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|| On timidity, history and Vietnam
In my view, President Strider's remark reveals a personal timidity, which I think reflects the timidity of Colby as an institution at the time. Looking back, I can hardly blame Mr. Strider for keeping his thoughts private. I was certainly a rather timid soul myself, though deeply troubled by that timidity and by the events swirling around us. But I am also troubled by what it says about an institution supposedly devoted to the pursuit of the truth, that the president felt he could not share his personal beliefs on one of the most important issues of the day. I think it would have made a tremendous difference if he had been willing to share his personal views.
I participated in a number of anti-war demonstrations and activities, but I would hardly call myself an activist. Still, one afternoon in April 1972, the tide of events flowed over me and I found myself sitting in the ROTC offices chanting and listening while President Strider and members of the administration delivered an ultimatum that we leave the premises by 5 p.m. If anything, I recall the tone of their remarks and their demeanor to be anything but sympathetic to our views. When the hour passed, I was among those who remained to defy the order. We stayed through the weekend. We slept on the floor and talked to anyone and everyone who stopped by, even joking with the ROTC commander. We talked mostly about peace and nonviolence. The only blemish on the weekend was a brick thrown through one of the windows.
On Sunday, it became known that anyone who remained on Monday morning would be arrested and suspended. About half of our group decided to leave before that hour, though most of us arrived at the building that morning and stood outside in solidarity as the Waterville police came and arrested our comrades.
In the aftermath, I was most disillusioned by the reactions of students and faculty members as I tried to collect signatures on a petition that requested leniency for the suspended students. I have no idea how many signatures I collected, but the outright hostility of some of my classmates stunned me. I was also dismayed that so many of my classmates simply did not want to get involved. I suppose that I expected more from the administration and from my classmates. I wanted something that approached greatness but got merely a reflection of my own ambivalence.
That weekend was, in many ways, one of my first tentative steps away from the timidity that had previously defined me. I was at least a bit player in the drama, and probably more observer than participant, but the heady rush of those times can still be intoxicating. The war itself has been over for a very long time. It is probably long past the time for rehashing it. It is certainly long past time for reliving it.
All around us there are issues of great importance, probably of greater importance than Vietnam ever was. But there are so many of them and they seem so overwhelming. There's nothing quite like the thought of being shipped to a strange foreign land and having your head blown off to focus your attention. We somehow need to focus our attention on the world as it is today and find ways to make it better. It's more complex and everything appears to be a shade of gray. And I still struggle with my timid nature and my own ambivalence about getting involved. For the students of today, I hope that Colby has outgrown its timid isolationism.
John Brassem '64 wrote poignantly in the summer issue of this magazine of his own experience in Vietnam, and in response to a Colby article about the anti-war movement on our campus, he asked the question: "Why not write about the Colby men who served their country?"
He perhaps has forgotten, or never saw, the spring 1988 issue of Colby. There, spread eloquently over five pages, are the stories of four Colby men who served their country in the most noble waythey gave their lives.
Robert M. Lloyd '68 wrote with great care and respect of James Shotwell '62, Robert "Mike" Ransom '68, Les Dickinson '67 and David Barnes '68. Rubbings of the name of each man from the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., were done by Lloyd himself and accompanied each story. This project sprang from a statement made by Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle, who, in his commencement address to the Colby Class of '87, claimed, in support of his contention that minorities and the poor fight this country's wars, that "no Colby graduate died in Vietnam."
While narrowly and technically correct, that comment struck a sorrowful place for many of us who attended Colby with these men who had had their Colby years disrupted by military service, served with honor and courage, and made the ultimate sacrifice.
Recalling Mike Ransom and Les Dickinson from my personal experience, I wrote a letter to this magazine reminding Barnicle and others of the loss that our Colby community had, in fact, suffered even though neither Les nor Mike were technically "graduates." Robert Lloyd, similarly touched with emotion, carried his concern much further by doing the rubbings and the painstaking research that resulted in the moving stories he told so well in these pages.
