To Be Young and of Fighting Age: Two Takes on the Vietnam Era

As a worship associate in my church, I periodically help produce services, assisting the presiding minister by doing readings and planning various other activities that help shape what takes place in the sanctuary every Sunday. In our congregation, it also involves presenting a personal reflection that is tied to the topic of the service.

At yesterday’s Veteran’s Day service, I reflected on my own experience of grappling with the Selective Service System draft as I came of age in the late 1960s, just in time for the Vietnam era. After I got home, I sent the text to my longtime friend (40 years and counting) Kevin Feldman (nickname “Gar”) with a brief note that said:

Hey Gar,

Does any of this overlap with your experience, or did you 2S all the way and then lottery out of the draft?

Seeya,

A

 

What Kevin wrote me back struck me as such a stirring perspective on the times—different and in many ways far more intense than my own; he is three years older than me—that I thought it a worthy glimpse into a crucial part of our nation’s recent history, and perhaps of more than passing interest to my readers. Please bear in mind it was an off-the-top-of-his-head email rather than a refined and edited essay, which gives it, in my view, a fierce urgency I wanted to maintain (slightly salty language and all…).

As you’ll see, I hadn’t specified who wrote the piece (I assumed he would know), which also lends a sense of flat-out realness to his response.

So herein is the full text of my reflection, followed by Kevin’s email back.

 

 There was no doubt we would all be real soldiers someday, in whatever war awaited our generation. It was just the way of things.

That awful but nobly purposed war, World War II, was still fresh in the air when I grew up. The newsreels of that evil Hitler and the terrible Japanese bombers decimating Pearl Harbor were all over television and the movie intermissions. (This was in ancient times, when double features were standard fare.)

John Wayne was taking care of them all, though, and the stars and stripes always managed to reign supreme, flapping in the breeze.

For young boys, this saturation in heroism and the vanquishing of evil suffused our play. It was aided and abetted greatly by the toy manufacturers, who churned out millions of those little green army men we bought at the dime store and collected like we did baseball cards.

We grew our army and their munitions into entire regiments to the degree that our military budgets allowed.

We’d spend hours setting up our men to do battle in our backyards. Or even better, in vacant lots where there was plenty of brush to hide in, or small rises with rock formations where we could hold the high ground and seek cover from enemy fire. (To this day, I can’t walk past a vacant lot without gauging its usefulness as a mock battlefield.)

There was no doubt we would all be real soldiers someday, in whatever war awaited our generation. It was just the way of things.

 

 

Well, that was the early 1960s, and the next war turned out to be Vietnam. By the time I came of draft age in 1969, the war was escalating daily. Guys I knew who didn’t get 2S student deferments like my buddies and I did were shipping out.

I didn’t quite know what to make of the war. My preoccupations at the time were basketball, girls, and planning a college education. But the feel in the air about it was not good.

No monster Hitler we had to stop.

No Pearl Harbor bombing to avenge.

It was only Nixon and Kissinger talking about Communists and dominos. And references to bombing North Vietnam back to the Stone Age.

Meanwhile, demonstrating your basic post-adolescent cluelessness, I had neglected to renew my student deferment and was reclassified 1A, ready to be drafted. I was immediately called for my physical, a mass cattle call in downtown Los Angeles of which I will spare you the humiliating details.

The general protocol at the time, with accelerating call-ups to feed the astonishing number of 2.6 million American soldiers who were eventually deployed to Vietnam, was for draft notices to follow a physical within mere weeks.

In that time, I rushed to overcome my paperwork slovenliness and refile for my student deferment. But there was an open question of whether my draft notice would arrive first, in which case I would have to report for duty.

 

Was I nervous? Oh yes, I was nervous. By then, the war was a disaster and young men were dying by the bushel for no good cause. Many were instead fleeing across the border to Canada, which was accepting American draft resisters.

But the U.S. made it clear if you did that, you could never return without facing prosecution.

At the time, I considered Canada amidst the whirl of other options fueled by fear and antipathy to the debacle of Vietnam. I doubted I could go through with it though, given the prospect of never seeing my family again.

My muddle was resolved when my student deferment arrived in the mail one day, to which I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Later that year, the government ended all student deferments and instituted the draft lottery. My birthday came up as No. 169, and they drafted only through No. 150 that year. That meant I was free from military duty forever— based on numbers picked randomly out of a barrel.

A perfect metaphor, it seems, for the arbitrary roulette wheel that affects so much of life and death.

But from those days forward, I never lost sight of the awful waste and carnage visited upon young men—and now young women—who weren’t as fortunate as I was.

