I hope I can keep this blog short enough. It will be hard, as it’s partially about my dad, and I worshiped the ground he walked on. It’s about looking back at Vietnam with the current perspective of people, mostly neo-cons, who seem so quick to pull the trigger. And, it’s philosophically about man and war. That could be ten blogs, but I’ll be quick.
Angry words about Vietnam between fathers and sons were common in my generation. Anger at the breakfast or dinner table over the war and cultural changes taking place were almost a right of passage. I was lucky. Although not escaping testy words with my father, as many of my friends experienced, my father’s life unlike his politics was not actually conservative.
He had fought in the Spanish Civil War and somehow escaped with his life, avoiding Spanish prisons. It was the depression and he saw a flier on a pole offering mechanics work. He ended up in Spain fighting on both sides just to stay alive. He made it home, sneaking aboard a freighter headed with Spanish cork for New York, and then somehow made it across Omaha Beach and to Paris. The 13th child and 7th son, he was also a decent artist and a guitar player. I was lucky to be even born, and have received due warnings of late from my metaphorical guardian angel. (My dad, the Barry Goldwaterite, would never mention that flier looking for mechanics was posted in Chicago by a socialist brigade, but who else would do it? He did say he was hungry.) Maybe just following Hemingway as he was prone to do.
Oh, don’t get me wrong, the dishes would jump on the table during those “discussions,” but in the end he said he would defend to the death my right to think and say what I thought. That was no idle commitment, as he worked at the University where I was an anti-war activist leader, and I’m sure his mid-west peers wondered why he could not shut me up. Oh, where have the old Republicans gone?
We remained extremely close during his life. I have friends who took decades to make peace with their fathers on these issues. Some sadly never did.
During one of our last heated but respectful discussions he stated what I thought were some of the craziest words I had ever heard. He said, “Ya know, I’ve already told ya I will defend your right to free speech, but one day you will be sorry that you missed your generation’s war.”
That sounded absurd, and I hardly gave those words a thought. Prior to those last words on the issue, our debates were about policy, history, supporting a puppet government, and fighting against a regime who had the support of their people and had never lost a war. Before us it was the French. (Sounds a bit familiar looking at Afghanistan). Why even Communist Ho Chi Minh had once even helped our secret services during World War II, and on and on. I remained an activist throughout the war, and a pacifist for much of my life.
I did not fight that war (at least in Vietnam). Some of my friends did and some did not, and I have great friends on both sides of the fence. And, I still believe for the most part the reasons for my actions were intellectually even morally driven.
With the tick-tock of time, I did question myself about my reasons. Was it really morals? Was it policy? Was it really a comfortable middle-class upbringing that could not be bothered? Did I lack the courage? To this day, I believe that Vietnam was a tragic chapter in our history with an inevitable ending, but I have looked deeply inside me about the whole disastrous affair.
I have in my life devoured scores of books by wars’ participants and correspondents. Most recently, a book called War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges caught my attention. He has seen the worst of humanity through several horrible conflicts in the Middle East, Central America, East Africa and the Balkans. He too is lucky to be alive and has seen the worst of what man can do to man, neighbor can do to neighbor, and what war does to the soul.
If you read the book, you will not be shocked at the atrocities that make today’s front page, because war dehumanizes. What would be surprising would be if there were no atrocities. His book as he states “is not a call for inaction. It is a call for repentance.” From his book:
“I learned early on that war forms its own culture. The rush for battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is drug, one I ingested for years. It is peddled by myth-makers, war correspondents, filmmakers, novelists and the state — all of whom endow it with qualities it often possess: excitement, exoticisms, power, chances to rise above our small station in life, and a bizarre universe that has a grotesque and dark beauty. It dominates culture,distorts memory, corrupts language and infects everything around it…”
You could get the same from reading Joseph Conrad and many others.
Hedges quotes Philip Caputo’s excellent book on Vietnam, Rumor of War: “We believed we were there for a higher purpose but somehow our ideals were lost, our morals corrupt and our purpose forgotten.”
I highly recommend reading Hedges, including his most recent, The World As It Is–Dispatches On The Myth of Human Progress. He is a fearless journalist who takes on the right and the left, the evangelists and the atheists. He is a rarity.
And, he has lately made me think of those long-ago discussions with my dad, as gravity and self introspection tug at the soul. Honesty to the self - somehow – has risen in value.
And, on the national policy stage, Hedges has increased my recoil to those who so casually say we should be at war with Syria or Iran. As I have not, none of these men — these candidates for President– have tasted battle at its depths, and frankly these neo-conservative inclinations should be shamed and they ashamed.
It was my last year of college when I dropped in for breakfast with dad, probably with little sleep. I remember some tirade from me about this or that and kept (embarrassingly as I look back) asking my father if he understood. Looking at me he said, “I think I understand,” as he put a couple slices of bread in the toaster and pushed down the lever. I can still hear the bread toasting grain by grain in my then toasted mind.
Intellectually I still agree with my position on the Vietnam War, and I certainly can draw on some strong, credentialed thinkers to bolster my position on that war and others.
So what about my dad’s most preposterous prediction that I would regret missing my generation’s war? I today cannot answer that question with a totally confident “no I don’t regret it.” This enigma, my haunting, which may shock old friends, is perhaps at the root of the problem. Moreover if that enigma is driven by a need for meaning, perhaps that is why we should if at all possible avoid a call to arms and doubt those who rattle sabres and exhibit false patriotism, as our first President strongly warned against. I am not filled with confidence on this at all.
And, perhaps my enigma is the reason Plato said, “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” That is quoted in the introduction of Hedges book, War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning.
Meaning ! What if I had it to do all over again? In the end, there are many questions, and I’ll take some of them unanswered with me where I go, and when I go.
Dedicated to My Father, Staff Sargent Frederick Reynolds 1917-1989 7th Armored Division USA