Deja Vu All Over Again

In August of 1965 I was in the 2Bn/34th Armor Division stationed at Ft. Irwin, California, 114 miles from L.A. when the Watts Riots broke out.  On Saturday night we were put on alert to be ready to deploy to those riots.  Our M60 tanks were loaded on flat cars in Barstow,  and we stood by in combat gear expecting to be deployed imminently.  

At first we didn’t have time to do anything other than rush trying to get everything ready to go.  Even though we were a STRAC unit, supposedly ready for instant deployment, we definitely weren’t ready for deployment on a day’s notice. When we were finally as ready as we could be and our equipment was stowed, we had time to watch television and see what was actually going on in Watts. Once we watched coverage of the riots, I instantly knew I did not want to be there.  I had signed up to fight Communists, not fellow Americans.  Hell, many of our troops were born and raised in L.A.  We had no training for crowd control; we’d been trained for desert warfare against other tank units. How the hell could we possibly help quell riots? I would undoubtably have gone if we had been ordered but, luckily, in the end President Johnson had sense enough not to threaten to send tanks to stop the rioting and, most of all, from my  perspective, at least, not to send a tank battalion into the middle of an enflamed city.

I felt I had dodged a bullet when we weren’t sent to the riots, but a few months later I learned there were a lot more bullets coming my way when  my unit was notified it was going to be deployed to Vietnam with the 1st Infantry Division out of Ft. Lewis.  Our unit was filled up with new recruits from the L.A. area, and we had 6 months to train them before being put on a ship to Vietnam.  I pulled a short assignment in Vietnam because I finished my two years of active duty while there, but I asked to have my duty extended until my platoon was scheduled to be relieved from duty. When I was told that my replacement was already on the way and if I extended I would be sent to a command  unit in Saigon, that ended my active duty tour.  I’d seen enough of the war to be convinced that we should never have been there; the only loyalty I had at that point was to my platoon.

That doesn’t mean that I wasn’t outraged when I was greeted upon my return to Travis Airforce Base by throngs of war protestors.  When advised not to wear my uniform home because I might be confronted at the airport, all I said was, “Fuck’em” and wore my uniform home.  During the next three months that I spent holed up in my room trying to make sense of my life,  I couldn’t decide whether I was angrier at the protestors or at my government for sending me to a war that, in retrospect, seemed unnecessary and immoral, much less decide what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.  All I know for sure is that I was angry all the time, with the possible exception of when I had too much to drink.  

I drifted through life for awhile, moving from Vancouver to Aberdeen to Seattle and back to Vancouver in less than a year, all the while getting letters from the Army saying that if I didn’t immediately report to an assigned reserve unit I would be called back to active duty.  That would have been a mistake on the Army’s part, but I finally reported to the reserves while working  in Aberdeen as a caseworker, only to find the unit filled with rich, white kids who seemed to have gotten into the reserves and avoided the draft because their parents were influential.  The makeup of the reserve unit was quite different from the mortar platoon I led in Vietnam, which only had three whites if you included me.  White, rich privilege, I guess. I’ll admit that I was naïve enough then to be shocked and even more disillusioned.  

A few months later, I left Aberdeen and was assigned to a unit in Seattle while attending the University of Washington to earn teaching credentials. I was assigned to an infantry unit that was training to control riots and anti-war protests. When told I was to lead a platoon in a 4th of July celebration in downtown Seattle, I replied I would be out of town on the 4th. When told that it was a direct order and I would get an official letter of reprimand if I didn’t show up, I laughed.  Somehow a letter of reprimand didn’t seem nearly as dangerous as what I’d already been through in Vietnam. I’ve never attended a parade since I left the Army and didn’t celebrate the 4th of July until many years later when my kids demanded to see the fireworks that all their classmates were talking about. I’m not sure if I would have been “out-of-town” if the unit had been called up for riot duty while I was still with it, but, at the very least, I would have been faced with a moral dilemma because by then I identified more with the protestors than with the government on our Vietnam involvement.

Though I have seldom questioned the goodness of most people I have met in real life, my experience in Vietnam and as a caseworker for six months did make me question any faith I might have once had in The Great American Dream. If what America was doing in the world was “Great,” I wanted no part of it.  For a while, at least, I became a man without a country, alienated not only from others who believed in  American Exceptionalism, but also from the part of me that had once believed in and fought for it.  

Like most high school students, I was taught (brainwashed?)  that America was the beacon of Democracy in the world, devoted to promoting democracy and equality throughout the world, and I was “good student;” I could parrot back exactly what I was taught.  Back then I almost certainly would have agreed with Melville when he wrote, “We Americans are the peculiar chosen people, the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world.” If so, then that ark must have sunk on its way to Vietnam.  It was impossible to reconcile that ideal with what I saw in Vietnam because there was no democracy to promote.  At best, it was an effort to protect Capitalism from Communism. Any faith I had left in America’s “Greatness” was further undermined when I worked as a caseworker and was faced with poverty and despair on a level I had been blind to my whole life.  America masterfully manages to hide the poorest of the poor in retirement homes, dilapidated apartments, or run-down homes in rural areas — until recently when tent-cities seem to bloom throughout our country. 

