Excerpt: The Vietnam War

Photo: Title: Anti-Vietnam War placards surround Toronto’s war memorial in 1969. Photographer: Reg. Innell Date: April 6, 1969

28 July 2021 | The War | James Porteous | Excerpt from All of Me

The scorched-earth images from Vietnam were so horrendous, so unimaginably brutal that it soon became clear to me that everything that would happen in my life from that point on could, and would, in some way, be traced back directly to The War. 

The War


James Porteous

Every Friday morning our Grade Six class would trudge to  the small school library on the third floor where we would watch short 16mm films from around the world. 

I thought of it as an extension of television. And that was a good thing.

One week we watched a B&W film that purported to show happy Italians ‘harvesting’ pasta from pasta trees. 

It was very convincing and we had no reason to question the authenticity of the images in the film. And so we did not.  

(It would eventually be revealed that the pasta film was a harmless ‘April Fools’ Day’ hoax perpetrated by the BBC. All in good fun.) 

Another time we watched a film that appeared to show flesh dripping from the bodies of men, women and children in the wake of an atomic bomb the Americans had apparently dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. 

There was no reason to question the authenticity of these images, either. They were clearly not fabricated. The abject horrors were indeed true. 

A few years later I found myself sitting in front of our B&W television watching a mindless show when the news program began. Right at the top it showed ‘battle footage’ from The War.

By this I do not mean World War II. Or the ‘Korean War.’ Or any other incursion that might have taken place anywhere else in the world. 

For my generation, there was only one war: The Vietnam War. 

The War was to last 19 years, 5 months, 4 weeks and 1 day. It was fought in countries thousands of miles away from North America (North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos) that few of us would ever visit, let alone begin to understand. 

These scorched-earth images were so horrendous, so unimaginably brutal that it soon became clear to me that everything that would happen in my life from that point on could, and would, in some way, be traced back directly to The War. 

Anti-war Banjo Boy

The ‘personal horror’ began a few weeks later when viewers like me bore witness to the bodies of dead boys being calmly placed into something called ‘body bags’ before being transported in helicopters to who-knows-where.

I was stunned. How was it possible that boys only a few years older than me had ended up lifeless in body bags while I was living a life of peace and calm, smoking cigarettes and pot, listening to music and daydreaming about the women I had not-yet-met. 

And now I was expected to think about all the women the boys in the body bags would never meet?

The contrast between these two worlds was beyond comprehension. 

I had visited America many times by then and I was very fond of many regions but I had never really imagined that the two countries were anything other than vague mirror reflections of each other. I watched US TV stations and read American newspapers and magazines and cried when John Kennedy was assassinated and scoffed at Hubert Humphrey and mocked George Wallace. 

In truth I did not know anyone who could really hold a conversation on any of these topics, including my parents, but at 14 I thought this was standard fare. 

But what to make of these images? Why weren’t people -especially Americans- more upset by what we were seeing? It was certainly beginning to eat away at me, taking on what today might eventually be diagnosed as some form of survivor’s guilt. 

And it wasn’t just the body bags. What irked me even more was the fact that they were trying to sell This War as a typical and highly laudable fight between good vs. evil. The Americans, we were told, over and over again, were in Vietnam to ‘save’ the entire region in the same way they had ‘saved’ the world from Hitler. 

But surely by now, after years of relentless battles, it was clear  this ‘conflict’ was about as far from being a Good War as any war could possibly be. 

And the people of Vietnam were hardly hell-bent on world-domination. It was a country of rice paddies and jungles. Its citizens had cultivated a well-worn and grim determination to thwart any attempt -by the French or Americans or anyone else- to occupy their country. 

We were told they were ‘gooks’ and we were instructed to hate them as much as our parents and grandparents had hated the Japs and the Krauts. But these gooks seemed to look exactly like the other gooks who were fighting on ‘our side.’ 

