Monday, May 26, 2008

The Vietnam Peace

It's been a whole week since Jordan graduated. That means it's been a whole week since Iris and I are the parents of a college graduate (well, that and 13 years since Seth graduated at SMU) It's always a kind of a new experience.. hanging around with all these former four year kids as they start to face the 'real world' around them. Oh, it's so much different than ours was. In 1968 (yes, it is the 40 th reunion year for some of us) anyone just getting out of school was facing headlong, the 'Draft', that antiquated, yet somehow very egalitarian method of determining who would go into the Armed Forces. Numbers were the thing.. and each year they would draw numbers, corresponding to birth dates, and if you had a high number, it pretty much meant pack your bags. Unfortuately, Vietnam in those days meant rat - infested hooches (huts), crappy Meals Ready to Eat or C-rats (keep the peaches, trade the ham steaks away..), and worst of all the uncertainty that young men faced about who really was the enemy. It certainly wasn't the sense of Vietnam we have today from the thousands of transplanted Vietnamese who brought their gifts of cuisine and education along. The terminology then was almost non-discriminatory: you had GI's calling pretty much all Vietnamese, friend or foe alike, Gooks, Slopes, or other assorted unappealing handles. It led to the same kind of situations you have today in Iraq and Afghanistan, which is... who do you think you can trust, and who shouldn't be trusted. The line was seldom straight, and always pained by the itchy reaction which was borne of snipers, boobie traps, and ambushes. Yet, there was a certain all-American kind of warm heartedness, and even as the monikers may have been somewhat rough and distancing, there was often a kind of friendship that belied the obvious. I think much of that, frankly was because the Army was still filled with a draft, and while there were plenty of ways to avoid service, it was a much more integrated social structure than today. For the past two generations, the professional Army has taken pains to educate and train its members in ways that looked to the longer term (i.e. more than a 2 year draft commitment) and this has given us some incredibly well trained, well educated, and well mannered troops.

Still there is something which makes me wonder how today's grads will look upon the War(s) around them. Those of us who don't have family posted overseas (that includes everyone I know, with one or two exceptions) are insulated from the difficulties and everyday worry. We are encouraged to keep on spending. That's a helluva deal. In World War II, saving, conservation, and preservation were the watch words. A famous 1940's sign advertising 'recycling' before it was popular, admonished patrons not to "Bring Your Old Fat Cans in On Saturdays". Well, today we're encouraged to take our old fat cans, presumably in a car burning four dollar gas, to the mall anytime the moment is right, and just keep spending. It is, frankly, criminal that the populace of this country has not been asked to make any sacrifices either to make the war effort go more smoothly, or to support the troops in more meaningful ways than the ubiquitous Yellow decals on automobiles. I fear they are rather ineffective.

In September 1940 Ed Murrow made a trip out of the London Blitz to the West of England. There, instead of being bombed every night, the evenings were bucolic; the cattle grazed unmolested on green rolling moors, something out of a renaissance painting. A farmer interviewed for the piece (Radio, mind you.. TV was still a dozen years away) said he "wished there was some way to spread the pain of London out here, so that the folks in the countryside could take some of the brunt of the attacks." It was, Murrow said, the moment he understood just how united England was, and that they would be victorious, albeit not for five more years. Here, we may notice a GI at the airport, or, as we did a few nights ago in New York (it's Fleet Week), have a welcoming chat with a young Carolina Marine who was already into his third or fourth drink and none the worse for it. We keep paying for the war, its many billions, without any real sense that we have a clear view of what a victory might entail. Kind of like Vietnamization was in the early 70s. Now THAT was a surge! Almost half a million Americans in Vietnam, and as we began pulling out, we hoped the South Vietnamese would be able to pull the slack, pull their weight, do it on their own. In the end, no one could do it for them, and by '75 it was all over. The 'bad guys' won. The same bad guys who today warmly welcome American vets back to Vietnam on reunion trips. In all the trips I have made back to Vietnam in the last 15 years, i have yet to run into an American Vet who wasn't pleased as punch to have come back in Peace. Phillip Jones Griffiths, the great photographer, and mentor to me, published as a follow on to his first book, "Vietnam, Inc." another volume shot in the 80s and 90s called "Vietnam at Peace." It was an attempt to take that phrase which we all spoke "... the Vietnam war..." and turn it into "the Vietnam Peace."

My hope is that when Jordan is my age, people might be able to take trips back to Mosul and Basra, show their kids where they bivouaced, and speak somehow fondly of the sweet tea the old gent at the corner used to offer them on their combat rounds. Frankly, though I think it's a stretch. Nothing would make me happier, though. And while I look back to my days after graduation, seeing friends take off to the War, some not coming back, I just hope that we can somehow find a way to talk about "the Peace in Iraq." The most lasting memory I have of the day I dawned my cap and gown was a brief chat I had with a guy named Jerry Ahlberg. Jerry was way ahead of the rest of us. He understood the power of one person acting with strength and devotion. He climbed mountains, taught mountaineering, and gave, no doubt, hundreds of young kids a sense of confidence about how they could climb those mountains, too. I, admittedly a naive from Salt Lake, further sheltered by the cocoon of Colorado Springs (demonstrations against the war? Yes, Wednesday at noon, in front of the flag pole, from 12 till 12:30) saw the world as some kind of complicated construct, a game which I, the budding photographer, would have to figure out. Jerry saw things already in a much more mature way. And when I said to him "well, here we go, out there into the big scary world..." he merely replied "..it's not so scary if you reject the values they try and impose on you." It was one of those moments which probably rivaled anything I'd learned in school Wow! Reject those values! I hadn't thought of that one. But I think of it, honestly, a couple of times a week, every week for the last forty years.

So as we wrap up the annual Memorial Day tribute to the fallen I want to include Jerry, who passed away a dozen years ago, far too young, with Jim Turner and Russ Bentzen, pals along the way, who never made it home from Vietnam. They all would have had something funny, smart, or wise to add to this blob. I only wish they were still around to do it in person. We're just sayin'... David

1 comment:

Bebe Bahnsen said...

David, a beautiful and important posting. Hope you will read my Memorial Day blog post (Iris has the address). Thank you for the important things you said.