When I Stopped Believing in War
Give Me an “F”
By Cecilia Julagay
My first recollection of defining myself as a pacifist began to emerge in the 1960s - that decade of supposed “free love” and “make love, not war.” However, now that I’m asked to describe this process, I have mentally and emotionally encountered numerous events along the way. Viet Nam was certainly the catalyst that solidified my understanding that war and violence were very poor “solutions” for disagreements. These thoughts crystallized as I was growing from adolescence to young adulthood - the time when most of us engage in inward and outward examining of ourselves, our families and our societies. During the 1960s it was relatively easy to declare oneself a pacifist. After all, Baby Boomers were meeting yet another challenge - putting aside “painted wings and giants' rings” and grappling with what it is to be an adult. We had grown up in the shadow of the Cold War, learning to duck under our desks for fallout drills - and we were becoming disillusioned with what we had been told.
The objective of these fallout drills, along with lessons about the evils of communism (and, therefore, any one left of the far right) seemed to be to create universally compliant children, who would accept what we had been told and follow our parents into the “American Dream,” which was and is, more of a dream than reality. Though adolescence is the life stage that Erickson describes as being a time of questioning, as a younger child, I seldom took life at face value, and questioned everything.
One week, our Weekly Reader had a segment on how many bombs we had and how many bombs Russia had. Our teacher took this opportunity to introduce us to the concept of “overkill.” Even as a child I could not fathom why we were even concerned with who had how many bombs - or why we had to duck under our desks. I’m not sure about the adults around me, but the evidence was very clear: 1, if we were hit by a nuclear bomb, ducking under our desks was not going to help; and 2, if both the U.S. and Russia had enough bombs to kill all of the citizens in the other country several times over, why were we still counting?
In the midst of trying to see clearly within a fog of pretend realism, some adults did help me think things through. After mentioning to my grandmother that “communists were the ultimate evil” - or whatever trash had been forced upon us that week, she got very thoughtful. My great grandparents raised their family in an area of Europe that is now north east Italy, but was part of the Austrio-Hungarian Empire before the end of WW I. Over the years, my grandmother made it clear that one thing she did not miss in moving to the U.S. was all the bickering and fighting among in-groups, out-groups and wannabe groups that was, and continues to be, prevalent in that part of Europe. In a serious tone she told me that communists were people - like anyone in the states. Some were good, some were bad - again like here in the states. She began at that time telling me tales about her childhood amidst WW I - how her family found themselves between the fascists and communists.
As usual in war torn areas, food was scarce. One day my grandmother was sent to gather some nuts to add to the food source. Though she was told to go in one direction, as so many children do, she didn’t mind her parents. Her parents’ concern was that they wanted their daughter to gather nuts in an area that was relatively safe from the battles. When she got to this area, she realized that few nuts were left because other families had already been there, so she disobeyed her parents and went in the other direction. Nuts were more plentiful there, but still not enough, so she began climbing into the trees to shake down more nuts. At one point, while in the branches of tree, she realized that she was not alone. A frightened, cold and hungry boy was using the tree as a shelter from the elements and as a hiding place from the army that had conscripted him. She took her basket of nuts home and told her parents. They fed him, clothed him and sheltered him until he could make it back home. From this I learned that war is not glamorous or heroic. Sending children off to either kill others or risk being killed is not patriotic.
When Viet Nam first made the news we were told that it was our duty, as a democratic nation, to make sure that Viet Nam didn’t fall to the communists, because the domino theory would come into play and the whole globe could end up under communism. Though the domino theory was another tale that I questioned, I accepted that the “adults” knew what they were doing.
Over time, the news reports and, more personally, people coming back from Viet Nam had some horrific tales to share. As the boy in the tree awakened my grandmother, the death of my cousin, Champ woke me up. I was already questioning the war, our government, the military, but Champ’s death due to “friendly fire” was a turning point. Up until that time I did not confront my mother with my feelings about this war - or any war. Now, though I had one huge question - How can a person die due to “friendly fire?” If they die, how “friendly” is this fire, anyway? Talk about oxymorons! My cousin was dead, his young wife a widow because some overworked recruit made a miscalculation.
Along with this story is a picture of me and another cousin, Wayne. Wayne and I were only about a year apart and the rest of the cousins were a good bit younger, so Wayne and I did a lot together. One thing you should know - though we considered each other cousins, technically, Wayne was my mother’s baby half-brother. If you look at our faces, you will see two kids who are not real happy about having to dress up in our Easter finery to get our picture taken. It was spring, the snow had melted and there were many more exciting things to do.
I have other pictures of Wayne, but I prefer this one because it reminds me of all the fun we had, and the trouble we got into having that fun! The last picture of Wayne was taken a few days before he died in Viet Nam. He is in his fatigues, grinning at the camera. In my mind I have another snap shot of Wayne - he is leaving our home for the last time - dressed in his military uniform, duffle bag over his shoulder - and looking every so much like a boy going off the camp. I was never to see that smile again.
When my mother got the news that Wayne was dead, again due to “friendly fire,” she was inconsolable. This was the only time I remember my mother being so upset that my father could not comfort her. She went back to New York for the funeral, which was closed casket. You see, our family was told that, to the best of their knowledge, the body parts in the body bag were Wayne. In this case, Wayne’s group walked into a land mine field. The mines had been set there by the U.S., but, again, an over worked soldier miscalculated and ....
By this time, the nation was being torn apart. Some people were going to stand by their country no matter what the evidence was. Many others, though, began to not only see where Viet Nam was a huge military mistake, but to question war in general. Soon after Wayne was buried, Country Joe and the Fish came out with their “Viet Nam Rag.” The version that seemed to catch, was the one where Country Joe begins with “Give me an F” - and it went on from there to spell out what we were feeling about Viet Nam. My sister and I learned the lyrics and it became a favorite of ours. Our father came to us one day and said that we were not to sing that song in Mom’s presence anymore. It was not due to the opening lines of the song. Mom was bothered by the seeming irreverence Country Joe and the Fish portrayed. At this point, no matter what the evidence, Mom was unable to not accept our role in Viet Nam. To do so, would be - in her mind - discounting the deaths of Champ and Wayne.
What has been fascinating over the years is watching Baby Boomers as we age. Yes, we were very critical of war in general and Viet Nam specifically - then. As time went on, though, too many of us put our pacifism aside because for one reason or another military action was “needed.” Today I am proud to say that I’m still a pacifist. It also gives me hope that other Baby Boomers, as well as older and younger folk are also taking on this world view, even though it is no longer as popular.