My Experience, or lack thereof, with the Vietnam War

10/17/2017 07:39 pm ET

By Lloyd Kaufman with Levi White

Here is an exclusive leaked essay, to be published in the Yale Class of 1968 50th Anniversary book in May 2018.

Troma Entertainment’s <em>Combat Shock</em> (1986) focused on the aftermath of the Vieatnam War
Troma Entertainment’s Combat Shock (1986) focused on the aftermath of the Vieatnam War

As I see it, the Vietnam War ignited the Agent Orange infused embers of the current raging forest fire of distrust and contempt of the U.S. government by its citizens. This phenomenon reaches across all races, political parties, genders, etc. Patriotism in the general populace is dead as is respect for elected officials, labor leaders, generals, etc. The result is: Trump-Kardashian America: Whatever that is, is what we got. But, I will leave the macro-ruminations to Ken Burns, Maureen Dowd, Oliver Stone and the like, or the dislike.

Instead, I’ll take the micro-path and try to outline my own experience during the war and how The Vietnam War has affected me personally.

As a lad, The Great American Hubris (1945-1980) presented a huge moral morass for me—enough to fill up 10 Eric Rohmer “Contes Morales” films.

Growing up in the 50’s – 60’s, I had parents who raised me to be patriotic. I looked up at our public servants like Adlai Stevenson, Eisenhower, Everett Dirksen or Wayne Morse as dedicated, honest and bigger than life. I well up with tears when I am present during the playing of our National Anthem and would never consider “taking a knee” during this sacred song!

However, while growing up in the 50’s – 60’s, I also had a Commie grandmother who spit globs of mucus no matter when or where she heard the word “Nixon.” You didn’t want to walk barefoot in Grammie Kaufman’s parlor! Early in my youth, she explained how Castro was a revolutionary hero—not a convertible sofa[1]. She educated me against the Vietnam War by feeding me writings like those of I.F. Stone, Corliss Lamont, Scott Nearing, and The Nation. She also ranted against evils like white flour, Strontium 90 and hot dogs. Grammie was correct about all of it! By the time I read her copy of C. Wright Mills’s The Power Elite, I concluded that the Vietnam War was indeed a far away obscenity created to further enrich the corporate, bureaucratic and labor power elites, at the expense of the rest of us.

When Martin Luther King Jr. made his brave, brilliant Riverside Church speech in which he pointed out that the Vietnam War, in addition to its obvious wrongs, was also a vehicle to exterminate young black and poor white men, the deal was sealed for me. I was shocked by the New York Times editorial that viciously criticized MLK’s Riverside Church speech. If anything, this speech was braver and more profound than the feel good “I Have a Dream” speech.

Why were we intervening in a civil war on the other side of the planet? The North Vietnam commies were absolutely no threat to us and the South Vietnam oligarchy was a corrupt and faux “show democracy.” Freshman year at Yale, there was a nice handsome, rich dude living next door to our Vanderbilt suite who volunteered for Vietnam. He was immediately killed. For me, his death woke me up to the harsh reality of the Vietnam War in the same manner Marlon Brando’s refusal to accept his Oscar over mistreatment of Native Americans woke up Hollywood, sort of.

Prior to my experience at the rigid all boys Yale, I spent 11 years at Trinity School in NYC, a very strict so-called “preparatory school,” also all boys. So, in 1965, after Freshman year, I short circuited. I had had enough classical education and decided to take a year off. It didn’t hurt that performing services in third world countries protected one from the draft for at least that year.

Lloyd Kaufman’s Yale Class Photo, 1968
Lloyd Kaufman’s Yale Class Photo, 1968

At the same time that my childhood best buddy and 1968 classmate, Oliver Stone, left Yale and volunteered for the infantry in Vietnam, I resigned[2] from Yale and spent a year in the bush of Chad, Africa, “teaching” as a path finder/guinea pig for the Peace Corp. I had no access to electricity, running water, telephones, etc. I got dingue fever, pallude and every kind of VD. All thanks partly to the Vietnam War or the avoidance thereof[3]. I also had a Joycean Epiphany in Chad…I became an amateur Levi-Strauss and learned that African society (at least in West Africa and Chad) is not primitive but is equally as complicated and sophisticated as American society. I experienced my own version of structural anthropology, a big deal, at least for me, being born and raised on the block of cement called Manhattan.

In 1969, after I pulled number 3[4] in the “Draft Lottery,” I found myself waiting in line for my physical with several other young men; some proud, some anxious, some dreadful. I arrived at the draft board’s physical examination with a 1920’s pilot’s leather helmet like Snoopy from Peanuts wears on his head. At this point my hair was very long, curly and looked like some kind of Brillo/Raccoon on my head. I had carefully placed powdered sugar and crumbs in my scraggly beard, looking disheveled and unshaven. I stayed up all night, before, on some sort of pills that a friend from Trinity School gave me. I looked run-down, depressed and disturbing. I smelled pretty harsh, too.

