Revisiting Vietnam: rights and wrongs

September 01, 1996|By William K. Marimow | William K. Marimow,sun staff

"Our War," by David Harris. Times Books. 160 pages, $21.

More than 25 years ago, when the Vietnam War was raging and the draft was a preoccupation for young men of my age, I constantly debated the merits of the war with my parents.

Invariably, after hours of agonizing discussions, they would tell me that we should support America no matter what: "My country right or wrong" was the cornerstone of their unwavering philosophy, a set of bedrock beliefs built on the proposition that the American wars, at least in their experience, had always been just.

David Harris, one of the Vietnam era's best-known draft resisters, had an even more difficult talk with his father, a veteran of the Army Signal Corps in World War II and a member of the Army Reserve for 20 years. As he tells it in his new book, "Our War," Harris argued with his father not only about his outspoken opposition to the war but also his decision to refuse to serve in the military.

"He was crying," Harris writes of that discussion in a Palo Alto motel, "only the second or third time I'd ever seen his tears. He begged me not to do what I was about to do, and I had never heard him beg."

That conversation, between father and son, is one of the most memorable scenes in this slim 160-page volume, an unusual mix of autobiography, personal essay and history. For Harris, at age 50, the book clearly represents a watershed, his very personal effort to seek an understanding and reconciliation - "a Reckoning," he calls it - of the tortured events of the late 1960s, which changed the course of his life and convulsed the nation.

Harris' central thesis is that all of us - with the possible exception of the most dedicated anti-war activists - bear responsibility for the debacle that left 3 million people dead, including 58,000 Americans. What we must do, Harris asserts, is "to finally engage in the public arithmetic and admit that we had no right to have been there at all and no right to have done what we did and no right to continue pretending otherwise."

For me, Harris' own story -the personal revolution that transformed Stanford's student body president into an unyielding, crusading draft resister - is by far the best reading in the book. (And, yes, Harris was equally well known for being married to Joan Baez, though their marriage disintegrated during his nearly two years in prison for refusing to serve).

What is less compelling, unfortunately, is his essay in which he attempts to have his book speak for all of us. Time and again, Harris writes about what "we" experienced and "our journey" during the tumultuous late 1960s and early 1970s. To be sure, Harris felt passionately about the immorality of the war, and he acted - courageously, in my opinion - in accordance with his principles.

But the depth of Harris' feelings, then and now, profoundly influenced his deep desire for a Reckoning. Many others, who lived through that same era, long ago came to terms with "our war" - terms which, for me and my parents, include strong feelings of patriotism tempered by the realization that when a nation's leaders lie to the people, as they did regarding Vietnam, a healthy skepticism should supersede the belief in one's country "right or wrong."

William K. Marimow, managing editor for The Sun, covere government institutions for 20 years while reporting for the Philadelphia Inquirer. His work earned him two Pulitzer Prizes. For educational and medical reasons, he was deferred from military service during the Vietnam War.

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