One of the advantages of growing up during Vietnam was that you could know for certain the old folks were out to get you. It wasn't just the draft. It wasn't just hippies getting their hair cut off by high-school football players under the direction of coaches and principals. It wasn't just sitting in the high school library reading Time Magazine articles about the murder and maiming of civil rights workers, or police attacks on peace marchers in university towns, or people jailed for decades for small amounts of drugs.
I had another reason for thinking the old folks were the enemy. I grew up in Sun Valley, where--even in the '60s--the movers and shakers of American business vacationed and bought trophy homes. These were people who had given their lives to corporations and careers. If they had become rich as a result, they had also become old. Mortality stared at them from the morning mirror. Put them among the moguls on a ski slope, and it became obvious that being youthfully poor was way better than being agedly rich.
When I was 17, new on the Sun Valley ski patrol, I rode the lifts with old guys who looked at me with barely concealed envy, who asked me about illegal drugs and women and rock 'n' roll, and who told me, when I said I hoped to stay the hell out of Vietnam, that I would have to go anyway. Vietnam would "make a man" out of me, they said, which would be a good thing. They also said, "You kids have it too easy. When I was young, you couldn't just go out and sleep with girls. You had to marry them first."
I didn't know what to make of these conversations--my illegal drug use had been limited to Coors, and the idea that you could just go out and sleep with girls if you wanted to didn't fit with any memory of mine. I also had watched as county magistrates forced schoolmates arrested for misdemeanors to choose between the army and jail--the American Legion post in Bellevue, Idaho, is named after one of those kids--and I had decided that becoming a man wasn't worth it, if the man you became was dead.
I realized Vietnam was something less than the valiant struggle of free peoples against evil communism. It was a generational knife-fight. To put the best possible face on it, it was an attempt by the World War II generation to force their war-forged character onto young men they thought were soft and spoiled. To put the worst face on it, it was the deliberate wrecking of young men by old men who envied their youth, their freedom and their happiness.
At the time, you could stay out of the war if you went to college. I went to college. My student deferment outlasted the draft, and as anyone on the home front will tell you, it was easy to forget Vietnam if you weren't worried about going there. I stayed away from peace demonstrations because I viewed anti-war campus radicals as the narcissistic spawn of lawyers, doctors and war profiteers, playing rebel for a few years before taking their places in family firms. I stayed away from recruiting stations, having been told by family members who did go to Vietnam that the war was a stupid and wasteful mistake, at least as seen from the open doors of helicopters.
Years later, Vietnam-era Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's tearful end-of-life interviews--in which he confessed he'd sent kids into battle knowing that the war was lost--reminded me I had once seen Vietnam as a struggle between young and old. The old had won. Their companies profited, their stock portfolios swelled, their place in the world emerged intact.
But the young had lost. Nobody I know who was actually in Vietnam came back undamaged. It didn't matter if they were at Khe Sanh or running a beach club in Da Nang, something in their lives got set in stone during that war. The free development of a human being was halted by trauma or guilt or disgust, and they became obsessives, repeating the same stories over and over in conversation and in life.
War doesn't make men. It stunts them.
The old guys who start wars must want it that way. The architects of the Vietnam War gave way to the architects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they were recognizable as the same species, patriarchs whose main concern is that they not be diminished by the full flowering of a new and joyous generation. Their god is Saturn, who, out of fear of being overthrown, devoured his children as they were born.
Freud figured all this out some time ago, but in his theories the sons overcome their fathers and go on to make their own mistakes. We've invented a civilization where the old get older, and the young get stuck. Not only do we still send our young people off to war, but we've expanded the definition of war. We've figured out, with our deficit spending and unretirable college loans, how to make them foot the bill for their own destruction.
The result is a dry and sterile oligarchy of brittle old farts, a gerontocracy of the rich and powerful who refuse to relinquish their money or authority or jobs, or even make room for the people they've brought into this world. When I ride with these folks on the lifts of Sun Valley--above groomed slopes whose laser-calibrated flatness is easy on ancient knees--they still call me kid, and we have the same conversations we had almost 50 years ago.