By Britt Masback
The Ken Burns documentary on the Vietnam War has me decidedly nervous about my future. While it may seem implausible that an era in American history 50 years ago would have direct relevance to me – a 16-year-old – but it does. Given the current inhabitant of the White House and his bellicose talk about war with North Korea, I have to consider the possibility that some series of improbable events from the infamous Twitter fingers of President Trump and the calculated, yet unpredictable trigger finger of Kim Jong Un will plunge the U.S. into a war resulting in the kind of societal upheaval and destruction that typified the Vietnam period. Four things worry me:
1. As with Vietnam, a series of unexpected events could lead to calamity. The Vietnam War documentary details perfectly how the backdrop of the Cold War amplified the strategic importance of Vietnam and made the expansion of the U.S. military role inevitable. Lacking a clear and consistent vision for his foreign policy, President Trump lumbers from pronouncement to pronouncement, drawing lines, making threats, and generally destabilizing an entire region. Does anyone doubt that his narcissism and that of Kim Jong Un could result in a similarly destructive conflict?
2. War could mean the end of the “volunteer” army and the reinstitution of the draft just as I approach draft-eligible age. A sense of common purpose around World War II justified a draft that madethe armed forces a melting pot of shared service in defense of our country. That spirit clearly didn’t exist in connection with the Vietnam War. Wealthy Americans, who could extend their education or benefit from completely spurious medical deferments, didn’t serve, while less advantaged families sent their sons off to a distant jungle. This divide has been exacerbated by the advent of the all-volunteer army, with middle class and lower middle class families disproportionately bearing the brunt of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. A new war with Korea would be controversial, but I could see President Trump and a Republican Congress using reinstitution of the draft as a wedge issue and rallying cry as they not unreasonably call on America to “share the pain” of the war across all economic and social classes.
3. Regardless of whether the draft is reinstituted, my years in college may be marked by protest and disorder. I’ve heard older relatives speak of their days marching against the war in Vietnam and I was familiar with the tragedy at Kent State even before the Burns/Novick documentary. While the relatives speak wistfully about their days as protestors, I fear that the modern version of such divisions in our country might be even more violent than the 1960s and 1970s, as people pushed to the political fringes of American society would only aggravate the already yawning divides.
4. A war could and likely would lead to economic chaos and a challenging economy. Regardless of whether I serve in the military or march in protest, a war will likely mean that I emerge from my college days into a chaotic and struggling economy. As with Vietnam, a war with Korea would undermine any chance of rebuilding American infrastructure, would divert resources that might better be used to improve the quality of education, and will further weaken the social safety net in America. The impact of a war with North Korea, the President’s recent re-escalation of the Afghanistan conflict, and his embrace of economic protectionism could plunge the world into global depression, a tough environment into which to launch a career.
General Sherman said, “War is hell,” though the current administration, led as it is by someone who sought and received four educational deferments and one medical deferment for bone spurs in his heel, seems persuaded that putting America and North Korea on a war footing is in the world’s best interest. I hope that the anxiety about the current circumstances that I’ve felt since learning more about Vietnam is misplaced. Only time will tell.
Photo Credit: Kenburns.com