Vietnam veteran Karl Marlantes’ powerful essay, “Vietnam: The War that Killed Trust,” recently published in the New York Times to mark the 50th anniversary of what the Times called “a year that changed the war and changed America,” has prompted me to post my own response to those troubled times in the form of a chapter from a memoir-in-progress.
Vietnam: A Political Education
…burned human flesh
is smelling in Viet Nam as I write.
--Denise Levertov, 1966
I dropped out of graduate school in June of 1967 at the height of the war in Southeast Asia. While the war, which my wife and I had opposed from the beginning, was not the primary factor in my decision to leave what I had come to experience as the inhibiting life of academia, it played a significant role in an act that earned me the disapproval, if not the enmity, of both of our families. Graduate school was considered by my own immigrant family, as well as Jeane’s family of scientists and physicians, to be the gateway to a rewarding professional career; indeed, to a certain level of affluence and social standing. I had never sought either, but I’d eagerly applied three years before because I wanted time to read and write, which I believed graduate school would offer, just as college had gratifyingly done so for me. My rejection of those possibilities was a further signal to our families, who were already skeptical about my responsibility, that I would probably not amount to much, especially after we told them that I’d relinquished a doctoral program in English and American literature, with its assurance (at least in those days) of a tenure-track position, to become a writer with no regular or guaranteed income. The common rationalization that one could always write and teach was not worth arguing. One year in graduate school had been enough to demonstrate that scholarly and imaginative writing were, at least for me, mutually exclusive.
I had no delusions about academic life. I loved teaching. I’d been a willing, if conflicted, teacher of English in Italy and at two senior high schools in Massachusetts. But I knew that if I committed myself to earning advanced degrees, I would need to demonstrate superior scholarly skills, along with the commitment to a lifetime of teaching and writing about literature. I was confident that I could lead students through the most demanding texts, but I didn’t really imagine myself producing works of scholarship or criticism in order to receive tenure, even if they might be studies of writers like Lawrence or Thoreau, who had always meant a great deal to me. Not that I couldn’t—I just didn’t want to.
So I applied for and entered graduate school with a divided consciousness. My love of literature propelled me toward its further study, while my passion to write imaginatively acted as a brake on my scholarship. Even though I threw myself into the study of American social and intellectual history, British Renaissance drama, the poetry of John Milton, Puritan theology, and the Transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau with the same enthusiasm that I’d approached undergraduate work, another part of me dreamed of the next novel I wanted to write. Instead of perfecting my critical prose with papers analyzing the shapes Satan had assumed while tempting Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost (even as a Poundian I became fanatical about Milton’s verse), I sketched out short stories in the quiet of my study on Farrington Avenue, while my wife programmed computers at Gorton’s so we could make ends meet on my small graduate teaching fellowship.
From the beginning I was doomed as a graduate student. Though I made good friends at Tufts like Joe and Lannie Liggera, who shared my enthusiasm for Thoreau, I was put off by the competition and back-biting I observed among faculty and graduate students alike, their closed-mindedness about the kinds of experimental writing and avant-garde art that excited me (when I mentioned Olson to one of my teachers, he thought I was referring to the Chicago academic poet Elder Olson). So as the years went by and I commuted from Gloucester into Medford, sitting in classes, teaching freshman composition and introduction to literature, attending faculty seminars, and studying in yet another great library, I began to plot my escape. Now that I was past my twenty-sixth birthday, married and with a child, I was exempt from the draft and, therefore, the war in Vietnam, so I could drop out with impunity. I made a deal with myself: I would remain a graduate student for as long as I could stand it. I’d write as rigorous a master’s thesis as I was able to, organizing it so that with the addition of, say, a further chapter, the essay could also be offered as my doctoral dissertation, providing I could force myself to complete the requisite course credits and prepare myself for the comprehensive written and oral examinations expected of a successful doctoral candidate.
