Military service was a rite of passage into adulthood for males in my
family. My grandfather and two uncles served in the navy. One uncle
served in the air force. And my father spent three years in the army. As
a boy, it seemed natural that I too would enlist when I finished high
school. The only question was, Which branch? Then Vietnam came along.
I was fourteen when four students were shot dead by National Guard
troops at Kent State University in May of 1970 during a protest against
the Vietnam War. At that time I had no clear idea of what was going on
in Vietnam or why people were protesting. My concerns that summer ran to
baseball, fishing, and playing along the Lake Michigan shoreline.
Vietnam was just words and pictures on TV.
But somehow Kent State pierced my boyhood shell. As I recall, my parents
were not sympathetic to the students. "The students shouldn't have been
there, and the troops felt threatened," one adult in my family said. I
wasn't sure what to think. It seemed to me, having attended a strict
German Lutheran grade school, that students ought to be attending
classes and studying, not rioting. On the other hand, I was pretty sure
that no one deserved to be killed for exercising their free speech
rights while marching across a campus.
I started high school that fall, and while I didn't hang out with an
especially political crowd, I began to pick up, perhaps from older
students, a more critical vibe about Vietnam. That was the first time I
became aware that some people thought the war was based on lies. Lies
about the Bay of Tonkin, about the legitimacy of the South Vietnamese
government, about the civilian death toll, and about the motives of U.S.
Not that this radically affected my thinking. At that time I had no way
to figure out where the truth lay amidst the competing views that
surrounded me. The adults in my family, as far as I could tell,
supported the war out of reflex patriotism. Coming from a working-class
family, I also shared the anti-elitist, anti-privilege sentiments behind
the demand, wielded against student protesters, to love America or leave
it. Merle Haggard's "Okie from Muskogee" resonated more strongly with me
than Neil Young's "Four Dead in Ohio."
The views among my high school friends were also mixed. Some despised
Nixon and opposed the war. Others were insufficiently bothered by
Vietnam to be deterred from seeking admission to the U.S. military
academies. One friend went to Annapolis, another to West Point, and
another to Colorado Springs. Smart, serious guys. All of them National
What astounds me now is that even with the war and protests going on in
the early 1970s, and all of us within a couple years of draftable age,
we still didn't pay much attention. The war, for all its prominence in
the media, was not a main topic of our conversation. If it came up, it
was usually because someone had a brother or cousin who'd been drafted,
or who'd been killed, or who'd just been discharged. We weren't
dissecting the war as a matter of right or wrong foreign policy. Nor
were we talking in any serious way about what it would mean to be
personally involved. As the teenage male products of U.S. culture, we
were not equipped for that kind of conversation.
My uncertainty about military service lasted until the fall of 1973,
when an army recruiter visited my high school. The recruitment pitch, as
I recall, involved officer training, a commission, a four-year stretch,
and then a full ride through college. It sounded like a good deal,
especially since I wanted to go to college but wasn't sure how to pay
for it. If Vietnam crossed my mind as a reason not to enlist, I don't
remember having that thought. Besides, wasn't that mess over with?
Later I talked to my dad about the recruitment offer. I expected him to
be pleased that I was even considering it. Not only would I be carrying
on the tradition of military service in the family, but I'd do so as an
officer, and get my college paid for. I also had the impression that my
father enjoyed his time in the army. He never said a bad word about it.
So I was surprised when I told him about the offer and he said, with
unusual directness, "Don't do it."
What I don't remember is him saying exactly why I shouldn't do it. The
impression I retain, thirty-six years later, is that he thought the
recruiter's promises were untrustworthy, that the risks were too great,
and that things were unlikely to turn out well. I also retain a strong
impression of caring behind his advice. Maybe that's why I can't
remember exactly what he said. He was not the kind of man who would have
articulated his caring explictly, and so he said it in code.
Any lingering thoughts about military service were extinguished before
I'd finished my first year of college. Nearly everyone I met there was
critical of the Vietnam War and of how U.S. leaders had conducted it.
The most credible critics, to my mind, were the many veterans on campus
at that time. Every Vietnam veteran I met told a version of the same
story: the war was horrifically cruel and wasteful; most of what the
military brass and U.S. politicians said in defense of the war was
bullshit; the Vietnamese had driven the French out in the 1950s, and now
they wanted the U.S. out, so they could run their own country. One other
thing the vets had in common: they had known none of this when they
Other vets silently testified to the horrors the rest of us could only
imagine. These were the guys who lived mainly in their own heads, moving
through campus space with seemingly little connection to the world
around them. They were scary, and best avoided when they drank. It
seemed obvious to me that only an idiot, or someone who didn't know any
better, would want to go through whatever had so badly rattled their minds.
