Friday, February 16, 2007


In 1995, I took a class on the history of the Vietnam war. Week after week, as our teacher passed out hundreds of xeroxed articles from period magazines, I found myself gradually realizing the horror of what had happened, both to Vietnam and to the young men that the United States sent there. Ironically, Robert MacNamara's memoir In Retrospect came out while I was in this class. I remember being enraged at his claim that he had realized that the war was unwinnable, even as he continued to send Americans to fight it. It seemed, to me at least, that he was clearing his conscience for his craven complicity in the destruction of so many lives. I decided that this was something that MacNamara should have taken to his grave, as it made it clear, once and for all, just how meaningless the war actually was.

I was reminded of MacNamara a couple of months ago when Gunther Grass, a German writer and Nobel laureate, admitted that he had been drafted into the Waffen SS when he was sixteen. This caused a huge uproar, as Grass had been an outspoken critic of Germany's Nazi past, and had even condemned Ronald Reagan for his visit to Bitburg cemetery in 1985 because Waffen SS officers were buried there. Grass' critics accused him of hypocrisy and smugness, and declared that he should have admitted his membership years ago, as it would have helped heal Germany's emotional wounds.

I found myself thinking about victims. In a culture where victim status is increasingly becoming the basis of legitimacy, it's interesting to think about real victimization, and the people that it hits. As a Navy brat, I grew up surrounded by Vietnam vets. My father didn't go to Vietnam because he was in military intelligence, and was quick to admit that he had a low pain threshold. As he told his superiors, if he was captured by the Vietcong, he was pretty much guaranteed to spill the beans as soon as they pulled out the pliars. Recognizing his sincerity, the Navy sent him to Korea. Personally, I'm glad they did, as my mother followed him to Seoul, where she conceived me.

But, to return to the actual point, much of my childhood was spent in the company of men who had gone to Vietnam. This was something that we rarely spoke of, but it was clear that these men did not remember their wartime experiences fondly. Occasionally, after a few too many beers, they would discuss some of their memories, and the things that they regretted.

I imagine that it was the same for Gunther Grass. In 1942, he was drafted into the Reichsarbeitdienst, or Reich Labor Service, a group that provided support to the Wehrmacht. Two years later, in November 1944, he was drafted into the Waffen SS. He served in the military for the few months between February 1945 and the end of the war.

I don't know what sights Grass saw during his few months in uniform, and I don't know what things he did. I don't want to know.

I do know that many of my father's friends had memories that tortured them for the rest of their lives. I also know that many of them were unable to forgive themselves for the things they did.

Did they have a choice? Did Gunther Grass? I know that, like Grass, some of my father's friends were drafted, while others voluntarily joined the military. However, I don't think that those who chose to sign up really knew what they were getting themselves into. By the time they had figured it out, I imagine that it was too late.

I know what I was like at sixteen, and I have some small understanding of the things that I was capable of doing. I'm really glad that I was never put in a position to do things that I would later regret. Faced with a choice between a low-paying entry-level job and enlistment, I'm pretty sure that I'd choose enlistment. For that matter, given a choice between not going to college or signing up for the National Guard, I'd have to go for the National Guard. In the current climate, that would mean that I'd end up in Iraq or Afghanistan.

When we talk about victims, it's fashionable to focus on people who have to deal with sexual discrimination, or racism, or other forms of prejudice. These are legitimate concerns, but I think we have to broaden our understanding of victimization. It seems to me that anyone can be a victim, and that some of the hardest things to forgive are the ones that we, ourselves, have done.

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  • wow...thank you for that....I too know many Vietnam vets...and they rarely discuss their time's just too painful...
    I,too, like to push the painful things out of my mind, but have found that they've made me grow and learn.

    By Blogger Odat, At February 16, 2007 at 11:08 AM  

  • At 19 a very wise person said one of the best things in life are the ability to make choices. I admit I didn't fully comprehend this at the time because I always felt things happened "to me".

    Now when faced with a decision I usually overthink it because I am afraid of the consequences I thrust on others. It's pretty daunting to think and pre-see how my actions affect other people and that in every decision I have a choice. Even if I don't like what comes of it.

    By Blogger Pickled Olives, At February 16, 2007 at 11:48 AM  

  • Excellent post. I never heard my grandfather's WWI stories because he was to messed up about it to tell them.

    By Blogger monicker, At February 16, 2007 at 1:19 PM  

  • Odat-
    That's a really great point. We can either be victims of our past or we can learn from it. Thanks!

    Sometimes I feel the "butterfly effect" of my decisions leading me to do nothing, in order to minimize the negative impact of my decisions. Of course, that's an ineffective decision, too!

    It's easy to forget how lucky I've been with regard to war and its effects.

    By Blogger Crankster, At February 16, 2007 at 2:38 PM  

  • I was about 3 years too young to have been threatened with Vietnam, but by the time I got to graduate school, many young vets were returning, and it was there that I met most of my Vietnam vet friends. To a man, they had been badly scarred by the experience, and those that wanted to talk about it were the ones in deepest crisis.

