I’m 70 years old. Donald Trump is 71. That means we have in common with every male in our generation one important, if not dominating thing: Vietnam.
We turned 18 and became eligible for the draft in the mid 1960s: ’64 for him, ’65 for me. Turning 18 in either New York, where he lived, or the Washington D.C. area, where I lived, was something we all looked forward to. You could throw away your fake ID and go downtown to a bar and drink anytime you wanted. Freedom! But like so many things in late adolescence, it came with qualifications: the possibility of losing your freedom to the draft was right around the corner.
1964 and 1965 were incredibly important years as the war in Vietnam reached maturity. There were 112,000 young men drafted in 1964, more than twice as many — 230,000 — in 1965. At the end of 1964, there were 23,000 Americans serving in Vietnam. By December of 1965, eight times as many were in the combat zone — 184,000. In 1964, 216 Americans lost their lives in Vietnam. In 1965, the number killed was raised tenfold to nearly 2,000. All in all, 28 million young men reached draft age during the Vietnam years. Nine million served in uniform, and 2.7 million went to Vietnam. Only about 800,000 actually saw combat.
By 1965, Vietnam had become a meat grinder, and with President Lyndon Johnson fearing that he would be accused of “losing” the war to the commies, he was turning the war into a senseless cesspool of slaughter. As Johnson fed the beast, an entire generation of young American men faced a dilemma no other American generation had confronted before. With the war already being criticized as foolhardy and misbegotten, if not criminal, did you don or did you dodge? — pun absolutely intended. Don dodged. I donned.
But it’s not a moral distinction I’m drawing here between me and our erstwhile president. Morals entered into it, of course. Some guys were strongly opposed to the war on religious or various moral grounds. But for others, getting drafted and possibly facing an order to Vietnam had simple, human consequences. For almost everyone in those years and for the years before, going into the service was an abrupt and usually unwanted interruption of your life. Whether you went to college and had a draft deferment for four years, or went straight to work out of high school, getting drafted was going to take at least two years out of your life, one way or another. And with Vietnam looming over there across the Pacific, the draft might cost you more than two years. It might cost you all the rest of the years you had on this earth.
There were other complications. Women weren’t subject to the draft back then, so they didn’t face the same dilemma. This gave them a freedom we didn’t have, to oppose the war on any grounds whatsoever without consequences. If we opposed the war and refused induction, we could go to jail. No such danger for women. This created a split between the sexes that had never existed before. I knew plenty of guys who had girlfriends who felt so strongly about the war they threatened to break up with the guys if they didn’t dodge the draft. When I was in West Point between 1965 and 1969, it was hard to find college girls who would go out with a cadet, much less a Spec 4 with orders to the combat zone. The women weren’t to blame. The war was a moral shithole, a consumer of American and Vietnamese bodies that never should have happened. The war was a problem between us, not of us.
As the years moved on, the complications multiplied. Guys who started out in ’64 or ’65 with an “American right or wrong” attitude gradually lost their innocence as the war dragged on, the bodies piled up and scandals like My Lai were forced out of military secrecy into the sunlight. Not one thing about that war was good. By the time Trump was in grad school and I was graduating from West Point, massive demonstrations were influencing public opinion against the war. LIFE magazine famously ran an absolutely jaw-dropping issue with thumbnail photographs of every one of the approximately 500 men who had been killed in a single week. Suddenly the war had 500 faces, and they were so young, every one of them with a future to look forward to!
Now they were dead.
Support for the war went from being reflexive to mixed to weak. As casualties mounted, Johnson, and then Nixon, began pulling out troops and substituting them with massive bombing campaigns that didn’t work any better than the 500,000 troops we had there at the war’s peak.
Young American men didn’t just watch this process, they were in it. They were in many ways its subjects. The split within the generations was blasted into sharp relief at Kent State when a platoon of reservists, all of them young, all of them male, gunned down students protesting the war. The war had come home.
Trump reacted to all of this as many men did. He had four student deferments as he completed undergraduate and graduate college work, and when they ran out, he got a doctor to certify him as damaged goods due to spurious bone spurs. It was well known at the time that a check for $1,000 would get you out of the draft. I knew a lawyer in New York whose entire practice was getting guys out of the draft. What about those who didn’t have a grand or so handy, to spend on a lawyer or doctor? Tough luck. This produced an entirely unbalanced and unfair military, of course, with young men of color or poor backgrounds far more likely to be the ones under fire.
You wouldn’t think it, but it wasn’t much different for West Point graduates at the time. There were 800 guys in my class. Some 90 of them were high school class presidents, 200 in the honor societies of their schools, several dozen Eagle Scouts — all in all, as accomplished and intelligent a student body as you could find in a college anywhere. Every morning The New York Times was delivered to our rooms. Cadets could read as well as everyone else. We saw the war disintegrate before our eyes on the nightly news and in the pages of the Times. At West Point, we saw the effects of the war on the officer corps. It was disastrous. Officers who had lied about body counts and covered up war crimes were promoted into positions of authority at West Point. They brought the effects of that corrupt war with them. Resignations skyrocketed in my class, with more than 100 leaving in one year alone. In 1965, I wanted nothing more in the world than to be an Army officer. By 1969, I wasn’t so sure.