I worked hard for three years, taking nearly two of those years to complete the master’s thesis on Thoreau and his relationship to place, in which, under Olson’s influence, I attempted to analyze Thoreau’s evolving method of living in, learning about and describing the world around him. My advisor, Jim McIntosh, a Harvard and Yale trained scholar of Thoreau and Dickinson, despaired at the length of time it took me to prepare for and ultimately complete the thesis. But when it was done and I had successfully defended it in May of 1967, both Jim and the other two members of my thesis committee agreed that it had both the rigor and the scope of a potential doctoral dissertation.
That was all I needed to hear. MA degree with honors in hand, I left graduate school and prepared for what I hoped would be a lifetime of writing. The reality of how naïve I was about what lay ahead, or how little I was prepared for the consequences of my decision, would not catch up with me for some years.
But it wasn’t simply my conflicted relationship with academic pursuits or my desire to jettison certainty in order to write the kinds of books I yearned to write that underlay my decision to drop out of graduate school. The other motivating factor, as I’ve mentioned, was the war in Southeast Asia, already some years in prosecution, a war that was convulsing American society and driving many of its young people to the brink of insurrection in their attempts to stop the slaughter and to remake a world most of us between the ages of eighteen and thirty had thought gone crazy. It was this war and the growing national and international opposition to it, not to speak of my own agony about my country’s repulsive behavior in Vietnam, that made me think seriously about committing myself entirely to writing as an existential and political act rather than continuing to teach. After years in school and college, I yearned to live again in the “real world,” or what I believed such a world to be like, quite apart from the pressures of exams and deadlines for papers.
I was about to turn thirty when I left Tufts. That was old for what has been called “the Vietnam generation,” a generation that came of age with folk and rock music, and with TV and movies, not books. In contrast, jazz had been the music of my connection with the world beyond Gloucester, the culture of race and transgressive art; and books had been the major sources of my instruction and inspiration. Though we drank in college—a great deal, I’ve already admitted—we knew nothing of drugs. I didn’t smoke my first “joint” until my brother Tom brought some marijuana back from the road in 1964 for my wife and me to try, along with Amphetamines and some “downers.” My students at Tufts used dope regularly and many had already experimented with psychedelic substances like LSD, psilocybin, and mescaline, which I didn’t touch until the Seventies.
So just as I was in conflict with a society—The System, as we called it—that had taken us into what so many of us believed was an unjust and unnecessary war, invading a tiny country that posed no threat to us and firebombing its people, I was also in potential conflict with my own students, who were already throwing over their educations (in the view of some faculty), shutting down classes and entire universities, dropping out to demonstrate against war and racism, or joining revolutionary groups like the Maoist Progressive Labor Party, to organize electrical workers, as my best student Danny O’Neill had done. My students took dope and I didn’t. They listened to Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, while I doted on John Coltrane and Carmen McRae. They read Richard Brautigan’s A Confederate General from Big Sur and Richard Farina’s Been Down so Long it Looks Like Up to Me, if they read at all; while I was catching up with Ruskin and Henry James. In fact, when I tried to introduce The Ambassadors into our course in basic literary genres, they denounced the novel as an example of “bourgeois decadence” and refused to read it. Worse, they came to class in T-shirts and cut-offs—some even sported Indian cotton blouses and wooden beads. I still wore Italian cut suits and British ankle boots, and my hair was short.
In the end, it was I who changed, not them; and it was my students, and my wife, who adored Joan Baez, who were the agents of my change. No, I didn’t grow my hair out yet, and I didn’t throw away my father-in-law’s 1940s Brooks Brothers seersucker suits, which I’d had retailored to fit me after his death in 1966. I couldn’t bear to go that far. I couldn’t bear to give up Henry James whom I’d finally come to appreciate, after resisting my teachers at Bowdoin, who had tried mightily to introduce us to the dense textures of The Master’s novels and stories. Not only did I read James, I also settled into a intensive study of Henry Adams—and I forced my students to read The Education with me as I exulted in Adam’s ironic condemnation of his own matriculation at Harvard, which I was certain my students would (and did) relish—“He could not afterwards remember to have heard the name of Karl Marx mentioned, or the title of Capital. He was equally ignorant of August Comte. These were the two writers of his time who most influenced its thought.”
