Were The Real Prisoners Of Viet War The Young Americans Who Never Left Home?
Being part of history.
BY Christopher Buckley | Sep 22, 2017 | Culture
The day I turned nineteen, I went down for my physical and had my first and only experience of Army life. I took with me a letter from Dr. Murphy, my childhood doctor, describing in uncompromising detail the asthma that had been a major part of my life up to the age of sixteen. As I shuffled along the line from urinalysis to the haemorrhoid inspection I tried to look wan and generally tubercular, ready to faint if any voice were raised in my direction. One Army doctor looked at my letter with an unimpressed scowl and drew a heavy circle around the worrisome “up to age sixteen.” My hands got clammy and I wiped them on my forehead, hoping the perspiration would give my brow a nicely febrile sheen. At last I came to the end of the line, to a table at which three doctors reviewed the other doctors’ evaluations and ruled on them.
“Asthma?” said one of them, looking up. I nodded feebly and made an emphysematous sound resembling a yes, intended to make him understand the asthma had left me with a dearth of pleura, which I was conserving in order to participate in the sacrament of last rites, which in my case was obviously more or less imminent.
After the longest pause I have ever waited through, he said, “Rejected.”
I waited until I was a few blocks from the examination centre before breaking into a full run. (They might have been watching.) I have never since run so fast. When a mile later I hit the campus and saw my roommate and some friends across the quadrangle, I broke into a sprint. A few yards from them I jumped and in midair shouted, “I FLUNKED!” loudly enough to cause nearby heads to tum and wonder, probably, what inversion of academic values had caused this deranged jubilation.
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Twelve years later, on a November day in Washington, D.C., I watched as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated. At the edge of the crowd where I stood there was a Marine, about forty years old, ramrod-stiff and impeccable in ceremonial dress. He turned suddenly from the proceedings and, walking a few paces away, took off his glasses, put two fingers of a white-gloved hand to the bridge of his nose, and began to weep.
Watching his grief made me feel like an intruder. I felt I had no business there, so I left the grounds.
There was a lot of talk that weekend about healing. It was true the veterans finally did get the welcome home and a measure of the appreciation and recognition that they had always deserved. A group of college students in a Georgetown bar stood up and applauded when a group of vets walked in. That alone seemed a remarkable enough event for President Reagan to make prominent mention of it in a speech shortly afterward.
"I HAD NEVER ONCE HEARD ANYONE ADMIT TO GUILT OR SHAME OVER NOT HAVING GONE TO VIETNAM"
In a city once known for its spectacular antiwar demonstrations, there were no sour notes, only the ads on television for a movie that had just opened: Sylvester Stallone working out his post-traumatic stress disorders on a small American town—with an M-16 and everything short of close air support. Good timing, Hollywood! But when it was over—the parade, the speeches, reunions, workshops, the fifty-six-hour vigil at the National Cathedral during which the names of the 57,939 dead and missing were read aloud— there was no doubt it really had been a homecoming. Myra MacPherson wrote in The Washington Post, “Now there is some meager measure of reconciliation; some who used to taunt them [the homecoming soldiers] at army camps and airports—the student deferred taunting those less privileged draftees or those who felt compelled to serve their country—admit guilt and shame. ”
It’s been ten years now since the troops came home, but until recently I had never once heard anyone admit to guilt or shame over not having gone to Vietnam—not in hundreds of conversations about the war. I find this strange; meager, I think, is the operative word.
The gap between those who went to war and those who stayed behind was larger in the Vietnam War than in any other war in our history. Fifty-three million Americans came of age between the signing of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on August 7, 1964, and April 30, 1975, the day Saigon fell to the Communists. Of those fifty-three, eleven million served in the military; and of those eleven, fewer than three went to Indochina. That leaves forty-two million Americans who did not serve. Twenty-six million of these were women, who weren’t called (though the 6,500 women who did serve were essential to the war effort). About sixteen million were men who were deferred, exempted, or disqualified or who evaded the draft. About 80 percent of the Vietnam generation did not participate in the dominant event of their time. About 6 percent of military-age males saw actual combat.
If the millions tend to blur, consider: How many of your friends went to Vietnam?
It wasn’t until the memorial opening that I stood face-to-face with my own guilt and shame. Guilt is a pretty personal affair, and it’s not my business to tell people how they should feel about not having gone to Vietnam. But now that the vets have finally come home and the healing has begun, it may be time for those of us who do have misgivings about not having fought to think, out loud, about the consequences of what we did—and didn’t do.
