“We Came, We saw, He Died:” Once Young in a Land of Endless Wars

Photograph Source: JPRoger – CC BY-SA 3.0

Shock is the reaction that comes to mind. While discussing the likelihood of Trump taking demonstrative military action against what the US government or the US plutocracy considers a military or economic threat, the editor to whom I wrote made a snide remark about how the military establishment would not support Trump in a military adventure because they view him as someone who shirked the military during the Vietnam War. The shock came because the person with whom I correspond has been consistently antiwar during the few years we have been in touch.

The latter is not an uncommon thread that goes to the heart of the military during the Vietnam War and up until the endless wars the US now wages. Criticizing the military and military actions then carried some of the same risks that they do now, especially after the attacks of September 11, 2001. A writer or protester risks being marginalized: If you can’t be “seen” in print or in the streets, then you don’t exist. And with what remains of the political left in the US, fragmentation is easy to achieve. I recall the reaction of a friend who got out of the military during the Vietnam War by using his status as a teacher of Transcendental Meditation, who said following the 2001 attacks, when I wrote and protested against the war in Afghanistan, that I would be one among a very few who held an antiwar position. With what ease we forget. Or the old friend who was a radical in college, who now tells me that “we were young.” Even Donald Trump was once young.

Hillary Clinton, who is still waging her own war along with some in the Democratic Party, is now touting the idea that Russia may be cooking up a plan to support Representative Tulsi Gabbard in a third-party run for the presidency. Gabbard’s position on war scares mainline Democrats.

Recall Bill Clinton, who stayed far away from the military during the Vietnam War and a few decades later led the lethal US-NATO bombing campaign in the former Yugoslavia.

While mercurial Trump may seem hesitant to go to war, he has sent troops to Saudi Arabia, provided the arms with which Saudi Arabia murders Yemenis, sent drones to do their lethal dirty work, and oversees war spending at record levels, including the production of new nuclear weapons. The trillions of dollars spent on war and the preparations for war, along with hundreds of military bases around the world, ensure the US has hegemony over the economic order. Trump’s hate for the news media and journalists in particular would send Julian Assange to prison for the rest of his life if extradition proceedings in the UK go as planned for the US and UK. Recall that Assange unmasked some military operations by the US in Afghanistan and Iraq through WikiLeaks.

Hillary Clinton’s “We came, we saw, he died,” is perhaps the most damming pro-war pronouncement since the anti-communist policies from Johnson and Nixon during the Vietnam War. Clinton’s regime change mania in Libya and Syria was easily outdone by her position regarding both Russia and China during the 2016 campaign. One wonders if Mrs. Clinton would have had something to prove to dispense with the misogynistic attacks that came her way during the campaign? We’ll never know.

What I know is this: Hundreds of thousands of men faced an unpopular and vicious war (which one isn’t?) in Vietnam. The ways out were many, and some didn’t miss a beat getting on with their lives once they used whatever stratagem to get out of the draft and the military. Many strident antiwar voices such as Sam Brown (an organizer of the 1969 antiwar moratorium) and my friend who says that “We were young,” changed horses in midstream and began supporting wars. This is a society that provides many perks in the way of those horses and the pretty things that are dangled before one’s eyes. Antiwar protest became so uncomfortable following the September 2001 attacks that many gave up. Few had the wherewithal to go to the barricades because the antiwar protester Daniel Berrigan knew that without a spiritual base to fall back on and community, antiwar protest is difficult to sustain, especially if a person has to be at work the next day.

I know that I stopped taking the big chances after my resistance to the Vietnam War because of family responsibilities and the disappearance of a vibrant antiwar movement and community. The last time that I felt at home in the antiwar movement was challenging Ronald Reagan’s low-intensity wars in Central America when I belonged to an anti-interventionist group in Rhode Island. By the time the 2003 invasion of Iraq took place, it was mostly going through the motions, although millions protested worldwide with no effect against the warmongers.

Without “skin in the game,” it’s easy to see how the young could not give a damn about wars that maintain and expand an empire. Most of the young can’t even remember September 2001, so they only know about war by how it’s presented on the Internet. Those who are fortunate enough to study the social sciences and humanities might hear a proverbial bell go off if they are presented with relevant information about war. A guess is that most people, the young included, could not explain what the Geneva Conventions, the United Nations Charter, the rules or laws of war, and the Nuremberg Principles are all about. Most could not begin to explain what constitutes a just war, or a just cause in wartime.

While I waited to begin a class that I taught at my alma mater in the early 1990s, a professor came into the faculty lounge and we began a conversation about the difference between students in the 1960s and the 1990s. “You read and were informed,” was his observation.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).