Saturday, September 30, 2017

still chewing my Vietnam cud

It seems to be stuck in my mind....
One facet of the gem was this: I was a coward then -- young and cowardly where my lookalike twenty-somethings had hit the streets to protest the war in Vietnam. It was a great, messy, compelling, sometimes glorious eruption in which I played little or no part. A coward who paid his taxes that funded the deaths and maimings of my twenty-something lookalikes.

Watching the recent 10-part documentary, "The VietnamWar," a part of me was in search of absolution. I watched every segment of the Public Broadcast System's much-ballyhooed serial. I am 77 now, but I was twenty-something then ... and a coward.

If I were a Christian, watching the TV might have been called an act of penance. But as I came away from each TV segment -- and I watched each as some sort of penalty -- I knew there was no forgiveness, no forgiver and no forgivee. All the squishy ramblings changed nothing. If I hear one more person utter the words "healing" or "closure," I will gladly shoot him or her in the head. The tears within would simply have to fall. The responsibility was mine. All those young men and young women ravaged and savaged and chiseled into a black granite wall and in the middle of it, searing bits of light like the soldier's mother who, in another context, told reporter Seymour Hersch, "I gave them a good boy, and they sent me back a murderer."

And of course they were not murderers. And yet they were too.

They were all good boys. And not, too.

How I wanted to blame someone. How I wanted to hand off the responsibility. How I wanted to find some "other" on whom to pin the acid that bubbled up in the back of my throat. How I wanted to pin the tail on a political donkey like Nixon or Kissinger. How I wanted to excoriate the flag-waving patriots who honestly believed that when the commander in chief said we should fight, we fought. How I wanted to brand this target or that with a label marked "murderer" or scoff at the "heros" who came home, phalanx by phalanx, in flag-draped coffins.

Night after night, I watched the documentary. Night after night I came away riven by my own complicity, wondering why I too had not hit the streets or waved a banner or issued catcalls of dismay. I had done what was then my obligatory three-year stint in the army in full recognition that I would rather have the experience than proclaim the virtue. So for three years I pushed a pencil, a wimpy, desk-bound spy. And looking back ... ah, looking back. I was twenty-something then, but I am 77 now.

What I wouldn't give to have it back -- the times when the times were ripe, when war and racism and women's rights were all on the front burner and not just grist for the documentary mill. When the issues were red meat and not just pre-packaged Spam. What I would not give. And yet cannot.

Partly, I suppose, a lifelong aversion to crowd-proofed issues has frightened me. Get enough people together -- people who agree with each other -- and "the truth" is revealed. I don't believe that. It may be the best of the compromises available, but I simply don't believe it. I may wish I did, but I don't. And so, perhaps, I am and was a coward.
Night after night after night -- looking for the perfect penance. All those young, haunted, enraged, fearful faces. Someone's son or daughter. Someone's husband or wife. Someone's father or mother. Someone's ... everyone is someone to someone and my gut says that living may be the hardest price, but it is the only price worth paying.

Should a single one of those soot-streaked faces, those hands placed over one sucking chest wound or another, those tear-tracks down the narrowed cheeks ... should any of them or their enemies like them be forced or convinced to ... to ... to sacrifice their innermost prayer for hug or a kiss or a bit of laughter somewhere down the line?

I don't care who's right. I don't care who's wrong. I don't care what ideology holds sway in the skies above the farmer who tills his field or sips lemonade after a hard day's work. Does a tractor or water buffalo know or care about "communism" or "democracy?"

Is there a time to fight? I think there is. But likewise, if there is a time to fight, there is a time to refrain from fighting -- to stand tall and say "no" to the imaginative and self-serving whose next step foresees only the next election.

I was a coward and that is part of my make-up. If I could do credible penance, I certainly would. But there is no penance for the past. The past is gone, just like the documentary entitled "The Vietnam War." Will the documentary open up a "dialogue" the optimists claim it may? My answer is, no it won't.

I'm very sorry, but it won't. Ersatz healing is still ersatz.

May we all live as peaceably as possible with the lies we cannot escape.

1 comment:

  1. If those who protested the war came away with a clear conscience, I'd be suspicious of their denial. We were all there, it happened the way it happened, and I doubt we had much to do with it. When a parade marches by you can stop to watch it and have opinions about it. You can have regrets and sadness, but they don't cook the rice.