I thought it was wrong to fight in the Vietnam War, and there has not been one since that I found compelling.
Ambivalence is the most accurate word I’ve found to explain my respect and disrespect for the military. I came of age during the Vietnam-era military draft that conscripted 2.2 million draftees. Of those in the military sent to Vietnam, 25% were draftees, and they accounted for over 30% of the deaths in that war. More than 2.6 million young men and nearly 7500 women were used in Vietnam in our effort to prevent the unification of that country under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, who lived for brief periods in both the US and France, two countries that beset his land with war for over twenty years.
Researching the demographics of those who served in the military in Vietnam, I was surprised to learn that so few were draftees. At the time, it seemed that most of those going to Vietnam had been drafted. But whatever their status, I thought it was wrong to fight in that war, and there has not been one since that I found compelling, as was World War II, though not everyone agreed with that assessment. I have known conscientious objectors to WWII who did alternate service.
The Vietnam era draft
I rejected military service in Vietnam by applying for conscientious objector (CO) status. My decision was both easy and difficult. Some people questioned my reasons for seeking to become a CO. Members of my family who had fought in WWII asked me if I was afraid to become a soldier and possibly die. I was not interested in dying at age 23 (when I received my draft notice), but my decision was based entirely on moral and ethical concerns about the nature of war, particularly that war. At the time, I was never sure that my decision was right, but I never doubted that it was right for me.
When I heard author and Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien talk about his difficult decision to obey his draft notice, rather than flee to Canada, I was surprised that he found seeking conscientious objector status or fleeing the country would have been the more courageous choice for him. I never considered myself courageous, just determined to lead my life following my own moral code, in spite of the difficulty of my decision.
I knew several people in college who chose other paths. They moved to Canada, refused to cooperate with the draft system and spent time in federal prison, piled up education deferments, chose a ministerial career that deferred draft notices, or joined the military willingly (sometimes in units not likely to be sent to Vietnam). Had I not received CO status, I had determined that I would not fight in that war even if it interfered with my life plans. I was encouraged by the views of Muhammad Ali:
Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?. . . No, I am not going . . . to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would put my prestige in jeopardy and could cause me to lose millions of dollars which should accrue to me as the champion.. . . But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is right here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality.
Some of the music of the 1960s reinforced my decision. Among the songs were Pete Seeger’s Where Have All the Flowers Gone, and later Waist Deep in the Big Muddy; Jim Morrison and the Doors wrote and performed The Unknown Soldier; Phil Ochs’ Draft Dodger Rag, which I had memorized, took a more humorous approach to an antiwar stance by parodying pro-war draft evaders, while another of his songs laid it seriously on the line–I Ain’t Marching Anymore; Bob Dylan’s Masters of War displayed an understanding of the nature of our capitalist-political system that was impressive for someone his age; Barry McGuire’s Eve of Destruction contained the powerful question, “You don’t believe in war, but what’s that gun you’re totin’?”; Country Joe McDonald’s sardonic I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag, and many more songs raised important moral questions about war.
Of all those songs, Buffy Sainte-Marie’s Universal Soldier caused me the most personal conflict.
He’s the universal soldier and he
really is to blame
His orders come from far away no more
They come from him, and you, and me
and brothers can’t you see
this is not the way we put an end to war
The song finally places responsibility for war on us all. I felt sorrow for those who were drafted against their wills and could not find a way out. Yet I understood that they had to take responsibility for what they did.
I have known people who were killed in Vietnam, or maimed, or spent many years searching for ways to reset their moral compasses, or killed themselves after returning home, their families damaged or destroyed by their military experiences. And I know a few who found the war an exhilarating experience, even “the best time of my life,” as one friend told me.
My decision not to go to war was influenced by Quakers with whom I had become acquainted in 1965, and also by the words of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1967: “Now, it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read: Vietnam.” The same can now be said about the Iraq War.
The Iraq War
When President George W. Bush decided, in less than 24 hours after the horror of 9/11, to use that event to pursue a wider war in the Middle East, in Iraq as well as in Afghanistan, he said, “The deliberate and deadly attacks . . . were more than acts of terror. They were acts of war. Now that war has been declared on us, we will lead the world to victory.”
