Saturday, March 17, 2012

A Farewell to Arms, 1967 Edition

I was, during the first two years of my college life, a midshipman in the U.S. Navy Reserve. During the summers, as part of my duty, I participated in training exercises, first, in 1966, on board a cruiser in the Pacific, and then in 1967 at a Naval Air Station in Texas and a Marine training compound in Virginia.

It was during the combat training at the Virginia base that, courtesy of the U.S. Marines, I had my world turned upside-down. My experiences there transmogrified me from a Navy midshipman into a civilian anti-war protester. This change was a big deal for me, since, as a high school student, I had nursed dreams of becoming an army officer so I could whip-ass on the dirty, rotten Commies in Vietnam that I had been hearing about on the news.

My shift in outlook actually began in the spring of 1967 because of a Nicaraguan student named Rodolfo whom I knew in college. During a casual conversation I mentioned to Rodolfo that we (the U.S.) were helping the Vietnamese. Rodolfo smiled sarcastically at me and asked, “So, you think that when a Phantom jet drops a bomb on some poor Vietnamese farmer who’s carrying a bundle of rice home to his family, you’re helping him?”

I was utterly stunned, and I honestly don’t remember how I answered my friend. However, my conversation with Rodolfo had planted a seed of doubt in my mind. Could it be that we weren’t really helping the Vietnamese? This is when I began to be earnestly interested in Asian Studies; I started looking for evidence that would tell me whether or not our GIs were welcome there.

A few months later, as part of my navy training, I was doing marine combat exercises in Virginia. The exercises ended on a totally cool note. We had learned how to scramble down from a ship on a rope ladder and onto the rolling deck of a landing craft which would then speed us off and spew us out onto the "enemy" beach. It was all images of D-Day, and kind of fun – since we didn't face the prospect of actually being shot at or killed.

After our unit had hit the beach and laid down our appropriate lines of fire, one of our officers came over to tell us we should talk to the marines who were standing off to the side and who had just come back from Vietnam. This was the chance I had been waiting for: an opportunity to talk to some guys who had first-hand experience in Vietnam Theater combat. And what the marines told me pushed me over the line.

Several of the stories focused on what the marines called the “craziness” of the Vietnamese: “These people will work for weeks with nothing but a shovel just to tunnel under an American base so they can plant a bomb there.” But the image of weeks of laborious digging didn’t make me think the Vietnamese were crazy. It made me think they were dedicated.

The most dramatic story came from a guy who told us about being on patrol one night in a Vietnamese village. “I heard a click right behind my ear,” he said, “so I turned around and there was this old, bearded guy, must have been 60 or so, and he had tried to shoot me with a homemade shotgun made from a pipe, but it misfired. So, I got him with my knife.”

Wow. If a 60-year-old villager was taking on the U.S. Marines with a homemade shotgun, then Rodolfo was right. We were not “helping” the people in Vietnam.

Of course, I continued to explore and read as much as I could about the situation there, but the more I learned, the more convinced I became that we were not welcome in that country, not even by most of the “South” Vietnamese.

Back at college in the fall, I was still obligated to continue taking NROTC training courses and engaging in field drills and rifle cleaning drills, etc. But I knew I couldn’t be a part of the war that was the end point of all our training efforts. I imagined myself winding up in a combat situation, faced by a Vietnamese enemy who wants to shoot me. I asked myself, “Since he is only doing what any decent patriotic citizen would do – defending his homeland – would I let him kill me?” No. I would definitely try to kill him, even though he was in the right. This kind of shook me up. I had admitted to myself that I would murder on behalf of my own life, even if I knew I was wrong to do so. That’s war.

By the way, here’s where the arrogance of youth comes into play. I didn’t consider the possibility that I might be the one who ended up unwillingly dead in this confrontation. My entire vision was focused on the question, should I kill or allow myself to be killed? As though I were in total control of the situation. Dumb.

Anyway, when I realized that I should never allow myself to be placed in such a situation, I went in to talk to my immediate superior at the campus Navy base, a Lieutenant Cowan, a decent officer whose manner of speaking had an uncanny resemblance to Jimmy Stewart’s. I told the lieutenant that I could no longer be a part of the Navy, and as I spoke, I began to cry. This upset him to the point where he grabbed a pack of cigarettes and thrust them at me, “Moore, have a smoke!”

“No thanks, Sir, I don’t smoke.”

I left his office shortly thereafter and took a long walk around the Garden District of New Orleans until I could settle down emotionally and face my friends on campus again.

The next day I had an appointment to see Captain de Laureal, the base commander. He seemed to be expecting me to break down as, no doubt, Lieutenant Cowan had told him I had done the day before. But I didn’t. I was completely relaxed and in control as I said, “Sir, I want to get out of the Navy.”

“Well, you know,” he answered, “what is likely to happen next is that you will be busted down to a seaman and assigned to a base anyway for breaking the terms of your scholarship.”

I assured him I understood this, but that I had to bail out.

But then, some pleasant surprises ensued. First, the captain wrote a letter to the Pentagon, explaining that I wanted to leave the Navy, but in the letter he included a phrase something like this: “This is the kind of reaction that a number of our young men are having as a consequence of this war in Vietnam.”

Holy Smoke. Captain de Laureal himself seemed to be critiquing the war. I was amazed - and pleased. He invited me to add my own letter to his, both of them to be sent together to Washington, DC. So, in my letter I confirmed everything the captain had said, but I added that I felt sure that, were I to be kept in the military, “my attitude would certainly wind up consigning me to the brig.”

I don’t know if it was a typical Pentagon botch-up, or if someone there actually sympathized with my position, but a couple weeks later I received a letter from Washington that included, not just the formal discharge that I had hoped for, but  - get this - an Honorable Discharge!

Very surprising. The best I was hoping for was a General Discharge, which is like a C- or D. A General Discharge says, “This guy is a loser, but we’re not going to make a big deal out of it by humiliating him with a Dishonorable Discharge.” I believe I still have my Honorable Discharge papers stashed away in a file somewhere.

Shortly after this, I began to participate in anti-war demonstrations, and, two years later, in graduate school, I began organizing anti-war activities in southern California. I had come a long way from the days when I had imagined myself defeating the no-good  Commies in the jungles of Vietnam.

I learned two lessons from that turning point in my life. One was that American students can learn a hell of a lot by interacting with international students.

The other concerns war in general. Every time one president or another tells us how important it is that we go to war against this or that country, I find myself mentally pumping the brakes; I can't forget how badly I, and millions of other Americans, were misled about the situation in Vietnam.

I'm not sure why so many young men think, as I did in my youth, that war is a noble adventure rich with opportunities to show the world one's heroic potential. Not to take away from those patriotic veterans who have put their lives on the line in combat, my reading of war today is completely different from what it was in 1966. Everything I've learned about war tells me that when we commit combat forces to its carnage and destruction, not only do innocent civilians die, but so does a part of every fighting man who faces death while dealing out the same against the enemy. I am convinced that in order to kill people, we have to first kill something within ourselves.