Portland, OR, USA
What did the Vietnam War mean to me? I'm glad you asked it has been a big influence on my life.
I am 30 years. My father and mother married in 1966, my father a young Marine Corps captain, my mother a sweet beauty from Southeastern Oklahoma. Neither of them knew much about the world, although my mother protested the war in Vietnam early on.
My father went to Vietnam in 1967 and stayed, flying F6s over the landscape, for a year and a half. He describes the time on the ground as air-conditioned (officer's quarters) with lots of time for sleeping. (Funny, my friend who served in Desert Storm said something similar.) When in the air, he enjoyed the speed and the skill, the incredible highs of the sky. One day the cockpit closed on him and he was sent with broken ribs and purple eyes to Japan to recuperate.
While he was there, a geisha took him to the Hiroshima atomic bomb museum and left him for two hours. He confronted the effects of war on the ground firsthand for the first time. He returned to Vietnam and finished his tour. When he got home, my parents had me, my father left the Corps, and they returned to Oklahoma, where my mother worked and my father went to university to study political science.
He became involved with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), traveling to Washington D.C. to testify before Congress and to Paris to speak at the peace talks there. In 1971 my sister was born. In 1972's "Hearts and Minds," a documentary about the war, he sat with his Irish afro — he talked with his hands and cried thinking of the exploding shrapnel bombs he'd dropped on men and women and children. About the same time, he became one of the Tinker Seven, jailed for 6 months for blocking the entrance of a large Air Force Base with their bodies. My parents divorced a year or so later. (One question stayed with me for years: whether my parents would have split had the war in Vietnam not created such a radical gap in experience. Possibly.)
My father was an occasional presence in my life as a child, but a strong one. He spent some wild years in San Francisco and then, as many vets did, went to the land. He bought a piece in Oklahoma and started a farm, began building his own house while living in a tent. He and his partner had a child, his first son, and one week later he was busted. He was growing marijuana.
He came back to his farm, was met with rifles, beaten and taken to jail again. His partner and week- old son made it out of the state and he served 9 months in Danbury Federal Prison in Connecticut. A picture of him taken shortly after his release shows a changed man, a bony face with dark eyes. He changed his name, abandoning the wilder Randy for the first name given on his birth certificate, Jon.
The Vietnam War in my family's history has been about ambiguities: that warfare by its very nature causes good people to commit destructive, violent acts; that authorities must be questioned; that the status quo is never unmovable. America gave my father a youth of adventure, involvement, dissension, horror, activism, and success (the war did end in 1975 after all). He passed on to me an idealism about the necessity to fight aggressive militarism, in whatever guise. I believe that I will see the end of America's current military-industrial war, the Drug War.