When I listen to speeches by a man who might (possibly) be the president of the United States for another term, I find myself drinking more than usual. Hungry for voices that actually understand something about war, sometimes I turn to the 1981 Billy Joel song “Goodnight Saigon.”
Whenever that song plays, I tear up, unless I am in public with one of my colleagues, or one of my kids is around. There are several triggers that set me off. They come out of the blue sometimes and catch me by surprise, and embarrass me. Certain smells. The slapping sound of helicopter blades. One of my students asking about the Vietnam era and what it was like. My son asking me if I want him to look up the names of any of my buddies when he visits the Vietnam War Memorial on a class trip to D.C.
But these days it isn’t Billy Joel that pushes me over the edge. In these speeches I listen to, bumper sticker-type declarations are made about the Iraq war in the name of freedom and national security by a man who could not possibly understand what he is saying. I am not naïve about the necessary uses of power. I am a historian. I could not avoid learning about the uses of power if I wanted to. I have studied power and warfare and its consequences. I have observed it and lived it for several decades. I think I have a pretty good grasp of the role of power in protecting property and human rights and in shaping a better future for mankind.
I was also once on the wrong end of some bad national decisions, the misuse of power and supportive bumper sticker-thinking. I was drafted into the United States Army in 1968. I could not bring myself to visit Canada. (Nor did I join the National Guard!) The reasons were personally very complex. So after Basic Training at Fort Campbell, Ky., and AIT (Advanced Infantry Training) at “Tigerland” (Ft. Polk, La.), I spent most of 1969 and a bit of 1970 in Vietnam as an infantryman, in the north near the DMZ. It was not the best of times to be an infantryman in Vietnam, and it left its mark.
I lose it listening to the administration’s speeches because they haven’t learned anything from the ultimate sacrifices that I saw made by young men that had no choice but to follow the wisdom of their leaders “back in the world.” Young men barely old enough to vote, who understood nothing of politics or the uses of power, and who were naïve enough to believe that their sacrifice was somehow “worth it” because they were told by their leaders that it was worth it. Young men I befriended. Young men with new families and little babies. Young men who without a second thought for their own safety covered my blind side. Young men who had everything to live for, but who didn’t come home. Without really understanding why, they trusted that they were there as a last resort after all other less violent possibilities had been exhausted.
Now, 35 years later, I feel like I am living in a time warp. I see young men and women in the same situation, who know that their leaders are using them but trust that they are doing so, alas, because all other possibilities have been exhausted. But I still cry with anger when I recognize that their leaders, my leaders, make so many important life and death decisions for reasons far less laudable than the ideals soldiers must cling to in order to justify what they are doing in a strange place so far away from home — reasons that fit on bumper stickers, reasons designed to reach voters via sound bites and TV commercials, reasons that obscure the truth but win elections, reasons that are obscene when measured against the cost.
Dying and killing at the very least deserve a much more subtle and complicated (and accurate) justification than our current leaders and those who support them are offering us.
So I listen to “Goodnight Saigon” and know that this songwriter somehow understands better than our elected leaders. Joel captures the voices of those who sacrificed then and now, on both sides of the conflict. These are the voices that so many of our political leaders don’t hear or can’t understand. So they surrender the voices to experts who parade out the flag and spin them as “dedication to the cause of freedom.” The voices speak for themselves.
They left their childhood
On every acre
And who was wrong?
And who was right?
It didn’t matter in the thick of the fight.
And it was dark
So dark at night
And we held on to each other
Like brother to brother
And we will all go down together
We said we’d all go down together
Yes we would all go down together
—JoelSongs 1981 (BMI)
How do you turn that into a sound bite or fit it on a bumper sticker?
Charles Guthrie teaches about the developing world at the University of Indianapolis.