An Honest Confession by an American Coward

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  1. Trip_Wire

    Trip_Wire RIP

    An Honest Confession by an American Coward
    by Pat Conroy

    Pat Conroy's novels include The Prince of Tides, The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline, and Beach Music. He lives on Fripp Island, South Carolina.

    This essay is from his forthcoming book, My Losing Season.

    The true things always ambush me on the road and take me by surprise when I am drifting down the light of placid days, careless about flanks and rearguard actions. I was not looking for a true thing to come upon me in the state of New Jersey. Nothing has ever happened to me in New Jersey. But came it did, and it came to stay.

    In the past four years I have been interviewing my teammates on the 1966-67 basketball team at the Citadel for a book I'm writing. For the most part, this has been like buying back a part of my past that I had mislaid or shut out of my life. At first I thought I was writing about being young and frisky and able to run up and down a court all day long, but lately I realized I came to this book because I needed to come to grips with being middle-aged and having ripened into a gray-haired man you could not trust to handle the ball on a fast break.

    When I visited my old teammate Al Kroboth's house in New Jersey, I spent the first hours quizzing him about his memories of games and practices and the screams of coaches that had echoed in field houses more than 30 years before. Al had been a splendid forward-center for the Citadel; at 6 feet 5 inches and carrying 220 pounds, he played with indefatigable energy and enthusiasm. For most of his senior year, he led the nation in field-goal percentage, with UCLA center Lew Alcindor hot on his trail. Al was a battler and a brawler and a scrapper from the day he first stepped in as a Green Weenie as a sophomore to the day he graduated. After we talked basketball, we came to a subject I dreaded to bring up with Al, but which lay between us and would not lie still.

    "Al, you know I was a draft dodger and antiwar demonstrator."

    "That's what I heard, Conroy," Al said. "I have nothing against what you did, but I did what I thought was right."

    "Tell me about Vietnam, big Al. Tell me what happened to you," I said.

    On his seventh mission as a navigator in an A-6 for Major Leonard Robertson, Al was getting ready to deliver their payload when the fighter-bomber was hit by enemy fire. Though Al has no memory of it, he punched out somewhere in the middle of the ill-fated dive and lost consciousness. He doesn't know if he was unconscious for six hours or six days, nor does he know what happened to Major Robertson (whose name is engraved on the Wall in Washington and on the MIA bracelet Al wears).

    When Al awoke, he couldn't move. A Viet Cong soldier held an AK-47 to his head. His back and his neck were broken, and he had shattered his left scapula in the fall. When he was well enough to get to his feet (he still can't recall how much time had passed), two armed Viet Cong led Al from the jungles of South Vietnam to a prison in Hanoi. The journey took three months. Al Kroboth walked barefooted through the most impassable terrain in Vietnam, and he did it sometimes in the dead of night. He bathed when it rained, and he slept in bomb craters with his two Viet Cong captors. As they moved farther north, infections began to erupt on his body, and his legs were covered with leeches picked up while crossing the rice paddies.

    At the very time of Al's walk, I had a small role in organizing the only antiwar demonstration ever held in Beaufort, South Carolina, the home of Parris Island and the Marine Corps Air Station. In a Marine Corps town at that time, it was difficult to come up with a quorum of people who had even minor disagreements about the Vietnam War. But my small group managed to attract a crowd of about 150 to Beaufort's waterfront. With my mother and my wife on either side of me, we listened to the featured speaker, Dr. Howard Levy, suggest to the very few young enlisted Marines present that if they get sent to Vietnam, here's how they can help end this war: Roll a grenade under your officer's bunk when he's asleep in his tent. It's called fragging and is becoming more and more popular with the ground troops who know this war is bullshit. I was enraged by the suggestion. At that very moment my father, a Marine officer, was asleep in Vietnam. But in 1972, at the age of 27, I thought I was serving America's interests by pointing out what massive flaws and miscalculations and corruptions had led her to conduct a ground war in Southeast Asia.

    In the meantime, Al and his captors had finally arrived in the North, and the Viet Cong traded him to North Vietnamese soldiers for the final leg of the trip to Hanoi. Many times when they stopped to rest for the night, the local villagers tried to kill him. His captors wired his hands behind his back at night, so he trained himself to sleep in the center of huts when the villagers began sticking knives and bayonets into the thin walls.

