My War, and Its Lone ‘Casualty’

One of my most-memorable experiences of the Vietnam War(time) occurred while I was a member of the drill team of an ROTC unit on the campus of the university from which I hold a bachelor’s degree, received together with a commission in the armed forces of the United States. We 24 or so cadets were practicing, marching in ranks of four along a paved campus footpath, from which we were accustomed to seeing individual pedestrians step off to let us pass. One such pedestrian, a male perhaps a bit cheekier than the others, noting our ordered files, sought to let us pass around him without his having to step off the path, turning himself sideways so that we might slip around him without breaking formation.

Our commander, in a split-second decision, deployed us against this interloper by ordering us (we were all carrying deactivated rifles) to Port Arms. We normally marched, as such units always do, at Shoulder Arms, in which our rifles were canted over our right shoulders. At Port Arms, however, we could continue marching, but we held our rifles diagonally across our chests, the butts protruding slightly to our left, and the barrels slightly to our right. This prevented our (passive) "attacker" from "penetrating" our ranks.

It was thrilling (for me, at least, in a trailing rank not dealing directly with the "interloper"). Our notional attacker was somehow thrust off the pavement, without even being knocked down as I recall, and we passed unpenetrated, as it were, while our interloper shook himself free of surprise and indignation by the side of "our" pavement. I found the total success of our synchronized execution of a single command most gratifying.

I was, then, a member of a highly trained, well-coordinated team that had but questionable authority so to claim hegemony of our campus’s footpaths. But it was not questioned, so far as I know. In the years following, I occasionally recalled the incident with a warm glow of … rectitude. It was our path, was it not? We were after all, the Mark I Precision Drill Platoon of our ROTC, and on top of that, we were good. We were the best, consistently winning competitions against the drill teams of other ROTC units, both on our campus and on other campuses. And evidently we were effective, in what I can now report with gratitude as the closest brush in my military experience with "combat."

As the years wore on, and I completed my military obligation (as this was called in the 1960s), and went on to receive an MBA, raise a family, and grow old, my evaluation of this pleasant memory gradually changed.

I came to see it almost as an allegory and, as always, my own participation in, and reaction to it was the focal point of my interest. The young man who sought to share the footpath with us in a less-subservient manner than others had was not grievously hurt, nor in fact hurt at all. But he was pushed aside by a large number of well-trained fellow-citizens (myself included) who felt after, if not during the event, that they acted in defense of their "rights," as well as smartly executing a clear order. And the society around us (this was around 1964) was either impassive, or actually would have supported us, the outcome having been as benign as it was.

Along the way to my present dotage, I came to understand "my" war (I "served" three years – please don’t thank me) much better than I did at the time, and thereafter, in a fashion some might adjudge doctrinaire, to understand all of America’s wars better in the same manner, and thereafter, with no exception that I’ve found yet, all wars everywhere, anywhere.

Perhaps I’ll change my mind again, if not about war, or wars, then maybe about the right of my drill team to shove a fellow student off a footpath.

But I’m not likely to live that much longer, so the chances of this grow slimmer by the day.

But I remember how right it felt to help my comrades on the Mark I Precision Drill Platoon shove our fellow student off that footpath, bruising nothing more than his dignity …

And, now, how wrong that was. How awfully, terribly wrong it all was, and is.

N. Joseph Potts is a retired accountant and technical writer living in South Florida. He holds a lapsed CPA certificate along with an MBA from Wharton and a BBA from Tulane. He served three years of active duty as an officer in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam era.