Those Who Served
Going to war has been a rite of passage for men since the dawn of civilization. Historically, in almost all circumstances the decision to fight on the part of most men was neither seriously examined nor questioned. It was one’s duty. It was expected. In our country, the alternatives were largely unacceptable with the exception of those during our own Civil War who were able to purchase their exemption or find a replacement. With this notable exception, not serving meant the derision of society, the risk of jail or having to flee. If you were lucky enough to have come of age when there was no war, then you escaped the risks, which others inevitably faced. The same was true for those who had physical deferments, although there were certain wars and situations where those unable to serve definitely felt cheated since serving was equated with both manliness and patriotism. Over time, especially during the two world wars, being a conscientious objector became a less abhorrent option than in previous wars for some, but generally being called to arms meant serving.
As the Vietnam War progressed and the draft started to take larger and larger numbers of men into the ranks of the armed services, the war itself caused many to question the call to arms. Certainly there were still those who enlisted for a variety of reasons: love of country; a sense of duty; a belief in the reasons given by the government, such as combating the spread of Communism; a powerful belief in the dictum, “My Country: Love It or Leave It” which adorned car bumpers during the heydey of the war; or to find opportunity often lacking due to issues of race or class in the society from which they came. But increasingly, to have enough men “in country” to carry out the “mission”, as interpreted by the administration and the generals, the draft was essential.
In this chapter you will meet men who, for a variety of reasons, ended up in the military. As will be continuously reiterated, they are a very small cross-section of those with stories to tell, but their stories are illustrative of what can happen when such a war is taking a merciless toll on the hearts, minds and bodies of those it requires. Some of these men enlisted to avoid the likelihood of serving in Vietnam since they had been told being drafted would necessitate such service. Some did not have the “luxury” of being able to find a way out. A few even tried to believe in the war, at least at the outset of their service. Some simply lost the fight to get out after trying a variety of methods. Each story is different, but each depicts the effects of the military on the individual, especially in the midst of a war in which the reasons given for fighting were highly questionable.
Is there a just war? Perhaps. World War II comes close in that it was being waged to prevent despotic rulers from accomplishing their quest for world domination. Was Vietnam such a war? Except for those still seeing themselves as apologists for what happened and those in denial about what actually took place, there are no longer those who try to argue that what happened in Vietnam was necessary or just. Instead, even leaders like Robert McNamara in the 2004 documentary,“Fog of War”, seek to account for the error of their ways. In his case there are 11 lessons to be learned, but what it basically boils down to is his awareness that what occurred in Vietnam was a mistake each of the men in this chapter had to deal with what John Kerry asked at the hearings he participated in upon his return from Vietnam: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” Those in this chapter, who attempted to see what they were doing as having some justification, definitely struggled not only with being in the military, but also with the protests that were occurring on the homefront, their own eventual homecomings and the toll their service took on their psyches and lives.
The chapter will focus on the factors that led to the decision to enlist or accept the decision of the draft board and become a member of the armed services. The stories told will feature aspects of the draft experience and what occurred as a result of the decision to serve, whether the experience included stateside or Vietnam service. These intense narratives will set the scene for the contrasting decisions to not participate in the military described in subsequent chapters.