Vietnam Fifty Years Later

I came of age during the Vietnam War. During my junior year of high school, I braced for the draft lottery system, a process whereby I would be assigned a number that could drag me off to the other side of the globe. But, fifty years ago, in January 1973, the Vietnam draft ended. I intended to do alternative service as others in my church and family had before me. 

I remember a buddy in high school who wanted nothing more than to fight communists in Vietnam. In studying the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., I’ve never discovered his name on the wall, so he must have made it through the hell of fighting in Southeast Asia.

For the Mennonite missionaries and MCC workers who served in Vietnam, it was challenging for them to communicate the moral problems of U.S. engagement in Vietnam. Missionaries lived and worked in South Vietnamese neighborhoods where they heard helicopters strike with blazing fury and watched U.S. bombers fly overhead and drop deadly explosives. They tried to distinguish themselves from U.S. soldiers.

It was difficult for a young Mennonite surgeon to watch deadly attacks near him and stitch up the wounded in his evangelical hospital. The moral complexities he and others faced are easy to spot when reading articles by Mennonites who served in Vietnam during the war. They had volunteered to serve as missionaries or MCC workers, but they felt called to communicate with folks back home about the destructive havoc and death dealt by their government.

I remember reading Time and Newsweek while in middle and high school and seeing images of the war. We watched some black and white television in my home, enough that I could observe the Southeast Asia violence. It was my war because I thought Selective Service would call me up next for the draft, and Vietnam helped clarify my beliefs about peace.

At times the Mennonite personnel in Vietnam found their relations strained with other missionaries. Mennonites believed in peace, had come to serve, and generally chose not to use U.S. military air transport in their relief efforts. Other agencies used the U.S. military transport system and supported the war.

I heard about the young Mennonite volunteer from Ohio who vanished while serving in Vietnam, never heard from again. Mennonites served in Vietnam, and they did their best to communicate about the horrible conditions the people of Vietnam faced. They wrote letters of concern to their churches, their members of Congress, and the President. Some refused to serve, and one young man near my home burned his draft card. On the other hand, during the Vietnam War, 1964-1975, hundreds of Mennonite young adults who were conscientious objectors to war chose voluntary service in the U.S. or with international development agencies. 

As U.S. troops departed Vietnam in 1973-75, and the last helicopter frantically rose from Saigon, a Mennonite Central Committee worker observed the ugly long-term effects of the war. Several million unexploded bombs, artillery shells, and mortar rounds littered the fields and forests of Vietnam. 

Many from my generation served in the military as best they could during the Vietnam War, responding as good citizens to the demands of their commanders. I, however, look to the voices of peace from those who worked in Vietnam, messengers of a different kingdom, entangled in moral dilemmas that got them criticized by folks back home. I hope leaders today, fifty years after the draft ended in “my war,” can learn from the impact of getting involved in wars on distant shores. As in Vietnam, it can get ugly.