How the Vietnam war damaged America's soul: 9-27-16
September 27, 2017
The current PBS 10-part documentary on the Vietnam War has made me go back to re-read my chapter on that war in my 2014 book, Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans.
The book is rooted in my hometown of Woodstock, Ill., but tries to explain what those of us who followed the so-called Greatest Generation brought to this country and how we both accommodated and instituted change.
In the chapter on Vietnam, I tried to give readers a sense of the spiritual damage the war did to the country. I think that chapter holds up pretty well several years later, and I want to share it with you today, though you can find it fully illustrated starting on page 106 of my book. (If you don't own the book and want a copy, e-mail me at [email protected] I can sell it to you more cheaply than Amazon can. Well, except for the e-version, which Amazon can sell you for darn little.)
I think what I wrote about Vietnam and my connection to the war is in harmony with what Ken Burns and his documentary team are trying to tell us on PBS. See if you agree. Here's the chapter:
No doubt the great American divide that we now find in our pungent politics and in our churlish, fatuous culture wars can trace some of its causes to the Vietnam War, which wounded our nation’s soul, perhaps irreparably.
Some of us Middle Americans fought in that war. Some of us fought against it. Some did both. Like many of my contemporaries, I favored it at first, believing that the Domino Theory held water — the theory that if we let the communists have this or that land eventually they’d take over the world. How foolish of us. The North Vietnamese were not fighting to spread communism around the world. They were fighting a civil war for control of their homeland. Indeed, ultimately communism could not even defend communism, which has fallen moribund because it almost always and almost everywhere betrayed its own best ideals (which were none too good to begin with) — and perhaps had no choice but to do so, given the rapacious greed embedded in the bone and marrow of human nature.
My sophomoric (I was literally a college sophomore then) enthusiasm for the war quickly waned as it became clear that we were killing innocent people in a fight to keep corrupt South Vietnam leaders in power. When I lost my passion for the war, however, I found myself standing against the very war that my contemporaries — some of whom were my friends — were being drafted to fight. Should I have told them not to go? Should I have said they were moral cowards for not resisting? Should I have written to Norma Scott, the head of our Woodstock draft board and a member of the church in which I grew up, to tell her to take me off her mailing list or to drop my draft folder behind a filing cabinet, not to be found until I was way past draft age?
Still in my wallet today you will find my draft card registration and my notice that I have been classified I-Y, meaning a temporary medical deferment.
I had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis as a senior in college, so I was ruled medically ineligible for the draft. I was classified 1-Y, a temporary ineligibility, not the more permanent 4-F designation — and I carry my draft card with me even to this day because, well, the card says I must have it with me at all times and we Middle Americans are nothing if not law abiding. So after I was graduated from college, when my four-year student deferment expired, I still was in no danger of being sent to fight. Besides, my weak eyesight made me non-combat qualified. So I had precious little moral ground on which to stand and tell my Woodstock classmates and other contemporaries to do whatever they could to avoid fighting in Vietnam.
As a result — and perhaps for the first time — I understood that sometimes we are part of a system that forecloses the possibility of controlling our own life. I felt like a farmer in the Great Depression who discovers that through no fault of his own his markets have dried up and he no longer can forestall a bank foreclosing on his land. I had read about that in books and heard about that from my parents, though the farms on which they grew up were not lost to foreclosure in that dark time.
But Vietnam was personal. I knew guys who had been drafted to fight in this ugly, loathsome war, guys who had been classmates at Woodstock Community High School. In fact, two of those classmates died in the war, Sidney J. Elyea and Donald Eugene (Geno) Dermont Jr. I have touched their names on the memory wall of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. I honor their service, however wrongheaded the leaders were who sent them into death’s hungry maw.
Neither Sid nor Geno was a close friend. Indeed, Geno was nearly a year older than me and wound up in our 1963 graduating class only because earlier he had been held back a year. But both were Middle Americans who became fodder for a war gone bad. Under somewhat different circumstances it could have been me having the candle of my life blown out in some disinterested rice paddy or on some inhospitable hill in Southeast Asia.
I think of Geno Dermont (pictured at right) every April 11, that being the date of his death in 1966. And I think of Sid Elyea (left) every Groundhog Day, for that was the date of his death in that same bloody year — a year in which I was safely deferred as a student in the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Sid was only about three weeks older than me, having been born the day after Christmas 1944. So both Geno and Sid died in their early twenties. And something in me died then, too — a sense of trust in the wisdom of our leaders. In fact, I think something died in the hearts of almost all Middle Americans because of Vietnam, even in the hearts of people who continued to support the war effort until the last helicopter lifted people from the U.S. Embassy roof in Saigon.
