War in a time of ignorance
Remembrances of another war to make the world safe for democracy. Part one of a two-part series.
By Bob Keeler / Stony Brook, New York
Monday, December 17, 2001
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.
I fail to dodge the draft
To get back to that token: As glad as I am that I still have it, I have to ask myself why I saved it, instead of spending it on my subway ride to induction. The reason was probably nothing more mysterious than the nasty strain of obsessive-compulsive behavior that has plagued me from childhood, compelling me always to organize, to save, to file.
It was that obsessiveness that had allowed me to be drafted in the first place. Through my first year at Fordham University, I had received no grade lower than an A--not because any great career goal was driving me, but simply because imperfection always seemed like such a hideous option. In my sophomore year, crazed by the possibility that I might have to settle for a B+ in one course, I made a brilliant decision: Rather than blemish my perfect grades, I would drop out.
It was a breathtakingly neurotic choice, one that would alter the course of my life. After leaving school, I took a job as a copy boy and later a desk assistant at the New York Herald Tribune. It was my first chance to witness the craft of journalism at a high professional level. Every day, I worked in the presence of such great writers as Jimmy Breslin, Red Smith, Tom Wolfe, Richard Reeves, Dick Schaap, and Walter Kerr.
Though I loved that job, it had a serious drawback. Unlike the academic world that I had left behind, it offered me no protection from the draft. Worse, at a time when young men of my age were spending much of their time thinking of ways not to get drafted, I was not really thinking about the draft at all.
It was 1965, and the U.S. government was frantically shipping more troops to Vietnam. The newspapers were full of these stories, and I worked every day at one of the greatest newspapers in America. The wires hummed with news of Vietnam, and the Tribune's staff was on the case. On at least one occasion, my job put me in direct contact with the war.
The legendary Jimmy Breslin had cabled a column from Vietnam. It arrived in one long, unbroken string of words, and my job was to break it into paragraphs. Characteristically, I was far more worried about the horrible possibility of paragraphing the story in a way that would displease the great Breslin than I was about the events that he was reporting.
At about that time, a mail carrier delivered the letter from Lyndon. I don't recall the precise circumstances, but I have a vague memory of being surprised. Nearly four decades later, I am still astonished at the murky process inside my head that was masquerading as thought. The president's frugal salutation and the tiny token should have put me on high alert, like the first notes of scary music in a horror movie. I should have concluded by then, as so many others had, that the war was a totally immoral enterprise, a conflict that our nation had no business entering. If I had been thinking at all, the arrival of that letter should have driven me into a frenzy of belated planning to avoid the draft.
Instead, I meekly rode the subway to 39 Whitehall Street. This ugly, fortress-like building near the southern tip of Manhattan eventually became a concrete symbol for the whole war. It stood just blocks away from the site where excavation would begin, a few months later, for the World Trade Center.
Soon after I arrived, I went through the famously humiliating physical exam, brilliantly satirized by folk singer Arlo Guthrie in his song "Alice's Restaurant." As the mass inspection of body parts unfolded, the command I remember best was: "Bend down, grab the cheeks of your ass, and spread 'em."
The result of my physical would have elated many young Americans. The military classified me 1-Y. That meant I was temporarily unable to serve because of some physical defect. Instead of leaping for joy, I was offended. Why would my country reject me?
It might have been my acne, or the collarbone I had fractured a decade earlier in elementary school. Or maybe it was just a mistake by the doctors. Whatever it was, I didn't have long to wonder: The government soon decided that my bodily imperfection was not really a threat to national security, and I was good enough for military service after all. (As I later learned, "good enough for military service" is not exactly high praise.) They ordered me to report for induction on November 15, 1965. I raised my right hand, took one step forward, and solemnly promised to defend the nation.
To this day, I look back at the high seriousness of that moment and marvel at the cosmic emptiness of my head. I was not thinking antiwar thoughts. Nor was I swelling with patriotic fervor, eager to kill Communists for America. I was just there, inert and not alert.
The Army, as I quickly learned, did not encourage its young troops to think. Whenever a recruit dared to say, "I thought," some sergeant would bark: "If you were authorized to think, the government would have issued you a brain."
Nonetheless, in that first week of military service, I was still trying to think. I even had a "plan" for my Army career. At the Herald Tribune, one of my colleagues had attended a military journalism school and then served the nation in his chosen craft. That sounded good to me. So I memorized his MOS--my first army acronym. It stood for Military Occupational Specialty, the little code that described your job. His MOS was 71Q20, information specialist.
Smugly, I cradled this magic code in my mind as I carried my DA Form 20 through a processing line at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, the first stop in my military career. The DA Form 20 is an enlisted soldier's personal military record, printed on stiff yellow paper. Mine was mostly blank as I approached the low-level clerk who was about to assign me to my first job in the Army. This was my plan: I would tell him I wanted to be a 71Q20. In his astonishment that I even knew what an MOS was, he would meekly write down the code, and I'd be on my way to training as an army journalist.