    Following the U.S. air raids, old women would come into the huts to excrete on him and yank out hunks of his hair. After the nightmare journey of his walk north, Al was relieved when his guards finally delivered him to the POW camp in Hanoi and the cell door locked behind him.
    It was at the camp that Al began to die. He threw up every meal he ate and before long was misidentified as the oldest American soldier in the prison because his appearance was so gaunt and skeletal. But the extraordinary camaraderie among fellow prisoners that sprang up in all the POW camps caught fire in Al, and did so in time to save his life.

    When I was demonstrating in America against Nixon and the Christmas bombings in Hanoi, Al and his fellow prisoners were holding hands under the full fury of those bombings, singing "God Bless America." It was those bombs that convinced Hanoi they would do well to release the American POWs, including my college teammate. When he told me about the C-141 landing in Hanoi to pick up the prisoners, Al said he felt no emotion, none at all, until he saw the giant American flag painted on the plane's tail. I stopped writing as Al wept over the memory of that flag on that plane, on that morning, during that time in the life of America.

    It was that same long night, after listening to Al's story, that I began to make judgments about how I had conducted myself during the Vietnam War.

    In the darkness of the sleeping Kroboth household, lying in the third-floor guest bedroom, I began to assess my role as a citizen in the '60s, when my country called my name and I shot her the bird. Unlike the stupid boys who wrapped themselves in Viet Cong flags and burned the American one, I knew how to demonstrate against the war without flirting with treason or astonishingly bad taste. I had come directly from the warrior culture of this country and I knew how to act.

    But in the 25 years that have passed since South Vietnam fell, I have immersed myself in the study of totalitarianism during the unspeakable century we just left behind. I have questioned survivors of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, talked to Italians who told me tales of the Nazi occupation, French partisans who had counted German tanks in the forests of Normandy, and officers who survived the Bataan Death March. I quiz journalists returning from wars in Bosnia, the Sudan, the Congo, Angola, Indonesia, Guatemala, San Salvador, Chile, Northern Ireland, Algeria.

    As I lay sleepless, I realized I'd done all this research to better understand my country. I now revere words like democracy, freedom, the right to vote, and the grandeur of the extraordinary vision of the founding fathers. Do I see America's flaws? Of course. But I now can honor her basic, incorruptible virtues, the ones that let me walk the streets screaming my ass off that my country had no idea what it was doing in South Vietnam. My country let me scream to my heart's content - the same country that produced both Al Kroboth and me.

    Now, at this moment in New Jersey, I come to a conclusion about my actions as a young man when Vietnam was a dirty word to me. I wish I'd led a platoon of Marines in Vietnam. I would like to think I would have trained my troops well and that the Viet Cong would have had their hands full if they entered a firefight with us.

    From the day of my birth, I was programmed to enter the Marine Corps. I was the son of a Marine fighter pilot, and I had grown up on Marine bases where I had watched the men of the corps perform simulated war games in the forests of my childhood. That a novelist and poet bloomed darkly in the house of Santini strikes me as a remarkable irony.

    My mother and father had raised me to be an Al Kroboth, and during the Vietnam era they watched in horror as I metamorphosed into another breed of fanatic entirely. I understand now that I should have protested the war after my return from Vietnam, after I had done my duty for my country. I have come to a conclusion about my country that I knew then in my bones but lacked the courage to act on: America is good enough to die for even when she is wrong.

    I looked for some conclusion, a summation of this trip to my teammate's house. I wanted to come to the single right thing, a true thing that I may not like but that I could live with. After hearing Al Kroboth's story of his walk across Vietnam and his brutal imprisonment in the North, I found myself passing harrowing, remorseless judgment on myself. I had not turned out to be the man I had once envisioned myself to be. I thought I would be the kind of man that America could point to and say, "There. That's the guy. That's the one who got it right. The whole package. The one I can depend on."

    It had never once occurred to me that I would find myself in the position I did on that night in Al Kroboth's house in Roselle, New Jersey: an American coward spending the night with an American hero.
  2. seems like his history finally caught up with him - sorry but seems like he is on the sniff for sympathy
  3. Trip_Wire

    Trip_Wire RIP

    He'll get none from me! What is that old saying is sympathy in the dictionary ... something about between Syphliss? CRS Strikes again! :wink:
  4. "America is good enough to die for even when she is wrong"
    Is it me or is there something disturbing about that statement? You can substitute "America" for any country, but it smacks of brainwashing to me...
  5. Brainwashing? When the guy spent his entire life protesting against the government?