The strength of response to Barnicle's cynical statement (not the last time he would be troubled by his lack of homework) contributed, I am sure, to the belated but appropriate decision by the College to place a monument to the dead of the Vietnam and Korean wars on the lawn of Miller Library. I had the pleasure of being present at the dedication ceremony in June 1988 and was seated next to Mike Ransom's mother. During the ceremony, she turned to me and whispered: "Even after all these years, it still hurts."
It still hurts for all of us. But, in the instance I have described, we offered our respect and thanks to all who served by honoring these four men who served and did not return. I urge John Brassem and all alumni who wish to read of those who served to go back and read the stories of these men.
Messrs. Brassem and Bishop ("Letters," v. 89. no. 3) apparently fail to understand that it was the pro-war movement which supported unpopular governments around the world, ran covert illegal wars to support the quasi-legal conflict in Vietnam, and abandoned the loyal supporters of America after the final troop withdrawal. Mr. Brassem's implication that the anti-war movement opposed the Bill of Rights is almost laughable, not only because it's nonsense but also because subsequent revelations have shown the Pentagon and the FBI, not to mention the Nixon Administration, to be the ones who trampled on the first 10 Amendments.
Both writers confuse patriotism, which is defined as "devotion to one's country" (Webster's 7th Collegiate), with blind obedience to superiors. Such obedience can and did occur without regard for the morality or legality of their actions. Mr. Bishop's claim that the only Colby patriots were pro-war students (and, apparently, only males) shows his failure to understand the rights of Americans to support change in their own government.
Finally, I would ask Mr. Brassem why he feels it was acceptable for his cadre of veterans to "put that military portion of their lives behind them" but at the same time denounce anti-war activists for allegedly doing the same thing.
In almost any discussion of America's actions during the Vietnam era, opinions will run fast and often furious. Nothing I can say will change that. However, having flown 176 combat missions in that war, I have had to examine it very closely in order to come to terms with the arguments and actions of those Americans that were verbally and physically against it. Fortunately, my examination began well before my actual participation.
Some of the first questions I had asked myself, while waiting for the Strategic Air Command alert facility klaxon to announce that nuclear Armageddon may have just arrived, were:
1. Before America's involvement, why was what was happening in SEAsia happening?
I had recently flown 55 nuclear-armed, airborne alert missions during the real world, terrifying, Cuban Crisis. They lasted an average of 24 hours each and were still fresh in my memory, as they were in the minds of our national leaders. The initial situation in SEAsia did not call for chancing a nuclear war. However, when Fidel Castro had come to power in Cuba, no one ever suspected that within only a few years we could find ourselves on the very brink of such a calamity at the hands of a communist lawyer-cum-dictator. (At that time, most of the future anti-Vietnam War demonstrators had just graduated from tricycles to bicycles.)
Twice, while on ground alert, I had thought that the ultimate moment of human insanity had come as I sat at the end of the runway with engines running awaiting the final "Launch" message. (For those who have never experienced the feeling that accompanies that moment, there is no adequate explanation.) Suffice to say that almost any alternative, short of the dreaded "Red Dot-1" message, which still allowed individual liberty and conscience to prevail, was the better option.
Thus, when I had satisfied myself that I had the most accurate and reasonable answers to my basic questions, I had no hesitation about participating in my government's course of action. I was well aware of the potential consequences of inaction . . . complete and utter world-destroying insanity.
Today, whenever a discussion turns to Vietnam, I ask those involved what they know about the world situation before America's involvement there. Depending on their answers, I decide whether I should continue to participate in the discussion. Unless people know the accurate context in which the Vietnam War evolved and was fought, there can be little gained by rehashing the circumstances of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the subsequent consequences of our increased involvement and the horrifying results to those left behind because of our cowardly, immoral though politically expedient, hasty withdrawal from that part of the world.
Unfortunately, in recent years, even some of our Vietnam wartime civilian leaders have attempted to rewrite history and their biographies by joining hands with anti-war protestors. They accomplish this by misplacing their memories about the world situation before Vietnam and attempting to blame others for their own ill-informed beliefs, miscalculations and cover-ups of that contentious time. They all seem to ignore the fact that the military instrument of national policy should only be used when all other means have been exhausted to achieve the desired outcome. And once our elected officials have made the decision to employ that instrument, it should be left up to the military professionals and experts to say when the tasked goal has been achieved. Then, and only then, should the situation be turned back over to the civilian leadership. As I see it, the last time America did that was in World War II. Not even Desert Storm was permitted to be completed before the civilian leadership suddenly decided that they knew what was an appropriate conclusion to what they, and the United Nations, had been unable to accomplish before employing the effort and blood of the military.
