“Where have all the flowers gone, and the young men gone for soldiers every one.” Pete Seeger’s song. The death of that great warrior for peace made me think also about those for whom he became a teacher, the generation born during and soon after World War II.
Called “entitled” now, they are believed (often even by themselves) to have sold out. They were revolutionary proclaimers of a new age of peace and love. Now their children and pundits say they have “dropped the ball,” upgrading their Beemers instead of the world. But not one, I dare say, is unmoved today, thinking about Pete Seeger. Born in 1919, Mr. Seeger was a parent to the “flower children,” and throughout his long life he passed his mission for peace and justice on to their children and grandchildren.
Listening to him sing, I thought of the Vietnam War. Today, we care about veterans, old and young. PTSD is a recognized issue for soldiers and effective methods of treatment are sought and tried. We nod thanks to soldiers and display bumper stickers of support. We honour World War II veterans. Even Korean War vets have been brought in from the cold, so to speak, acknowledged and thanked for their contribution.
But Vietnam vets? It’s a different story for them. It’s still relatively recent history – lived by many still among us. But, I think, the extent of its devastation remains overlooked. It caused the greatest rupture within America since the Civil War. It divided society and families. And we everywhere could watch it unfold, and judge. Combatants in the war about Vietnam were killed overseas and at home. But now, after 40 years, it is remembered in popular culture as a war of drugs and rock and roll and reluctant soldiers.
That last observation is the nub of the issue, perhaps. Vietnam was the last war fought with conscripted soldiers. Thousands of young men fled their country to avoid it, thousands went to jail, thousands found Jesus or any excuse that would get them conscientious objector status. Many completed university degrees that otherwise they might not have sought: it was a way to defer the draft. Until the loophole was closed, the Peace Corps probably got many more recruits for its overseas development work than it would have in normal times.
And the poor schmucks who couldn’t escape or chose not to? Only they know what they endured during their tours of duty. But all of us old enough to be sentient at the time know what they endured when they returned. They were reviled. Few parades or ‘thank you for going through hell’ for them. They were spat upon and called ‘baby-killers’.
Those who went to Vietnam, and those who didn’t, all suffered. Veterans suffered because of what they endured there, and the reception they received upon return. Draft dodgers suffered because a) of guilt for escaping while others, including their friends, did not, and b) they left their homes for years, maybe forever, evading FBI and military police. Those who took what they hoped would be a tolerable option, such as medic, were still traumatized by what they had to patch up.
No one won in that war. No matter which ‘side’ you were on, it was traumatic then and caused lingering pain, guilt and/or regret afterward. For many, the drugs that got them through Vietnam or the anti-war movement at home, stayed with them afterward, allowing them to live with the memories or becoming a burdensome souvenir. The casualties of the Vietnam War still have not stopped. And yet the horror of it, and the opposition to it, is not talked about all that much. It’s become part and parcel of psychedelic imagery of bell-bottoms, flowers, In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida and, yes, Pete Seeger singing We Shall Overcome.
PTSD had long been known of course: shell shock, ‘he’s never been the same since’. But it was something you were supposed to get yourself over: put it behind you and get on with your life. The parents of the Vietnam era lived through World War II. They knew what it was to fight, and what it was like to get news of your war dead. Like their parents who had gone through the “Great War”, you went if your country called, like it or not. The WWII fathers knew they had stopped a monster and an invasion, and here were their sons saying “hell no, we won’t go.”
But perhaps those parents didn’t realize that their children had grown up convinced they wouldn’t see adulthood. It was hard to think of ‘battleground valour’ after years of “Duck and Cover” school drills in case of atomic bomb attack. Maybe it was their awareness that war is hell and no one comes out unscathed that has led to greater concern with the psychological wellbeing of veterans now.
And that, children of the Baby Boomers, is what your daddy did in the war. If he doesn’t talk much about it, preferring to blast his eardrums with the Rolling Stones, you might think about why that is. He lived through a time of war never before or since replicated in North American history, whether or not he has a service medal. By the way, Pete Seeger also was a veteran of the US Army in the Pacific in WWII.
Poems and song lyrics are from War Poetry – some wonderful writing.