To the County Seat

Tonkin Gulf 50th Anniversary
Tonkin Gulf 50th Anniversary

IOWA CITY— My skills at ordering a beer failed to keep up with the times. We were meeting at a bar in the county seat, one recognizable from infrequent visits for meetups over 40 years. I arrived first and took a seat at the bar.

“What do you have on tap?” I asked. The trouble began.

Expecting the bartender to name two or three brands manufactured by large brewers, she handed me a menu with a long list of draught beers.

“Do you make any of them here?”

“No, we don’t.”

Distracted when I saw two modern-day hipsters drinking tall PBRs a few feet away, I said to myself, “it’s not that simple any more.” I should have ordered one of those.

The bartender stood waiting, then left while I pondered.

Memories came. Of the Chief Tavern on Seventh Street in Davenport where I went when things got a bit rowdy where I rented a room during the summer of 1975. I’d take a book, walk the half block, and nurse a beer at the bar, reading and waiting for things to quiet down at home.

“Do you have pilsener?” I asked when she returned. She did.

As U.S. Army officers in Germany, we secured cases of Pilsner Urquell through the U.S. embassy in Prague. It was hard to get the Czech beer in the late 1970s, although the brand is widely available today— even in our rural Iowa town.

Resolved that pilsener shall be my standard order to avoid having to memorize ever changing options. Keep things simple and cope with change.

A few minutes later she brought a tall glass with an inch and a half of foam. I paid six dollars and a buck for a tip, and nursed the beer until my friends arrived.

Our local chapter of Veterans for Peace was commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution that gave congressional authorization for the war in Vietnam. It is a resolution we now know was premised on a falsehood. It is not news that in war, truth is the first casualty.

The most powerful part of the event was the witness of five members of our chapter who are Vietnam veterans. I tried recording the speeches, but my device shut down when some of their voices were softer than its range of perception.

Tom Kelly
Tom Kelly

Former marine Tom Kelly spoke of black ops in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, something we knew at the time was going on. The reality of his experience spoke louder than his voice ever could.

“I did things I’m not proud of,” he said, wearing a ball cap commemorating his veteran status as a marine. It was sobering to hear his words as the sun set on a beautiful Iowa summer day.

None of the Vietnam War needed to have happened. The American deaths and injuries; the far greater number of Vietnamese deaths and casualties. It did happen, and as the memorial at the court house is inscribed, “all gave some; some gave all.” It is not only about us.

Our country’s propensity for war, and the deceptions and falsehoods about it, make determining what to do more challenging than ordering a beer could ever be. It seems critical that we move on from our personal problems to effect change. In a society possessed of personal choices, our government is on a course of militarism that could jeopardize all we hold dear.

To say I am glad to know the veterans in our group couldn’t be more true. To say we can continue with our nationalistic pandering to the gods of war is the lie. One we can’t afford to repeat as we sustain our lives in a turbulent world.