April 2, 2013

34 of 65

Its 1..2..3..What Are We Fighting For

The defining event of our generation was the Vietnam War.  Like World War II for the generation before us, World War I before that and the Civil War only a few years earlier, EVERYONE in the country had some friend or loved one involved in the war.  Between 1964 and 1975, more than 8.7 million Americans served on active duty in the military – nearly one of every 30 people in the entire country.  About 3.4 million of those were actually stationed in Southeast Asia, of whom more than 58,000 were killed, 75,000 disabled and hundreds of thousands more wounded.  Millions of civilians worked in “defense” industries.

The average age of those who were “in country,” doing the actual fighting, was 19.

Some of those young men – women, too, but at that time it was mostly men – willingly volunteered.  The number of volunteers, though, was insufficient, so more were brought to the military by conscription.  Only about a quarter of the military personnel were drafted, but many more enlisted solely to avoid the draft.   Enlistees had greater opportunity to choose a service specialty and thus greater control over whether they would see combat.

The so-called “Selective Service” system was not popular, and perhaps 50,000 young men, termed “draft dodgers,” received asylum in Canada to avoid conscription.

My 19th birthday was in 1967, a time when troop deployment to Southeast Asia was increasing each month.  I was not concerned about the draft because, as a full-time college student, I was given a deferment.  About that time, a friend of mine – a girl who was merely curious because women could not be drafted – asked what I would do if I were drafted.  I told her that I intended to ignore the government and assumed the government would return the favor.  She called me naïve.

Initially, the decision of who was called to serve was made by local draft boards.  Some believed that system was not fair because draft boards sometimes “played favorites.”  The method by which draftees were chosen was changed for 1970.

On December 1, 1969, a lottery was held for men born between 1944 and 1950 – the group which was to be drafted in 1970.  To determine the order in which they would be called to serve, the days of the year were written on separate pieces of paper, each representing a birth date of those in the draft pool, and placed in plastic capsules. The capsules were drawn one at a time.  Those born on the first date drawn would be the first drafted and the others would have a priority based on the order of the birth dates subsequently picked.

The lottery drawing was broadcast live over the radio.  I joined several of my friends and we had a small party listening to the proceedings.  The first date drawn was September 14.  Anyone born on September 14 was given priority 001 and would be the very first drafted in the coming year.  Number 002 was April 24; 003 was December 30; and the drawing continued.  It took some time before a birth date was drawn for anyone at our gathering.  When it happened, we joked about it – though that particular guy did not seem a joyous lottery winner.

It was much later – Number 300 – when the radio announced March 12.  “Hey, that’s me!”  Three Hundred was such a high number, I effectively became exempt from the draft, at least until North Vietnamese junks were sailing up the Platte River toward Denver.  The government was going to ignore me just as I had hoped.

My brother Lonny was not so lucky.  His number was 075.  When he graduated from college he could not get a job because employers knew he would soon be drafted.  Finally, he gave up and enlisted in the Army.  Most of his service time was spent in Washington, D.C., keeping him several thousand miles away from combat.

My brother Jim was born in 1952, and the war was over before he finished college.

The end of the lottery party did not mark the end of dissatisfaction with the war.  The “brains” (he said facetiously) behind the American war effort were in Washington, where Lonny would soon be.  The political system had no mechanism for the concerns of the teenagers fighting across those thousands of miles to be voiced.  They were literally disenfranchised.  In this time before the 26th Amendment to the Constitution, only those over 21 could vote.

Still, when an idea or a cause is important enough, it will find a voice.  The Civil Rights movement had shown the power of mass demonstrations.  Starting before the Vietnam War, the initial phase of that movement reached its climax with some 300,000  gathering in Washington in August 1963.  The federal Civil Rights Act was passed the following year.

In a second phase of the movement, large demonstrations continued, and often turned violent.  In Selma, Alabama, where protest marchers clashed with members of the Ku Klux Klan and others, many were beaten, brutalized with cattle prods, arrested and even shot and killed.  Martin Luther King, Jr., the most visible civil rights leader, was assassinated in April 1968.  More than 150,000 supporters marched through the streets of Atlanta for his funeral.

Demonstrations to support the principles espoused by Dr. King were held at nearly every college across the country.  Many of those demonstrations also protested the Vietnam War.  Barely 100 days later there were massive protests against the war at the Democratic Party’s national convention in Chicago.

The anti-Vietnam protests became more widespread and more violent in 1970.  ROTC buildings were burned, universities were shut down.  Each evening on the CBS News show, anchor Walter Cronkite showed a map indicating colleges at which demonstrations were held that day.  It has been suggested (perhaps humorously?) that some students joined demonstrations only so they could get their school on the map.

In May of 1970, more than a thousand student protestors gathered on the campus of Kent State University in Ohio.  The National Guard, which was deployed to keep order, fired live ammunition at the demonstrators, killing four and wounding eight others.  Within hours, more demonstrations began on nearly every campus and in many cities and towns across the country.