At some fundamental level, we all eventually knew that we had been betrayed by the very people to whom we had given power. It was a discovery we shared with many of our parents, whom we began to suspect didn’t know as much as they pretended to. It was a shocking betrayal that we were loathe to admit had skewered us, flayed us open like some lifeless trout ready for the frying pan. We blamed ourselves. How could we have fallen for the rhetoric of patriotism, the high-toned speeches thanking us for standing up for freedom, the false body counts delivered like salvation sermons to sinners convinced of their own guilt? Later, even Defense Secretary Robert McNamara could not believe the lies he told and let stand in the face of countervailing evidence.
What we Middle Americans came away swearing to ourselves was this: You bastards will not fool us like that again. And then we (well, some of us, though not me) elected Richard M. Nixon, whose secret plan for getting us out of Vietnam was, apparently, to desecrate the office of president and let Gerald Ford order the final helicopters to take the final American believers and fighters out of Vietnam. Somebody owes us an apology. Or maybe we voters owe the nation an apology.
As everything was coming untethered in the 1960s, as our friends were dying in a war that was morally unjustifiable, as some among our number were dropping both acid and out, most of us Middle Americans were telling ourselves to hold on, to find our core values, to question authority, yes, but not to assassinate that authority, not to overthrow it violently, not to give into the very kind of mob rule that nearly shook our young nation to its marrow in the 1830s when a young Middle American named Abraham Lincoln was finding his way in Illinois politics and standing against anarchistic gangs who were then threatening the rule of law there and around the country.
And we did hang on. We did search for the values that would sustain us. We did not give into mob psychology, though for sure many of us participated in all kinds of protests against the war.
But if ever we had innocence — a dubious proposition — we lost it in the Vietnam War. We woke up one day aware that our very souls, our very spirits had been raped. Innocence and virginity are fragile conditions, it turns out. We always knew that and mostly we were perfectly willing — despite the preaching we heard against abandoning our virginity — to cave into sexual temptation when the moment was right. But our innocence about governance, about the foundational morality, the intentions of our leaders was something else. Oh, of course we knew that some people in office were venal, autocratic, corrupt. We knew that Will Rogers was, at core, serious about all of that even as he made people laugh about it. What we did not know was that some of those people would jeopardize our very lives for a morally unwarranted cause, for a vision that lacked a foundation built on the inestimable value of human life. That’s what took away our breath. That’s what covered us with dung. That’s what we could not imagine. That’s what Vietnam turned in to.
Earth’s soil today is full of the ashes and bones of Sid Elyeas, Geno Dermonts and you can fill in the blanks with one or more of the nearly 60,000 names on the Vietnam Memorial wall or the more than 300,000 American wounded (to say nothing of all the Vietnamese who died or were wounded) or those of us who simply had our souls, our spirits pounded into squash by this contemptible war. In some odd and embarrassing ways, I’m glad that Sid and Geno aren’t still around to know how despicable was the war that sucked them in, chewed them up and spat out their corpses. And I’m glad we learned a little something from their deaths. We learned that some things are not worth dying for. Some things are stupid and wrong even if a huge majority of our leaders and our citizens — at least at first — think otherwise.
The Vietnam War, in other words, armed Middle Americans with the weapon of discernment and even a little wisdom — painfully gained, to be sure, but gained nonetheless. That, of course, has not prevented our leaders from sending another generation off to die in Afghanistan and Iraq. But it has helped us see that attacking Afghanistan’s Taliban leaders for harboring terrorist training camps was justifiable self-defense in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that killed, among others, my own nephew, my sister Barbara’s son, while attacking Iraq for having weapons of mass destruction it never had was just ideological excrement. For that discernment, I give thanks to all the Sid Elyeas and Geno Dermonts who perished in Vietnam, graveyard of our national naïveté.
(P.S.: My two recent Flatland columns about Vietnam can be found here and here. The first describes how Kansas City area clergy dealt with the war and the second tells how Vietnamese refugees in KC have fared.)
* * *
WHAT ARE THE SAUDIS AFRAID OF?
One of the things that fearful religious people do is to describe people not part of their tradition in derogatory ways. It's much more a reflection on the name-callers than on the ones being hated on. Something like that continues to happen in Saudi Arabia, where a new Human Rights Watch study says religious leaders appointed by the Saudi government continue to use hate speech to describe people outside the rigid Wahhabi Muslim tradition. This is what insecure people do to defend a religious tradition that may contain indefensible elements. A little religious freedom in the kingdom there would do a lot of good.