A friend of my daughter’s interviewed me the other day for a history class on the “military action” in Vietnam. I said I’d be happy to talk, but I didn’t have much to contribute. None of the boys I knew was drafted, and only one member of my family enlisted. I hadn’t participated in any anti-war protests. She said that was fine; she just wanted to know how it affected someone who lived through that era.
First question: What’s the first thing you think of when you hear “Vietnam”? My reply: “Stupid war.” Her follow-up question, “Not the country?” took me aback. How strange! And how sad. I think of Vietnam the country only when it’s put in that context; when I’m reading about it as a travel destination, or when I meet someone who emigrated from there.
When the first draft lottery was drawn, I was a junior in high school, so you can bet I paid close attention. The first date drawn was September 14. Think about that: if you were male, born on September 14, and between the ages of 18 and 27, you would have been drafted, unless some physical failing kept you safe. Just think of all those boys over there with the same birthday.
It was the next lottery that swept Dave Crawford, my best friend’s boyfriend, up in its steely arms. Maybe he wasn’t number one, but number two, or three. My boyfriend was way down the line, but Gail’s was not, and we were terrified.
I grew up reading the paper more than watching the TV, and at some point in the late 60s, I began noticing articles about this place called “Vietnam,” with maps of a country looking like a shrunken South America. An article here, an article there. I asked myself if I should read these articles, and my answer was, No. It sounded so far away, and I wasn’t interested in armed conflict, and surely this war-not-called-a-war would end soon.
When I got my first car, I affixed my first bumper sticker to its back window. A lot of right-wingers, angered by young men fleeing to Canada to avoid the draft, were driving around with stickers reading “America: Love it or Leave it!” I was proud to have found one with the retort, “Vietnam: Love it or Leave it!”
Of course, we weren’t there out of love. We were there because the north was Communist, and the cold war was still on, and the “domino theory” prophesied that if we, the greatest democracy on earth, allowed one more country to fall into Communism’s clutches, even more would fall.
In the beginning, I let myself believe this. In the beginning, it didn’t seem like we were at war. Southeast Asia was so far away; I’d only traveled to Minnesota. We had no shortages, no ration books for gas and sugar, no Victory gardens. But gradually, my generation (yes, the Baby Boomers) grew older, and began to question things. When the lottery geared up, it suddenly felt very personal. My husband has noted that if there had been a lottery for the Afghanistan war, that war would have been over years ago, and we would not have gone to Iraq at all.
The average age of a U.S. military combatant in Vietnam was 19. (Type “Vietnam 19” into YouTube for the heart-stopping song about that.) That’s probably how old my cousin Dave was when he enlisted. I remember seeing him at a picnic after his return, tanned and talking dismissively of “gooks.” He fell for it; how could he not? I knew better than to wear my peace necklace – the one that said “War is not healthy for children and other living things — around him.
Dave got no welcome-home parade. You may have heard the stories of returning soldiers changing out of their uniforms on the plane, so no one in the airport would spit on them or call them “Baby killer!” – an outcome of the horrifying events at My Lai, when U.S. troops murdered up to 500 unarmed civilians, mostly women, children, and the elderly. It happened in March 1968 but did not become public knowledge until the following year. Yet even today, we hear of shameful episodes like that still happening.
Back then, we did not talk about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and the military certainly didn’t screen for or treat it. Many Vietnam vets stuffed their memories down deep, needing desperately to talk about it, but claiming they did not want or need to.
Three of my own memories failed to surface during the interview, but luckily, my daughter – my emergency backup memory – was there. She reminded me of the day she came home from second grade, pleased as punch with her new plastic tote. Everybody got one, and they all said “ARMY.” I was, she recalled, outraged, taking it away and telling her I would buy her another, less militaristic, one. She also remembered that on her brother’s 27th birthday, I declared that now I could breathe a sigh of relief, because he was too old to be drafted. Was there a war going on in 2008? Oh, yeah, you bet.
The third thing I’d forgotten was Allison’s question at the beginning of the first Persian Gulf war, in 1991. “Is this like Vietnam, Mom?” she asked, and I quickly replied, “Oh, no, honey. Back then, we lost 20 boys every day.”
Being reminded of that – both her innocent question and my appalling answer – brought tears to my eyes. For someone who was “not involved” in the Vietnam war, I sure had a lot to say. Like so many in my generation, I still regard “Vietnam” more as a searing experience than a country of beauty and grace.