Many of them were often shown running through rice paddies, trying in vain to avoid being killed by the occupying foreigners who for some inexplicable reason were shooting at them from helicopters.

And how could anyone hope to comprehend the meaning of the unimaginable plumes of smoke and fire resulting from the napalm being dropped on them indiscriminately. 

And what about the villages that appeared to have been razed to the ground because… Well, they did not have to declare a because. It just was. 

I began to wonder if this really was a battle between Good vs. Evil.  We (The West) were the ones killing these men, women, children. We were killing them so that we would not have to kill them later. We were killing them because they had the audacity to try and stop us from killing them, now or later. 

So had we not become the Evil part of the equation?

Nixon and the Generals and the media were having none of this bloodless navel-gazing crap. 

The dastardly old VC women were concealing bombs under their clothing, they said. That is why they wore such bulky garb!

And the ‘old men’ were really young men sent to the jungles to train other young men to fight and kill and maim the very American soldiers who were in the jungle trying to bring peace and democracy to the region. 

And what of the people being slaughtered from the helicopters? Well, they were running, we were told, and only guilty people would run through rice paddies to keep from getting shot at from moving helicopters filled with people whose main goal was to bring peace and democracy to the region.

So yes, it was a shame they had to be killed but war is hell and some people had to suffer so that others might live their lives basking in freedom and democracy.

Well, that seemed like a pretty high price to pay. 

And if a 14-year-old Canadian boy could see this surely it was only a matter of time before Time Magazine or The New York Times or Walter Cronkite would step forward and declare that the war was wrong and we were wrong for supporting it and it was wrong not to do everything in our collective power to stop the unyielding slaughter of these people. 

But that did not happen. Not on that scale.

Oh, there were heartfelt editorials in Ramparts and The New Republic and The Nation but they knew and we  knew that they were preaching to the choir and nothing they wrote would change the hearts or minds of anyone.

So we collectively lurched from one day to the next, naively thinking that perhaps the murderous clowns would stop killing people and The War would end and we could go back to being human again. 

Instead assassinations happened and Laugh-In happened and The Weathermen happened and Hee Haw and The Black Panthers and Spiro Agnew and The Chicago Eight and CREEP and Kent State.  

The troop levels kept increasing and the Generals soon made it perfectly clear that they were in it for the long haul. 

And we were beginning to understand just how long a haul that might be. 

A short time later I had the opportunity to see first-hand how The War was being fought on the home-front.

Two friends and I hitch-hiked through the US for six weeks. We departed from Toronto with $50 between us and a vague notion that we were going to find refuge at a friend’s house  somewhere in Florida. 

The journey did not start out very well. It took us five days to reach New York City and once there we quickly discovered  that it was not possible to hitch-hike out of the city. 

It was also soon clear that we had arrived in an exceedingly ugly, seedy and dangerous time. We spent many hours fending off drug dealers and pimps and just plain crooks who were roaming about the open wound that was Times Square before dumping our knapsacks at Penn Station. 

In desperation we used the last of our money to buy three-late-night tickets on the last bus leaving Dodge that night. Or rather early morning.  

We had assumed Washington, DC would be an easier place to survive but Lafayette Square was a smaller yet only-moderately safer version of Times Square. 

And of course there was this war thing going on and by now even more body bags were being featured on TV every night. 

I was a skinny, long-haired 16-year-old still lacking any real obvious skills save for the unfathomable ability to score alcoholic service without questions as to my actual age which was quite a few years short of the legal age to drink.

Unfortunately at that time being of ‘legal age’ to drink also implied one was of ‘legal age’ to die in The War. Given that there were no outward indications that I was both underage and a citizen of a foreign country, I began to encounter fuses that were exceedingly short. 

My first encounter with a homegrown short fuse came while waiting for a table at a restaurant near the White House. The moment we walked in, a gentleman in his early 30s began glaring at me from across the room. Just me.

