Resurrecting Vietnam

by Loren Bliss

I think Liam had the Distinguished Service Cross, I know he had a couple of Purple Hearts he always said were "just medals you get for not ducking fast enough," and he had the rest of the fruit salad they gave you simply for being there in Vietnam. He was a buck sergeant, Regular Army, and did two tours, one and a half of those tours in helicopters. Then the bird in which he was crew chief got blown out of the sky a little south of the DMZ by NVA anti-aircraft fire, and after he was released from the hospital, he spent his last months in country as a combat correspondent for Stars and Stripes, which led to more commendations, an honorable discharge and finally a double major -- history and journalism -- at the college where Liam and I were introduced by a mutual acquaintance. I was merely a Cold War vet, a sociology major who had served an extended Regular Army tour in Korea, but we bonded on the fact we were both RA, volunteers as opposed to draftees, rarities in the hate-the-military/smash-the-state atmosphere of a 1970 college campus.

We bonded further over being older GI Bill students. I was 30; Liam was 26 and had attended a year or two of college before he ran out of money and enlisted, in 1965 (if I remember correctly), much as I had done when I dropped out of the University of Tennessee in 1959. Soon we discovered other common interests, and to make a long story short, Liam and I became Friends, Capital F, the highest expression of which for me is the recognition that someone is trustworthy enough to be my companion in deep woods – an invitation extended to fewer than a dozen people of either gender in a life that now spans 63 years. Thus in that long-ago summer of 1971, Liam and I humped packs into what is now the North Cascades Wilderness Area for several days of back country trout fishing, and thus Liam was there to help when a ledge of rotten rock collapsed underfoot and shortened the trip by inflicting the most crippling sprained ankle I have ever suffered – potentially a disaster, especially when the nearest medical assistance is 60 miles distant.

But our most intense bond grew out of our mutual commitments to journalism. My newspaper career had begun at age 16, working as a copy-boy and writing high-school sports part-time for daily papers while I was still in high school, and Liam’s career had a similar birth. Despite the difference in our ages and our working experience – by the end of 1970 I had eight solid years of full-time reporting under my belt, while Liam had only those months on Stars and Stripes -- Liam was one of the finest newsmen I have ever had the pleasure of knowing, and I will probably always think of the lead he wrote on a Page One "Women’s Liberation" story in the twice weekly college newspaper as the best I have ever read: "Some women in town are fixing a stew, and it ain’t in the kitchen."

I have changed Liam’s name only because I cannot confirm a few of my recollections. But I remember vividly that on a bright but rainy February afternoon in 1971, when the Women’s Lib story was still seven months in the future, Liam and I concluded after a lot of discussion that we should help the campus anti-war organization with its agitation and propaganda efforts in the greater, off-campus community. We were infuriated by the fact the government was willy-nilly continuing the practice of feeding men into the meat grinder of a war it had no intention of winning, and our opposition to the war was already well known via the school paper’s editorial pages – Liam was its editor-in-chief, and I was managing editor. Hence, volunteers once again, we visited the anti-war movement’s headquarters in the student union.

We should have known better. The fact we were each military veterans had been included in the biographies that accompanied the announcements of our editorial appointments, and when we walked into the anti-war movement office, we were assaulted by a screaming, cursing mob of students denouncing us in the loudest and most hysterical tones imaginable. Because we had served in the military we were "baby killers" and "Nazis" and "rapists" and "murderers" and "thugs," not to mention illegitimate sons of canines with carnal knowledge of our own mothers. We were "pigs"and "agents" and "spies for vigilante loggers"-- "vigilante loggers" the Pacific Northwest equivalent of the construction workers who had savagely beaten anti-war demonstrators at New York’s City Hall in the early summer of 1970.

Implicit in the labels and class-specific job titles hurled at us that afternoon as curses is an important part of the truth about the Democrats’ war and the war-era controversies the Democrats now want to resurrect. For Vietnam was not only a war in which the sons of the working class bore most of the burden; it was also a war in which the sons of the classes privileged to receive college draft-deferments – the sons of the upper- middle and upper classes and the daughters of these classes too – sneered at those who served. Moreover the sneering was a caste-wide phenomenon that began long before Vietnam was anything more than a name in a geography lesson – which shows that the original core issue was military service itself. And the people who sneered loudest are the dominant Democrats of today.

A member of the working press during most of the 1960s, I interviewed dozens of war protestors, focusing mostly on the rank and file rather than the leadership, and I quickly learned that the issues of the Vietnam War were singularly unimportant to most of the people who sought to dodge the draft -- even those who adopted Marxist rationales and demonstrated under red banners. There were a few genuine pacifists and genuine revolutionaries to be sure, and likewise a few whose draft exemptions were perfectly legitimate. But amongst most draft-eligible collegians, the only real issue was, "I don’t want to." It was, "I don’t want to give up two years of my life," and "I don’t want to get shot at." It was also, "what did this stupid country ever do for me?" Somehow the generation whose courage saved us all from tyranny in World War Two had afterward, in its upper-middle and upper classes, raised a generation of pathologically selfish, amoral children so craven they faked a "revolution" to hide their cowardice -- absolute proof of which is to be found in the astounding speed with which the "revolution" vanished after President Richard Nixon abolished the draft.

