They saunter into my classroom alone or with friends, at the height of their youthful beauty. They may be 17 or they may be 22; they may dress in classic preppy style or, more likely, they may have thrown on a pair of jeans and t-shirt, slapped a baseball cap on and hurried, half asleep, to class. As I look at them, my heart tightens in my chest: if they reinstate the draft, how many of these young men and women will have low numbers in the conscription lottery? How many will be sent to fight? How many will be picked off at a guard post by a sniper? Or blown to pieces when their jeep hits a mine? For this is what George W. Bush's war comes down to: The death of innocents for a senseless war, led by a man who shirked his own duty during a time of war.
Much has been made of Bush's privileged experience during the Vietnam era; I have heard some comment that they cannot criticize Bush for doing what anyone in his position would have done and, in fact, did: Avoid going to Vietnam by using whatever means necessary. Vice President Richard Cheney got two deferments. Former President Bill Clinton won a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford.
Yet when I hear my contemporaries boast about how they got out of serving in Vietnam, I taste bitterness on my tongue. So many of my working-class peers died in Vietnam! It was a debacle; to sustain it, several presidents, Democrats and Republicans, lied about it. Each lied because he did not want to be the first American president to lose a war. For that hubris, my generation paid and continues to pay: 58,229 dead and still counting.
9,087,000 or about 9.7% of the men in my generation fought in Vietnam. 7,484 women served, most of them as nurses. Names continue to be added to the Vietnam War memorial in Washington, D.C. because the fatalities did not stop when President Richard Nixon declared victory and abandoned the war.
We need only look in the doorways and on the park benches of our cities to find the human detritus of the war. Many of these veterans are so scarred from their experiences in Southeast Asia that they will never recover. Some will commit suicide; many already have.
Those 58,229 young men and women were once students in our schools, raised to love God and country. 76% of the men sent to Vietnam were from lower middle/working class backgrounds. One quarter were from homes whose family income was below the poverty line.
These are the students who would have been in my classroom had I been teaching then. It is not so far-fetched to imagine my current students pressed into service for this war.
The Vietnamese lack the ability to conduct a war by themselves or govern themselves. --Vice President Richard M. Nixon, April 16, 1954
Where have we heard similar sentiments recently?
Rosa Maria Pegueros (email@example.com) is an associate professor of Latin American History and Women's Studies at the University of Rhode Island.