Amoeba’s Lorica: 1-H

They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down. They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. They did not submit to the obvious alternative, which was simply to close the eyes and fall. So easy, really. Go limp and tumble to the ground and let the muscles unwind and not speak and not budge until your buddies picked you up and lifted you into the chopper that would roar and dip its nose and carry you off to the world. A mere matter of falling, yet no one ever fell. It was not courage, exactly; the object was not valor. Rather, they were too frightened to be cowards. – Tim O’Brien, “The Things They Carried”, 1990.

On the 29th of March, 2023, there came to pass one worldwide and five USA national commemorations, observed by almost nobody. The events included World Piano Day, celebrated on the 88th day of the year annually – because there are 88 keys on the standard piano. The three pedals protested their exclusion until it was pointed out that their Day would then land, in most years, on the first of April, which would be foolish, so the pedals relented. There was also National Mom and Pop Business Owners Day, National Lemon Chiffon Cake Day, and National Cake Decorating Day (presumably not limited to lemon chiffon cakes).

And, there was National First Great Humiliation Day – officially, Vietnam War Veterans Day – when the Untied States of America, facing a resolute army of communists in Indochina and a far more formidable force of Baby Boomers headquartered in New York and California, pulled the last of its troops from South Vietnam and brought them home to a criminal’s welcome. There would be many more humiliations to come: Iran, New York City, Iraq, and Afghanistan, with Ukraine and Taiwan on the horizon, the Crusader States Israel on the verge of national suicide, and China threatening to bury US with the products of its own cupidity. But the First is arguably the Greatest, as its battles are still being fought on the streets and networks of these Untied States, while a peaceful and prosperous communist Vietnam looks on, shakes its head, and guides tourists through its museums of Yankee atrocities.

In 1971, Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba, being of an age to do so, and disinclined to make the noise about it that his classmates considered obligatory (YFNA has mentioned his contrarian tendencies in this space, a time or three), registered for the Selective Service – the military draft.

As he was headed to college – the first in his family to do so, for all the good it wound up doing – the Draft Board (for which his own grandmother worked) classified him 1-H, the famous “student deferment”, to last until he graduated from college or turned 24, whichever came first.

He joined 300 fellow 1-H designates at the college of his choice, who mostly honored their privilege by growing their hair long, smoking dope, screwing around, and getting into bar fights with townies, most of whom spent their days on the unemployment lines created when the environmental activists, supported by these college freaks, shut down the mills on which the non-college citizenry depended for a living, and offered nothing but scoldings in compensation – thereby creating fertile breeding grounds for the likes of Paul LePage (local) and Donald Trump (national).

In 1975, the gravy train derailed. The student deferment was abolished, and former 1-H holders were reclassified 1-A (fully eligible for the killing fields) and subject to Selection if their lottery number came up. There was weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, there were threats and promises (“If my number comes up, write to me in Canada”). The same threats and promises that college students had been making for a decade, and they all sounded tired. Especially since US troops had been pulled from Vietnam, and with South Vietnam collapsing and Nixon gone from the US Presidency, the chances of a renewed US troop commitment (and, therefore, of a large draft callup) were tiny. Indeed, the college classes of 1974 and 1975, at least at this college, deprived of the causes that had driven their immediate predecessors, and, unlike their successors, unwilling to adopt hedonism for its own sake instead of as a countercultural statement, meandered aimlessly through their junior and senior years. YFNA told his classmates, to their horror (to the extent that they had the energy for it), “I’m not volunteering; any army with me in it has got more problems than it can handle. But if my number comes up, I’m going.”

He did not go. In 1975, those holding lottery numbers 1-50 were subject to callup. His was 305. The following year, the draft was suspended, and as of 2023 has not been reinstated. Instead of boot camp, YFNA wound up in graduate school.

On the 29th of March, 2023, commemorators of [ahem] Vietnam War Veterans Day gathered at the West Hawaii Veterans Cemetery and, in a solemn ceremony, unveiled a memorial to the war that never was.

Speaker after speaker sang the praises of those who had commissioned and executed the memorial, organized the event (important components of which would be completed “at a later date”), and secured the participants – including the band of which YFNA is a member, which was asked to play, at midmorning on a non-holiday weekday, a whole three weeks in advance – on “such short notice.” (29 March 2023 was the 50th anniversary of final US troop withdrawal from Vietnam.)

Speaker after speaker – veterans bent and bowed by the things they carried – talked about their experiences as the embodiment of the “universal soldier“. Blamed, dissed, shamed to silence, then ignored and shunned by the 1-H Baby Boomer crowd whose aversion to messy service turned into a highly profitable (for them) national movement, a crowd who, a few short years after the unification of Vietnam under the communists, abandoned all pretense and chased openly and wholeheartedly after the almighty dollar, and the social dominance it assured, which was their true target from the first.

(At one of the few college reunions YFNA ever attended, he asked a classmate who had been vocally “counterculture” and anti-Vietnam, “How could you abandon the cause?” The response: “What part of money do you not understand?” We lost contact.)

Speaker after speaker referred to the release from jail that the ceremony, and the memorial that was the centerpiece of the ceremony, gave them – as the aging Baby Boomers, more and more willingly and greedily, extolled the service unto death provided to them and their objectives that they themselves vocally denied to their own elders.

One speaker, barely intelligible from age and emotion, told a story that, he said, had only been related once since his return to Boomer America from Vietnam. A company of soldiers got caught in a firefight – an ambush, which had wiped out another company and into which, thanks to poor intelligence and communications, the second company blundered unawares. A soldier rescued two of his mates but received a mortal wound in the process. His squad sergeant was called over.

“I’m cold and scared”, the soldier confessed. The sergeant offered such comfort as he could, struggling to do it right. Then, the soldier asked after Nelson and the other man who got away thanks to the wounded grunt’s efforts. “They’re fine”, the non-com responded.

The dying universal soldier then said, “Tell them that I served, and that I made a difference.”

National First Great Humiliation Vietnam War Veterans Day shares the 29th of March annually with decorated lemon chiffon cakes, mom and pop business owners, and (except on leap years) pianos. Plus one more.

Smoke and Mirrors Day.

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