Memory  /  First Person

Viet Guilt

Were the real prisoners of war the young Americans who never left home?
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Whether it’s guilt or malaise, what I do know for certain is that if someday I have a son and he asks me what I did in the Vietnam War, I’ll have to tell him that my war experience, unlike that of his grandfather, consisted of a hemorrhoid check.

Most people I know who avoided the war by one means or another do not feel the way I do, and I’m in no position to fault their reasons or their justifications.

But I do know some others who are still trying to come to terms with all this. And sometimes it comes to the surface, a sense of incompleteness . . .

I didn’t suffer with them. I didn’t watch my buddies getting wiped out next to me. And though I’m relieved, at the same time I feel as though part of my reflex action is not complete.

. . . of an unpaid debt . . .

I haven’t served my country. I’ve never faced life or death. I’m an incomplete person. I walk by the memorial and look at the names and think, “There but for the grace of God . . .”

. . . of how easy it was . . .

The dean once told me, “You know, the one thing your generation has done is made martyrdom painless.”

. . . of having missed history’s bus . . .

It’s guilt at not having participated. At not having done anything. I blew up neither physics labs in Ann Arbor nor Vietcong installations. I just vacillated in the middle. It’s still confusing to me. Only in the last few years have I tried to straighten it out in terms of my country. And now I know I should have gone, if only to bear witness.