mad in pursuit memoir notebook

DISPATCHED FROM THE intersection of yesterday and forever

The World in 1971

I like stories with a world events backdrop. Since I've been piecing together my Green Valley experience, I thought it might be good to put it into its context.

In 1971, Marvin Gaye was singing "What's Going On" and "Mercy, Mercy" because it was a time of sorrow and anger. Nixon was president. Vietnam was in its ugliest and most divisive stage. It had expanded to Cambodia and Laos. Lt. William Calley had been convicted of murder in our descent from war to war crimes. The anti-war movement had peaked with the killing of Kent State student protesters by the National Guard.

In 1971, John Kerry was delivering his now-famous testimony to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It's too bad that testimony has been perverted by present-day lunatics because it is a compelling statement of humanism.

We call this investigation [the Detroit hearings with discharged vets] the "Winter Soldier Investigation." The term "Winter Soldier" is a play on words of Thomas Paine in 1776 when he spoke of the Sunshine Patriot and summertime soldiers who deserted at Valley Forge because the going was rough.

We who have come here to Washington have come here because we feel we have to be winter soldiers now. We could come back to this country; we could be quiet; we could hold our silence; we could not tell what went on in Vietnam, but we feel because of what threatens this country, the fact that the crimes threaten it, not reds, and not redcoats but the crimes which we are committing that threaten it, that we have to speak out.

The image of the Winter Soldier is an interesting metaphor for the dilemma facing many young people at the time. The U.S. government had made blunder after blunder pursuing phantoms in southeast Asia and didn't seem to mind paying for these mistakes with young men's lives. Combat soldiers thought they were being patriotic and idealistic till they came face-to-face with stomach-turning reality. A generation of youth who grew up in relatively prosperous and indulgent times suddenly faced a profound a ethical question -- maybe one more profound than "serving vs. evading." They had to face up to the meaning of patriotism. Does patriotism mean living at the service of your government or living up to the ideals of a nation founded as a refuge from tyranny and torture?

To a 22-year-old in 1971, the Vietnam War felt like the eternal backdrop to our lives, a youth-eating machine run by cynical old men in Washington and their military-industrial complex cronies. ("Don't trust anyone over 30" the saying went.)

There was the anti-war movement, of course. But I like to think of it as one wing of the Peace & Love movement, which had many divisions. There were militants and revolutionaries, like members of the Weather Underground. Then there was the "tune in, turn on, drop out" factions -- the hippies, roughly speaking, who wanted to live in rural communes, practice free love, smoke pot laced with LSD, and listen to psychedelic pop.

I think what we forget about is the large group of young people who resisted the notion that patriotism could only be expressed by sacrificing yourself to Vietnam. The currently generation of 55-year-old social workers, teachers, and public health activists went into low-paying professions because they thought they could save the world. They challenged the notion that service to one's country only meant killing enemies. They challenged the notion that peace could only be achieved through war.

I'm not completely naïve about this. Teaching and other human service professions benefited from (ever-shifting) federal rules that allowed draft deferments to young men in certain fields. And some humanitarian work was allowed as alternative service to men who could convince their draft boards that they were Conscientious Objectors or pacifists. This broke down the barriers between "women's work" and "men's work." We forget that "draft dodging" drove countless young men away from their fathers' gray flannel suit businesses and into the helping professions.

When I went to Green Valley School, nearly all the men my age were there because it helped them avoid Vietnam in some way. I think that's a good thing.



Vietnam War Timeline

Anti-war movement

John Kerry's remarks before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 1971