Gary Harlan: Comparing Vietnam and the coronavirus 'war'

Gary Harlan: Comparing Vietnam and the coronavirus 'war'

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Vietnam War Tet Offensive

A young South Vietnamese soldier carries a fatally wounded fellow soldier after street fighting in the central market of the Cholon Chinese section of Saigon, May 31, 1968. Viet Cong infiltrators on the western edge of the capital penetrated more than a mile into the city, triggering a battle that sent thousands of civilians fleeing in panic.

(AP Photo/Eddie Adams)

Being a two-tour combat veteran of an actual war, I assumed President Donald Trump was speaking metaphorically when he informed the American public that he was a wartime president. “We’re at war,” he declared, “fighting an invisible enemy.” It soon became obvious that many people interpreted the analogy literally, including members of the news media and power-grabbing politicians.

Olivia Nuzzi, a reporter for New York magazine, brought the issue into focus when she asked the president, “If an American president loses more Americans over the course of six weeks than in the entirety of the Vietnam War, does he deserve to be reelected?” Oh, now I get it. The disgraced wartime president should do the honorable thing and withdraw from the campaign, just as President Lyndon B. Johnson did in 1968.

Except for those doing the fighting, and their families, it was business as usual back home during the Vietnam War. That is hardly the case today given the lockdown orders and an unemployment rate not seen since the Great Depression.

Though he had initially agreed with Trump’s assertion that we were at war with an invisible enemy, Gov. Andrew Cuomo seemed disturbed when the president acknowledged that reopening parts of the economy would inevitably cost some Americans their lives while adding that the benefits outweigh the costs. “It’s absurd,” Cuomo responded, “to argue over how many deaths are worth reopening the state.”

But Trump made no such argument. Rather, he was merely stating a brutal fact about war: people die.

A week after the Tet Offensive of 1968, President Johnson was on hand when my unit, the 3rd Battalion 27th Marines, departed from the Marine Air Station El Toro, in California. He shook my hand, saying, “Good to see you. God bless you and keep you.” I could see in his eyes that he was aware that hundreds of the men he was sending off to war would not return home alive.

As a sergeant leading a 14-man squad, I too was aware of that fact, and it was my job to bring as many of them home alive as possible. Unfortunately, there was no stay-at-home, or in this case, hunker-down-in-a-bunker solution. We were Marine grunts given only one option: We had to fight our way out of “the Nam.” Most of our time was spent out in the bush, on the move, searching for an invisible enemy adept at planting mines and booby traps, thus making it essential that we always maintain social distancing.

Just as it was in 1968, the coronavirus war has divided the country. One group is questioning the lockdown and stay-home orders, while a second group is adamant we avoid infection at all cost, even if means destroying the economy in the process. I’m reminded of the famous quote from an Army major in Vietnam who told a reporter, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”

Consequently, another aspect of the Vietnam War has surfaced: civil disobedience. Antiwar protesters were regarded as patriots by some, and traitors by others. Reminiscent of those times, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf recently labeled those violating his lockdown orders as cowards and deserters. “Deserting in the face of the enemy,” he warned, constituted “cowardly acts” that would result in their livelihoods being stripped away.

Shelley Luther, a salon owner in Dallas, defied a judge’s order to admit she was selfish and apologize to the elected officials whose orders she violated. Luther refused, telling the judge that feeding her children was not selfish.

One final observation regarding the coronavirus-Vietnam analogy. The average age of Americans killed during the Vietnam War was 23. Around the time of the president’s statement that this was a war against an invisible enemy, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 80% of the reported cases of coronavirus deaths in America have been among people 65 and over. Being six months shy of my 75th birthday, I am, once again, among the most vulnerable. The first time, I was part of a group whose only membership requirement was the willingness to risk one’s life for the others. If reopening the economy in as safe a manner as possible means placing my life at risk, count me in.

To all those willing to risk their lives in order to rescue the American way of life from utter destruction, I say, thank you for your service.

Gary Harlan is freelance writer who lives in Marshfield, Missouri.

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