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Notes from the Boonies
By Paul Wisovaty
In the last issue of The Veteran, I had a column about Jane Fonda. Anyone who happened to read it would have realized right away that I had not plagiarized it from an American Legion magazine. In a conversation with a fellow veteran, I had suggested that "Jane had risked her career and possibly her life by protesting our invasion of a foreign country." The vet just gave me an odd look, possibly thinking that I had been joking, and walked away.
When the issue came out, I received several copies from Jeff Machota and took them to the Tuscola Public Library for the benefit of anyone who might wish to grab one. I do this with every issue, and when I later notice that they are no longer there, assume that someone has picked them up. But I confess that I was a little worried about this one. My above-noted quote about Jane might just have gotten me knocked on my ass by a fellow Vietnam vet who didn't see things my way.
Well, the word did get out, and I received reactions from several vets who had either read or just been told about it. Fortunately, no aggravated batteries upon myself occurred. As Tuscola is a pretty small town, I personally know - and generally got along well with - those veterans. Their usual response was to smile, shake their heads, and say something to the effect of "How much had you had to drink when you wrote that stupid crap?" I suppose that beats getting knocked on my ass.
But I generally felt that a response was necessary, so I usually came up with the suggestion that Jane Fonda was one of the true heroines of the Vietnam War. I throw John Kerry in there (a Silver Star and three Purple Hearts, easily outdistancing my Good Conduct Medal). If I'm on a roll, I add all of those young men who gave up everything to go to Canada to avoid that invasion. I grant that maybe 10% of them were just too lazy or chickenshit to want to put up with basic training, but look at the rest.
They went to a country about which they knew nothing and no one, assumed that they would never be able to return, and left their families to deal with that "desertion." Even had I been anti-war when I was drafted in 1966 (I was much too dumb and uninformed about Vietnam to take that position), I would have submitted to the draft anyway, realizing that my chances of winding up as a clerk typist at Ft. Hood would have been better than as an Eleven Bravo in Vietnam. Needless to say, my thoughts about those young men who went to Canada were not widely shared.
In a sense what I'm left with is Jane and the young men who went to Canada on one hand, and on the other, the vets who either enlisted or submitted to the draft. As my fellow veterans in Tuscola would phrase it, the choice is between traitors and true American patriots. I'm one who would love to see a statue of Jane on the Capitol grounds in Washington (I won't hold my breath), while my friends would prefer to see her and all those "draft dodgers" living on bread and water in solitary confinement in federal prison. OK, everyone is entitled to his opinion. But what strikes me is that - this obvious difference notwithstanding - I get along well with and work with these veterans. We march together in parades, participate in veterans funerals all around the county, join in pancake breakfasts, and actually get along with, and like, each other. But on that first issue, it's like we're living on different planets.
I'm thinking a lot about Vietnam as I write this, in part because that's the subject, and secondly because I'm writing it on my 73rd birthday. Peers in my age group will assure other readers that birthdays in one's '70s are quite unlike birthdays in one's 20's or even one's 50's. We think about much different things. But I know what I'm going to do when I finish this. I'm going to walk over to my bookshelf and find a book I haven't read in a few years. It is The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien, and I highly recommend it. If you're expecting a lot of good anti-war stuff in it, you can forget that. It's all about life in the field, on the ground, as a grunt infantryman in Vietnam. And the absence of politics makes it all the more real and believable. As I tell high school history classes when I'm invited to speak to them, none of that had a place during our service over there. One of the first things the sergeant told us when we reported to our units in the field was, "If you have thoughts about whether this war is right or wrong, keep them to yourselves. Nobody cares. Your job is to do your job, and cover your buddy's ass, and his job is to cover yours." In all my time in Vietnam, I never heard anything said about whether or not we should have been there.
That all changed in a hurry when I got home.
Paul Wisovaty is a member of VVAW. He lives in Tuscola, Illinois. He was in Vietnam with the US Army 9th Division in 1968.