SOMETIMES I THINK of Peg Mullen. I imagine her, this time of the year at least, on her Iowa farm, cold and snowy with drifts like waves, and I want to ask her if anyone's called. By now, everyone must know that her boy died for nothing. It would be nice if they said they were sorry.
I know Peg Mullen from a book. It's called "Friendly Fire" and it's about a number of things, Vietnam and the war, but it's mostly about Peg Mullen -- how the war and the death of her son changed her. She went from Iowa farm wife to radical -- a real "crazy." You couldn't blame her. For a long time, she couldn't find out how her boy died and even when she came to know that she never knew why -- why we fought that war in the first place. It gets harder and harder to answer that question.
I think of Peg Mullen now because the Chinese are at war with the Vietnamese and the Russians are threatening to fight the Chinese and the Vietnamese are still fighting with the Cambodians. All of a sudden the World War III they warned you about in school is a real possibility only we've been left out. We have to think hard just to pick a side.
This was never supposed to happen. Back when I was younger, they drafted people like me and explained it all with a map. They marched you into a big hall and some sergeant yelled "lights!" and some film went on about the dangers of communism -- how it was on the march. In the film, Russia went the color red and then China and then North Vietnam -- the red of communism spreading over the globe like someone had kicked over a paint can. They had to be stopped here, they said, pointing in those days to Vietnam, or we would be fighting them "on the streets of San Francisco." That is the expression you heard and the only thing I could figure out is that some clever someone realized right off that no one would fight for Los Angeles.
I believed it all. I was raised on it. I remember a television program where Dwight Eisenhower explained the crisis over Quemoy and Matsu by going to the same map. John Foster Dulles was with him and at one point Ike called the secretary of state "Foster" and asked him to go to the map with a pointer. As Ike talked, Foster worked the map and what you came away with was the belief that there was this thing called communism, this unified force, and it was coming to San Francisco unless we stopped it. Most of my life I believed that and for a time I was willing to die for it. Michael Mullen did.
Now, of course, the whole thing has come apart. The dominoes have turned on each other. The academics -- the snobby, pointy-headed effete, elite eggheads so scorned by Spiro Agnew and George Wallace -- turned out to be right. The Vietnamese really do hate the Chinese. Our war in Vietnam now makes as much sense as some 19th century British colonial expedition, some crazy world war in some place of no importance, all but forgotten save for some crypt in the wall of some cathedral saying some young man had died for a cause no one can remember.
So I keep waiting for one of them to step forward and say they're sorry -- a politician, a general, a columnist. I keep waiting for one of them to admit they were wrong, that it was all wrong, that people died for nothing. It would be nice for them to say this before they lead us off again to some new adventure -- something to do with Iran or Afghanistan or maybe Vietnam in some new way. It would be nice if they would say something because then you would know that they learned something, that they know where they once went wrong and they aren't trying to prove years later that they were right all along.
This is why I think of Peg Mullen. There are plenty like her -- mothers and fathers and wives and others, but always she comes to mind. I imagine her on that farm, 120 acres of snow and cold and some road leading down to the highway -- all of that, even though she may not be there anymore.I can see it all anyway and I wonder if anyone ever calls to say they're wrong and they're sorry.
Gentlemen, the lady is waiting for your call.