...And tomorrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But today,
Today we have naming of parts.
—Henry Reed, from Lessons of the War
Bill Clinton's cowardice about owning up to his efforts to avoid military service in Vietnam has clouded the national memory of America's disastrous involvement in Southeast Asia and has sullied an appreciation of those tens of thousands who hastened the war's end by endeavoring so mightily to avoid participating in it. The current presidential campaign will do nothing to clarify our collective recall. Capitalizing on the connections of his political father, George W Bush escaped Vietnam with a posting in the Texas National Guard. That consummate political animal Al Gore, meanwhile, trying to bolster the sagging electoral fortunes of his dovish father in a hotly contested Tennessee re-election campaign, volunteered for duty in Vietnam. I'd perhaps applaud his filial devotion more if he hadn't drawn a plush assignment far from the field and a tour of duty less than half that of men whose fathers weren't U.S. Senators. As I view it, Bush and Gore have each other pretty much stalemated on the military service business, and they'll likely do nothing to redress the ignominious legacy Clinton has left us on the issue.
Thousands of men my age devoted years of our young lives to fighting against the war in Vietnam by scrambling to frustrate its military draft procedures. And most of us remember our rebellious activities during those years not with Clinton's calculating shame but with a fierce pride. Richard Nixon's infamous Christmas bombing didn't stop the war in Vietnam. We did. A scene in my novel The El Cholo Feeling Passes was modeled quite closely on one in my own experience. Set in January of 1970, two college seniors are talking about the Vietnam draft which both men will face upon graduation in a few months. Football player Paul "Nose" Taylor recently suffered a serious knee injury and figures he will be draft exempt. His basketball player friend, Rich "Tricks" Janus, the narrator, wonders what his own fate will be. As the scene progresses, Paul says of his injury,
"Bet this old knee's worth 'bout a million bucks now. Now that the big hurtin's over, I suspect I could find quite a few guys willin' to trade for her." He laughed, slung his leg off the table and bent to yank down his pants leg. When he sat back up, he brushed at his short brown hair which had fallen across his freckled face.
"I'd trade you," I said. I crushed my empty beer can against my knee and then aimed it toward the metal trash bin in the corner. The beer can rattled in the receptacle like a bell with a broken clapper.
"Sure you would," Paul said. He got up from his chair and went to the refrigerator, returning with two unopened cans of Schlitz. He clicked mine down on the table in front of me and tore the tab off his. "Sure you would, Tricks." Paul sucked at the foam oozing from his can.
"I sure as hell would," I said, my voice heated. Somehow I thought he was making fun of me, that he was insensitive to the fact that I was already scared witless and was getting more desperate with every passing day.
"Man," Paul grinned at me, "what kinda point guard you gonna make with only one wheel. Your defense ain't so much as it is."
"You redneck hillbilly," I said. "You know about as much about my defense as Westmoreland knows about defensing the Cong."
"You calling me a redneck is about like Rose callin' Scarlet, Crimson. You may think you've Yankeed up that accent of yours, Tricks, but we all know that underneath you're just as Southern as grits." "Bite me," I said, laughing.
"Buddy, I'd do most anything in the world to help you beat this draft thing. But if you want out on some kind of pervo, you better find yourself some other cracker."
"Bite me twice," I said.
Paul looked at me and shook his head. "Tricks, man, you gotta getta hold of yourself. You gotta keep things in perspective."
"Yeah, I just don't want my perspective to be blurred by a goddam translucent body bag."
"That's morbid, man," Paul said.
"That's real, man."
Paul did not respond. We finished our beers, and he got us another round. We drank them in silence, Paul occasionally shaking his head, me staring at the light bulb, trying to decide whether it was actually moving, ever so slightly, back and forth.
Finally, when Paul brought us still two more beers, he said, "I could fix it, you know. I mean, if I got drunk enough, I think I could."
"Fix what?" I asked.
