War, from Da Nang to Madison and back again

Vietnam War Demonstrations

And it’s 1, 2, 3, what are we fightin’ for?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn, the next stop is Vietnam
And it’s 5, 6, 7, open up the pearly gates. Well there ain’t no time to wonder why
WHOOPEE … we’re all gonna die.
~ Vietnam Song, Country Joe and the Fish

Oh yes, I remember now. It was Woodstock 50 years ago, and for me it was also Vietnam three years before that. I managed to hit both places at a time in my and my country’s life when the toll of these phenomena on what had been a long-standing culture was visibly alive and swayed differently in the minds of citizens. One said, “Go kill an evil enemy.” The other said, “No, that in itself is evil. If you’re going to kill anyone, make it one of those so-called leaders who feel it incumbent to make killing and dying a badge of honor.”
I just finished a book by David Marannis that added another dimension to that time period and, moreover, to the tragedy of war that we have felt so often is inevitable and a way to correct evil brought about by others. Like so much we promote, it had a political basis. The party or individuals who call themselves leaders of our country believed to kill was correct, to die was heroic, and we, in turn, honored the heroes. Does it sound a bit familiar to what is happening today?

The book, They Marched into Sunlight (Simon and Schuster, 2003), shifts its setting between Vietnam and the cataclysmic ambush of an American battalion, the 2/28 Black Lions, and the campus of the University of Wisconsin with its divided protests over the war, particularly the use of napalm and its manufacture by Dow Chemical Company, who wanted to recruit UW graduates to work in its factories. Both sides of the story happened in the late 1960s.

I had been discharged from the Navy in 1968, had driven to New York City and attended Woodstock the following year. I spent a summer of undergraduate school at the University of Wisconsin and knew the campus, even though I was not there at the time in the book. In the fall of 1968, I was pursuing a masters at Columbia and participated in some demonstrations against the war, so I saw the student/government confrontation in an up-close and personal way.

The main difference between the Madison, Wisconsin, and New York City student demonstrations was that in Madison it was police who attempted to disrupt the demonstrators and chose to do it through violence, clubbing them when they got out of order. In New York, members of the CIA infiltrated the demonstrating students, but they were easily identifiable. They were the members of the crowd dressed in white shirts, black suits and ties. If you saw one of them, you headed to another end of campus.
Short of Country Joe’s anthem to the wrongness of Vietnam, Woodstock attendees wanted to simply live out on the land and set their souls free. By and large we were not there to denounce our country. We were there to bring the dream of oneness between people and land together, and music played a major role in doing so. You know, “Slow down, you move too fast. You got to make the morning last. . . Hello lamppost, what ya knowin? I come to watch your flowers growin’.”

The commonality that Maraniss points to in his book is the violence that lies in war and in protest. Military training focused on ways to capture and kill the enemy. Protest control came in beating American college students into submission. He sees a commonality in both efforts—although the war zone was more horrific. It was a foreign land coupled with foreign soldiers for whom the best American was a dead one.

I remember body counts being the way our generals and politicians measured whether the U.S. was winning in Vietnam. As one soldier noted, his commanding officer asked for a body count, but the GI was a radioman, and he thought it strange that the count request came since he was having enough trouble giving a “reasonably accurate accounting of his own men.”
Fighting in the hills and jungles was another matter. Maraniss describes in his ambush chapter how faulty technology overcame soldiers’ minds. Forced to fight with a faulty M-16 rifle that had jammed, one company soldier became “too scared to think clearly.”

The VC hung from the trees and ambushed the Americans at will. It was the “killing fields” trails and forests, and as often as our president and his commanders said otherwise, we were losing people and country from those who claimed to be its rightful owners. As Maraniss says, the men of Delta Company “were pinned down, confused, woozy with fright, fighting to save themselves and their buddies.” Their lives were at stake, not a political construct. That belonged to those who were not there.

In situations like these, war is about soldiers not countries, about human beings living and dying, not about democracy or communism. Many of those who volunteered to serve in Vietnam did not know this and gave up their bodies for what they thought was a greater good. Many of them died in the forests and swamps and never saw that greater good.

One believes that the Black Lions left alive finally understood this as they came out of the ambush area. For those who took the enemy fire, their lives became their principal assets; their minds focused on living. Too many Lions never saw their short-timer calendars run their complete gamut.