Growing up in Canada in the sixties, every night we watched news reports on television about the War in Vietnam. There were weekly counts of the numbers of young American soldiers killed and wounded in South East Asia. We watched protesting students on college campuses, activists burning draft cards, and champion boxer Cassius Clay being sent to prison for refusing to serve in the military. Hanging over it all was the shroud of the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union, capitalism versus communism. So much talk of war, civil unrest and endless news coverage of it all. To an eleven year old child the world seemed like a very dangerous place indeed. When my father informed us we were moving to Texas, I was nervous and unsure. America appeared to me a country torn by conflicting ideas.
In contrast Canada felt like a haven. Not immune, but less directly exposed to what appeared an inevitable showdown between the United States and the USSR. When I shared the news of my impending move to my friends at school, one of them, Jamie Thompson said, “You know the Russians have a super hydrogen bomb that just circles the earth waiting to be dropped on America when the war breaks out.”
Jamie, like most boys of our age, was prone to exaggeration so I wasn’t quite sure his remarks were true. But then again, satellites and men were routinely orbiting the earth. It was an age of wonders and horrors. The first heart transplant had taken place in South Africa. The US and the Soviets were posturing and saber rattling, quickly building vast nuclear arsenals to ensure mutual annihilation. NASA was racing to land a man on the moon. John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King had all been assassinated. There was rock music and protest music and talk of war and talk of peace and love and drugs and to me it seemed we were either on the brink of a fantastical new world or cataclysmic destruction.
In the summer of 1969 my family moved to Texas. The world continued to revolve. Wonders and horrors! Men walked on the moon. Students protesting the draft and war in Vietnam were killed on the campus at Kent State. The NY Mets won the World Series. The Beatles released their last album. Woodstock! President Nixon announced the withdrawal of 25,000 troops. A hand-full of soldiers were arrested for the murder of an entire village in Vietnam.
In 1972 I wrote a high-school term paper on the 1968 My Lai Massacre, one of the most infamous events in the history of the United States Armed Forces. Although the exact number of casualties was never determined, approximately 400 unarmed civilians, men, women, and children were brutally murdered. Twenty-two soldiers were charged but only Platoon Leader Lt. William Calley Jr. was convicted, serving but a few years under house arrest. Researching those events, the numerous newspaper and magazine articles I read, the retelling of the story, those things had a profound and lasting effect on me.
I wondered how I would have reacted had I been there. I wonder still. Would I have had the courage to stand up as three soldiers had done and try to halt the atrocities only to be shunned and branded as traitors in the months that followed? Or would I have stood by and done nothing, or even participated, afraid to challenge authority? I like to believe I would have done the right thing, but war changes people. Heroes and villains often walk the same path distinguished by a single choice on a divergent road.
I don’t write of those events to disparage the countless brave men and women who have served and even given their lives for their country. I respect and admire those who have served with honor. I mean only to frame the years in which I came of age. I had classmates with brothers who served and some who lost their lives in the terrible conflict. During those years, military service was something many sought to avoid, by college deferment for those who could afford it, by refusing to register or leaving the country for those who could not. The draft system wasn’t fair. It was biased against low income and under-privileged members of society. By the mid seventies the country was sick of a war few wanted or understood and in 1975 TV broadcasts shocked and enthralled us once again. This time the images were of terrified South Vietnamese gathered at the embassy gates, clambering for a place on the final departing American helicopters.
Registration for Selective Service ended with the Vietnam War in 1975 and did not resume until 1980. I turned 18 then 21 in the years between. Unlike other young men, I never faced the choice between conscience and military obligation. The need to make a decision was eliminated. But over the preceding years more than 125 thousand young men had gone into exile rather than fight a war that they could not personally support. Finally in 1977, as one of his first official acts, President Carter granted amnesty to those who had failed to register or who had left the country to avoid military service. Ninety percent of those had found refuge and were given legal resident status in the country where I first considered the wonders and horrors of our time. Canada, a haven for many after all!