|THE FORGOTTEN WARRIOR: During his thirteen-month tour in Korea, from 1968 to 1969, Bob Keeler worked in military intelligence (a major oxymoron). It was mostly a desk job, but here, he's refereeing a field exercise. At the time, he really thought he looked cool.|
| War in a time of ignorance
SPECIAL FEATURE, PART ONE OF TWO. Remembrances
of another war to make the world safe for democracy.
Go to part two
My letter from Lyndon Johnson came with a subway token.
The correspondence started formally: "From the President of the United States, greeting." Just one greeting, not even two. Times were tough.
The token was taped to the top of a separate page, a sheet of directions from my local draft board in the New York City borough of Queens. Those instructions helpfully advised me what trains to take from Queens to the Armed Forces Induction Station at 39 Whitehall Street in lower Manhattan.
Decades later, I still have that page of
instructions. The token is still at the top, under yellowed tape.
For many years, this piece of paper has sat in my files, primarily because I hate to throw away anything that might later "come in handy." During most of that time, buried deep in a file drawer, it had no particular significance to me. I was 21 years old when it arrived in the mail, and I had never given any serious thought at all to issues of war and peace. I had no sense of its human cost over the centuries, no concept of the rivers of blood that it spilled, no understanding of what my Christian faith had to say on the issue, no insight into the essential nonviolence of the Gospel. I lived in a thick fog of unknowing.
Now, with the nation launched into a new war, I am glad that I still have the paper and the token. They "come in handy" to remind me of the thinking that I failed to do then, and they goad me to examine this war far more critically, in light of my uncritical acceptance of what the nation was doing in Southeast Asia.
In important ways, of course, the situation now is starkly different from the one in 1965. The most crucial difference is the emotional temperature. In 1965, before the coverage of the war expanded, Vietnam felt terribly distant. But the current conflict began with more than 3,000 people dying in one day on American soil, in a horribly visible way. So most Americans feel a close emotional connection to what is happening in Afghanistan. The 24-hour-a-day presence of CNN and Fox News serve to keep those emotions high.
But high emotion does not protect against deep ignorance. This conflict, which began in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania, then moved to Afghanistan, seems likely to spread to Iraq and beyond. Its roots and its consequences are immensely complicated, and we should all be examining it intelligently, rather than simply accepting slogans. Yet, with so much at stake, millions of Americans are almost as clueless about foreign affairs as I was in the Vietnam years. For them, as for me, there can be no excuse.
As the country sinks deeper into this new war, I am actually grateful for my earlier inattention to foreign policy, because it gives me some insight into the persistent ignorance that characterizes the popular response to the events of September 11. I offer this story--my own story--as a cautionary tale, an admonition that it is time to pay attention now or regret it bitterly later. And if it should come to pass that Congress reinstates the draft, I hope my experiences will serve as a how-not-to guide for today's draft-age men and women.
War at a time of ignorance