Harvard-Radcliffe Class of 1964
50th Reunion Brief Talks

Vietnam Made Me a Better Man
John C. Wilcox

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During 1967-68, three years out of Harvard College, I had just turned 25 and was in my final year at Harvard Law School. The country was bitterly divided over the Vietnam War, with anti-war demonstrations reaching a peak of violence during the January '68 Tet Offensive. In April of that year Martin Luther King was murdered. Two months later Bobby Kennedy was dead. Coming barely four years after the assassination of President Kennedy, these events provoked anger, confusion and fear in my generation. We struggled with deeply conflicted feelings about our country, our government, the war and particularly the draft.

In hindsight, I think these circumstances caused me to experience a kind of pre-traumatic stress disorder. On the surface my behavior was normal, but my mental state was not. As the academic year progressed, I became increasingly disengaged. I skipped classes at law school, neglected my course work and spent much of my time in a study carrel at Widener Library compulsively writing down a fictional narrative that was emerging from deep within my imagination. It was partly a love story, but mainly it was a story about the dilemma of the Vietnam War.

I can see now that writing this fictional narrative, which I eventually entitled The Commander of the Relief, gave me a safe way to sort out my conflicted feelings about the war. In the detached role of narrator I could exercise control over the feelings and actions of my protagonist/alter ego. It gave me the power to determine his fate and to be reconciled to my own.

While I was engaged in this obsessive and largely secret activity, heated discussions about Vietnam were going on all around me. Like me, most of my peers opposed the war, but they rarely discussed the moral issues raised by the draft. If they talked about the draft at all, it was about how to avoid it. They examined in microscopic detail a long list of options for avoiding military service: get classified “4F” medically unfit for service (e.g., by eating nothing but avocados for an entire week to mess up your blood chemistry and fail the Army physical); line up a deferrable job (e.g., by teaching math in a public school); continue in graduate school until you were past draft age; join the Peace Corps; get a place in the reserves or the Coast Guard; become a conscientious objector; burn your draft card and emigrate to Canada or Sweden. Since my classmates were mostly from privileged backgrounds, the prevailing attitude was that they shouldn’t have to get their hands dirty, much less risk their lives —they were destined for more important careers.

Meanwhile, my fictional character (to whom I gave the name Philip Scofield) was grappling with the personal issues my peers were ignoring. Philip asked himself: If men are being drafted, sent to Vietnam against their will, forced to fight and risk their lives for a cause they don’t believe in, would it be right for me to avoid the draft? Even if there are good reasons not to serve in Vietnam, would it be fair? Isn’t fear the imponderable and decisive factor that each individual must confront? Wouldn’t it be an act of personal cowardice to turn my back and run away? Could I live with that decision for the rest of my life?

Philip’s answer to these questions can be found in the words Shakespeare gives to Henry V before the battle of Agincourt:

“And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”

In the end, I made Philip enlist in the Army and sent him to Vietnam.

I followed him down that path. I was inducted into the Army after graduating from law school. Following basic training in Georgia and assignments in Indianapolis and West Point, I was ordered to Vietnam for a tour of duty that covered calendar year 1970.

If we had more time today, I could tell you stories about the daily life of an enlisted man. The constraints and regimentation were numbing, but the forced intimacy and shared deprivation created a strong sense of fellowship. Funny, surprising and enriching moments would occasionally emerge from the deadening routines. Here are two I have always remembered:

I won’t tell you stories about the war itself. I have kept those memories figuratively locked in a box and safely tucked away for more than 40 years.

But I will tell you what I think are the three most important personal lessons I learned in the Army that stayed with me and shaped the rest of my life:

  1. I’m not the smartest guy in the room just because I went to Harvard. Many of the men around me in the Army had more common sense, ingenuity, perseverance and toughness than I did. Conversely, the men I served with learned that a guy who went to Harvard wasn’t so different from them.
  2. I won’t go wrong putting principle before self-interest. Going to Vietnam was scary and dangerous. I didn’t want to do it, but in the end it was an experience that made me a better man. Trying to figure out what is right instead of what is easy or self-serving or self-protective has kept me out of trouble during my lifetime and enabled me to sleep well at night.
  3. Personal relationships are the most important measure of well-being. We all know the values and qualities of character that matter most in our personal relationships. My list includes: integrity, kindness, courage, loyalty, steadfastness, a sense of humor, playfulness, compassion, humility. In the Army, where everything was reduced to essentials, these qualities were not difficult to spot—character was apparent and everyone knew who could be trusted or not. In later life I have found the search more difficult. Amidst all the striving and commotion of everyday life, the qualities of character and personal values of those around us are often obscured by competitiveness, money, credentials, material possessions and the accumulated markers of achievement and socio-economic status. As the years pass, true friends become more precious.

Finally, the most important lesson I learned from military service: Equality and inclusiveness are essential for democracy. The draft exemplified both. It was admittedly an imperfect mechanism, but in principle it ignored background, status and economic advantage and imposed equal treatment on our country’s unwieldy and diverse population. Military service brought together people with little in common, compelled them to live and work together and showed them that individually we are more alike than different. The lesson for all of us is that the health and strength of our nation depend on the commitment and participation of every citizen, without exception.

I believe that our country’s decision to abolish the draft was short-sighted. If I could wave a magic wand or make a wish, it would be to require that every citizen serve no less than two years of some form of public service prior to the age of 30. Military service could be just one of many national, local and private sector options. No one would be exempt. Public service would be both the price and the reward of citizenship. As I believe the Army made me a better man, I believe that universal public service would make America a better nation.

Epilogue: Writing The Commander of the Relief helped me deal with my pre-trauma stress. It also helped my post-war recovery. After my discharge from the Army I took a year off to finish the book and close that chapter of my life. The typed manuscript remains stored away in a box, along with my Vietnam memories, emerging only on special occasions such as this, our 50th reunion.

Coda: Working on this TED talk reminded me how important the memory of Stewart McDermet and Larry Maloney has been to me for more than 40 years. I felt an urgent need to find them or learn their fate. To my amazement, through the internet I was quickly able to locate Stewart living in Dummerston, VT and eventually Larry in Ashland, MA. We have reconnected without missing a beat, picking up right where we left off decades ago. The next step will be personal visits, which are already scheduled for right after the reunion. This is an unexpectedly happy outcome, for which I give much of the credit to our 50th reunion.

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