Of course, no state had declared war on the U.S. A small group of terrorists living temporarily in Afghanistan, had planned the Twin Towers attack, not a government. This and other U.S. government propaganda over nearly 18 months convinced up to 60% of the American public that Iraq was responsible for 9/11, yet the government’s claims were virtually complete lies, repeated continuously. In spite of the protests of tens of millions of people worldwide, the war in Iraq began with the televised bombing of Baghdad in March 2003. Once again, truth was the first casualty of war.
Now, we are 18 years into what must be the most irrational of wars during my lifetime (not counting the brief excursion to Grenada). I, along with others, opposed the Iraq War, brought on by a profound cynicism in our elected and appointed officials, some of whom had opposed the Vietnam War (John Kerry for one). The rationalizations used to sell the Iraq War beggar belief and remain inexplicable to all but those who understand the power of propaganda.
As the Center for Constitutional Rights recently editorialized,
Eighteen years after the United States invaded Iraq on a patently false basis, we uplift the work of Iraqi activists, civil society, and their partners building local and transnational social justice movements under extremely precarious conditions. As we join their calls for redress for past harm, we also resist the continuation of U.S. impunity and condemn President Biden for carrying on the legacy of illegal bombings. . . . Two decades of U.S. military operations and occupation, in Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other countries in the surrounding regions well beyond the so-called battlefield, has left millions of civilians with lost livelihoods, lost homes, lost loved ones, and lost lives. It has left them, as well as many U.S. military personnel, with debilitating long-term physical and mental health effects. And it has left those tortured inside U.S.-run detention centers and black sites, including the infamous Abu Ghraib prison, still seeking accountability.
Victor Emanuele, writing for CounterPunch, recently provided a similar and, in many ways, more pointed analysis of the Iraq War:
Thousands of U.S. troops died because of lies and hubris. Their families are forever emotionally, socially, and spiritually scarred. The same is true of the families of the nameless Iraqis who perished on the dusty battlefields of Mesopotamia. Tens of thousands of veterans have killed themselves, leaving behind broken families and generations of emotional trauma. Picking up your dead friend or his shredded and bloody limbs is terrible enough, but it’s much worse when you finally realize it was all for nothing, otherwise known as ‘Moral Injury.’ Well, not exactly nothing — we made many people a hell of a lot of money and stoked the egos of insecure men who thought they controlled the world.
One difference in the Iraq War and the Vietnam War is that the Iraq War has been fought entirely by military volunteers. But the effects on those fighters are little different from the effects on those who fought in the war that ended more than 45 years ago in Southeast Asia.
When the San Marcos City Council was pressed to support the Iraq War by adopting a resolution 18 years ago, my spouse and I presented an impassioned and heartfelt plea to the Council to oppose the false propaganda that sent our Special Forces son-in-law to fight a war he opposed:
When our son-in-law signed up for this service to his country, he did so because he wanted to protect the American people from attack by our enemies. He believes, just as June and I do, that we should have a strong military to deter aggression against the United States and protect our shores, our homes, our friends, and our families from attack by foreign foes. As one Gulf War Veteran has put it: “American soldiers should protect America, not attack other nations.”. . . What [our daughter] Dahrl and Chris did not sign up for was to have their lives put at risk for the political ambition of this administration, to fight wars of preemption in violation of the US Constitution, international laws, and treaties. . . . We remain firm in our conviction that neither Chris’s life nor any other person’s life is worth what this war will gain for the United States. The horror that each of us must face is that this war, with all the suffering it is causing, may make the world less safe and result in a much greater loss of life than it could prevent. Even if the Bush administration’s goals are all achieved, they will not be worth the sacrifice of Chris’s life, and we doubt that President Bush believes his goals are worth the sacrifice of the lives of either of his two daughters. It is always easier for our leaders to sacrifice the children of others than it is for them to offer their own children’s lives in support of their policies.
