Stopping the war once meant everything to me.
I left Stanford University after spending my senior year as student body president, ticketed to graduate with honors, winner of the Poetry Prize, and I gave up all thoughts of career and graduate school and lived out of my 196i Rambler, traveling up and down the Pacific coast, searching for others who meant to throw their bodies on the cogs of the machine. I delivered at least a thousand speeches while America cut its swath through Southeast Asia. I spoke in auditoriums and on street corners, and in every speech I ever gave I said the war was a crime against everything America was meant to be and urged any young man called to the draft to join me and refuse to go. Each such specific call to disobedience was technically a felony violation of the Selective Service Act, worth a maximum of five years in prison. After I accumulated some five thousand years’ worth of such potential violations, I stopped counting. Nor did I bother to calculate what I had coming for all the occasions when I called on soldiers to join us and refuse their orders as well. As long as the war was the law, I wanted to be an outlaw.
That, of course, meant I was watched by the FBI and military intelligence, interrogated at length, and arrested four times in ten years for acts of civil disobedience – all misdemeanors except for one felony violation of the Selective Service Act, charging me with refusing to go to the war when my name was called.
For the felony, I spent twenty months of my life “in the custody of the Attorney General of the United States,” most of it shuttling between a maximum-security cellblock in a federal correctional institution on the Texas-New Mexico border and the punishment cellblock on the floor below. When they let me go, I had a parole officer to whom I reported for another sixteen months while continuing to organize against the war. I didn’t stop organizing until the 1973 Paris Agreements formalized American withdrawal from direct combat.
I participated in my final demonstration against the war in 1975, just three months before Saigon became Ho Chi Minh City. By then, the war had consumed a decade of my life.
In the darkest days, when just handfuls of us, young and scruffy, seemed to be bearing the brunt of bringing the most powerful nation in the world to its senses, I always believed that when we finally stopped the war, when the troops came home, when the bombing ceased, somehow America would come to a settling of accounts with ourselves, both taking responsibility for the irresponsible and doling out responsibility to those deserving it in larger measures than the rest. And in the process we would fashion a communal assessment of what we did and what doing so meant about us, who we really were, and who we really needed to be. I was young in those days and supposed that history would demand such an assessment and that we would automatically accede.
I’m not young anymore, and I’m glad I didn’t hold my breath waiting for that reckoning to arrive.
The closest we’ve come to it over the intervening decades is an informal consensus among the American body politic that the war was a “mistake.” As a social construct, “mistake” was certainly a significant step out of the dispute that had surrounded our war almost since it started: “mistake” allowed the war to be mentioned in polite company with a reasonable chance of avoiding offense. Everybody agreed. The war was certainly a “mistake.” Some thought it was a mistake because we never completely leveled Hanoi, some because our strategy amounted to a crime punishable under the Nuremberg precedent, and most, of course, for reasons somewhere in between.
For all of us, “mistake” provided an emotional anonymity and, as such, a refuge from the pain of what we did.
Mistakes happen. They are somehow like the weather, part of life: it is a mistake to buy the wrong size dress, a mistake to leave loose lug nuts on the wheel of an automobile, a mistake to stick your finger in boiling water, a mistake not to check the pockets of your pants before you put them in the washer, a mistake to go camping in August without mosquito repellent, mistake to wear brown shoes with a black suit, a mistake to invest public funds in exotic financial ventures, a mistake to leave home without making sure the stove is turned off. Mistakes are what the quality control division pulls off the assembly line; mistakes are what the retailer sells out the back door as seconds; mistakes are what the cook doesn’t want to let out of the kitchen and the customer will send back if he does. Mistakes earn an ass-chewing from the boss. Mistakes are apologized for or ignored, usually with little consequence. Everybody makes them.
While it may be an accurate conclusion, calling the war a mistake is the functional equivalent of calling water wet or dirt dirty. And it is now long since time that we moved on to an understanding considerably more profound.
Let us not lose sight of what actually happened. In this particular “mistake,” at least 3 million people died, only 58,000 of whom were Americans. These 3 million people died crushed in the mud, riddled with shrapnel, hurled out of helicopters, impaled on sharpened bamboo, obliterated in carpets of explosives dropped from bombers flying so high they could only be heard and never seen; they died reduced to chunks by one or more land mines, finished off by a round through the temple or a bayonet in the throat, consumed by sizzling phosphorus, burned alive with jellied gasoline, strung up by their thumbs, starved in cages, executed after watching their babies die, trapped on the barbed wire calling for their mothers. They died while trying to kill, they died while trying to kill no one, they died heroes, they died villains, they died at random, they died most often when someone who had no idea who they were killed them under the orders of someone who had even less idea than that. Some of the dead were sent home to their families ‘ some were reduced to such indistinguishable pulp that they could not be recovered. All 3 million died in pain, often so intense that death was a relief. They all left someone behind. They all became markers visited by those who needed to remember and not forget. The loss was enormous, and “mistake” is no way to account for it. A course of behavior that kills 3 million people for no good reason cannot be passed off as something for which the generic response is Excuse Me.