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The Last Thing We Need

In March of 1969, I was in my final few months of high school. I had no idea what I was going to do come June, nor even September, when many of my friends were heading off to universities. My parents couldn't pay for me to go away to school, and the assumption was that I would go to community college. I don’t even know if that much was in my consciousness in that late March, just barely spring.

What I remember most from that time is learning that a boy who had graduated two years before me had been killed in Vietnam. I didn’t know him, but other kids I knew did. That made him one of us in my mind, and that was the moment when those nightly television broadcasts about the war became real. Up to that moment, we were all just aimless kids. A war was the last place any of us needed to be.

Two summers ago, I found the name of the boy from my high school at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.

I did go to community college in the fall, but I didn't know how to be a college student yet. I was young, unfocused, and depressed. A man had walked on the moon that summer, but it was Vietnam that hung over all of us. Boys my age were praying that their draft lottery numbers wouldn't come up. They were all fledgling humans as I was, and getting on a plane to fly across the world to participate in something none of us understood seemed frightening. Some went willingly because their dads and grandfathers had been soldiers and it was expected they would follow suit. Other boys were joining voluntarily because they believed they had a better chance of avoiding conflict if they did that. One of my oldest friends at the time, a boy with whom I’d gone to anti-war protest marches all that fall, finally gave in and enlisted. I think the anxiety of waiting for the inevitable just seemed like too much. Decades later, he died of a cancer caused by exposure to Agent Orange.

I'm fairly certain that no one who pushed us further into the Vietnam War thought for a moment about any of these kids when they made those decisions to bomb Cambodia or Hanoi. Our sense then was that they thought instead about world domination, control of resources, and their own political futures. They used patriotism as a romantic ploy to lure followers. Today, our newest war seems like a perfect way to divert attention from things like impeachment hearings.

As most people my age did, I grew up reading history books that were filled with stories of war. It wasn’t until Vietnam touched home, though, that I began to realize the audacity and selfishness of countries sacrificing their young, strong citizens to demonstrate their power in foreign lands. After Vietnam, I read a lot about that war—from the perspectives of people who had led our engagement and later regretted it, and those who had been sent to battle themselves. The complexity of how it began and how it grew is more than I could ever quite understand, and I don't think I'm alone.

I feel the same way now, as we find ourselves on what feels like the brink of another war. I think of young men and women who are students at the community college where I work—many of whom are veterans suffering from PTSD after serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. I think of the other young people who could be faced with the draft or with volunteering like my friends were. I think of men and women in Iran, too, and other Middle Eastern countries, now faced with an increase in the violence that already threatens them daily.

This is no good, any of it. These are the decisions of people who will never see a battle, never fear for their lives or the lives of their families. These are the actions of individuals who are thinking instead of some strange legacy that they believe exists for them if they use a war to prove their own strength. Two summers ago, I found the name of the boy from my high school at the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. It seemed surreal—as if he and every person behind every name was a pawn for some crazy game played by impulsive politicians.

As far past that late March, 1969, day as we are today, I recognize the feeling I’m having now as our president unilaterally involves us in another war. This sense of familiarity is not a comfortable one and I am not in any way impressed with those who believe war is the answer. People are hungry and homeless, the environment is in trouble, health care is out of the reach of millions, and racism is still rampant. Another war is the last thing we ever need.

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