Wednesday, August 02, 2006

War and Personal History


I have been following the events in Lebanon and find the events occurring there saddening and capable of drawing so many other countries into the maelstrom of war. Invading a sovereign nation and killing innocent civilians is not the way to solve problems. If Israel had indeed planned this conflict a year in advance, then they probably should have given more attention to the ramifications of what they had decided to do. It’s unfortunate that our own president has given Israel the freedom to continue their campaign against innocent civilians. Oil prices will definitely shoot to five or seven dollars a gallon or higher if either Israel or this country decides to widen the war and bomb Syria and/or Iran. Bush will extend the available resources of this country if he’s the one who chooses to wage war against yet another country. I feel sorry for those young men who will be called up once the draft is reinstated, which is sure to happen because the number of troops currently available is not enough for another ground campaign.

If every generation has its own war, my war was the one in Vietnam. I knew I had little chance of avoiding the draft when I finished high school. Ranked third from the bottom out of 124, I knew that I wouldn’t be attending college. Six months after graduation from high school, I enlisted in the Air Force, having been assured by the recruiter that I would be able to use the skills that I had acquired in developing and printing my own photographs. During the medical exam, I discovered that I was colorblind. That deficiency, combined with my low test scores, limited my career options to clerk, cook, firefighter, or security police. During the fourth or fifth week of basic training, I learned that I would be remaining at Lackland AFB and would undergo training as a security policeman.

Once when going through the chow line during the early stages of my SPS training, I saw a classmate from my high school. He had graduated a year before me and was now going through AZR training before his assignment as a K-9 handler at Cam Ranh Bay. He mentioned his learning to fire a mortar and a 30 caliber machine gun and didn’t seem at all worried about using his training against the sappers trying to penetrate the perimeter.

Later, after the six weeks of SPS school and earning my 81130 certification, I was assigned to Malmstrom AFB in Montana, where I guarded KC 135’s, which at the time were flying gas stations used for midair refueling of B 52’s in their route over the pole. If the Air Force hadn’t lost my security clearance, I might have been guarding missile silos a hundred miles or more from the air base in all kinds of weather. Whenever the security systems failed at any one silo, the security police were called to maintain onsite protection, usually requiring that this two-man crew live in a camper until the security systems were back in place. Instead, I had to wait two months for my security clearance and worked as a clerk in the scheduling office. That summer, after I received orders for a three-year tour in England, I lived across the hall from two Vietnam veterans. They had just recently returned to what they called the world and were finishing out their tours in SAC, the Strategic Air Command. Each night they used to regale me with their stories about how much fun they had in Vietnam. Both sex and marijuana were readily available, and firing their 30 caliber machine guns from an observation tower just added to the fun. Some of the cops in our flight or unit eventually volunteered for an assignment in Southeast Asia, hoping to partake in those same pleasures. I thought I had what I wanted by shipping out to the same air base where I had attended high school as a Navy brat.

That October, I arrived in England and often patrolled the perimeter of the flight line until I earned my 81150, which qualified me for more responsibility. Afterwards, I usually either guarded weapons or aircraft armed with nuclear bombs and on alert in the event that western Europe was attacked. Most of my time on duty occurred at night. Sunset in England during the winter occurred at 3:30 p.m., making the nights especially long. As I stood outside in four layers of clothing or sat within an unheated wooden building big enough for one person, I usually listened to Radio Luxembourg on the transistor radio I had hidden in one of my pockets.

Despite my professional duties, I still opposed using the nuclear bomb. I had grown up during the 1950’s when nuclear war remained a possibility. I also lived in Istanbul during the Cuban missile crisis and remember the night when my father came home from work and told us that we could be at war in the near future. The naval station where he worked along the Bosporus monitored the Russian ships that passed in and out of the Black Sea. Sometime later that fall, he told us that the ships carrying the missiles that had been in Cuba were seen moving through the Bosporus back to Russia. One weekend when I was in high school, we had been warned that a group representing CND, the Committee for Nuclear Disarmament, the group that created the symbol for Ban the Bomb, which later came to be known as the Peace sign, was coming on the airbase to distribute literature. Prohibited from being outside during that time, we had to decide whether to remain in the dorms or to spend the day in a building called the dayroom, which contained the cafeteria and pool tables. We later came to find out that the protestors were a friendly group and only wanted to distribute leaflets. That airbase continues to contain the most number of nuclear bombs in Europe. If Bush decides to drop tactical nuclear bombs on Iran, they will be coming from this particular base.

