Whiplash: When The Vietnam War Rolled a Hand Grenade into the Animal House
Reviewed by: Ed Bennett
There are some books that elicit fond memories of times past. This is not one of them for those of us in the 1970 graduating class. In December of 1969 the United States Selective Service re-instituted the lottery to determine the sequence of young men to be inducted into the Army. There were 366 capsules drawn from a large fish bowl that were dated and posted. It sounds like a dry statistical procedure except for those of us born in 1948; for us, each capsule was our birthdate and ones placement in the drawing determined our future, or seeming lack of one, if we were chosen to fight in Vietnam. Numbers from 1 to about 135 would most likely be called up in the draft, 135 to about 200 was “no man’s land” and anything north of 200 was considered safe. The “no man’s land” position was quite fluid and depended on the assessment of manpower requirements that the Army announced monthly. A particularly bloody month in the war would lead to an increase in those requirements to replace American losses. Some 44 years later, I remember my number, 174, and how my life was placed on hold for many months while I checked the newspapers to see how far they had gotten toward my number.
Denis O’Neill’s Whiplash is a poignant description of the effects of the lottery and the anti-war movement on Dartmouth’s campus. Specifically, he examines the members of Heorot House, a fraternity on campus and their lives during the 1969 – 1970 school year. Changes were coming rather quickly to Dartmouth and to Heorot House: Woodstock and the Summer of Love were in the news, Dartmouth had allowed seven women on to the formerly all male campus and, for the first time, Heorot House had their first female pledge. These events seemed unconnected but they coalesced into the anti-war activities on campus. The catalyst was the aforementioned lottery and the very real specter of death that it implied.
The book develops its plot as if it were a gathering storm. The early chapters deal with the expected booze fueled antics of the fraternity. Like most fraternities, beer was the lingua franca of debate, sexual encounters were the goal and then there were classes. This changed the night of December 1st, 1969, when the fate of the senior class was drawn from that fish bowl in Washington, DC. The novel takes a dark turn as the members of Heorot, as did their brothers across the nation, sat in front of a TV to learn just how random their future was. Though some were safe, the fraternity banded together to form some as yet unclear strategy to protect them all. The first response was to find ways to be considered 4F, unfit for service. Medical records were pored over for possible deferments and there were deliberate moves, like a precipitous weight gain, to claim that elusive 4F classification.
The climax came with the spring semester. Mr. O’Neill captures the spontaneity of the anti-war demonstration at Dartmouth and elsewhere in the country. By the spring of 1970 the US had opened a “secret” war in Cambodia, bombed Laos and Thailand, lied about it and then called for a troop increase. It was no longer the Vietnam War – it was the War in Indochina. The uncertainty of our futures, the perfidy of our national leaders and the names of friends who perished in the jungle became a volatile mixture that exploded on campuses nationwide. In Dartmouth’s case, students took over the Parkhurst Administration building, expelling the dean and hanging anti-war banners from the windows.
All combat troops in 1970 were male. The draft was for males and the onus faced with a bloody war fell on the male population. Despite this gender specific danger, there were many women in the anti-war movement who were dragged from buildings and gassed during the demonstrations. Mr. O’Neill specifically mentions them, Julie in particular, the lone woman in Heorot House. It is one thing to face down a threat, it is quite another to stand up to that threat when it has no interest in harming you. Julie’s character is consistently speaking truth to power whether it be a Board of Trustees unwilling to let women matriculate at Dartmouth or a New Hampshire State Trooper in riot gear.
For most of us, Whiplash tells the story of a campus in New England some forty odd years ago. For a few of us, it is an emotional roller coaster about a time when our trust in institutions was shattered and the promise of any future was viewed through a bloody lens. We were the sons and daughters who dared to talk back to our elders, who drove a president from office and who felt the need to make a better world. Unfortunately, with our do-nothing baby boomer congress and the same sort of lies from our past boomer presidents, one wonders what we have truly changed. Whiplash gives us an answer: this is far from a perfect world, but damn it, we tried.