When I got out of the Army in 1965 and came to live in San Francisco, I was still young, and still reeling from a rude awakening. It would take me a decade before I had any real sense of balance again. I’m not talking about a serious breakdown. I’m talking about the growing up that took place as the comfortable world view of my youth was ripped out and replaced by a cynical mindset I still struggle with, but then overcame me entirely.
In those black and white days I went directly into the Army Security Agency from high school and found myself in Berlin, where Americans were still heroes and the bad guys were just over the wall. Our unit, the 78th USASASOU, was one of those military strategists recognized as indefensible if ever the Russians decided to march in. At 23, I found that exciting. Kind of like eating blowfish in a Japanese restaurant. A way of sneering at death without actually facing it.
My job was to listen to Communist Party members talk to each other on the phone. We were a spy unit and this was where West stood up to East and freedom faced down tyranny.
Problem was, the folks whose voices we heard in the earphones were very ordinary sounding. As the months went by we got to know them. They talked about their kids, about birthday parties, laughed at their weaknesses and at getting old. They even, on occasion, talked about music and theater. It became increasingly difficult to maintain the view these were monsters, particularly when the sergeants who ran our lives, and whom we referred to as orang-utans, lashed out not only at the East Germans, but the West Germans as well. A Doobie was a Doobie. No good Indian like a dead Indian in those cowboy days.
Trouble is I was part Doobie myself (the name, I understand, came from the sound of the police and ambulence sirens, which we heard as low-high, low-high-low-high-low-high (doo-BEE…doo-BEE-doo-BEE-doo-BEE) and for the first time I was exposed to the possibility that “my people” were perhaps not really “my people.” And the map of where the good guys were and where the bad guys were began to frazzle.
I began to get other indications, when things I would learn would appear in the newspapers in twisted form, when stories would filter back of abuses by the U.S. military, when the suicides in the barracks began to affect morale, that maybe this adult world wasn’t all I thought it was. Kids in my position lived protected lives in the 50s. No inner city crime and drugs and prostitution in my high school. No need to lock your doors. No preparation for what I would find once I put on a uniform, once I got a glimpse of how power worked, and once there were no rose-colored glasses that fit my new prescription any more.
When I got to San Francisco seething with anger and resentment after the military experience, the Vietnam War was in full swing. I was certain about two things. One, I had lucked out by having been “essential” to the Cold War effort in a way that would keep me out of Vietnam, and two, the world was full of shit from top to bottom.
It was still before the war protest marches began in earnest, during a Chinese New Year’s parade, when a military band went by. Spontaneously, I heard myself shouting at them, “Paid killers! Paid killers!”
A women next to me turned and said, “How dare you! My son is in the military.”
I didn’t skip a beat. “Your son,” I growled at her, “is a paid killer.”
I always got an A in American history because I knew America won the Philippines in the Spanish-American War fair and square and our great country was expanded when the Southwest and California decided to become English-speaking and wasn’t that a lucky turn of events. Now, three years later, I was standing in the streets filled with rage and unconcerned with the feelings of anyone who disagreed with me.
The woman’s son was not a paid killer. He was a product of the age like the rest of us. The woman, in a perfect world, would not have been subjected to a smart-ass like me. Now, over four decades later, I still wish I could find her and apologize.
But the Vietnam War was wrong. I was on the right side of history. I just lacked the skills to fight American aggression with flair and efficiency. I could only swing like a punch-drunk fighter at anything that looked like an opponent.
Ten years, it took. Ten years of marching in the streets of San Francisco, while the rest of the country went on “fighting them over there so you don’t have to fight them in your own back yard.” Dropping napalm and lying with words like “containment” and “pacification.” The rest of the country eventually did come around and the troops came home. Saigon became Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnam started picking up the pieces. And we began asking if it was all worth it.
For a while there, it appeared we had learned the answer was no. We had learned that good people (us) could do bad things and that we might ought to work a little harder to find alternatives to war. Hell, even ordinary Americans began to wonder out loud if we were not just a tad imperialistic.
The seas changed over the years, however, and we forgot all about Vietnam. George Bush taunted, “Bring ‘em on!” and we put ourselves in the history books as an illustration of Santayana’s maxim, 'Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.'
On November 4th, the shoot-first Bush American administration was voted out of office, and the joy and relief are still fresh. After the Vietnam War, the shame took years to sink in, and we were never quite sure whether it was because we did the wrong thing, or simply because we lost. Now, with Afghanistan and Iraq, we are still justifying and hoping we can fix the mess we made.
Can we fix the mess, I wonder, if we don’t face the shame. We tortured people. We imprisoned people without charges, without access to a lawyer. We ignored the Geneva Conventions and put in a yes-man Justice Department that could defend pre-emptive war, in the Nixon tradition where “nothing the president does can be illegal.”
Can we put things right if we don’t wonder why we didn’t do more to stop this? We who gave the world the Nuremberg Trials, where we held each individual responsible, not the collective.
We forgot who we were. Which is another way of saying we discovered we could be something quite other than what we said we were.
What brings these reflections to mind is an article by Bill Ayres that appeared this morning in the New York Times.
Bill Ayres was what I was in the Vietnam years. But he was more than a voice of conscience. Instead of merely standing on the sidewalk reducing the mothers of our men in uniform to tears, he was out there trying to be more effective. He was up against the same frustration, the fact that most of his countrymen would not or could not see the evil of the American military war machine.
He tried harder than I did, and it cost him.
Read his story. And when you do, consider the narrow escape we just had on November 4th. Consider what might have been if Sarah Palin and John McCain were now stepping up to represent America in the world. Imagine being led by these folk who took this man Ayres, a foolish idealistic (and patriotic) youth, and framed him as a “domestic terrorist,” and then used him as a means to smear their political opponent.
I think the Christians are right. There is a hell. Only it’s not a place to fear after death. It’s always just inches away in the here and now. Sometimes in crude form, as when people abuse children, when the poor sell their organs to survive, when young girls are sold into prostitution. And sometimes in more refined form, as when people turn beauty into ugliness, and truth into falsehood.
But this is a time to celebrate, not a time to dwell on hell.
We missed it by inches.
But we missed it.