I am fortunate in that I can't say what it's like to be a civilian or a
combatant in a war zone. But in the years since I was an undergraduate I
have studied violence, the myths of manhood, crimes of obedience, and
geopolitics. So what I can say, I hope, are some things that might make
young men less vulnerable to the seductions of war and to the pitches of
military recruiters. Had I been in a position to do so, this is what I
might have told the young men whose ignorance of history was exploited
to make the Vietnam War happen.
Recognize, first of all, that modern war kills more civilians than
soldiers. It used to be said that rich old men start wars, while the
young and the poor fight and die in them. That's still largely true. But
now it's not male soldiers who are most of those being maimed and
killed. Forget glorious cavalry charges and heroic infantry battles. On
average, ninety-percent of the casualties are women, children, and the
elderly. This makes all modern wars crimes against humanity. To join the
military is to put yourself in a position where you will be forced to be
complicit in these crimes. This alone is sufficient reason to refuse to
The second lesson is that being forced to be complicit in butchering
innocent people creates a strong incentive to justify doing so. Military
training will aid this process. It will teach you to value the lives of
your fellow soldiers over those of the "enemy." Nationalism and racism
will add to the mix. Eventually, you will be able to see other human
beings as slopes, gooks, or hadjis -- all deserving the same moral
consideration as roaches. If you don't do this, you won't be able to
live with yourself. What the military will demand of you, in other
words, is a diminishing of your own humanity so that you can ignore the
suffering of others. It will not make you all you can be. It will try to
make you less than a human being should be.
Combine dehumanization of the enemy with the inevitability of civilians
being in harm's way and you have a recipe for atrocities. My Lai was not
an aberration. Nor, more recently, were Abu Ghraib, Haditha, Fallujah,
Ishaqi, or Qana. What happened in these places is the logical outcome of
racism, nationalism, military conditioning, and the exigencies of
violent conflict. Those who run with the dogs of war are likely to grow
A third lesson is that the military will try to crush your moral
autonomy. The military can't function as the kind of organization it is
if soldiers think for themselves about what's right and wrong. While
military and international law say that soldiers are not obligated to
obey illegal or immoral orders, this abstract right of refusal means
little in practical terms. If military personnel were in a position to
study international law and act on their own reasoned judgments of
what's legal and morally correct, there would have been no U.S. invasion
In reality, you will be expected to obey orders under penalty of being
imprisoned, and, most compellingly, under penalty of seeing your buddies
hurt or killed. So you will forgo thinking for yourself and do as you're
told. This is the opposite of being treated like a responsible adult.
The military will try to fool you about this condition of
infantilization by wrapping it in the rhetoric of machismo. You may thus
be drugged by your own testosterone into believing that you are a real
man, tough and independent, rather than someone else's expendable tool.
A fourth lesson, for would-be soldiers and civilians alike, is that most
of what you will be told about the need for violence and killing will be
lies. The critics of the Vietnam War turned out to be right. We were
lied to at every turn. Then as now.
As historian Howard Zinn recounts,
U.S. politicians have always lied to justify imperialist wars. Given
this pattern of deception, and given the enormity of what's at stake,
skepticism and thinking for one's self are not only warranted but
imperative. Of course, if you refuse to accept at face value what rich
men tell you about the need to kill others to preserve your "freedom,"
you will be unfit for military service. You will be better fit, however,
to act as a citizen in a democratic society and as a member of a world
Another lesson is that there are more honest and genuine ways to uphold
human freedom. To work for social justice is to expand people's freedom
to develop their potentials. To expose the lies of the powerful is to
expand people's freedom to make informed choices. To promote democracy
is to expand people's freedom to participate in shaping society. To work
for a clean environment or universal health care is to promote the
freedom to live without being the victim of corporate profit-seeking. To
oppose gratuitous war is to help create the peace upon which these other
freedoms depend, at home and around the world.
A final lesson is that wars can't happen without obedient soldiers. The
Vietnam War failed in part because too many people, soldiers and
civilians, began to see through the lies and think for themselves. In
turn, they became unmanageable by political, economic, and military
elites, who then realized they had to change course. The result was not
a loss for the United States, but a small victory for the spirit of
democracy. In the case of Vietnam, this came late and at a terrible
cost. The size of the bill that comes due for the U.S. invasions of
Afghanistan and Iraq will depend on how soon the young people who now
sit on the edge of war learn the lessons it always teaches.
Michael Schwalbe is a professor of sociology at North Carolina State
University. He can be reached at MLSchwalbe@nc.rr.com.