Author's Name: Steve Schoenbeck

Title: "The Fear and the Hope"

 

I'm attaching an essay I wrote on April 7, 1970, when stationed at the MACV headquarters, Saigon, Vietnam.  I was reflecting primarily on the deep divide we were experiencing, between the soldiers who fought the war and those back home who bitterly opposed it.  After having been raised in St. Louis, a son of a WW II Marine veteran of Iwo Jima, I had completed one year of graduate school at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, (intending at the time to pursue a Ph. D. in English) when I was drafted into the Army.  I was assigned as a military stenographer to the two-star general who was in charge of logistics in Vietnam.  As such I was not in a combat role, but did have some time to reflect on the overall situation.  I have not attempted to edit what I wrote at that time, but attach it here under the title "The Hope and the Fear."

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The trial of the “Chicago Seven” served to crystallize the discontent of the American people.  The young looked to Judge Hoffman and saw in him the embodiment of “all that is old, ugly, repressive,” and their parents looked at Abbie and saw the taunting force that mocks and challenges the world they have struggled to build.   It was a clear confrontation of good guys and bad guys, cowboys and Indians.  There are some who applauded this development, sensing that the lines had been drawn up for battle and that the holy war was about to begin.  Unfortunately, that is about the only thing that clear-cut lines are good for; they are of little avail in establishing a truly tolerant society, a truly democratic nation.

We have heard so much about a generation gap that we are inclined to think of the opposing forces as those who view age thirty from opposite directions.  This is decidedly not the case.  The split in American society is so serious a problem precisely because it separates even the members of the “now generation.”  A generation gap we can live with; the world has already done so for untold ages.  Indeed, life would be much less interesting without it.  But a gap which divides contemporaries is a menacing situation.

We have long been told that the post-World War II generation has grown up in the shadow of the bomb; but has the bomb had the same effect on all its charges?  While there are many who would curse their parents for having allowed the bomb to fall, there are others who realize that the same bomb, in sparing their soldier fathers, gave them life.  To speak truthfully, most of the young hold neither of these positions, for memory is short and the horrors of today tend to dim the significance of two bombs which fell some twenty-five years ago.  The two attitudes, however, characterize the ideological rift which separates the Vietnam veteran from the campus radical.  One sees military might as unfortunate but necessary, while the other sees it as the grossest violation of human dignity and worth.  The failure of the two to understand each other poses a serious threat to the future of America.

Having recently been “summoned” from a college campus, one which knew its share of turbulence, and sent in the course of time to join the U.S. forces in Vietnam, I have seen something of both sides.  Looking first at the point of view of the college students, I have witnessed anti-war demonstrations and have heard bitterly denounced all who support the war effort.  Accepting for the moment the validity of the protesters’ objections, how does one justify the soldier’s position?  How do they justify it to themselves, if they bother at all?

For the most part they do not; how many people do bother to justify their course of action to themselves?  But in submitting to the life of a soldier they inevitably give it their tacit approval.  In this post-Nuremberg, post-Sartrean world, it would be ludicrous to maintain that these men bear no responsibility for the war as they are “merely following orders.”  The Army itself has discredited this attitude in part by bringing to trial certain individuals who sought to conceal acts of personal violence under the cover of war.  And if a man is responsible for all of his acts in a war-time situation, is he not all the more responsible for going to war in the first place?  At no time in American history have the alternatives to accepting armed service been more widely publicized or more openly espoused.  Every man over here could have chosen to go to Canada, Sweden, or jail instead, not to mention those who could have convinced a draft board that they were conscientious objectors or were physically unqualified.  Each man over here chose to be here, either deliberately, by volunteering, or indirectly, by discounting his other options, and each should bear in mind the responsibility his decision entails.

There are some who would staunchly defend their choice, believing sincerely that the U.S. is engaged in a totally just cause.  This view is less prevalent among younger soldiers, by far the majority in Vietnam, but still claims its share of adherents.  The significance of this point of view is enhanced by the fact that it often underlies the tacit, unreasoned acceptance of the war on the part of a great many who would not openly argue its justness.

What do these men say to the charge that they are merely promoting the interests of American capitalism and are sacrificing their own lives as well as those of the Vietnamese to fatten the wallets of their enterprising fellow citizens?  What do they say to the charge that American soldiers are spawning a race of beggars and leaving a legacy of disease?  And what do they say to the charge that Americans are responsible for the wholesale slaughter of Vietnamese civilians?

The deep-seated conviction that America must be doing some good over here sustains many.  They see the blunders and the butchery as unfortunate side effects in a sustained effort – sustained at great physical and psychological cost to these men – which has brought definite gains to the people of South Vietnam.  Men who daily see Vietnamese villages become more secure from terrorist attacks tend to overlook the fact that the government which sought American aid in the first place was less than truly representative.  Men who understand the necessity for discipline in a combat situation tend to overlook the fact that the South Vietnamese Government deals rather harshly with any opposition.