For those who never left, there is no ceremony and no coming home; if the healing is to be complete, then all the wounds from that war will need healing.
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Those of my parents' generation who missed World War II were devastated by not being part of it. When an uncle of mine talks about being just too young for that war, he uses the word traumatic. He once told me that for him and many of his peers Korea came “almost as a relief.”
But it’s hard to compare World War II and Vietnam. A lot of people I know say there’s no good reason to feel guilty about having missed Vietnam. There’s an echo in their arguments from Henry IV:
. . . but for these vile guns,
He would himself have been a soldier.
They say it was a lousy war on every score. They talk about My Lai, body counts, fraggings, Agent Orange, the Phoenix Program, the inability to distinguish enemies from friendlies; about the long list of horrors that seem peculiar to Vietnam. They feel vindicated, and some of them are startled at the question of whether they feel any guilt or shame at having sat out the war. Okay, some say, the “Baby killer!” business did get out of hand. Any movement has its excesses. But it was our movement, our resistance to the war, our not going that convinced the White House and the Pentagon and the Congress to end the war.
True, but six months after the fall of Saigon in 1975 James Fallows examined an entrenched fallacy of the antiwar movement in an article for The Washington Monthly called “What Did You Do in the Class War, Daddy?” The article had, in the words of the Monthly’s editor, Charles Peters, “tremendous impact. It was a turning point in a generation, being willing to open itself up to other than cliché-left truths about Vietnam.”
Fallows described how as a Harvard student he had starved himself down to 120 pounds and affected a suicidal disposition at his Army physical. As the doctor wrote “unqualified” on his form, “I was overcome by a wave of relief, which for the first time revealed to me how great my terror had been, and by the beginning of the sense of shame which remains with me to this day.”
"THE REAL WAY—THE COURAGEOUS WAY—TO HAVE ENDED THE WAR WOULD HAVE BEEN TO GO TO WAR."
His article was a brilliant and scathing indictment of a system that sent the sons of the working class off to fight its war while allowing the overwhelming majority of the sons of the middle and upper classes to avoid it. One of Fallows’s most penetrating self-criticisms was that while those in the antiwar movement (of which he was a part) convinced themselves they were the “sand in the gears of the great war machine” by burning their draft cards and marching, the real way—the courageous way—to have ended the war would have been to go to war.
“As long as the little gold stars,” he wrote, “kept going to homes in Chelsea and the backwoods of West Virginia, the mothers of Beverly Hills and Chevy Chase and Great Neck and Belmont were not on the telephones to their congressmen, screaming you killed my boy, they were not writing to the President that his crazy, wrong, evil war had put their boys in prison and ruined their careers. It is clear by now that if the men of Harvard had wanted to do the very most they could to help shorten the war, they should have been drafted or imprisoned en masse. ”
Fallows’s argument seems to me airtight; but there are a lot of people who persist in the fallacy, and this has contributed to the anger that many vets understandably feel. Who made the real sacrifice, anyway? Some who never went to Vietnam or into the military did suffer because of it, though the numbers are relatively minuscule: of 209,517 accused draft offenders, 3,250 were imprisoned and 3,000 became fugitives. But, as Paul Starr, author of The Discarded Army: Vietnam Veterans After Vietnam, wrote, “the conflict was waged without any privation at home, and the result has been an enormous disproportion of sacrifice. A few have been asked to die; virtually nothing has been asked of everyone else. ”
Whatever sacrifices were made at home, the ones made on the field of battle cost more, and it is hard—for me, anyway—to disagree with something James Webb, the twice-wounded, highly decorated Marine and author of Fields of Fire, told Time magazine apropos the gap between vets and nonvets: “We’re going to have to lead this country side by side. We’re going to have to resolve this. The easiest way is for people who didn’t serve in those years to come off this pretentiousness of moral commitment and realize that the guys who went to combat are the ones who suffered the most. They are also the ones who gave the most.”