There had been protests and demonstrations in Boulder, though most were non-violent.  Some radical elements tried to incite more dramatic action, but as I perceived it, the general mood was:  “Heeeeyyy, this is Boulder.  The revolution is over and we won.”

There were violent moments.  For instance, a conservative linguist named S. I. Hayakawa gave a talk on campus shortly after he had achieved notoriety by disconnecting the wires of a public address system during a demonstration at San Francisco State University.  Hecklers interrupted his speech and he became sarcastic and combative, leading to a mini-riot.  Hayakawa was later a Republican United States Senator from California.

Another time, a group of demonstrators took over the college administration building and refused to leave for several days

After the Kent State shootings, students at the University of Colorado boycotted classes and brought normal school functions to a standstill.  University President Joseph Smiley addressed a rally of protestors and essentially said:  You have shut down the University.  We admit it.  You have valid reasons to protest.  We agree. You have legitimate complaints against the War in Vietnam, and the University will try to be  responsive to your concerns.  The problem is, we have finals coming up and it would be much better to wait until those are out of the way before we talk about these things.

Most of the students accepted what he said, marched and made speeches for a few more hours and then returned to studying for their tests.  Heeeyyy, it was Boulder.

I graduated that year, though I did not attend the ceremony.  Like many others, I felt a continued boycott was appropriate.  The University was receiving funds from the Department of Defense and conducting research which supported the military effort in Vietnam.  My parents were disappointed that I was not going to walk for the ceremony, as I was the first from our family to graduate college.  I told them I was concerned there might be anti-war violence.

As months and years passed, more and more ordinary citizens realized that war – and especially the Vietnam War – was wrong.  Protests continued, political pressure was exerted.  Finally the government ended the war and brought the troops back home.

This remembrance is already longer than I intended, but still I am going to digress to make one point.

The Bible may be read as a literal recounting of events, but may also be seen as a metaphor for life.  One story that works well as a metaphor is that of Abraham and Isaac.  Abraham was tested by God and told to offer his beloved son Isaac as a human sacrifice.  Genesis tells us that Abraham obediently bound Isaac to an altar and began to gather wood for a fire.  However, an angel appeared to tell him he had passed the test of faith and instructed him not to sacrifice his son.

Jewish mystical tradition has it that Isaac, who had been a helpless child, obtained a power from being bound to the altar.  He became the next patriarch and continued to guide his people for some 180 years.

During the Vietnam era – as in most wars – children were sacrificed by their elders to promote the ideals and interests which those elders held in faith.  That was wrong, just as the angel showed Abraham it was wrong to sacrifice his son.  In the 1960s and 1970s, student protestors assumed the role of the angel to show how wrong it was that their friends and contemporaries were forced into the role of Isaac.

One result was the taking of power by the “Baby Boom Generation.”  Our generation has shaped American society, for better or worse, for nearly half a century since.

5 thoughts on “DAY 34 – IT’S 1..2..3..WHAT ARE WE FIGHTING FOR?

  1. This year I’ll be 65 years old. Here we are, 45 years after the height of the cauldron’s boil in 1968. And still there are times when a song, or a phrase, or an unbidden raging memory from that year will suddenly ignite a hard, hot coal in my gut. And here it is again.

    I can’t recreate the intensity of my own journey through 1968. I wish I could. I can only say what was present there daily, in our faces and hearts and minds, roaring and wailing and screaming and shouting, hammering us with an intensity rare in the generations of history. Peace and love, yes, and war and hate. But more. Evil, personified and delivered without mercy in the media, street and jungle. Chaos, pain, confusion. God lost in the machine, splintering into hawks and doves and outlaw revolutionaries; adolescent American refugees running for weapons, using drugs to pursue transcendental awakenings and retreats into nihilism and death. Hometowns and families fractured beyond healing. World war II wisdoms and the resultant materialistic dispensations rejected wholesale for their lack of soul and heart and passion. Batons and shields and bricks in the streets, Americans killing at home and abroad, fragging each other in ditches in Viet Nam, killing one another on college campuses, all of it scrumming beneath a daily napalm cloud fattening with body counts and slowly rising horror as principles disappeared in smoke and haze and blood, and every bright thing trying to rise above it tottered and fell and disappeared in the fog of every god-damned conceivable kind of war.

    1968. On the evening news a Viet Cong officer is executed in the streets of Saigon, his brains clearly seen blowing away from his head. Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated. Robert F. Kennedy is shot dead. The 1968 Democratic National Convention turns bloody in the streets. The White Album is released by The Beatles. On it is the lyric “…blackbird singing in the dead of night, take these broken wings and learn to fly…”

    It’s still with me. Things have been added, things taken away from me as I moved along in life. I guess you could say I’m reconciled. It happened, I survived it, I accept it. When I speak with the veterans of that time, whether they were in the jungles of southeast Asia or in the streets of America, once we get past our social identities we find ourselves on the same page. We remember with pain and sadness, with recognition and mutual acknowledgement, the wonder and the horror of it all.

