> 2015 > October
“Next stop is Vietnam…”
If you were more than 10 years old anytime during the 60s, you recognize the lyric. It was preceded by the words “…and it’s 1, 2, 3, what’re we fighting for? Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn… next stop is Vietnam.” The anti-war anthem by Country Joe (McDonald) and the Fish – who quite predictably hailed from Berkeley – influenced a generation of young Americans who opposed the war in Southeast Asia, a conflict that formally ended 40 years ago in 1975.
I know. I was a member of that generation, and my strong opposition to the war was an unlikely turn of events in light of my upbringing. George Hickey, my father, was a decorated WWII veteran who had returned from Burma with medals and stories that mesmerized me as a boy. Growing up in a small Western town with a patriotic paternal influence was preparing me to be a good American soldier should duty ever call.
That is, until I left to attend high school in Berkeley. Going to prep school and then college in California during that turbulent counter-culture, anti-establishment era caused me to contemplate war and my government in entirely new ways. To my way of thinking at the time, it seemed a colossal blunder to wade into the swamps of Vietnam and participate in a conflict that might turn what was essentially a civil war into a tripwire that could ignite a nuclear conflict between the U.S. and Soviet Union. I was far too young to be so sure of such beliefs. But at the ripe old age of 19, I was utterly certain they were right.
As a result, I didn’t follow in the footsteps of my father. I chose not to go to war and went so far as to refuse induction into the Armed Forces in May of 1970 in Oakland, California. Having been drafted out of college following the first-ever lottery on the fateful evening of December 1, 1969, my birthdate had destined me to one of two fates: either a one-way flight to Saigon or to a medium-security cell in a California prison.
Because of my upbringing, I never considered my opposition to the war to be “anti-American.” But I was anti-war when it came to Vietnam. I tried to volunteer for alternative service as a Conscientious Objector but my application was rejected by the local Draft Board, which didn’t buy the proposition that I’d thus far been living a Gandhi-like lifestyle. (They were quite right.) Still, I endeavored to stay true to my convictions by refusing to step forward into the Army on induction day. A prison sentence was next on the calendar.
My decision to go against the will of the U.S. government was hard on me, but it was hell on my father. I’ll never forget the look on my Dad’s face when he told me the F.B.I. had been to the house to verify my whereabouts. It was sad to see him so troubled and afraid, and I couldn’t blame him for his scowl or his sentiments. In that uneasy moment that is forever frozen in my memory, prison would have been preferable to the heavy silence that separated us.
As it turned out, so many Americans became disillusioned with the war that the draft ended. I was never prosecuted and I never saw the inside of a prison—except for the one my own making and co-inhabited these many years by the ghost of self-doubt.
Decades later, just before the occasion of his 100th birthday, I received my father’s forgiveness. It eased my pain but did not erase the painful memory of so deeply disappointing him. That remembrance and what it has meant in my life is a big part of the reason I am finally going to travel to Vietnam. I leave next week and plan to visit Hanoi, the former Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), as well as Hue, and Khe Sanh. The latter is the scene of some of the fiercest battles along the DMZ, many chronicled by local author Michael Archer in his book “A Patch of Ground—Khe Sanh Remembered.”
Archer and I have crossed political paths more than once, due to his work for the Nevada Legislature and his authorship of Sen. Bill Raggio’s biography, “A Man of His Word.” In fact, Mike and I have realized we once treaded on common ground. We were students at St. Mary’s College Prep School at the same time, me a boarding student from Tahoe, he a local boy from Berkeley. Raised under the influence of military veteran fathers and the disciplinarian rigors of the Catholic Christian Brothers, our journeys could have easily followed the same path. It is both strange and ironic that our two paths are now intertwined.
In recent years, Mike returned to Vietnam. Guided by Buddhist psychics now sanctioned by Communist authorities in search of thousands of their own war victims—referred to as “wandering souls”—Mike has journeyed to Khe Sanh in search of the remains of a friend and fellow St. Mary’s grad. Tom Mahoney gave his life on Hill 881S, the infamous site of some of the Vietnam War’s most ferocious and bloody hand-to-hand combat. In memory of the vibrant, handsome 20-year old friend with whom he’d spent so many carefree summer days on the beaches of Lake Tahoe, Mike returned to that site of unspeakable horrors and placed a black, lacquered, wooden plaque on the hill where Tom died.
For my part, I’m headed to Vietnam in order to learn of the present-day impressions of America both from their veterans and from the more than 70% of Vietnamese people who were born after the war. As I travel, I will reflect once again on not having gone myself when I was “supposed to” some 45 years ago. Forty years after the deaths of 58,272 Americans and millions of Vietnamese civilian and military casualties, I will endeavor to make peace with my past and see things “from both sides now.”
I go also in order to honor brave Americans like Mike Archer, his friend Tom Mahoney, and my fellow Assemblyman and friend, Randy Kirner, who went to Nam as an Army Ranger four decades ago because “it was [his] course to serve.” Their sacrifices were great—and were not in vain. Though I didn’t join them and so many others from my generation in the fight, I revere and deeply respect them—though I know I cannot fully fathom either their courage or their loss.
For many Americans my age, regardless of what “side” they took, it’s a war they cannot forget—and one the younger generation hardly remembers. We know it as the Vietnam War. I am told the Vietnamese call it the “American War.” Whatever the name, I go now to see the landscape and the faces. I go also to hear and gather stories. What tales will be told? I do not know, but I am glad my next stop will finally be…Vietnam.
I’ll send you a “postcard” from my journey to a place more than a half-million Americans, mostly millennials, now visit—in next Sunday’s feature.