Through my associations with the other airmen, I came to learn of an antiwar group in Cambridge. Composed of Americans who had avoided the draft and left the country to study at Cambridge University, this group organized a few GI’s who were opposed to the war in Vietnam. Most of the GI’s attending their meetings were actually informants for the Office of Special Investigation, who wanted to know which GI’s might compromise the mission of the Air Force. Impulsively, I volunteered to distribute antiwar literature on the base near the snack bar and earned a letter of reprimand from my commanding officer as a result. I also marched in London against the war during one of the major demonstrations. The small group to which I was associated marched in the rear. I carried a sign calling for the end to US involvement in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. After this line of demonstrators snaked its way to the American embassy, the communists in the front burned the American flag and chanted slogans against the war and American involvement. I remember watching them but not participating. Afterwards, the protesters drifted away. It seemed rather anticlimactic, I thought. My most memorable moment came when I flashed my sign at a couple sitting in a Bentley as they waited for the demonstrators to pass through the intersection. This couple reminded me of my own parents; in fact, my father had a Bentley shipped back to Maryland after he finished his assignment in Scotland. It was so embarrassing riding down the highway on a Sunday afternoon in my dad’s Bentley. I just wanted to be a normal American.

After I had been in England for a year, I was relieved of duty when my squadron commander found a cache of antiwar literature in one of my dresser drawers. I was supposed to have distributed it within the barracks and didn’t have the sense to throw it away instead of leaving it in my room. Out of bravado and youthful impulsiveness, I wrote a letter for an antiwar newsletter in which I pledged more support for their antiwar activities now that I no longer had to work at my job in the military. I actually missed working and didn’t have the sense to keep my mouth shut. I probably never would have been able to rejoin my squadron, however. The Air Force would have decided that I couldn’t be trusted and would have retrained me to fight fires or to cook.

Within a couple of months, after I refused to fight the charges against me and after I refused to undergo attitude readjustment at a base in Colorado, which would have kept me in the military, I was honorably discharged and sent home to Maryland. Inarticulate and impulsive, I don’t know what a trial would have done for me. I certainly couldn’t have defended myself and couldn’t have expressed why the literature had remained in my barracks room. If I had been a reflective and intelligent person, I would have realized—when first arriving in England—that completing my tour of duty would have been the best thing for me because it would have offered the opportunity to mature and to gain more experience in the world and with women.

No one except my parents and sister welcomed me home. I didn’t have the experiences that would have let me join any of the antiwar groups if that were an ambition of mine. I also didn’t have the grades that could have gotten me into a four-year college. After nine months, I found a community college in Kansas with an open admissions policy. The starlit autumn nights fascinated me, and I delighted in the freight trains hauling carloads of wheat through northcentral Kansas. I was living among the images in an Allen Ginsberg poem.

As I grew older, I recognized that I missed a unique opportunity by not serving in Vietnam. It seemed as though all of my experiences up to that point had been in preparation for serving in Vietnam. I also thought that if I had completed my four years in the Air Force, I would have emerged a changed person, one ready for the responsibilities of adulthood. I didn’t realize that I still might have drifted through a slew of jobs and still might have spent ten years earning my undergraduate degree. Around 1984 or so, I discovered that even Vietnam-era veterans suffered problems in dealing with others, in abusing drugs, and in readjusting. Apparently, the attitudes we acquired regarding the military and figures of authority were universal among those of us who served in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when public opinion had turned against the war.

The ambivalence I have regarding Vietnam occurs infrequently now. I don’t feel as though I missed out. More often, I recognize that I did the right thing by not going to Vietnam. I recognize now the accuracy in Wildred Owen’s poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” in which so many young people grow enamored with what Owen calls "the old lie,” that is, “Dulce et decorum est/pro pratria mori.” My transformation, I believe, occurred at a veteran’s day pow-wow where I was a visitor. All of the veterans were called out to the dance floor for a welcoming home ceremony. As I bowed my head, one of the older Indians said a prayer in which he asked the people attending and the nation as a whole to welcome back home those of us who had served in the military. I’m not an Indian or a believer in traditional religion, but I still felt cleansed and no longer felt as much at odds with myself for what I hadn’t done.

The irony is that my own son delights in nuking his opponents in one of his video games and likes gunning down the villains or slashing them with a sword. His generation has been prepared for the next war so that they can destroy an entire village without remorse or regrets.