Ken Burns's "The Vietnam War" Brings It All Home for a Vietnam vet, Who Says It's Time To March Again

In January 1973 I marched at President Nixon’s second inaugural with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. I had been a Navy officer on board an aircraft carrier in the Tonkin Gulf. I had protested the war and had finally been honorably discharged.

That day, we formed up at the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery, which seemed appropriate given the number of American soldiers, sailors and airmen already killed in that senseless conflict, let alone the untold millions of Vietnamese.

When President Nixon ran for election in 1968, he said he had a plan to end the war. It proved illusory, and by the time he ran for reelection, more American servicemen had been killed than in all the years before he took office.

To say we formed up is a kind of misnomer. No one was in a marching mood, at least not in the traditional military sense. There were maybe 500 of us, veterans, wives, children, parents and in some cases widows of dead American servicemen. The uniform of the day was anything you wanted to wear, from military fatigues to coats and ties to rag-tag jeans and parkas.

It was cold and rainy, so everyone dressed warmly.

I had been against the war even before I joined the Navy, but I felt that it was my duty to serve when called upon. I didn’t want to go into the Army, and I didn’t want to go to jail or to Canada, so I decided on the Navy as a reasonable compromise. I could serve and yet not be directly involved in combat.

That too proved to be an illusion. As a junior officer on board the aircraft carrier, I was responsible for launching and recovering planes loaded with bombs. And those bombs were being dropped on targets in Vietnam, and many innocent civilians were being killed.

After a year in the Navy, I could no longer live with my cowardice. I applied for a discharge as a conscientious objector, something few in the Navy had done before me, but which several officers in both the Army and Air Force had done in years previous.

It was the toughest decision of my life. It went against the grain of what I was brought up to think—that part of the privilege of living in this country was fulfilling your obligations as a citizen, and one of those obligations was to serve in the military when necessary.

But the war to me was so clearly wrong, both politically and morally, that I felt I could no longer live with myself if I just silently went along. And every bomb that was dropped on Vietnam had my name on it, even though I was not flying the plane that dropped it.

My application for a discharge as a conscientious objector was treated gingerly by the Navy. I made it clear that I was not opposed to the military, but only to the war. The Navy had treated me well, and I respected those who served alongside me.

Finally, after months of hearings, I was given the opportunity to resign my commission. I think the Navy didn’t want the bad publicity that would have followed if I went public with my situation. I agreed to resign and was discharged.

But doing that was not enough. The war dragged on, and it only seemed right that when the chance came to make a larger statement, I should do it. So, when I heard that the Vietnam Veterans Against the War were marshalling their forces for a march on Washington, I drove down from New York.

We marched in silence across the bridge to the Lincoln Memorial. It was eerie. No one talked, there were no cell phones then and the only sound you heard was the thump-thump-thump of marching boots and shoes. Even the spectators on either side of the road watched in silence.

When we finally got to the other side, everyone dispersed and headed toward the reviewing stands that lined Pennsylvania Avenue. There were other protesters there that day, and as Nixon’s limousine drove down the street from his swearing-in at the Capitol, a barrage of fruit, eggs and other debris flew through the air.

It is now 2017, 44 years later, and I think back to that day often. Once again, we are mired in another senseless war, this time in Afghanistan, a war without end and a war without meaning. And once again, I find myself unable to sit idly by and do nothing. People are dying and we don’t know why.

Maybe it's time to dust off my marching boots.

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