You might take a look at this wonderful NY Times chronology of 1969. You’ll note below that my memory has drifted from the actual calendar dates but the spirit of the Times piece is the same idea as below, that 1969 was packed with stuff we’d never forget, and Walter Cronkite and the Times are who told us about it. Check it out.
I try not to take history personally. But Walter Cronkite, who as a news anchor, along with Eric Sevareid, embarked in the Sixties on giving us the nightly body counts from the Vietnam war as a way to put pressure on the administration to think a little bit about the terrific horror that was going on in Southeast Asia for no reason anybody could name, died yesterday, 40 years to the day after I was spirited out of Tuscola in the dead of night to serve my country. I was drafted by my lower jaw, like how you pull a Northern Pike from the water after he bites. A whiner by temperament, I had opposed the war with letters to the town newspaper but I was unable to make my opinion stick with moral action when it came right down to it.
Our group of draftees, many players from my Little League team, who had gone on to graduate from college but got nabbed right after they took off their graduation robes, and younger kids, the 19 year olds who were raised with Midwestern values and lacked the wiles to dodge the draft, were driven triumphantly out of town at midnight on a bus for Chicago where we all had our induction physical in a warehouse somewhere featuring the all-important finger up the ass, metaphor not lost on any of us. Yes, it was 15 months after the ’68 Tet offensive, after which even Robert McNamara knew it was all for naught, but nevertheless there we went, up into the sky from O’Hare to Columbus, Georgia to begin basic training.
The army then was fat, corrupt, and stupid. My drill sergeant attempted to sell me amphetamines on the firing line while we were practicing shooting our M-16s. At home everyone was going through the motions of peace, with a fairly nice economy, while we, the select few, were bound for Southeast Asia, some to die. We forget why. It was war inertia. Nobody could figure out how to get out without admitting that it had been a stupid murderous nutty vile Kafkaesque devil’s spiral of lunacy from the start. Nobody these days can figure out a good thing that came from it except an inspiring war memorial with 58,000 or so dead boys chiseled on it (untold thousands more sleeping under bridges).
To orient you, Walter Cronkite, who was constitutionally unlikely to express his opinion in his role as a journalist, visited Vietnam during the Tet Offensive, roughly February of ’68, and upon his return finally broke out on Feb. 27, ’68 with an editorial in favor of negotiation and opposed to the continuation of the dying. Robert McNamara was out of a job by March 1, and Johnson declared he would not stand for re-election. Cronkite proceeded to begin closing his very important CBS Evening News program with US and Vietnamese body counts. That’s what they called them. Body counts. It was hard even then to see how the body counts could be accurate, but on a given evening you might see this on your TV screen:
US – 109
Vietnamese – 1254
For those without an iota of conscience, including very reverent Catholics, Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Quakers, Mormons, Moonies, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Nazarenes, that count might have looked like impending victory. How many Vietnamese could be left? Surely we were almost done with them!
When the Tet offensive hit, which was a suicidal mess for the North Vietnamese but had huge impact on the US because we didn’t know they still had the heart, let alone the numbers, to raise a ruckus like that that late in the war – when Tet hit, everybody knew the war was a failed futile mess. That’s why peace candidate Eugene McCarthy was gonna win the presidency, we thought, unless Bobby Kennedy, seeing that Eugene would win, wanted to hop in himself, and then he damn sure was gonna win, unless he got killed while campaigning. Most Americans still didn’t know where Vietnam was, but was pretty clear they weren’t gonna topple America since they didn’t have one single plane or boat. People in this country wanted the war to be over. Nixon whipped Humphrey because Humphrey was VP during the Vietnam debacle. Nixon could get us out of Vietnam, he told us.
That was a little less than a year before I was drafted. Well, it turned out we were only about half done from a US body count point of view. Nixon pushed for Peace with Honor, how ironic, which meant more war, a lot more, including the bombing of Hanoi on Christmas, tons of fun stuff, and, oddly, no “honor” at all. Just embarrassment. We were wrong. We lost. We were stupid. We kept slaughtering and being slaughtered long after everything was obvious except the reason why. Presidents with daughters kept sending other people’s sons off to die. It was amazing. I’m serious, it was like a collective mental disease episode, not one single logical thing about it. We couldn’t get out because we couldn’t get out because we wouldn’t get out. This is where that special use of the term “quagmire” came from, if you ever wondered.
And, as Cronkite would say, that’s the way it was — that’s what kind of happy horseshit was going on when I was drafted July 17, 1969. I was at Ft. Benning for roughly 60 days. What happened during that small window of time, all dutifully reported by Walter Cronkite each evening? The day after, while I was getting my head shaved, I watched Ted Kennedy, wet from a long swim at Chappaquiddick, remorsefully talking to the press. Because of this he would never be president. Three days after that, we landed on the moon. We troops sat in folding chairs on sand outside our barracks watching it on a small black and white TV. A few weeks later, Sharon Tate was murdered in a really nasty cult murder, Charles Manson and the gang. A few weeks after that, Woodstock. We watched it happening at the USO while we played pool. Hordes of kids our age swarming along a country road in New York State, love, peace and rock’n’roll.