"We could prop your leg up on the table, and I could just fall on it. That's sort of what happened to me." He stood up. "My cleats were stuck in the grass, like this see." He planted his foot and grabbed his leg to demonstrate its inflexibility. "I was straightened up by this big guy from behind. He had me by the shoulders and was driving me forward. Then my cleats stuck. And when the safety came in low from the front, he just buckled my knee backwards. At first I didn't even feel it."
In his description of his injury, which I had heard many times before, Paul seemed to have forgotten his proposition. He looked at me intently. "It'd hurt ya like hell, Tricks. But I'd do it."
"That's crazy, man," I said.
"Yeah," he said. "I know." He got us more beers, and we drank on.
Somewhere into my second six-pack, I said, "Would you really do it, Nose?"
"I'd hate it," he said. "I'd hate it."
"But you'd do it?"
"I'd do it. I'd have to love you awfully much. But I'd do it."
I drank off about half a beer at a draught. "Then let's do it."
"Now?" Somehow his tone was only half-questioning. It was as if he wasn't asking a question at all, but only resigning himself to some pre-ordained fate.
"One more beer," I said. Paul brought fresh ones, and we averted our eyes from one another. When the beers were done, I propped my leg up on the table and rolled up my pants.
"Now," I said quietly.
Paul rose. He came and stood behind my chair and rested his hands on my shoulders.
"I'm ready," I said.
"OK," he said. He moved around alongside my leg so that he could bring his full weight down on me. One hand on my thigh, the other on my shin, he tested the leg's give. "Tricks," he said, "I can't do it."
"No," he said, "I'm sorry."
"Thank God," I said.
When I read this passage on a college campus recently, a student asked afterwards why the men of my generation were so unwilling to risk themselves in battle the way men of earlier generations had. I would be hypocritical to claim that fear of dying in Vietnam or suffering some life-changing, physically debilitating injury didn't color my determination to resist being drafted. But after I admitted that fact, I described the scene in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now where the American patrol boat crew comes upon a Vietnamese family aboard a sampan. The peasant native people hardly look menacing, small and obviously frightened. But Vietnam, the G.I.'s well knew, was a place where the hand that lobbed a grenade under a jeep many times belonged to a child, where the shooter in an ambush was many times a woman, where the elusive enemy seemed anyone with high Asian cheekbones. When a terrified woman aboard the sampan makes a sudden move as the Americans try to ascertain that the Vietnamese aren't transporting weapons, a jumpy soldier opens fire, and pretty soon a boatload of innocents are dead. The Vietnamese woman, it turns out, was trying to protect a basket of puppies. The key element in this scene is that the soldiers who kill the boat people act not out of viciousness, but out of fear. Unlike Tom Berenger's Sergeant Barnes character in Platoon, they aren't dead-eyed murderers. The Apocalypse Now characters are average American boys, far from home and in deadly peril from a foe they can't readily identify. In the pressure of a moment, they react wrongly, and the result is an act of violence they will have to carry with them for the rest of their lives.
As I fought the Vietnam draft, I knew beyond all question that the war in Southeast Asia was a colossal foreign policy blunder. The Vietnamese had been fighting for independence for a thousand years. The Americans were only the last in a long series of enemies. I knew that men my age were dying for a cause that wasn't theirs, wasn't correctly ours as a nation. And yes I feared for my safety. But just as much, I feared that I might go to Vietnam and react as did the river patrol soldiers in Apocalypse Now. That film didn't appear until 1979, seven years after my own struggle against the draft ended. But it captured the reality of so many, on both sides, who fought and died there. They were, so often, innocents opposed. Too many died and too many survived with the burden of having taken blameless life, the survivor, in so many cases, emotionally crippled forever after. In sum, I didn't want to have to live afterwards with what I knew I might well do if I surrendered to the draft and bore arms against people who were not my enemies—that is, do what any man might under the circumstances. I will always believe that my brave late friend Ron Ridenhour, the soldier whose letter to Congress broke the Mai Lai massacre story, was hounded into an early grave at age 51 by a conscience that never entirely let him forgive himself. One humid, beery New Orleans night twenty years from the jungles of the Mekong Delta, he summarized the many incredible risks he took in his subsequent life as an investigative reporter: "I served in Vietnam," he said, "where I fired upon people I later found to be unarmed. And now I have so little time left to save my soul."
