This post begins with another in a series of excerpts from my high school memoir. This week, however, the memory leads to thoughts about more recent experiences.
The war in Vietnam droned on in the background, but once in a while it was right in front of me. Back in sophomore year, our English teacher, Dr. Haller, consented to student demands for a class discussion, demands triggered by President Nixon’s decision to bomb North Vietnamese supply routes in Cambodia. Dr. Haller proposed we begin by holding a preliminary vote on whether the U.S. should be in Vietnam at all.
As a boy, in addition to building model planes and warships, I’d created armies of tiny plastic soldiers and little model tanks on the dining room table, and I’d devoured everything I could find about the two world wars. But even then, I’d known that a miniature plastic army or a book read while lying on my bed wasn’t war.
War was more like the multi-part BBC documentary on the Great War that Mum and Dad had let me stay up to watch back in Sheffield. The herky-jerky black-and-white footage had only heightened its terrors. How had those men, ordered to attack across no man’s land, found the courage to hoist themselves from the relative safety of a trench into a hail of bullets? I’d have known those bullets were aimed at me. My grandfather on my mother’s side had fought in that war, and family lore had it that he’d been standing and talking to a man when the man’s head was sheared off by a shell.
Later, when I was hospitalized in London, my friend and mentor, Mr. Kaminsky, had told me how Poland’s Home Guard had risen up in Warsaw against the Germans as the Russians advanced, only for the Russians to wait at the city’s limits while the Germans massacred the Poles. I’d told him I couldn’t imagine having the courage those Poles had shown. I still couldn’t.
I would have been terrified less of being killed than being seriously wounded. I had a good idea of what a serious wound could do. Achilles tendon surgery when I was seven had confined me to bed for months on end, and I’d discovered first-hand that you really could lose your sight.
Daydreaming through an imaginary battle, I couldn’t follow through on a scenario in which I put an enemy soldier in my gun’s sight. I saw the man’s face and his expression. There were all kinds of people, therefore all kinds of soldiers, but I always seemed to pick out the ones with sad faces or gentle smiles, combatants as reluctant as me. How could I pull the trigger?
Dr. Haller called out, “Those in favor?”
Despite my fears, and not because of them, I rejected pacifism. My reading had persuaded me that living under Nazism would have been worse than fighting it. Day by day, life would have been filled with danger for myself, my family and friends, all of us living in constant terror of a misinterpreted gesture, an unfortunate choice of words, a show of sympathy. I felt communism constituted the same threat, and I’d written a paper in social studies arguing for the containment theory in light of Chamberlain at Munich. Did I think harsh, oppressive communism could come to the United States or England? We couldn’t afford to wait, only to find the enemy on the doorstep. Bombing Cambodia was a violation of neutrality that even I thought was wrong, but I believed Chamberlain-like passivity would be even worse.
The class was quiet, waiting to see if anyone would dare cast a vote condoning war.
What if I spoke up for my convictions? Knowing I’d be exempt from military service when I came of age at eighteen, my classmates would think to themselves, “Easy for him to say.” (Girls were also exempt, but that was somehow different.) Of course, they wouldn’t say it aloud for fear of hurting the feelings of their disabled classmate. Still, didn’t I at least have the moral courage to take a public stance?
I raised my hand.
During the even deeper silence that followed, the girl next to me tittered and whispered, “You’re the only one.” I felt my face grow hot.
The class stayed silent, perhaps waiting for me to justify myself. But I’d need to explain that during the years before we left England, the nightly news had been dominated by Britain’s efforts to help defend Malaysia against a communist Indonesian incursion. No one here had even heard about that war. If I started there, I’d get so bogged down that I’d never get to growing up in a country of bombed and rebuilt cities after Chamberlain’s Munich. In the charged atmosphere, I’d become confused and incoherent.
* * *
As my memoir shows, by senior year I changed my mind about Vietnam. Despite that experience, I made a similar error of judgment during the debates on television and among friends leading up to George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. I was persuaded by Colin Powell’s speech to the United Nations; less by the substance than my trust in the man. Although a member of a deeply flawed administration, he was, I felt certain, honest and cautious. Once again, I was practically alone among my friends in my stand. Afterwards we learned he’d been manipulated by John Bolton and other so-called neoconservatives. In fact, Iraq had no chemical weapons and lacked effective nuclear capability.
A few months ago, my wife Laura and I were having dinner at a Manhattan restaurant with friends who knew about that old position of mine, along with my eventual change of heart. I found myself expounding on how Bush’s destabilization of Iraq, and then the entire region, had caused millions of people to flee, many of them making dangerous journeys to Europe where their arrival caused a backlash against immigrants. In turn, this backlash led to an extremist rightward political turn in Hungary, Poland, Austria and elsewhere. Although Britain’s recent immigrants are mainly from Eastern Europe, the continent’s anti-immigration mood surely contributed to the referendum vote favoring Brexit. “Bush’s fatal decision to invade Iraq,” I concluded, made him responsible for all those consequences.
Laura told me afterwards that throughout my speech, the couple at the next table smirked and giggled. I hadn’t noticed. But I could hardly not notice when the man stood and clasped my shoulder, saying, “Hillary voted for the Iraq invasion.” He and the woman promptly stalked out of the restaurant.
It’s hardly the only time a stranger has interrupted a conversation between friends and me, only to walk off before any of us could react. This past month, on the sublime Scottish island of Iona, I was sitting on a bench overlooking a bay and distant Mull as I gave my cousin Charles, a retired senior government official, my disillusioned perspective on New York politics. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio seems compromised by his real estate connections and hobbled by poor judgment, I said, while Governor Andrew Cuomo closed the ethics commission he created when it got too close to him.
A woman sitting nearby broke in to tell us that she’d worked for de Blasio for years and how much she despised him. She didn’t seem to be disagreeing, but her vehemence came across as hostile. She immediately got up and left.
Had the man who grabbed my shoulder not fled, I would have told him that if I’d been a U.S. Senator like Hillary Clinton, I, too, would have voted with Bush. I’d have gone on to say that the people in Bush’s administration had much more information than the Senators did and that what they made public was doctored to hide an agenda unacceptable to legislators and the public alike. After that, my friends and I would undoubtedly have invited his companion and him to elaborate on their views.
As my youthful Vietnam vote and later Iraq position suggest, I am open to conservative points of view. By temperament, I am conservative in that I seek the familiar and balk at change. But although I can understand the conservative political desire to keep things much as they are, I cannot help but question a status quo that works only for some and contributes to global tragedy.
It ought to be possible for liberal-minded friends sitting at one restaurant table to talk on a human level with conservative-leaning friends dining at the next. Making what is intended as a devastating retort and fleeing does nothing to advance social cohesion. It can, instead, betray devastating ignorance about the people at whom it is targeted.
To read all my memoir excerpts to date, along with other recent posts, please go to the blog page of my website here.