, if at all.
Sorry. I was just a kid. I didn’t know what I was doing.
And I wasn’t alone. There were a lot of us and it will take a lot of us to make this right. One way to start is that some of us can start to acknowledge what we did wrong. And we can reach out to others, not in rancor, but in honesty and love.
Happy Memorial Day! I salute our troops and wish I had been one of you. Oh, how I wish.