Between the lines / "The final truce"
It wasn't the war to end all wars, but its imprint will never leave my generation. The Vietnam War has followed us through our lives and in some ways overshadowed us. It certainly has divided us and more than 40 years later, it still won't go away.
Most young men of my generation have had to come terms with Vietnam one way or another. It began as an obscure conflict in a distant land, and then it became our war -- from South East Asia to our doorstep. The war entered our homes with the nightly news as we argued about it over dinner and then listened in silence to the daily body count. The draft came calling for us after high school or during college. Some resisted, some enlisted, some protested, some served, some dropped out and some left for Canada. It was terrible and as a generation we were alienated from our government and our own families over the war.
In my case I just waited things out. I knew I wasn't the military type, and I didn't believe for a minute that I would actually be defending my country by serving in the conflict. For me Vietnam was a concocted, purely political war, and nothing I have read in its aftermath has changed my opinion. Even the architects of the war were finally at a loss to defend it. Yet as a generation, we are still being judged by it and to some degree still judging ourselves. The wounds are old and deep now -- a generational turning point that now is part of history. But if you lived through those dark days, you know you still carry it with you in some way.
I have heard more than few men of my age group amend the record. A most compelling example of this was in the news recently when a politician appeared to say he served in the military in a country he never set foot in. This is more common among the Baby Boomers than one might suppose. For years I have heard men reminiscing about combat in 'Nam. They can tell you when they were deployed, where they were, the weapons they used and the horrific things they saw. Some of them even have vivid stories of hand-to-hand combat. Most of them are liars. My father told me about the same type of thing he observed after World War II -- the reflected glory of heroes. He told me that guys who fought in real battles never had much to say about them afterward and certainly didn't want to relive them.
Although I went through a period of guilt over not serving with others, I was never tempted to invent a military past for myself. I think I understand why some have. It's not just vanity, bravado or cowardice. In the 1960s cataclysmic cultural changes struck the U.S. like a hurricane. Overnight we went from innocence to anarchy. Confusion broke out in the streets, in colleges, homes and hearts. After the placid, true-believing decade of the 1950s, the country was besieged with questions about authority and tradition. The revolution swirled the strongest around the war and the feeling of deception and betrayal by our leaders. It wasn't a time of reasoned thought but rather of fevered reaction.
It took me years to sort out what I finally realized about myself, my generation and my father's time. The '60s were a perfect storm of paranoia and protest in American life. It was more like a volatile chemical reaction than an evolving cultural process. The streets were filled with tear gas and institutions exhibited the difficulty of knowing anything for certain. At least a decade later when the smoke finally cleared, it was like looking at a burnt-out building and trying to put the pieces back together again.
I was left with a profound sense of sadness at what had happened. For a while I indulged in the self pity of the former angry young man about the way things turned out. I was hardly a radical, but just a typical American college student raised on idealism and then slapped in the face by reality. Maybe our naivete endured too long, so that everyone eventually paid the price. Perhaps there was something righteous about our resistance that this country still needs to learn. But I do know that I felt most for the men who went to that hell hole in the jungle. I realized how the war had divided us and turned us against each other. I wanted a truce with my brothers who served and those who didn't.
My own brother Kevin, the eldest Wallace boy, was one who did serve. He stopped by the local Marine recruiter after work at the cabinet shop one day. Then he told the family about it at supper. Our father, sitting at the head of the table, looked a bit stunned. Dad's reaction surprised me. He had been gung ho about supporting the president and the war, but he didn't take Kevin's decision lightly. "The Marines? They're a rough outfit. You have your work cut out for you." I was shocked. Why would Kevin do this? Didn't he know the war was immoral? But Kevin and I were very different people. Such arguments didn't affect him all that much. He enlisted because he thought he should go.
He did boot camp at Parris Island and then went to Vietnam to secure an ammo dump outside of Saigon. I wrote him idealistic letters, full of my own tangled thoughts. He wrote back about discovering the music of The Doors and Jimi Hendrix. He was hungry for news of home. Our mother had Kevin's baby shoes bronzed and mounted on a little walnut base. She placed them on top of the TV, where we watched the nightly news coverage of the war's atrocities. Lots of helicopters, fire-fights, napalm, and wounded men on stretchers. I tried not to think about Kevin then. The war was just too dangerous and close to home.
And so it went until the war finally ended. Like any young man, I was also a fool, full of defiance and full of himself. What had I risked by joining a few noisy peace rallies? What had I learned about myself in those years of turmoil and tragedy? Did I not enlist out of principle or expediency? I suspect that many other guys went through the same thing. Most of all I finally felt a deep solidarity with the men who went, not because I regretted not serving, but because they had paid the highest price in the conflict. Many, many thousands of them were dead, mangled and burned; thousands of them were left to reassemble their own psyches after taking aim in the jungles of Vietnam.
So I don't blame anyone of my era anymore -- not the soldiers and not the resisters, not the liars and not the story-tellers. All we are left with now are the facts, and the facts in hindsight aren't nearly enough to explain things as they were. Those are the secrets that go to the grave with each generation. In time all is forgotten and forgiven. But we're not there yet, not quite yet.
Barry Wallace writes a weekly column for the Fairfield Citizen.