Tuesday, February 06, 2007


Last week I was driving home from work, scanning the local radio stations, and on one of the talk stations the DJs were discussing Dumbya's escalation of the war in Iraq, when they suddenly broke into a somewhat disjointed on-air rendition of an old Vietnam anti-War song that I used to sing -- we all used to sing -- when I was a kid: Country Joe McDonald's I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag:

Come on all of you big strong men,
Uncle Sam needs your help again;
He's got himself in a terrible jam
Way down yonder in Vietnam,
So put down your books and pick up a gun --
We're gonna have a whole lot of fun!

When we were kids, we thought this song was great. Especially since it allowed us (all Catholic school students) to legitimately (I mean, it was in the song, wasn't it?) say the word "damn." This is the chorus:

And it's one two three,
what are we fighting for?
Don't ask me, I don't give a damn,
Next stop is Vietnam.
And it's five six seven,
Open up the Pearly Gates.
There ain't no time to wonder why --
Whoopie, we're all gonna die!

We used to sing it all the time, but by the time I heard it last week I hadn't heard it for decades, and in fact hadn't even thought about it for decades. I don't think it ever gets airplay. As far as I know, everyone who reads this blog (possibly excepting my brother) is too young to remember the Vietnam War. Have any of you ever heard it? It was, in its day, the most popular anti-war song on the radio:

Come on generals, let's move fast;
Your big chance has come at last.
Gotta go out and get those reds
The only good commie is the one that's dead
You know that peace can only be won
When we've blown 'em all to kingdom come.

Looking back from my perspective today, my most powerful memory from the Vietnam era was the day the war ended. Or rather, the day the peace treaty was signed. I came home from... wherever. School, maybe. And my mother was standing in the living room of our house, watching the TV and crying. On the TV screen I saw men in suits seated around a big table and passing papers to one another. "The war is over," said my mother, through her tears. "It's over."

Come on Wall Street, don't move slow,
Why man, this is war au-go-go.
There's plenty good money to be made
Supplying the Army with the tools of the trade,
Just hope and pray that if they drop the bomb,
They drop it on the Viet Cong.

To be honest, I was callow and careless as a teenager. I didn't ask my mother why she was crying. I didn't care why she was crying. I went on with my teenager life. But, today, I know why she was crying. It was because I was less than two years from being old enough for the draft. I never asked her about it, and she never spoke to me about it, but now I see that as the war dragged on, and the years passed, and I got closer and closer to draft age, she grew secretly more and more distressed by the thought that I would be forced to go to Vietnam and I would be killed there. What mother wouldn't worry about something like this?

Come on mothers throughout the land,
Pack your boys off to Vietnam.
Come on fathers, don't hesitate,
Send your sons off before it's too late.
You can be the first one on your block
To have your boy come home in a box.

My mother's tears that day were tears of otherwise inexpressible relief. When I see pictures in the news, today, of the tears on the faces of families grieving for their dead coming home from Iraq, I remember my mother's tears, how much alike they looked, and for how different reasons they were shed.

Why do I bring this up today? Because I think you're interested in my memories? Hardly. I bring it because of two things that recently, coincidentally, crossed my path: The first was those DJs on the talk radio show singing that old Vietnam-era song by Country Joe and the Fish, and bringing back those memories of that time.

The second reason is a piece of mail I received last week. It was an advertisement from a cruise line, for a twenty-one day trans-Pacific cruise, originating in Vancouver and ending in Beijing. But what struck me was that two of the ports of call on this cruise will be in... Vietnam. A country where we fought and lost a stupid and futile war, a war I came within a couple of years of perhaps having to fight in. And now, thirty years later, a country to which I can sail on a luxurious American cruise ship and, you know, see all the sights! As I sat here, in 2007, fuming about Dumbya and the American men and women he's murdering in Iraq and the tens of thousands of Iraqis he's murdering and... and... I got myself so worked up... and then I heard that protest song from so long ago, and I looked at this beautiful four-color brochure inviting me to cruise to what was once the land of our enemies and our shame, and suddenly I was comforted by the realization of this one truth:

Nothing can endure the passage of time. Nothing. Not even stupidity.

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Wow! That is very moving. Of course, being 3 years younger still, the end of Vietnam was even further removed from my personal experience. Strangely enough, it never occurred to me until today that I might have ended up there myself had it continued to drag on.

As it turns out I am on the other extreme. Shortly after the war Carter abolished the draft. When I turned 18 not only was there no draft but there wasn't even a requirement to register for one. Registration for the draft was reinstated several years later but only for those born in 1960 or later. With an October 1959 birthday I am among the few of my generation who never had to even register for the draft.

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