Monday, November 14, 2011

My personal ambivalence on Veterans Day

(GIs raising the flag during WWII.)

Last week we "celebrated" the day when the country recognizes our military veterans.  I am a veteran of the Vietnam era, although I was sent to Korea instead.  I abhorred the idea of having to go in the first place, I never wanted to be there after I got inducted, and I couldn't wait until it was over.  Because of my reticence about the entire experience, I never allow myself to feel proud for having served.  While I am technically a veteran, I never feel like one.

In 1968, I was drafted into the Army, but then enlisted instead of accepting the draft.  In those days, you had 30 days to make this decision once you received your draft notice.  Enlisting meant that I had some choice over what I might do for an "occupation" in the Army, but it meant spending three years in the service instead of two.  That is, you paid for getting a little choice (no guarantee) by spending an extra year in the military.  I wanted to accept the draft and take my chances, but my wife insisted I enlist and get some choice.  She didn't want me to end up in the infantry serving in Vietnam, but I did not want to spend more time in the Army than I had to spend.  The biggest disagreement we have had in 43 years of marriage occurred over this issue only two months after getting married that year.  We argued, she won, and I enlisted for three years.  In hindsight, she was correct as usual.  I was one of the lucky ones.

I relate the disagreement between my wife and me as an admission that I did not want to be in the military, I considered it a waste of three years of my life, and I rebuked the idea that our country should have gone to Vietnam in the first place.  Therefore, I never feel as though Veterans Day relates to me in any meaningful way.  On that day, I mostly think about WWII vets, my father's generation, and the incredible sacrifice they had to endure to fight a global war that was justifiable.

The Vietnam era presented a serious dilemma for hundreds of thousands of young men who did not want to serve, and who did not want to go to Vietnam.  My friend and college roommate dropped out of university, was drafted, and six months later was killed in Vietnam.  He saw his 4-month old baby only once.  My mother and my wife's parents disagreed with our belief that the war was not justified; my wife and I praised the anti-war demonstrators while our parents cursed them, although with the passage of time they came to agree with us.

As a result of this internal conflict in draft-age males, some men simply checked out of American society and left the country for Canada.  Some of them figured out a way to fake the results of their physical exam so they could fail.  Some joined the National Guard so they could remain in the states.  Some had important relatives or friends who could influence local draft boards.  Some went AWOL after being inducted.  Others did as they were told, and were later killed or wounded in Vietnam.  Now, three decades later, we have a Vietnam War Memorial that stirs more emotions in me than any monument I've ever seen, and Americans happily vacation in Vietnam.

Sometimes governments force individuals to make decisions about their lives that are almost impossible to satisfy.  Deciding whether to participate in a war is probably the most poignant, because the costs to individuals are huge and measurable, and the benefits are rarely clear.  But on Veterans Day we honor those who served, without being able to comprehend the complex set of emotions that is certainly still within them.  With the benefit of hindsight and age, the reasons for our earlier choices become clearer. If we had to make those same decisions today armed with a lifetime of observations of the world and the way it works, they might not be so difficult.  But when 20-year olds are encouraged or forced by national policy to make these same decisions, the responsibility for their choices should rest with us all.