"Whatever crushes individuality is despotism, no matter what name it is called." ~ John Stuart Mill
Soldier: Just Say No, I Won't Go
A phony war, a dangerous assignment, a complaisant nation. And I was caught in the middle. Tough being a teenage male during the largest build-up since Pearl Harbor , during the escalation of Vietnam in 1968. Tougher still not being comfortable with the choices and options. You see, I graduated from high school that year and, being an average student without much family means and the draft board breathing down my neck, I thought it expedient to consider my few choices. (a) Enroll in college, take out student loans, and hope my number wasn't chosen. (b) Run away to Canada which, conveniently, was right next door to Michigan . (c) Join the Marines with a buddy (whose platoon would suffer 80% casualties). Or (d) perhaps join the Air Force since the Coast Guard, which actually guarded the country, required a year wait.
Every creature, no matter how simple or na've, yearns for self-preservation. Military leaders know, however, that impressionable, easily intimidated boys were invented to fill the ranks of soldiers. Cannon fodder, they are called. Presidents and generals depend on it. You see, very few 30 or 40 year old men would ever willingly rush to join the ranks, and become moving targets, unless their country was absolutely positively imperiled. And Vietnam , no matter how much propaganda appeared in the media, generated there by an ignorant or calculating Pentagon, the White House and Congress--along with pandering pundits--hardly imperiled the contiguous United States .
Still, thousands of American men were fed into the maw of the meat grinder, between 1964-1973, to serve the needs and greeds of the war industry and their paid spokesmen in Washington . And so I found myself in uniform at Lackland Air Force base in San Antonio , Texas, in the fall of 1968 . I was an 'airman basic,' as lost as Forrest Gump yet hopeful I had made the right choice. I was still convinced my recruiter was truthful when he said I scored high in every field of the Air Force test, and would be placed in a technical field and--I hoped--far from a war I scarcely believed in. I was 18.
Imagine my surprise, however, after completing basic training, to read official orders that I was assigned to Security Police school, right there on Lackland AFB. Most security policemen were eventually sent to Vietnam to secure the perimeters and guard the 'Bufs,' B-52s or "Big Ugly Fuckers" as they were called. So all of my calculation, whether on moral grounds or self-preservation, had been thwarted. Angered at what I saw as a betrayal, I took off from Lackland AFB that very same evening in a stolen car and headed for Canada .
Growing up I had always been an immature hothead. Angered at the evident fraud of the Vietnam war my entire senior year, I resented the lies of the administration and, now, apparently the Air Force. Of course, no promises had been made by the recruiter, and the military always selects a slot into which a recruit is indifferently pushed. Yet here I was, speeding towards Canada in a stolen Camaro on Halloween, with 50 bucks in my pocket and no idea in the world where I was heading and what I would do once I got there. The closer I got to Canada the colder it got and the more indecisive I became. I almost froze at night, curled up in the back seat of that car, but I kept thinking of options and choices.
I had a LOT of time to think, and even more time to rethink. Rethinking is the thought process we should have used if we had half a brain at the moment of our anger. I could have easily said to my new commander, 'No thank you, sir; I cannot be a cop, I'm a kleptomaniac'--and probably gotten out of that assignment the first couple of times I 'borrowed' something. You see, the upper echelon, the officers, are all in the same shit the enlisted men are in. They have to make do with the men they have, but they always have the flexibility of sending a square peg misfit recruit somewhere else as an option. I could have gone on a three day spree in San Anton and come back to the base bleary-eyed and looking like Jack Nicholson. Sayonara security police training. I could have said I was in love with a boy but that tack took a lot of balls or bullshit in 1968. I could have acted crazy. Funny how the sanest thing to do when trapped by the military is to act crazy. I could have wandered off, like Ferdinand the bull, to smell the flowers, but always come back, happy-go-lucky and contrite before they reported me AWOL. Farewell to arms, farewell to future perimeters to be guarded. And, as a last resort, I could have honestly tried honesty, said I didn't support the war in Vietnam, and used the effective strategy of Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener, when he said: 'I prefer not,' whenever asked--or ordered--to do something he didn't want to do.
To paraphrase Paul Simon, there must be '50 ways to refuse your assignment.' For a soldier with a conscience there are probably a hundred. No soldier can be sent where he chooses not to go. That's the wonderful thing about fighting for a free society. If it is TRULY free, then a soldier has the freedom to choose whether to fight or flee. A phony war against a country that didn't attacks us is pretext, in the eyes of God and Man and even madmen, for saying 'I prefer not.' Threats and intimidation and peer pressure cannot sway an honest man, nor can dire predictions of one's future status in the so-called 'free' society. Jobs and self-respect await the soldier who chooses not to do what he no longer believes in.
Anyway, my father had predicted I'd end up in jail, and damn if he wasn't right. After driving three days and 1,500 miles I rethought my indirection and headed back to the base, turned myself in and was tossed into the military stockade. There I was guarded by the same sort of cops I would have become had I continued my training as a complaisant cog. But now I was damaged goods, like Arlo Guthrie in the movie ' Alice 's Restaurant,' deemed unworthy of being a security policeman. Thirty-five days later I was reassigned to the motor pool as a vehicle operator. Someone upstairs, undoubtedly with a sense of humor in Administration or Assignments, must have decided I had vast, untapped potential as a driver.