Different wars at different times evoke different sentiments from different people. Understandably, the accounts of direct participants are often the most compelling. But a personal experience sensitized me to the anxiety endured by those whose plight most often goes unrecognized.
That experience was linked to the war in Vietnam. The war had come into sharper focus for me in early 1968 shortly after I graduated from college. It was then that I passed a pre-induction physical and was reclassified ‘1A’ by my Draft Board, a designation that meant I was physically able to serve in the military. I was soon to become a member of the U.S. Army at a time when most inductees were being shipped to the war zone following basic training.
Early that year two of my brothers were either in or on their way to Vietnam, one a career officer and the other a volunteer in an elite paratrooper unit. That surely played a part in an incident that occurred in our family kitchen sometime that summer. My mother, who had six sons — all but one of whom had or were to serve in the U.S military — took me by surprise when she, quite spontaneously, said in reference to the draft: “If you don’t want to go, that’s ok with me.”
I was shocked. At the time, I viewed the situation selfishly and didn’t appreciate the full meaning of that simple statement. I heard it purely from my own standpoint. I saw it as an expression of maternal support that gave me space to somehow avoid the draft if I chose to do so.
Years later, there were aspects of the statement that became clearer. Upon reflection I understood that my mother, who was unquestionably a patriotic American, had had enough of the then current war. Her cryptic comment revealed a bigger truth, a skepticism and unease that was increasingly shared by many mothers throughout the country.
On a more personal level, my preoccupation with self didn’t allow me to grasp the maternal anxiety experienced by someone who thought she would have three sons in harm’s way and was powerless in the face of that possibility.
We appropriately mourn the loss of the 58,220 individuals on the Vietnam Memorial Wall. What we often overlook is that they all had mothers who realized the greatest fear of every parent.