But the stereotypical beads and the long hair, the folk music, not even their courageous anti-war beliefs or political activism—this was not what my students or the rising college generation were about. The kids I knew and taught, the ones I loved, marched with in Boston Common, sat next to in teach-ins, and gave higher grades to, hoping to keep them from getting drafted and killed—these young people were idealistic. In 1969, one of their contemporaries had this to say from his Harvard graduation platform:
“For attempting to achieve the values which
you taught us to cherish, your response has
been astounding. It has escalated from the
presence of the police on the campuses to
their uses of clubs and gas. I have asked many
of my classmates what they wanted me to say
today. “Talk with them about hypocrisy,” most
of them said. “Tell them they have broken the
best heads in the country. Tell them they
have destroyed our confidence and lost our
My students went off to live in communes or to organize citizens against the war. Others got married and went to graduate school themselves. Some even went to war. Most simply went to work after college. They have become teachers, doctors, lawyers, famine workers in Africa. Mothers, fathers. On the whole they are probably more liberal, and they probably took greater risks than their dutifully bourgeois parents. But none of us were ultimately able to make a better world, or to stop a criminal war.
I came home to Gloucester, in a manner of speaking, because I had lived here since my return to America in 1962. I came “home” to write and I tried to put into practice locally what I’d learned from my students. At first I only wanted to write. For twenty-five dollars a month I rented an airless room at the rear of a real estate office in East Gloucester Square. Daily, when the weather was good, I walked from Farrington Avenue to my office and I wrote until 1 p.m., returning home to take over the care of our son Jonathan from his mother, who went off to work herself. Other times I wrote all day long. I finished a novella, Landscape with Boy, that later appeared as the inaugural volume in the Boston University Fiction Series. I began what I hoped would be a long novel about expatriation in Europe and political upheaval at home; I wrote a lot of stories, each more experimental than its predecessor. Some of these stories were eventually published in the usual short-lived little magazines and reviews. None brought us any money.
My political life at home began when a group of friends organized to fight the proposed placement of a Sentinel Anti-Ballistic Missile site on Dogtown Common, the rugged, terminal moraine wilderness at the heart of Cape Ann, where I had been taken as a child by my grandmother to pick berries. If the Pentagon achieved this goal, we argued, they would be bringing the war in Vietnam, if not the entire Cold War itself, home to our neighborhoods in Gloucester. The reaction to our campaign against the missile emplacement, timid as it was—we placed an advertisement in the Gloucester Daily Times with a coupon, which those who agreed with us could clip and send to the mayor’s office in opposition to the base—was both extreme and edifying. We were called “commies,” “traitors” and warned that if we didn’t want missiles defending us against Russian and Chinese enemies we should go and live in those countries. Some even said they “felt proud” the government had chosen Cape Ann for a missile base, though one wondered what suicidal tendencies they harbored. “Better dead than Red” was one of the slogans of the time.
As we leafleted against the proposed missile base on Main Street or at supermarket plazas, we were dismissed as “fucking hippies,” though only a couple of us had incipient beards. Our group consisted mostly of artists and teachers. My friend Ray Bentley, another member, was an editor at Beacon Press in Boston. Soon, however, we were joined by older and more prominent citizens, who may not have worried about missiles but who cared deeply for Dogtown itself as an historic site of early settlement, a wildlife habitat of rich blueberry barrens, and a place of vernal pools and remarkable geological formations. It was these members of our group—naturalists Elliott Rogers and John Kieran, MIT scientist Frederick Norton, and environmentalist and staunch Republican Lloyd Waring—who, finally, had the financial and political clout to appeal directly to legislators and administration officials in Washington to get Dogtown eventually scrubbed from the Pentagon’s list of potential sites.
