Tuesday, September 26, 2017

"Vietnam War" penance

I seem destined to watch every smidgen of "The Vietnam War," "a ten-part, 18-hour documentary film series directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick" that is airing on the Public Broadcast System here in the U.S. I seem to have watched about half of the episodes, which run about 90 minutes each.

After each of the episodes I feel precisely the same -- wrung out, dulled, ashamed .... As if I were a die-hard Roman Catholic busting his buttons to do penance but lacking any notion that there were some agency of forgiveness. It is all so stupid and hurtful and here I sit having done little or nothing at the time to say my own "no" as the times played out both at home and abroad. What a wuss. What a fool. Please forgive me....

But there is no penance for the past. The past is gone together with whatever opportunity I might have had to stand up and be heard. I am heartily sorry, but "sorry" and a couple of bucks will get me a bus ride. And meanwhile so many died or were ruthlessly maimed ... for...what...fucking... purpose?! 

So perhaps I am picking a scab over and over again. I may wish I were more grown-up, but I am not. I lived then and read the news then and sympathized then with those who said we should leave the rice paddies and leave the less-well-to-do (so many of them black or brown, though not all) to a more peaceful scenario even when it wasn't so peaceful. One of my truths is that I am afraid of mindless or even mindful crowds bidding up one position or another.

Still, looking back through dizzied and penitential eyes, I would give a bit to think I had done more. How I wish.

Wishing ... what a horrific penance.

In the publishing house where I went to work after I got out of my three-year stint in the army, I shared an office with two other editorial trainees -- young, white guys like me. And one day it came to light I had been in the army, which the other two hadn't. Mind you, I had been a paper-pushing spy, not some grunt hip deep in the mud. And the two other guys started razzing the military. I kept my mouth -- believe it or not -- mostly shut.

"If I were in a firefight, I know what I'd do," said one. "I'd run away."

And that was too much for me. There is nothing ignoble about running in fear, but his tone said he would run away as a matter of principle. I snapped.

"If you did that, I would be happy to shoot you in the back," I said.

To run away from comrades in a time of peril was purely despicable ... my blood coursed with anger and despair.

I was dead serious. There is nothing frivolous about human life. Human life, as the Vietnam war proved, is not some teen-aged Tinker Toy, some made-up sin or salvation that anyone can pull out like a Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card. If my reaction was a sin, I was happy to be a sinner.

The others in my office heard my tone, knew I was dead serious.

They stopped razzing the military and we all went back to editing the copy we had in front of us.

Penance, my ass. 

1 comment:

  1. I lost a lot of friends, and saw some come back so damaged. I heard somewhere that Nixon started the pull out when he saw that Cronkite had turned against the war. Maybe we had some influence with protests, maybe the nightly body counts just wore us all down. But even knowing the horrors of it, we still go to war. We still believe there's something more important than our lives or our children's lives, god, country, the freedom to amass wealth at the expense of others. We're still apes, screaming over a water hole. Smart sounding idiots.