Vietnam

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run,
but only one receives the prize?
So run that you may obtain it.
(1 Cor 9:24)

Vietnam

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the oldest books on my bookshelf is L.E. Moore’s Elementary Aviation, which teaches pilots the rudiments of navigation, such as flying on instruments, meteorology, and radio navigation.  I studied this book with great interest in Junior High School because I wanted to attend the Air Force Academy and become a pilot. When I learned that my eyesight was not good enough to qualify for pilot’s training, I joined a Sea Explorer’s unit and set my sights on the Naval Academy. My interest in the academies continued into high school where I began running with the cross country team (1970) after learning that cadets were expected to be athletes and the military had physical training requirements.

My fascination with all things military was obvious to my friends. One friend in high school, having run into me at a scout camporee, nicknamed me “the General” and, when he learned that I had joined the Sea Explorers, he revised my nickname to be “the Admiral”. In keeping with my nickname, for two summers in a row, I worked as an aquatics instructor at Camp Ross, one of the six camps at Goshen Scout Camps, which meant that I learned to row, canoe, and sail well enough to teach others. In like manner, I also attended seamanship classes offered for Sea Explorers on Saturday mornings at the Navy Yard in Washington DC.

I am not sure exactly when my doubts about the wisdom of pursuing a career in the military began to seep in. My Dad, who had attended the reserved officer training corps (ROTC) and served in Korea, used to refer to the pilot’s job as being a kind of bus service in the sky. While he never really supported my goal of being a pilot nor my interest later in music, he also never really said what I should do—that was something I needed to sort out on my own.

My own doubts about the military began to surface in watching the evening news. Video clips from Vietnam dominated the evening news for years on end, but progress in ending the war seemed illusive. World War II lasted for five years and involved battles all over the world so why did this little “police action” in Vietnam take so long and involve no serious progress after years of effort? The explanations seemed inadequate while the nightmare of modern war began to seep in—it was hard to reconcile the carnage on the evening news with explanations given. Why the massacre at Mi Lai?[1] Why the summary execution of a Viet Cong prisoner?[2] The images on the news were shocking; provocative; un-American.

Containing communism was the explanation for the war that made political sense because we thought of communism as bad, even if what that meant was unclear. We had no idea, for example, that communism was officially atheistic and openly persecuted Christians, although we had a pretty good idea that communism was a thin veil over totalitarianism—a “dictatorship of the proletariat”. Defending South Vietnam from a communist takeover was therefore consistent with the Christian concept of a just war. However, the images of the war seen on the television news seemed inconsistent with that concept. To my eighteen year old eyes, indiscriminate bombing, routine use of napalm, and relocation of civilians appeared shocking; provocative; un-American.

Although my questions about the Vietnam War already colored my thinking in 1968 when I campaigned, like my parents, for Richard Nixon because of his plan to the end war, these questions did not affect my attitude about military service or the Naval Academy until around 1971, which was my junior year in high school. In high school, I read authors, like Thoreau and Faulkner, who inspired me to think for myself, but the disconnect between my Christian faith and my aspirations to become a military officer were also beginning to emerge. This disconnect came to a head on August 4, 1972 I wrote the following to my draft board:

I can not fight in a war because as a Christian my highest duty is to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. I believe that life is the sacred gift of God which is to be honored and respected by all men. I believe that every man has a constructive contribution to make to humanity and that each man has the right to fulfill this destiny. I believe there is a beauty in all life and that we should use love, concern, and non-violent methods to solve our conflicts. I believe all men are of one indivisible whole and that each man’s life is important to the life of the whole. I must live in peace to uphold my faith.

I wrote as a pacifist because I did not understand “just war” theory, which better reflected my true feelings. I was not opposed to a just war, but Vietnam did not appear to be a just war. Ironically, the highly principled image that I had of military officers was also inconsistent with the image of Vietnam that appeared on the evening news, but how do you write that in an application to your draft board?

My draft board responded my application and brief essay by classifying me as I-0, which exempted me from military service, but required that I take the usual military medical examination and that I find alternative service to perform, if and when my number was called. In the fall of 1972, I took my medical examination in Indianapolis where in a room filled with several hundred registrants I was the only one classified I-0 which was obvious because I was asked to stand up alone in front of everyone and, in front of everyone, they told me that I did not need to answer form questions about my affiliations.

During the fall, I  wrote to public interest research groups around the country inquiring about job prospects that might satisfy my alternative service requirement. One group in Baltimore, Maryland, responded to my inquiry, but none was ultimately needed because the Vietnam War was declared over on December 31, 1972. My draft number—13—was never called. Because numbers up to 153 had been called in the previous year, I took the war’s end as God’s gracious provision.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_Lai_Massacre.

[2] https://cherrieswriter.wordpress.com/2015/08/03/the-story-behind-the-famous-saigon-execution-photo.

REFERENCES

Faulkner, William. 2011. A Fable (Orig Pub 1955). New York: Vintage International.

Moore, L.E. 1943. Elementary Aviation. Boston: D.C. Heath and Company.

Thoreau, Henry David. 1965. Walden and Civil Disobedience. New York: Harper and Row Publishers (Harper Classic).

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2 Comments

  1. I did find it interesting that I too went to Parkdale (77), worked at Camp Ross as an aquatics instructor (abt 74) and have also found a conflict with war and my faith in Jesus.

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