I have learned that the all-volunteer military has created more callousness about those who serve in our military. “After all,” many say, “they knew what they were volunteering for.” Volunteerism has become an excuse to send soldiers to conquer other nations in the foolhardy attempt to force the people of the world to see the advantages of the American Dream.
The Vietnamese American writer Viet Thanh Nguyen, who is the chair of English and professor of English and American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California, recently explained America’s delusion about our dream:
We, as Americans, believe in American exceptionalism, that we are the greatest country in the world, no other country has been like ours. And when we think about colonization, we think, “Well, it’s the Europeans who did the colonizing, but we never did that.” That’s part of American exceptionalism. But, of course, that’s factually wrong; that this country has been founded on colonization — that’s why we have the 13 colonies — and that we’ve expanded through colonization, and that the kind of colonization that we’ve seen with Europeans in other places, that we would characterize as being brutal and rapacious and so on, . . . are the very terms that we should be using to describe our American history, as well. And, of course, a lot of Americans would object to this kind of characterization. I think we, as Americans, are like every other country: We want to see our own history in the best possible light. So, that inclination is not unique at all. What we should do is embrace the complexities and the brutal and bloody contradictions of our history. . . . And when I say that successful colonization goes under the name of the American dream, I think what I mean by that is that rhetoric of the American dream allows us to forget the history of our colonization and the ongoing fact of our colonization. I think many Indigenous peoples would say that they’re still being colonized today. . . . And so, the very opposition to the idea that our country can be a colonizing country blinds many Americans to what is actually going on in our country at this present time.
Fifty years after completing two years of alternate service in lieu of participating in war, I am no longer ambivalent about my decision. And I am not ambivalent about the endless wars my country engages in.
Attitude changes about the military
One of the factors that make such engagement in war possible is the change in attitudes about military service that have developed over the past 50 years. According to Pew Research Center, around 90% of Americans express pride in those serving in the military. It wasn’t that way 50 years ago. The Vietnam War came to be perceived as a fiasco by the American public. Few Americans could escape the tragic irony in the idea that it was necessary to destroy a village to save it, or that it was necessary to kill children indiscriminately. The lies told by the Pentagon about the progress of the war ended when CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite pronounced the effort an irredeemable disaster.
Further, news of widespread drug use among the troops disappointed many Americans, who saw the sad spectacle play out night after night on their television sets. But the efforts of generals Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell during the administration of President Reagan began to rebuild respect for the military. Now, the military sponsors segments of the NFL and spreads propaganda for the military at almost every game. And the ROTC in high schools is a gateway to support for militarism. Joining the military is touted as patriotic, even when the reasons for joining may be more practical. For many young people, the military provides economic stability when civilian job opportunities are limited, healthcare benefits, and otherwise unavailable means to an education after leaving military service. And many military jobs translate into skills useful in the civilian world.
Still, the military is used to promote both chaos and U.S. control around the world for the benefit of our government and the needs and concerns of giant corporations. The United States has active duty military troops stationed in nearly 150 countries. But there are better ways to interact with the world. We now have one of those ways as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic will never end until its spread is stopped in every country of the world. President Biden seems to be willing to help other countries get vaccine, especially poorer countries. If we have excess vaccine, we should give it to those people who have missed out on the opportunity to avoid serious illness or death from this virus.
We need, as well, to seek other opportunities to engage in peaceful pursuits around the globe. We should have learned by now that war is not the solution to our foreign policy needs, no matter how popular our military troops may be. The Marshall Plan, which helped restore a devastated Europe after WWII, has proven to be a better approach to foreign policy than has endless war and policies based in rank militarism. Trying “to graft a Western political culture,” to use a phrase written by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, onto any place with a culture substantially different from our own is a fool’s errand. We should help end suffering in the world, but our efforts to do so should not create more of it.
[Rag Blog columnist Lamar W. Hankins, a former San Marcos, Texas, City Attorney, is retired and volunteers with the Final Exit Network as a coordinator for people in seven states and serves as editor, contributor, and moderator of The Good Death Society Blog, which discusses a wide range of end-of-life issues.]