As the decade of the 2010s comes to a close I keep hearing about how this nation, the United States of America, is more divided than it ever has been or at least since the Civil War.
But I am not sure about whether we are more divided than say in the 1960s and early 1970s during the Vietnam War. At least, I think, that may be when the trouble started.
We seemed to fall into that war gradually before anyone noticed and once it was noticed it was like it was too late. We were at war. You can’t quit till the war is over. You can’t question if it is right or wrong, it’s the U.S. fighting and we are always on the side of right. And somehow we are always fighting for freedom, ours, and that of the whole free world and even for those who want to be free (free of despots).
To be sure, there was some disagreement as to whether we ought to get involved in a land war in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Those old and wise enough knew that the conditions there were not ideal for us. They recalled Japanese soldiers in World War II subsisting on little but rice and a blind aligience to the Emperor and a belief that one must never surrender, that death is better. But in the end, the U.S. and the allies persisted, not only because of the fighting and bravery of those who fought but because of the overwhelming force we could bring to bear from our own resources.
We had far more resources than the Japanese. In fact that is what the war was about, resources, ones the Japanese wanted. Heck, that is basically what almost all wars are about, isn’t it?
But in the 1960s we were glued to the domino theory which asserted that if we did not resist nations would fall one by one like a row of dominos to communist insurgents, supported by the USSR and to some extent Communist China (the later still being weak at the time).
We eventually found ourselves in a full-fledged war. I mean we sent advisors in the 50s and 60s and we conducted clandestine operations. But when you inject yourself into a war zone I’ll be darned if someone does not shoot back at you. So when we got shot at we retaliated. We kept upping the troop strength.
Once we were in the war for real our leaders did not know what to do. It was not like World War II where you recaptured ground and pushed the enemy back eventually causing it to surrender. It was a complicated civil war and communist-led insurgency. Gaining ground, taking a hill resulted in no strategic value. The enemy disappeared into the terrain and came back to fight again. We took ground to show we could and then abandoned the worthless posts we took, after thousands of soldiers were killed. The enemy was a combined force of guerrilla fighters native to the country of South Vietnam (itself an artificial construct created in negotiations between the West and the communists that gave the communists the north part of Vietnam), eventually backed up by regular troops from the north, particularly adapted to their own native terrain and having no choice but to fight till the war or their own lives were over. American troops just had to stick it out a year and then if they survived go home.
So anyway the war got nowhere and many young people and their parents began to see the futility of it all and the injustice in requiring primarily young men to go fight a hopeless cause with no real direct connection to the United States.
Even so, despite their misgivings, many simply complied with the call and went, and parents tried to be supportive from home.
And then there were the stories of the reluctance by South Vietnamese to fight and their preference toward letting the Americans do it, and to be sure there were forces within our own nation who pushed the Americans to take the lead to get it done.
A major debate not only within the halls of congress but within American society ensued about what to do.
And then the stories of atrocities committed not only by the enemy — we expected that — but our own forces.
(You send a young man to a strange country where he is told that he is supposedly helping peasants fight off forces who want to enslave them but you often cannot distinguish the good guys from the bad, even little children can be planted with bombs that are booby traps for an unsuspecting GI. Some fear, some resentment, and orders, both ambiguous and direct, from higher up result in atrocities such as the infamous Mai Lai massacre when American soldiers virtually murdered two whole villages, mostly women and children and the elderly. This was not representative of our forces as a whole, but these things happened.)
Also, there was this, to me, idiotic debate about whether we should push harder to win but if we did we might “escalate” the war. I don’t care what kind of a war it was, or is, you have to fight, you have to do what is necessary to win or simply choose not to fight or even quit — we eventually quit and in short order South Vietnam fell to the communists.
And then the anti-war protests and the draft dodgers. This just did not sit well with whole bunches of folks. One could debate war policy or tactics but in the end you support your country.
But what if the war really is wrong? Have you no recourse?
No the nation was divided. Families were divided. I, the baby of the family, was in the army but safely in Germany. My elder brother retired from 20 years in the Navy in the 60s. But my other, older brother, was drafted and sent to Vietnam. I was as I say away in Europe. But I can only imagine how my folks felt. I know my mother told me that during a Thanksgiving dinner one of the men present was talking up the war and lauded my folks for having a son in it. My mom told him she was against the war and just wanted him to come home. I imagine that shut down the conversation or at least I hope so.
(For my own part I was divided. I saw its futility and even questioned its legitimacy, but I wanted to be on the side of my own country too.)
But it has been my observation that among what we generally call working men, typically those whose craft is with their hands, even if they have no military service themselves, but many have, their sensibilities lean toward duty and allegiance to country. The anti-war movement stuck in their craws.
Added to that, during all this time we had the civil rights movement and its demonstrations, often violent — even though they may have historically began peacefully.
And there was the fledgling women’s movement. And then came the gays. And now we have those who proclaim that they are not men or women or gay, they are some kind of combination or whatever — I am not being sarcastic here or dismissive, I’m just saying it causes mass confusion and in some cases fear or resentment, rightly or wrongly.
And injected into all of this you have our two major political parties who since the Civil War have gone back and forth and traded places with whom they proclaim to represent. And in many cases people feel neither one represents them.
But money controls. The haves can pretty much buy politicians, especially when the public is complacent. But when one section of the public decides not to be complacent, watch out, you get — well you know who.
Society is in turmoil, but I think it has been most of the time.
It never really has calmed down, save for maybe a brief interlude after we pulled out of Vietnam and perhaps during some of the Reagan years when we tried to shake off the despair of losing Vietnam.
To add to the confusion, the information overload from the internet includes a new dimension of disinformation. The mainstream press, often accused, perhaps unfairly, of disseminating disinformation itself, is no longer the gatekeeper. Anyone, anywhere, and for any purpose, has instant access to the whole world.
We may only think that we are in the most tumultuous time in our history.
Happy New Year of 2020!
Go out and cause a little tumult — in a friendly way though, just to celebrate the new year.
There are of course a lot of things I did not mention, gun violence being one of them. I have no easy explanation for that except that we live in a hyper-charged society with the news cycle running 24-hours a day and possibly inducing troubled minds to work overtime.