[A series of essays from half-a-lifetime ago]
Vietnam never laid a hand on me; I never saw a rice paddy or walked the Saigon streets, or awakened to the thwacking rush of Army helicopters. I've never stumbled through a jungle. The shape of Cambodia I remember only from the map Richard Nixon pointed to in May of 1970.
But neither did I go to jail or leave for Canada, or sugar my urine or brace my teeth or make any other attempt to avoid Vietnam. Nobody ever begged me to return home years later; neither President Ford nor Carter ever offered me amnesty. I was, throughout the entire era, little more than a spectator.
We still live, all of us, in the shadow of that era, even those who, like me, bear no visible scars. Just recently, I framed the cover page of an old student newspaper and hung it on my wall-five clenched fists boldly underlined with one word, "Strike."
It's an artifact now, a symbol of an era that has slipped into the objective past of a whole new generation of college students, already part of a nation's history and, therefore, of little more than passing interest to an undergraduate busily preparing himself for one of life's marketable skills. That clenched fist has lost its grip on America's emotions; today it needs a footnote.
But subconsciously Vietnam is still with us, all of us, even those it passed by. Spectators take their thrills vicariously and thereby keep their knees intact. But the memory of a rough game stays with them. Whether we went to Canada or Saigon or we stayed home, Vietnam, for all of us who grew up in the late sixties, is more than a memory.
For those of us who didn't go, "Where were you during Vietnam?" is more a pointed question of honor than of simple information.
And our answers invariably carry some supplemental narratives to verify the fact that we were alive at the time:
"We were here, but we marched." Somehow, it doesn't matter. We took neither the supreme act of loyalty and went to Southeast Asia, nor the supreme act of conscience and went to jail or Canada. For many of us spectators, the 4-F--in 1970 the classification of freedom--has become, years later, the badge of failure it was meant to be. Today, the 4-F triggers a sense of guilt for not having been to either Vietnam or Canada.
In the spring of 1968, on the night Lyndon Johnson opted out of the presidential race, I was among hundreds of sunburned northern college students wriggling away at a dance on Daytona Beach. In May of 1970, I told my college baseball coach that my marching against the war meant more to me than catching a Saturday doubleheader, and I left for Washington. The token scars I bear from that era lie no deeper than a skipped double-header. So high, for me, honor soared.
But I remember the almost vicious sense of righteousness in the eyes of a Navy vet who came home early in 1967, convinced that anything less than a full offensive in Vietnam was cowardly and defeatist. He had no toleration for argument. Vietnam turned his spirit to stone. And I remember the bloodied knuckles of a roommate in 1969, a vet whose adjustment to home staggered through long nights of drinking and fighting. Vietnam blessed him with an appetite for action that straight-life in small-town Iowa couldn't satisfy. His memories wouldn't let him sleep. These were the real scars of Vietnam.
A decade later I sat alone in an armchair late one night and watched two of my peers, two 30-year-old drunken Vietnam vets hugging and crying like children, as if all of it-the dope and the death, the absolute lunacy of a war few of them wanted to fight-as if all of it had ended just a week before. And I sat there trying my human best to empathize. It was all I could do as an outsider.
We all share in the guilt over Vietnam--the hawks, the doves and even the spectators. For those who watched, a decade later it's the specter of not having lived-at least of not having headlined, at most, not having suffered.
The agony and the torment, the courage and the selflessness belong to those who acted, either out of obedience or disobedience-and not to those who watched. We have no answers to where we were during Vietnam, and our muteness today is an odd kind of cross in itself.
Perhaps, at a decade's distance, we can call this odd guilt some rugged masculine urges left sheathed and unsatisfied. Perhaps it's the guilt of having been passive in an age that demanded action. Perhaps it's only the army legacy of the 4-F classification. Whatever it is, it stings some of us today when we watch films like Apocalypse Now or read books like The Things They Carried. Vietnam was an era that, for better or worse, belongs to the other guys, even though we were there.
In August of 1970, I lived just outside Madison, Wisconsin and had just begun my first year of teaching when the blast at the Army Research Center on the University of Wisconsin campus shook windows all over town and killed an innocent graduate student. It was the end of the days of the romantic rebellion in this country, and I knew it. The war itself would be over in a matter of time and a few thousand more lives.
I had seen it all, from the beginning-from the days of the military advisers, the days when the cloak of communism was laid over the backs of the first dissenters, through the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the Cambodian incursion, to Kent State, a dead research chemist, and a pitiful, hasty retreat from Saigon; and all of it through the pall of far too many thousand American and Southeast Asian war dead. But the story belonged to the others-those who acted.
This is the scar of my Vietnam days, my guilt. This is where I was during Vietnam, and where it's left me today, ten years it laid a hand on me just as it did on just about everyone else.