Rules for Unruly Events
The death of innocent people is an inevitable by-product of war. And starting with a battle scene in Vietnam and moving forward to a fictional incident in Yemen, William Friedkin's Rules of Engagement takes that fact on directly. How are soldiers to behave when under fire? What are a fighting man's obligations to the safety of others as measured against his own safety and that of the men with whom he serves? Mistakes will be made; that is for sure. And when mistakes are made in battle, people die. But how do we judge mistakes? What precautions for the safety of non-combatants might we reasonably require of the men who shoulder weapons under orders from our national command?
Written by Stephen Gaghan, Rules of Engagement is the story of Colonel Terry Childers (Samuel L. Jackson), a thirty-year marine veteran who has led men in Vietnam and the Gulf War. Now he is sent to Yemen to rescue U.S. Ambassador Mourain (Ben Kingsley), his wife (Anne Archer) and the embassy staff who are under fire from a violent demonstration that has escalated from invective to rock throwing to Molotov cocktails and ultimately sniper fire. Mourain fears that the angry mob at the embassy gate will storm the compound at any moment and concludes only an airborne marine intervention can prevent American civilian casualties. When Childers and his men arrive, they succeed in evacuating the ambassador and his family, including his seven-year-old son (Hayden Tank), but before they can begin to spirit the other civilians to sanctuary, the marines begin to take casualties, three men lost and others wounded. In response, Childers orders his troops to open fire on the crowd. They do, and within seconds the situation is brought under control. But the bloody cost of that control is high indeed. In the dusty cobblestone square before the embassy gate, more than eighty Yemenis lie dead, many of them women and children. Scores of others are critically wounded, many with shattered limbs that must be sacrificed to amputation.
The aftermath of Childers' order is a predictable foreign policy nightmare. Demonstrations against other U.S. embassies erupt throughout the Muslim world. And in part simply to defuse a severe international crisis, the military high command decides that Childers must be court-martialed and stand trial for eighty-plus counts of murder. Childers chooses as his defense attorney Colonel Hayes Hodges (Tommy Lee Jones), a fellow marine with whom he served in Vietnam. The brass selects Major Mark Briggs (Guy Pearce) to prosecute the case. And the rest of the film transforms itself from harrowing military action to complicated courtroom drama.
Rules of Engagement gets off to a terrific start. In the Vietnam sequence which serves as the film's prologue, Childers and Hodges are caught in an ambush with all Hodges' men pinned down, most wounded and dying. Childers, however, manages to capture the enemy commander and his radio man. Desperate to save Hodges, Childers threatens to execute his captives on the spot if the commander does not order his troops to withdraw. Does such a threat fall within the rules of engagement? If Childers actually has to kill a captive in order to save his men, has he then crossed the line? No question arises about a soldier's "right" to kill an enemy combatant in battle. And obviously no question arises about the obligation of any soldier to protect the lives of his comrades in arms. How does one's duty change when the enemy throws down his weapon and raises his hands in surrender? How, in particular, does one define his duty to his fellows versus that to a captive when, as here, the captive possesses the power to halt an attack that will save the lives of one's comrades? In sum, genuinely principled theories aren't so easy to apply when lives are at stake in the heat of battle. Moral obligations fall into conflict. Judgments must be made in an instant. And often the rights of one must be measured against the needs of many.
