Wissot: Vietnam War anger can last a long time
I was 20 when I first became aware of the Vietnam War. It was the fall of 1965 and I was enrolled in the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa.
A black-draped coffin with the words “Stop the War” accompanied by a small procession of student protestors passed by my window at the Airliner bar on the quadrangle where I was illegally enjoying a late afternoon beer.
Vietnam shaped my views on fate, authority, injustice; it also taught me about the consequences of our backing a corrupt South Vietnamese government in a civil war with a more resolute North Vietnamese communist regime.
The key year for me was 1968. It was the year that all hell broke loose in the country.
Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy had been assassinated; Lyndon Baines Johnson declined to seek re-election; war protests outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago turned into a blood bath when police tried to arrest street protestors.
When my draft notification came in May, I was teaching English as a Second Language to foreign-born kids from South America, Europe and the Middle East at Hackensack High School in New Jersey. I was the only ESL teacher in the school.
I had ambivalent feelings about serving. On the one hand, I thought the war was pointless, a colossal blunder, a testament to political hubris and military incompetence. On the nightly television news, I watched body bag after body bag being loaded onto aircraft bringing dead soldiers home from the battlefields.
I saw myself in one of those body bags, and for what purpose? Dying in an unwinnable war? By February 1968, Walter Cronkite had seen enough. He was convinced that “the bloody experience” would end in a stalemate.”
I was pissed at LBJ for sacrificing the lives of young men and women like me because he didn’t want to go down in history as the president who lost the Vietnam War. In my estimation, he preferred saving face to saving lives.
On the other hand, I felt my choices were limited. I wasn’t anti-war; I was anti-this war. I wasn’t a pacifist who could apply for a deferment as a conscientious objector. I wasn’t anti-military. My father had proudly served as an officer in World War II. Seeking asylum in Canada, and draft-dodging, held no appeal. Nor did imprisonment. Going to war was still better than going to jail.
So one morning I glumly boarded a yellow school bus and rode to an army enlistment center in Newark where I took my physical exam. I passed with flying colors. So did Eduardo Jijon, an 18-year-old all-state soccer player from Ecuador, and one of my ESL students.
Then fate intervened. While waiting for my induction orders, a local selective service officer called on my principal, Carl Padovano, and asked if any male teachers in the school were teaching a critically important subject and could not be easily replaced. On the basis of my being the only ESL teacher, I was given an occupational deferment.
My best friend in the English department, Rich Rau, was teaching Shakespeare and the Romantic poets to juniors enrolled in college prep classes. He was drafted, assigned to the infantry, and sent to Vietnam. My reaction was to think, there but for the grace of ESL go I. I worried throughout the war about the survivor’s guilt I would feel if Rich came home in a body bag.
If my anger was limited to what I saw as the wastefulness of the war, I wouldn’t have carried it inside of me for so long like an unhealed wound. It was how unjustly war returnees were treated when they came home that sustained my anger.
A friend of mine told me the story of sitting down at the rooftop bar of the Nob Hotel in San Francisco dressed in uniform, and to have the patron seated next to him stand up, spit in his face, and leave.
It took the successful and short-lived Gulf War in 1991, when I saw people in airports stop and thank the returning troops, for me to witness public patriotism and gratitude expressed again.
In the late 1980s when I began doing stand-up comedy, I frequently opened for John Paul, a well known Denver comic and Vietnam veteran. I recall one night when we were doing a show for a large audience at the Hotel Denver in Glenwood Springs. Paul closed his act by asking if any Vietnam veterans in the audience would please stand. About 15 men stood up. He then asked them to raise their hands if they had ever been thanked for their service to the country. Not a hand went up.
They are still waiting for a thank you.
P. S. Rich Rau returned home safely from the war.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at email@example.com.