The lessons of Vietnam



I hadn’t planned on watching the series about the Vietnam War that started this week on public television, but I couldn’t help myself. Anyone of my generation was formed by the experience.

I can remember as an eighth-grader at St. Mary’s talking about the war in class, the boys wondering if we would have to worry about being called up. Sister Agnes assured us that the war would be over by the time we were out of high school. That was in 1963.

When I turned 18 it was still going on and I, like all the other young men of that age, trooped down to the draft office to register. It was in the basement of the post office on Lake Avenue, now the school administration building. It was unsettling for me walking down those ominous stairs. I received a draft card that day which said that I had to keep it on my possession. I still have it today, afraid that I might be stopped by a federal agent demanding to see my card.

In college I received a student deferment, exempting me from military service until graduation. My sophomore year the draft lottery began, when on Dec. 1, 1969, in a nationally televised event, birthdates were drawn out of a big rotating cage like at bingo. The first birthdate drawn was Sept. 14. Men with that number were certain to go. In the dorm room where I watched the lottery, a guy with that birthday walked out and was never seen again on campus. Reports were he left for Canada that night.

My number for May 15 was 132, and in 1971 as I began my senior year in college I got a letter from my draft board telling me that they didn’t expect to go that high. If I made myself eligible for the draft in the autumn and wasn’t called up by the end of the year, my chances of being drafted would go down drastically, since 365 — the number of days in a year — would be added to my number every year thereafter.

Well, it turned out that as 1971 was nearing December, the armed forces were facing a shortfall and started calling more men than anticipated. They ended up drafting men up to lottery number 128. It was nerve-wracking for me.

Of the five boys in our family, I had the lowest lottery number so none of us ended up getting drafted. I had several friends who were drafted or enlisted, but not all of them served in Vietnam. Some went to Germany, others remained stateside. If you were likely to be drafted and had connections — as did George W. Bush — you could get into the National Guard, which was a safe assignment. During Vietnam, Guardsman remained in the United States, unlike recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan where Guardsmen were sent into battle.

During World War II dad served in the Army Air Corps in North Africa and Italy, where he had witnessed some brutal stuff. He enlisted just after Pearl Harbor and was chosen for Officer Candidate School. He rose to the rank of captain and was recalled for the Korean War where he would have entered as a major. Mom said when he received his orders for Korea, it was the only time she had seen him cry. By then he was married with three kids. When he reported for duty, the Army sent him back home. They told him his wife needed him more than the Army.

Dad had witnessed the horrors of war first-hand in Europe, and Mom’s oldest brother was killed by a sniper fighting in the Philippines, so they were pretty disgusted by the whole idea of war. Mom thought when two nations wanted to fight so bad, they should send their leaders into battle, not the young kids who had a whole life ahead of them.

You can see that on the faces of the parents who lost their young sons in Vietnam, and on the heroic young men themselves who saw their friends killed and maimed over a lie. When I see what they went through I can’t imagine how they could have survived it. The Vietnam TV show documents fully what we have known for years — that our government lied to us repeatedly about our involvement in Vietnam. For that, 58,000 young men and women died so that our presidents — Republican and Democrat — could save face.

For those of us who lived through Vietnam, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have the same feeling of omen. We’ve been in Afghanistan for 16 years — our longest war — with no end in sight. As in Vietnam, we’re propping up a corrupt government and the natives see us as interlopers.

It doesn’t seem as though we’ve learned much.