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My mother was six months pregnant with me when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor. My father was training Armored battalions at Fort Knox, Kentucky at the time. Assuming that babies in utero experience something of what their mothers are feeling, I suppose my experience with war started then. My mother never told me how she felt at that moment. I imagine dread.

Growing up in the 1950s, I lived on a diet of patriotic pronouncements, romanticized books about World War II (I’ll never forget the scene in Battle Cry where the desperately ill soldier and his nurse recognize their love for each other), and especially Victory At Sea, a television documentary about the U.S. Navy in WWII. The series bursts with heroism and pathos and I was glued to it. The inspiring score was by Richard Rodgers who also wrote the music for The Sound of Music.

In 1948, Norman Mailer came along with The Naked and the Dead, which portrayed war more realistically. I was only six years old when it first came out, but came across it in my teen years. It stripped away the romanticism of Victory At Sea.

The Korean War went on above my head, I was eleven years old when it ended. I do remember the stricken look on my camp counselor’s face when she opened a letter from her boyfriend telling her he’d been drafted. She was verging on tears when she said, “He’ll probably go to Korea.” A few weeks later, we were awakened by someone walking in front of our tent banging on a pot shouting “The war is over.” My counselor cried again.

Every young man in my generation had to serve in those years. As I remember my own family dinner table conversations, my brothers had the choice of serving for six months of basic training followed by many weekend and summer training camps, or two years in the regular military. Family dinner tables all over the country were alive with discussions about which alternative to take. Many men escaped active military service through graduate school deferments (think Dick Cheney). The Vietnam War was where my contemporaries served, and President Johnson decided to rely upon the draft, not the National Guard, as reserves, and joining the National Guard (think George W. Bush) became a way to avoid serving in Vietnam. I don’t know what was in Bush’s head, but in the heads of me and my friends, he was avoiding hard service.

My father died at the age of 66 in 1967, and I remember discussing Vietnam at the dinner table with him present, so the shadow of that war had started creeping over the country by then. As an officer who had given the prime years of his life to military service, my father was more trusting of the government’s decisions than the rest of the family.

I remember reportage about the Battle of Dien Bien Phu (1954, when I was twelve), which marked the end of the French occupation of Vietnam. After that there were paragraphs here and there in the newspaper about Vietnam, but I couldn’t have found it on a map. I had other things on my mind, and had no personal strings attached to developments in Southeast Asia.

As American involvement grew, Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense, referred to the Domino Theory. He believed if we let Vietnam fall, it would soon lead to the fall of the countries around it, giving Communism dominance over that part of Asia. That didn’t sound unreasonable to me, but I didn’t devote much brain power to researching it.

The rise of Richard Nixon turned my family into staunch Democrats, and they were vehemently opposed to the war. They criticized me for not being as gung-ho as they were, but I didn’t feel I knew enough about the situation to have an opinion and I had growing-up things on my mind.

Then I left America, spent time in Israel, Italy, and Spain, and finally landed in Athens, Greece, where I spent almost a decade, 1967-1976. There were no Greek soldiers in Vietnam, so the war felt far away, but I became more and more dubious about the war. The My Lai massacre turned my stomach, and the failure of the American government to react strongly to it turned my stomach some more. There were reports that the body counts were manipulated, and other chicanery was reported. President Johnson’s swaggering “bring home the coonskin” attitude repulsed me, especially when I realized they were dropping napalm, a fire bomb, on villages.

Then, one evening in 1970, a group of friends and I were having a late dinner at Kostoyannis, a casual restaurant where we ate mezedes: stuffed eggplant, fried zucchini, fried squid, spinach pies, meatballs, salad with cucumbers, tomatoes, and olives, bread, and retsina wine. A man from another table joined us. He was a Frenchman on a stopover on his way to Paris. He owned a plantation in Vietnam and welcomed the opportunity to talk about the situation there. We stayed at the table for hours as he explained how misguided the American mission was. He said the Viet Cong had camped out on his property during the Tet Offensive. He told how the education system in Vietnam was geared toward French, not English. He told us at length how much the Vietnamese hated the Chinese and were the best people to resist their expansion. He chronicled the corruption of the American-leaning leaders and how much the Vietnamese hated them, and a thousand other details that I no longer remember.

This conversation sealed my opposition to the war, and from that point, my opposition grew. This was reporting from the belly of the beast, not some reporter’s quick impression. I had learned how inaccurate news reports could be from reading the reportage about the Greek coup in 1967. Journalists flew in from New York and headed for the bar at the Grande Bretagne Hotel on Syntagma Square. Their stories weren’t awful, but they missed a lot. What had impressed me about the Greek coup was the lack of public reaction to it—the next day moms were wheeling their babies through Syntagma Square. This was not reported, at least not that I saw.

It took years for the truth to leak out of Vietnam, through reporters who went back again and again. In 1968, Walter Cronkite ended a news report following his visit to Vietnam after the Tet Offensive by voicing his disillusionment and skepticism about the war. David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest came out in 1972. My brother came home from a year in Vietnam deeply disillusioned, if not disgusted, by what he had seen.

Even the Kissinger/Nixon peace talks were tainted by political considerations that ignored the cost in American lives of continuing the war.

My reaction to all of the above was and is disgust. I have never gotten over it, though when I mentioned the Vietnam war to my freshman college students in 2008, they said, yeah, they had read about it in their high school history books.

People were caught off guard by 9/11. Up until then, even in my own mind, America was the strongest country in the world. Now it was a laughingstock, and folks like George W. Bush (who did light service in Vietnam) and Dick Cheney (who took student deferments until the war was over) were outraged and vowed revenge. It is for such men that the saying “Pride goeth before a fall” was invented.

As I watched the “shock and awe” show, which failed to do either, I felt duped. Did they think I/we didn’t remember Vietnam? Here we were pouring our lives and lucre into a place where we had never played a cultural role, didn’t speak their language, belittled their history, disdained their religion. President Bush declared it a “crusade,” showing his abysmal ignorance of history and his superiority complex. The draft was long gone, and it is my personal opinion that if there were still a draft, there would have been no wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When forced to fight in Vietnam, another country Americans knew nothing about, a goodly number of young men either went into exile or burned their draft cards, eventually bringing the draft to an end, which has turned out to be a bad idea, in my mind. When people don’t have skin in the game, they don’t care.

I asked my college freshman classes if it would be fair, if the draft were reinstated, to also force women to serve. Class after class looked at me blankly. Students said, “I just wouldn’t serve,” “I’d go to Sweden,” and the like. None of the classes I asked even took up the issue of women serving. I said, “Don’t all of you, that is all of the young men, have draft cards in your wallets?” They nodded silently.

I have formulated an opinion on whether women should serve, though. More women die in childbirth than men in battle, and it has always been so. Their heroism goes unsung. I think it is unfair to force women to take the risks of both childbirth and battle, though if they choose to do so, they should be allowed to. We forced women with brand new babies to serve in Iraq for a year. There are so many things wrong with that, beginning on the customarily hypocritical ground of “family values.”

One lesson I have learned in 82 years of watching war and peace is that each generation has to learn its own lesson. Children who learn about Vietnam in a history book are sent to Iraq and Afghanistan unaware of the great lessons Vietnam taught us. The jaded veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan will find themselves trying to convey to their children and grandchildren the lessons they learned there, to little effect. Yet these lessons are too valuable to be lost…or should be