where life's not empty, it's restless.

My Viet Nam

DSC00865Forty years ago this week, the Selective Service announced there would be no further draft calls. My brother, then a college student, had a dangerously low draft number. He and his peers hated and protested the Viet Nam war with a fervor that frightened me as much as the TV images of the war itself.

But we who were young children in the 1960s grew up hating the war in a different way. We hated it the way children hate watching their parents fight. We hated it selfishly, because it was robbing our families, and therefore us, of playfulness, joy, innocence.

Our older brothers and sisters had fifties childhoods; all Kick the Can and Leave it to Beaver. We tried to. But we’d seen things on television the Beav would never have been forced to see: kids our age aflame in napalm. Soldiers bleeding and screaming. By the time we were of protesting age, we were sick of it all: war and protest; fighting and shouting and political posturing. We turned away from community, from engagement. Remember the “me generation?” That was us. Isolationist, pacifist, devotees of meditation and marijuana; avoiders of meetings and causes.

Most of us came out of our shells when we became parents. Having children of our own gave war a whole new meaning.  When the United States went to war against Iraq in 1991, my husband and I carried our baby daughter in a march for peace on Capitol Hill. It was the first time I’d ever marched for anything.

But thanks to that early Viet Nam-on-TV conditioning, I have never pushed  myself to understand war. To move past my knee-jerk pacifism.

Recently, a young Iraq veteran I know suggested I read a book called What it is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes.

For me, the war-avoider, this was such a difficult book to read. But all along, I felt that Marlantes was writing it for me and people like me.  A decorated Viet Nam veteran and author of an acclaimed novel about Viet Nam called Matterhorn, Marlantes sincerely wants those of us who have spent our lives reflexively turning away from war to understand why, as human beings, we must not turn away. He prefers the word “warrior” to “soldier.” He invokes mythology, literature, history, biology in explaining why we have and have always had wars and warriors. In the end, he is cautiously hopeful that globalization will help break down many of the fears and divisions that cause wars. But Marlantes believes there will always be humans who will give in to the temptations of aggression, which means there will always be a need for humans—warriors—to defend us from the aggressors. Therefore, he argues, it is hypocritical for us to condemn warriors. And war. Although Marlantes also argues going to war for the wrong reasons is the most disastrous thing we can do.

I’m still taking this all in.

It was much on my mind as I watched Kathryn Bigelow’s film, Zero Dark Thirty, which has been criticized for justifying, even glorifying the United States’ use of torture to procure information about Al Qaeda. The first ten minutes of the film are very hard to watch. I was tempted to leave. But Marlantes would say: the United States did this and we need to ask ourselves why. How it came to this.

For forty years, we’ve managed not to conscript young people. This is good. But we’ve used it as an excuse to turn away from thinking about war, which has led us to a place where our warriors operate with too much hubris and too little oversight. Films like Zero Dark Thirty are making us talk about it. And that is good.

Check out the Restless Critic’s review of Zero Dark Thirty.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts available.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.


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6 thoughts on “My Viet Nam

  1. Thanks, Ann – and I share your sentiment, I count myself very lucky to have had a high lottery number in that war – #335

    But I must call attention to a notion promoted by the late historian Barbara Tuchman – that it was the very existence of the draft and its horrific burdens that managed to shorten the VietNam War. It made the war even less popular. No parent of a draftee wanted it, but parents of enlisted warriors today will go along with what is now our longest war ever. When will it end?

    Also, not widely known until after that war, is that for a few days all US soldiers in VietNam went on strike – refusing to follow orders. The professional warrior could never have done that. That war was a colossal blunder getting in, and only by domestic dissent and actions by draftees were we able to get out. The VietNam Veterans Against the War was a very powerful movement. Our skilled warriors deserve to be paid well and cared for whether they are volunteers or draftees. We should promise them wise military decisions from our leadership. A draft means that going into a war will be a much more careful decision.

  2. Natasha on said:

    I think I’m going to recommend this to Andrew.
    Also, I never thought about the 60’s children and “why” they responded to war the way they did. Very enlightening.

  3. Thank you for sharing this, Ann. I am also tempted to turn away as much as I hate to admit it. But of course, we are part of this country and this world and it is time to take part in it and learn to understand them so we can grow through them.

  4. Re: only by domestic dissent and actions by draftees were we able to get out.

    Precisely why our government and military are not eager to return to the draft.
    Additionally, there is a reason why no televised videos are shown of what happens
    “on the ground” when NATO and U.S. bombs are dropped on real people —
    innocent civilians, in our name. Most would be appalled, just as they were
    during the Vietnam war, when the reality hits home. Bring back the draft,
    show the truth about these one-sided “wars,” and they would end
    very quickly.

  5. Pingback: Women Warriors « therestlessnest

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