Vietnam and Iraq

In 1966, I thought my life was over.  I had just graduated from college with a degree in a subject I wasn’t interested in — Chemistry, and had determined that I wasn’t going to go to graduate school, at least not yet.  I was caught in what seemed to me an unresolvable moral dilemma; on the one hand, I thought the Vietnam War was obscene and unsupportable; on the other hand,  I thought I had a moral obligation to serve my country—a feeling that was surprisingly strong.  Unsurprisingly, considering how immature I was, I drifted.   I went through two draft interviews in Texas, and was able to hold things off by asserting my right to be inducted  in my home state of California.   At the same time, I was going through what an earlier age would have described as a nervous breakdown, and I had not one, but two letters from physicians attesting to the problem.  When I went through the draft process in Texas, no one bothered to look at the letters; when I got to the Oakland induction center in 1966, miraculously, someone read them.

My Vietnam experience stayed with me, and when it became clear that the Bush administration was going to do something even more stupid, I wrote several poems; this is one of them.

A Thought on the Eve of Destruction – 2003

I remember my induction;
I remember sitting there
Listening to the oath of duty,
Listening to the oath of death.

Through the glass, I saw the others,
Through the glass, I heard them pledge,
And I thought: “I’m not a killer.”
And I thought: “I will be killed.”

And as the door began to open,
I felt a hand upon my back,
It was the doctor, come to tell me:
“You’re not fit to go to war.”

Now we find that we are heading
Into another deep morass,
Blindly stumbling, deaf to reason,
Led like lemmings to the fight.

And as the door to this new battle
Begins to open, ever wide
Where is the doctor come to tell us
We’re not fit to go to war?

Peace March

In 1969, I was working for System Development Corporation in Santa Monica, in the job I wound up in after I was almost sent to Vietnam.   (I’ll write about that and about the complicated mix on anti-war revulsion and sense of duty that I felt at the time in conjunction with a forthcoming poem).  1969 was the year I first felt free to publicly express my feelings about the war.  For the previous two years, I had worked at Air Force facilities in Massachusetts and Florida.  In an odd way, I had fulfilled the tour of duty that I had almost spent in Vietnam, and I began to involve myself politically in the anti-war movement that had begun to sweep the country the previous year.  I took to wearing a black arm band at work, and when I heard about the nationwide October 15th Peace March, I joined the one that marched from Santa Monica to UCLA.   At the end of the march, we were treated to a rather banal speech by Candace Bergen, in her pre-Murphy-Brown days.   It wasn’t exactly inspiring, but what the hell; she was beautiful.

Song for the October 15th Peace March

Verse 1:

I went out marching on that day.
Ten thousand people led the way,
Then more joined in, and more, and then
We marched as ten times ten times ten.
And we’ll keep on marching, if it takes us years;
Til someone listens, someone hears.

Chorus 1:

Well, when you get old and gray,
You can’t hold a candle – for peace.
When you get old and gray,
You can’t hold a candle – for love.
But if everyone else lit one little candle,
We’d have one hell of a light.

Verse 2:

My mother called me up next day,
And I really hadn’t much to say,
So I told my mother what I’d done,
And she said: “Is that what you believe in, son?”
“Sure,” I said, “Has been for years.”
She always listens, but never hears.

Chorus 2:

Well, as we all marched along,
We all held a candle – for peace.
Well. as we all marched along,
We all held a candle – for love.
And when all of us lit just one little candle,
We had a hell of a light.