Gaghan's script executes a brilliant reversal on our instinctive understanding of that principle when his film's action moves from the marsh of Vietnam to the marble hallways of Washington, D.C. There National Security Council Chief William Sokal (Bruce Greenwood) summarizes the government's dilemma over Childers' actions in Yemen. From a military standpoint Childers' actions were successful. The ambassador and his staff were saved, marine casualties were stopped by Childers' orders to fire, and the situation was brought under control. Viewed from a broader and more enduring perspective, however, Childers' actions can be judged a disaster. And because of them, more American lives, military and civilian alike, are placed in grave danger. How many additional embassies will have to be evacuated under attack? How many Marines will go down in such rescue missions? When will an embassy be overrun before the Marines can arrive? Viewed from this perspective, oughtn't the government, whatever its finding of fact, sacrifice Childers as an act of calculated diplomacy? And in deciding to sacrifice Childers, to convict him of murder and to imprison him for life or even to execute him, aren't the military high command and such civilian supervisors as Sokal acting only as a field commander would act when he sends one soldier on a suicide diversion in order to save the lives of his fellows and the object of their mission? We accept such a field decision as illustrated by Lee Marvin's threatening to shoot Mark Hamill if he doesn't advance against enemy fire in The Big Red One. Ought we not accept the comparable attitude about the one versus the many which has pasted the target of sacrifice over the heart of Terry Childers?
This is the terrifically potent material of enduringly important moviemaking. Rules of Engagement, unfortunately, squanders its core ingredients in a mad rush to deliver conventional entertainment. I could complain about ultimately trivial things like a meaningless subplot about Hodges' relationship with his disapproving Marine general father (Philip Baker Hall), included, presumably, to beef up the Hodges role enough that a star of Tommy Lee Jones' stature might take it. And I could complain about Hodges' largely pointless investigative trip to Yemen which yields added running time without changing the film's direction or conclusion. And I could certainly complain about the ridiculous fistfight Hodges and Childers get in, a set piece of Hollywood macho with much smashing of fists into faces leaving only the faintest bruises in the days thereafter.
Moreover, I do complain about narrative puzzles the film fails to solve. We see snipers shooting at Childers' Marines. No one could possibly object if Childers ordered his men to return fire. Why doesn't he? Before shooting directly into the crowd, Childers might have ordered his men to aim over heads of the demonstrators in an effort to disperse them. Why doesn't he? And after this option is raised once, why is it never broached again, never put to Childers directly? More seriously, I regret the way the film so quickly becomes about what Childers saw and not what he did. And in that regard, it becomes a lame tale of deception. Childers says that people in the crowd, women and children among them, were firing at his men. That's why he ordered his troops to shoot into the crowd. However, no other American at the scene sees what Childers sees (and we don't see it when the action is dramatized for us). Hodges, therefore, can't produce a corroborating witness at trial. But a surveillance camera at the embassy is trained on the square where the crowd gathers to demonstrate, and we know from the very early going that a tape from that camera is delivered to N.S.C. Chief Sokal. Right about the film's mid-point, Sokal reviews that tape, sees that Childers has been telling the truth and promptly destroys the exculpatory evidence. Thus the film stupidly transforms itself from a fascinating examination of thorny issues about war-time morality into a pedestrian tale about victimization and villainy.
And the film doesn't even work on that level. Sokal's announced determination is to protect the interests of the United States even if that means unjustifiably punishing Childers to curry favor in a hostile Muslim world. But wouldn't making the tape public be a superior approach, a way of defending American actions rather than trying to apologize for them? After viewing the tape, what are Sokal's motives for persecuting an innocent man? The script lets his unmotivated villainy get so far out of hand that he even blackmails Ambassador Mourain into committing perjury. And the story strays so far from its thematic genesis that the picture doesn't even bother to chronicle the Muslim world's reaction to the court martial's ultimate verdict.
What finally bothered me the most about Rules of Engagement, however, was the film's surrender to an unbecoming cultural and national jingoism. Standing in for all Muslims, the Yemenis (chosen because this poor nation of fourteen million souls is among the least powerful of the "troublesome" Arab countries?) are depicted as howling madmen one and all involved in a vast conspiracy to embarrass and murder Americans. Meanwhile, before the slaughter of the people in the square, we are asked to see Childers as a particular hero because he risks his life (and the life of one of his soldiers) to lower the American flag so the ambassador can carry it out of the country with him. I consider myself as patriotic as the next man, but I can only consider Childers' actions in this regard foolhardy, irresponsible, and finally contemptible. The flag may be a symbol of our country, and our country may be worth dying for, but a mere symbol, several square yards of colored cloth, is absolutely not worth anybody's dying for.
