You can take the man out of the war, but you can’t take the war out of the man. I use the noun “man” because most who either went to Vietnam or resisted that war were men. There were millions of women in the antiwar movement of the 1960s and early 1970s, but very few women, relatively speaking, went to Vietnam. Thousands of men and women accompanied their significant others in acts of resistance across the border, mostly to Canada, and that kind of human solidarity gives me hope even after 50 years.
The history of how the Pentagon Papers, the history of how the government of the US lied to the people of the US and the rest of the world, about the conduct of the Vietnam War, had its final denouement in apartments and a copy business in the greater Boston, Massachusetts area. That Daniel Ellsberg, a hero of that epoch was conflicted over giving those papers he had copied from the Rand Corporation to the late journalist and author Neil Sheehan (“After 50 years, the Pentagon Papers give up their final secrets,” Guardian, January 10, 2012) was not so different than the angst that millions of us felt during that war. And there were great penalties that could have been paid for those courageous enough to step over the line and do the right thing.
I met men who had done the right thing during a trip to Montreal, Canada in April 1970, only weeks after returning home from basic and advanced training in the military. These men had already paid a great price for their decision to leave the US and it was on every face in that office for war resisters near the campus of McGill University.
There was also a price paid in Vietnam at the same time for some as the carnage of that insane war went on and on and on. The price was exacted from the anticommunism of the time and the projection of US power. The greatest price was paid by the people of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Those theatres of war gave the US what is called the Vietnam Syndrome, or the hesitancy to fight wars far from the shores of the US. That healthy syndrome would last only a decade, as Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush would make the world safe for war and September 11, 2001 would do the rest.
I nearly needed medical assistance in a class I taught at a community college in upstate New York in the early part of the second decade of the new millennium when a student laughed and dismissed the Geneva Conventions during a class discussion. That was one lesson of 9/11: The gloves were now off of US military power and anything goes, and the result is apparent in endless wars and the use of torture in theatres of war and beyond.
Back to the Pentagon Papers. That Daniel Ellsberg was conflicted about a journalist viewing those papers makes lots and lots of sense to anyone living through the endless conflict of that era. When a person steps up to the plate and does the right thing about war and conscience, then there is a high price to pay. That drama is now playing itself out in a courtroom in England and the trashing of the rules of war, punishment, and torture are all obvious once again.
If people can take heart from those who cast off their fears and faced the beast head-on during times of great conflict, then maybe there’s something to it all? I don’t know, but what I do know is that the pound of flesh that it exacts always smarts even decades later.
An acquaintance that I knew from that era described an experience he had while cooking over an outdoor barbecue grill several years ago. The episode was so intense that he was left on the ground when it was over. While cooking, he had a flashback to the Vietnam of the early 1960s and a patrol (he was part of the thousands of men who went to Vietnam early in the war and acted as advisers) he was part of where he killed children.
You can take the man and the nation out of the war, but you can’t take the war out of the millions who suffered because of it. The point in all of this is not to become a victim and maintain human dignity.