by Mike Meyer
Vietnam was the first war that America lost. That’s what all of us were told after we had come back and it had ended. We are losing it again. That was fifty years ago and Vietnam, the largest defining event for the Boomer generation, has slipped away to the point that it brings blank looks when it is mentioned.
The median age of the American population (2015) is 37.5 and roughly 60%+ were not even born when the Vietnam War ended in 1975. As is the way of things events that occurred before you were born are not very important. Unfortunately Vietnam was a defining event of the Boomer generation in ways that have not been repeated and that is also a result of Vietnam.
The things defined were the first cracks in American militarism, the first stage of polarization with government lies and distrust on one side and manipulative authoritarianism on the other, the reality of racism against racist complacency, and a lot of good music from which most popular music is still derivative.
But what did we learn and what is the risk of that being forgotten? I could easily give in to cynicism and say we didn’t learn much and what we did learn has already been forgotten. That is not true but it is true that the massive differences make it difficult to connect the points and make comparisons. This is particularly true for those of us who came of age with the Vietnam war. That is one of the major problems with Boomers now that we are getting old and are a major pain the ass to our children. A war wiped out our hope and left us nursing our losses and our greed. And no one ever thanked us for what we gave up.
I tend to refer to my generation as having a good half and a bad half. There is obviously a grey zone in the middle and people went from one to the other but the broad descriptions are good enough. Most of the noise was made by the half that got involved and committed to civil rights with NAACP and SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and other groups. I had high school classmates who marched in Alabama and other places. Many of us supported this and dealt with how to make the changes necessary. We began the process of adjusting the language to correct the identity of people who had spent a hundred years under legal discrimination.
The important thing to realize about this is how much of change there was to make. America has always been brutally racist and the Civil War only eliminated slavery but little else. Our parents were at best not actively bigoted. At worst they were racist. My father was in the first category and my mother in the second. She would always say that she wasn’t ‘prejudiced’ but didn’t understand why ‘those people’ couldn’t just stay in ‘their place’. My question was always where is their place and how is it different from our place?
My father was a farmer and liked to talk to people. He had a black farmer who he knew who would come to visit. They always met on our back step as my mother would not allow him in the house or, even, on the front porch. Late in her life, long after may father and stepfather died she had Japanese American friend and they would go out on ‘dates’. That was her term. Those were major changes.
The problems here were several and they were never worked out. While the civil rights efforts of the 1960s were a tremendous break from the past for those of us that were white and nearly oblivious to our privilege, we maintained a thirty year battle with family on racism and never really understood it.
The Vietnam War put all of us involved into the first fully integrated war in American history. We shared music, danger, mostly boredom, but had to face how far apart our lives had been. While we like to remember Forrest Gump that was an exception though a cherished one. The movie was, in many ways, the last memory of Vietnam and has been erased in the rebirth of ugly racism in America. That gap between the POC and the white privileged was too big for one generation but we didn’t want to admit it. So many people simply considered it done. After all we has listened to Motown and Marvin Gaye’s questions, What’s Going On, was our question but we couldn’t finish the answer to that question. So we just moved on.
Some of us fought in the war and learned about technology, much of it very advanced at that time, but Vietnam was the last high casualty war. That is a way that things have changed and why it is hard to link Vietnam to now for Boomers who are veterans. The Iraq had 4,486 US casualties and Afghanistan 2,345 over a much longer time. These were casualties from a professional military force. Vietnam had 58,220 from a civilian, draft based military and a million handicapped for life.
It was from this that the professional military was created. That level of death would not be accept again. From that we also gained an vast number of dramas based on PTSD and the craziness of people who destroyed brutality that commanded and delivered on another population. And in the end it was all basically a mistake.
That’s the good half. Donald Trump is the preeminent example of the bad half. Educational exemptions and then ‘bone spurs’ kept him from facing an American reality. Many of the politicians who have destroyed the political system in this country were careful to avoid Vietnam and all of it’s messy issues. Those that were veterans do stand out, whatever party they were in, by being different from the others. Not necessarily better but less willing to plumb the depths of greed and selfishness that has come to symbolize the America’s Boomer politicians.
Those of us who started the revolution in America and were then caught in the Vietnam War and survived with healable wounds tended to forget those who didn’t stray from the proper life and avoided everything they could while inheriting wealth. That was another failure. We were a big generation and while the sexual, civil rights, and music revolutions labeled the generation it was our peers who played the old game, stepped into their father’s shoes, and inherited the wealth from the 1950s and ’60s who took control. And we let them.
We thought that we could make sure it would never be the same as it had when we grew up but, in the end, we hadn’t done enough. And we didn’t keep in touch with our POC peers who we knew when we were young and trying to stay alive. It was easier to put it all behind us. Many of then had to make up for the time we lost in Vietnam, then we had families and work to do for out kids. And they didn’t understand us either and then blamed us for the slow erosion of America and its economy leading to the collapse into fascism we are watching now.
They are right to blame us but they should understand how we were crippled and what that meant. We need to understand that, too.