By the same token, this picture labors mightily to define an American embassy compound, in Yemen or wherever, as "sovereign American soil" to be defended with the same ferociousness with which we would defend Massachusetts. I don't doubt this is the attitude of our government and military. And, of course, I understand a desire to provide security for embassy employees. Still, as a nation we need to be concerned with our standing among the mostly less-privileged people with whom we share the planet. And one polite step might be always to think of ourselves as guests when taking up residence, for whatever purpose, in somebody else's country.
Rules of Engagement is a film which ends as badly as it starts well. Childers' old Vietnam adversary, summoned to America to testify as a prosecution witness, tarries afterwards outside the courthouse to bond in martial understanding with an exchanged salute that made me profoundly sad for everybody involved in this project. In reducing its story to a mindless formula about military heroism degraded by civilian treachery, this picture abandons any potential sophistication about navigating the maze of cultural suspicion and any admirable ambiguity about judging the actions of men in combat.
Unruly Film About the Rules
Another recent film offers far superior reflections on the combat experience of American soldiers in the Middle East. In strategy, it's rather the opposite of Rules of Engagement, which pretends to be morally probing but ultimately isn't. In counterpoint, writer/director David O. Russell's Three Kings pretends to be a traditional action picture with lots of people getting shot and lots of things blowing up, all the while the filmmaker is slipping in a series of provocative observations about American foreign and military policy. Audiences may squirm as a brave man is tortured and thrill to a flaming Humvee being bounced end over end like an empty cracker box tumbled along by a gale-force wind, but whereas this picture may work as a traditional military adventure story, it completely transcends its commercial trappings to become a true work of art.
Set in March, 1991, at the end of the Gulf War, Three Kings is the story of a group of American soldiers who try to take something home from the Arabian desert for themselves, namely a cache of gold that the Iraqis have looted from Kuwait (along with fleets of luxury cars, warehouses of jewels, and enough electronic gear to establish an international rivalry with Radio Shack). Archie Gates (George Clooney) is a disaffected special forces captain on the home stretch to retirement. He's currently assigned as military liaison to Adriana Cruz (Nora Dunn), a hard-driving but utterly neurotic television journalist covering the war. Archie has contempt for Cruz's relentless pushiness and otherwise has enough attitude for an entire class of teenagers in after-school detention. Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg) is a reserve sergeant with a newborn he's never seen waiting at home. He tries to do the right thing, but emblematic of us all, he's not above defining the right thing as what's good for himself and his family. Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) is a deeply religious African-American staff sergeant who thinks that God himself may have put an unprecedented opportunity in his path. Private Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze) is an ill-educated rural Southerner so dim that he doesn't apprehend the offensiveness of his casual racism.
The adventure begins shortly after the cease fire when our heroes find a map identifying the location of the gold cache not far from their own desert post. Capitalizing on the inevitable chaos of a celebrating army in stand-down mode, Gates and his small squad decide they can rip off the treasure in a single morning. So they gather the needed equipment, arrange to send Cruz on a wild goose chase and set off across a heavily mined desert landscape directly into the Twilight Zone. They think their little raid will change their lives forever, and they're right, but not for the reasons they think.
Fundamentally serious as this picture is at its core, Three Kings is nonetheless wildly entertaining in a variety of ways. The picture is expertly photographed by Newton Thomas Sigel. Pyrotechnics have gotten old hat in action movies, but the frequently violent visuals here are memorable, particularly a sequence in which an armored van careens off a road toward a land mine that summons the driver toward a fiery doom like a Hydra-headed angel of death. Employing the camera techniques Kevin Reynolds used in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Oliver Stone employed in Natural Born Killers, Sigel utilizes extreme slow motion to trace bullet trajectories and then Russell cuts to body diagrams to illustrate the catastrophic mayhem a piece of ballistic metal causes as it tumbles through human flesh, a fascinatingly sober departure from the action-movie norm which routinely celebrates rather than excoriates the firing of weapons.
