Sunday, December 25, 2011

Staying Out of the Draft

When I was growing up, there was probably no other issue that drove as many wedges between friends and relatives as the war in Vietnam.

It was the time of the infamous "generation gap," and you can trust me when I tell you that was no exaggeration. There really was a gap between the generations in those days. Most people above a certain age bought the whole "domino theory" argument and believed containing communism in southeast Asia was critical to our survival, and most people below a certain age thought it was rubbish and that they were being sent to die for nothing.

There were exceptions to both rules, of course. It was hardly unanimous. There were older people who opposed the war, and there were younger people who supported it.

And there were other issues that ripped people apart, of course — race, sex, religion.

But that's business as usual, isn't it? Humans have been dealing with those issues since time began. The real dividing line in America in those days was the war. It was bigger than anything else, and it played a prominent role in every aspect of American life, even its entertainment.

During the war — and for years after U.S. involvement ended — Vietnam was like this open, bleeding wound in American life that no one would even mention, much less treat. It never really surprised me that the Vietnam vets suffered as much as they did after they returned. They were treated as pariahs, blamed for a long and painful war for which they were not responsible.

It must have been especially shocking for any vets who fantasized about being greeted the way their fathers and uncles were welcomed home after World War II.

Those who avoided military service by going to Canada were treated no better. They may have been motivated by principle, but they were treated as cowards. That was some choice. If you went to Vietnam, you were spat upon when you came home. And if you avoided going to Vietnam, ostensibly because you felt the same way about the war as those who spat on the vets, you were spat upon when you came home — if you did.

Coming home, even briefly, from Canada when you were a fugitive from justice meant exposing yourself to the possibility of arrest, trial and conviction.

American television rarely dealt as directly and honestly with the war and the devastating effect it had on people as it did 35 years ago tonight in a holiday episode of All in the Family.

All in the Family didn't always have a holiday–oriented episode, but it was a groundbreaking series from the beginning so, when it did have a holiday episode, it was typically thought provoking.

It was Christmas Day in the Bunker home, and two special guests were there to share Christmas dinner — Pinky (Eugene Roche), Archie's friend who lost his son in Vietnam, and David (Renny Temple), Mike's friend who dodged the draft and was living in Canada.

Archie (Carroll O'Connor) wasn't supposed to know that David was a draft dodger, and the rest of the family did a pretty good job of concealing it from him — but David himself finally spilled the beans.
Archie: What the hell ya got in Canada that you ain't got here? ... Huh? What's the answer?

David: Freedom.

Archie: Did you say 'freedom?' "

David: Yes, sir. Freedom.

Archie: Come on, will ya? You got more freedom in the U.S. of A. than you got any place else in the world. This here is the land of the free. Didn't you never hear of that?

David: Mr. Bunker, for some of us, America is not free.

This exchange bewildered Archie, as I am sure it bewildered countless Archie types all across the country in those days.

It angered him, too — and I'm equally sure that it angered the Archies in America.

Their belief system could be summed up in a bumper sticker — "America: Love it or leave it."

That belief system was being challenged. And Archie was in full defense mode.

But, in a finish that neatly emphasized the spirit of Christmas, Pinky, the Gold Star father, accepted David the draft dodger.

"I understand how you feel, Arch," Pinky said. "My kid hated the war, too, but he did what he thought he had to do, and David here did what he thought he had to do. But David's alive to share Christmas dinner with us. And if Steve were here, he'd want to sit down with him, and that's what I want to do."

Such an act of generosity surely was in the best tradition of O. Henry.