Commentary: A complexity of Vietnam, reduced to a bit of shame
As a kid, an abiding fear, reinforced by movies and comic books, was that I would die on some foreign battlefield. I would become a casualty of the war that every generation of American men seemed destined to fight: World War I for our grandfathers and World War II for our fathers and Korea for our older brothers. Then came Vietnam, which is where many of my generation drew the line: "Hell no, we won't go," in the chant of the day. And I didn't.
It turned out I didn't have to. Just luck. I enlisted in the storied 42nd Infantry (Rainbow) Division of the New York National Guard, and I had done so to avoid the draft. The Vietnam War was then in its infancy and it wasn't until I got to basic training that I realized something was up: Why were so many guys mentioning Vietnam? Why all this talk about combat? I returned to civilian life plenty worried.
For the next five and a half years, I feared our guard unit would be called up for Vietnam. What would I do if the order came? I had once supported the war -- this noble battle against evil, monolithic, communism. But troubling facts kept seeping out. The Red Russians and the Red Chinese were at odds. The North Vietnamese hated the Chinese. So much for the communist monolith. The South Vietnamese government was corrupt. Why should I fight for it? What, exactly, was I supposed to die for anyway? I thought I had the right to know.
Now those of us who slipped the noose of Vietnam are sometimes characterized as spoiled shirkers of our presumed duty. The loaded word "privileged" is often used, as if attending public college at night and working for an insurance company during the day is a mark of privilege -- my life at the time. No matter. The zeitgeist has changed. This is why Richard Blumenthal, the long-serving Connecticut attorney general and now a senatorial candidate, said he served in Vietnam when like me he was stateside, in his case, the Marine reserves. For this, he has taken ample criticism and responded with a singular lack of grace.
But his most appalling lie was to turn a complex truth of that era into a simple matter of shame. It was obscene to send young men into a war that had lost its purpose and was being opposed by major political and intellectual figures in the United States. Opposition to the war was not a matter of merely avoiding duty but an agonized grappling with a hideous moral dilemma. I am not ashamed that I did not fight. I am not ashamed, either, that I did not want to fight. Neither do I denigrate those who did. I admire their bravery. I am humbled by their courage. I am mourning their deaths -- and I will never stop asking, why?
The Vietnam War shredded the prevailing verities: What did we owe the government? What did the government owe us? The cycle of every generation of men being conscripted for war ended with Vietnam. That war broke the draft -- broke the trust it was based on -- and killed it to this day. We fight now with volunteers -- their choice. If young men were being drafted for Iraq, that war would already be over. Like Vietnam, the case for it, once logical, turned out to be bogus. It evaporated in a miasma of mistakes, errors, exaggerations and outright lies. There was no Saddam Hussein-al-Qaeda link. There were no weapons of mass destruction. The war could not be fought on the cheap. The new generals were a lot like the old. They saluted. They filled out forms. They took a nice pension.
It is the very lack of a draft that now allows the government to risk the lives of young people on the flimsy maybes of policy gambits. An apathetic public looks away. It is not our concern. If "they" choose to serve, then "they" choose also to die. Were it not for the money we could probably fight in Afghanistan forever.
Richard Blumenthal is about my age. We even worked at The Washington Post together. He was credentialed like an armadillo -- Harvard, Cambridge, Yale, etc. We had almost nothing in common except the plight of our generation -- to fight or not in Vietnam. I keep reading how Blumenthal betrayed a generation of young men who actually fought. Maybe. But he certainly betrayed those who would not.
Richard Cohen's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.