When his gaze did not let up after a few long minutes I suggested to my friends that we depart. 

We joined a lineup to tour the White House. 

Alas, when our turn came the gentlemen in charge informed us that we should ‘move along.’

“As in away from you or away from The White House?” I asked.

“Both,” he said. 

He suggested we were not ‘dressed properly’ to grace the hallowed halls of the White House. There was certainly some truth to that, but clearly many others were dressed in exactly the same way. And as near as I could tell there was no blood on my hands or on my clothing. Still, we moved on.

A week later we found ourselves sitting in a quiet bar in Saranac Lake in Upstate New York. It was a school night but I noticed what looked like a father and his son at the end of the bar quietly and soberly nursing beers. 

As they were leaving the bartender quietly waved off payment for the drinks, saying it was an honor to be serving his son on his birthday. 

Oh dear, I thought. This must have been the boy’s ‘coming of age’ night and if he was ‘legal’ to drink he was also required by law to register for the draft with the Selective Service the very next work-day. 

No wonder they were so despondent. The boy’s life, barely started, might soon be ending. 

The worst of our first-hand-experiences took place a short time later when we found ourselves guests at a quasi-commune in Bowling Green, Kentucky. The sprawling country home was inhabited by boys and girls just slightly older than me. 

We fantasised that we might have stumbled into some sort of sex cult or perhaps a band of hoodlums planning their next bank job. No matter, they welcomed us with open arms.

The next morning, following a surprisingly healthy breakfast, the boys broke off into small groups and retired to the many bedrooms on the second floor.

Like the young man in the bar in Saranac Lake, these boys were themselves just shy of arriving at the age when they, too, would have to register for the draft.  

But they were not taking any chances. They had secured an official manual that detailed a list of possible deferment and exceptions that might be used to ‘avoid the draft.’ 

So they were studying how to fake a deferment based on homosexual tendencies while the boys in the next room were practising the fine and almost lost-art of being flatfooted. 

Following a break for lunch they moved on to the next room or sat in groups to discuss their political or social objections to the war. 

The entire affair was miraculous and mystifying and quite horrendous. 

Worst of all was the realization that, had I happened to have been born a few hundred miles on the other side of the international border, I might have been doing exactly the same thing.

By the time I turned 18 the protests against the war were almost as violent as the war itself. People today have forgotten that The Weathermen and other groups were setting off bombs across the US on a regular basis. And now the protests against the war were getting bigger and better organized. 

Some say that corporate America only ‘turned against’ the war when it began to lose money for those profiting from it, and there is of course some truth to this.

But there was also a momentum of opposition to the carnage. The military had tried and in some cases succeeded in controlling the narrative, so there were not quite so many body bags. At least now shown on TV at any rate. And the number of deaths were now rarely mentioned on the evening newscasts.

Still, one of my final acts of protest took the form of an anti-war protest in Toronto. 

I told my parents I was going. They thought I was a bit insane. Or a communist. Or an insane communist. 

And there was something to their argument, of course. By now I knew more about politics, and in particular American politics, then they or all their friends combined. I had tried to force them to watch many Democratic conventions and could name just about anyone who was anyone in the party. 

So they drove me to a meeting place in ‘the city’ and I was so relieved to discover that I would not be protesting -whatever that meant- on my own. There were many others there. Adults, but still.

I bought a bright red Che Guevara flag and inserted myself into the middle of a gaggle of Chipper Adults who Seemed to Know What they were Doing and nervously waited to find out what in fact we would be doing.

I do not remember all the details but I think we marched from Queen’s Park to the US Embassy on University Avenue in Toronto.

I marched but did not speak to a single person the entire time. Nor did a single person speak to me. They were all adults. They must have wondered what on earth I was doing there by myself. I was wondering the very same thing. 

This was the start of many years of wondering what on earth I was doing here. Or there…

Excerpt from forthcoming memoir, All of Me, by James Porteous


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