The saga of Roland

1968 around Tet, as I recall.

By history, one of the more resourceful diversions to avoid Vietnam was to apply for conscientious objector status. Since this had a religious connotation, the Army could not dismiss it outright so they tried to divert the diversion by involutions of red tape and paperwork.  Among other impedimenta, it was necessary to prove that the potential deferee had formal religious upbringing (not joining a church the week before induction).  A religious belief that all killing was fundamentally, morally wrong, not just during provincial political-economic squabbles.

This kind of lifelong religious indoctrination is pretty difficult to come by, especially on quick demand.   A few hardy souls fled to Canada….most slipped back later.  A few Quakers got out of Vietnam, but they all got drafted anyway into non-combatant sections.  The agnostics then attempted to convince the Feds that it was possible to be a conscientious objector on the basis of non-sectarian beliefs.  This was a lot harder to do, since the applicant had to present volumes more proof of a nebulous and abstract nature to support their beliefs.  A lot were graduate students in philosophy, but most were ordinary college types who held strong feelings about shooting their fellow hominids, especially those with the irritating tendency to shoot back.  So, it happened that a lot of would-be conscientious objectors ended up in Vietnam.

Roland (not his real name) was an out-of-the-box Conscientious Objector drafted out of an Eastern University, royally pissed off and ready to give someone a hard time.  Roland had told them all during the appeal process that he didn’t have any intention of carrying a firearm, much less using it in a milieu where you can’t tell friend from foe, even with a scorecard.  He was a University trained intellectual and he had very profound and deeply held opinions about war in general, killing his fellow hominids in particular, none of whom he had any bad feelings for, and so on.  He had tried valiantly to get non-combatant status and had been foiled at every turn by an uncaring, arrogant military that was only interested in him as gun fodder. Now he was here in Bong Son and nothing had changed.  He was prepared for reprisal, jail, torture and death……….but under no circumstances would he carry anything resembling a weapon. He was prepared for jail, torture and reprisal…but under no circumstances would he carry a weapon. He stewed for a week during the hot weather acclimatization period and was duly sent to a forward infantry position.  Our story starts the day before his first foray into harms way.

Roland arrived at base camp and proceeded to the command tent.  Roland then recited his story sotto voce for the lieutenant, declared he was not carrying a weapon, much less using one, and was prepared for jail, torture and reprisal.  That was that.  Plop went the M-16 on the card table.  The Lieutenant looked at Roland….looked at the M-16……..looked back at Roland, shrugged and told Roland that this was not an issue.  He had no interest whatsoever in Roland’s personal problems and he cared even less whether Roland chose to carry a weapon or an olive branch or a dry martini, but Roland was going to be standing tall at 0500 hours the following morning for an insertion into pretty rough country to do exactly what the line says……search and destroy.

Now, it happened that survival in the jungle depended a great deal on an individual’s ability to read, learn and navigate by one’s wits.  Any previous training offered by the Army was either out of date or hopelessly inept and needed to be discarded as quickly as possible. Trusting souls, and the occasional bad luck fluke got eliminated from the gene pool quickly, leaving the wily and suspicious to carry on.  Surviving a mistake was a gift from God.  Making the same mistake twice proved you unworthy of God’s grace.  Roland did indeed get packed into an assault helicopter in the dead of morning, and when the door opened again, Roland stepped (sans weapon) directly into the Twilight Zone, an arena he never dreamed of in his wildest nightmare.  Sometime during that day, Roland came to the proverbial crossroads and made a deal with a God he never believed in, vowing to survive as a meaningful substitute for making a moral stand.  Roland came understand and make peace with insane reactions to an insane world, emerging different man.  Next trip to the zone found Roland laden with rifle, ammo, flares, grenades, sidearm and a custom survival kit of his own design.  Roland survived Vietnam and came home to a productive life and never spoke of it again.

It has been said that a large portion of the American young healthy male gene pool was lost between 1964 and 1973 in Vietnam.  I submit that this is only partially true.  Allowing for a universally applied bad luck component, at least some of that gene pool were culled out because they were congenital non-survivors. Those who did survive, did so because they were able to put together an expedient endurance strategy that worked.  Like a fast video game, those who excel at it do so because they can react quickly effectively to speculative landmarks and clues on the fly.  Those who couldn’t found that the speed and complexity of the game exceeded their ability to keep up with it.

Occasionally someone asks me if I believe in God.  You bet I do, and not because I’m hedging my bets from Pascal’s Wager. Perspectives on the existence of God become very lifelike when you make deals with God on an hourly basis and see the outcome of those deals.

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