The school would close that summer as the county switched to comprehensive education, the gentle ethos of a bygone age would disappear. But on an afternoon in January 1973, there was excitement among the staff as a teacher at Elmhurst Grammar School at Street came into the arts room where 1Br were having a lesson and announced to the class that the United States were withdrawing their troops from Vietnam, that the war was over.
The news seemed to be greeted with enthusiasm by our teacher. To the rest of us in the room, the announcement seemed exciting, but did not mean very much. We would have been hard-pressed to have found Vietnam on a map and certainly would not have been able to explain a war that seemed to have lasted our entire lifetimes.
I had grown up on war stories. I loved the Commando comic books that would have been bought as a treat at holiday time. The history of wars as I knew it was a history where the good guys suffered at the beginning, but would always overcome overwhelming odds to emerge victorious.
There was an idea fixed in my my naïve mind that the good guys would always stay until the end of a conflict and the good guys would always win. When teachers said that the war was over (and teachers were infallible as far as I was concerned), the war must have been finished and the good guys must have finished the job they set out to do. As naïve as my thinking had been, it would have found reinforcement on 29th March 1973, the day last remaining American troops were withdrawn from Vietnam. President Nixon would have sounded unambivalent to me when he declared to Americans, “the day we have all worked and prayed for has finally come.”
I remember wondering why there had been a fuss in January 1973 as I watched the news reports in the two years that followed, the reports showed that the war was anything but over. The suffering might have been past for the soldiers who had been withdrawn, but the killing of ordinary people continued apace. The single image that became imprinted upon my mind was from 29th April 1975. A helicopter was perched on the roof of the United States embassy as people struggled to climb aboard to escape. It seemed a picture of utter desolation.
The events that were to follow in Vietnam were hideous. The critics of the United States, including those who had chanted the name of Ho Chi Minh in the 1960s demonstrations against the war, were strangely muted in their condemnation of the regime that became established in 1975. There were no mass student marches against a Vietnamese government that killed countless numbers of its own people and that drove thousands into becoming boat people.
As the last Americans and Europeans leave Kabul, the prospects for the people left behind are as bleak as they were for the people of Saigon – not that there will be any mass student demonstrations against the Taliban.