Editor’s Note: The Vietnam War has shaped – or one might say, deformed – American political life for more than four decades, leaving behind smoldering resentments that have refused to burn out.

But the war also represented a personal crisis for young American men, especially those who had concluded, correctly as it turned out, that U.S. leaders were lying and that the war was a doomed enterprise from the start, as Gary G. Kohls recounts in this guest essay:

An author that every prospective soldier (and their loved ones) needs to read is Tim O’Brien. 

O’Brien was drafted into the Vietnam War while enrolled at Macalaster College in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the mid-1960s. He had no intention, nor any aptitude, for soldiering but was probably more aware than most kids his age about the atrocities that were being committed by U.S. soldiers in that ungodly war.

He was also more aware that anybody in his family about those realities. Many of the people in his hometown had vague memories about the returning World War II heroes that, according to their stories, had won the wars against the tyrants Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito single-handedly.

The 1960s-era folks from Minnesota were getting the usual propaganda spin on the war from the government and the Pentagon, but were discounting the occasional televised and print media reports from Vietnam that were documenting the war crimes that were being routinely committed against innocent Vietnamese civilians.

The adolescent-aged O’Brien struggled mightily during the interval between receiving his draft notice and his call-up date. He knew what he was in for if he reported, but he also knew that if he went he probably would be an unwilling participant in something satanic.

He knew that he might die, but he didn’t know if he would be able to kill another human being who had never done him any personal harm. But he also knew that the townsfolk wouldn’t or couldn’t understand all the reasons why he knew that he shouldn’t go off to war.

Like many people who struggle with ethical issues by listening to their consciences, O’Brien was conflicted. He understood very well the moral dilemma that conscientious objectors to war and killing (COs) struggle with.
But he had no spiritual advisers who could help him work through his dilemma. Everybody said he should go.

He had heard that many people of conscience with serious doubts about the war were being denied CO status when they appealed to their local Selective Service System draft boards.

Aging Patriots

SSS boards were notoriously staffed by aging patriots who were still proud of their particular war service or the war service of their friends or relatives (it needs to be mentioned that many board members had never seen actual combat); and, like many old men from that simpler time in American history, they thought that war was glorious.

They had been effectively propagandized to believe in the silly – and since-discredited - domino theory that capitalism espoused. Most SSS board members also thought that COs were cowards rather than the courageous resisters that they were.

So before his call-up date, to have some time to think about his options, O’Brien went up north to the Rainy River area of the Lake of the Woods and luckily found part-time work at a fishing resort that was just closing up for the season.

The owner of the resort was an aging Scandinavian man of very few words, who obviously intuited the real reason for O’Brien’s visit to the Canadian border.

But neither O’Brien nor the old man talked directly about the reason he was there. And yet the old man was the first person that seemed to understand the dilemma. The old man generously paid O’Brien to help close up the cabins for the year, gave him food, lodging and space for his moral deliberations.

On the day O’Brien had to leave he still hadn’t made up his mind; cross over to the refuge of Canada or go off to an illegal war. Sensing O’Brien’s dilemma, the old man took him out fishing, anchoring the boat about 20 yards from the Canadian shoreline.

Not a word was said, and the two of them pretended to fish. It was crunch time.

After much anguishing, O’Brien made his life-changing decision, so close to freedom and yet so far away from it.

Anguished Choice

In the following excerpt, O’Brien writes about the choice he made in his award-winning book, The Things They Carried:

“And what was so sad, I realized, was that Canada had become a pitiful fantasy. Silly and hopeless. It was no longer a possibility. Right then, with the shore so close, I understood that I would not do what I should do.

“I would not swim away from my hometown and my country and my life. I would not be brave. That old image of myself as a hero, as a man of conscience and courage, all that was just a threadbare pipe dream.

“I saw my parents calling to me from the far shoreline. I saw my brother and sister, all the townsfolk, the mayor and the entire Chamber of Commerce and all my old teachers and girlfriends and high school buddies.

“All those eyes on me — the town, the whole universe — and I couldn’t risk the embarrassment. It was as if there were an audience to my life, that swirl of faces along the river, and in my head I could hear people screaming at me. Traitor! they yelled. Turncoat! Pussy! I felt myself blush.

“I couldn’t tolerate it. I couldn’t endure the mockery, or the disgrace, or the patriotic ridicule. Even in my imagination, the Canadian shore just twenty yards away, I couldn’t make myself be brave. It had nothing to do with morality. Embarrassment, that’s all it was.

“And right then I submitted. I would go to the war — I would kill and maybe die — because I was embarrassed not to.

“And then to Vietnam, where I was a soldier, and then home again. I survived, but it’s not a happy ending.

“I was a coward. I went to the war.”