    After all these years, it still brings me to tears.

  2. That era rests on a particularly sensitive nerve for me. So much to say, but I’ll confine myself to this second reply.

    Shortly after graduation from Arvada West in 1966 I considered joining the Navy, and went so far as to show up at the New Customs House in Denver for a physical and aptitude testing. I was only 17, so it was a voluntary act without obligation to join. After the tests were given and graded I was asked to wait. A recruiting officer showed up and gave me a glowing description of the Special Forces branch, told me they were looking for people with test scores like mine, and described the “education” I’d get. I told him I’d think about it.

    I did, all summer long, while I worked on my Uncle’s farm. I decided that I would instead go to McPherson College in Kansas and study writing under a noted professor there. I continued to consider the war and the draft, and read and studied about both. A lot. I turned 18 late that Fall and, after long consideration, registered for the draft as a conscientious objector. My draft board was in Arvada, and I was required to submit a statement about why I qualified for that classification.

    In those days “CO’s” were approved only on religious grounds. I wasn’t religious. My belief was based on individual human conscience as being the final arbiter of an individual’s choices and actions. It was not based on faith or religion, or even on the existence of God, which in my mind in those days was highly questionable.

    I was one of the few in that era who, after long, ugly battles with their draft boards and the appeals process, won CO status on the basis of conscience rather than belief in God. I only gained that recognition because there was one person on the draft board who understood what I stood for, and held firm against the other board members throughout the appeal process. One of the interceding angels you mention.

    I was required to find alternative service “in the national health, safety or interest” for two years. At first I complied and found work at Boulder Community Hospital. My supervisor and a co-worker were also CO’s.

    After six months in alternative service at the hospital I became increasingly uneasy in the growing awareness that I was still supporting a policy of involuntary servitude imposed on me by others, and I didn’t like that. Against all advice I left the job, leaving a final note on my supervisor’s desk: “Call my draft board. I’m not doing this anymore.” He held it for a week hoping I’d change my mind. I didn’t.

    I received a draft notice, and a summons to appear for an interview. The interview was remarkable. In a small room an Army Colonel sat behind a desk, flanked by two soldiers in full dress with side arms. It was meant to be an intimidating environment, and it was. He told me that if I didn’t sign induction papers right there he would have me held until I did so. I told him if he could prove he had that authority I’d consider it. After threatening me with variations on the theme for ten minutes or so, he abruptly stood up and angrily announced, “This interview is over!” And he left. The soldiers remained. One looked at me and slightly nodded his head while our eyes met. I stood up and walked out.

    I was pissed. I was headed for Canada, I was sick of it all, it didn’t make any sense, the world had gone crazy. On my way down the corridor I was cursing loudly and walking blind with anger when a Naval Commander in whites stepped out in front of me. I stopped, ready to fight him right there. He asked if he could talk with me for a minute. I said if he wanted to follow up on the interview I’d just had he was out of luck. He convinced me to join him in his office.

    In his office he quietly explained to me that he had been studying the folders of certain cases singled out for “special attention”. Mine was one, in part because of the test scores recorded when I was thinking about joining the Navy, and a note in the file that I had been approached by a Special Forces recruiter at that time. Somehow this had qualified me as a “person of interest” in light of my subsequent actions. He asked me about the interview. I told him, and let him know I was done with the whole process and was going to leave this damn country to the evil in it. He suggested that it might be better to stand up to it rather than walk away. That surprised me, and had my attention. He said he agreed with what I stood for and asked me to let him see what he could do. He was another of those angels you speak of who intercede in the slaughter of sons.

    Shortly after that General Lewis B. Hershey, Director of the Selective Service, landed in Denver as part of a cross country tour in support of the draft. In several cities he’d been met, harried and heckled by crowds of draft protesters. At every stop their numbers had grown. They’d driven their point home. Hershey had initially thought his tour would be a triumph. He thought it would rally supporters of the draft. It proved to be the opposite. By the time he reached Denver the number of protesters at the airport was overwhelming. He didn’t even leave the plane.

    About a week later the Naval Commander called me. He said he’d managed with some difficulty to get on the plane and ask Hershey about the files he’d been working on. He told me that after a short conversation Hershey had simply waved his hand in dismissal and tiredly said, “Let them go.” And that was it.

    A wave of the hand. I wish I could tell you how that felt. This single man had the power of life and death; he managed a machine which suspended the freedom of unknowing young men and sent them to serve and die in a war which ultimately proved to be of service only to rich and powerful old men. And he could control that machine with a wave his hand. I’ve never been able to find words to describe how wrong that felt to me.



  5. Wow, Bob. That is quite a story. I am about 20 years younger than you two. I was born in 1967, when all this was happening. My parents lived in small towns and my dad did some time in the Navy but he doesn’t talk about it much. He did not serve in Vietnam. I think he was too old at that time to be drafted.

    What a crazy time. It reminds me of what we are going through now, and certainly what we might be going through if Trump gets elected. Crazy times. It’s been great reading your stories.

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