Opinion » Bill Cope

The Dogs of Old Wars

An old soldier, once again under fire


"(Republicans) need a divided America." --Bill Clinton

So's you know, here's what I did during the Vietnam War: I objected to it. And I went to college.

College deferments kept me from being drafted until they did away with those deferments in 1969 and established a lottery. Shortly after that, I applied for, and got, a conscientious objector status. Since they had so many C.O.s they didn't know what to do with 'em all, my draft board told me to find myself a community service to perform, and I did. I spent two years assisting activist Christian ministers in Moscow, Idaho, to counsel young men on how to stay away from the meaningless slaughter that, by then, everyone knew Vietnam had become.

Some decided to go to Canada rather than take part in that abomination. Some--those with influential enough connections-- joined the National Guard. Being a student musician, I had several peers who signed up on the condition they would be assigned to a military band. The inescapable truth about that time is, for every young man who willingly volunteered knowing they would likely be sent to combat, there were a hundred ... maybe a thousand ... who did something to stay out.

I didn't go to Canada because my gut told me it was wrong to run from one's motherland, even when she was acting like a monster. I didn't even try to get into the Guard or a military band because I refused to be an accomplice in that abomination, even from a safe place. I chose to become a conscientious objector because I believed my only other choice--in fact, the purest and most honorable choice--would have been to take my protest all the way to prison. And I just plain wasn't brave enough to do that.

I haven't regretted for a second that I chose not to contribute to the Vietnam abomination, nor have I once resented those who chose the opposite. In fact, it was largely returning vets who convinced me the war was a horrible wrong and who hardened my determination to resist it.

So. That's my history with Vietnam. Now, a few words about the nation's: Starting in the general neighborhood of the mid-60s, the Right began separating America into 1) themselves and 2) everyone else. Before that, there were 1) the Republicans, which included conservatives, moderates and liberals ... and 2) the Democrats, which included conservatives, moderates and liberals. The Right was never content with that arrangement because 1) the balance required that politics remain somewhat civil to accomplish anything... and 2) the Right can't stand it when there are such things as moderates and liberals.

Then two things came up that made it easy for them to split America like a rotten pine log: 1) the expanding civil rights of black Americans and 2) Vietnam. Racial politics worked well for the Right throughout much of the next two decades--culminating in the vile "Willy Horton" ad of the '88 presidential campaign. But the Vietnam issue didn't play so well, since everyone but the Right had long acknowledged Vietnam was probably the worst mistake America had ever made on foreign soil.

Still, in its day, Vietnam was one powerful divider. It destroyed two presidents (that's if you count Nixon's criminal paranoia along with Johnson's pigheadedness) and it killed another (that's if you buy into Oliver Stone's explanation of what really happened in Dallas). It put Jimmy Carter into the Right's crosshairs (remember the pardon he granted to those boys who went to Canada?) and had Governor Ronald Reagan not been such a thug to student protesters, it's likely he would never have become the Right's posterboy.

Vietnam came up briefly during their attempt to snuff Bill Clinton, but by then, it no longer had its black magic to divide. Too many of us were draft dodgers for it to matter if they called him a draft-dodger, especially when the charges were coming largely from draft dodgers.

So. By now--nearly 40 years after the Gulf of Tonkin lie ... nearly 35 years after William Calley was convicted of massacring old men and children ... over 30 years after we left that vile mess behind--who could imagine that the Right would once again be using Vietnam to split America apart.

Only this time, they're not picking on us draft dodgers and objectors, they are spitting on the record of one of those (out of a thousand) who volunteered to be there.

I'm so damn mad about this, I feel like I have a sharp bone lodged in my chest. Back while I served out my C.O., I honestly believed that reason and spirituality were forever preferable to warfare. My head hasn't changed. I objected to Bush's crap in Iraq as much because it was wrong morally as because it was stupid strategically.

But right this minute, in spite of those enduring values my head still holds, my heart is sour. I tell you, right this minute, if I could get my hands on John O'Neill-- that festering scab who's trying to turn John Kerry's war record into something shameful--I would be sorely tempted to behave in a remarkably un-C.O. sort of way.

Not that waging war on a single, jealous creep like O'Neill would put an end to the Right's filthy tactic. He's simply the point man in the same dishonorable treachery they used on John McCain four years ago, then Max Clelland two years later. How any veteran could support them after this is beyond me.

And more to the point, can America ever heal when such dishonorable treachery is used to keep our old wounds bleeding?

On a night in January 1973, I was in my Moscow apartment when the bells of one of the local churches began to toll. A minute or two later a second church chimed in, then another and another. I don't know how many of Moscow's churches eventually joined that chorus, but it sounded like the entire country was either laughing or crying.

The downtown streets filled with TV-less students, like me, who came to find out what was happening. Word spread among us like a rapture: Nixon had announced he would pull the troops out of Vietnam. A peace had been signed. If that long, national nightmare wasn't quite yet over, at least the end had begun. Like so many times before, America was being reborn.

Come November 2, should we learn late into the night that America has rejected this corrosive tribe of false warriors, I will hear those bells again--a distant echo of joy from the passing of another dark time.

"If you are a Democrat, you win when people think. " --Bill Clinton