O’Brien, in his loneliness, obeyed the draft board’s orders. It was clear to him that the people on that board had no idea about the lethal consequences of what they were doing.

Too Late

Like the old patriotic codgers that they were, his SSS board members didn’t know until it was too late that they were sending their hometown boys off to kill and die in a senseless, useless and futile war. In a manner of speaking, they sent these innocents off to be certain casualties of war.

Only a small percentage of the soldiers died in Vietnam, but those deaths were unspeakable deaths, and those soldier-victims died in vain.

So even though the majority of the doomed soldiers did not actually lose their lives during their tour of duty, most of those who survived physically were still wounded in one way or another.

Many lost their souls or their sanity. Almost all of the ones that returned lost their faith in a loving God. Hundreds of thousands came home suicidal.

And most lost their trust in society, their churches and their patriotic families. Alienation from previous “friends” was the norm. Friends and family that had loved the soldier before the war knew that something in the returning veteran had died.

Those loved ones still didn’t want to hear the gruesome details. And most veterans didn’t want to tell the stories anyway, thus leading to the legendary isolating behaviors and mental ill health of combat-traumatized soldiers.

Most of their marriages and relationships failed, although not necessarily ending in divorce. Many returning vets understandably became alcoholic or drug addicted or drug abusers, needing brain-altering substances in order to quell the demons in their brains that wouldn’t allow them restorative sleep or freedom from anger and frustration.

Many vets had such severe sleep-deprivation, cognitive decline, depression, aggression and anger, that keeping a steady job was virtually impossible.

Many of these traumatized veterans thus became homeless and, knowing that they were bad for their families anyway, became drifters, moving far away from the society that now feared them and couldn’t, or wouldn’t, understand them.

Hell’s Angels

Some become Hell’s Angels, riding their cycles until total exhaustion set in and a few hours of nightmare-free sleep could finally come.  Some became survivalist “bush vets,” regularly patrolling the perimeter of their hidden campsites to ward off enemies that were only in their minds, just like the Gulf war vets who are always anxiously on the lookout for imaginary IEDs as they drive down their American roads. 

Many Vietnam vets have lived and died prematurely in the American wilderness, in the bush country, in the deserts or in the mountains, somehow compelled to stay far away from the society that sent them off to war and then didn’t want anything to do with them when they came home “crazy”.

America lost a generation of boys in that war, and those losses were in vain. But the losses to the soldiers and their families were just as painful.

The financial costs to the nation because of the Vietnam War represented an enormous waste of money and the reason that Lyndon Johnson lost the war on poverty, but the emotional costs of the lost lives, the fatherless sons and daughters, the spouseless, abandoned or battered wives and the disordered mental health in those families is uncountable.

America is still paying for that atrocity-producing war two generations later.

O’Brien obeyed the draft board partly because of the “patriotic” hometown crowd that thought that war was glorious and that “serving” one’s country, whether right or wrong, was the only thing to do.

And by the time the truth finally hit them, if it ever did, the damage had already been done and it was too late to fix. The townsfolk who had urged their boys to go off to kill or be killed would never recognize them if or when they came back, even if they came back alive.

Cursed by Insight

O’Brien had intuited the truth that nobody else in his little hometown had seen. He was cursed with the deep insights that those who were urging him to participate in couldn’t or wouldn’t see, but he couldn’t articulate what he knew to be true well enough to convince them of his doubts.

He had no support group to encircle him. He had no institution to protect him from his government that had the legal right - but not the moral right - to deny him the universal human right to refuse to kill, especially someone who had never done him any wrong and who was, like him, a child of God.

O’Brien came back haunted, but with a motivation to warn others about things they had never experienced and couldn’t comprehend. He discovered after the war that he had a gift for writing.

Since coming home, O’Brien has had a great career writing about the Vietnam War, drawing on his horrifying personal experiences.

Despite his celebrated career as an author, Tim O’Brien remains cursed with recurrent depressive episodes and persistent suicidal thinking which is common in returning combat veterans, no matter what war they fought in.

It has been estimated that as many as 200,000 Vietnam War veterans have committed suicide since returning home and that 20 percent of Vietnam vets are preoccupied with suicidal thinking.

O’Brien, obviously, has combat-induced posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which he was not warned about before he was inducted. He was also not told that combat-induced PTSD is a totally preventable illness.

The decision he made in the fishing boat on the Lake of the Woods made all the difference in his life, for good or for ill. O’Brien would say for ill.

Dr. Kohls is a retired physician who has had extensive experience treating posttraumatic stress disorder, with the traumatic stress originating from either combat violence or domestic violence and sometimes both. Combat-induced PTSD is extremely difficult to treat but simple to prevent.

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