Barely beginning their lives, they were cut down by the machinations of old men living out their fears and dreams of dominance, far from backyards and vacant lots where young boys once played out their own dreams of simple duty and heroism.

 

And Kevin’s response:

Hi – first off – who wrote this? Context? Hell yeah I can relate!!!!!

For me—I can relate to the overall vibe of this piece, but a number of my particulars were very different. I was in college taking LSD, smoking pot, reading Alan Watts and Ramparts, studying the Stoics and such, listening to Dylan, Beatles etc., and it was very clear to me this was a crazy deal that was not going to be my fate—whatever solution I would need to find. Can’t imagine not keeping my deferment current as this other writer tosses it off as a simple space-out. For me it was the hot breath of the Devil that was on all of our necks!!

We were throwing marshmallows at our Dem. Senator, Henry “Scoop” Jackson as he defended the escalation in VM during a campus speech, so the urgency and the emotion was intense, the feeling that our country was fucking mad—”they” had already killed the Kennedys and King, were trying for Ali—and no freaking way was I going to be part of this.

The big showdown personally was when my parents had an in for me with the National Guard (in those days, a sure way out, unlike today), but I had to search deep and realize I could not support the war effort in any way—tacit or otherwise—without compromising who I was learning I was… (Plus some fear and self-preservation thrown in no doubt). But I so clearly remember having this out with my folks (esp. Mom) at home for Xmas Jr yr (1968-9?), and realizing Canada or jail but no way the War Machine…

 

As it turned out, I was able to get my advisor, a psych prof and avid war resister/campus leader, to help me cobble together a psychologically unfit (gay etc.) profile for my physical in Seattle, spring 1970. It was right out of Alice’s Restaurant —the Sgt. running the show at the induction center proudly told us they wanted out as badly as we did not want in, but to do our “thing” during the psych end not the intellectual test, since we were all college seniors and auto-qualified…

A low mental score only meant you’d get the worst jobs in the Army….The whole scene was so surreal: after all the physical stuff you sat and waited to see the shrinks…my shrink did not even look up, this mousey looking little dude with a weird mobile hanging over his desk, big glasses and a bored-as hell-expression on his face. He just asked me a bunch of stock Qs, then looked over my  profile and said 4F (unfit). I wanted to kiss his ass…Walked home (from Pier 91, which was 10 miles or so from my house) and just reflected on the gift I’d been given…

It’s all a longer tale than this, but that’s the gist. It was a transformative, “Who am I? What really matters? Do I have to follow my parent’s lead?” etc. etc. scenario, very much a significant turning point in my young life, and one I am proud of to this day…though I didn’t have the cajones of those going to jail.

If if it came right down to it, would I have gone to Canada along with Jesse Winchester? Don’t know, but thank goodness for the anti-war movement on our campus that made it relatively easy to foil the war machine in its quest to chew me up for cannon fodder in “an old man’s nightmare,” as (friend) Lou Denti’s anti-war song in our band termed it!

Wow, haven’t thought about that for a while…where did you come across this?  Major reaction on my part for sure…I am just so thankful I was in college and able to encounter thoughtful antidotes to this crazy xenophobic shit that was driving our gov’t at the time…and to have had a peer group of support.

Oh, and reading Johnny Got His Gun (Dalton Trumbo) convinced me that this war deal was definitely not something I was going to participate in…How I would figure a way out was a 2-3 yr. journey, but the outcome was never in doubt, only the particular path I would eventually travel.

 

 

Interestingly, I did not have one close friend who was drafted—only a couple of high school pals who did not have access to the levers afforded by college and the chance to develop their individuated consciousness relative to such life-altering decisions…Much like our current volunteer army, most of the fighting and dying was done by less educated kids without the connections to get into the Guard (e.g. George W) or otherwise get their ass shot off for this crazy-ass delusion.

One of the things that bugs the shit out of me is how pols like Clinton don’t call out the war in VM for what it was…I think only Kerry of the big time pols of my generation had the balls to do this. No wonder the Dems fell in line for Bush and Iraq…

Enough already—sorry to ramble, but you did hit a nerve!

Gar
***

Last May, I wrote about John Gorka’s Let Them In and called it  “the best anti-war song ever.”  I believe John Prine’s Sam Stone is a close second…

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Deep appreciation to the photographers:

Rotating banner photos top of page courtesy of Elizabeth Haslam, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/

Small photo of plastic army man by Jennifer Tomaloff, Racine, Wisconsin, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jennifertomaloff/

Photo of man at Vietnam War Memorial by Noahhhhhhh,  some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tunnelarmr/

Photo of flower at Vietnam War Memorial by Joshua Nixon, Minneapolis, Minnesota, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dr_nixon/

Photo of Golden Gate National Cemetery by Glenn Thomas Franco Simmons, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bahaiwritingsasart_/

4 comments to To Be Young and of Fighting Age: Two Takes on the Vietnam Era

  • Terry  says:

    Gar,

    Thanks for this. Wow. It struck a huge chord for me, perhaps a minor one, but huge nonetheless. As did the John Prine video.

