BoomerCafé recently ran an excerpt that our co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs wrote for a new book that resonates with baby boomers, a book called “1969: Are You Still Listening?: Stories & Essays.” It looks back 50 years to the end of the stormy decade that helped shape us all. Now, BoomerCafé periodically is publishing excerpts by other writers who also contributed to the book. It’s part of our series of reflections for boomers from 50 years ago.
This excerpt is by Hoboken, New Jersey’s David Cogswell, and it will surely remind most boomers, older ones anyway, of a dark period in our young lives. He calls it, When Worlds Collide.
I was set to graduate in 1967, the Summer of Love, and it was a thrilling time to be coming of age in America.
Youth culture was flowering in beautiful ways. Our popular music had undergone a metamorphosis and become much more exciting, colorful, and energetic, embodying a world of new possibilities. Arts and fashion flowered with an explosion of new, more colorful styles.
But my trajectory, and that of my generation, was about to collide with much darker historical movements taking place at the same time. In my view practically everything coming out of the blossoming youth culture was exciting and novel. But in the background, a killing machine was roaring.
The rapid acceleration of the war effort was ramping up as I graduated from high school and reached the age when I had to sign up for the draft. At that point the war was escalating at a dizzying rate.
Here’s how fast it accelerated. In 1963 there were only 122 American casualties in Vietnam. In 1964 there were 216. Then the number of deaths began to increase by orders of magnitude. In 1965 the casualty number jumped to 1,928. In 1966 it jumped to 6,350 and in 1967, my graduation year, it soared to 11,363. Almost a thousand young Americans were getting killed every month in Vietnam. And the numbers were still growing.
This was the world I stepped into when I graduated from high school. I was not aware of any of this until I got into college and had to sign up for the draft, as required for every young man in America. Mandatory military service brought the carnage of the war home to the streets of America.
For my graduating classmates of 1967, who were in the Pentagon’s direct line of fire for their personnel requirements, it crashed down on our world seemingly out of nowhere. We were broadsided.
We had no idea what it was about, or why 19-year-olds were being forced to give up their lives, their careers, and their dreams to go become killers of people in some distant country we had never heard of. The politicians said it was to stave off the Communist threat, but that seemed remote and abstract. It didn’t ring true for us. We didn’t feel like our leaders were being honest with us and our mistrust grew.
With the war building to a boil, those of us who were of draft age had to make our life decisions with that in mind. We were told we had an obligation to give ourselves up to be pawns for some military man to order into battle. But for what? What was the reason for all this?
What was happening to me was happening to millions of young Americans across the country, and it set off a massive social upheaval. It changed our relationship with the government overnight.
Suddenly we were plunged into existential choices. We were told our lives were not our own, that we had to give up our plans and our lives and obey the orders of men in Washington. Yet there was no clear threat.
If America had been under attack, most of us would have rallied and joined the fight to defend it as our fathers’ generation had. But that wasn’t it. Something wasn’t right about it. For my generation it broke down our trust in authority. But our parents’ generation was still living in the mindset formed in World War II, when our country, our allies and democracy itself were under attack, and the enemy was clear and unmistakable.
My father’s attitude toward the war in Vietnam was the attitude he had formed in World War II. But that was a very different war and a different world. And my generation responded to it very differently. And society became bitterly divided along that line.