As the clerk looked up at me briefly, I spoke confidently. "I'd like to be a 71Q20, information specialist."
He casually penciled in 11A10. Armor crewman.
It was then that I had my first great epiphany concerning military absurdity. My destiny was not to write, but to drive tanks. Hell, I was a city boy. I didn't even know how to drive a car.
I learn to be a killer
Before I knew it, I was climbing onto a rickety Saturn Airlines propeller plane, with all my goods in one olive drab duffel bag. The plane landed hours later in Fort Hood, Texas, the home of the 2nd Armored Division. There, in a tank company recently converted to a basic training unit to help turn out the long lines of men needed to prosecute the war in Vietnam, I learned to be a soldier.
It never occurred to me to question the central premises of our training. The sergeant would demand loudly, "What is the spirit of the bayonet?" We would reply in unison: "To kill!" Instead of seeing in that ritual the cruel reality at the core of all armies, I worried about polishing my boots and shining my brass.
At my first permanent assignment, as a personnel clerk in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, I spent my time and energy learning to type officer efficiency reports perfectly, with no typos and no erasures. I could have seen the presence of the United States Army Special Forces, a particularly savage and remorseless collection of professional killers, as an occasion for reflection on the brutality of warfare. Instead, I just loved the jaunty way they wore their green berets. In fact, I bought one and sent it home as a present to Judy, the woman I had met at a going-away party right before I left for the Army. Now, after being married to Judy for thirty-two years, I cringe at the memory that my first gift to her was a symbol of war.
It was at Bragg that my brother Richie and I crossed paths for the only time during our military service. He was on his way to Vietnam. By then, I had grown tired of being a clerk and soured on life in a barracks with dozens of other men, many of whom played country and Western music loudly on their radios. So I had decided to apply for Officer Candidate School, even though that would extend my military obligation from a draftee's two years to something more than three. Richie and I said our goodbyes, and he reminded me that, even after I had my lieutenant's gold bars, he would never salute me.
At the Artillery and Missile Officer Candidate School at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, my one obsession was learning how to get an artillery round to its target. One day, I led the fire direction center, the part of an artillery unit that calculates map coordinates, wind, temperature, and other variables to produce an accurate trajectory. We launched a barrage of timed-fuse rounds into the air, exploding them right over a heap of scrap cars on the practice range. Not bothering to ponder what it might have been like to be a person standing below that lethal rain of shrapnel, I rejoiced at the abstract perfection of our mathematical achievement.
On Sundays, I found solace from the demanding routine of my training by attending Mass. Not once did I even think about the utter incompatibility between the nonviolent Gospel of Jesus and my studies. After church, I'd go back to mastering the murderous math of war. Once again, my obsessive focus on grades was obscuring the obvious. Instead of thinking seriously about the morality of what American artillery was doing to Vietnamese bodies, I contented myself with conquering trigonometry and finishing first in my class.
That little distinction had one value: It gave my preference of assignments some weight. So I ended up as an information officer at Fort George G. Meade, Maryland. There, I returned to the craft of journalism, as a supervisor of the post's newspaper. I also wrote a patriotic speech or two for the post commander. What I did not do was give much thought to the ultimate meaning of the National Security Agency, the super-secret spy organization that eavesdropped electronically on the whole world from its headquarters at Fort Meade.
After less than a full year at Meade, I received a letter from the Pentagon. When I opened it, I found a set of orders reassigning me to the 4th United States Army Missile Command, APO San Francisco 96208. APO meant Army Post Office. I knew that the APO in San Francisco served troops throughout Asia. Was I being sent to Vietnam? The orders did not tell me the exact location of my assignment. With a growing sense of dread, I walked to the post office at Fort Meade, went up to the window, and meekly asked the clerk where APO SF 96208 might be.
He matter-of-factly informed me: "Korea."
I was relieved, of course, but also curious about the factors that had spared me a trip to the rice paddies. I called the Pentagon and spoke to the officer who had made the assignment. His reasoning was sound: For a year after graduating from artillery officer candidate school, I had not even come close to an artillery piece. If he had sent me to Vietnam as an artillery officer, I would have been instant dead meat.
He had a point. Of course, I might have ended up in the comparative safety of a fire direction center. But I might also have become a forward observer. The role of the artillery forward observer is to travel with the frontline infantry troops and guide artillery barrages down on the heads of the nearby enemy--without dropping them by mistake on American troops. I shudder to think of the damage I might have done, to both sides, had the U.S. Army sent me to Vietnam in that capacity. By then, I had also learned that the life expectancy of forward observers was rather brief. It was odd, but typical of my mindset, that this reality had not occurred to me when I chose to leave my clerk's job at Fort Bragg to become an artillery officer.
There, too, I lucked out. My artillery battalion at Fort Bragg later went to Vietnam as a unit.