    Having lived through those days (I remember opening my selective service notice in 1973 with beating heart) I would have moved my family to Canada in a heartbeat if there had been a restoration of selective service that had threatened my son with Iraq. Now 22 and a very peaceful soul, he's not likely to face this kind of choice, thank God.

    You're absolutely right in this post. The volunteer military is now staffed primarily with under-privileged and under-educated kids from inner cities or rural areas—kids who have very few options in the world. At least in the Vietnam days, there were a few educated, prosperous kids who served overseas.

    And I wonder if this is one reason why we seem mired in the middle east—because the young people serving there generally from less-privileged classes, and no senators' kids are being maimed or killed.

    By Blogger Mystic Wing, At February 16, 2007 at 2:42 PM  

  • well hell. I just typed out a huge comment and it got eaten somewhere along the lines. Crapola. will write it again tonight...

    By Blogger misanthropster, At February 16, 2007 at 3:12 PM  

  • They sure ARE victims.

    By Blogger Matt, At February 16, 2007 at 8:03 PM  

  • I'm not suggesting that this justifies the war or that the meaning of the war was for this purpose, but so many of my friends were orphaned by this war and adopted into families here. I never would have met them.

    By Blogger mist1, At February 16, 2007 at 8:44 PM  

  • I think people do what they have to do to survive in certain situations (with the exception of some nutters). In retrospect, when not in the situation anymore, they can see more clearly...and I think you're right, it's hardest to forgive oneself.

    By Blogger Claudia, At February 17, 2007 at 10:38 AM  

  • The true victim of war is society itself, because all thinking people are changed and twisted by the atrocities that abound in any violent conflict. My father’s war was WWII and my own generation had Nam. My brother in law was infantry in 1967-68. He came home and tried to forget, but now in his 50’s he has sunk into a PTSD that requires so much medicine he no longer has the will to pick up his feet when he walks. MacNamara voiced no revelations; only spoke aloud what we all knew then, just like we know now that Iraq was wrong, wrong, wrong from the onset.

    How a man deals with grief and the consequences of his own action is not mine to criticize, but I went to my bookshelf and pulled down “The Tin Drum” and paged through it again after many years. It sits one shelf down from Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five”, and not too far from “Steven Crane’s Red Badge of Courage”. What would these and many of my other favorite writers have produced if war had not changed them? For all that we’ve gained, what have we lost? Rhetorical, impossible questions that even history cannot answer, and perhaps only poetry can ask correctly.

    By Blogger Spellbound, At February 17, 2007 at 2:17 PM  

  • I remember Gunther Grass coming out and the furore it caused. And I understand the victims from both sides of the war. But I don't understand why he should criticize Ronald Reagan while hiding his own Nazi past. It just reduces a lot of credibility.

    Anyway, I also understand the imperfections in men all too often thought to be perfect and glorious. It is good that he came out even if at wrong time, must have taken a lot of burden off his heart.

    By Blogger ramo, At February 18, 2007 at 1:22 PM  

  • Goodness. I could go on forever about this one.

    BTW, have you read The Reader by Bernard Schlink? It's about this very issue with regards to the Holocaust. It is one of the best books I've ever read and I've read a lot of books.


    By Blogger Glamourpuss, At February 18, 2007 at 4:19 PM  

  • I think the servicemen who fought in Vietnam were unique in that they were not welcomed back with tickertape parades and ceremonies celebrating their heroism, as were the veterans of all our other wars before it.

    They were reviled and treated like criminals. They were considered to be loose cannons and generally avoided. And many of them were unable to get jobs.

    They were really victimized twice: once by having to go in the first place, and again for living through it. Many of them wished they hadn't.

    There are so many parallels between Vietnam and Iraq, and a whole new generation of victims is reaping the penalties now. As are we all.

    And you are right that for most of us, the hardest things of all to forgive are those we do ourselves.

    By Blogger heartinsanfrancisco, At February 18, 2007 at 4:31 PM  

  • Mystic Wing-
    A corollary of the lower-class, inner-city volunteer army is the tendency to treat these kids like cannon fodder, and neglect them when they return home.

    I get a little hot about this because I've seen a few of my former students get caught in this trap.

    Mist and Spellbound-
    There are numerous positive outcomes to war, from medical advances to literature to immigration. I guess I just wish that we could find other ways to discover these inventions, truths, and connections.

    Besides, "Breakfast of Champions" is Vonnegut's greatest work!!

    That's a good point. It's incredibly hard to contextualize our decisions, and easy to forget the dire straits that push us to do the things we do.

    It's fascinating to think that, under other circumstances, Grass could have been buried in that cemetery. In some ways, that fact makes his moral stand even more powerful.

    It's a good book (I just read it because Oprah told me to). Schlink does a beautiful job of showing how we come to terms with these shameful things.

    Not to overplay the Vonnegut, but "Mother Night" covers some of the same turf.

    I just wish that we could stop putting people in these untenable positions!

    By Blogger Crankster, At February 18, 2007 at 8:22 PM  

  • Most of my uncles were military officers. I remember calling one of them one Veterans Day to thank him for his service. A most interesting conversation ensued. He refused my gratitude.

