I’m a bonafide Baby Boomer. I was born at the beginning of the Baby Boomer years. People in my age group were affected, and maybe even traumatized, by certain events that defined a great deal of how we see the world. Many of us were raised according to the recommendations of Dr. Spock. I know that I was. My mother often mentioned how he would suggest dealing with particular situations. We all remember crouching under our desks every Friday at noon in a drill designed to keep us safe in the event of a nuclear attack by the Russians. We remember Nikita Khrushchev taking off his shoe and banging it on a table at the United Nations and promising to destroy our country from within. The way we learned in school was reimagined after the Russians launched Sputnik. We are all able to vividly recall exactly where we were and what we were doing when John Kennedy was assassinated. The sound of the cadence of the drums at his funeral march still ring eerily in our heads. We saw the Civil Rights movement changing our country for the better and wished that we had been old enough to travel to Alabama to take part in marches of civil disobedience. Perhaps more than any other event, however, we were forever marked by the Vietnam War, a conflict that somehow both defines and divides us to this very day.
My generation paid little attention to what was happening in Southeast Asia up until I was in high school. We had been much more enthralled with the space program and the progress that we were making in journeying from our planet into the universe. Suddenly, in spite of our former ignorance, we began to hear more about a civil war in a faraway land and a supposed fight against Communism. We learned about the Domino Theory, a belief that if one country in Asia fell under the domination of communism others would follow and the boogie man of communism would be banging on our own doors. None of it had particular meaning for us until President Johnson began increasing our involvement in that conflict, and because there was a draft system all of the young men my age had to register for the possibility of involuntary involvement in the military.
By the time I was a senior in high school there were hundreds of thousands of US troops fighting in Vietnam. Some of the members of classes ahead of mine had already gone to war and a few of them had died. It was as though the world had suddenly blown up and anti-war fervor began to overtake the land. Some saw those who did everything possible to avoid the war as traitors and instigators. Others called soldiers who served in Vietnam baby killers. The evening news brought scenes of violence and bloodshed into our homes each evening. It was impossible not to have an opinion regarding the volatile political situation, and it was my generation that was caught in the big middle of a war being run by old men using young boys as canon fodder.
Of course that war did not end well. The United States eventually had to leave Vietnam without victory, an outcome that the French and British had predicted, possibly because they had endured similar situations in the past. North Vietnam took over the governing of the entire country. Dominoes did not begin to fall all over Asia. The world eventually settled down and forgot most of what had happened back then, but those of us who were intimately part of that history have never forgotten. We were all changed in one way or another by the Vietnam debacle. We have been unfairly judged on both sides of the debate by our elders and our children. We were teenagers and young twenty somethings who were asked to sacrifice for a cause that we now know even the Secretary of Defense did not believe would end well.
We began as advisors to the government of South Vietnam, a political machine that was at best riddled with problems and at worst was filled with graft. The conflict was a civil war among people attempting to decide their own fate. Our interference was never taken well and the anger over our involvement only grew when we appeared to be invading the country rather than just offering suggestions. The United States was so fearful of Communism that it allowed itself to become more and more entrenched until it ultimately appeared to be an actual war between North Vietnam and the United States. The truth was that the more we bombed and threw napalm, the greater became the distrust and dislike of our country. Sadly, the young soldiers who were the same age as I was became victims not just of the horrors of war, but also a backlash against them from their own fellow citizens. They were caught in a controversial middle ground that was quite unfair.
At the same time those who protested the war were accused of being disrespectful and traitorous, but in truth they were not unpatriotic. In fact they demonstrated love for their country in voicing their concerns, most of which have been shown to have been correct in retrospect. Private correspondence between Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and President Lyndon Johnson has revealed that there was indeed great worry that the war was being fought in vain and that our youth were being wasted on the battlefield. How awful to think that so many died when they needn’t have. How terrible to realize that the divisions that tore open a national wound should never have happened. It is detestable that the war continued mostly because nobody wanted to admit that they had been so wrong.
I was recently listening to an elder statesman who participated in both World War II and Vietnam. He felt that the most unfair outcome of Vietnam was the idea that the generation that fought against Germany and Japan was somehow more noble than those who went to Vietnam or their counterparts who stayed home and mounted resistance. He noted that we attempted to fight the two wars in the same manner when it was obvious that they required different tactics. He also defended the soldiers of Vietnam in noting that they were as good and courageous as their forebears had ever been. The only difference was that the leaders of World War II set up plans that worked, while the leaders of the Vietnam War made one mistake after another. He insisted that it is totally unfair to look upon the Baby Boomers as somehow less patriotic than their parents were because the circumstances were so very different.
We Baby Boomers were never the same after that war. It defined us in uncomplimentary ways. It was used to turn us against one another. We were pawns who have never quite been understood by either our elders or our children. It was run by a man who had been a systems analyst and who believed that it would be possible to create battle plans based on data such as tallying the numbers of those who died on each side. He neglected to take into account aspects of human nature until it was far too late. The entire rationale was built upon a false premise that left our country damaged. We are still attempting to reconcile the differences that tore us apart back then. As for the Baby Boomers, we have become symbols of failure and lack of character when we were not the ones in charge. We were simply the group that was used so that politicians would not lose face or power.
If there is one dream that I have it is not so much that we Baby Boomers will one day be vindicated, but that no other generation will be put through such a horrible introduction to adulthood ever again. Those who wield authority must always be conscious of the human cost of their decisions, and have enough moral character to be certain that no group will be so badly abused. If we are one day able to admit openly to past mistakes and reflect on how to avoid them in the future, then the sacrifices of so many Baby Boomers will not have been totally in vain.