I have grown more certain, over the past months, that what I thought of myself, so many years ago, is true. I did not want to kill in Vietnam. I did not want to die in Vietnam. Is the will to live and let live, which normally overshadows all other human behaviors, a proper excuse for “Draft Dodging?,” for claiming a “deferment?” Was my moral objection an excuse for cowardice?
Don’t misunderstand me. I believe I have courage, I often say I fear nothing but God’s judgment. But as I reflect on the sacrifice of so many of my peers, even some I knew as closest friends, I can not help but wonder, why did they chose to go and fight in Vietnam? I in no way dishonor them, a part of me yearns to have joined them, after all, I am no stranger to sin, nor to life and death. As I reflect on the decade of the “Sixties,” a tumultuous time in the psyche of the American people, I am aware that it was a time of great anxiety for me, and a time of great sacrifice for many of my peers.
“To those to whom much has been given, much is expected.”
When President John F. Kennedy paraphrased the Gospel of Luke, he moved a generation, what is now call the “Boomer” generation, to a new awareness of civic responsibility. I heard his call, I followed his journey like a disciple following Jesus. We who had been given so much by the sacrifice of our parents, we who grew up knowing such little want; we, the aspiring middle class scholars of our generation, we heard a voice that stirred the echoes of our history in our thoughts, that deepened the love of liberty in our hearts, that moved our hands to willingly work for a kinder, more gentle and better America.
In those days, my love of history, the history of western civilization, which is the true history of America, was strengthened by every text I read, every debate I heard loudly in my head: Hamilton, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Jay, Marshall, Jackson, Polk. An endless list of men seeking their “manifest destiny” across the pages of history, and the soil of America.
I think no other time in American political history, since the Founding Fathers, met to create a nation from the 13 colonies, that held such promise as when JFK was President. This man would surely bring about “peace, justice, and the American way,” a phrase from popular culture that we all knew so well.
And then John Kennedy was dead! Has any generation ever spiraled from hope to cynicism so rapidly? Has any generation lost its brightest light so suddenly?
Was President Kennedy’s death the cause of what became the most cynically rebellious, drug addled, self-absorbed generation of Americans yet born? Could that tragedy have provided me, and millions like me, with the emotional excuse that provided a cover for our lack of participation in the Vietnam War? For our unwillingness to sacrifice life and limb for the geopolitical considerations of the Good Old USA?
We took deep breaths as we watched our nation plunge deep into the madness of a policy to prevent a “domino effect” loss of an Asian ally, and listened to the monotonous vacuous ramblings of a aging cold warrior President, Lyndon Johnson, elected because he seemed less scary than his opponent. Still we hoped…
Then Dr. King was murdered, and Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, for no reason other than stupidity, hate and frustration. We were already bleeding out the red, white and blue blood of America’s underclass, drafted to preserve a corrupt and amoral ally’s status as a bulwark against Communism, regardless of the stench of their politics. Millions of us waited, sought out student deferments, our ministerial status, suddenly married with a family, and still later played and won the draft lottery, or claimed a conscientious objection to all killing; for many, to be a pot smoking pacifist seemed a better choice than to be zipped into a black plastic body bag.
For me, all these “reasons” were excuses, they had the sound of sagacity and reason, but I knew they masked not a fear killing, but a fear of dying, a willingness to place breath before honor. I make no excuse now. As much as I could not justify killing an enemy defending his homeland, interfering in the internal affairs of a nation ( I am Southern, after all), as much as I believed that taking life in service of this Nation in this war, Vietnam, was sinful; as much as I sought to convince myself and others of the immoral nature of all war, I am not certain if I feared God’s judgment more than death itself.
I did not want to die for an insignificant little country in Southeast Asia, or for any foreign democracies, or for any overseas adventure that served no purpose, other than bullying the world with our big stick diplomacy.
I admit I cry before that Sacred Wall of the Vietnam Fallen in Washington, but not because those soldiers died for their Country, but because they died at all. I am glad I am not counted in their number; in truth, I do not know if I am worthy to be counted at all.
I believe that in a moment of need of those near and dear to me, I would die to protect my family, and I know I would die for my God, and I hope that I would give my life for democracy’s sake, to preserve our American way of life, as did my father’s brother at Normandy, or my mother’s family members through 10 generations of American life. But in my life, from birth to this day, there has not been one legitimate threat of invasion, of war on our continent; of anything resembling the death and destruction seen in Asia or Europe since 1914.