As a result of this campaign I met and joined a group of local anti-war resistors and peace activists that called itself the Cape Ann Concerned Citizens. The war was escalating and our group felt that it was time for new tactics, though I felt I had learned something from the anti-missile campaign. I’d had a taste of power politics, when I observed the apparent ease with which those older men had access to its sources by virtue of their wealth and their connections. I also learned that Gloucester, a city that had, since the American Revolution, sent thousands of its sons and daughters into war, was a patriotic community, never questioning the reasons for war, simply doing its duty when the military called for volunteers. It became clear to us that beyond demonstrating we would have to make a more compelling case to our fellow citizens about why the war was wrong and why America should withdraw from.
Yet you felt absolutely impotent when all you had to do was turn the television set on at dinnertime, or before you went to bed, to hear the daily body count. You could watch the bombs dropping, the napalm fire you learned to recognize from its incandescence. You could actually hear the screams of Vietnamese women and children as they ran for shelter, the phosphorescent jelly sticking to their clothes, searing their skin. You heard the rasp of machine gun fire, the dull thudding of mortars--all the sounds of the engines of death.
The war got into everything I did, between every line I wrote, until finally its hyper-reality and my own outrage became so pervasive that I found it impossible to write fiction. No event I could possibly have imagined; no situation, scene or character I might create, seemed to have any validity for me after the enormity of Vietnam. At one point, without ever having served in the military myself, I began to draft a story about a veteran returning to his hometown after the conflict. I wrote about a search-and-destroy mission I'd seen documented on public television. I told about the daily events in the life of an infantryman, part of whose journal I had discovered a few days before in Look magazine. In my story I tried to draw a parallel between the combat veteran and myself, both of us having come back to our birthplace to reflect upon our lives so far.
On the day I completed my first draft of that story I arrived home from an errand on Main Street to find my wife on the kitchen floor sobbing uncontrollably, the news blaring on the radio.
"I just can't take it any more," she cried, as I held her to me, scarcely recognizing her eyes that burned so. "I feel like going to the Pentagon and tearing my hair out in front of them all and shouting MURDERERS! MURDERERS! I want to set fire to myself. I want everyone to see my flesh and smell it burning!"
It was a ghastly day in December of 1967, dark and unfriendly, with a threat of a northeaster. Bitterly I regretted having separated Jeane from her friends in Cambridge, and the couples we’d shared children and anti-war sentiments with at Tufts, to bring her to Gloucester, where I could work in familiar surroundings. Most of that afternoon we lay on our bed in the stucco cottage we had rented on Eastern Point. While our son slept, we held each other, talked little, both of us wondering what we could do now to help stop this war. What could two young people like ourselves manage to achieve against all that power that was destroying a country and a culture we knew so little about?
A day later, on my way back from the library, I caught sight of a young man in army field jacket and fatigues leaning against a stone wall while thumbing a ride to Main Street. As I passed him, I recognized my old friend Bobby Duerdon's little brother Jackie, who was always butting into our touch football games.
I wanted to wave to him, but my hand just stuck to the steering wheel of our VW. Home from the war, Jackie was on crutches, he had only one leg, and he seemed to stare right through me. In my rearview mirror I could see that cars were passing him and no one was offering him a ride. He stood, almost at attention, away from the wall now on his crutches, stiffly, and I knew it was freezing out there.
When I got home, I went to my workroom. I took the draft of my war story, tore it into strips and put them into a straw wastebasket. In the back yard I lingered in the cold air over the incinerator, until I could break up and disperse all the ashes of the manila manuscript paper.
The next evening, resolved to do whatever was necessary to stop this horrendous war, I attended another meeting of our group. We voted to create a newsletter to coordinate our anti-war activities with those of nearby communities. We would call the paper Soundings and I was asked to edit it. Peter Smith, a local reprint publisher—and a Republican—agreed to subsidize our efforts. He offered his mimeograph machine to produce the newsletter. His office staff would do the mailing once we established a mailing list. Then we decided to create a speaker series, inviting prominent anti-war activists like Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky and Jerome Letvin, to come to Gloucester. Perhaps they could bear witness better than we could, we hoped.
