I was a freshman in college when I confronted the prospect of being drafted at the height of the Vietnam War. While against the war, I was also politically naïve and emotionally numb, not truly comprehending the stakes, much in the manner of the proverbial “deer-in-headlights.” By my 18th year, most draft deferments had been eliminated leaving only three options: Canada, false health claims (you’ve heard about some famous ones, no doubt), or the lottery.
364(5) individual dates were tossed into a drum and retrieved one at a time. Recruits would be taken in the order their birthdates were drawn. I sat in a cold sweat for the first couple of hundred draws and slowly began to relax as the 300th passed me by, then 320th, 330th, finally scoring at 348. As I recall, guys were taken through the 200th+ draw. I was “safe.”
My older brother had served in Army intelligence in Saigon for a season, investigating the so-called “black market” among the American troops. Landing in San Francisco when his tour had ended, he threw his service medal into the trash, so disillusioned had he become through first-hand experience of the thorough-going corruption from top to bottom.
The whole war has been comprehensively discredited today, starting with presidential lies and obfuscations trickling down through the entire effort, all the way into the cover-ups of American atrocities such as the My Lai massacre.
Memory of these times came back in a flood when I read that today was the 50th anniversary of that infamous rampage. By the end of March 16th, 1968, American forces had killed 347 to 504 unarmed Vietnamese women, children and old men, and raped 20 women and girls, some as young as 10 years old in My Lai. If we learned nothing else from this, we re-discovered that war truly is hell, and humans stripped of civilizing veneers tend to revert to their most malevolent selves — Americans no less at risk of this descent than anyone else, although only Lt. William Calley was ultimately held accountable, and then, in a very modest manner.
Here’s a fine but difficult article from today’s NY Times that summarizes the awfulness, including our nation’s inept ability at confronting the truth.
But I got to thinking that there’s another lesson in this for us today pertaining to the importance of our collective fidelity in straining toward the truth, to valuing public service as an act of integrity for the sake of the common good, instead of narcissistic self-aggrandizement or self-indulgence.
Character matters. A lot. Honesty, integrity, courage, fidelity have dropped out of our medias’ lexicon. Do you hear those qualities being advanced in our culture?
As it turns out, there was heroism on that day 50 years ago in addition to the infamy: “The massacre finally ended when a flight crew led by Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson intervened. Angered by the murders he observed from his scout helicopter, he landed when he saw soldiers moving toward a group of villagers hiding in a bunker. As he left the helicopter, Mr. Thompson told the door gunner to cover him, and to fire on Charlie Company if they begin killing the Vietnamese at the bunker. After confronting Lieutenant Calley, who told him that it was none of his business, Mr. Thompson persuaded the pilots of other helicopters overhead to land and evacuate the civilians.”
Listen to George Washington: “I hope I shall possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man.”
Consider this a lesson for Lent…