“You bet your goddamn dollar I’m bitter. It’s people like us who give up our sons for the country,” said a firefighter whose son was killed in action. “Let’s face it: if you have a lot of money, or if you have the right connections, you don’t end up on a firing line over there. I think we ought to win that war or pull out. What the hell else should we do — sit and bleed ourselves to death, year after year?” His wife jumps in to add, “My husband and I can’t help but thinking that our son gave his life for nothing, nothing at all.”
These may sound like voices from the present, perhaps from grieving parents who have taken up Cindy Sheehan’s vigil in Crawford, Texas as she visits her ailing mother. Actually though, they come from 1970, and their lost son died in Vietnam. In recent weeks, as American casualties in Iraq continued to mount and opposition from military families has grown, as Ohio families mourned their dead and the Cindy Sheehan story would not go away, I kept remembering the many people I had interviewed about a similar moment during the Vietnam War, a time in 1968 when millions of Americans who had trusted their government to tell the truth about a distant war and believed it was every citizen’s absolute duty to “fight for your country,” began to turn, like a giant aircraft carrier slowly arcing in another direction, began to doubt, question, and finally oppose their nation’s policies.
Many voices of the Vietnam era are long forgotten or were never clearly heard, especially those of people like the firefighter and his wife. In their place, we have a canned image of Vietnam-era working-class whites as bigoted hard-hats, Archie Bunkers all (as in the famed 1970s television sit-com “All in the Family”), super-patriotic hawks who simply despised long-haired protestors and supported their presidents.
In that stereotype lies a partial, but misleading, truth. Many working-class families were indeed appalled by the antiwar movement of those years. “I hate those peace demonstrators,” the same firefighter said. But his hostility did not make him a hawk. He was furious because he saw antiwar activists as privileged and disrespectful snobs who “insult everything we believe in” without having to share his family’s military and economic sacrifices. In virtually the same breath, however, he said about the war of his time, “The sooner we get the hell out of there the better.”
In fact, poor and working class Americans were profoundly disaffected by Vietnam. A Gallup poll in January 1971 showed that the less formal education you had, the more likely you were to want the military out of that country: 80% of Americans with grade school educations were in favor of a U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam; 75% of high school graduates agreed; only among college graduates did the figure drop to 60%.
In Vietnam itself, the mostly working-class American military of that era, formed by an inequitable draft, made its opposition to the war increasingly clear as the fighting dragged on. By late 1969, demoralization and resistance within the armed forces was endemic. Desertions were beginning to skyrocket; drug use was becoming rampant; avoidance of combat routine; outright mutiny not unusual; and hundreds of officers would be wounded or killed by their own enraged troops. By 1972, the military was in shambles. It is now largely forgotten that the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam not just because of domestic opposition to the war, but also because it no longer seemed possible to field a functional, obedient army.
Ohio 1968: Is This War Worth Another Child?
Such levels of opposition did not come out of the blue. They had long histories deeply embedded in that endless war. By the mid-1960s, for instance, many hard-fighting and disciplined American soldiers were already embittered by their commanders’ war of attrition that had them “humping the boonies” as “bait” to draw fire from an elusive and dangerous enemy who then determined the time, place, and duration of the vast majority of firefights. They often viewed their officers as ticket-punching “lifers,” who sought promotion by jeopardizing their troops in an effort to post the highest possible enemy body counts, the chief measure of “progress” back in Washington. GIs, who might risk everything to save a buddy, increasingly came to view the war itself as meaningless. “It don’t mean nothin’,” they commonly said.
In the face of rising opposition, Presidents Johnson and Nixon sought to rally — in Nixon’s famous phrase — the “silent majority” in support of the war, not by explaining the need for ever more sacrifice, but by demonizing critics who, it was said, threatened to turn America into a “pitiful, helpless giant.” Though the Nixon administration, unlike the present one, did not have its own media machine constantly available to attack its enemies, Nixon often sent out his Vice President, Spiro Agnew, as an attack dog to vilify student protestors (“effete corps of impudent snobs”) and the media (“nattering nabobs of negativism”).
The cynical courting of “Middle America” may indeed have exacerbated class tensions, but in the end it proved incapable of overcoming the rising tide of outrage among families who believed they were bearing the greatest burden in a war that lacked an achievable or worthy purpose. Already, in the long months after the Tet Offensive of January 31, 1968, when as many as 500 Americans were dying every week, the most basic of all questions was beginning to well up from the heartland: Is this war worth the life of even one more of our children?
You could see it, for example, in Parma, Ohio a working-class neighborhood near Cleveland that ultimately lost thirty-five young men in Vietnam. On Memorial Day, 1968, the Cleveland Press, a newspaper previously known for its strong support for the war, ran a startling front-page feature by reporter Dick Feagler under the headline: “He Was Only 19 — Did You Know Him?” It was about a Parma boy named Greg Fischer who had just died in Vietnam.
I learned about the impact of that column from Clark Dougan, now an editor at the University of Massachusetts Press. For Clark, the news of Greg Fischer’s death hit like a hammer because he had known the 19-year-old. They were classmates together at Valley Forge High School where the school’s principal often came on the intercom to ask for a moment of silence because yet another former Valley Forge student had died in Vietnam. When he read the story, with its heartbreaking details, including the letter Fischer had left behind to be opened “if I don’t come back from Vietnam,” Dougan recalls, “I understood how easily it could have been me. Like any kid who had grown up in the fifties there was a certain allure to the military. But my parents hadn’t been able to go to college and they were determined that I would. So I had gone off to this cloistered college while Greg was going off to die in Vietnam. The article was really asking, how many more people like Greg are we willing to waste? It reflected a feeling that was spreading all over working-class communities like Parma. That was the moment when ?Middle America’
really turned against the war.”
