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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The Camera

ShipOfFools_web_10042015Trust in the LORD with all your heart,
and do not lean on your own understanding.

(Prov. 3:5)

The Camera

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

At age fourteen in the fall of 1967, I began carrying the Daily News to earn money to attend Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico [1] . Because the guys I knew with daily routes seemed older and tougher than me, I feared that I could not handle a daily route and continued to deliver the Prince George’s Post (a weekly paper) as a backupthe Daily News was a serious paper. Not knowing the cost of the camp and buying the required gear—a fancy backpack, a larger canteen, a compass, and a lot of little things—that I did not own, I also feared that I would not earn enough money. In the end, my fears were exaggerated—I earned more than enough to pay for the ticket and the equipment. In fact, I had enough money left over that I was able to buy a range-finder, 35 mm camera—just like my Dad’s.

This camera was neat, but it had smaller aperture and better winding mechanism than my Dad’s camera.  A smaller aperture—1.7 mm verses 2.2 mm—allowed taking sharper pictures. The lever-action, film winding mechanism was faster than the older method which relied on twisting a knob with your index finger and thumb—it was tedious to twist film.

Film—1968 was all about film.

Video clips of Vietnam entered our living room every evening at 6 p.m. On the news, we saw the bodies being displayed, villages being burned, GIs fighting gun battles, and Green Berets jumping out of helicopters in rice paddies. At the time, it all seemed as normal as Hamburger Helper and Jello pudding.

Normal was shattered when the Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive [2] in January. By March President LBJ [3] was quoting William Tecumseh Sherman: “If nominated, I will not run; if elected, I will not serve.” [4] His March 31 speech shocked everyone and transformed a sleepy presidential election into a horse race. It did not, however, end the war.

Tet exposed American military invincibility as a myth—right there on the evening news. The aura of victory in the Second World War finally faded flat—no one repeated the words, but the images were plain and clear and obvious. GIs died every night on television in a war that would not end and could not be won in the neat little box it had been made for it. No one in authority admitted the obvious truth so the fighting continued.

Television coverage of the war fascinated me: I watched every war movie available and aspired to becoming a fighter pilot.  During those days, I studied aviation, howto books on flying, and learned navigation—especially map reading. But I became increasingly conflicted between my ambitions to become a pilot and my religious beliefs—why did the United States care about Vietnam?  The futility of the war grew more obvious every day—if Vietnam was important why was the military restricted from pulling out all the stops?  If it was a just war, why were religious leaders protesting it?

I could not vote in 1968, but I handed out flyers at the county fair in Upper Marlboro for Richard Nixon—the peace candidate who had a secret plan to end the war. We were so excited, so proud that Nixon picked our Governor, Ted Agnew [5], as his running mate. It was thrilling to see Agnew with the President on the news.

With my new camera, in my own way I felt like a television journalist. My creative interest was people; I mostly took candid shots of friends and family, and mostly in black and white. I loved to develop my own film, cropping and enhancing my photographs in the darkroom.

One exception to my focus on photographing people was my fascination with open windows. Many of my photographs featured windows open to the sunlight and green oaks outside our church.  Open windows symbolized freedom and I felt closer to God in the great outdoors—hiking and camping, even in the dead of winter.

Sammi noticed my interest in photography.

Sammi invited me to photograph THE annual youth group retreat in June. It was after the church strawberry festival and after school let out at a camp with cabins and bunk beds on the Chesapeake bay. I had a job—I had to bring plenty of color film (black and white would not do) and I had to know what and who and when to photograph—because I was the official retreat photographer.

Against this backdrop, photographing Philmont became less important. I remember Philmont—not for the pictures, not for the bears, not for the sore feet, but for a radio broadcast from the moon on July 20th. We listened from the steps of a ranger station on top of a mountain in New Mexico. When astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took small steps in a big way.[6]

That I remember.

 

[1] http://www.scouting.org/Philmont.aspx.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tet_Offensive (January 30, 1968).

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_presidential_election,_1968 (LBJ withdraws March 31, 1968).

[4] http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/w/williamtec101113.html#xu80Y4iWW2KgAcXj.99

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spiro_Agnew.

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moon_landing (July 20, 1968).

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