The movie is also repeatedly laugh-out-loud funny. Gates has a droll comment for most every situation he encounters. Vig, meanwhile, is hilariously ignorant. But in an act of truly brilliant writing, he's not only never reduced to a crude joke, he's allowed to evolve into a character with the capacity to learn, one who ultimately commands our sympathy. Much of the film's humor, often dark, arrives like that flying cow in Twister. At one point to further their increasingly complicated escape, the Americans commandeer a fleet of civilian Kuwaiti automobiles and flee through the smoking dust of the desert in a caravan with Mercedes following Lexus following Rolls Royce. It's an image at once outrageous and symbolic, wanton luxury in the service of desperate need. At another point, when a huge tanker truck arrives in a dusty village during a standoff between opposing soldiers, the Iraqis immediately open fire on it, and the Americans dive for cover in expectation of a massive explosion. Rather than flames, however, the tanker spews white liquid. It's a milk truck, and the Iraqis have shot it as part of their strategy to starve the rebellious villagers.
In the closing days of the Gulf War, as the American army and its allies with their vast arsenal of astonishingly sophisticated weapons put a mesmerizingly easy whipping on Saddam Hussein's ill-equipped and poorly organized troops, President George Bush called for the Iraqi people to rise up against the ruthless dictator who had brought their nation to such ruin. Thinking that the Americans would surely support them, many did, particularly in the south along the borders of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. But geopolitical concerns and a conviction that the American public would not tolerate a high American casualty rate led Bush to accept Iraq's surrender without driving Saddam from power. Once the cease fire was negotiated, save for defensive action only, American troops were under strict non-engagement orders. And that meant Saddam was able to turn his army's weapons on his own people. Some analysts have concluded that our policy even served to strengthen Saddam's hand by causing his internal enemies to show their heretofore carefully hidden faces, whereby they were identified and systematically eliminated.
This is the vicious world into which Gates and his men stumble. It's a surreal world where Saddam's soldiers lower their weapons repeatedly. The Iraqis are even willing to let Gates and crew make off with their gold. The only thing which the Americans must not do is try to interfere with Saddam's orders to slaughter any and all of his own people who have opposed him. And that's when a mercenary mission transforms itself into a mission of mercy, when a cadre of cynical soldiers find something outside themselves worth fighting for.
Reports of Saddam's brutality to those we encouraged to oppose him were included in news broadcasts at the time, but the impact of that grave human suffering was largely lost in American euphoria over the low-cost swiftness of our sweeping triumph. This revisionist film dares to ask if we didn't blindly snatch defeat from the trophy of victory. For not only is Saddam more entrenched than ever, our good standing in the third world, particularly in Muslim countries, has continued to fall. In direct contrast to the way we regard ourselves, the poor peoples of the world see us not as heroes but as bullies, not as champions of right but as protectors of self-interest. President Bush himself, foot firmly in mouth, described our motives for fighting the Gulf War as coming down to oil. Here, no doubt in response, when Barlow is captured, Saddam's minions torture him by pouring oil in his mouth. I was as dazzled as any American by the ease and technological marvel of our victory in the Gulf War, but I remain among the minority that continues to wonder if the war didn't represent another grotesque miscalculation, in its own way as ponderously ill-conceived as our disastrous involvement in Vietnam. Perhaps we might have done ourselves some good in the world had we helped bring democracy to Iraq. But by first exhibiting ourselves a nation of such incredibly naked power, able to rain death from above and far away with so incredibly slight a risk to our own men, and then by abruptly turning our back on those who would fight for freedom, we solidified our reputation abroad for caring a lot less about our avowed principles than about the prospective vulnerability of our economy.