    As you know, my steering clear of the Vietnam War took a different, perhaps even ironic, path.

    In high school, I had a “hero,” and idol if you will, five years older than me, who was a one-time boyfriend of my older sister’s, Bob Dougal. He’d gone to the U.S. Naval Academy. He’d also been a catcher on the baseball team, and a quarterback on the football team during his high school years. He also graduated from the USNA in 1964 and became a Marine Corps officer and aviator. So, I decided to follow in his footsteps in every way possible, which I did, including the positions he played in sports.

    I applied to no colleges as a HS senior, except the Naval Academy, and was well on my way there until I got to the pre-admission physical at the Bremerton Naval Shipyard in the Spring of 1965. There, I found out, quite unexpectedly, that I was partially color blind and couldn’t be admitted to the USNA, and my world collapsed. I drove back home across the Narrows Bridge in Tacoma in stunned despair.

    Since I’d applied to no other colleges, I decided to enroll at WSU where my good friend who was a year older than me, Skip Gillis, was in a fraternity called Phi Delta Theta. The rest, as they say, is history. It’s where I met and became good friends with a lot of the folks on your mailing list. But, still stubbornly clinging to the hope of emulating Bob Dougal’s path, I joined what was known as the Marine Corps Platoon Leader Class, a training program that was to occur in the summers after my freshman and junior years in Quantico, Virginia. I went and attended the full program in the summer of 1966, and came back to WSU for my sophomore year full of my new-found combatant’s facade, where again I met you and your pledge brothers. I ask the forgiveness of all of you for the person I must have seemed to be to you.

    Then along came the summer of 1968, when I was headed for my 2nd stint in the USMC at Quantico. But by then, the reality of our world had blossomed full bloom in front of me. MLK Jr. and Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated, and everywhere and for all of us, to say the least, disillusionment reigned.

    I reported to the Marine Corps Officer Training School at Quantico, wondering what the fuck I was doing there. I laid jet-lagged and unsleeping in my bed almost all night . . . just thinking. At about 3 AM, I decided almost in a hypnotic state that I had to do something. The only thing I could think of was to alter my answers on my health questionnaire that I’d filled out just that day, and had failed to check a couple of things that, I thought, may raise some questions about my eligibility for combat. To be clear, I well knew by then that I was being trained to be a “target” for the bullets not just of the so-called “enemy” but of the men in the platoon who were under my command. That, on top of my relatively new-found awareness of my visceral distaste for violence of any kind, warfare related or otherwise.

    I got out of bed, tiptoed through the barracks to the drill seargent’s office and stepped through the door, pausing. If I’d been caught, even at that initial point, I’d have been severely punished. But on into the office I went. I found the desk drawer with all the trainees files in it and located my own. I checked two boxes on the questionnaire that I’d left unchecked previously—one having to do with a knee injury I’d sustained playing intramural basketball (another story) and one relative to a childhood history of asthma, for which I still had medication if I needed it. I returned to bed, and finally fell asleep, not really knowing what the new day held for me.

    Well, to make this long story no longer, I was expelled from the Platoon Leaders Class immediately the next day. They kept me on base for over a week to “do their thing” to me, as they did to all who either DOR’d (dropped on request) or failed to meet their requirements in some other way. As I left Quantico some days later, I remember feeling a huge weight being lifted from my shoulders as I stared out the bus window at all those officer trainees whose future now was so seemingly different from my own. I knew some of them from my previous time at Quantico, and even this lifted feeling I had was mixed with a big dose of guilt and sadness for them, as well as my own uncertainty about what lay ahead of me now. It was the summer of 1968 in the Vietnam War. I was clear of the chaos and violence of that spectacle, but I also knew that others were not so fortunate. It was my own rendition of “survivor’s guilt,” I guess.

    I still think about that moment in my life, lying in a bed in a cramped barracks full of sweating, young, scared men, and of realizing that where I was and what I was doing had to be changed . . . somehow. I had lied on my physical health questionnaire for reasons that were not my own, really. I’d wanted to be “successful” like my friend Bob, and “successful” in what I thought was the view of our society at the time. Both were other people’s benchmarks of success, I realized, not mine. I’ve given thanks many, many times for that moment of clairvoyance in the dark, humid air of Quantico, Virginia.