    One statement stands out. He said, "No one goes to war to die for his country. He goes to make sure the other son of a bitch dies for his. Then he has to live with that choice."

    We talked about Abu Grhaibe. He assured me that this happens in every war. He said that you have to dehumanize the "other" in order to look him in the eye and take his life. You can't look into the eyes of another man who puts his pants on and goes to work to support his family every day just like you do and pull the trigger. He has to be a monster. You can shoot monsters.

    That conversation will stay with me always.

    Thank you for this post.

    By Blogger Lex, At February 19, 2007 at 1:47 AM  

  • Great post. As a parent of 11 and 12 year old boys, I sometimes worry how long this war will last. For those who were drafted to Vietnam, there wasn't even choice, but still maybe the regret of having killed for doing your job.

    By Blogger Lee, At February 19, 2007 at 1:28 PM  

  • So many issues, so little space. As so many of my sentiments have been addressed by previous comments, I choose McNamara and hypocrisy as my subjects. When McNamara came out with “ The Fog of War,” I had hoped that he would come clean but it seemed to me that he spent as much time rationalizing as he did repenting. In the end, it was a message muddled to a point of inconsequence. Where hypocrisy is concerned, I’ve always been taught that it is hypocrisy only if you continue to engage in activities you condemn. If the opinions of the penitent are automatically ruled moot, then the only opinions left are from people with no first hand knowledge of the other side of the story. Even when the “other side” is a story of unfathomable cruelty and unforgivable inhumanity, ignoring the lessons that can be gleaned from that perspective increase the probability of a repeat performance. I’ll have to research Gunther Grass, but if he is truly repentant and if his condemnations of bigotry and hatred are honest, then maybe he shouldn’t be thrown into the same category as child molesting priests and gay bashing homosexual politicians. If it turns out that he is a douche-bag, then screw him and I’ll pick somebody else as an example.

    By Blogger slaghammer, At February 20, 2007 at 3:09 AM  

  • By chance, I read your post about Gunter Grass, and young soldiers, a couple of days after talking to someone in Texas, who was talking of reretting some of the things she did aged nineteen. Just a kid still, she said, not yet reponsible enough to think of her actions.
    "But old enough" I said, "To die for your country in Vietnam".
    She didn't get the reference.
    How quickly people forget that that memorial in Washington commemmorates a fighting force whose average age was just nineteen.
    Not old enough to buy alcohol, because they're still kids. Yet old enough to kill and be killed.
    I'm English. I was not in danger of the draft.
    Every morning and evening I pass a war memorial. Where a village's boys are remembered, Those who went away before they ever had the chance to become men, and died, shattered, on the battlefields of the Somme, and all around the world.
    The men who select and send them to die, are themselves safe. Always.
    Kids who you would not trust to fix your car, you send them into war.
    My own father was a prisoner of war in south east asia. After four years captivity, regular beatings, slave labour, logging timber out of a snake infested mangrove swamp, burying his friends, he was freed and returned home, to a country where nobody waited on the docks, for the troopship. No bands, no heroes welcome.
    So it goes on.
    My father said of his captors. "They were soldiers, just young men like us. They were unbelievably brutal, but who can say whether we would have been any better had the situation been reversed"
    Gunter Grass was drafted. His being a soldier in the waffen ss is no more a stain upon his honour than had he served in Vietnam, or in the current armies in Iraq. Young men join the army and are stripped of choice, and thus responsibility.
    The guilt for the actions of armies, and their individual components, is vested in those who frame the policies that send them to war.

    By Blogger soubriquet, At February 20, 2007 at 5:54 AM  

  • Lex-
    Thank you for your memories. The process by which we transform people into "Others" is fascinating (and terrifying) to me. The need to dehumanize almost seems hard-wired into our culture.

    A few years ago, some of my students asked me who I was voting for. I refused to discuss it in class, but I privately told them that:

    1. I believe that education is the most important thing in our society.

    2. I invest a lot in my students and am not eager to see them die.

    I then asked my students to tell me who they thought I was going to vote for. Most of them guessed correctly!

    MacNamara is one of the few people in the world (along with Kathleen Harris) that I truly consider evil. His decision to allow his ego to trump the lives of so many young men is, at the end of the day, a crime on the scale of genocide.

    If I were Dante, ol' Robert would get his own circle (or at least a Bolgia!).

    I couldn't agree more. I wish our leaders had a better understanding of the inhumanity that they visit upon their own citizens.

    By Blogger Crankster, At February 20, 2007 at 12:49 PM  

  • when the last helicopters left viet nam in disgrace we left many victims behind. they had been our friends and allies and we turned and ran, leaving them to bear the horrors that followed alone. i hope we learned something from this and don't do it again. the faces of these people are burned in my mind. thank you for your post. it stirred many memories for me...

    smiles, bee

    (ps, i'm usually pretty funny, ask mist1 or odat!)

    By Blogger Empress Bee (of the High Sea), At February 25, 2007 at 8:07 AM  

  • Bee-
    Thanks for the thoughts and memories. I, too, am usually funnier, although I seem to be in a melancholic funk lately...

    Thanks for stopping by!

    By Blogger Crankster, At February 26, 2007 at 12:36 PM  

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