My Viet Nam
Forty 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.
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Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.