Additionally, to those anti-Vietnam War campaigners who believe that their efforts hastened the end of the war, I can only recommend that they avail themselves of the history of the "Linebacker I and II Operations" in order to better understand what could have been done to end the war as early as 1965 if the military had been allowed to run the war free of civilian interference and direction. It took just 11 days of Linebacker to bring the North Vietnamese negotiators back to the Paris Peace Accords table. That accurate fact seems to get lost in much of the anti-war, self-congratulatory, rhetoric. Many of my B-52 comrades might have a different view of why the war ended. I feel sure that our POWs at the Hanoi Hilton did . . . and they were right in the middle of it, thousands of miles away from the draft card burnings, protests in the streets and Jane Fonda movies
In my humble opinion, the situation concerning America's greatness and leadership has only gone downhill from there. Our military has become a toy to be played with by inexperienced politicians and legal advisors who have never stood in Harm's Way or known the true Dogs of War. We do not allow politicians or lawyers to play doctor and perform brain surgery. Why do we allow them to suddenly play at being generals and admirals? Likewise, what qualified the dissident students to run the educational institutions when many of their fellow countrymen and women were sacrificing everything to maintain their liberty to peacefully protest? The world looks different to those who know that a world holocaust is only one Red Dot-1 message away.
John Brassem's suggestion that the magazine turn some attention to the Colby men (and women?) who served in Vietnam is an excellent one; I hope to see it happen. That service deserves to be honored, and their experience and perspectives merit at least as much attention as is given to those who sought to stop the war.
Where I part company with Mr. Brassem is in the ease with which he stereotypes Colby's Vietnam veterans as stout-hearted men who went on to live "happy and productive lives" and those Colby alumni who demonstrated against the war as "anti-war radicals," who, "when the war ended. . . . quickly became 'main stream' and now drive BMWs to their kid's soccer practice," having shirked an implied duty to "sav[e] the tens of thousands of innocent South Vietnamese people who lost their freedom or were summarily murdered because they believed in America."
Mr. Brassem's good-guy, bad-guy view of the world may be a comfort to him, but to me it is the same mentality that got us into and sustained the Vietnam debacle. We essentially invented South Vietnam as a political entity in 1954 to prevent a democratic election and to avoid the all-but-certain outcome: a government run by those who had succeeded in defeating the French. A democratically elected government there did not fit our global strategies.
It is, simply, nonsense to argue that the commitment of American citizens toward particular groups of Vietnamese should thereafter have been based on Mr. Brassem's view of which side committed more despicable acts during the war that followed. Anti-war protesters did not kill any Vietnamese; the U.S. military forces did. Only if we fall through the looking glass does it come out the other way around.
My time at Colby (1964-1970) went from the button-down to the unbuttoned. I've often talked about the amazing change in the place between my leaving in the spring of 1966 and my return in the fall of 1968. But what that change did not entail was any diminution of the honor, integrity and generosity of spirit that I found generally in Colby men and women. It saddens me that Mr. Brassem's letter suggests that he may never understand that.
This Grandson Was News
A careful research of Uncle John will show that he attended Freeport High School and Coburn Classical Institute and graduated from Colby in 1906. His subsequent major league baseball career and coaching career at Williams, Princeton and Duke are all well documented. There are two baseball fields named in his honor, one at Colby and the other at Duke University. For the even more careful researcher, it is interesting to discover that there is a third college baseball diamond named after Uncle John's nephew, Bobby Coombs, Bobby Coombs Field at Williams College. Uncle Bob Coombs graduated from Kennebunk High School in 1925 and Duke University in 1933, went on to play professional baseball for Philadelphia, New York and various minor league teams, and coached at Williams College for about 30 years.
Both are members of the Maine Baseball Hall of Fame. If John Coombs '97 is, indeed, Uncle John's secret great-grandson, I and other members of our family would certainly like to meet him!
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College Colby Magazine 4181
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