When I was a nineteen-year-old soldier in South Viet Nam, one of the tunes played most often on Armed Forces radio was “Jimmy Mack” by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. Although a great pop classic with pulsing bass and a tight horn section underneath Martha’s fabulous vocal, the content of “Jimmy Mack” was about little more than a girl caught in a triangle. If Jimmy Mack didn’t make it home soon, she warned Jimmy (and all of us), the other boy just might win her affections.
But for young GIs far from home, the central question of “Jimmy Mack” always carried an extra level of meaning with a special weightiness. Yes, we had girlfriends back home who might decide that they had waited long enough. The “Dear John” letter was a well-known phenomenon in hooches in country. What was even more troubling though was the always unspoken follow-up question to “When are you comin’ back?” The ultimate question for all of us was “Are you comin’ back at all?” Or are you going to die thousand miles away for reasons no one really understands?
Watch FOX and CNN interviews with GIs in Kuwait and you will see the same unarticulated anxiety behind the eyes of young men waiting for war. One CNN reporter disturbs a handsome African American youth trying to get some sleep. Pressured by the reporter about whether he wants to fight, he answers, “That’s what we’re here for.” “I just want to get this over with,” he adds. “Yeah, right. So you can sleep,” jokes the reporter.
“Yeah, so I can sleep.” The terribly irony strikes me that should war come to this young man, someone’s son, husband, and father, he may be “sleeping” forever.
Another GI, a Southern boy who sings and plays guitar, performs briefly and CNN affords him fifteen seconds of international fame. He wants to be a country singer he tells the reporter. As soon as this war is over, he’ll get serious about his career. We can only wish him every success.
Like those of us who served in America’s war in Southeast Asia a generation ago, these young men know little about the whys and wherefore of diplomatic maneuvering, foreign policy debates, and geo-political strategies. Are they about to sacrifice their lives to “disarm a regime,” overthrow a brutal dictator, liberate the Iraqi masses or all of the above? Or none of the above? Are they going to fight and die “to protect our freedom”? No more so than did those of us who were in Viet Nam. I have no doubt that what motivates the majority of these young men is one thing and one thing only-to survive the conflict and get back to their families.
Do those of us who disagree with Bush’s drive to war support our troops? I would argue that we support them much more than the flag-waving jingoes lining up at pro-war rallies and posing as FOX anchors. We support them so much that we want them home now, alive and psychologically sound. We want them home now so that young girlfriends and wives can embrace them and need no longer sing, “Jimmy Mack, when are you comin’ back? Need your lovin’…”
Jorge Mariscal was a Specialist 4th Class in the U.S. Army who spent most of 1969 in South Viet Nam.