I have just read a mea culpa by Vietnam War protestor, novelist and poet, Pat Conroy, who possesses the literary skills to express what I am willing to bet many other older American males, his former brothers at the barricades, also feel, but lack the skills and the honesty to articulate. It is left to men like the politically born again David Horowitz and novelist Conroy to speak for these old troupers of the Left's long-haired legions, to reveal their long hidden recognition that they were possibly misguided in their protesting but more often than most will ever admit, motivated more by fear of serving in combat than by any sense of moral/political rectitude.
For that reason this is an issue that reverberates only within the ranks of male protestors of that era. For the braless, hygiene and make-up challenged young women of the movement, there existed no threat of death or disfigurement in combat, so the purity of their motives is questionable only in the intellectual, not the moral sense. They may have been naïve fools but they weren't hiding a blushing personal cowardice behind the skirts of world socialism. This then, is an issue of character only for these now old, greying men who, like Conroy, must eventually face the moral consequences of their actions in those turbulent days.
As someone who, like most of us, has experienced events in my life where I now wish that I had shown more moral and physical courage, more honesty, and most importantly, more unquestioning love and understanding of family, I know how those failures live with you long after the memories of trying to do so many things right have dimmed. Many of my lapses involved nothing more than minor events where I failed to speak up, or stand up and be counted, or even stand up and be knocked down; but regardless of their minor nature, it is these life events that forever remain active in my psyche. In my mid-sixties now, I have learned all too well that it's not the fights you won or even the fights you lost that keep niggling away at the edges of your conscience: it's the fights you failed to fight when you knew damned well that you should.
Deceased author John D. MacDonald, who wrote the wonderful Travis McGee mystery series, once explained through his fictional hero, McGee, the way to make correct moral decisions and it is a simple wisdom that has stayed in my brain, but not always exemplified by my behavior, through the remainder of my life. It is nothing more than this: do the hard thing. When faced with tough choices, look to that course of action which is the one you want least to follow because it appears to be the most difficult for you; it may hurt personally, but almost always, it is the right course for you to follow for the good of others.
My belief is that a lot of Vietnam War protestors were rightfully fearful of the physical perils of combat, as were all those of us who chose to serve there; but where we tamped down those fears and continued the mission, they wrongfully used a contrived moral outrage against the war as convenient cover to conceal their cowardice. To buttress that theory one simply has to look at how the huge, angry protests diminished, and ultimately disappeared in a remarkably short time once Congress ended the military draft. As young, draft-age men, all those angry protestors were able at the time to righteously rationalize away their true motivation until Congress stole their alibi, and only now, with the awareness and self-accounting that comes with age, are they, like Pat Conroy, facing the truth of their personal cowardice. Sadly, too late, they have come to realize the truth of Conroy's most perceptive quote:
"America is good enough to die for even when she is wrong."
I believe those are words worthy of being carved into every war memorial in America. And I am thankful that I and all my brothers and sisters at arms who served then, and those who serve now, possessed then and now, but even in our callow youth, the intrinsic wisdom to recognize that truth. All Americans must die, but those who understand this fundamental reality about this very unique nation will die with their chins held just a few degrees higher than those who didn't realize it when they should have, but now do, like Conroy and his legions, and sadly, those young people of today who still do not.
2d Bn, 327th Parachute Infantry Regiment
101st Airborne Division