The rational bases for contributing to the war effort, like all reasons adduced to support a given position, can be and often are debated ad nauseam.  If we are to truly understand the American soldier’s support of the war, we must look beyond the surface logic and consider the emotional factors, the gut feelings which frequently weigh much heavier with the individual GI.  When a man feels that something is right or wrong, he will often accept the flimsiest reasons as an intellectual justification.

Ironically, one of the emotional responses which causes a soldier to accept his part in the war is brought about by the very people who seek to convince him of the error of his ways.  With an animal’s sure instinct for self-preservation, the man who is denounced for taking a certain course of action will hasten to defend himself.  Though he may come in time to consider the justness of his detractor’s complaint, his first reaction will be to commit himself wholeheartedly to a course he had initially taken with indifference.  So the GI’s react to bitter protests against the Vietnamese war.

A related feeling is the sense of pride which grows in a man who gives a good part of himself to a demanding task.  The development of this pride is subtle indeed.  A man may curse his job day after day, complaining bitterly of the conditions he is forced to live with and the things he must do, and yet come to feel – and in time to admit grudgingly to himself – that he has been involved in an important endeavor.  He comes to feel that he has “done his part,” and is quite satisfied with himself for having done so.  This also causes him considerable irritation with the “shirkers” who have not followed his course.  Whether this pride is justified or not is another endless debate; what is notable is that men do feel this pride, and that it plays an important role in the alignment of a man’s sympathies.

While these feelings are known to all who serve in Vietnam, they are most intense for those who share the special brotherhood of the combat soldier.  In the midst of the daily suffering that is the life of the “grunt,” some boys becoming men experience their first awareness of what it means to depend on another for one’s very existence.  In time this dependence leads to an attachment which will inspire some to perform their first truly unselfish acts.  Do you tell a man who has just given an arm, a leg, a life to save his buddies that he has foolishly maimed himself only to support the corrupt, power-seeking American establishment?  If he is dead, do you yell it over his bones to try and make that hateful knowledge sink in with his dust?  What are these accusing words to the sublime generosity of his act?  The hope to be cherished, then, is that the warmth of this fellow-feeling, the pride in the common endeavor – albeit a human, and therefore sadly imperfect struggle – will live with these men as an impulse to extend that concern to all men, an urge to extend that moment of self-abnegation into a lifetime.  The hope is countered by the sad reality that many will allow the feeling to harden and recede; they will recall only the circumstances of their generous impulses – the war itself – and not the tentative vision of a shared humanity which actually prompted their actions.  They will gather in their Legion halls and reminisce about the “good old times,” despising those who protested against the war, failing to embrace them in their concern.

The very same hope and a similar countering reality apply to the protesters.  They, too, have experienced an awakening of generous impulses in a period of stress.  I witnessed a body of angry, concerned students become as one in their sympathy for alleged mistreatment of the blacks on campus.  The actual facts of the situation were forgotten as skilled speakers whipped the audience into a frenzy compounded partly of guilt feelings for 300 years of abuse and mistreatment and partly of the heady sense of being where the action is, a sublimation of the pervasive spring fever.  Though it was frightening to see how the crowd was manipulated, it was reassuring to know that many were coming to realize for the first time what oppression has meant to the black man.  Many were coming to learn of the subtle discrimination which remains after the headline grabbing problems of jobs, housing, and education are supposedly dealt with.  

The hope, again, is that some have carried away this sense of a shared humanity and a concern for righting the injustices that remain.  The sad reality is that some will remember only the circumstances of their enlightening experience.  They will remember only the conflict with the “establishment,” and fail to extend their sympathy to middle America, to the hard hats and bankers, the businessmen, housewives, and government officials.  They will gather in Black Panther meetings and in makeshift explosives laboratories and tell themselves that the “pigs” will never understand the “people.”

In examining a phenomenon which he called “religious experience,” William James devised a test for the evaluation of such “conversion encounters” as the emotional experiences of the soldier and the student.  In essence his method was based on the Biblical counsel: “By their fruits ye shall know them.”  Applying this test to the present day scene, we shall know the value of the soldier’s experience or the protester’s experience by the results of their actions.  Does the soldier come home hardened and brutalized, with a bitter hatred of all who opposed his course?  Or does he return with a resolve to bring peace to his own life and extend its benefits to all men?  Does the radical’s commitment to a course of action lead to bombings and death?  Or does it lead him to work responsibly, sympathetically for the benefit of his fellow men?  The fear is that the war veteran and the radical will harden in their opposition to each other; the hope is that they may extend their momentary visions into a life-long awareness of a shared humanity.

Steve Schoenbeck,
Saigon, Vietnam
April 7, 1970