Still, ours was a diverse and experienced group. Rockport painters George and Ellen Gabin, who had founded the Cape Ann Civil Rights Council and brought with them from New York a long history of activism, were among the members most experienced in political work. They were joined by historian Joe Garland, the dean of Gloucester writers, who had been a newspaper union organizer after the war. My friend Jay McLauchlan, cabinet maker, sculptor, and Korean War veteran, came on board, along with Ray Bentley, who was working at Beacon Press when they published the Pentagon Papers, which blew the cover off the entire Vietnam debacle. There was Jay Keyser, who taught linguistics at MIT with Chomsky, librarian Jeff Gardner and his freelance journalist brother Dave, nurse and activist Rene Gross, Rockport weaver, Ruth Perrault and her African-American husband Burt Tinker. Our proudest addition, however, was Johns Hopkins graduate Martin Ray, a former officer in Vietnam, returning like so many combatants who’d experienced the horror first-hand, to educate the American people about the wrongness of the war.
We leafleted on weekends, we held seminars and meetings. Our speaker series drew large crowds, and our newsletter was quoted in the Gloucester Daily Times. We all took turns writing editorials and commentaries. However, listening to Howard Zinn connect the war in Vietnam to national liberation struggles the world over, and reading Chomsky’s stunning essay “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” in the New York Review, I realized that I knew very little about history and less of politics.
In 1959, I had arrived in Florence as a largely apolitical person. More particularly, having met students who were socialists or young communists and having studied under Marxist professors, I was introduced to an analysis and a world view that I hadn’t encountered in college. I barely knew it existed in the sheltered Cold War America of the 1950s. But in Italy, politics, la politica, was part of the total culture. The writers I most admired—Pavese, Moravia, Pasolini, Morante—were all openly political, mostly on the Left, and political life was rich and diverse. Workers went on strike at the drop of a hat. You’d see demonstrations in the streets of Rome and Florence in which communists contended with neo-fascists, while Christian Democrats and socialists debated on television. This made me realize how pale and inauthentic political life was in the United States, how fearful Americans had become of expressing any opinion they felt would be considered subversive; how bland our news media had become. It seemed to me then that Italy had emerged from fascism and the war as a much more vital democracy. Contentious, yes; governments often rose and fell like the tides. But Italians lived their politics, while with us political life had devolved into a spectator sport, if that.
I was in love with a young woman named Rita, who came from the Abruzzo. She was an ardent communist with coal black hair and riveting eyes, and she was reading political science at the university. We would go out dancing with a group of friends, architects, painters; or we’d sit in the cafes of Piazza della Repubblica, or at Rivoire in Piazza Signoria, drinking espresso or cappuccino, reading French and Italian newspapers and talking by the hour about the films we’d just seen by Fellini or Antonioni, the American-influenced novels of Pavese, those extraordinary narratives of post-war alienation, which the intellectual young had such a passion for then, and still do, I’m told. (As I’ve written, I first encountered Pavese just after I arrived in Italy and his books swept me off my feet. The story of his life—his imprisonment by Mussolini for anti-fascist activities, his monumental translation into Italian of Moby-Dick, the prize-winning novels and stories he wrote in a pared down, anti-rhetorical Italian, his struggle with and eventual abandonment of communism, and finally, his suicide in a dingy hotel in downtown Torino—is one the great tragic stories of modern Europe).
It was the time of the Algerian uprising, when the French “paras,” who’d been sent in to quell the insurgency, the violent demonstrations, and to frustrate further anti-colonial actions, began to perpetrate unconscionable brutality on the indigenous population. Petitions were being signed all over Europe against the French response to Algeria’s natural desire to be independent. There were demonstrations in solidarity with the Algerian people. It was the main topic of the day. Of course, I had no idea what the struggle was about because I had never thought about colonialism. Imagine! My own country had fought a revolution to throw off the shackles of British rule and I couldn’t make the connection. I even defended the presence of American bases in Germany and Italy.
