Vonnegut and Veteran’s Day, or The Children’s Crusade

Even before I was interested much in literature, I developed a love for history. Today’s Veteran’s Day post will only briefly touch on literature, and instead offer a slice of history. Older readers may think they know all this, or know it better than what I’ll write today. Some younger readers won’t care, but perhaps a few will learn something they didn’t read or hear elsewhere. As with any short piece, I’m going to need to leave out many things. While this post was not written intending to be a puzzle, I noticed that one thing was left out of this Veteran’s Day post. By that I don’t mean some opinion or judgement, or even some biographic item — I mean a particular significant historical Veteran’s Day fact that I expect few will notice is missing. When I reveal it late in the post, I’m also thinking you’ll take that elision as something to consider.

So, a bit over 50 years ago there was a war going on, the Vietnam War. The way it was presented then: our great geo-political rival had invaded another country and we were morally obligated to resist that aggression. This doesn’t seem to have been the case, at least not in any way that could be simplified as such. Another summary would be that Vietnam had invaded Vietnam, as it had been doing since the days of WWII, seeking to become an independent country. In the course of things, they succeeded, and now are one of those more or less unremarkable governments around the world that may be good or bad to their citizens in some mixture that we don’t generally concern ourselves with.

This obligation eventually led to a considerable number of American troops fighting in South-East Asia, but luckily the post WWII Baby Boom had raised a bumper crop of what were considered prime fighting age 20-year-olds. I was one of them. Even though this was a war, there were only so many troops that could be used. The amounts that could be used were filled to a significant degree by draftees, young people conscripted (other words: forced, obligated, duty-bound) to serve in the military, and since there was a war going on, some percentage of those draftees would be asked to kill other people or to be killed themselves.

To a surprising extent, this was not remarkable then. I can imagine how many living adults now find that odd, what with present controversies about wearing cloth masks and getting vaccinations — as not only were these conscripted men plausibly in for the kill/killed experience, they were also vaccinated forthwith and forced to wear entire uniforms. And yes, in certain training situations they were instructed in how to put on masks.

I can say that as a teenager in that crop of draft-age men then, I thought about this, and remarked on it. Others in my cohort did too. But there were whole days when one didn’t think about it, and instead thought about sex, fun, school deadlines, the price of a pizza, the general meaning of life and what that meant for you personally, and so on and so on. Still, it was an issue considered by the young.

But no, in general the adult country was fine with this, and even to observable empirical level it was not the biggest deal for a lot of my immediate cohort. You see, I was in college, a small one in a not very big town in Iowa, and because only a certain number of troops were needed, college students were given “deferments.” They didn’t need to serve while in school, and if this was a political post one could get into why that might be so. I’ll also add that dropping out of school, or failing out, or being short of tuition funds, or just deciding to take a gap year — those things would make the draft imminent for a college student — but for college 20-year-old men it wasn’t a next Thursday kind of worry, though it could be a next year one.

Now I and a few of my friends did think this was a bad thing, the war, the draft — oh, and a lot of other stuff: racism, what recreational drugs were legal, female students having “hours” where they had to be back in dorms by a certain time each night. The “we should do something about this” group was probably around 5% of the student body at my college in 1968.

Then in the spring of 1970 something happened that surprised me. The President made public (as if it was a new decision rather than a more substantial incursion that couldn’t be kept secret) that US troops were going to invade countries next to Vietnam. To those who had been paying less attention, this seemed a sign that this was maybe going to be around a lot longer, like past graduation, with more draftees needed. Opposition to the war on college campuses had been growing for about a year, and this gave it another bump, and on an obscure Ohio campus, Kent State, this boiled over (as it occasionally had elsewhere) into disorder and vandalism which wasn’t enough to cancel classes, but was enough for the National Guard to be sent in.

Something happened, likely a confused Guard squad, and the Guard opened fire, A bunch of students got shot, some were just walking between classes — because again, whatever disorder this was, classes were in session — four died.

Of course, I was appalled, but did that surprise me? Not greatly. Even in my youthful life there had been the drumbeat of the civil rights movement martyrs and assassinations of Presidents and Presidential candidates. In my crowd the fatal Chicago police shooting of Fred Hampton was considered duplicated multiple times against the Black Panthers. And in 1969 there had been a shooting death in the People’s Park confrontations.

Here’s what surprised me more. Not only around the country, but in my little Iowa college, much larger numbers of students thought something had to be done right now about this. One by one colleges and universities suspended normal operations and any number of alternative actions were taken that spring. This was called a strike. Here’s something little remarked on about male students choosing to do this for what was then an unknown duration in 1970: it could’ve led to them becoming subject to the draft.

Veterans Day 2021 2

There are no pictures available of my 1970 memories, so the guy on the left will have to stand in. The statue on the right is a clue to this post’s subsidiary riddle. The Nov. 11th born veteran Vonnegut tried to speak between generations.

