I was nine when Dwight David Eisenhower sent our first troops to Vietnam along with a lot of “foreign aid,” meaning mostly guns and ammunition. The House Un-American Activities Committee was holding witch hunts in nearby Hollywood and the Junior Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy was haranguing almost everyone for their lack of patriotism. It was, apparently, “un-American” to express an opinion or have a friend whose opinion was contrary to these “leaders,” these arbiters of “right” and “wrong,” these haters of Communism and socialism.
I, myself, wasn’t much concerned. I saluted the flag and crawled under my desk during drills at school even though I was uneasy about the recent addition of “under God” to the pledge and it later turned out that under our desks was the worst place to be. I didn’t know much and, truth be told, I didn’t care much. The neighbors listened on their radio to the anti-Communist hearings with the sound blaring, but I didn’t bother to eavesdrop. The John Birch Society was really active in Orange County, California, where I lived. They seemed worried, but I wasn’t.
They say ignorance is bliss, but I wasn’t exactly blissful yet I wasn’t much concerned or involved. I wasn’t even consciously aware that I was being filled with misinformation by my society’s polarized attitude. I was bright and getting good grades in school.
Nine years later, I arrived at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania on an academic scholarship and was met with an entirely different slant on things. In 1965, the entire college shut down so that protesters against the war could march on the nation’s capital. I didn’t go. I had two conflicting stories. Someone was lying. And I don’t mean mistaken. I mean outright lying. I just didn’t know who it was: my government, Swarthmore students and faculty, or their information sources.
The war wasn’t the only thing that confused me, either. My engineering classes were a slam dunk, but the class that held my interest was World History: not just the whos, whats, wheres and whens, but the whys! And socially, I was backward and awkward but dating a really cute, nice, and smart girl a year ahead of me. I lacked the self-assurance to believe she really liked me. I was a second-stringer on our championship football team and an officer in a fraternity and yet I didn’t have anywhere near the confidence of the other students.
I quit school.
Now I had a new problem. My draft board number was coming up and I was not so much worried about being shot as shooting someone in their own country halfway around the world — someone who, like me, just wanted a chance at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. By this time, I did recognize the foolishness of the idea that we were “freeing” these people. I certainly wasn’t free. My choices were: go to school, fight in a war I didn’t believe in, go to prison, or flee the country. I objected to the war by this time, but I wasn’t a conscientious objector because I didn’t have a formal religion and didn’t object to all wars. If someone invaded the United States, I would fight without any qualms. I did not, however, consider it my duty to invade other countries on the flimsy reasoning that their choice of government was a threat. I felt it my duty to be an informed voter and the anger and vitriol that I was fed daily failed in their mission to persuade me that we were “right.”
I still didn’t know who was lying, but I set out to avoid Vietnam. Step one: avoid Officers Candidate School; it was a ticket to the war and I would have been as afraid of my own troops as the enemy’s. Step two: get training in a Military Occupation Specialty that had extensive schooling and a high re-enlistment bonus but wasn’t slated to go to Southeast Asia. In order to do this, I had to enlist rather than allow myself to be drafted. The Army had a 3-year enlistment and training that fit my criteria, so that’s what I did — on my 20th birthday.
I became a specialist in nuclear missile maintenance and, for a while, a nuclear warhead custodian. Still, I didn’t avoid the war altogether. My parts clerk, finishing out his time after serving in Vietnam, had PTSD and a huge stash of marijuana. He was always a bit high, but he did his job and I left him alone. A good friend was also finishing his time and experiencing flashbacks which got progressively more violent. There was no help for him and he was finally dishonorably discharged, throwing him out into the world without help or hope. And my first cousin committed suicide after two tours of duty in ‘Nam as a helicopter pilot.
The war wasn’t the fault of the boys we sent over there to kill and be killed. It was our fault, the ones who believed this nonsense and voted for a government that believed this nonsense. The fault wasn’t in our hearts but in our brains. We weren’t thinking clearly. We were totally drawn off the truth by buzz words and concepts such as “evil,” “domino theory,” “Communism” and the belief that it was a fight to the death between “us” and “them.”
The “them” was a fictional construct. We had no idea who or what Vietnam was and what they stood for. First NATO got together and split Vietnam in half. Vietnam had first been a country in 2879 B.C.!! But outsiders decided to divide it. Then the French, as they were leaving their colony for a second time, put a Catholic dictator in charge of the Buddhist population in the agricultural south. Next, we found a huge label and pasted it on millions of individuals without much thought or concern. Ho Chi Minh was a Communist. Period. End of subject. He turned out to ALSO be an anti-Communist! He fought any and all invasions — including those from Communist China. He fought the Communists in Cambodia as well. The labels were absurd. The thinking was shallow, uninformed, and, for the most part, totally wrong. We watched Buddhist monks light themselves on fire in protest, but we shook our heads a little and went about the business of propping up a succession of unpopular dictatorships; dictatorships that could not have won a fair election even in just South Vietnam, let alone the whole country.
I am convinced that war is caused by the greed and ambition of a few individuals, the systemic greed of corporate capitalism on autopilot seeking a singular goal of short-term profit, and the wrong-headed thinking of the vast majority who respond to simplified ideas with blind loyalty and dutiful obedience.
I can’t do much about others’ greed and ambition, but I can try to help train fellow citizens to think more clearly and to pay attention to details rather than be emotionally swayed by biased, often erroneous, information.
It was then I started realizing that Christianity had been nurturing this irrational, emotion-based decision making for centuries. They had placed irrational belief as the virtue of highest merit; well above honesty, compassion, or generosity!
This compounds my task. I must now turn around two millennia of belief as well as present the inconvenient truths of our nation’s misdemeanors. I’ve got to somehow tell people not only that they’re wrong and doing harmful things, but that their parents and grandparents were wrong; their society was wrong; their culture toxic.
What’s worse is that it seems that the human brain, no matter how educated, is INCAPABLE of logical thought when in conflict with basic beliefs and loyalties. Brilliant men, wise in all other ways, were still persuaded to support and actively proselytize the religion of their ancestors, brought to us from a time when mankind had far fewer facts and tools at his (and her) disposal. When love and loyalty are involved, men and women will freely and selflessly run toward the immediate danger. The word “us” becomes a powerful tool which binds us together. But whenever the “us” gets truncated and replaced with a “them” by gender, by a border, by wealth, by political party, by race, or by religion, our compassion and understanding most often fail at these arbitrary and capricious boundaries to the universal “us” that might otherwise unite all humanity – and even grant rights to other species as well.
Sometimes I despair. But what are my options? I can’t give up. And I know I’ve found something that we need even though we don’t want it.
Maybe telling the truth is a fool’s errand, but repeating lies generation after generation and drowning out all opposition is the alternative. I have only one choice that isn’t cowardly and damaging: tell it like it is.