    So, Gar, thanks again for sending your message to me. I am happy to share with all of you who read this my own little story of a life-changing event that I’ll never forget.

    Crogs

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Terry, this rather astonishing image of you tip-toeing into the office in the mid of night to alter these forms—your whole life, your soul, your self-understanding, and most certainly your physical freedom hanging in the balance—is worthy of the pivotal scene in a novel or movie. And what were you—maybe 20 years old or so? Unformed, barely removed from boyhood, thrashing ahead trying to find some sense of Self, something approaching an identity and core set of values.

      And into that maelstrom, with a foundation resting heavily on childhood imagery and hero worship as you describe, we toss young men and women into the far more chaotic and dangerous maelstrom of war, where they face more impossible choices, where we ask them to do unspeakable things, with their very lives on the line moment to moment. Some can manage, some cannot, some survive, some do not, all of them who return are changed in a fundamental way. As were you, with the momentous choices you made about who you were, what you valued, where your core identity lay, and what actions you needed to take to be true to them. Thanks for sharing this powerful tale. I won’t forget it.

  • loweb3  says:

    Older than all you who have commented so far, at least by a couple of years, I became an Army officer in 1964 upon graduating from college, in order to complete my two years of national service. Hardly anyone, including me, had heard of Vietnam at that time. By the time I got out in January of 1967 I’d not only heard about the war, I’d fought in it.

    Luckily, the war was still popular when my Tank Battalion departed from Oakland. “Song of the Green Beret” along with Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made for Walking” were the two top songs on the Hit Parade. It was supposed to be a coup for Armor officers to go to Vietnam because they didn’t use many tanks there and you needed combat duty to get further promotions, but I was strictly a reservist and had no desire to go but considered it my duty and the luck of the draw.

    I wasn’t in country very long before I realized that whatever we were fighting for, it wasn’t Democracy. The people we were defending were the same ones attacking us every night. As close as we were to Saigon, few Vietnamese supported their government. Since our job was defending fixed positions or escorting conveys, we became sitting targets for the Viet Cong and lost several battalion members. Before long, my major concern was making sure that none of my platoon was killed while I was there. I even offered to extend my duty six months so that I could stay with my platoon their full year. When told I would be transferred to Saigon instead, I immediately declined to extend my duty.

    By the time I returned from Vietnam, protestors greeted us at the airfield. I was told that I should buy civilian clothes because I might be confronted by protestors at the airport. Needless to say, I wore my uniform home and hoped that someone would confront me, but unfortunately no one did.

    Even though enlisted men who had fought in Vietnam were excused from completing their time in the reserves, officers were still expected to serve an additional 6 years. I avoided serving in the reserves as long as I could until I got a letter saying I would have to return to active duty unless I showed up at a reserve unit. I finally reported to the reserves in Aberdeen, Washington, where I’d gone to work as a caseworker. Not surprisingly, the unit was full of young whites whose fathers were managers in the mills or who owned local businesses. They were, as John Fogerty found while serving in the reserves in San Francisco, largely people who had enough political pull to avoid the draft (in those days reservists were never called up unless the country was invaded). When I left to return to college at the University of Washington, I was transferred to a unit in Seattle and found very similar conditions. None of my fellow officers or enlisted men had ever participated in a war, but they were really “patriotic.” When told that I would have to march in a 4th of July Parade in downtown Seattle, I just laughed and said I was sorry but I would be out of town that day. I was told that participation was mandatory and that I would have to go. I replied, “Never going to happen.” I don’t remember what happened after that, but I didn’t march and never did in the next five plus years I had to serve in the reserves.

    Years later I still get enraged by Chickenhawk politicians who managed to avoid the draft but call for military action while failing to adequately fund Veteran facilities. I find it strange that a generation that was so anti-War when they thought they might have to actually fight it themselves, seems so eager to send troops off repeatedly to fight wars in the Mideast, especially since their kids and grandkids aren’t drafted anymore.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Loren, I must say I never understood the shameful treatment of returning Vietnam vets by anti-war “protesters.” (I use that term advisedly, because they were more truly anarchist thugs.) Even to my youthful, anti-war sensibilities at the time, it seemed wantonly cruel and smug and wrong-headed, and it forevermore made me suspicious of all zealots, of whatever cause and stripe.

      And on the other side of zealotry stands the likes of Dick Cheney, one of the original chickenhawks, forever unbowed, never allowing in even one sliver of doubt, one scintilla of self-reflection and self-responsibility, for the tragedies he helped visit upon untold legions of soldiers and their families, (both U.S. and Iraqi), and millions of others who have been affected profoundly by his unbending certainties on the world stage.

      Thanks much for sharing your clear-eyed story here. Much appreciated.

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