Wars are folly. Rudimentarily, we know why wars happen. We know they spring from inhumane impulses and ignorance. We know the corrupting nature of avarice and the geopolitical realities that propel conflict. We know that the lust for power is systemic and that unrestrained nationalism plays a role. We understand the psychology of war.
The impulse to war sits in front of us like a morsel of poison. Yet we bite it off and swallow it. Like Vietnam, where France clung to its colony until the bitter end and was finally routed by a people seeking the ideal we supposedly fought for in Europe—actual freedom. The hypocrisy of the epoch astonished Graham Greene and seemed worthy of a novel, The Quiet American. Greene had seen the brutality of the French close-up in Vietnam, reporting for the London Times and Le Figaro. In creating quiet Alden Pyle, a naïve and privileged American, Greene wasn’t about to let American duplicity off the hook in 1955. A decade later, America had taken over the war in France’s stead, and the tragedy of America’s own neo-imperialistic adventure began to play itself out.
Only fourteen at the time, I wasn’t paying very close attention. My brother, however, had served in Vietnam in an “expeditionary” role as the slow buildup and evolving commitment to counterinsurgency spun out of control under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. At that time, America was limited to an advisory role in the Nam, forbidden to exchange fire with the Viet Cong rebels or North Vietnamese regulars. Incoming mortars smashed my brother’s battalion as it built landing strips near the Ben Hai River, south of the Demilitarized Zone.
Before I graduated from high school in 1969, a school counselor had suggested I nab a deferment and go to college instead of joining the Air Force, which had been my vague plan. He had asked me why I was considering the Air Force, and I had told him the truth. I saw it as an alternative to the draft and the Army infantry. I was not fully aware at the time that Air Force and Navy enlisted men were also dying in Vietnam.
Though we had studied “current events” during my senior year, my teacher was a rabid anti-communist named Mr. Johnson (no relation to Lyndon), and he never bothered to probe too deeply into the details of the war. However, he did have a habit of reading letters from his former students who were in Vietnam at the time or had recently come home from the war. Noticeably missing was any letter from Harley Dimmick, a friend of my nephew Dennis, who didn’t make it home. Mr. Johnson was a patriotic cheerleader who felt certain that crushing communism and blocking the “falling dominoes” in Southeast Asia was the right course for America. To please him, I wrote a paper on the evils of communism. I parroted his views and he loved the paper, giving me a rare A for the class. Like most kids I couldn’t know enough about the particulars of the war to understand, much less believe, what I had written. I had merely succumbed to the pro-war propaganda. My teacher had not done me a favor by accepting my weak, uninformed effort, but I doubt even he understood how he was corrupting history as it unfolded around him.
Of course I was as naïve about Vietnam as Greene’s Alden Pyle. Had I been honest or less cowed by the authority of the educational system I might have simply stated the truth. I didn’t know anything about Vietnam. All I really understood is fear. And I didn’t want to end up dead. Nor did my mother, Icie, want me to die. In fact, she had hid the truth of my brother’s service from me—actually she simply lied to me. The entire time my brother was in Vietnam she told me he had a desk job in Okinawa. True to begin with, it had changed as the U.S. was drawn deeper into the war. With thousands of others he made the short flight from Okinawa to Vietnam when his time came to fight.
Perhaps my mother wanted to believe the lie herself. I later realized she did not want me to worry; she worried enough for both of us. My brother did finally ship back to Okinawa unscratched just before the Battle of Ia Drang Valley in November, 1965, when the killing in Vietnam escalated. When he left the Marines a year later he didn’t return to our small Oregon town, except to visit briefly before settling in the San Francisco area. By the time I visited him in Fremont, south of Oakland, in 1972, he was married and the father of a baby girl. But I could tell something was seriously wrong.
My brother and I stood in sharp political contrast. I had been radicalized in college and I hated the Vietnam War with an abiding passion. My brother hated war protesters with equal force. Thus began a long stretch of hostility between two brothers born six years apart but separated by a war and rapidly changing American culture. I looked for a long time for the root meaning of our differences. I had become politicized in the middle of a great cultural change. When he joined the Marines in 1962 there were a few hundred American advisers in Vietnam, and any number of Alden Pyles. At first what they were doing there promised to be short-term. And then it turned to disaster and tragedy for everyone concerned.
That the U.S. thought it might supplant the French and save capitalist imperialism in Southeast Asia was of course folly. Few Americans knew it at the time, but that would change with the first flush of rising body counts. Six short years later, even Lyndon Johnson knew what many high school counselors in small town America knew. Vietnam was a quagmire and they were advising their students to stay clear of it. My counselor had, without tipping his hand. All he said was think about it. That was enough.
I did not get drafted and go to Vietnam or join the Air Force. I did not suffer a pang of patriotism and volunteer to save America from communism. I feared war, not communism. I did not go to Vietnam because I did not want to kill people—or be killed—for a cause I knew nothing about.
So I took my counselor’s advice and nabbed a student deferment and went off to college like a good kid. It was a fortuitous time for me, a narrow escape. Sadly, my fortuitous time was a tragic time for many young men my age. I cannot help but draw parallels to today’s tragedies in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Young Americans, often the very poor, continue to die for empire and the neocolonialism of today. I hesitate to say the cause is just, because nothing in my mind or soul tells me it is.