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The hard, psychological evidence is that what most people who didn’t go to Vietnam feel is neither guilt nor regret but relief. Two years ago the Center for Policy Research submitted an exhaustive nine-hundred-page study to the Veterans Administration and Congress called Legacies of Vietnam. Its results, if not surprising, were interesting. It found that only a bare minority of nonveterans, 3.5 percent, feel that staying out of the military had a negative impact on their lives. Thirty-six percent feel it had a positive effect. When asked how staying out of the service had benefited them, the majority said it was by enabling them to pursue their education and career. The next-highest majority said that staying out gave them a competitive advantage over their veteran peers. A veteran, I think, would find this last datum depressing and disheartening.
The question, though, of whether nonvets ought to feel vindicated by the conduct and results of the Vietnam War is, in a sense, beside the point. War is war and combat is combat, and ever since the first jawbone was raised in anger men have felt a terrible need to prove themselves on the field of glory.
“I have heard the bullets whistle,” wrote George Washington about his adventures in the French and Indian War, “and believe me, there is something charming in the sound.” A century later, watching a federal charge be repulsed at Fredericksburg, Robert E. Lee mused, “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.” Vietnam may have performed a great national service by demonstrating for my generation the truth of the general’s remark.
"I HAVE HEARD BULLETS WHISTLE, AND BELIEVE ME, THERE IS SOMETHING CHARMING IN THE SOUND.”
The lore is full of stories of those who got out of the war. But for some, not getting into the Army and not getting to Vietnam had nearly as traumatic or profound an impact as being left out of the Normandy landing had on those of another generation. Their stories are far rarer than the other category, but also worth the telling.
One fellow I know is convinced his entire family has been historically cheated. His grandfather was fourteen when World War I ended; his father was fourteen when World War II ended; he was fourteen when the Vietnam War ended.
Robert Owen was thirteen when his brother Dwight was killed in a Vietcong ambush in 1967. (Dwight’s name is inscribed in the lobby of the State Department in Washington, along with those of other recipients of the Secretary’s Award, the State Department’s highest honour.) Robert worshipped Dwight, and the death hit him very hard.
Six years later Owen was a freshman at Stanford, watching television in his dormitory, when the news showed the first batch of POWs setting foot on the tarmac at Subic Bay. When Jeremiah Denton, who’d been a prisoner of the North Vietnamese for seven years, stepped to the microphone and said, “God bless America,” Owen suddenly found tears running down his cheeks.
Not long afterward the Marines happened to be on campus recruiting. Owen had not awakened with the idea of signing up, but when he read an ad in that morning’s student newspaper saying, Don't be good little Nazis: Stop the Marine recruiting, he went down for an interview. The protesters outside were trying physically to prevent anyone from getting in. Owen, who has the build of a pentathlon competitor, shoved his way through. He signed up for the Platoon Leader program. Then came the physical. He flunked it because of a lacrosse injury to his knee. Then began a long, consuming quest.
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During the four years following graduation, he tried to get into a half dozen California police departments. Each time, the knee kept him out. In desperation, he offered to sign insurance waivers. No one would accept such an arrangement.
Nineteen-eighty found him in the same part of the world where Dwight had gone in answer to his own call, on the Cambodia-Thailand border, processing refugees from Pol Pot’s reign of terror for the International Rescue Committee. Then the word came that his father was dying, and he returned home to take care of him. During that ordeal he tried twice to enlist, in the Marines and in the Navy’s SEAL (commando) program, but the Achilles’ knee kept showing up on the X rays. As he was going out the door the Navy doctor suggested he try some other branch of the government. Now he works on Capitol Hill.
After telling the long story one night recently at a Chinese restaurant in Georgetown, he said he’d finally come to a realization that allowed him peace of mind. After all the attempts to put himself in positions where he’d have to prove himself, he’d finally decided that “if and when the test ever comes, I’m going to get my red badge of courage, or die trying.”
In the silence that followed, the fortune cookies came and we cracked them open. His read: "Your wisdom has kept you far away from many dangers."
My friend Barnaby writes from Paris a fourteen-page letter imbued with something like regret, about what not going has meant to him. (Unlike me, he was never called. If he had been, he would have gone.) He mentions a well-known novelist he knows, a man who has written for this magazine, who, when drunk, tells people he was a fighter pilot in Vietnam. (He wasn’t.) But Barnaby understands the novelist’s dilemma and alludes to something Hemingway once said: that if a writer goes to war for a year, he will have enough to write about for the rest of his lifetime.