In director Russell's view, America's "failure" in Iraq stemmed not from any irremediable national flaw but rather from a peculiar cultural myopia. We fought a war against a monster, he submits, without ever developing a clear picture of, much less generating a true sympathy for, his most manifest victims, who were not the rich Kuwaitis but the impoverished citizens of Saddam's own country. A product of a thoroughly integrated and oddly politically correct American military, Barlow tries to teach Vig that his epithets for Iraqis should not include references to skin color, and Elgin nods approvingly as Barlow lists examples of cultural but non-racial pejoratives Vig should employ instead. It's a darkly funny and telling moment. Russell is forever taking us places we don't expect. In several scenes, he introduces us to an elite Iraqi Republican Guard officer he reveals as a torturer and soon makes us despise. Eventually, though, we learn that the torturer was trained in his black arts by the CIA during the Iran-Iraq War. And later we discover that the man's hatred of the U.S. is neither ideological nor religious but entirely personal. His beloved infant son, presumably safe in a Baghdad suburb, was killed by an American bomb.
In these and other ways, Russell demands that we hear legitimate complaints against our actions, that we acknowledge the palpable reasons why people might hate us. For only by understanding the grievances of our enemies can we ever hope to find the common ground on which friendships may someday be forged.
The War in Vietnam was the central event in my life from the day I became draft eligible in 1966 until the day in 1972 my selective service board finally excused me in the aftermath of a severe basketball injury, a left ankle badly fractured and ripped of all its ligaments. The war transformed my college experience, focused my attention on the daily newspaper and the nightly newscast when my education would have been far better served with my attention focused on important books read too hastily, contemplated too briefly. The war robbed me too soon of the rapture available in unfocused intellectual curiosity and made me cynical when I would rather have been optimistic. It made me grow up too soon. It led me to make choices that would have been better left unmade.
But I concede that Vietnam shaped the man I have become, poured the foundations of the ways in which I continue to view the world and America's role in it. I thought hard enough about outright pacifism to have applied for draft exempt status as a conscientious objector, but I didn't escape selective service by that route, and I didn't deserve to. My father volunteered for military duty in World War II as did his friend and my hero, Baptist radical Will D. Campell. Had I been their age, I would have enlisted by their sides. All wars are bad, but some few, some very few, must be fought. So I'm not a pacifist. I am an advocate, however, of only the most cautious and limited use of American military force. Vietnam proved that for all our rockets, planes, bombs and bullets, firepower enough simply doesn't exist to cow a nation determined to resist. And I carry the lesson of Vietnam into my analysis of conflict whenever and wherever it arises.
In his politically charged stand-up act of the day, comedian Dick Gregory used to cite the figure the Pentagon spent for every enemy soldier it killed (I've forgotten the actual sum: $100,000? a million? Whatever, his point is made) and punctuate his research with the observation, "Hell, we could buy them for a lot less than that." And buy them is precisely what we should have done. Ho Chi Minh begged to be bought in the 1950s. Like Third-World leaders across the globe, Ho looked at America as the international hero of World War II. Had we poured the same amount of money into Vietnam industry that we wasted on bombs and bullets, we would have enhanced our national reputation for heroic altruism rather than painted ourselves in so many foreign minds as ruthless, reckless, and obsessed with power. Blinded by ideological tunnel vision, we destroyed when we should have built; we shed blood when we should and could have shed light.
Vietnam, I believe, was and remains the defining experience for most men of my generation, no matter what route they took, whether that of resistance or that of compliance. People older and younger may not remember a remarkable phenomenon of the Vietnam era which continues even today when I count among my close friends both military veterans and conscientious objectors. Those who took up arms, and those who took to the streets, were not nearly so divided as the nation which drove them to choose between one or the other. Because of the odd bond of that era, men as vastly different as John McCain and Bill Clinton can largely see eye to eye on the use of our nation's military power. And that makes me hopeful we will put fewer of our sons in the terrifying position of having to judge when to kill and thereafter in the impossible position of learning to live with having taken life.