Our Own War in Our Own Time

Posted by in Commentary, politics, Violence

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To commemorate the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon (April 30, 1975), “Dick Cavett’s Vietnam” airs on PBS Monday, April 27. It examines the conflict’s impact on America through the prism of interviews he conducted as the iconic host of “The Dick Cavett Show.” And it prompts these reflections.

“Private!” The drill sergeant spit the appellation in my face, his own face just inches from mine. I had arrived a day earlier to begin Basic Training at hot, dusty Fort Gordon, Georgia. After eight weeks here, most of us in Company C, 5th Battalion, would go on to Advanced Infantry Training, and then to the ultimate destination of Vietnam.

“Yes, Sergeant!” Though only half-awake, I answered briskly, just as I was supposed to. The early morning sky had not yet begun to lighten through the barracks windows.

“I understand you went to college,” the sergeant screamed, so close now it felt like he was kissing my forehead.

“Yes, Sergeant!”

“Well, you must not be too Goddamn smart, Private, or you wouldn’t be here!”

He was right, of course; a majority of my college classmates had figured out ways to avoid, or at least postpone indefinitely, the draft. I toyed with the idea by getting a medical deferment from a shrink who told all his young male patients, “It takes more courage to say no than to go.”

Of my friends and classmates who did go, most served honorably but uneventfully — as did I, luckily being stationed at NATO headquarters in Belgium. But at least two were killed, and one — Lewis Puller — was so severely wounded that he took his own life 20 years later, despite having won a Pulitzer Prize for his Vietnam memoir “Fortunate Son.”

In what has been called “the seminal theoretical treatment of generations as a sociological phenomenon,” Karl Mannheim’s 1923 work “The Problem of Generations” provides the intellectual explanation for what every Baby Boomer intuitively knows:

The Boomer Generation = the Vietnam Cohort.

A generation develops its distinct identity, according to Mannheim, in its youth when its members collectively and simultaneously experience the very same notable events — which will then shape the rest of their lives. So it is for the Boomers:

The Kennedy assassinations. The Moon landing. Nixon’s resignation. And, much more enduring than one single day’s event, the Vietnam War.

Not just the war itself but conscription — and how we reacted to the draft — forged a generation. Did we go or did we not go? Did our brothers and boyfriends go or not go? Did we protest, or flee to Canada? Did we volunteer for the Green Berets? Did we join Gene McCarthy’s “Children’s Crusade,” or did we feel more comfortable within “The Silent Majority?”

Even younger Boomers, who witnessed the draft only as a lottery or as a mere abstraction, grew up in the war’s televised shadow.

The Civil War, whose 150th anniversary just ended this April, in its very divisiveness forged a similar generational identity. Yes, Southerners and Northerners fought each other — and a bloody, bitter fight it was — but their memories were as one. The ubiquitous memorial statues of young men with their rifles, at courthouses and graveyards from Maine to Florida, could be either Rebels or Yankees; they look exactly the same.