Ohio 2005: The Chickenhawk War
The author of that article, Dick Feagler, is still on the job. Thirty-seven years later, he writes for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, now lashing out at the war in Iraq, at those who have “a bland, nitwit allegiance to the blood and death as if the carnage in Iraq were some kind of Olympic sport.” As in 1968, so now in the Ohio heartland, where the burden of death once again falls heavy, the war makes ever less sense to those most involved. Concern for the well-being of Americans in uniform goes hand-in-hand with the rising dissent. Like many other Ohioan columnists, Feagler often couples his attacks on the war with prayers for the troops, even telling readers how to send care packages and letters of support.
Underlying the two moments — May 1968/August 2005 — is the fact that, once again, our wartime sacrifices fall disproportionately on the working class and, with U.S. deaths approaching 2,000, and thousands more soldiers and Marines horribly wounded, a recent CBS poll found that 57% of Americans now believe the war in Iraq not worth the loss of American lives. Another poll showed that only 34% support Bush’s handling of the war, just two points higher than the comparable figure for President Lyndon Johnson after the Tet Offensive.
As in 1968, so in 2005, as New York Times columnist Bob Herbert has pointed out, “The loudest of the hawks are the least likely to send their sons or daughters off” to war. George Bush continues to call the war a “noble cause” and “the central front in the Global War on Terrorism” even though 60% of Americans have come to believe that it has made them less safe. His five-week-long vacation is only the most obvious symbol of the obscene gulf in safety between the advocates of the war and its victims. That gulf is at the very heart of a growing disaffection in places like Ohio, where earlier this month 20 Marines from the same Reserve unit (3rd Battalion, 25th Marines) were killed in Iraq within 72 hours. That unit is headquartered in Brook Park, Ohio, a working-class suburb adjacent to Parma, and the losses included 14 men from Ohio, bringing the state’s total fatalities to more than 90.
Sam Fulwood, another
Plain Dealer columnist, responded to these losses by recalling Bush’s 2003 “bring ?em on” taunting of the Iraqi insurgents. “Two years ago, tucked in the comfort and safety of the White House’s Roosevelt Room,” wrote Fulwood, “the president challenged ?anybody who wants to harm American troops.’ John Wayne couldn’t have said it with more cowboy swagger. ?Bring them on.'” As Fulwood concludes with a stridency rarely seen in Midwestern newspapers until recently, “The chicken hawk got his wish.”
Now, for the first time, not just in Ohio but all over the country, media outlets are beginning to raise a previously forbidden question: Should we withdraw? As the Cincinnati Enquirer framed it on Aug. 7, in response to the local casualties, “Do we seek revenge? Do we continue as usual? Or do we leave?” The last question, once asked only in a whisper if at all, is suddenly being voiced loudly and urgently. And when it was raised by an antiwar Iraq War Marine veteran named Paul Hackett, running as a Democrat in a special election for Congress, he came within two percentage points of winning in a district east of Cincinnati that had given George Bush a whopping 64% of its votes in November, 2004, and has elected a Republican to the House of Representatives almost automatically for the past 30 years.
In presidential elections, Ohio is often spoken of as a “bellwether state.” It may turn out to play the same role when it comes to America’s wars. What we are witnessing in Ohio and elsewhere is a real sea change in public opinion being led by people with the closest personal connections of all to the President’s war. Disillusionment has soared not only because of mounting casualties and the obvious lack of progress in quelling the Iraqi insurgency, but also because the military is strained to the limits keeping 130,000 troops in Iraq. Many thousands of Americans are in their second tours of duty with third tours looming on the horizon.
During the Vietnam era, Lyndon Johnson decided to rely almost exclusively on the draft and the active-duty military to fight the war, hoping to keep casualties (and so their impact) largely restricted to young, mostly unmarried, and powerless individuals. The Reserve forces, he understood, tended to be older, married, and more rooted in their communities. Now, the Reserves and the National Guard make up half of U.S. combat forces in Iraq, a figure that has doubled since early 2004. This increasing reliance on the Reserves only serves to accelerate antiwar resistance among military families.
Soldiers, veterans, and their families have, as they did in the early 1970s, once again moved to the forefront of a growing, grass roots struggle to end an unpopular war. Cindy Sheehan’s impassioned opposition to the war has not only gained extraordinary media attention but seems to have ignited a genuine outpouring of public support. Many who may have feared that public opposition to the war could be taken as unpatriotic or unsupportive of American troops, have been emboldened by Sheehan’s example to demand that her son’s death, and all the others, not be used to justify further bloodshed in a war that cannot be convincingly justified by an administration distant from their lives and their suffering.
Christian Appy teaches history at the University of Massachusetts and is the author of Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers in Vietnam and Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides, which is now out in paperback.
[Note: The full text of Clark Dougan’s account of Memorial Day, 1968 in Parma, Ohio, excerpted from Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides, can be read by clicking here and scrolling down.]
Copyright 2005 Christian Appy
This piece first appeared, with an introduction by Tom Engelhardt, at Tomdispatch.com.