Though it was never described this way by most of my era, we were children of war. Not the ones in the direct line of fire, whose immediate survival was imperil, but the ones subject to the first TV war and the graphic imagery it provided. I recall kids wearing bracelets with names of POW's on them and the occasional picture of a young soldier, neatly clad in his dress blues and crew cut hair on the bottom fold of the newspaper, with the caption, “Local Man Dies in Ahn Khe.” I easily looked past them towards the latest box score. One day I was perusing Life magazine when the article, “One Week's Dead in Vietnam” leaped out. Page after page of photos, looking like a high school yearbook, as many of the pictures were senior photos, showed three hundred of the recently departed, not an unusual tally in the height of the war. These people did not look like soldiers. They looked like the boys that they were. Some were shown with their dogs or smiling with friends in sports uniforms. Each one represented an earth shattering tragedy for their families. This might be the last picture of them that was ever be taken. Yet it was impossible to see the individual suffering due to sheer volume of images. I cupped my hands to focus on one photo at a time, imagining what it was like for each household to receive the knock on the door. Bedrooms that would forever be empty. Closets full of clothes and shoes that now belonged to nobody. After forty or fifty I was mentally exhausted. War was incomprehensible to an eight year old boy and nothing like images in a John Wayne movie.
One summer I was enrolled in day camp. Arriving at the wooded site, I was surprised to see the group sitting on the ground instead of beginning some activity or craft project. The counselor, who had just graduated high school, held a transistor radio in his hand. Today, we were going to listen to the draft lottery, which was conducted by birth date. The top third would be off to Vietnam. The middle third was questionable. The bottom third was safe. The young man, usually grinning ear to ear was expressionless, staring down. As each date was announced we clapped lightly. When he cleared the first third, we stood and cheered. When the 243rd date was announced we leaped and screamed like we had won the Word Series. This was how young men of my generation learned about military service.
What did that young man miss? Have you ever heard of a bouncing betty? First developed by the Germans in WWII, and used extensively by the Viet Cong, this type of land mine, when detonated, leaped three feet in the air then delivered it's devastating blast, usually shearing off the unfortunate victim's leg. This much people knew. It also, tragically, would sever a man's genitals and rectum. In an instant, the boy next door would be plucked from the vibrancy and immortality of youth into a lifetime of disability. In addition to never again walking, running or standing, never dancing with his girl, never doing a day's physical labor, he would never urinate, defecate or ejaculate, at least not in the traditional sense. But he would get $300 a month, so I guess it all worked out fine.
My most common question for friends who are ten years older than me is, “What is your Vietnam draft story?” Hesitant at first, most will eventually relay a winding narrative of draft boards, medical, marital and educational deferment and usually an escape from the immense insanity of the Vietnam War. I actually found their quest to save their own hide to be heroic. For those who went, I offer my appreciation for their sacrifice and leave it there. There are some questions for which even I can't bear the answers.
How many of today's GOP warmongers spent a day in combat?