I live to regret the war
In Korea, the Army put me in a contradictory, even schizophrenic, assignment. My primary duty was military intelligence (another great oxymoron, like army journalism). Working in the S2, the intelligence section of command headquarters, I found myself the custodian of hundreds of secret and top secret documents. As an additional duty, I supervised the production of the command's modest little newspaper and handled public relations. In other words, my job was simultaneously to keep secrets and to deliver the news.
By then, Judy and I were engaged, and we corresponded almost every day, exchanging letters and taped conversations, because phone calls home from Korea were too expensive. Our relationship had unfolded almost entirely by mail, but even at that great distance, we had a deep disagreement. More immersed in the real world than I was, she had already sensed that the war in Vietnam was deeply wrong. But I had swallowed the propaganda of a film that the Army showed often during my training, called Why Vietnam? I should have listened to her, but I stubbornly refused and moped angrily. Still, I missed her and counted the days until we could develop our relationship in person, instead of on paper and on tape.
To maintain my sanity during the thirteen months of my tour, I taught English at the radio station in Chunchon, bought a good camera, and learned to develop my own film in a crafts shop at Camp Page. On a military exercise, I took endless photos of the Honest John tactical missiles, rejoicing when one photo skillfully captured the exact moment when it roared off the launcher toward a distant target. It did not even occur to me to wonder what one of those thunderous missiles might do to a group of human beings at the other end.
Nor did I give much thought to the targeting documents that we maintained in our files. I worried about what would happen to me if failed to protect the security of the documents, but I didn't worry about the lives that they might someday enable my unit to snuff out, many miles away from the launchers. Nor did I have moral qualms about being part of a unit that could put tactical nuclear weapons on the tips of its rockets.
But in its own manner, the Army did teach me something in Korea about the way the United States makes enemies, on a retail level. The Army understood from experience that the average seventeen-year-old American male can cause an astonishing amount of mischief when he leaves an American post and sets foot in "the economy" of the host nation. As a "Cold War officer," my job was to brief these teenagers about the hard-working people and the ancient culture of Korea before they were allowed off post for the first time, and to warn them about previous occasions when young Americans in foreign lands had created nasty incidents in other nations.
By the end of my thirteen months at Camp Page, I had grown disillusioned with the Army. Even so, my disillusionment was pale and feeble, a reaction to the everyday stupidities of "the Army way," rather than an intelligent, principled response to the deeper questions of the U.S. presence in Korea. In a mild protest against the imperative to get soldiers to "re-up," or sign on for more years in the Army, I counseled friends on the benefits of leaving. Eventually, I even earned a minor reputation as "the command un-up officer."
Far from seeing this attitude as a threat, my commanding officer was amused. He considered me a good officer.
During my year in Korea--all of 1968 and the first month of 1969--I missed an immense amount of turmoil in the United States: the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York, the turbulent Democratic national convention in Chicago. Somehow, I persuaded myself that Richard Nixon's experience as a vice president would make him a better president than Hubert Humphrey, and I voted for Nixon by absentee ballot.
If I had remained on a college campus for those years between 1965 and 1968, I now like to think, the salutary virus of dissent might have infected me, jolting me from my lethargy and moving me to protest an immoral war. But it didn't happen. I got home from Korea, threw my expensive dress blue uniform in the garbage, and got on with my life. I resumed my interrupted career in journalism, and Judy and I got married a few months after my discharge.
Through the 1970s and '80s, I paid little attention to what was going on overseas. I woke up about the Vietnam War in time to vote for George McGovern, the antiwar candidate, in 1972. But I devoted no real study to what had led to the war, nor to the broad sweep of American foreign policy that had made it almost inevitable. Instead, I kept my nose buried in my work (I was now a reporter at Newsday) and in my family. That, of course, is no excuse. There is no reason why I could not have raised my two daughters and my consciousness at the same time.
Then in 1983, my brother Richie died, at age thirty-six. One of the hardest things I've ever had to do was to identify his body, horribly decomposed after he had lain, dead, for a day or more in his overheated apartment, where a friend eventually found him. He had been suffering from severe headaches for months, and he had odd symptoms, such as a total intolerance for alcohol. But the doctors couldn't give us a definitive cause of death.
In the months after, as a way of coping with Richie's death, I decided to write a magazine piece about it for Newsday's Sunday magazine. In doing the reporting for that piece, I contacted some of the men who had served in his combat engineer battalion in Vietnam and discovered that some had displayed the same symptoms that had plagued Richie. We had no positive proof of it, but we suspected--and still suspect--that his combat exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange contributed to his death.
Even before I did the reporting that led me to that conclusion, I had a visceral sense that the government was responsible for his death. It overtook me as I walked into a funeral parlor in Queens for his wake. His coffin was closed, and on top of it sat an American flag, folded crisply into a triangle. Without even thinking about it, I removed the flag and threw it on the floor of a closet.
From that day to this, I do not take off my hat for the flag, pledge allegiance to it, or find comfort in its colors.
PART ONE: Remembrances of another war to make the world safe for democracy. DECEMBER 17, 2001.
PART TWO: Two lessons learned. JANUARY 7, 2002.
Army Officer Candidate School
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