Not us though. We were cannon fodder. It wasn’t even the luck of the draw, because there wasn’t yet a draft lottery when we were drafted. (The first one was a few months later.) I’m not still mad about it! It’s a few wars later, and I’ve seen it happen over and over. It is terribly primitive, bloodlust, conquering other nations, slaughter. I always loved the bumper sticker “War is menstruation envy.” I don’t think that’s too far off. Something unconscious is taking place, something Freudian I’m almost certain. We go into war so easily. Republicans, particularly, love it. They hate abortion and would deny it to a woman under almost any circumstances, and are particularly grossed out by partial birth abortion because they value life so much, but the random bombing of a major city, including the killing of women some of whom might be pregnant, does not give them one moment’s pause. For this one thing, you can even raise their taxes!
And we can never figure a way to get out of a war short of blasting the enemy to smithereens like Hiroshima. Short of that, a war just drags on, peters out. Since the end of the Cold War, there’s not been much external to ourselves that has threatened the existence of the United States. We did get surprised when a Hole in the Wall gang pulled off a suicide mission that exceeded even their fondest dreams. They got us pretty good, and we never got them back to our own satisfaction because, why, well, because, well, a cat bit us and we decided, rather mysteriously, to avenge it by kicking the dog. It didn’t really matter if we actually got the people who got us. What mattered was that we rush to get into a war that was fairly big, kill a society or a country, get the blood splattered and fire off some weapons and make the very heavens themselves regret hurting us, by raising hell, literally, because we are good, good people, not like people in other countries, most of whom are ignorant, can’t speak English, are not favored by destiny to use all the world’s oil, and aren’t white like God.
But listen. Allowing myself to be drafted was my first but not my last serious moral lapse. And then what happened? — I never went to Vietnam. They sent me to Germany, where I was a clerk and a shortstop on the company softball team. This is my kind of luck. I kept bitching about the war until one of my friends told me to stop. “Shut up,” he told me. “Our generation is dying in Southeast Asia and you’ve got a cushy gig. Shut up.” I saw his point. I can’t see it now, but I did then. My wife came there to be with me. We toured Europe when we could take some leave and then later more extensively, after I was excused from active duty, that would be 38 years ago to the day, July 17, 1971. That day we drove our new sky blue super beetle out of Frankfurt, drove a long way to St. Moritz and slept in a tent on the high shoulder of a mountain. In the morning, 38 years ago today, July 18, my wife and I walked higher into the mountains until the meadows were full of snow, then back down, making plans for the future, talking, trying to purge the shame and olive drab out of our blood. I turned 24 in Paris (hence the Paris picture down below, not taken back then but later). I turned 25 in Athens. I saw Barcelona, Rome, Vienna, Venice, Split, Dubrovnik, Sarajevo, London, Amsterdam, Luxembourg, so much more. In our travels in Europe, I saw the battlefields of WWI and WWII, astonishing expanses of headstones in rank and file. I saw ruined castles along the Rhine. The Frankfurt opera house was still a bombed out hulk from 1944, along with houses up and down that street.
You begin to realize the big picture. Things look quite rational day to day in our neighborhoods, perhaps. But big picture, we’re grasshoppers, not very bright collectively, doing what comes natural which is, mostly, eating the earth and killing each other for the rights to have more earth to eat. Under a thin veneer of civilization fathers still want their sons to put on the uniform and bravely die so they can cry and bury them and have their chests burst with pride. We know now this can’t go on forever. We’re rattling out own cage now. It’s just a matter of time. When it all ends, we’ll be why. And I proved long ago, July 17, 1969 to be exact, that I’m completely in the flow, not one bit above any of it, I know.
But anyway, happy July 18.
A nod and a toast to my fellow draftees who went on this day 40 years ago. Rest in peace, Walter Cronkite – you will be missed. I’m writing, and I’m trying to figure how I can get to Paris for a year when my sabbatical comes. I’m fairly green, I’m praying when I think of it, exercising and eating right. I can do better at things. I’ll try. I have great kids. It’s been a long 40 years and a short 40 years. I shouldn’t have let myself be drafted. I honor those who were drafted and served, whatever honor means, whatever “serving” means, and those who didn’t by whatever wiles they used, their rich daddy with privileged entre into the National Guard, twisted knee, CO status, color blind, gay, Canada, running and hiding, female, or jail. It’s a rough goddamned world. If we need forgiveness for the past, we’ve got to do the forgiving ourselves. If we want peace, we’ll have to make it. Hell yes things could be worse, and will be — that’s for sure –, but meantime I’m quietly planning ahead for sabbatical, trolling for a small place in Vezelay or sweet small apartment in Paris with a view over the river toward Sacre Coeur.