  6. Fair point. But the fact that he stated that The US "is good enough to die for" (nothing wrong with that...a good bit of patriotism) but it is the "even when she is wrong" bit. I would expect a 15 year old Hitler Youth to come out with that not a 50 year old man who, as you say, has been protesting against the government....or is it just the psyche of modern day America that even if the country is judged to be in the wrong by it's own people it is still worth paying the ultimate sacrifce for?
  7. Frank Schaeffer, also a novelist, was utterly ignorant of the military (never protested, either) until his son joined the Marines straight out of prep school back in 99. Since then, he's become a fervent advocate of upper-class involvement in the US armed forces - almost to the point of OTT-ness (wants another draft :crazy:).

    Beyond two memoirs about his son's service, he's written a book called AWOL with Kathy Roth-Douquet that deals with the civil-military divide. Frank's latest novel is called Baby Jack and - although I know the man personally and am thus slightly biased - I think it's a cracking read that mirrors Pat Conroy's journey. Thought I'd mention him since both authors followed a similar path.
  8. His new attitude is more eloquently put in the phrase
    which as we can see here has always been subject to debate in the US.
    There is also a large dose of the sentiment expressed in MightyBigEgos signature
    He feels guilty about his actions not because he has concluded that they were wrong but because he feels they must be wrong in light of his friends suffering. In fact his friend sums it up quite well in a roundabout way.

    In other words, "We both did what we thought was right".

    Cheeseypoptart, can you tell us why exactly Frank Schaeffer wants a reintroduction of the draft? Can you link us to anything he's written about this online?
  9. Mostly to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor - and to build a bridge between policy makers and policy implementers. I think he simply believes there's no way to get this country's elite to join willingly. It'll never happen, since the same elite is the one in power. Can you imagine Bush's, Cheney's or Pelosi's children serving in Baghdad? I presume shitty hummers would quickly be replaced by proper IFVs if Jenna were riding in them.

    Here are some links. Frank own web page.

    Washington Post

    LA Times

    A quick google hasn't given me any articles by Frank that deal specifically with the draft. The final chapters of AWOL deal with that, though, I'm very sure.
  10. I guessed it might be something like that, and more power to his elbow.
  11. I'd guess that Mr Conroy is caught somewhere in the words of these two wise men. I can't help thinking also that he feels uncomfortable being in the draft-dodger box with the incumbent US CinC.

    Especially at a time when a generation of young volunteers are doing the best they know how in Iraq, in a war that is manifestly illegal, dishonestly engineered and incompetently led at the highest level, even if they - the troops that is - personally believe that what they are doing is really going to make safer, the lives of the folks back home.

    I've no doubt Mr Conroy believes an Iraq without Saddam can be made a better place than with him in power - it's a no-brainer that it ought to be. Sadly 'no-brainer' describes the man who planned the campaign, and the outcome; slaughter instead of peace, ethnic division instead of harmony, anarchy instead of order. It must tear at the conscience of anyone who rooted for Saddam's removal.

    But since Mr Conroy seems to propose the motion seems "My country right or wrong" - I must vote firmly against.

    There is honour to be had only in the service of the right. Our forebears twice went to war in Europe in the 20th Century, to protect our freedom to challenge those in power over us, and for a total of ten years fought against men who had fallen for the other option.

    With the current generation of moral pygmies heading up the UK and the US, we need to be doubly on guard.
  12. "I have come to a conclusion about my country that I knew then in my bones but lacked the courage to act on: America is good enough to die for even when she is wrong."

    Well written but the logic is a bit dubious.

    Clearly he feels that he should have served and suffered with the rest of his generation. I can't argue with the sentiment, and it's not confined to Americans or to Vietnam.

    However, he says he still would have protested Vietnam even if he had served. He thought Vietnam was wrong then, and still thinks it was wrong now.

    And yet he therefore concludes: my country right or wrong.

    Nope: the US was wrong in Vietnam, and he was right. He should take comfort from that and curse the dumbo politicians who sent his mate there in the first place.