One day Rita and I were alone. We’d taken a walk along the Arno after classes and were sitting in a café near Piazza Beccaria, sipping Punt e Mes under a warm spring sun. The night before we’d been to see Il bell’ Antonio, with Marcello Mastroianni and Claudia Cardinale. Based on a novel by Vitaliano Brancati, the film is about a young upper class Sicilian, who makes love easily with working class women but becomes impotent with women of his own circle. After some strained talk about the film, during which Rita tried to help me see how Antonio’s dilemma was a metaphor for class struggle in Italy, she turned to me. By then we’d only kissed on park benches, or fondled each other fleetingly on the couch in my room in Via dei Servi, always attentive to the presence of my landlady on the other side of the wall.
“I like you, Pietro,” Rita said. “And it’s fun spending time together. But you remind me of myself when I was in liceo. We’re miles apart politically, and you’re still very young emotionally.”
Like Rita, the Italian students I met during those years were quite mature; and they were very serious, serious about their studies and serious about politics, about the world. I was serious about literature, about things intellectual, but in retrospect it’s clear to me that I didn’t know how to be in a mature relationship. And I was in kindergarten politically. I’d never really thought through the myths we were conditioned to accept in school and college; the often-repeated propaganda that the United States is the great bearer of democracy, that our intentions toward the world are always honorable, that we are committed to protecting the weak. Though they were grateful to us for our war efforts and for the Marshall Plan that followed, Europeans remained skeptical about our intentions. My Italian friends used to say: “Never mind American rhetoric, just look at your government’s behavior!” And when I heard stories about OSS agents with suitcases full of dollar bills buying votes for the Christian Democrats after the war, when it looked as if the Italian Communist Party might actually come to power, the scales began to fall from my eyes, though they didn’t fall completely until Vietnam, which, as I’ve said, was the turning point. After all the outrages—the charade of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution that allowed Lyndon Johnson to go to war in the first place; the secret wars we later waged in Laos and Cambodia; the napalm; the burning of villages; the massacre at My Lai of women and children by American soldiers; the lies about the body counts and about our reasons for intervening—I never felt the same about my government again or about America.
Rita broke up with me. We saw each other from time to time, but it was clear she’d drawn a line. The fact of the matter was that I needed to grow up. I needed to grow up emotionally and I needed to come to some mature understanding of political life, especially if I wanted to write. That didn’t happen immediately. During the years in which I taught or attended graduate school my focus was still on literature, but once I became involved in the anti-war movement, once I tried to place the war in Vietnam in the larger context of colonialism and imperialism, as Zinn and Chomsky were helping us to do, I realized that I needed to educate myself politically.
I began reading the major political and social theorists of the 19th and 20th centuries: Marx, Engels, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Herzen, Lenin, and Trotsky, supplemented by Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station, C. Wright Mills’ critiques of American capitalism, and Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization and One-Dimensional Man. I immersed myself in Arthur Schlesinger’s three-volume study of the nation under FDR and Isaac Deutscher’s equally illuminating life of Trotsky. I scoured the major books on the Russian Revolution, from John Reed’s Ten Days that Shook the World to Adam Ulam’s The Bolsheviks. I read a number of significant American proletarian novels, books like Mike Gold’s Jews without Money and Jack Conroy’s The Disinherited that had never appeared on my college syllabi; and I studied the Sacco and Vanzetti case, which transformed my view of American justice. During this time I continued reading left-leaning political analysts like Dwight MacDonald and Richard Rovere, while also seeking out some of the major thinkers on the right like James Burnham and Eric Hoffer. As a result of this reading I no longer viewed the world through purely literary eyes, and no longer did I trust anything on its face. I’d finally become a skeptic, which is what my teachers at Bowdoin had always exhorted us to become. Most of all, I came away from my reading in history and politics with a profoundly tragic view of life. What I’d only understood intellectually from studying Shakespeare and the Greeks, that life is essentially transitory in nature and human beings seem doomed to repeat their mistakes, I now experienced viscerally.
