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"The day I turned 19, I went down for my physical and had my first and only experience of Army life. I took with me a letter from Dr. Murphy, my childhood doctor, describing in uncompromising detail the asthma that had been a major part of my life up to 16."
Thus begins an article by Christopher Buckley in the September issue of Esquire magazine - an article that should spur millions of members of a generation of American men to question a part of their lives that they had thought they put behind them long ago.
Buckley - the son of conservative columnist William F. Buckley Jr. - describes in the article how he had received a medical deferment from the Army, and thus how he had escaped going to Vietnam.
The article is titled "Viet Guilt," and it addresses itself to those millions of young American men who did not go to Vietnam - and who are beginning to realize, all these years later, that by not going they may have proved something about their own lack of courage - their own, lack of manhood, if you will - that ought to make them very uncomfortable.
Enough words have been devoted to the moral issues of the war. The point that Chris Buckley makes is that, if the truth were really to be told, most of the men who managed to stay home from Vietnam did not do so for reasons of morality alone. Their real reason for not going was that they did not want to die, did not want to get shot at. And they found out that there were many ways to avoid Vietnam.
Young men of my generation got out of Vietnam because of college deferments, because of medical deferments, because of having a "lucky" number in the Selective Service birthday lottery that was initiated toward the end of the war. Three million men of fighting age went to Indochina during the Vietnam War; 16 million men of fighting age did not.
Buckley was one of the men who did not - and I was, too. Reading his article made me realize the truth of the emotions I have been feeling lately about that particular subject. I sense a strong feeling - "shame" is not too strong a word - among many men who did not go to Vietnam, and perhaps now is the time to bring that feeling out into the open.
Those of us who did not go may have pretended that we held some moral superiority over those who did, but we must have known - even back then - what that was largely sham. A tiny, tiny minority served jail terms - the rest of us avoided the war through easier methods.
The men who went to Vietnam were no more involved with the politics of the war than we were. They were different from us in only two important ways: They hadn't figured out a successful way to get out of going, and they had a certain courage that we lacked.
Not "courage" as defined the way we liked to define it; not courage" in the sense of opposing the government's policies in Vietnam. But courage in an awful, day-to-day sense; courage in being willing to be over there while most of their generation stayed home.
When I meet men my age who are Vietnam veterans, I find myself reacting the same way that Chris Buckley indicates he does. I find myself automatically feeling a little lacking. "I have friends who served in Vietnam... " Buckley writes. "They all saw death up close every day, and many days dealt with it themselves.
"They're married, happy, secure, good at what they do; they don't have nightmares and they don't shoot up gas stations with M-16s. Each has a gentleness I find rare in most others, and beneath it a spiritual sinew that I ascribe to their experience in the war. I don't think I'll ever have what they have, the aura of I have been weighed on the scales and have not been found wanting, and my sense at this point is that I will always feel the
lack of it."
"I will always feel the lack of it." I think many of us are just beginning to realize that. I know when I meet those men of my generation who did serve in Vietnam, I automatically feel less worthy than they are; yes, less of a man, if you want to use that phrase.
Those of us who did not have to go to Vietnam may have felt, at the time, that we were getting away with something; may have felt, at the time, that we were the recipients of a particular piece of luck that had value beyond price.
But now, I think, we realize that by not having had to go we lost forever the chance to learn certain things about ourselves that only men who have been in war together will ever truly know. Our fathers learned those things in World War II; our sons, God forbid, may learn them in some future conflict. But we - those of us who did not go - managed to avoid something that would have helped form us into different people than we are now.
Buckley writes that "by not putting on uniforms, we forfeited what might have been the ultimate opportunity, in increasingly self-obsessed times, of making the ultimate commitment to something greater than ourselves. The survival of comrades."
But I think it may go even beyond that; I think it may go to the very definition of our manhood. I know that when I meet a man who, it turns out, has served in Vietnam, part of me wonders whether he is able to read my mind. I don't know how widespread this feeling is among men of my generation who didn't go; but I can testify that, at least for some of us, it's there, all right.