Over the summer, my father and I were talking about his time in Vietnam. He was there for a year, arriving at Marble Mountain on Feb. 21, 1968.
During our conversation, Pop told me he had recently run into an old acquaintance, somebody who had fled to Canada in the late 1960s because he didn't want to go kill "Charlie" for Uncle Sam.
"He was a draft-dodger," Pop said. In my experience I've found soldiers to be among the most honest and blunt group of professionals out there, far surpassing the courage and candor of the average politician or clergy member.
"People think of him as a coward but actually it's brave to go against the tide when the (war) drums are beating," he said.
"Me? I was a (expletive) idiot, reading the papers and watching the news. I wasn't drafted. I volunteered to go into the Marines! The way the media was reporting, I thought the war would be over before I got out of basic training. I arrived in Vietnam the first day of the Tet offensive," he said, breaking into his contagious, riotous laugh.
Interesting observation, especially relevant now, when educated adults, caught up in the frenzy of the war drummer's beat, laud America as a nation that cherishes free speech, freedom of assembly and all the rest, and then proceed to attack other Americans for actually using those freedoms during what is expected to be a long, long war against a vaguely defined enemy.
The implication being: anyone who retained their critical faculties after Sept. 11 are naive terrorist sympathizers that take for granted the freedoms American soldiers risk their lives to defend. These are the same folks who lament the "dumbing down" of America's youth.
My father considers dissent to be a purifying fire. He can't bend his left knee and is partially deaf in one ear for "defending freedom" in Vietnam, as defined and dictated by privileged war-planners in plush offices.
Pop isn't offended by war critics and so, for me, the words of former Senator J. William Fulbright ring true. "To criticize one's country is to do it a service and pay it a compliment. It is a service because it may spur the country to do better than it is doing; it is a compliment because it evidences a belief that a country can do better than it is doing," he wrote.
"In a democracy, dissent is an act of faith. Like medicine, the test of its value is not in its taste but its effect, not how it makes people feel in the moment but how it makes them feel in the long run. Criticism, in short, is more than a right; it is an act of patriotism, a higher form of patriotism, I believe, than the familiar rituals of national adulation."
But it's not the "rituals of national adulation" as much as it is the rituals of national manipulation that is so alarming.
The day before the invasion of Grenada, White House spokesman Larry Speakes told reporters that the idea of an invasion was "preposterous." When the Reagan administration was confronted about this, the usual arguments were offered - the need for military secrecy and concern about the safety of journalists.
Many reporters and editors weren't buying it. For one thing, Radio Grenada and Radio Havana were reporting that invasion was imminent in the days leading up to the landing of U.S. Army Rangers on Point Salines. The night before the invasion, U.S. officials tipped off the Soviet Union and Cuba, allowing the Cuban ship Vietnam Heroica to pick up some Cuban nationals before the invasion.
At a press briefing the day after the invasion, one angry reporter told Speakes that "the only people who were surprised by this were right in this room." And even after the invasion heavy restrictions were put on the American media, provoking Edward Joyce, then president of CBS News, to say: "I am seriously concerned that we may indeed be witnessing the dawn of a new era of censorship, of manipulation of the press, of considering the media the handmaiden of government to spoon-feed the public with government-approved information."
Regarding the safety of reporters, the New York Times editorialized: "Safety? Let Mr. Weinberger consider the Iwo Jima memorial, not a mile from his office - the Marines raising the flag on Mount Suribachi. How much safety does he think was guaranteed to Joe Rosenthal of the Associated Press who took the famous picture?"
Military secrecy? "For a brief time that was a reasonable concern, but to bar reporters is a sledgehammer solution...there's another necessity, the same one that led the Air Force to take William Laurence of the Times on a flight that dropped the atomic bomb...Democracies depend on trust, and trust in war, small or large, depends on credible witnesses."
Even the Army Times criticized the exclusion of the press as unwise in an editorial titled "The Secret War."
There's a big difference between trust and blind obedience; and patriotism and jingoism - ain't that right, Pop?
Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff writer and syndicated columinist. He can be reached via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2001 Cape Cod Times.