THE CONFESSION

Copyright 2001 The International Herald Tribune  www.iht.com

    Vietnam Fantasies Trouble A Veteran
    Noncombatant
    Steven M. Gorelick
    Wednesday, June 27, 2001

    
   NEW YORK -As I like to remember it, we didn't even have time to call in
air support.
   Pinned down on the banks of a marsh by ferocious enemy fire, the best my
platoon
   could do was dig in deep and pray that the helicopter gunship would
rescue us.
   Somehow I avoided even a scratch, but my buddy from Texarkana took a
direct hit
   right above the belt. I still go to see his name every time I am at the
Vietnam Memorial.

   Three months after coming home, I stood with 1,500 Vietnam veterans to
protest
 Richard Nixon's renomination. Several of us returned the Army Bronze
Stars that had
   become badges of shame.

   Later, I waited outside the rally while Dr. Martin Luther King was
addressing the
   sanitation workers in Memphis. The group I was with never heard a word
of his
   "mountaintop" speech, but we cried the next day when he was gunned down
outside
   the Lorraine Motel.

   I even remember hiding my face from the cameras when several of us laid
down and
   blocked the entrance to the Oakland Army Induction Center. It's not that
I felt I was
   doing anything wrong, but a small part of me was worried that some of
the guys from
   my platoon might somehow see me on the news. I knew that none of them
felt the way
   I did about the war.

   Then I come back to reality. None of this ever happened. None of it. I
am a veteran of
   nothing.

   The closest I got to a rice paddy was the Chinese food we ordered the
night we sat
   around listening to the first of the draft lotteries, praying for a high
number. Dr. King?
   Memphis? It was the place where Elvis was holed up, stuffing himself
with peanut
   butter sandwiches.

   In fact, I was outside the Oakland draft induction center while cards
were burned, but
   I watched in silence, panicked that even being in the vicinity might
lead to a loss of my
   prized college deferment.

   I thought of these fantasies when I read that the Pulitzer prize-winning
historian, Joseph
   Ellis, had admitted that he misled his Mount Holyoke students into
believing that he
   served in Vietnam.

   None of us will ever really know what might have led an eminent
historian to weave a
   stint in the airborne into an already accomplished life. It would be
nervy of me to
   speculate about his demons when I hardly understand mine.

   But I do know the powerful feelings of shame and embarrassment that come
from
   looking back at a time of agonizing moral choices and realizing that as
others faced
   down the Viet Cong, the Chicago police, the fire hoses unleashed by the
Birmingham
   police I chose nothing, absolutely nothing but saving my own behind.

   I've never uttered a word to anyone about this, but I suspect that I am
not the only
   veteran of nothing. Presented with a bounty of opportunities to stand
for something, we
   were afraid to risk our safety and security for something greater than
ourselves. We
   can't even say we chose the path of least resistance. We chose no path
at all.

   I have never admitted these fantasies to my students. And I have
resisted the
   temptation to embellish on a glorious past when I never lived one. But I
do understand,
   and hope others will understand, the powerful pull one feels to create a
past of courage
   and commitment. In the end, though, there is no getting around it: We
balked when
   others didn't. We are veterans of nothing.

   The writer teaches sociology and media studies at the City University of
New
   York. He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune