Monday, May 04, 2020

Memories of a Long Ago Spring

The history of late April and early May are very much on my mind today.  Today, May 4 is the 50th anniversary of  the Kent State Massacre in which Ohio National Guard Troops killed four students and wounded nine others in an attempt to quell protests of the US invasion of Cambodia during the Vietnam War.   I was a senior in college then, about to lose my student deferment and a draft number low enough to make my conscription, if not certain, very likely.  By the spring of 1970 I was firmly opposed to the war for both policy and self-preservation reasons.  Nixon was withdrawing US troops from Vietnam but American casualties were still running about 500 dead a month.  It was becoming clear that Nixon's plan for ending American combat was not at all immediate and it was looking more and more like I would end up in the military not too long after graduating.

None of this was new to me in early May 1970.  The draft was a constant during my college years.  By my senior what had been a distant possibility had become a real likelihood.  When demonstrations erupted on campuses around the country in response to the Cambodian invasion and expanded exponentially after the Kent State killings I participated in the nationwide student strike that closed most colleges.  I finished my college career without taking exams in most of my classes and took one early so I could head to Washington, DC to join the organizing and protests there.

And despite that activity I never found a good alternative to military service.  Nor did I have the courage to refuse to serve.  Within two months I was in the Army, having enlisted for two years.  Six months later I was an infantry grunt risking my life in a war that I didn't believe in.  The logic of those choices seemed plausible at the time although in retrospect I marvel at my naivete.  (I won't explain that logic here; if you really want to know, (shameless pluggery  ahead) you can read all about it here.)   As it turned out, I was very, very, very lucky.  Unlike the dead at Kent State and two weeks later at Jackson State, I survived.

So for me, after 50 years, May 1970 feels like the time when everything I knew about life seemed to fly apart.  Not only were fellow students under lethal attack but I was being sucked into a pointless war.  By the end of the year I was in Vietnam facing the very real possibility that I would not live to see 1971 much less survive a full year in-country.  The memories of those times always come back to me every spring and follow through the rest of the year.  But then again, I am alive to have memories.  So many others are not.

Memory is cumulative so other Vietnam-related events also fit into the late April-early May timeline.  Almost a year later in April 1971 when I was still humping the boonies in Vietnam with an M-16 in my hands and a PRC-77 radio on my back, Vietnam Veterans Against the War launched Operation Dewey Canyon III, the first ever protest of an American war by the veterans of that war.  Reading about their protest in Stars and Stripes (which seems to have reported the event objectively) I was electrified to see fellow soldiers speaking out so forcefully and dramatically against the war.  It certainly increased my determination to speak out as a veteran if I made it home alive.  Given my lack of any serious combat, reading about Dewey Canyon II may be one of my most exciting memories of my year in Vietnam.

I did make it home alive and whole.  Which means that four years later in the closing days of April 1975 I watched, along with the entire world, as National Liberation Front and North Vietnamese Army forces swept rapidly through my former area of operations on their way to capturing Saigon.  I saw the South Vietnamese Army fight desperately and tenaciously at Xuan Loc in a futile effort to stop the onslaught.  And I rejoiced to see the end of a war that should have ended 20 years before when those same forces defeated a US-backed French colonial regime that had ruled Vietnam for almost a century.  In 1975 the war was finally over.

The war may have ended but the memories remain.  They are part of a never-ending kaleidoscope that plays in my head.  Different dates trigger different memories and my reactions have varied over the years but I never forget those events.  But I am alive to have memories.. And I can do no greater justice to those memories than to remember the many Vietnamese and Americans who suffered far worse than I did.


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