The privileges of rank
never meant more to
me than they did one
July morning in
1971. I was riding in the back of a big Army helicopter--a Huey gunship, if I remember right--a few hundred feet above the red clay of Vietnam's Central Highlands, when I heard, on a headset, these words, spoken in an amused voice by the pilot to his crew: "Let's take her up, so the general's son doesn't get his ass shot off." I, the general's son, was not sorry.
I would like to think that if I had been a colonel's son, or a sergeant's, I would have received the same consideration that day, but the truth is that in either of those cases I probably would never have been in the gunship at all and would never have been touring Vietnam. That's what I was doing--touring, not in the sense of a tour of military duty, but in the sense of a grand tour of Europe. The whys and wherefores of so unlikely a vacation I will leave to your imagination for a moment. It was not the only such situation I found myself in as my father's son that, at the time, could have brightened the day of one of Sen. William Proxmire's aides or one of Washington's dauntless reporters.
More ambiguous roles must exist than that of the general's son, but for me in my late teens there were ambiguities aplenty. For one thing, there were real privileges, from servants in the house to the size and location of the house itself. But although I enjoyed these trappings, they were not really mine, as my parents often reminded me. Living as they did in a small world in which rank--status, privilege, authority--is even more clearly defined than it is in the world at large, they knew well how unpleasant the borrowed authority of wives and children could be. So I heard many times as I was growing up that I was to be the passive beneficiary of my father's status, but I was never actively to invoke it. This was as it should be, and no burden; still, I felt the delicacy of the situation and felt the need to prove to others that I had no intention of trying to lord it over them.
One reason for my parents' sensitivity about this, and for my own, was that my father was not, of course, born a general. He spent years moving up rank by rank, never sure he would rise higher. So when he finally did get his star, as the saying goes, he knew what it was to be a lieutenant or a lieutenant colonel. The same was true for me. When I was the son of a lieutenant general, I knew what it was to be the son of a lieutenant colonel. And so I knew how distasteful it could be to seem to care what rank my father was, and how anxious others were to find me guilty of that indiscretion.
It wasn't only the children of other military men with whom I had to be on guard. My father's pull--that was the word we always used-- often resulted in my getting summer jobs on the base where we were living. Yet his pull, or more likely his inclination, was never sufficient to land me anything too cushy or even remotely well paying. Usually, I found myself doing manual labor at minimum wage alongside some one-striper. You can guess how impressed he was to be working next to the likes of me. So my first few days on the job were marked by frenzied good-Joe-ism on my part and a studied silence by the one-striper. What usually brought us together was a common enemy, often someone with four or more stripes, a gut, a flattop and a penchant for talking about "this man's Air Force." Thus I learned a healthy uncomfortableness with all those in authority, whether they had four stripes or four stars. If there was any disrespect involved, though, I was of course wise to leave it at the front door when I returned home after work.
Never did the disjunction between my job and my home seem greater than during the time of my first job after college graduation. My parents were living at Bolling Air Force Base at the time, and I was working-- temporarily, I trusted--as a dishwasher at the Bolling officers' club. All day I would fill wash racks with the cheap, sour-smelling drink glasses and the foul, indestructible glass ashtrays of a dozen receptions. Then I'd return to my father's fine brick quarters, with the rose garden and the gazebo out back, and with men in the kitchen to fix my meals and wash my dishes.
Although these men performed the chores that servants perform, it is impossible for me to think of them as servants. They were also military men, who had volunteered for that duty--in part because it was more pleasant work thanrunning a mess hall, say; in part because they took on in small ways the authority of the general for whom they worked. Perhaps it is not for me to say, though I do believe it, that they also did their jobs out of an affection for the man and the family for whom they worked. I know that we loved them. For me, they were more like older brothers, but brothers with an unnatural eagerness to be helpful. It was odd, though, having these strangers suddenly come into the house to do the hard work that my mother had always done, and odder still that they suddenly became important members of the household.
A more serious ambiguity grew out of my being a general's son during the Vietnam War. Generals were the noirest of the betes noires in those days, and being the son of one did not prevent me from accepting them as the symbols of a war that I hated as much as other college students did. The low point came, I believe, when I told my mother on the telephone that I was considering not accepting the new Ford Pinto my father wanted to buy for me, because he was in Vietnam at the time and the blood of Vietnamese peasants would be--figuratively, you see--alllover the car. I hope this says more about what it is to be 19 than it does about me. In the end, I decided to take the car. After all, I lived off campus, and had to have a way to get to classes and rallies and stuff.
About the same time, I and, as it happens, another general's son (and the grandson of a famous general from World War II) were cooking up a ludicrous scheme for how we would pass our next summer vacation. The plan, in brief, was to ride motorcycles overland from Bangkok west to Turkey and eventually on to England. Perhaps we were not really serious, and yet I can remember our spending hours in the college library hunched over a large atlas, debating such fine points as the relative merits of avoiding Rangoon.
My father caught wind of the proposal (no doubt from me, as part of a blithe request that he finance my travels with some of his bloodstained bucks), and wrote me from Vietnam on official stationery explaining in all-too-reasonable detail the flaws in the plan. Today I appreciate the depths of patience this letter represented, but at the time I was less understanding. Eventually, a compromise was proposed: Would I visit him in Vietnam, with perhaps a side trip to Bangkok? I would, in an instant, especially since my fellow easy rider had apparently gotten his own letter on official stationery and had opted to spend the summer with his famous grandfather on Cape Cod.
My delivery from probable garroting on the outskirts of Rangoon I owe in part to Gen. Creighton Abrams, who was then in charge in Vietnam. He had the notion that it would be nice if some of his senior officers brought over their college-age children to see the war firsthand--or what passes for firsthand in tours by congressmen, wives of cabinet officers and suchlike; in other words, a carefully orchestrated peek, but with strict orders that no asses were to be shot off.
Did I, a college student who opposed the war, feel uncomfortable as Gen. Abrams' guest? No, as a general's son, I had grown used to such ambiguities. Once I had arrived in Vietnam, I met a lot of ger thenerals; I even lunched with an admiral aboard his carrier in the South China Sea. I liked most of them, even Abrams himself, whom I met briefly and remember as a gentle man, soft-spoken, modest and friendly. Perhaps I had only discovered, probably before I'd even heard the famous phrase, the banality of evil. Certainly the war was wrong. But how could I judge these generals, beyond realizing that they were men like my father, who missed their children, their wives and their homes, and who did not, when back home, ever tell a war story, outside an occasional yarn in the officers' club bar?
In Vietnam I discovered something that Rangoon might never have taught me, that I might have missed in a lifetime of seeing Asia by motorcycle: a gentle general. In that small, euphonious oxymoron, there is a suggestion that the world is a less simple place than it is said to be. If a general might be gentle, what might a general's son be? A good Joe, or anything at all.