Columns 2017

Learn the lesson from the Vietnam War generation

As a member of the sixties hippie generation, I am also a child of the Vietnam War. I don’t know if there are enough words to express what an overwhelming presence and force that war was to my generation. It encompassed us like a tsunami. When it ended, it felt as though the whole world shuddered in an attempt to find the new normal. I think we all regret that the new normal turned out to be the seventies.

I started the sixties as a good little Catholic schoolgirl. It wasn’t until I got to college in the mid sixties that I noticed that the whole world wasn’t represented by the safe and insular world in which I’d been raised. My first flirtation with civil disobedience and protests occurred within the realm of the civil rights movement. That opened a door to a whole other world for me.

Given that I was in a Catholic women’s college where virginity and Sunday mass were two highly regarded requirements, it’s not as though that door was thrown open. But I was in Philadelphia and things were happening outside of my campus that couldn’t be ignored. By the end of my college experience, the war protests were in full force. I was as smack dab in the middle as I could be given the 7:30 PM weekday curfew we endured.

Under that curfew, being a dyed in the wool, war protesting, pot-smoking hippie was not easy. But I managed. I managed because I felt I needed to have my voice heard about a war that was destroying my generation. Despite multiple explanations from varied talking heads, no one ever really gave me a good reason why we were over there fighting. I can look back now and somewhat understand that the war was being led by a generation that had been victorious in World War II and so didn’t know how to retreat with honor from an unwinnable situation. No one wanted to admit that America was losing.

I often wonder why protests over the wars in the Mideast have not arisen today as they did during Vietnam. The obvious answer is that we no longer have a draft. Middle class children are no longer in the crosshairs. People in the military are there by choice, not because their number was called in some lottery.

The wars we are fighting in the Mideast have been going on for over 15 years. They don’t make the front page of the paper anymore. They barely get covered anywhere in the news. Unless you are burying a loved one from these conflicts, it’s as though we aren’t really at war at all. With the Vietnam War, the images were plastered across our TV screens every night on the news. Newspapers carried pictures of soldiers injured, huts burning, chaos in villages. The war was brought into our homes every evening. There was no avoiding it.

We seem to be successfully ignoring the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. We are inundated with tweets and pictures of (for reasons no one can really explain) women who are famous for baring various parts of their anatomy to the public. We are drowned in internecine battles within political parties. We have taken to gazing so intently at our bellybuttons that we no longer are really aware of the outside world.

Every once in a while when a terrorist attack happens in Europe, we get the pictures and shouting headlines that were routine during the Vietnam War. But when those suicide bombers blow up a market in the Mideast, causing mass casualties, we’re lucky if that gets covered on page 4 under a world news wrap up. It usually rates barely a mention, if that, on TV and radio news.

I guess we will finally be aware of the devastation of 15 years of war as more and more vets return home wounded in body and spirit. We won’t have enough money to care for them the way we should. We never do. That’s why underfunding at the VA is an evergreen topic during any national campaign. We have money for bombs and bullets but not medicine and therapy.

As someone who has watched the fall out from war on her generation, let me suggest that ignoring these wars only pushes the pain down the road. Eventually, as a society, we will have to face the consequences of what these wars have done to a whole generation of men and women in the military, For their sake, I hope we do better for them than we did for the walking wounded from Vietnam. Let’s hope we at least learned that lesson.

One thought on “Learn the lesson from the Vietnam War generation”

  1. Diane says:

    As a kid of that generation, I see the same. Your perspective is eloquent. I worry about the present generation of ‘warriors’, who are expected to serve multiple tours. As brutal as the Viet Nam combat was, draftees had limited deployment.

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