John Heinlen, Orrington
The War at Home
In the summer of 1968 the Vietnam war, which had been escalating under Lyndon Johnson’s presidency since the Gulf of Tonkin incident, was reaching new levels of violence, and resistance against the war was growing.
I grew up in a quiet, small town on the southwest side of Cleveland, Ohio. At first the war seemed a distant rumble. The war was broadcast for parts of a half hour on the nightly national news. There was not the constant barrage of news we have today.
That summer, two of our princes were gunned down. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King had both taken up the cause of the anti-war movement, and were murdered. That summer, the television coverage changed because the violence in the streets during the Democrat’s convention in Chicago was broadcast live, and the inner cities of L.A. Detroit, Cleveland and others went up in flames during racially-charged rioting. That summer, the violence of the world came home to roost, “like a pigeon from hell”, on the television and in the walls and floors of my small home. That summer, my brother refused induction into the Army of the United States. That summer, I turned twelve.
My father mustered out of the U.S. navy at the end of WWII a full lieutenant. My mother was a staunch liberal, who campaigned vigorously for Eugene McCarthy in his bid for the presidency on an anti-war platform. To say they differed politically would be an understatement. They were oil and water. Battle lines were drawn and when brother Bill refused induction it turned a mild argument on occasion into chaotic, often boisterous, often drunken argument that on occasion spilled over to the physical. My brother and father came to blows.
At twelve, I didn’t know much, but I knew my world seemed to be crumbling. Seeking solace, I went for long bicycle rides in the wonderful park system that rings Cleveland. I found a large sandstone boulder that had eroded out of the cliff and which sat on the edge of the Rocky River. That became my adolescent anchor and foundation. Sometimes alone, sometimes courting my first girlfriend, there was wonder and peace that transcended the madness around me.
The craziness of that time, the apparent fracture of everything stable, though it seemed to settle back down, was never really resolved. Mark Twain once remarked, “History doesn’t repeat itself, it rhymes.” Now, in this country and the world, we find ourselves in a similarly fractious moment. Both domestically and abroad, things again seem to be falling apart, and the parallels are striking:
Wars abroad that never seem to end, and whose means are increasingly questioned, lack of political consensus, calls for the resignation or impeachment of our president, calls for social and racial justice, domestic unrest that turns violent, to name a few. It would seem the divisions of that summer of 1968, and the years that followed, weren’t resolved, they only lay latent in the soul of the country.
I’m a student of psychology. Divisions within the individual go through stages of healing. First revelations of them are often re-covered-over through renewed repression. The individual will be relieved of some of their troubles for a time, but with renewed repression they will come back, often in spades. Analogous phenomena are seen in the collective psyche.
In order to truly heal divisions, both individually and collectively, they must be allowed to breath and to be worked with, often again and again, before real resolution is reached. That work is usually very disturbing. Who in their right mind wants to suffer their inner conflicts? What society wants to? But what is “right mind”? Both individually, and collectively, “right mind” has come to have new meaning for me. It isn’t just feeling better for a time, it is actually entering in to the unresolved dilemmas of the psyche. It takes hard work.
The summer of 1968 led to other summers. The war in Vietnam dragged on for 6 more years, and ended in an ignominious defeat for the United States. Students were gunned down by soldiers of the National Guard, on a college campus just down the road from me at Kent State University. The President of the United States was, for the first time in our history, forced to resign in disgrace. My brother, who had fully expected to go to jail for his refusal, and whose life had hung fire for much of that time, moved on. He was indicted in 1972–a full four years after his crime! The judge threw the case out at pre-trial on the grounds that he had suffered enough. I applied for and went off to college.
“History is the nightmare from which I am trying to awake.
What are the lessons I’ve learned about this human nature that rhymes? Work! It’s an oversimplification, but that’s what it comes down to. In working with the psyche, which is the root of all these repetitions, it takes diligence, honesty, introspection–a willingness to look matters squarely in the face and then apply what you’ve learned in the world.
One of the markers of our current and past divisions, is a loss of communication. For all our vaunted technologies of communication, we often talk past those we don’t know or don’t like. When something is trying to get our attention in the psyche it manifests as seemingly irreconcilable oppositions. This makes it much more difficult for people to simply talk to each other.
As with all turning points in psychological work, it’s a time of great turmoil, but also of great promise. There are not any guarantees of success. It is always a gamble. As an optimist, and someone who has been through more than a few personal fires and come out the other side tempered, stronger, more aware, I know as a nation that with hard work we can come out the other end of our current crises both stronger and wiser. But we have to talk to one another. Nowadays. I’m going out of my way to listen to people I wouldn’t ordinarily encounter, and might not even like very much.
May God bless this wonderful experiment we call the United States.