Well, I thought about the army.
Dad said, ‘Son, you’re fucking high.’
And I thought, ‘Yeah, there’s a first for everything’
So I took my old man’s advice.
Three sad semesters.
It was only fifteen grand
Spent in bed.
I thought about the army.
I dropped out and joined a band instead.
–Ben Folds Five, “Army”
“Army” was released in the spring of my senior year in high school. I had, by that point, decided not to join the army, but to go to Indiana University of Pennsylvania. I have never regretted that decision. (And I owe a large debt to my ex-girlfriend, who saw Saving Private Ryan and demanded that I not enlist.)
My father, on the other hand, has spent three decades wishing he had signed up. “If Vietnam had gone on a little longer, I would have gone,” he said last night. “They ended the draft just two years before I graduated. Mom and Dad hated the idea of me being in the military. They wanted me to go to college. I failed out after one semester because I didn’t want to be there.”
A lot of this information was startling to me. What if my grandparents hadn’t been so adamantly against my father joining the service? Would I be here? It’s hard to knock your girlfriend up if you’re in boot camp.
But, more surprisingly, why would anyone actively want to fight in Vietnam? Of all the wars in American military history, Vietnam stands as the towering monument of stupidity, a war based on ideology rather than strategic necessity, fought with an ill-considered counter-insurgency strategy that failed to win the hearts and minds of the people we were supposedly there to help. 58,000 Americans died, as did between one million and two million Vietnamese. Why would you want to be a part of that?
I’ve often thought about what I would have done if I had been born thirty years earlier. Fortunately, my eyes would surely have kept me from the draft. If not, I would have learned to call myself Canadian. I feel that the United States had no right to be in Southeast Asia, that the decisions made by the military and civilian leadership were immoral. I could have marched on the Pentagon or been shot at Kent State or been a Yippie in Chicago that summer of 1968. My dad could have been one of the cops hitting me with a club.
And so there’s another difference between my father and me–he feels that he missed out on a war that I would have run from. We’ve both been fascinated by Vietnam, with his many Vietnam books profoundly shaping my curiosity. That curiosity helped push me to adopt my daughter from Vietnam in 2009.
Odd, isn’t it, that the guy who would have burned his draft card would visit the “Hanoi Hilton” and the guy who wishes he’d gone to fight in Vietnam won’t even sight-see in New York?