Born in the USA
I was born almost 40 years ago, March 1, 1968, into a loving family and an indifferent universe and a country that had never been defeated. We’d thumped the Redcoats once and then again for good measure and subdued the rebel South and pretty much wiped the savage Indians off the face of our expanding map and pummeled the Germans twice and nuked Japan into submission and on top of all that tallied several smaller victories along the way over anyone anywhere not willing to make way for freedom. Even in our recent tangle in Korea we’d been able to walk away like a champ still holding his star-spangled title belt high. Hey, you’re going to have to do better than a draw if you’re going to dethrone the champ! We the People had always kicked ass. We the People had always believed. And then, just a couple days before I came out of my mom feet-first and bloody and yellow with jaundice in a hospital in New Jersey, We the People had begun to wonder for the very first time if We were going to lose.
On February 27, news anchor Walter Cronkite, so widely respected that he was considered to have the ear of the entire nation, summed up his thoughts on his recent trip to Vietnam. To that point Cronkite had passed along without any notable editorial comment the assurances of military leaders and policy makers that there was “light at the end of the tunnel,” that the Vietnam War would soon come to a satisfactory end, yet another win for the Red, White, and Blue. Cronkite’s trip to Vietnam had been prompted by the recent Tet Offensive, a massive widespread attack by North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong forces on South Vietnamese and American targets. The gigantic surge revealed that the enemy was far from teetering on the brink of defeat. They could throw a lot at us and still keep coming. They weren’t going to quit. So if they weren’t going to quit, who was?
“To say that we are mired in stalemate,” Cronkite concluded, “seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy’s intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”
By the time Walter Cronkite seemed with his prospective “did the best they could” epitaph to give voice to the budding national desire to give in, to quit, morale had begun to erode in certain sectors of the rapidly expanding United States military presence in Vietnam. Morale was particularly low among the infantrymen from Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry, 11th Light Infantry Brigade of the 23rd American Division. A newcomer to the company named Michael Bernhardt described his impression of his new surroundings in Christian Appy’s excellent oral history of the Vietnam War, Patriots:
When I was assigned to Charlie Company I knew there was something wrong. You could see it and smell it. . . . There was no sense of community, no sense of duty or responsibility, no sense of pride. . . . Anybody who says these guys were typical doesn’t know what they are talking about. . . . They were just a bunch of street thugs doing whatever they wanted to do. It was a group that was leaderless, directionless, armed to the teeth, and making up their own rules out there, deciding that the epitome of courage and manhood was going out and killing a bunch of people.
On March 15, 1968, according to Bernhardt, a combination briefing and memorial service for fallen comrades had turned into a “pep talk that was inflammatory” delivered by Captain Ed Medina, who had made clear to everyone that “it was payback time, that we were going to get revenge for the terrible things they were doing to us. . . .”
The next day, Charlie Company entered My Lai-4, a subhamlet of Son My, and killed almost everything in their path. A cover-up kept the massacre out of the public eye for nearly two years, but eventually three mass graves were uncovered that contained the corpses of five hundred villagers, including women, children, and the elderly. Even more lives would have been claimed had the three-man crew of an OH-23 helicopter not intervened, an act which, thirty years after the fact, gained them all the Solder’s Medal for Gallantry. The account of one of these men, Larry Colburn, is also given in Appy’s oral history.
“I’ve seen the list of dead,” Colburn recalls, “and there were a hundred and twenty some humans under the age of five.”
The year of my birth just kept getting bloodier. On April 5 Martin Luther King was assassinated, sparking deadly riots in cities all across the country and also raising already high racial tensions among American soldiers in Vietnam. Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy’s eloquent remarks about the assassination called on Americans “to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.” Two months later he was assassinated, too. In August the pattern of chaotic violence erupted into brutal beating-filled clashes between city police and antiwar protesters at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
We the People might not have lost yet, but we sure as hell weren’t winning. We the People weren’t even a We anymore.
As televisions across the splintering nation flickered with images of American cops clubbing American hippies, Garry Maddox was wrapping up his first year of professional baseball. Maddox played most of the season in Salt Lake City, but after logging 206 at-bats there he was promoted to the San Francisco Giants’ farm team in Fresno, where he batted a promising .316 in 19 at-bats. The back matter on the card shown at the top of this page shows no baseball statistics for the two years following his debut season in 1968. In the lines for both 1969 and 1970 there is just a statement that reads “In Military Service.”
(to be continued)