070217 – Saturday – Viet-Nam and Iraq

The tides of history swell high for one thing and then they recede and rise again for another. Just like the whims of fashion, the big issues come and go – just as the skirt lines rise and fall.

Viet-Nam came and went. A great rolling tide that swept through my generation and took 57,000 of us who were unfortunate enough to have been born at just the right time to be harvested by the drafts of war. Viet-Nam then, Iraq now.

The passions of the old men for their convictions, for their patriotisms, and for making their marks on the shifting sands of history – these come and go with the administrations, with the parties, and with the ebb and flow of the manufactured news we’re fed and the causes we’re told are of vital importance. Vital, that is, until the next election, until the next summer breeze of political fashion sweeps through the beltway. But, the deadly consequences of those fickle and changing winds may have, by then, spilt into our lives with a cold permanence that denies the transience of their summer’s passing.

Last night, we watched “Nixon – A Presidency Revealed” and it left me sad and thoughtful about all the things that happened back then and what we were told and believed at the time – and how it has all come out so differently now in the clarity of time and hindsight. Then, so much of the essential mechinations were hidden and we had to rely on the explanations we were given to make sense of things. We were saving a country from being overrun against their will, We were leading the fight to preserve democracy in the world. Our leaders knew the best course of action for our country as they guided the great enterprise through the shoals of history. We were not quitters. We had the integrity of our convictions. The lives we were spending would be vindicated by the judgments of the histories yet to be written.

But, in the White House, behind the magic curtains, different stories and reasons were weaving their webs. Paranoia begat paranoia, tape recorders ran, lists of enemies were made and break-ins planned and almost executed well – but not quite. Vice-President Agnew left in deep disgrace for his own crimes and Nixon stone-walled while the bombs fell into the deep jungles of Cambodia and into the lives of those on the ground there with the utter permanence of death.

As the House and Senate met to begin the process of driving the President out, and the strange war began to wind down into defeat, the last chapters of its illogic were writ large before us even though we couldn’t recognize them as such through the spin they were packaged in.

In one deep irony, the North Vietnamese, after long negotiations with the United States, agreed to end the war jointly with us. But, when we carried this agreement to our allies, the South Vietnamese, and showed them, they rejected it. So, we rewarded the flexibility of the North by sending in the bombers to bomb their population centers and force them into a new agreement – one that the government of the South might like better. And all this time, the lives of our 57,000 dribbled away while Nixon fretted and plotted and the months and years and the whole long saga of political decisions gone bad unrolled and unraveled.

57,000 killed and I don’t even know how many maimed and crippled physically, emotionally and mentally for life. All of it so utterly permanent. The wives, the girlfriends, the parents, the children and the siblings left behind in every American city to pick up the bits and pieces of their shattered families, lives and dreams. Think of the old photographs that sit now on honored tables and shelves remembering a life that could have been, that almost was, before it was cut permanently short serving ‘the cause’.

This is the thing that I feel most deeply about wars like Viet-Nam and Iraq and the thing that I have the hardest time expressing well; this juxtaposition between the utter permanence of the deaths they cause and the insubstantiality of the political causes for which those lives were given. The administrations and the political passions of the old men come and go.  But, for the young ones who die,for those who are crippled and maimed, and for those who remain afterwards as half men with half minds and half lives – they will suffer and bear these burdens until the entire scarred and misused generation passes away.

When I said ‘no’ to Viet-Nam while in the Air Force back then, I was ostracized by many of my superiors, ignored by most of my peers and supported by very few of any of them.

The officers and the lifer non-coms told me how unpatriotic I was and how disloyal to this great country. They told me that our leaders knew what they were doing and that they should be beyond questioning by the likes of me. That my job was just to get on with it – what ever I was told to do. I lived with the pressure, the silence and the threat of a court-martial for months out on the Texas coast during those terrible months in 1970. And all the while, as the President denied bombing and invading Cambodia, the men in my unit were rotating back from Southeast Asia and were telling those of us still here what was really happening.

This is the end
Beautiful friend
This is the end
My only friend, the end

Of our elaborate plans, the end
Of everything that stands, the end
No safety or surprise, the end
I’ll never look into your eyes…again

– the Doors, “The End”

So, Iraq spins out now. The reasons and the stories swirl around us in the press. The administration says, the press says, foreign governments say. Everyone says and everyone has an opinion. More troops – let’s do a surge and win – pull the troops out without destroying the country – this is about oil not democracy – this is about democracy – if you don’t agree with us, you are a traitor and a coward.

We’ve heard it all. And, very likely, we’ve heard very little of what we will be hearing in twenty or thirty years when hindsight and the historians have cut through the fog of war and revealed all the things that go on behind the magic curtains.

But, the young men and woman who are dying today for us everyday over there, who are crippled and maimed for life over there, …we should cry for them that they are so naive, so innocent, so willing, so patriotic and so foolish as to risk everything without ever having understood the history of the Viet-Nam War or how the political passions of the old men come and go in Washington.

Without having ever realized that this ’cause’ they are dying for will be yesterday’s news as soon as the breeze of political passions changes again in Washington. Today’s resisters will be pardoned tomorrow, today’s great causes, that seem so worth dying for today, will be tomorrow’s raked over errors and misjudgements – just old news gone stale.

Somewhere, a young man will sit without his arm, or his manhood or his sanity and wait for the rest of his long and damaged life to dribble away. Today’s passions and great causes will have turned to dust in mere months while the consequences will, for him, fill all of the rest of his life. And the young who died for us – their names will be written on stones in graveyards or walls in the capitol and their pictures will sit on honored shelves until they are finally packed away into boxes for the future generations who will surely forget.

But all that they could have been, all their dreams and potentialities, all their children, families and careers, will have been so permanently and utterly spent for a transient political wind which was so very fickle and so very transient.

2 Responses to “070217 – Saturday – Viet-Nam and Iraq”

  1. Ken Larson says:

    Let’s look at the REAL causes of the events you have recounted so well:

    We have bought into the Military Industrial Complex (MIC) ever since we took on Russia in the Cold WAR.

    Through a combination of public apathy and threats by the MIC we have let the SYSTEM get too large. It is now a SYSTEMIC problem and the SYSTEM is out of control.

    I am a 2 tour Vietnam Veteran who recently retired after 36 years of working in the Defense Industrial Complex on many of the weapons systems being used by our forces as we speak.

    There is no conspiracy. The SYSTEM has gotten so big that those who make it up and run it day to day in industry and government simply are perpetuating their existance.

    The politicians rely on them for details and recommendations because they cannot possibly grasp the nuances of the environment and the BIG SYSTEM.

    So, the system has to go bust and then be re-scaled, fixed and re-designed to run efficiently and prudently, just like any other big machine that runs poorly or becomes obsolete or dangerous.

    This situation will right itself through trauma. I see a government ENRON on the horizon, with an associated house cleaning.

    The next president will come and go along with his appointees and politicos. The event to watch is the collapse of the MIC.

    For more details see:


  2. pookie says:

    Wow! Superbly poignant lament and elegy. I’m sending this baby off to my draft-aged son.