As the saying goes, time cures all — or, at least, numbs the pain— and I generally managed to be a productive member of society for 30 years while teaching high school. I doubt most of my students ever suspected how much I personally questioned what they were being taught in their history classes or what their government was doing at home and abroad.  At worst, I tried to make them question what they were being taught, even by me.  

Twenty years of retirement mellowed me even further, never really having to personally confront the problems society was ignoring.  Whatever frustration I had with government policies were ameliorated by the blog I started to protest America’s invasion of Afghanistan, which I saw as another Vietnam-like mistake.  Political protest gradually gave way to losing myself in Nature’s beauty, in flowers, scenics, and wildlife. 

The only signs of my discontent that might have been visible to others would be my endorsement and contributions to what many saw as radical environmental groups such as Greenpeace, etc.,  my contributions to radical politicians like Bernie Sanders, and my refusal to donate to mainline organizations like the DNC since I disagreed with some of their candidates.  And, oh yeah,  I (twice) requested to be excused from jury duty because my work as a caseworker and teacher made me doubt the fairness of our legal system. 

When one of my favorite colleagues told me on his deathbed that we had “wasted our lives teaching,” I replied that it could have been worse, I could have been pushing pop my whole life  (Pepsi Cola offered me a job before I became a caseworker and started off on a very different path).  I’m glad Gary didn’t live long enough to see Trump elected to office, or he would have been clinically depressed. Unfortunately, I, too,  have come to see Trump’s election as a sign that our education system has failed.  Our Know-Nothing president prides himself on his ignorance, all the while claiming to know more than the scientists who have devoted their lives to mastering their field. How could an educated public elect him?

I had hoped to drift through my final years here on Planet Earth feeling our nation and our planet were improving, that somehow we would leave future generations with a world that was as good as, or better than, the world we had inherited. How naïve of me. Instead, recent events have left me feeling nearly as alienated from my country as I did 50 years ago when I returned from Vietnam. The Trump Administration’s willingness to sacrifice the environment for short-term economic benefits, to scapegoat desperate, hard-working immigrants, to denigrate American minorities, to blame America’s economic problems on China,  and to mishandle the Covid-19 epidemic was already stressful enough without the added specter of race-riots caused by police brutality filling the news. 

8 thoughts on “Deja Vu All Over Again”

  1. My youngest is now teaching history in the high school she attended not so long ago. She’s become the fiery left-winger I raised her to be, only more so. She’s careful to keep her political opinions out of the classroom, but she doesn’t shy away from presenting topics that we would never have seen in our day. I never dreamed she’d end up teaching, but it gives me hope to see her doing it. Even if sometimes she lets loose with a (well-deserved, mostly) broadside against boomers sometimes.

    1. Thanks. In retrospect, I’ve always been content with my choice. I never really expected to change the world but thought I’d give it a try.

      1. “I never really expected to change the world but thought I’d give it a try.” – that’s the starfish parable in a nutshell!

  2. It’s sad what has been done to the youth of your nation. From afar it seems like the GOP and DINOs have spent the better part of the last 6 decades nibbling away at the educational system making it easier for students to pass out of the system with little preparation for the future and even less ability to think rationally, thus Trump. As for America being the great bastion of freedom and democracy – well that’s just a myth. Politics has always been corrupt to the highest levels of government – looking at you HHH – and your leaders (like others around the world) have consistently lied to you (think Disaster Capitalism and/or Moral Politics.) In it’s entire history as a country the US has only been at peace for something like 22 years. Of all those wars only your involvement in WWll can be morally justified. It seems America’s raison d’être is to enrich the MIC at the expense of the poor and middle class, never mind the millions of civilians killed in those wars. It often seems like your country is headed for a new civil war.

  3. I think your generation got hit by a double whammy.

    Too many people thought the lesson of WWII was that for Good to triumph over Evil you have to kill all the bad guys, flatten their cities, and hang their leaders. That level of militarism continues to poison foreign policy even today.

    And you had big societal changes. Last month we saw armed “militia members” storm state capitols because they didn’t want to wear a paper facemask. The blowback from letting Negroes vote and go to school was far more intense. People are afraid of change. It makes them violent.

  4. The karmic wheel of this country seems to just keep blindly turning itself over and over, doesn’t it? Many of your thoughts on anger echo what I saw W. S. Merwin express in an interview I recently watched on youtube. He came to the conclusion that since his anger (specifically, when younger) stemmed from the demise of everything he loved about the world and life, maybe it would be best to revert back to that love for the focus of his life. He used the anger as a reminder. It was around that time (‘I think’) he made the move to Hawaii. The Buddhist in me would agree. The inevitable example of how we embrace our lives will do more for the world than any attempt to wage battle on what we identify as our offenders.

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