Older men declare war. But it is youth that must fight and die. – Former President Herbert Hoover, 1944
Whenever I hear that song by the Dixie Chicks, my eyes tear up and I’m back in the sixties, when our nation was being torn apart by our deep involvement in the Vietnam War. Today, the internet is filled with moving more recent renditions sung by trios of other young women. And, I suspect, Travelin’ soldier is striking a very responsive chord these days in Ukraine and Russia.
The travelin’ soldier was on his way to Vietnam – one of 58,220 American soldiers who would die there – along with several hundred thousand Vietnamese. And because President Lyndon Johnson got himself into a pissing contest with the North Vietnamese, the Chinese, and the Soviets – and he believed his precious masculinity was on the line.
The Impact Of The Vietnam War On American Lives
The Vietnam War impacted – directly or indirectly – on the lives of most Americans. I really lucked out, having joined the army reserves a couple of years before Johnson began to drastically escalate our involvement in Vietnam, eventually sending 2,700,000 troops to occupy that country and force the North Vietnamese communists to submit.
If Johnson had called up some of the reserves to active duty, I don’t know what I would have done. Like tens of millions of Americans, I was virulently anti-war. I had joined the reserves solely because I would have otherwise been drafted and be required to be on active duty for two years.
In the reserves, you signed up for six years – but five and a half of them were in a local reserve unit where you went to two-hour meetings every week.
Why didn’t Johnson call up the reserves to active duty, and perhaps send them off to Vietnam? Again, his masculinity was on the line. To him, having to do this would have been a sign of weakness, and would be exploited by our enemies.
I was deeply aware of how duplicitous I was, passionately protesting the war, while not only serving in the reserves, but saving my own neck by doing so. But I justified my actions – or inactions – by rationalizing that at least I was trying to do something to get us out of Vietnam. Sadly, those efforts were confined to attending war protest meetings and going to peace demonstrations.
I certainly felt guilty about not doing more – let alone putting my own life on the line – to try to stop the war. Indeed, even today, I still feel that way.
After nearly ten years of very heavy fighting, we finally pulled out of Vietnam with our tails between our legs. Those news videos our ignominious retreat from Saigon aptly depicted our departure. Now, we must ask when the Russians will finally throw up their hands and pull their troops out of Ukraine.
To say that the Vietnam War screwed up the lives of millions of Americans would grossly understate what they had gone through. Perhaps more than half of those who came home had been very seriously physically or psychologically harmed.
And the countless millions of others who fled to Canada, went into hiding, took jobs they hated to avoid being drafted, got married and fathered children – all to avoid being drafted and sent to Vietnam -- would go on to live lives that fell far short of what might have been. If there ever was a “lost generation,” this one was it!
So far, perhaps 500,000 men have fled Russia to avoid being conscripted and sent to Ukraine, while an additional 300,000 have been conscripted into the army thus far. Then, with little training, they were sent to Ukraine to serve as cannon fodder. Predictably, after they’re killed, seriously wounded, or desert, hundreds of thousands of new forced conscripts will take their places.
Like the Americans in Vietnam, the Russians have very little to show for all their efforts. And many more Russian solders have died in Ukraine than we lost in Vietnam in nearly a decade.
As President Hoover observed, old men continue making wars and sending young men to die in them. Nothing has changed. And when I tear up each time I hear Travelin’ Soldier, I guess that what really saddens me is that what happened all those years ago is still happening today.