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Ad hoc organization coalesced at my school and as I recall the one concrete action to “really do something” was to try to garner support for a federal bill that would restrict funding or expansion or authorization or some other matter regarding the war in SE Asia. The bill had been co-sponsored, or co-authored, or supported by one of Iowa’s Senators, Harold Hughes.*

Let me stop for a moment and get to a reason I’m writing this on a Veteran’s Day. Sometime, maybe a generation after these events, it became a commonplace that Vietnam war opponents, or college students, or hippies, or leftists, or some Sixties group hated soldiers in general. “In general” is a dodgy term, but I think it’s meaningful in this matter. I spent time with all those supposed soldier-hating groups, in both Iowa and New York (two fairly unlike places), and I never heard anything like that, not once. And it would have seemed so odd to me personally, that if I had heard it, I think I would have remembered it. And it wasn’t reticence or propriety that would have masked those feelings. Expressions against police were so common that I couldn’t count them then, much less now. And fairly soon, as early as 1971, I was running into ex-Vietnam era soldiers who could be put in those loosely defined groups above themselves.**

Back to working with this newly motivated group of Iowa college students who naively thought they had to do something right now about this expanding war. We were going to go door-to-door asking for folks to write letters in support of this bill. Now who takes point walking on a patrol, or even boring days painting what doesn’t move, or for that matter being under a napalm attack — this isn’t on that order (well, maybe the middle one is a little), but for some reason, I have memories of the few days I did this before leaving for New York. I believe now what we were doing was essentially meaningless, if the best we could come up with at the time.

In our door-knocking in town we might run into what was later called “The Greatest Generation.” Most said little to our spiel, but a couple of them, men, wanted to set us straight as to what we didn’t understand. Well, even then I suspected there were things I didn’t know, and now I can drop the suspected and replace it with certainty. The one I remember most vividly responded with a statement that I didn’t know what it was like to watch your buddies die.

I try to replay him saying that through the fog of the years. Although there was anger in it, I think it was a sincere personal statement. I often think since of what did that statement, however incongruous, mean? Did he mean that I should watch my buddies die? That that would be enlightening, educational? I don’t think so, no more than it was his considered opinion that such an experience had been worthwhile or ennobling for him. What he meant, putting my most empathetic interpretation on it, was that a certain sacrifice and commitment added something to one’s opinion on national matters.

More broadly though, his generational experience was why there was not a great deal of concern then, other than a slowly growing one among those of draft age, for the idea that young men could be conscripted to possibly kill or be killed. The Greatest Generation had faced the same sacrifice, and so this was normalized, not even Great yet, unexceptional. In the case of WWII good wasn’t a question, necessary was the question.

In those times, some in my generation eagerly latched onto WWII veteran Kurt Vonnegut’s books (and Joseph Heller’s Catch 22  as well) to portray everything else around the necessary part of WWII. They were our cross-generational allies in seeing and saying that war needed extraordinary necessity. Vonnegut even wanted to connect us 20-year-olds with his Dresden POW book Slaughterhouse Five,  subtitling it “The Children’s Crusade”  which had been a nickname for the 1968 US Presidential campaigning by folks often too young to vote for anti-Vietnam-war candidates, and which he then applied to the 18-20 year old range of his WWII cohort.

OK, what Veteran’s Day historical event did this old man leave out of the above story, dealing as it did with differences and connections between men serving in the Vietnam War era and those who wanted to end that war, and between 20-year-olds and the WWII generation then in middle age? I completed an entire first draft and didn’t notice it myself. And I’m not alone. American Veteran’s Day stories in 1970 and up until now almost always leave it out. It’s the Korean War. As with WWII, few living veterans of that war are left now, but it occurs to me that the fervent man at the door in 1970 could easily have been a Korean War vet. And in historical analysis, that war had as much or more to do with the missteps of the Vietnam War as WWII.

The musical piece today is another song from birthday-boy Kurt Vonnegut’s novel “Cat’s Cradle” in which his trickster guru character Bokonon muses ontologically. You don’t have to look up the word to appreciate this little song. Player gadget below to hear it, and if you don’t see that, you can click this highlighted hyperlink.

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*I knew all those details then, even if I don’t remember them now. Harold Hughes is a little-remembered figure these days. Capsule description of Hughes: imagine if Johnny Cash had been a governor and then a U. S. senator. As to the general student feeling, I think it was close to how some people felt in the post-George Floyd murder reaction. The watchword was “We’ve got to do something.”

**Some of you may find this striking, The precipitating event of the college strikes of 1970 after all was men in military uniforms shooting and killing students, In this era, various acts were taken against what was considered part of the recruitment and processing of soldiers: draft boards, recruitment offices, ROTC buildings, that sort of place. I can’t know everything, but I never heard any of this characterized as “let’s go get those soldiers” and was more at “let stop more from being conscripted as soldiers.” Given human nature someone somewhere in 1970 may have said or thought that, but speaking of my experience: war-fighting soldiers were what we young men at that point increasingly feared being forced to become. Opinions differ on the nobility of those thoughts then and now, but we might have thought of cops differently if we knew that folks like us, and potentially us ourselves, might be forced to put on a police uniform.

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