He remembers a man he met once in a bar in Vermont, a construction worker who’d been stalking deer in the woods for a week with a bow. He invited the man back to his cabin for a drink, and the man told Barnaby about his year in Vietnam as a gunner on river patrol boats. This was, incidentally, three years before The Deer Hunter opened.
"I GET A LUMP IN MY THROAT WHEN I HEAR THE PLEDGE OF ALLEGIANCE."
“It had started to rain heavily as we finished the beer. It was a chilly November. I offered him the couch next to the fire, but he declined, saying he had a tent, and that there was an eight-point buck he’d been closing in on for three days. He thought he could get him at dawn. We shook hands at the door and he stepped out into the cold wet night. There wasn’t an ounce of fear in him, and I knew that he thought I was soft—I hadn’t been to Vietnam—but he didn’t hold it against me, perhaps because of the way I listened to him talk. ”
Barnaby dwells on the word pledge. “I knew [at the time] that we had pledged to support that country. While I never liked the phrase, ‘My country do or die,’ I get a lump in my throat when I hear the pledge of allegiance. I think the word pledge is one of the most beautiful in the world. . . . To stand by a pledge can be an ordeal, and the pledge is only as good as the man who makes it. I will never know how good my pledge is.”
Both Owen and Barnaby were looking for something, obviously: for a test of manhood, a chance to prove themselves under circumstances far more gruelling than the challenges civilian, peacetime life throws our way: college exams, job deadlines, love affairs, wind surfing. I think some of the stories we’ve all heard about getting out of the draft or about antiwar demonstrations have a kind of wistful quality to them, as if those telling them are trying to relate ersatz war experiences.
One friend who was in a lot of demonstrations confessed how disappointed he was that he’d never been gassed, “because then it would have been my war too.” Another tells a story of taking multiple doses of LSD before being inducted, which, after an understandably complicated series of events, resulted in his getting off. It’s funny, and in some ways harrowing, story. It’s his war story.
There’s an undercurrent of envy here.
I certainly feel it, at least. I have friends who served in Vietnam. One was with Special Forces, another was in Army intelligence, another with the CIA. They all saw death up close every day, and many days dealt it themselves. They’re married, happy, secure, good at what they do; they don’t have nightmares and they don’t shoot up gas stations with M-16s. Each has a gentleness I find rare in most others, and beneath it a spiritual sinew that I ascribe to their experience in the war. I don’t think I’ll ever have what they have, the aura of I have been weighed on the scales and have not been found wanting, and my sense at this point is that I will always feel the lack of it and will try to compensate for it, sometimes in good, other times in ludicrous, ways.
The word veteran comes from the Latin for experienced. But it’s not the same experience we gain by passing through the gradual, attenuated rites of passage of lives measured out with coffee spoons. In his extraordinary book about his experiences in Vietnam, A Rumor of War, Philip Caputo wrote, “We learned the old lessons about fear, cowardice, courage, suffering, cruelty, and comradeship. Most of all, we learned about death at an age when it is common to think of oneself as immortal. Everyone loses that illusion eventually, but in civilian life it is lost in installments over the years. We [in Vietnam] lost it all at once, and, in the span of months, passed from boyhood through manhood to a premature middle age.”
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In that passage, they learned something very hard to obtain outside the battlefield: the “communion between men [in infantry battalions] is as profound as any between lovers. Actually, it is more so. It does not demand for its sustenance the reciprocity, the pledges of affection, the endless reassurances required by the love of men and women. It is, unlike marriage, a bond that cannot be broken by a word, by boredom or divorce, or by anything other than death. Sometimes even that is not strong enough. Two friends of mine died trying to save the corpses of their men from the battlefield. Such devotion, simple and selfless, the sentiment of belonging to each other, was the one decent thing we found in a conflict otherwise notable for its monstrosities.”
At the heart of Dr. Johnson’s saying that “every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier” are a great many childish, mud- and blood-splattered romantic notions and dreams of glory. In the context of what Caputo is saying, maybe the best reason for agreeing with the doctor is that by not putting on uniforms, we forfeited what might have been the ultimate opportunity, in increasingly self-obsessed times, of making the ultimate commitment to something greater than ourselves: the survival of comrades.
The fragging stories blurred an important realization: if anything is clear about the ethos of the American soldiers in Vietnam, it is that they weren’t fighting for democracy, or against communism, but for each other.
