Welcome to Behind the Lines, a weekly conversation with Salt Lake Tribune cartoonist Pat Bagley and BYU economist Val Lambson.
Lambson: Thank you for reminding us of our Vietnam veterans. I was against that war all those years ago and I still think it was wrong. I remember displaying a "Drop Nixon not Bombs" bumper sticker prominently on the notebook I carried in high school while you wore a "Nixon's the One" campaign button. But whatever one's opinion on the war, those who went to Vietnam should be honored for their sacrifices.
Bagley: We both grew up in Oceanside, California right next to the giant U.S. Marine base at Camp Pendleton. I remember a level of hostility between the locals and the young Marine recruits who claimed downtown as their own R-rated Disneyland. I can't vouch for the stories of returning soldiers being spat on, but I do know that wandering into downtown looking like a hippie was hazardous in the extreme. Once I picked up a girl for a date and was subjected to an uncomfortable interview by her USMC master sergeant father before he would let her out of the house with a longish-hair like me.
We called them jarheads. I don't know what they called us locals, but I'm sure it wasn't flattering.
Lambson: You should have worn your "Nixon's the One" button to the interview. Most of my contact with Marines was in Scouting. Our scoutmaster was not a Marine, but the assistant scoutmasters often were. One assistant scoutmaster insisted we take the long way back from a hike because if we went back the way we came, the Viet Cong would be waiting for us. (I think he overstated the danger from Viet Cong in San Diego County at the time and, yes, he was kidding.) That, and a rather unorthodox patrol flag designed by a future artist/editorial cartoonist for The Salt Lake Tribune are two of my more interesting Scouting memories.
Society was deeply divided. Our parents' generation had beaten Hitler, at great cost, and were justifiably proud of it. They tended to trust the government. Vietnam changed that for many of our generation. It was a senseless waste of lives and it wasn't enough that the government said it was necessary. And it isn't enough that the government says our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are necessary. Our veterans of those wars should also be honored for their sacrifices, but they should never have been called on to make those sacrifices.
Bagley: I remember that same assistant scoutmaster taking us on a hike in Camp Pendleton's back country, and warning us not to pick up the unexploded ordinance. We were even given government K rations after subtracting the pack of cigarettes.
Looking back, I feel bad for being mean-spirited toward those kids (if you visit the Utah Vietnam Veterans Memorial in person, take a good look at the soldier's face) going off to war. I must have been 14, eating my Taco Bell taco and doing what 14-year-olds do; judging others. A group of Marines at another table with their buzz cuts were the object of my insincere pity. I was mid-smirk when the Marines got up to go. One came to my table and gave me his untouched meal. I was surprised and he left before I thought to say thanks, but I still remember the misery he radiated.
Lambson: That is a profound story, and a reminder to see people as the individuals that they are and to appreciate the commonality of human experience. It is so easy to group individuals into categories and judge the group in the aggregate.
Bagley: Some of those who go at each other with knives drawn in our comment section might have another kind of experience if they found each other in need in the real world. I'm sure politics would be the last thing on the agenda in the urgency to lend assistance. Our finest American military traditions remind us that you leave no one behind.
Last week's Top Comment goes to tomtrilobite: "'Ideology' is precisely what we don't need. Pragmatism is what we need. Where is Richard Nixon when we need him?"