One afternoon when I was eight or nine, I was playing stickball in the street with some neighborhood kids and a fight broke out. Hearing the commotion, an old man who had been sitting on his front porch watching us play came down into the street to break up the fight. “Stop fighting,” he yelled. Then, more quietly, he admonished us, “You shouldn’t be fighting here at home while our boys are fighting and dying in Vietnam.” It seems trite now and it may even have been trite then, but nonetheless, we were shamed into behaving. The old man, after all, had a grandson over there. And for grade-schoolers in 1969, the war had always been with us.
That’s how it was for children then. If the soundtrack of my childhood was provided by the Beatles, the quiet rumbling counterpoint was Vietnam. I was far too young to truly understand or to be directly affected by the war, but there was no doubt that it mattered to the adults and near-adults around me. It mattered to the neighbor’s son who got drafted and the other neighbor’s son who volunteered. It mattered to the older brothers of my and my sister’s playmates who were old enough to be facing the draft. It mattered to the Methodist church youth group and boy scout troop whose young leaders considered their options, some choosing to serve, some choosing Canada. They were boys I looked up to, who carried the flag in the Queens Anniversary Day parade, who organized volleyball games at church picnics, who taught me how to hold a baseball bat, and who taught me how to tie a square knot.
Although I was too young to get drafted and both my older siblings were girls, there wasn’t one circle of relationships in my young life – family, school, neighborhood, church – that was left untouched by the war. And not one adult in my life was left unaffected. In the stoic silence of a friend’s father when a name was mentioned, in the joy in that same father’s voice when talking about his son’s imminent transfer stateside, in the funereal mood in another family’s living room presided over by a framed eight by ten on the mantelpiece, in my parents’ dinner table conversations about this or that person’s son, the war affected me in ways I am only coming to understand now.
These wars that we are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan are not ours the way Vietnam was. The men and woman who fight, and their families, are but a small segment of our society. They come from the rural regions, and from inner cities where military service offered a way out. They come from families with patriotic traditions of service. As of now, there are 140,000 troops in Iraq and over 32,000 in Afghanistan. At the end of 1968, in contrast, there were of half a million troops in Vietnam. During the Vietnam era, the draft raised over 2 million men for service. As unfair as the process was, with deferments less easy to obtain by the poor and minorities, it still reached deeper into our society. Today, most of us remain untouched by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
These wars of today are given perfunctory coverage in the evening news, if they are covered at all. The stories of the soldiers, their anguish and their terror suffered in our names, while we keep up with Angelina and Brad and Jennifer, are never heard. The scars, physical and emotional, are invisible to most of us.
Ryan Smithson is a soldier in the Army Reserves from upstate New York who served in Iraq from 2004 to 2005. Upon returning home, he began writing personal essays, recounting his time in Iraq and what it was like returning home. Several of his essays have been published on the web and next month, his book, Ghosts of War: The True Story of a 19-Year-Old GI, will be published by Harper-Collins.
Ryan’s essay “A Little Taste of Death” appeared in the Summer/Fall 2007 issue of the Oregon Literary Review, his essay “Silence and Silhouettes” appeared in Shattercolors Literary Review, and his essay “Hard Canvas” appeared in Identity Theory.
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