The most despicable piece of self-serving drivel I ever read — worse than the collected works of J. Edgar Hoover and anything that comes out of the mouth of Dick Cheney — emanated from an unlikely source: Mark Helprin, a writer of serious fiction whose politics are abhorrent but whose prose I admired. In a piece published in the Wall Street Journal about 22 years ago, he offered up an apologia for protesting the Vietnam War and “dodging” the draft, rather than foregoing college and humping in the Delta with his fellow grunts.
I was reminded of Helprin the other day on a home visit to a new geriatric case management client — a 65-year-old Irish-American who blew his mind out in Vietnam 47 years ago and hasn’t yet managed to reclaim it. Like millions of other kids back then, he drifted through high school without much thought or purpose, and graduated into the fog of adulthood. Before he could get his bearings, his buddies were all off in college and he was left holding his 1-A draft papers. Pretty soon, he was holding an M-16 in a Southeast Asian charnel house. He told me stories we’ve all heard before, of bayoneted women and babies, burning villages and being spat upon by vengeful hippies at Kennedy Airport. How much of it was accurate, I can’t say, but I believe that for him it was true.
And while we sat across a cluttered kitchen table, his aged mother being tended to by an aide in the next room, I thought that it would be less disrespectful to this troubled man, and to every soldier who fought in that war, if I were to suddenly get up out of my chair and spit in his eye than if I were to say that I wished I’d been over there with him in 'Nam getting my ass shot off, too. The least those of us who were here owe those who were there is honesty.
Whoever was picking the draft lottery dates out of the hat on that fateful spring day in 1970 pulled a beauty for me: I was something like 247 of 365. So, between college/grad school and a high lottery number, I remained a civilian throughout the whole of the Vietnam debacle. And, if I had it to do over again, I’d have prayed for a better number and protested the war even more vehemently, because dying over there made no sense to me then, or now.
And I know that if I had said that to my client, he’d have nodded in agreement, because among nearly all the guys I know who went to Vietnam and returned, there are no feelings of revulsion toward those of us who stayed stateside. If anything, it’s a matter of envy rather than anger.
What I might have wanted to, but didn’t, say to the client, is that while I am eternally grateful for the good fortune of a college deferment and a winning lottery ticket, I live with a guilt that I can’t shake. I didn’t say it out loud because he would have laughed me out of his apartment. Compared to the things he carries, my burden of guilt is a flea on an elephant’s ass.
Nevertheless, I’ve been carrying it since I became eligible for the draft. Who was I to be so fucking lucky?
My old man, a WWII Army vet whose outfit did the cleanup on Iwo Jima after the Marines had done the heavy lifting, certainly did not want his only son going off to a senseless war. But I also know that we’d have been closer if I had. Every now and then he’d needle me about it, much as I imagine the director John Ford, who served in WWII, used to needle his favorite star, John Wayne, the world’s most famous non-combatant.
I grew up with my dad’s child-friendly fairy tales of life on Iwo. He was late arriving to the island, but the desolate little piece of ash was still very much a combat zone, with Japanese stragglers and snipers dug deep into tunnels into which a rat wouldn’t venture. My dad’s job over there was stringing communications wire across the island — a sniper’s delight. His Dick & Jane Iwo stories made no mention of the kind of fear that would curdle the insides of a 125-pound sergeant on a wire.
Every Memorial Day, my dad and I would go to the village green to watch the conclusion of the parade and hear the speeches. Then we’d walk home together to watch the same old Memorial Day war pictures, with a special emphasis on his war in the Pacific — "Bataan," "Back To Bataan," "The Sands of Iwo Jima." And, of course, we’d top off the day with a game of catch in the backyard. It was my best day of the year. I had a real live war hero of my own, and I wanted to be one, too.
I’ve talked out my ambivalence and guilt with professionals and non-professionals. But there’s no cure for ambiguity, because, as I’ve come to learn, it is a fundamental human condition. After all this time, and so many more senseless wars and devastated lives, I fall back on (what else?), a great war movie.
“Earn this,” says a dying Tom Hanks to the just-saved Private Ryan. And that’s the only thing I know how to do from this point on. Earn my own blessings.