(Blue Suit is on vacation)
A thought piece
Heroism and bravery motivate some, mysteriously evades others
I am moved by stories about heroism. I cannot fathom how some people can be so heroic in their lives. How do people rise to such heights for others? What causes some of us to fight and or to die with bravery so others can live or be saved from destruction and others of us to never make a bold move in that direction?
I don’t feel there is much heroic about my existence. What should I have done to be heroic? What could I have done to be heroic? Maybe I should have gone to Vietnam instead of feeling so relieved that I failed my pre-induction physical at Fort Holabird Maryland in 1970. Had I passed, my long head of hair would have been shaved within a half hour of passing the physical. I would have been processed, inducted and sworn in. I would have been on my way to Fort Dix for six weeks of basic training that night before being shipped to the meat factory in Vietnam.
I failed my physical. I got out of serving in Vietnam. My life’s journey remained uninterrupted. I returned to Washington DC that night where I was at college. I celebrated my freedom with my roommates that night. I was relieved. We went to the Anthony House, a club in downtown DC. We got stoned. We drank. We picked up women – or they picked us up. We returned to our home in North West Washington at a time of American Empire when our lives stretched before us like an endless dream.
It is difficult to remember a great many details about these days of my life now so much a part of a vanishing past. A few of the most poignant and significant moments of the day remain vivid. The memorable bus ride to Ft. Holabird from DC, down the Beltway, with many of us staring out at the American pastoral passing us by is an indelible moment. The bus packed with inner city Blacks and me, the only white man seated at the back of the bus, alone, clutching a stack of doctor’s letters. I did not want to pass the physical. I was interested in war and US History, great battles and generals, heroic moments on battlefields far and wide. But I did not want to serve in Vietnam. I wasn’t alone on that bus as it sped to Baltimore on a hot summer day in July. Several young Black men, weak and drug addicted, needed help to walk up the steps into the bus as it loaded up. One of them moaned again and again. “I don’t want to go to Vietnam.” The Black bus driver tried soothing him. “Don’t worry, my man, you won’t be making it to Vietnam,” he said to him. His moaning didn’t stop. About a half dozen young men rode to Maryland passed out where they sat. There was not much chatter. No laughter. This was a bad ride into the abyss for most of the young inner city men on this bus.
The bus reached Ft. Holabird. We got off the bus. We entered into a huge, hangar type room with 50 foot ceilings and wide open expanses.
Long lines and masses of young men, mostly Black, gathered inside this pre-induction central processing area. Basics ruled. We undressed down to our underwear. A series of tests were performed; blood pressure, heart rate, physical dexterity and strength measures revealing general health and well being. Army personnel directed our movements from place to place for testing our eyes, ears, nose mouth and on and on within the complex.
And finally, the bend over split your butt open, let us check your ___ test – an extraordinary moment for all of us, no matter where we came from, how we were brought up or where we were ultimately heading in our lives. Long lines of us shuffled from one large open space in this enormous facility to another. The guys carried off the bus never made it into these lines.
The moment arrived for all of us when we lined up for the final examination of our papers by a set of Army doctors seated at tables. With a sweep of their pen, an Army doctor could send you into service or reject you based on the results of the day’s testing.
I faced a bespectacled, balding, overweight middle age Army captain seated at a small table at the head of the line.I handed him a file folder with a half dozen letters from doctors certifying that if I was inducted into the Army I could die from food poisoning and asphyxiation from eating Army food because of severe allergies. I watched the doctor. He scrutinized the letters. He looked up. He stared into my eyes, and with a sweep of his pen, he checked the box rejecting me.
Shortly thereafter I found a pay telephone. I called my mother. She had been waiting nearly all day by the phone in our family home. According to my father, she cried most of the day fearing I’d be sent to Vietnam if I passed my physical.
“I won’t be going to Viet- nam,” I told my mother. “Everything is OK,” I added. She did not answer me. She cried. I heard her crying. My father took the phone away from her.
“I’m glad you won’t be going into the Army. The war is all wrong,” I recall my father telling me. He only said what he believed to be true. He was not much of a conversationalist. Dad was a harsh materialist, a World War 2 Army veteran. Both my mother and father had invested their lives in me. Mum’s relief was my relief. My father was less emotionally involved. He urged me to accept whatever happened at my physical at Ft. Holabird. He ordered me to serve if I was made to serve. There was no such thing as conscientious objection in my family. In that spirit, I would have gone to serve if I passed my physical. I would have been proud to serve. I would have been petrified to be in the jungle facing the Vietcong in Vietnam when I was 20. I would have taken orders. I would have given orders. I would have tended to always move forward when ordered. Very likely I would have died in the jungles of Vietnam like 50,000 guys from my generation who gave their lives in that faraway war in that faraway land, and for what we might well ask one another?
Every guy that served in the jungles of Vietnam, or on ships at sea, or who flew attack planes and helicopters, everyone in the vast apparatus of war who served in Vietnam were heroes. They were no different than the heroes who were slaughtered on the beaches of France on June 6, 1944. They served. They were wounded. They died. Their minds were blown. In many cases, the horrors of the Vietnam War obliterated their lives. They carried out ridiculous orders. They gave what they had just to survive. They returned to a fractured, ungrateful nation. People like me owe those Vietnam veterans who served big time even at this moment in my life when I am an older man.
Thinking back, always thinking back these days, I wish I could have done something heroic in my life for my country. That sounds hopelessly out of step with the thoughts held by those who do everything in their power not to serve, not to get wound- ed and not to die in the armed forces of the United States.
Because I was a college guy in 1970, maybe I could have gotten myself a position as an Army reporter based in Saigon like former Vice-President Al Gore. What a thing that might have been. I think often today about how my life would have been transformed by spending one or two years in Saigon at the height of the war. What would that have been like? I wonder about that often, in this relationship to heroism about which I have so many questions. There would not have been much heroism being an Army information officer or a reporter based in Saigon. Heroism came to the top every day when young Americans serving in the jungles of Vietnam fought for their lives, carry- ing out insane orders in a war that never made much sense to anyone but higher ranking policy makers at the Pentagon or in Washington DC in the government.
Our experts picked the wrong place, at the wrong time, for all the wrong reasons when the decision was made to send young Americans to stand-up for democracy in Vietnam. Against tremendous odds stacked obscenely against them, they fought the Vietcong on their own turf, in the rice paddies, in the thick jungles and along the length of the Mekong River. We never lost a battle, our generals all recall of the United States experience in Vietnam. We lost the peace. We never had a chance.