As for Vietnam, it didn’t appear that our small local group had much impact on public consciousness. A few kids from high school and college joined us, including our anti-war pediatrician’s son, David Lacey, a promising poet. Bright and idealistic, they would have come to an understanding of the utter futility of the war on their own; but we loved their energy and their youthfulness, as we marched together, sometimes renting buses to transport the group to Boston or Washington to join the hundreds of thousands of citizens, who were now protesting not only the war in Vietnam, but the secret incursions into Laos and Cambodia. We didn’t shun the political process either. Some of us worked in Senator Eugene McCarthy’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination against Lyndon Johnson, a campaign that drew thousands of young people and ultimately forced Johnson to drop out of the race. Spurred by McCarthy’s victories, Bobby Kennedy entered the race as well. Chastened by the murders of his brother and Martin Luther King, Jr., Kennedy reached out to the poor and disenfranchised before he, too, was killed. On top of the war, those murders were almost too much to bear. Yet somehow we revived, throwing our energy behind Michael Harrington, a bright, young, Harvard educated lawyer from Salem, who ran as a peace candidate for the Sixth congressional seat in Massachusetts, beating the Republican candidate by a landslide. Once in Congress, Mike kept his promise, voting to defund the war and against every measure that would have continued it. Equally, Mike exposed the complicity of the Nixon administration and the CIA in the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile. So there was some small sense of being able to effect change, though the war continued.
Ultimately, the public tired of the war, turning against it not because it was wrong or illegal, hardly because of the immorality that lay behind our prosecution of it. The public turned against it, even as they elected Richard Nixon whose “surge” widened the war, because they felt it had become too costly, too much of a liability. They’d also gotten tired of watching it every night on TV, while the Media, through its constant distortion and sensationalization of the anti-war movement, turned the nation against us, too. So in the end, nobody won and the country was more polarized than ever.
In place of a national dialogue we were left with what the Right called “Vietnam Syndrome,” a function of the anger and frustration of having lost a war, followed by recriminations, and a determination on the part of ruling elites that such a loss would never happen again. In other words, revenge and retribution instead of understanding, acceptance, and a desire to learn from our mistakes.
In the end, after the actual horrors of killing and atrocity, it was the loss of my innocence that affected me most. I had loved my country, not uncritically, though I hadn’t up till then realized how conditioned I’d been by education, Second World War propaganda, local patriotism, family values, and personal idealism to believe that America was the light of the world, a beacon of freedom and tolerance. Vietnam ripped those scales from my eyes; so violently, I came to realize, that my loss of innocence was as much a trauma to me as the war itself had been.
My wife went back to school, eventually earning a doctorate that led to a distinguished career in teaching and research. She joined a consciousness raising group and became deeply involved in the women’s movement. I continued to write. I completed a novel I couldn’t sell about an anti-war activist who returns combatively to college for his tenth-year class reunion; I wrote more stories, some of which were published. I also composed essays, book reviews and newspaper columns. Finally, with the help of Ray Bentley, I signed my first publisher’s contract, receiving an advance from Beacon Press for a book about the struggles of the Penobscot Indians of Maine against the pressures and demands of acculturation. My friend and college classmate Mark Power agreed to do the photographs for it. Like Blacks and women, Native Americans were asserting their rights, not only to participate in a society that had marginalized them, but also to practice their own politics and spirituality without government restraint. As I worked on the book, spending longer periods of time among Indians I came to love and respect, my marriage unraveled, ending in divorce just as the book was published. For whatever it was worth, I had finally become a writer, though I wouldn’t, or couldn’t, write fiction for another twenty years; and I was to have enough of that “real world” I’d so desired when I left graduate school as anyone could possibly bear.
(This is a chapter from my memoir-in-progress, From Gloucester Out.)