Monday, 25 September 2017

West Point and Vietnam

Watching Ken Burns's Vietnam history, now showing on PBS stations, brings back so many memories of another time when Americans were at odds, much as we are today.

I was in college from 1968 to 1972 and marched all over, including at the Moratorium in Washington D.C. in the fall of '69. I remember that morning joining thousands of others as we marched to the Washington Monument. At every corner, the crowd grew larger. Then there were speeches and music. The song that moved me the most, I think, was Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In, swaying along with hundreds of thousands.

Later that evening, I unintentionally found myself near Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, co-founders of the Yippies and members of the Chicago Eight, as protests heated up with police. North Country residents will recall Abbie Hoffman for his later efforts on behalf of the protection of the St. Lawrence River.

People were so tired of Nixon and then LBJ and the endless lies that our soldiers were making progress, the depressing lists of daily body counts and comments from our government that “victory was at hand.” It was Neville Chamberlain all over again, with LBJ trying to appease the American public.

Less than a month later, the first draft lottery was held. Anyone who was the age to be in that drawing remembers their number. Mine was 188, a lucky draw that was never reached. I sat at my cousin's house and we watched the drawing on TV. He was two years older than me and his number was in the 30s. It cast an early pall over the evening. The first date selected was September 14th. You can look at the actual drawing we watched nearly half a century ago on YouTube.

I still remember the strange sensation of watching a white, middle aged, Republican Congressman pull the first number out of a glass bowl, numbers that could mean a quick ride to the other side of the world to fight people we had no quarrel with.

It's well known today how many managed to avoid the draft: Bill Clinton received a high number (311) but there were still questions about how he got deferments; George W. Bush went into the National Guard – an almost impossible position to get without connections; Dick Cheney got five deferments, Donald Trump received the same number, including one for bad feet. The split between those who had power, influence and money and managed to avoid the draft and those who did not, primarily the working class, poor and non-college educated, labeled the entire process a complete sham.

All these memories came flashing back as I watched the Ken Burns film. Yes, I knew people who died in Vietnam. Yes, I had friends who served and managed to survive. My college roommate served two years in Vietnam. Like many others, when he came home he went somewhat wild for a time, enjoying his good luck. He gave me a pair of stinky, kangaroo skin boots that had belonged to General William Westmoreland. My friend had been selected as one of a few soldiers assigned to help the General clean out his rooms after he was replaced by LBJ following the Tet Offensive in 1968. My roommate happened to be the only one with the same size feet. Incredibly, fifty years later, I still have Westy's boots stinking up a corner of my barn. Like Burns's film, they remind me of this horrible piece of American history.

One of my close high school friends in those days got an appointment to West Point. I was astonished when I heard. Of course, it was a way to also avoid the draft. He spent two years at West Point and then before starting his third which would have committed him to five years' service after graduation, he dropped out. Thus, he had served his two years of military service and avoided going to Vietnam.

I visited this friend at West Point. This was about 1970 and I was already sporting long hair and dressed like a member of the Woodstock generation. I ate in the huge dining hall with hundreds of cadets all in spit-polish uniforms. While I shoveled in my meal, the plebes had to sit ramrod straight and ask permission of the upper classmen for each bite they took, eating in squares. That is, raising one's fork straight up in front of one, then moving it straight to the mouth, then back out with the empty fork and down to the table, where they awaited permission to take the next bite. The absurdity of it all has never left me. Did this sort of thing really make good soldiers?

Later, I was introduced to one of my friend's buddies who was a senior at the military academy. He had just received two weeks leave, the first he'd had since arriving at West Point more than three years before. How was he going to spend the time? He planned to hike across Death Valley.

In my junior year at college, we had a sudden influx of West Point transfers who, like my friend, dropped out before committing to five years in the military. They were among the wildest students on campus. After being forced to abide by the strict regimen of cadets for two years, they were ready to party and did so.

Burns's film relies primarily upon interviews with the soldiers, civilians and protesters of the period; the horror of teenagers fighting in the jungles of southeast Asia, the turmoil in American society as it split between supporters and ferocious opponents of the war, the many battles of the 1960s over civil rights, women's rights, environmental protection and the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King.

Ken Burns has brought back those sad days, more powerfully almost than I can bear. And I wonder what it all portends for our current partisan climate.

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