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Notes From the Boonies
By Paul Wisovaty
During the last weekend in February, the Campus Anti-War Network held its annual convention twenty-five miles north of my little Boonies hideout, at the University of Illinois at Urbana. I am ashamed to say that I had never heard of the Campus Anti-War Network. On the other hand, I routinely speak to Tuscola citizens who, from all appearances, do not appear to have heard of our current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Or if they have any knowledge of them, those far-off occurrences do not register prominently upon their radar screens. In fairness to my Tuscola friends, I would suggest that this is a nation-wide affliction. If your kid isn't over there, and your taxes aren't going up to pay for it, why the hell should you care?
We'll let that one speak for itself. Anyway, Joe Miller e-mailed me a week before the event, for what I assumed was to suggest that I may wish to attend. Upon further reading of his communication, it became apparent that he wished me to sub for him as a presenter, as part of a panel discussion to include a VVAW member and two IVAW vets. Let's break this down a little.
At the risk of seeming self-deprecating, this did not appear to be a good fit. Joe has a PhD in political science; I took nine years to get a Bachelor's degree. I try to read some books about Vietnam; Joe teaches a college course on the subject. I don't speak much good English; Joe speaks fluent Chinese and three other languages I have never heard of. What's wrong with this equation?
Well, I guess you do what you have to do. I showed up, shared the stage for an hour with Jake and Duane, and had a great time. I hope that I had something meaningful to say to these really fired-up young men and women. The last thing I wished to do was to come off as another old guy telling war stories about something that ended fifteen years before they were born.
Borrowing a term that was almost iconic in the 70's, I hoped to make my presentation "relevant," i.e., to suggest some connection between Vietnam and our current Middle East involvements. OK, lying Presidents and cowardly legislators kind of jumped off of the page, so I dismissed those as too obvious. I decided to talk about relations between the troops "on the ground" (I really hate that term) and what we may refer to as the "indigenous populations." I suggested that, in some circumstances, appearances may have been wildly deceiving.
While I am painting with a pretty broad brush here, it may be fair to suggest that in Vietnam, the troops stationed in rear echelon areas (base camps) experienced a wholly different relationship with the Vietnamese than did those serving in forward areas. To be real blunt, almost the only Vietnamese with whom the former dealt were the bartenders, drug dealers and women whom they paid for sex. Please note that I did not call them prostitutes. They were girls doing what they had to do to survive in a world which we had turned upside down upon them (and their parents), and we were reluctant to deny them the opportunity to do that. As may be expected, all of these Vietnamese never missed an opportunity to tell us how much they appreciated our leaving our warm homes in America to rescue them from Ho and those Godless bastards trying to enslave them. The common expression was "GI number one, VC number ten." I guess that it never occurred to us that we were paying them to be nice to us.
Out in the field, I suggested, things were different. A lot different. We did not deal with many civilians, and the few with whom we dealt didn't spend a lot of time schmoozing us. To be honest, we pretty much hated them, and they returned the favor. First of all, we blamed them for our being there. I guess it never crossed our minds to blame Nixon or LBJ or JFK, because, well, they weren't there. But mama-son and papa-son sure as hell were. And that wasn't the biggest reason we hated them. Look at them for God's sake, I pointed out. They just looked suspicious. They spoke this funny-sounding gibberish language, and we suspected that when they did talk they were saying bad things about us. (I'm sure they were.) They didn't love Jesus either; strike two. Finally, well, as I said, they were there.
Let's flash forward to 2010, Iraq and Afghanistan, places to which I readily confessed to the students I had never been and about which I knew little. But there may similarities looming here: lots of people with swarthy skins who disdained to speak the King's English and - wouldn't you know it? - didn't love Jesus either. What could possibly be to like about these people? And what may be the final component linking Vietnam and 2010? Maybe it's just us.
I suggested that, with all due respect to our troops serving in the Middle East, many of them are post-adolescent, maturing young men and women, some of whom may plausibly be as ignorant (I do not mean this in a disparaging way) as I was in 1968. And they may be, to use a legal term, scared shitless. Unlike me and Joe and Barry, and the rest of us really old guys, they are denied the luxury of sitting around with a scotch and a cigar like William Shatner and James Spader at the end of Boston Legal, pontificating upon the sins of their youths. They are There. God love every darned one of them, and we hope that they return safely. And if they do, what have they left behind?
Based entirely upon my experiences with the 3/5th Armored Cavalry, 9th Infantry Division, Republic of South Vietnam - about a week of which I spent being schmoozed in base camp by bartenders and all those other indigenous people - I cannot imagine that there is going to be a lot of winning hearts and minds in Kabul or Baghdad or any of those other places I can't pronounce. I hope that I may have suggested why not. Finally, I guess that I'm reminded of the line from Bob Dylan's "Frankie Lee and Judas Priest," circa 1968. "The moral of this story, the moral of this song, is that one should never be where one does not belong."
If Bobby Zimmerman said it, you can take it to the bank.
Paul Wisovaty is a member of VVAW. He lives in Tuscola, Illinois, where he works as a probation officer. He was in Vietnam with the US Army 9th Division in 1968.