Between the Crosses
This essay is in the October 2005 issue of Z Magazine
The Marine Corps didn't send me to Vietnam, so I came home in one piece, un-killed and un-maimed. I went on to trek around the world for a few years. Eventually I settled down to participate in the antiwar movement of that era.
But it could have been otherwise. After all, people who volunteer to fight those wars do sometimes get what they ask for. I've come to think a lot about that since this May when I attended a forum where Cindy Sheehan spoke. Cindy Sheehan is the mother of a GI who died in Iraq. “To make sense of his death I have to try to stop the war," she said. Her son, Casey, chose to go to Iraq, presumably believing that he was part of a liberation force, bringing freedom to Arabs and defending our country from terrorists.
That was also the sort of thing I believed 46 years ago when I joined the USMC. Of course we weren't fighting terrorism back then, but I certainly believed that as a GI I'd be defending our country and our freedoms. All that and a lot more. I grew up reading books and stories about World War II: "Last Man off Wake Island," "Guadalcanal Diary," and numerous others. Not that those are bad books, but I really did buy into every military myth on the market.
However, during my four years of active duty relatively few GIs were sent to Vietnam. There were some 3,000 in Vietnam by the end of 1961 and 11,000 a year later. I volunteered to go. So did almost everyone else in my outfit, but in those days war zones were a scarce item, and the supply of volunteers far exceeded the demand. So, I spent four years walking guard posts, shining my shoes for the next inspection, doing mess duty (the thing the army calls "KP"), and stuff like that.
I got my discharge in 1963, and it wasn't until two years later that they began to increase the number of GIs in Vietnam to over a hundred thousand. I feel I made very good use of those two years--I took classes, traveled abroad, spoke with people in other countries, also read books. By then I'd begun to suspect that our government had no right to be in Vietnam; I was no longer so ready to volunteer for such military adventures. I did not return to the Marine Corps.
Having made the wrong decision the first time, it turned out I got a second chance to re-decide the matter, and this time I got it right. But I know it could've been otherwise. There's a "what if" thing that sort of haunts me. Given a somewhat different life-scenario, I might've re-enlisted, gone to Nam and gotten killed there.
What distresses me most, however, is a question that really hit me a couple of months ago when I heard Cindy Sheehan speak out for her KIA son. Had I died in Nam, who would’ve spoken for me?
My mother never encouraged me to join the USMC, but she accepted my wish to do so. On her door window she used to have a sticker reading, "My son is a Marine." Years later, she was tolerant of my antiwar views, but less supportive. She always voted Republican. It bothered me to think that if I had died in Vietnam, she would've continued to vote Republican.
Recently I happened to read a poem by John McCrae. McCrae was a soldier who died in the First World War, shortly after penning a short message which he left to the world. It begins:
"In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row."
I read on, thinking this was a very poignant antiwar poem, until I reached the third stanza, which exhorts other people to:
"Take up our quarrel with the foe"
How could he say such a thing? But the thought crosses my mind that had things gone differently, I could've been such a soldier, dying and leaving poetry urging others to continue the dying. For an awfully bad cause. (From what I can see, nothing good came out of the First World War; millions died, only to set the stage for Mussolini, Hitler and another world war.)
Not everybody gets that second chance. Supposing I hadn't. Who then would've spoken for me? This week I read again of Cindy Sheehan, somewhere out there under the hot Texas sun, camped out on the road to Bush's doorstep, demanding answers.
"I want to ask the president, why did he kill my son?" Cindy Sheehan told reporters. "He said my son died in a noble cause, and I want to ask him what that noble cause is."
More people are heading to Texas to join her in her vigil. They, and others of the antiwar movement, speak for those who don't get that second chance.