Merson, who enlisted in the Marine Corps at the beginning of his senior year and served in Vietnam as an infantry scout, radio operator and platoon team leader, began by describing his experiences during the war.
He started with his own decision to enlist. Although Merson, along with most of his classmates at Amherst, had concluded that the war was “misguided and immoral,” he nevertheless felt it important that he take part in it.
“I felt that I had to be a part of it. For me, going to war was a right of passage. I couldn’t become a man-as I defined it-without being part of that experience. It was really very naive,” he explained.
Merson then chronicled the events of his tour of duty that caused him to become disillusioned with the American effort in Vietnam: a platoon commander who got seriously lost his first night in the jungle and a patrol mission for Viet Cong soldiers that required his platoon to destroy a village and relocate its inhabitants to a refugee camp. In combat against the Viet Cong, Merson saw some of his companions become psychologically unhinged from stress and lost others to “friendly fire” from misdirected airstrikes and massacres of noncombatants. “[I had resolved] to avoid firing at anyone and to keep anyone in my team from getting hurt,” said Merson, describing how he felt at the end of his time in Vietnam.
After describing his own experiences, Merson turned to the broader lessons he learned from the war. He learned that soldiers joined for reasons other than patriotism, troops were sent into combat unprepared and many survivors had been crippled psychologically. He also realized that the war had not yet ended for those Vietnamese who still have to live with land mines and unexploded shells. He added that the kinds of military euphemisms developed during the Vietnam war-“surgical strikes,” “collateral damage” and “friendly fire”-are still in use today.
Merson then opened the floor for questions from the audience for the second half of his presentation. He fielded questions about Vietnam, Iraq and more general issues of war and peace and dissent.
He explained that, although only about 10 of his roughly 244 classmates served in Vietnam, it was a conflict his whole generation participated in.
“In my generation, everybody fought in the war in Vietnam. You either fought to stay out of it, or you fought to stop it, or you fought in it as a soldier … it was the unifying experience of my generation,” he said.
He also expressed his concern with what he views as an over-eagerness to pursue military solutions to the world’s problems.
“War doesn’t solve problems, it only creates more problems … my own experience as a soldier, seeing the damage that comes from war and seeing how long it takes to recover from war, makes me think we have to find another way. We can’t say war is the default option,” said Merson. He emphasized the importance of strengthening institutions such as the United Nations, which he said can provide an alternative to war in solving international crises. He accused the past several presidential administrations of trying to weaken the United Nations.
Merson also expressed doubt for the possibility of American success in effecting “regime change” in Iraq.
“I cannot imagine the United States … doing an effective job administering what is Iraq today,” he said.
“I really think he said some important things that people in mainstream America can’t articulate. I think a lot of that comes from fear,” said Ryan Schenk ’04 after the lecture.
“I think it’s really important to have a forum … in which individuals can appear on campus to have a debate over these issues,” said Arthur Lord ’03, secretary of state of the Foreign Policy Forum.