Some of us were marching off to war and some of us were marching in the streets of Washington. The Vietnam War very quickly created rifts in a generation and compounded distances between races by sending a disproportionate number of young black men to the jungles of Southeast Asia. There were also a lot of us from the poor and white category.
I hated that war and I was not going to fight. After living my childhood fearing mushroom clouds and doing elementary school drills of hiding under my desk, I was now faced with the notion of being drafted to die for an absurd geo-political concept called "The Domino Theory." This was political sputum about Vietnam becoming another satellite of the USSR or China, and, consequently, a threat to America.
In December of 1963, less than a month after the death of a president who had given a historical speech about peace at American University, President Lyndon B. Johnson told the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "Just get me elected and I'll get you your damned war." LBJ, a rank coward, had been on a fact-finding mission in the South Pacific during World War II in a bomber that developed a mechanical problem and never got near combat. Nonetheless, he cajoled Gen. Douglas MacArthur into convincing the president to award Johnson the Silver Star, the third highest U.S. combat medal. Every other airman on that plane said they never got anywhere near combat.
After subsequently winning election to the office he had inherited, Johnson and his consorts trumped up the Gulf of Tonkin Incident to justify a fully engaged war with North Vietnam. Senate Foreign Relations Committee transcripts, declassified just last year in the wake of the Iraq War intelligence failure, proved that U.S. senators knew that Tonkin was a false flag scheme to elevate public support for the "damned war" Johnson has promised to deliver.
At the end of LBJ's only elected term of office, I was going door-to-door delivering anti-war tracts and campaign material for Eugene McCarthy with my boyhood pal Gary Kern. The Southeast Asian Conflict, an evilly benign term for those dying, was grinding on as I entered college and Richard Nixon began presiding over the horrors. Campus protests and marches on Washington were being organized and I joined my generation on the Mall and Pennsylvania Avenue. A college student deferment from the draft gave me no comfort because the war appeared as though it would outlast my four years at university.
As angry young people occupied university administration offices and boycotted classes to bring attention to the war, there were also modest exhibitions of support. At Stanford, a student takeover was met by a counter protest that involved Mitt Romney. He spontaneously joined a pro-war gathering and picked up a pre-made sign that said, "Speak Out. Don't Sit In!" In a sport coat and a light slacks, Mitt was wearing a broad smile. Wars are easier to support when you don't have to pick up a gun.
Mitt had numerous reasons to smile. He had come from privilege and undoubtedly knew his political father had connections to keep him a continent away from any fields of fire. After a successful career in the automotive industry as the CEO that turned around American Motors, George Romney became governor of Michigan. Eventually, Mitt's dad turned against the Vietnam debacle, but his son was able to ignore the conflict and its consequences. Mitt got student deferments and ended up in France as a missionary for his Mormon Church, which extended his ineligibility for the draft as a "minister of the church." Romney, of course, is still promoting war in 2012 and criticizing the current president's plans to withdraw from Afghanistan.
Dick Cheney was not bothered by the war in Vietnam, either. When he was attending the University of Wisconsin as a graduate student in the 60s, protests erupted over Dow Chemical recruiting on campus. Dow manufactured the burning jelly dropped from the sky known as napalm as well as the defoliant Agent Orange, which was later confirmed as a deadly carcinogen that killed soldiers. Cheney was only interested in the campus protest because it was hampering his ability to get to the classroom. In David Mariniss' brilliant book, They Marched Into Sunlight, Cheney was quoted as disdainful of the protestors and said he did not think much about the war because he was busy with other endeavors. Ultimately, Cheney received five deferments and, when asked why he didn't serve, was quoted as saying he "had other priorities in the '60s than military service." Not dying, presumably, was one of those things.
In another country it might be ironic that such a man became Secretary of Defense and then a war-hawk vice president serving another chicken-hawk president. Cheney encouraged George W. Bush to invade Iraq even though the country had nothing to do with the attacks of 911. The rationale was no more complicated than Bush Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz's quote: "We had virtually no economic options with Iraq... the country floats on a sea of oil." Cheney, who avoided killing communists over the specious Domino Theory, was willing to send innocents into Iraq to die for cheaper tanks of gas and more money for the energy industry he so long and excellently served.
I was a chicken, too, but not a hawk. My involvement in the protest movement and writing prompted me to file for a Conscientious Objector's status. Just in case it was not granted, however, I went to visit the National Guard to see if I might enlist at the expiration of my student deferment. Flint is an industrial town and a lot of blue-collar kids saw the guard as their only hope of not dying in Vietnam, so there was no chance I'd receive a spot. There was a three-year wait to join an army group and five years to get into the air guard.
George W. Bush did not have that problem down in Texas. His Houston congressman father, or one of his friends, contacted Texas Lieutenant Governor Ben Barnes and made a request to have the young Bush moved up on an estimated seven-year wait list to enter the guard. W. presented himself at Ellington Air Force Base outside of Houston and was enrolled in a pilot training program. Even though there were dozens of pilots home from Vietnam in the Gulf region who wanted to keep their licenses active by flying any available plane at the air wing, taxpayers spent nearly a million dollars to train Bush to fly. Regardless of how Bush acolytes might portray the former president's guard record, there is no denying he walked away from his commission so that he could campaign for a family friend in Alabama, and he never again reported to duty. My experience with the guard, and a loss of friends in Vietnam, prompted me to ask Bush during a 1994 gubernatorial debate how he'd managed to get flight training. His answer, which was insulting, was that he had simply walked up and applied.
Bush, though, was just shy of trigger-happy when it came his turn to start a war he did not have to fight, and he postured like every tin soldier that has dreamed of having courage. W. kept Saddam Hussein's pistol on display in a glass case in the Oval Office, showed it constantly to visitors, and is likely to give it a permanent spot in his presidential library in Dallas. Perhaps everyone who looks at it will think of the American and Iraqi lives ruined by Mr. Bush's unjust war.
I got lucky. My student deferment was ending in the spring of 1973 and I was beginning to have desperate thoughts about how I was going to avoid the ridiculous war that was wasting my generation. Fortunately, as my graduation day approached, the Paris Peace Talks began and the war was formally declared over before I graduated from Michigan State University. But I still hate war.
And I especially despise the chicken hawks.