This month Fishtrap reads “The Things They Carried,” by Tim O’Brien, a novel of Vietnam, as part of the Big Read Program. It is also Martin Luther King day as I write.
In 1994, at Fishtrap, our theme was “The Restless West: World War II and After.” Alvin Josephy was there, with stories of the Marine Corps in Guam and Iwo Jima. And Ivan Doig, with a new memoir, “Heart Earth,” based on a letter exchange between his mother in Montana and an uncle in the Pacific. And Jean Wakatsuki Houston, who had grown up in the Japanese internment camp at Manzanar.
Historian Richard White gave the keynote, and I can almost quote his opening lines from memory: “Before World War II the West was a hard-scrabble place looking for population, capital, and an industrial base. World War II brought all three. Most of us in this room would not be here but for World War II.”
We looked around the room and at each other. Some had a mom or dad who had worked in shipyards; many were from families transported west by the military; some came at war’s end to build and live in tract homes in California, or work in factories converted from building tanks to tractors. The war was part of us.
In a recent essay in the New York Times, “Vietnam: The War That Killed Trust,” Karl Marlantes argues that it was “the war — not liberalism, not immigration, not globalization — that changed us.” Marlantes is a Vietnam vet who grew up in an Oregon logging town and the author of “Matterhorn,” a well-regarded novel of that war.
WW II; Vietnam. Sure Vietnam changed us; my life here in Wallowa County is a small example. I was in the Peace Corps in Turkey in 1967, loving it and looking for a career in the State Department. I passed the Foreign Service written exam at the embassy, and, when I came home that fall, had a scheduled interview with the State. I also interviewed for Peace Corps staff, and had been offered a job there when I went to State. A panel of four ambassadorial-ranked men and women sat across from me at a huge table.
I sweated my way through the interview, in the course of which I learned that my first assignment would be Vietnam. I remember saying that I had been out of the country since 1965, and really didn’t know much about Vietnam. A kind woman, seeing my discomfort, suggested that I take the Peace Corps offer and come back to them after my three-year hitch. Two years later, Turks were yelling at me on the streets over an ambassador newly arrived from the Vietnam “Phoenix program,” and the Peace Corps was kicked out of Turkey.
Marlantes’ “War that killed trust” takes me — and us — from 1967 to today. He remembers a 1967 late-night hallway discussion at Yale, where he was the naïve Westerner who didn’t believe that American presidents lied to us. He learned about Johnson and Nixon lies while in Vietnam. I learned about them in Turkey, where Ambassador Komer was greeted in 1969 newspapers from far left to far right as the “American butcher from Vietnam.” “Phoenix,” part of a “pacification program,” was aimed at killing suspected Viet Cong in South Vietnamese villages. It was later admitted that 20,000 had been killed. In Washington, D.C., in 1970, during the growing protests over Vietnam, my distrust grew and ambassadorial dreams faded; in 1971 I came to Oregon.
I have thought since then that this distrust, which is blamed by many on the left on conservatives who want to deregulate and privatize as much of government as possible, owes as much to leftist distrust and sometimes disdain for government that began with Vietnam.
Marlantes argues that America did some great things in the wake of WW II — built the interstate highway system and went to the moon — things dependent on a high functioning government and supportive electorate. Things that collapsed with Vietnam.
But he argues that good came out of Vietnam too. Although Truman integrated the military in 1948, it was in Vietnam that, despite “racial tensions,” some real integration occurred. Marlantes grew up where racial tension was “Swedes and Norwegians squaring off against the Finns.” In Vietnam he learned about Mexicans and tamales, and when he “needed an M-79 man,” he didn’t think about color, but about Thompson, “who was the best.”
In Vietnam, whites learned about soul music and African Americans listened to country. I think of this now, when I watch eastern Oregon high school basketball players warming up to rap and chest bumping before games.
Vietnam chased me and many away from American cities and government jobs. Bill Clinton finessed his way around Vietnam with a scholarship to Oxford. Now, no one seems to care how Donald Trump escaped the draft. But “draining the swamp” is Vietnam’s legacy.
And so are blonde eastern Oregon teenagers listening to rap.