November 12, 2003

A Veterans Day story

I planned to post this last night for Veterans Day, but by the time I got finished cleaning up after study break, I was too tired. There's no real linguistic relevance -- though I did manage to insert a linguistic link! -- but I'm going to indulge myself with a bit of personal blogging in this professional space. I promise not to do it very often.

In 1969, I was drafted and sent to Vietnam. I wasn't a big fan of the war. In fact, truth be told, I lost my student deferment because I was kicked out of college for antiwar activities on campus. And while I was in the army, I generally said what I thought about the war. Most of what I said was just assimilated into the general stream of army complaining, I think, so that some people agreed with me, and some disagreed, but I didn't get into as much trouble over this kind of discussion as you might expect. Except once.

I was stationed at a little camp near Pleiku, in the central highlands near where Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia come together. One afternoon, after I'd been there a couple of months, my friend Maddog asked me to take some paperwork over to somebody on the other side of the camp, in a living area where I'd never been before. It seems like every Army unit in those days had to have exactly one guy nicknamed "Maddog", usually because he was especially mild-mannered. You could call this reverse sarcasm, though of course in a military culture, "mad dog" is a kind of a compliment, so I guess David Beaver's theory works.

Anyhow, when I got to where Maddog sent me that afternoon, I saw that another guy I'd met a few weeks before also lived there. I'll call him "Ray". Ray was from rural Idaho, and his political views were far right. He read me passages from John Birch Society pamphlets; he saw fluoridation of water supplies as an obviously unacceptable instrusion of the government into individuals' lives; he thought it was plausible that WWII had been caused by Jewish bankers and that Martin Luther King Jr. was a communist agent. We had argued for a couple of hours one evening, and we didn't agree about anything.

Off in a corner of the hootch, a half a dozen NCOs were drinking. One of them, a sergeant from one of the other platoons, came over and started giving me a hard time. "Hey, college boy, I hear you're one of those hippie pinko protestors." He was pretty drunk, and he clearly wanted to start a fight. He kept pushing me in the chest, and taunting me. "You some kind of pacifist, you pussy? You just gonna take this from me? Well, faggot?" and so on. Meanwhile, his drinking buddies gathered around us in a circle. I didn't know any of them, and some of them were starting to echo his taunts. Even though this sergeant wasn't in my chain of command, and was probably too drunk to be much of an opponent, I was pretty sure that fighting with him would be a really bad choice. But the way out was blocked, and not fighting was starting to look like a recipe for getting the crap kicked out of me by the whole group.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Ray go over to his locker. He reached in and pulled out the biggest revolver I've ever seen in my life. I'm not any kind of gun expert, so I'll just say that it seemed like it was about a foot and a half long, with a bore the size of my thumb. Rather than a choice between fighting or just taking a beating, it looked like my options had narrowed to begging for my life or just dying with dignity. Ray -- who was a PFC like I was -- pushed his way through the circle of drunk NCOs and faced the sergeant and me. He raised the pistol to eye level, muzzle up, and cocked it. Then he looked at the sergeant and said:

"This man is an American. He has a right to believe what he wants, and say what he believes. Now back off!"

I thought, "Ray, wait a minute, what does my being an American have to do with it? Shouldn't everybody have those rights?"

But what I said was "thanks, Ray!"

The crowd of drunk NCOs just kind of melted away, like the wicked witch of the west. I don't think it was the gun -- though that helped emphasize the point -- I think it was what Ray said. It was strictly against regulations for him to have that pistol, and the NCOs could have taken the whole thing as some kind of mutiny and escalated it to another level. But they were ashamed of themselves for acting in such an un-American way, once somebody pointed it out from their side of the political fence.

Being in the army left me with a kind of emotional commitment to political pluralism, and this episode was a big part of it. So that's my story for Veterans Day.

[Update 11/15/2003: this book review gives a pretty good picture of what I mean by "pluralism".]

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 12, 2003 08:29 AM