Dr. Arthur Egendorf, a clinical psychologist now in private practice who served with Army intelligence in Vietnam and who was a principal author of the congressional study Legacies of Vietnam, says that for nonveterans of Vietnam, the effects of not going are “mostly negligible, not the sort of thing to talk about as mental illness. Maybe some feel actual guilt, but mostly what we see is a kind of vague malaise.” Guilt—severe guilt—is still having nightmares thirteen years later because, as in the case of one of Egendorfs friends, your unit was wiped out while you were on a reconnaissance patrol. The man in question blocked from conscious recollection the names of his friends who were killed in the attack: “We went to the Vietnam memorial together, and he literally could not mobilize himself to touch the wall because he was so ashamed of not being able to remember the names of those who died. Now,” says Egendorf, putting all this in sobering perspective, “that’s guilt.”
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But he does have “an impression” about the impact not going had on the generation that in the main didn’t.
“If there is one major strand,” he says, “that is played out among the nonveterans, it’s this whole thing about nonengagement, noncommitment. Service got a bad name in the last war. People who didn’t serve felt vindicated for keeping clean. And the main cost of all that is much more social than in any obvious sense individual. You see a declining trust in public institutions of all sorts. It’s a suspicion that I got away with something. There’s no neurotic guilt, but there is a lingering need to cover up and justify a posture of nonengagement. It means that there are a lot of lives that are less vital because of it. ”
Egendorf is not at all critical of those who, as he says, took a stand against the war on political or moral grounds; in fact, he admires the courage of those who undertook nonviolent protest.
On the other hand, he says that in the course of undertaking the Legacies survey, he began to find that a majority of Vietnam-generation males evinced attitudes he describes as “turned-off, who cares, don’t count on me. ”
“That’s where the main cost lies. The form of the war experience becomes ‘I got off scot-free, ha ha ha.’ And that is not a posture on which you can build a creative, constructive, determined, self-respecting life. Those kinds of virtues come out of a sense of having given oneself, having served, standing for something. Caring enough, putting your neck out.
“So when you have deliberately not done those things—and the Zeitgeist was to justify pulling out, cover your duff—then you have people fooling themselves about how to make it in the world. They bullshit themselves into thinking the great virtue is staying aloof, being noncommittal. But that’s precisely what doesn’t work. What works is to commit yourself to what you care about. ”
Egendorf has two last observations on all this. The first is that this guilt—or malaise—is a waste of time. It doesn’t do anyone any good. “At first,” he says, “it seems like a badge of worthiness. At least I’m suffering. It can lead to a kind of belated hero worship [of vets]. But that’s useless, really, and ultimately self-destructive. What we need to muster for vets is dignity and respect. We’re all partners in a prearranged marriage. There’s no illusion of romance, but we do need to have respect for each other. And if we’re going to have that, we’re going to need forgiveness—for ourselves. ”
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The other is that “people called the shots as best they could at the time. It’s not an excuse, but a question of recognizing that the dumb thing we all do is blame ourselves for not having known what it took some crucial experience to teach us. Guilt becomes a kind of booby prize. What we need much more than that is a fresh look at what now calls for commitment. ”
Whether it’s guilt or malaise, what I do know for certain is that if someday I have a son and he asks me what I did in the Vietnam War, I’ll have to tell him that my war experience, unlike that of his grandfather, consisted of a haemorrhoid check.
Most people I know who avoided the war by one means or another do not feel the way I do, and I’m in no position to fault their reasons or their justifications.
But I do know some others who are still trying to come to terms with all this. And sometimes it comes to the surface, a sense of incompleteness . . .
I didn’t suffer with them. I didn’t watch my buddies getting wiped out next to me. And though I’m relieved, at the same time I feel as though part of my reflex action is not complete.
. . . of an unpaid debt . . .
I haven’t served my country. I’ve never faced life or death. I’m an incomplete person. I walk by the memorial and look at the names and think, “There but for the grace of God . . .”
. . . of how easy it was . . .
The dean once told me, “You know, the one thing your generation has done is made martyrdom painless.”
. . . of having missed history’s bus . . .
It’s guilt at not having participated. At not having done anything. I blew up neither physics labs in Ann Arbor nor Vietcong installations. I just vacillated in the middle. It’s still confusing to me. Only in the last few years have I tried to straighten it out in terms of my country. And now I know I should have gone, if only to bear witness.
This article appeared in the September 1983 issue of Esquire.