During this period in the late ‘60s, there were pamphlets with advice about how to avoid the draft and how to fail the draft board physical. So when I arrived at the Army Physical Exam, I knew to check off everything that a doctor could not prove wrong: Homosexuality, Drugs, etc. I pretty much checked off everything except “hard of hearing.” The Anti-Vietnam draft pamphlets had advised that the Army had a way to tell if one was faking being hard of hearing![5]

The young man standing in front of me was a stark contrast. His head was already shaved, his body in great form, and his posture resembled that of a flag pole and his freshly bald head stood out like a bald eagle. We couldn’t have been more different, yet I admired the bald hopeful soldier’s passion and patriotism.

In addition to all of the above, as a child my parents were rich enough to send me to a child psychiatrist[6] from the age of nine to fourteen. So I had a “record,” so to speak. Whilst at Yale, senior year, my parents were kind enough to pay again for a weekly psychiatrist for the sole purpose of avoiding Vietnam, although, if you have seen my movies, I probably really needed and still need a shrink!

Remember the bald, patriotic, straight as a flagpole eager-to-fight-in-Vietnam lad in front of me at the draft board? Well the Army doctors discovered he had a heart murmur. The kid was crushed. I was envious. I wanted a heart murmur, too!

The Army doctor examining me accused me of “checking off everything,” which was pretty true! “OK, Show me your wart, wise guy!” the Army doctor said. Aha! Indeed that was probably the one truthful element I had checked off – a “planters” wart. When the cranky doctor laid eyes on the, 100% benign, wart on the bottom of my foot, he immediately granted me a 1-Y classification and probably saved my life or possibly a few limbs or a penis. As many know, I maintain peak pot/Maker’s Mark infused physical condition and have never had any ailments except needing reading glasses in my later years…and hangover medicine.

So the Class of 1968’s 50th reunion leaders want to know how the Vietnam War affected me, personally. Ok, here it goes! To this day my particular Vietnam War experience, or lack thereof, has filled me with huge waves of guilt. So many poor men, black men, working men and women, etc. did not have the bourgeois benefit of going to a child psychiatrist, and they got killed or maimed. Furthermore, I feel very guilty to this day, for being a draft dodger! …and what about the bald eagle kid with the heart murmur? What a brave, wonderfully patriotic, idealistic person…something we all aspire to.[7]

But wait! There’s more! A short time after all the effort to dodge the draft, I still somehow ended up in Vietnam, at my own leisure of course. My dear friend, Dana Rohrabacher and I ventured out into Vietnam thanks to his being subsidized by Young Americans for Freedom. Whilst in Vietnam, we witnessed shocking things and met with soldiers. I was repulsed, Dana was inspired. Yet, while meeting with the soldiers, men my age, I again felt an admiration for their patriotic blind faith in the government’s call to war. They trusted the people who led them to what was an endless hell on earth. I recall one officer saying to us, “[sic] There had only been 50,000 deaths in Vietnam, less than the traffic deaths the American Automobile Association accounted for in one year.” Apparently, this made the deaths in Vietnam acceptable…oy vey!

After our visit, I hardened my stance on the absurdities and obscenities of war. Dana however took another path. He became a member of the US House of Representatives in 1990 and has been an honest dedicated, public servant on the wrong side of most issues, ever since.

So many of us Americans were affected by the Vietnam War, being in it or not. We learned that our government needed to be questioned harshly and checked, and that our involvement in all conflicts should always be examined objectively and for the true motivation: Who will get rich? I am sure all of us in the Yale Class of 1968 took the lessons from the Vietnam War and molded our personal life journeys through education, politics, art, film and hedge funds, etc. We all were scarred by this awful war.

On the plus side, my childhood pal The Very Right Wing (1965) Oliver Stone, who signed on for the infantry and became a genuine Vietnam War hero, took the horrific experiences in which he was involved and transformed to Ultra Left Wing (1968) and, eventually, made one of the best war films ever with his Oscar winning “Platoon”. I on the other hand made “Troma’s War” in 1985. Not quite as successful.

<em>Troma’s War </em>(1988)
Troma’s War (1988)

[1] The wildly popular 50’s/60’s Castro Convertible Television commercials featuring owner Bernard Castro’s 4 year-old daughter, Bernadette Castro, easily converting a sofa into a bed brought the name Castro into many households before Fidel Castro became a prominent political figure.

[2] In those days, if one took a year off from Yale, one had to resign from the University and then reapply. The year I returned to Yale our 1968 classmate, Tom Herman, wrote about my hiatus year in Chad. Shortly thereafter, the 5 Year BA was created for the many others who wanted to take a year off. No more resigning then reapplying and going for a year wondering if one was going to gain readmission to Yale.

[3] If the Vietnam War draft was not looming, I probably would have taken my year off in Paris!

[4] Pulling a number 3 in the lottery was a guarantee to get drafted.

[5] Today, my draft avoidance system is very “yesterday.” I guess if your kids or grandchildren want a foolproof way to avoid fighting in the coming Trump/Rocket Man Nuclear War, tell them to become transgender.

[6] Her name was Dr. Despert, appropriately pronounced “despāir.”

[7] Sorry about ending the sentence with a preposition! #horseshit

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