…I want to extend my respect and gratitude to those who are serving or have served our country in the military…
…particularly in times of war; and, it seems, it’s always a time of war.
War is a failure of diplomacy, of compromise, of any promise of advancing civilization beyond our ancient-but-constantly-renewed tribalism. War is a consequence of the fear-hatred-action model. Either we’re on the side of coveting and going after that which we can not merely bargain for; or we’re defending against those forces.
The history of human beings is a history of war. War defines us.
This is what I was taught; yet this thought that war is wrong comes directly up against the war movies, the Cowboy-and-Indian sagas; swarming and falling; heroes prevailing or sacrificing all for some noble cause.
This “Noble Cause” idea is always there; it has never been defeated.
My childhood friends and I played Army, played Cowboys-and-Indians. Occasionally play would turn to a fight. Not necessarily noble.
I’m working on a novel, “Swamis,” that takes place in 1969, the year I turned 18, required to sign up for the draft. I had just graduated from high school in a town anchoring one point of the triangle of Camp Pendleton. My parents both worked there. Most of Camp Pendleton was in the Fallbrook school district.
Though my father went into the U.S. Marine Corps before Pearl Harbor, and was at Guadalcanal and other horrific battles; contracted malaria, was wounded numerous times between World War II and his time in Korea (which coincided with my birth and, while he was there, the birth of my next sister down); my mother served in Washington D.C. in the office where decisions on rationing were made.
When I was in my teens, while my father was a civilian cable splicer for the (separate) phone service on Camp Pendleton, my mother worked in the base photo lab alongside some of those who took now-iconic photos from previous and ongoing wars.
One of her coworkers was our neighbor, father of children whose ages lined up with the kids in our family. You couldn’t meet him and not see that he had been damaged by what he had been through, what he had seen, what he had photographed.
The Vietnam War and all its associated drama were covered almost live; campus protests and jungle patrols. And there were stories wherever one went. Parents of friends were over there, in the military. Older brothers of friends were there, sons of people from my church were there; at least one of whom died there.
Coming of age is, of course, always difficult. At almost eighteen (an age in which my father was at Guadalcanal) I had to sign up for the draft; but I was working in a sign shop, going surfing pretty much every morning, and deciding between a church-run college and the local community college. Either way I’d be registering as 2-S, a student deferment. Though there was a lot of talk among my peers of which branch to sign up for, Coast Guard Reserve getting the nod in the surfing community; there was also the often-repeated rumor that this war was going to go on for years, and, once the student deferment no longer applied, it was Vietnam for sure.
This is where the novel comes in: The narrator, who is not me (though I am a resource), has to make a similar decision on the draft. On December 1, 1969, the first (supposedly fairer than the existing system) lottery draft was held. Every male born before 1951 was eligible. I was born in 1951; the next year would be the critical one for me.
I thought I could remember the exact numbers of my birth date for the first and second lottery drafts. 36 for the first year; 174 for the second. I looked it up. I had remembered correctly.
Somewhere between the first and second drawings I made (possibly- certainly seemed so at the time) the biggest gamble of my life; changed my status to 1-A.
They never called me, I never called them.
It’s way more complicated than that, of course. My church had training for those who could serve as medics. Some heroes of the Seventh Day Adventist Church had done so. It would be easiest, if drafted, to just go in the Army. Two years. “Cannon fodder,” was the word on it. My father told me that if I went in as an officer, he wouldn’t care which branch I went into, but if I went in enlisted, it had better be the Marine Corps.
But here’s what happened: A little over two years in a sign shop got me qualified, barely, to get a job as a journeyman painter with the Department of the Navy in San Diego at 20 years old; 1971. I went to work with veterans of World War II, Korea, and with returning vets (slightly older than I was) in the apprenticeship program.
All of these folks were affected, if not damaged by what they had seen, what they had participated in. Although veterans are not fond of talking to non-vets, they will talk among themselves, and most of the people I worked with were veterans.
I worked with a guy who (and his peers never guessed it) piloted a landing craft on D-Day, was issued a 45 and orders to kill anyone who wouldn’t disembark; I worked with a man who was on several ships that were sunk, who fought against Rommel’s forces in North Africa.
When I transferred to the shipyard in Bremerton in 1979, I worked with a guy who was on Navy river patrol boats in Vietnam. He was very quiet, didn’t want to talk to anyone about it. “Yeah, like the movie; only real.” Another Vietnam veteran, who, when I would see him talking to his real peers, seemed unable to get past his experiences. He died (and I can’t help think his Vietnam time contributed to this) in his mid-thirties. Another painter, who sported an ever-longer beard and hair, was willing to tell me how, on an off-station project in Spain, an American guard said something about his hair, and, if he was a Marine… “I am a ___-______ Marine,” he answered.
There are no ex-Marines. My father was a Marine when he died. “Very bad things happen,” he said, when the subject of Post Traumatic Stress disorder came up, “you just have to keep on going.”
I don’t know war. I have seen what war does to people. To ask someone to go to war is to ask them to go against what most of us are taught, to possibly die or possibly kill another human being for some noble cause. If the cause isn’t actually noble…
War is the tragedy of man.
To those who serve, who have served; all respect. I do mean all respect.