My father had been relieved of his battalion command in Vietnam in the 9th Infantry Division for refusing to shell a village of civilians with his mortars one night, an act that would have been a war crime no less savage than My Lai. Doing the right thing instead of the wrong thing effectively ended the career of a good man who had served his country with honor for more than 20 years. Friends of ours in the Army returned from the war with horror story after horror story. Drugs. Random shootings of civilians for sport. Financial corruption on an industrial scale.
It does the word “disillusioned” no favor to use it to describe me by the time I became a Second Lieutenant in the Infantry. When I became a platoon leader at Fort Carson, Colorado (to make a long, complicated story short), I discovered that approximately 15 to 20 percent of my unit was addicted to heroin, most of them vets just returned from Vietnam who brought their habits home with them. I tried to get an amnesty program established to deal with the rampaging problem of heroin addiction with treatment instead of incarceration. For that crime, a Lieutenant General ordered me punitively to Vietnam. I refused that order and was expelled from the Army — for being gay! — with a bad discharge. I know I’ve said it before, but that tattered discharge certificate somewhere in my files is my silver star. I was 23 years old.
But like everything else about that godforsaken time, it was complicated. I had very, very mixed feelings about the Army and about what I did. I didn’t feel like I was letting down my family, because I had already seen what the war did to my father. But I felt in a very basic, gut-level way that I was letting down my soldiers at Fort Carson, because I was a really good platoon leader. I would have been a good platoon leader in Vietnam as well. And under other circumstances, I would have gone. Other guys from my class at West Point went through their own private and not so private conflicts. Two guys became the second and third West Point officers in history to be granted conscientious objector status and allowed to resign from the Army. Other guys figured out various ways to avoid Vietnam by finagling their career assignments. When the class of 1969 reached the end of its obligation to serve after five years, nearly 50 percent of the class resigned at once. The reason: Vietnam.
So I don’t judge harshly Donald Trump and his history with avoiding the draft, and I doubt that many in our generation do. I came to describe that time as the “damned if you did, damned if you didn’t” years. If you allowed yourself to get drafted and served, you were damned by those who opposed the war. If you dodged the draft and avoided Vietnam — for any reason, moral or otherwise — there were those who damned you as not living up to your obligations as a citizen and moreover as a man. This produced an incredibly confused split in our generation which more than 50 years has not lessened. Our history is so strife torn and riven with contradictions and pain that none of us should be using it to harm one another. It doesn’t accomplish anything, it’s not fair, and it’s just not right, so of course it’s exactly what Trump is doing.
Trump is reflexively using that split over Vietnam in the service of his career as president, most recently in his unhinged attack on Senator Richard Blumenthal for his mixed record on Vietnam. “Interesting to watch Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut talking about hoax Russian collusion when he was a phony Vietnam con artist!” Trump tweeted on Monday morning after watching Blumenthal supporting the Russia investigation on CNN.
Trump’s thumbs continued to thwack: “Never in U. S. history has anyone lied or defrauded voters like Senator Richard Blumenthal. He told stories about his Vietnam battles and . . . conquests, how brave he was, and it was all a lie. He cried like a baby and begged for forgiveness like a child.” Apart from the fact that Trump was attacking Blumenthal for advocating upholding the law, and the fact that much of Trump’s attack is an outright lie — Blumenthal said that he had served in the war when in fact he had remained stateside while serving in the Marine Reserves — Blumenthal never “told stories about his battles and conquests” or “how brave he was,” much less “cried like a baby and begged for forgiveness like a child.” On the contrary, when Blumenthal was caught out with his misstatement about his career — almost eight years ago — he apologized, and until Monday, he and everyone else in the world had moved on.
Not Trump. He used Vietnam as a bludgeon to clobber Blumenthal, as usual lying about him outrageously as he did it. Why? That’s the question I have. The war in Vietnam is the third rail for our generation, politically and in every other way. Remember the attacks on Clinton for dodging the draft? They went after him with a howitzer when it was revealed that Clinton had attended a demonstration against the war overseas when he was at Oxford. Heavens! Not only was he a draft dodger, he wasn’t a patriot! It hardly bears repeating to go over Trump’s various unpatriotic acts and statements while overseas, not to mention the role overseas Russians played in his election campaign. So let’s leave that to history.
What we shouldn’t ignore, however, is the reason Trump completely lost it on Monday morning with his insane tweets attacking Senator Blumenthal. He is so frightened of the investigation of himself and his campaign by Special Counsel Mueller that he actually conflated Blumenthal’s military record with Russian “collusion.” Huh? That’s not reaching; that’s pure unfettered desperation. Our president is like a rabid raccoon, lashing out wildly, teeth bared, apparently prepared to fight to the death against the investigation which threatens his presidency more and more every day.
The thing about raccoons is, they can climb trees to avoid being caught. Trump is marooned on the earth, where he finds himself in the crosshairs of Mueller’s investigation. Poor guy. He should have put on the uniform and gone through basic training and even taken that long dreadful flight to the combat zone whether he would carry a rifle when he got there or not. Might have given him some of what the Army used to call “character,” because he — and we — sure as hell could use some right now.