Knowing the massive destruction that nuclear war would bring, the alteration of the very genome of homo sapiens, our leaders acted wisely in the path they chose, significant militarization of resources during the “cold” war, to stop the spread of Marxism. But in their zeal to prevail against an economic system doomed to fail, they nearly destroyed our political system which today resembles the very centralized state “cradle to grave” planning of the arch enemy they sought to destroy.
In how many wars and police actions and humanitarian interventions has our Nation entangled itself? How much power have we allowed to be concentrated in a monolithic economic system that our politicians tell us is “too big to fail?”
I ask myself, was I a coward? I want to believe that had I been drafted, I would have gone; I would have done my time in the defense of “democracy.” I want to believe that if death came, I would have given my life, if necessary, to save others. I want to believe that if captured I would have been as brave as Jeremiah Denton, or John McCain, both of whom I cite only because I met them soon after the Vietnam War . I want to believe that I would have died for a greater good, a better America, or even for a brother in ranks. I want to believe that, but I will never know.
I believe that war, fought for vainglory, fought for economics, is war wasted on history. I know that those names carved on that Sacred Wall were patriots all, I just wish that those who sent them in harm’s way were patriots as well.
I will know someday whether or not I was a coward, on that day in Heaven or Hell when I meet those who fell in TET or at Khe Sanh, or a died in the rain, the mud, the shallow water of a thousand rice paddies, or riding the sky in Huey’s or Herc’s or Thunderchiefs; I will know by how they greet me, if they think I was a coward, or a man who thought dying for no good reason was the wrong thing to do.
We must stop this killing of our courageous and brave young men and women. We must realize that the world will be won by those who teach others how to feed, and clothe and shelter themselves and their families. We should be sending these patriots to farm, and field and factory, building up, not blowing up villages and towns, and if those lands don’t want us, we should stop sending them at all, and bring them home.
I believe that there are reasons to give up the gift of life willingly. I believe there can be justified, if not still sinful, wars; I believe defeating Japan and Germany in WWII was a just cause. But ask yourself, have we faced such evil since World War II, other than godless communism, that we should spill the blood of our youth? Is it not our great foolishness, our folly, to think we have the right to determine the fate of nations and peoples. Would we do so were we not the captive of an economy and culture now dependent on war?
We possess technology that can secure our safety, security and peace; we need both swords and plowshares, but only peace will ultimately win the hearts and minds of mankind. We pray for peace every Sunday, we build for war the other six days of the week.
Ask yourself, my fellow conservative Christian Americans, what would Jesus do? I think you know the answer. If you have never answered the frequent call to arms it is your task to wonder, “Am I a coward?” “Would I die for America, would I die for a national political purpose?”
Even more importantly, we all, all of us, soldier and civilian, must ask ourselves, “Would I die for Jesus?” Will I work to stop the madness of war to follow the biblical teaching of Jesus? What do you think Jesus would say to you? And before you state that war is “moral,” and cite the Old Testament, let me inform you that every battle of every war that Israel and Judea fought and won was done so on the Command of God. Every life taken, with few notable exceptions, was taken in obedience to the Will of God. Every other war was lost, and even now, the Israeli state exists solely because God has willed a Christian America to protect Israel, to preserve our Judeo-Christian heritage.
There is no greater sacrifice that a man can make than to die to preserve the lives of others. Such a death is honorable, and worthy of commendation, even when given in vain for an immoral cause. Whether such men, and now women, are heroes is left to the judgement of men, as is the determination of cowardice. But we must know as Christians that such deaths, indeed any such service as facilitates death in war, is not righteous before God Almighty, and forgiveness from God must be sought by those who serve and those who order such service. And the very Passion of Christ, inflicted by soldiers obeying orders, provides the certainty that all sinners are forgiven, if only they repent and believe on Jesus Christ.
I am a Southern male, I can not escape the shame I feel when I look upon that wall. I think on the battle death of my great great grandfather at Gettysburg, July 3, 1863. Ordained Anglican, I think on the tragic death of Bishop General Leonidas Polk on little Pine Mountain just miles from where I was raised for what was surely a great, noble lost cause. I hope I will have the courage to die for Christ should that time come in my life. I respect and honor those who died, even more than I respect and honor those who object to the dirty, senseless and stupid little wars our national leaders have engaged in over the past half century. One final thought, while I may well be a coward, I am not a pacifist. Every war we have fought since the last World War could have been won before it was fought, won by policies that encourage and respect self determination and economic liberalization. Policies that demonstrate faith in the goodness of man, trust in democratic practice and belief in the love of God and the need of obedience to his will. And pursuing such policies is not only the obligation of all Christians, it is commanded of us. + + +