Vietnam has risen again—not as a country but as a metaphor, a code word to symbolize, a bucket, overturned, its water running out into the various crevices of our national life. War. Courage and cowardice. Death and life. Service. The nature of our obligations—to our country, to our friends and family, to our beliefs, to ourselves. Its essence remains, but its original form has long-since been irretrievably lost, spilled along with the innocence of our youth.
It has intruded upon the 2004 presidential campaign through the odd charges of the oddly named Swift Boat Veterans For Truth—never, ever trust a group which includes “truth” in its name, the old folks used to say—and the vetting of John Kerry’s war record on the rivers of Southeast Asia. Like looking endlessly at the Rodney King beating videotape, we have examined those flickering accounts of Mr. Kerry’s service so many times, over and over, that they have lost all meaning or practical value.
Two stark truths remain, which the fog of war debate cannot obscure. John Kerry volunteered for Vietnam service, and served in combat. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney say they supported the American soldiers and the American war effort, but found ways to avoid service. In one course there was honor, in the other, there was not. Have we plummeted so far into the abyss that we need a national debate to determine which was which?
Old memories hiss to the surface, like rising steam.
The war wiped out my high school graduating class—Castlemont—1965. To this day, I have no idea how many died. I was away from California as the ‘60s waned and turned into the ‘70s, and in my calls back home, I finally had to ask my mother not to name any more. She often told the story of one of my classmates—a track star, who I had once written about in our high school newspaper, a young black cheetah or gazelle, skin glistening, muscles rolling, running the 200 on the curve like the wind itself—whose sister came into our family grocery store sometime before the Tet offensive, talking proudly of her brother's impending enlistment. My mother tried vainly—several times—to get the girl to talk to him and change his mind. He did not have to go. He shouldn’t go. One morning, the sister came into the store and collapsed on the counter in tears. The family had just received the news: her brother had died. “I wish I had listened to you, Mrs. Allen,” the girl sobbed. “I swear, I wish I had stood in the doorway and broke his leg and kept him from going.”
A button worn by black protesters during the anti-war demonstration coming out of DeFremery Park in West Oakland: the Viet Cong Never Called Me A Nigger.
Police stopping you and asking to see your draft card, ignoring your driver license, seeing the 1A in the corner and asking why you’re still out here on the street.
Sometime after the horrific carnage of Tet, the government stopped listing the specific daily U.S. casualties as if—like the present administration’s banning of returning-coffin photos—the elimination of the symbol will eradicate the actual. Instead of numbers, the released reports ranged from “light casualties” and “light-to-moderate casualties” all the way over to “heavy casualties.” In that period there was a newspaper quote from a soldier, who said that he hoped he died on a day where there were at least “moderate-to-heavy” casualties. Why? he was asked. “ ‘Cause on a ‘light-to-moderate’ casualty day, nobody back home pays attention.”
Remembering when “War” by the recently-deceased Edwin Starr was a powerful anti-war song played daily on the radio, and not a soundtrack to a zany kung fu comedy.
A lone, long-haired peace worker—a hippie, to use the term of the day—keeping vigil down at the Oakland Induction Center, trying to convince the young men to refuse.
The San Francisco federal courts so clogged with draft resistance cases that court actions on any type of case virtually ground to a halt. And later—unnoticed by all but the beneficiaries—when the U.S. forces were no longer involved in the Vietnam War hostilities—the Nixon Administration quietly dropping charges against most of the resistors, bringing them back in from the cold.
A returning soldier—proud—hands over a photo that shows him driving, smiling behind the steering while of a jeep, a pale-faced Vietnamese seated on the hood, propped up, but seemingly asleep. It takes a moment to realize—with a jolt—that the paleness is unnatural, the sleep permanent. Looking up at the soldier, getting his picture back, his face full with the same proud grin. Is this barbarity inborn, or is it learned behavior?
Two memorable political cartoons:
Uncle Sam in a Vietnam foxhole, circa 1965, army issue rifle in hand, startled, eyes-widening, wheeling at an explosion in his rear: ala-BAM!-a. That year, civil rights demonstrators were beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge outside of Selma, on their way to the state capitol in Montgomery to protest voting restrictions. Later that year, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act.
Another, during the fierce fighting in 1968 that swept into the heart of Saigon, President Lyndon Johnson turning from a telephone receiver and shouting to no-one in particular: “What the hell is Ho Chi Minh doing answering the phone at the U.S. Embassy?”
Bobby Kennedy bringing his anti-war message to a park on 98th Avenue in East Oakland during the ‘68 Democratic primary.
California Superior Court judges talking to defendants from the bench, giving them a choice: jail time, or volunteer for the war and have all charges dropped.
1965, and Los Angeles Times columnist Bob Scheer—then a young, unknown journalist—returning from a fact-finding tour of Vietnam, standing on the steps at the old Merritt College on the old Grove Street in North Oakland, telling most of us for the first time that North Vietnam and South Vietnam had once been one, artificially divided by the French and then the Americans. I stood below in the small knot of student listeners and a light went on, one which has never been extinguished.
All of us who lived through that era—came of age in that era—heard the stories of that era—have our own collection of memories. Strung together it is a long national memory—colorful—at times contradictory—and completely void of common conclusion or even common understanding. Time and again—in a sustained effort to “put the divisions of Vietnam behind us”—we have ducked a national dialogue on what happened in those days, and why. The true dodging of our time.
And so Vietnam surfaces again—the metaphor about which we have no agreement as to meaning—muddying the waters of this year’s Presidential campaign while bombs and shells burst from Afghanistan to Iraq, ignored in our official deliberations. Our computers fly at warp speed, our ships sail across the solar system, and yet our national discussion remains stuck at one war behind, at least, and rapidly losing ground.