From this perspective, the February 1971 confrontation in the anti-war movement office was just another spittle-drenched sign of the times, and once again Liam and I were forced to confront a wrenching personal conflict: how we as former soldiers felt compelled by honor to oppose a war that had become a pointless squandering of soldiers’ lives versus how -- because of the very values that made us who we were -- we were outraged and appalled by most of the attitudes of the anti-war movement. Not that it mattered: the movement rejected us simply because we had each served in the military, which to most of the members of the anti-war movement was forever an indictment, an infuriating contrast to their own shirking cowardice – a cowardice that had become the chief motivating factor of their lives. Even so, rejection on so broad a scale invariably hurt – and no amount of intellectualizing could take away all its sting. How any veteran made peace with all that rage and associated treason – especially its personification in Hanoi Jane Fonda – is beyond my ken. Yet some did – John Kerry among them – for such was the schism that divided our entire generation.

In time, of course, the end of the war created the illusion those scars had healed. But whether now or in 1971, the tyranny of cowardice is such that it demands the belittlement of courage and ultimately its ruthless suppression. Hence the Vietnam dynamic rears its head again in the debate over the Second Amendment, with the selfsame cowards who opposed the war now gathered in the anti-gun camp desperately seeking to disarm all America lest even one armed American inflict embarrassment by demonstrating bravery. The underlying objective here is not merely the imposition of gun bans but also establishing a legal mandate for cowardly behavior. Its antithesis is assertion of the individual right to bravery -- the same real bravery individual Americans demonstrated in the bloody jungles of Southeast Asia, the same potential bravery that so enrages Second Amendment opponents, the same bravery of policy that has turned President George Bush into the cowardly Democrats’ favorite hate object.

Both because of his decorated service and because he refused to abjure that service by joining the down-with-Amerika faction, my friend Liam remained such a hate-object himself, all the more so as a growing number of draft-dodgers gained jobs in journalism and became his ever-more-hostile professional colleagues. Thus, as the years passed, Liam’s commitment to his real friends and to journalism and finally to life itself was weakened by his deepening commitment to oblivion via alcohol and later – after alcoholism destroyed a career that included the news directorship of a TV station and several years of award-winning work as a reporter at a major newspaper – a commitment to hard drugs. I cannot judge how much of this affliction was the result of Vietnam itself and how much of it resulted from the rejection that followed, but I suspect the rejection was paramount, because when I knew Liam in college, he drank only excessively (as all of us did in those days), but in the years after he left school and entered the workforce, he drank ever more ruinously and finally even suicidally.

During his best years, Liam was a scoutmaster, and he frequently took his Scouts on long-distance backpack trips, though Liam had admitted to me when we were camped in the High Cascades in 1971 that he couldn’t carry anything much heavier than a shoulder bag without help from the pain pills he was issued by the local Veterans Administration hospital – these to ease the lingering aches of his battle wounds. But sometime in the late 1970s, the pills stopped working, and Liam turned to street drugs for relief, and that is what finally killed him. The official cause of his death was AIDS, supposedly from a dirty needle, but those of us who knew him well know that in reality he was yet another casualty of that war the Democrats started and mismanaged at a cost of at least 58,168 Americans dead and blood-deep class hatreds that linger to this day -- the war the Democrats now want to resurrect so they can make yet another attempt to obscure not only their cowardice but how they jeered and spat at American soldiers and helped kill brave men like my friend Liam.

Loren Bliss was a journalist for 30 years – variously an editor, editorial-page columnist, public affairs writer and investigative reporter. He has covered politics, education, transportation, crime, and sociological issues. He is also a poet and has written several essays on the resurrection of the feminine aspects of the Divine and the resultant renaissance of Paganism. This is the third of his regular contributions to Civilization Calls.

posted by on February 17, 2004 09:28 PM

Wonderful and poignant essay. I was a Navy physician '67-'69. I was a liberal, Ivy League anti-war type. One of my duties at St.Albans Naval Hospital, in addition to helping marine battle casualties, was to examine potential draftees who were claiming psychiatric disability. I found these were mostly Ivy Leaguers who were faking mental illness to get out. When I interviewed them I quickly learned of their far left opposition to the war, I would point out that if they didn't go, a poor, undeducated kid from Tenn. or Ky. would go in their place. They quickly made clear the limits of their leftism, that they just wanted out. Pure self absorbed, cowardice. Their staunch anti-war stance was self serving--all that mattered was their own skins. Listening to these narcissists, and contrasting them with the often unsung heroism of those poor kids, I left my liberalism behind.

Posted by: Stephen at February 20, 2004 12:33 AM