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Vietnam Matters

It was a weird Washington Park day back in the early 1970s. A thick fog hanging close to the ground made the earth disappear. It also obscured the lower half of people walking through the Albany park.

As I walked behind the statue of Moses amid the park’s main flower beds (which had also disappeared beneath the mysterious fog), a surreal scene emerged. Moses, above the fog on his mountainous pedestal, with arms outstretched and staffless (his rod had gone on unauthorized loan via the late-night intoxications of a band of Albanian hippies) achieved a dramatic dominance over the scene. Then I heard him.

Passing before the outstretched arms of Moses, a guy who appeared to be in his early 20s had stopped about 15 yards from me and began shouting. He appeared to be shouting at me. He wasn’t anyone I knew, but from his raised voice, I suspected that he was not too happy with me. Then he went into a crouch.

As more of his body disappeared into the strange fog, I saw that he was bringing his arms up as if he were aiming a gun. I instinctively hit the wet grass, awaiting the gun blast. Nothing happened.

I lay there for a short while, listening to the guy’s continuing shouts. I started to figure out what he was agitated about. He thought I was Viet Cong. He was back in Vietnam and I was the enemy. He was having a flashback, and taking it very seriously. It was kill or be killed.

He had so convincingly raised his arms as if he had a gun, that I stayed low for a bit until I could catch a clear view of his hands in the low-visibility conditions. He didn’t have a gun. It was as unreal as the rest of the scene he was acting out. I scooted out of the park and let the folks over at the Refer switchboard (now Equinox) know there was an apparent Vietnam vet in the park in need of help.

That whole bizarre scene in the park that day has stayed with me for more than 30 years. I realized that day that there were additional war costs that I had failed to give much notice. I realized there was a whole other range of collateral damage inflicted by the war. I realized that some of those returning from the war had serious wounds that one couldn’t immediately see. As I recently passed through the park checking out blooming tulips, I wondered what had happened to that Vietnam vet.

Now, 29 years after the last U.S. casualties occurred in that war, a growing issue in this presidential election year is the Vietnam War. One issue is what the candidates were doing during the war. Another looming issue is whether the current war in Iraq indicates a failure to learn from the Vietnam War. Some claim that what’s past is past and that the Vietnam War should not matter in the debates that will fill this election year. I disagree. I think Vietnam matters.

I grew up with the Vietnam War. Until I was 15 I didn’t pay it much attention, though I did note that the war was somehow tied to the game of dominos and a threat of communist world domination. But then things changed as the number of troops sent rose and I started to see that there were other games besides dominos involved. I decided that the carnage in Southeast Asia was wrong and joined the growing demonstrations against the war that marched down Albany’s streets.

As I prepared to go to college, student deferments were no longer granted. I was classified 1A by the draft board, which meant that I could be called to the induction center at any time. My fate tumbled about in a large canister on a stage as the luck of a lottery determined if I would be drafted or not. My number was in the 70s, but I had no idea what that meant as far as the likelihood of being drafted. It turned out that the draft that year didn’t get near my number, but some of my friends weren’t so lucky.

Ironically, all these years later, George W., who is centering his election campaign on being a war leader, apparently can’t account for what he was doing during the Vietnam War. After he secured preferential treatment and a National Guard slot, taxpayer funds apparently were wasted on this “warrior” who got pilot training, but soon lost his pilot status for failing to comply with requirements.

George W.’s war-hungry confidant and sidekick Dick Cheney was able to duck the war entirely through a series of student and family deferments. Many of George W.’s top defense department appointees also were able to avoid Vietnam service. Perhaps this helps explain how these born-again war hawks are so capable of repeating the mistakes of the Vietnam War. They remained insulated from the war. They never learned that Vietnam mattered.

With more than 58,000 Americans killed and more than 300,000 wounded, and millions of Vietnamese dead and wounded, Vietnam should matter. Much of this death was set into motion following an attack on a U.S. ship in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964 that never happened. The authority to wage war in Vietnam was handed over to Lyndon Johnson based on a lie. No telling how many would not have died, or been wounded or traumatized, if the truth had been known on Aug. 7, 1964, when Congress voted the president the power to wage war in Vietnam.

As the death toll in Iraq rises, the lessons of the Vietnam War continue to be ignored by George W. As another distant war expresses its casualties, I take a simple walk in search of brilliant tulips in the park while ghosts of the past pass through the fog of my memory, refusing to be forgotten. For me, Vietnam will always matter.

—Tom Nattell


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