This article was originally published by Truthout.
In the 1960s, the United States of America conscripted young men into its military forces. The head of Selective Service, which imposed conscription, was General Lewis B. Hershey. Assisted by local Draft Boards, he gobbled up young men and put them in uniforms. Then they were trained to kill.
Most young men were edgy and wary about conscription, particularly after it became apparent that the military’s destination of choice was the jungles of Vietnam. To receive a deferment and remain beyond the military’s clutches, one had to stay in college or graduate school. Dick Cheney, one of the subsequent great warmongers of our time, successfully used college deferments to stay out of the military until he qualified for a marriage deferment and then a deferment for having a child. He always managed to stay one step ahead of the military’s grasp.
Other means of escaping being drafted into the military were failing one’s physical examination, claiming to be gay and conscientious objection. All were difficult. One rumor at the time was that if you drank enough Coke fast enough it would raise your blood pressure to the point you’d fail your physical. This seemed more like an urban legend than fact. Not many young men were secure enough to use homosexuality as a reason for staying out of the military, and the criteria for conscientious objection were rigid and based in traditional religious practices that objected to killing. The truth was that most of us were naïve and hadn’t given much thought to avoiding military “service.” That changed as the war in Vietnam heated up and expanded.
The generation before us had fought in World War II, which seemed like a good war, pitting democracy against fascism (Hitler, Mussolini, Tojo). More recently, there had been the war in Korea, which was touted as a fight for democracy against communism. There was precedent for young men to go docilely into the US military and do its bidding. And then, along came Vietnam, and Lyndon Johnson’s lies about the Tonkin Gulf incident and General William Westmoreland (“General Wastemoremen”) always seeing a light at the end of the tunnel – all he needed was more conscripts.
The net of conscription ensnared many of us. I was one. Another was Daniel Seidenberg, Jr., who received his draft notice at the age of 19 in the winter of 1967. He was just out of high school and was a surfer. When his notice came, he thought about escaping to Canada, but, after visiting Canada, decided against it. Instead, he joined the regular army, having been promised by the recruiter that he would not be sent to Vietnam. Despite the promise, after being trained as an infantryman, he was sent to Vietnam. He ended up with near-fatal head wounds that have left him disabled for life.
In 2010, Seidenberg published a book he wrote about his military experience in Vietnam. The book, titled Vietnam Ambush, confirms the worst fears of those of us who didn’t go to fight in that needless, reckless and lawless war. It is a well-written account of the war from the perspective of a soldier in the field. It should be read by every young American who thinks war might be glorious. In fact, it is a cautionary tale that should be read by young people throughout the world. It takes the adventure and heroics out of war and tells it like it really is, a dirty business in which the old send the young to fight, kill and die in far-off lands – in the case of the Vietnam War, to fight in humid jungles, which US military planes were busy defoliating with the poisonous chemicals napalm and Agent Orange.
Here is how Seidenberg describes his dilemma as a US soldier in Vietnam on the opening page of his book:
I was a combat infantryman in Vietnam. We were shooting dice for our souls. Our very spirits were on the line, if we survived.
No one could say what we were fighting for. The consensus was that our purpose was to simply survive it all. I knew that merely surviving would not be enough. I had to make sure that I survived with a clean conscience.
What good is living, if you wind up hating yourself? And I didn’t want to be responsible for any crimes.
In a war fought entirely in cold blood, keeping a clean conscience was not easy. Simply staying alive was not easy.
Although today there is no longer conscription, there is instead a “poverty draft,” which makes the military an economically-attractive option for escaping poverty. Being put into a killing zone makes it difficult to not become a killer, if only to stay alive oneself. Should we allow ourselves to be used as tools in war? Should we not fight against militarism and those who, like Dick Cheney, promote it? Should we not refuse to subordinate our consciences to leaders who lie us into war?
Vietnam Ambush is a short book. It is written in simple prose. It tells the truth. It reminds us that our society has corrupted its youth with war. It reminds us that war steals from the young – their youth and their conscience. It reminds us about the importance of having political leadership that is decent and truthful, not deceitful and dishonest. It reminds us that war is not a game played on a field of battle; it has consequences that last for lifetimes. War traumatizes young men and women. It kills and maims soldiers and civilians alike. It reminds us to choose peace.