“Enduring Vietnam”: A war that got very personal in the 1960s; now we stare down North Korea

I recall as a boy, particularly one summer in grandma’s house in Kipton, Ohio, asking “Why do boys have to go to war?” (and not girls…).  My cousin and I would bang bass arpeggios on the upright piano in the den to simulate the sounds of airplanes and war, maybe the beginnings of composition.

I’ve described my own involvement with the Vietnam era draft in many places online, as well as in my books.  So I went to exhibit “Remembering Vietnam: Twelve Critical Episodes in the Vietnam War” at the National Archives in Washington (no indoor photography allowed) in late November, 2017.   The exhibit closely followed Ken Burns’s PBS series “The Vietnam War” (legacy review).  At the book store, I bought the historical narrative book by James Wright, “Enduring Vietnam: An American Generation and its War”.

The book provides a historical narrative of how American talked itself into the war, with many personal narratives and case histories, almost the way many AIDS books would be written in the 1980s.  The book provides a good sense of how the Baby Boomer (and slightly earlier, like mine) generation saw its prosperity against a simmering Cold War with Communism (“Duck and cover”), and the idea that people could be called upon to defend freedom, even sacrifice personally.  There are early gruesome narratives, like about Hamburger Hill, and how a lieutenant bleeds out from losing a leg and dies, as if he did not want to come back maimed.  LBJ seems to have been totally duplicitous, saying at first (in 1964) that no American boys should be offered up when the Vietnamese boys should do their own sacrificing. That would change very quickly with the increased draft calls in 1965.  And the idea of bringing an “enemy to its knees” quickly lost credibility against a guerilla enemy that saw individual human life as fungible.

Wright covers the agony of the military draft in Chapter 4 (“Receiving the Torch”) and discusses McNamara’s Project 100,000 on p. 121.  His account of the ruse is less critical than those of other books like “McNamara’s Folly” (January 16), although Wright often covers the disproportionate portion of the sacrifice borne by African-American (then “Negro”) and lower income men. (He never refers to the soldiers as “McNamara’s Morons”.) He also reports that a commission had reported back in 1967 recommending the ending of student deferments (as well as “oldest first” draft calls), but LBJ feared the political backlash from voters and didn’t go along. He notes the disruption that came as tours in Vietnam were individualized at one year.

A middle section of the book, in boldface, covers the 1968 elections (including the “Medium Cool” riots) and Nixon’s October ruse to interfere with any LBJ peace initiative.  I recall hearing Johnson’s announcement March 31, 1968 that he would not run when I was doing KP in Special Training Company, one of the bottom days of my own life.  He covers Nixon’s implementation of a draft lottery, which gradually increased the participation of the “college boys” in the draft.

The books covers the attitude toward evading the draft.  Some people went to prison for several years. Yet others saw soldiers who got drafted as “suckers”.  He covers the poor treatment of Vietnam veterans in the early 1970s.  In one case, a bank refused to accept a veteran’s business.

On p. 273, the author notes, in discussing the relationship between Nixon and Kissinger (the Ninth Street Center saw both as “psychologically feminine”) and the view of the war as the movement and possible sacrifice of a “chess piece”, that may have made the Cold War less immediately threatening to most civilians.  If the United States could maintain a ground game and was willing to endure the uneven personal sacrifice of a draft, the temptation to nuclear war might be reduced – yet the book reports that Nixon considered using tactical nuclear weapons against North Vietnam in 1972.

Toward the end, the book recounts the narrative of triple amputee Max Cleland.  There is an account of a soldier who lost not only both legs but part of his lower abdomen but somehow survived a while before dying before being moved out of Vietnam. All of this is difficult for someone who sees body sanctity as a personal value.  Before the war, on campus in the 1960s, I even heard people say they would shoot themselves on the battlefield if wounded rather than come back maimed and pitiful.    The book also recounts the crimes of Lt. Calley, which occurred while I was in Basic (in the infirmary) and which provide an example of a substandard officer who got promoted due to McNamara’s folly.

The author briefly discusses two important films, “The Deer Hunter” (1979, which I saw in Dallas in Northpark when it appeared) and “Apocalypse Now” (1979, and I saw a director’s cut in August 2001 in Minneapolis).

Pondering the Vietnam War seems critical now as President Trump seems to have trapped himself in a particularly dangerous position with respect to North Korea and Kim Jong Un, officially Communist (or post-Communist emperor). Again, American civilian society has a lot more to lose in a nuclear exchange (assuming North Korea’s missiles really can reach us or perhaps create EMP attacks too) than most North Korean civilians.

I can recall writing a letter to my church when I was a grad student at KU int he spring of 1966 (before my 1968 draft) and getting an answer that we had to trust our elected political leadership.

So the lesson of uneven personal sacrifice and bad karma and perhaps “purification” should not be lost on us.

Vietman village search, Wiki picture.

Earlier coverage, here.

Author: James Wright
Title, Subtitle: Enduring Vietnam: An American Generation and its War
publication date 2017
ISBN 978-1-250-09248-9 hardcover (also e-book)
Publication: Thomas Dunne (St. Martins), 445 pages, indexed, endnotes, bibliography, Preface (roman), Introduction, 9 chapters, maps
Link: Politics-Prose, Dartmouth

(Posted: Friday, January 26, 2018 at 2 PM EST)

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