I was 16 years old in 1967 and afraid I’d never see the world beyond the Jersey shore, our usual family vacation destination. Most of my 18th century immigrant ancestors undertook long sea journeys from Europe to reach the docks of Philadelphia and must have kissed the earth and said “That’s quite enough of that, thank you very much,” and didn’t budge from the spot for 150 years before finally bravely venturing 20 miles west to the suburbs where they again dug in for the duration.
I do have one branch on my mother’s side who sailed back and forth across the Atlantic and throughout the Caribbean and it’s those genes I must have inherited, because unlike my parents, I’ve always had itchy feet. So when I heard over my high school public address system that applications were being accepted for the foreign exchange program I saw that as my only opportunity to experience something else of the world.
What followed was an intense and months-long process of written questionnaires, essay-writing and interviews with conference rooms full of men in suits. Nineteen sixty-seven was the height of the Vietnam war and there was much anti-American sentiment around the world. I was questioned extensively about how I will react if and when I’m challenged about our involvement in Indochina.
And it’s one, two, three
What are we fighting for?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn
Next stop is Vietnam;
And it’s five, six, seven
Open up the pearly gates
Well there ain’t no time to wonder why
Whoopee! we’re all gonna die —– Country Joe and the Fish, 1967
I must have given appropriately diplomatic answers because I was accepted into the program and in the summer of 1968 I flew to Sweden to begin a year of study abroad. During the year I was challenged, not often, but always aggressively and I was in the unenviable position of being 17 years old and having to defend a country I love about our involvement in a war I disagreed with as I was still grappling with understanding the dynamics of world politics, the “threat” of communism and what that meant to America.
Some folks are born made to wave the flag
Ooh, they’re red, white and blue
And when the band plays “Hail to the chief”
Ooh, they point the cannon at you, Lord
It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no senator’s son, son
It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate one, no —- Credence Clearwater Revival, 1969
Vietnam was the first televised war and the film footage on the nightly news was terrifying. Vietnam was halfway around the world. The people and landscape were profoundly different from what most of us knew of the world before satellite communication and the internet. Unlike World War II this was guerrilla warfare in the jungle against people who were defending their country to the death against alien invaders using tactics that our leaders portrayed as barbaric. At home, rising anti-war sentiment split the country in two, mostly along generational lines.
War! (huh good god, y’all)
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing! (say it again)
War! (whoa, lord)
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing! —– Edwin Starr, 1970
All of this was the inescapable context of our teen and early adult years and left its painful mark on my American generation, regardless of political ideology. And it’s this long buried scar that suddenly flared up as we stepped off the plane into the jetway in Saigon. I was hit with a wall of sadness and an internal soundtrack of the Ride of the Valkyrie, Fortunate Son and the whap-whap-whap of a Huey that nearly buckled my knees and brought me to tears. I looked over at Jack and saw the same struggle on his face yet everyone around us appeared normal and stepped quickly towards the scrum at passport control.
In the taxi to our hotel I saw a billboard featuring Christy Brinkley, and we noted the ubiquitous KFC and McDonald’s. American popular culture has dug its claws deep into the flesh of this country we nearly destroyed fifty years ago and it made me feel even worse that even though we lost the war on the battlefield, we must have won the culture war, for good or for ill. We’re going to have to come to grips with this in the coming days.