Monday, April 26, 2010

Letter to a high-school girl, part 3

You asked: "What were you doing when you heard about JFK's assassination? What did you think?"

I was working in the FBI office in downtown Minneapolis as a file clerk; the announement came over the intercom about 12:30 that Kennedy had been shot; and about 1:00 the news came that he had died. Of course it was a matter for the FBI. I recall thinking something like "Life will go on." I never bothered much about all the teeny details of Oswald and Ruby, or why Ruby shot Oswald (some say it was to keep Oswald silent about all he knew) - and in the years since all kinds of theories have been floating around.

* * * * *

You asked: "Did you participate in politics and if so what candidates did you support in the 1960's?" and "Did you serve in the Vietnam War? If you did in what capacity? Please share some notable experiences about the Vietnam War." and "Please share what your feelings are about the war now." and "Were you eligible for the Vietnam draft? Please tell about your experience with the Vietnam draft."

My participation in politics was limited to voting. Like everything else in the middle and late 60's, politics became very polarized, and that is still going on. In 1964 I would have voted for Goldwater. In 1968 I voted Republican (look up sometime the riot at the Democratic convention in Chicago). Ditto every election since, as best I recall. In general, I vote conservative (though neither major party has an exclusive grasp on good ideas - or stupidity).

I didn't serve in the war, but had many friends who did. Six of them are dead, killed in action; two came home as walking time-bombs and drank and drugged themselves to death later on, because they couldn't handle the horrors they experienced. (There is a contrast there between Vietman vets and WWII vets, but it's not relevant here.) NO ONE I know who served in combat in Vietnam came home whole in both body and soul.

My feelings about the war now are just grief, sadness, and loss. My best buddy, Phil, married Mary in November 1967 and was killed in Vietnam in March 1969. It took Mary five and a half years to put herself back together and remarry. I was with her a lot. The night before Phil shipped out, he stopped over to my house, and we sat on the back porch and had a couple of beers. He told me that since he was a first lieutenant of infantry, his chances of coming home at all were less than half, and his chances of coming home alive and whole were less than one in three. He asked me to take care of Mary if he was killed, and I promised I would, and I did the best I could. You don't forget stuff like that.

My thoughts about the war are that it was unwinnable. The regime in Saigon was corrupt and stayed corrupt, despite American efforts to shore it up, and as a consequence the South Vietnamese Regular Army was also corrupt and incompetent. The North Vietnamese Regular Army and the Viet Cong irregulars were far more disciplined and more effective. There is a book called Vietnam by Stanley Karnow, who covered the war as a journalist while it was going on, and went back to Vietnam years later, after the war was long over. One of the people he talked to was then-General Giap of the North Vietnamese regulars, who said to Karnow that the best allies the North Vietnames communists had were the student antiwar protests in the US and the growing public sentiment against the war. Many years after the war was over, Robert McNamara, who was Secretary of Defense at the time (and resigned in protest), wrote a book In Retrospect, in which he says that the Johnson administration lied to the public about the war. I have to add that the actress Jane Fonda, who was an ardent peacenik, made a trip to North Vietnam, and issued a statement condemning American involvement in the war. A few years ago she apologized publicly for that, but it's too late. To a whole generation of guys she'll always be "Hanoi Jane."

I was eligible for the draft, and registered on my eighteenth birthday in 1962. One way to stay out of the Army was to be in school, which is a lousy motivation to study, but a strong one anyway. I got called up in the spring of 1965, just after the Gulf of Tonkin Incident (look it up) when Johnson (who ran in 1964 on a peace platform) decided to "escalate" American involvement, and the Army needed lots of warm bodies. I went through the physical and, deciding that I was very likely a dead man, went home, packed everything, gave some things away, and sat down and waited for the orders to report. Nothing happened. Nothing happened all summer, because the Army lost my paperwork. Except for the print shop, I had no job, and not enough money for fun, but no one would hire me. In fact, one prospective employer told me, "Look, Kid, I know it's illegal to refuse to hire you, but why should I waste time and money training you in, just to have the Army snatch you away?" It was finally in late August that the notice came that I had failed the physical exam and was unqualified for military service. I was happy and sorry at the same time. My dad served in the Army in WWII, my Uncle George served aboard a carrier in combat in the Navy in the South Pacific, and I wanted to help our country. At the same time, I felt like I had a death sentence taken off my shoulders. Guys my age tell me now that flunking the physical very likely saved my life.

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