A personal essay from our friend Dennis Gallagher; writer, thinker, and publisher of Samadhisoft.com
The tides of history swell high for one thing and then they recede and rise again for another. Just like the whims of fashion, the big issues come and go – just as the skirt lines rise and fall.
Vietnam came and went. A great rolling tide that swept through my generation and took 57,000 of us who were unfortunate enough to have been born at just the wrong time to be harvested by the drafts of war.
The passions of the old men for their convictions, for their patriotisms, and for making their marks on the shifting sands of history – these come and go with the administrations, with the parties, and with the ebb and flow of the manufactured news we’re fed and the causes we’re told are of vital importance.
Vital, that is, until the next election, until the next summer breeze of political fashion sweeps through the beltway. But, the deadly consequences of those changing winds may have spilt, by then, into our lives with a cold and unrelenting permanence that denies the transience of those fickle summer breezes.
Last night, we watched “Nixon – A Presidency Revealed” and it left me sad and thoughtful about all the things that happened back then and what we were told and believed at the time – and how it has all come out so differently now in the clarity of time and hindsight.
Then, so much of the essential machinations were hidden and we had to rely on the explanations we were given to make sense of things. They said we were saving a country from being overrun against their will, that we were leading the fight to preserve democracy in the world. That our leaders knew the best course of action for our country as they guided the great enterprise through the shoals of history. That we were not quitters. That we had the integrity of our convictions. They told us that the lives we were spending would be vindicated by the judgments of the histories yet to be written.
But, in the White House, behind the magic curtains, different stories and reasons were weaving their webs. Paranoia begot paranoia, tape recorders ran, lists of enemies were drawn up and break-ins planned and almost executed well – but not quite. Vice-President Agnew left in deep disgrace for his own crimes and Nixon, left behind, stone-walled while the bombs fell into the deep jungles of Cambodia and into the lives of those on the ground there.
As the House and Senate met to begin the process of driving the President out, and that strange war began to wind down into defeat, the last chapters of its illogic were writ large before us – even though we couldn’t recognize them as such through the spin they were packaged in.
In one deep irony, the North Vietnamese, after long negotiations with the United States, agreed to end the war jointly with us. But, when we carried this news to our allies, the South Vietnamese, they rejected it.
So, we rewarded the flexibility of the North by sending in the bombers again to bomb their population centers and to force them into a new agreement – one that the government of the South might like better. And all this time, the lives of our 57,000 were dribbling away and Nixon fretted, ranted and plotted and the months and years of the whole long saga of political decisions gone bad … unwound.
57,000 killed and I don’t even know how many maimed and crippled physically, emotionally and mentally for life. All of it so utterly permanent. The wives, the girlfriends, the parents, the children and the siblings left behind in every American city to pick up the bits and pieces of their shattered families, lives and dreams. Think of the old photographs that sit now on honored tables and shelves remembering a life that could have been, that almost was, before it was cut permanently short serving ‘the cause’.
This is the thing that I feel most deeply about wars like Vietnam and Iraq and the thing that I have the hardest time expressing well;
…this juxtaposition between the unrelenting permanence of the deaths caused verses the transience of the political causes for which those lives were given.
The administrations and the political passions of the old men come and go. But, for the young ones who die, for those who are crippled and maimed, and for those who remain afterwards – as half men with half minds and half lives – they will suffer and bear their burdens until the entire scarred and misused generation passes away.
When I said ‘no‘ to Vietnam, while in the Air Force back then, I was deeply ostracized by my superiors, ignored by my peers and supported by very few of any of them.
The officers and the lifer non-coms told me how unpatriotic I was and how disloyal to this great country. They told me that our leaders knew what they were doing and that they should be beyond questioning – by the likes of me. They said that my job was just to get on with it – whatever I was told to do.
I lived with the pressure, the silence and the threat of a court-martial for many months out on the Texas coast during those terrible months in 1970. And all the while, as the President denied bombing and invading Cambodia, the men in my unit were rotating back from Southeast Asia and were telling those of us still here what was really happening on the ground.
This is the end
This is the end
My only friend, the end
Of our elaborate plans, the end
Of everything that stands, the end
No safety or surprise, the end
I’ll never look into your eyes…again
- the Doors, “The End”
So, Iraq spins its story out now. The reasons and the spins swirl around us in the press. The administration says, the press says, foreign governments say. Everyone says and everyone has an opinion. More troops – let’s do a surge and win – let’s pull the troops out without destroying the country – this war is about oil, not democracy – this war is about democracy, not oil – and if you don’t agree with us, you are a traitor and a coward.
We’ve heard it all. And, very likely, we’ve heard very little of what we will be hearing in twenty or thirty years when hindsight and the historians have cut through the fog of war and revealed all the things that are going on now behind the magic curtains.
But, the young men and woman who are dying today for us, everyday, over there, who are crippled and maimed for life over there, …we should cry for them. Cry, that that they are so naive, so innocent, so willing, so trusting, so patriotic and so foolish as to risk everything they have without having ever understood the history of the Vietnam War or how the political passions of the old men on the Beltway come and go as the years and elections evolve.
Without having ever realized that this "cause" they are dying for will be yesterday’s news as soon as the breeze of political passions changes again in Washington. Today’s resisters will be pardoned tomorrow, today’s great causes, that seem so worth dying for today, will be tomorrow’s raked over errors and misjudgments – just old news gone stale.
Somewhere, a young man will sit without his arm, or his manhood or his sanity and wait for the rest of his long and damaged life to dribble away. Today’s passions and great causes will have turned to dust in mere months while the consequences to him, for him, will fill all of the rest of the days of his life.
And the young who died for us – their names will be written on stones in graveyards or on walls in the capitol and their pictures will sit on honored shelves in family homes until they are finally packed away into boxes for the future generations who will forget, as they always do.
But all that they could have been, all their dreams and potentialities, all their children, families and careers, will have been so wasted – for the transient political winds and the ego whims of old men.