As some of you know, I was kind of devastated to miss Winter Soldier week before last. And the glimpse I got yesterday reminded me why, in the presence of a half-dozen members of Iraq Veterans Against the War. Some I’ve written about, like Garett Reppenhagen; some I’ve always wanted to meet, like Garett’s buddy Jeff; and other were new to me, like this active-duty sergeant, who demonstrated that you can be both warm, gorgeous and a kick-ass, totally disciplined organizer at the same time.
In a way, yesterday’s event was more important for the narrative of this book, even if I’d had to choose. While they talked a little about Winter Soldier, they offered yesterday not testimonies of Iraq atrocities but of their own resistance —starting with something as simple as Jeff placing anti-war stickers on signposts on his Iraq base, so that their command would know that their troops were serving under protest.
I wrote last time about being impressed by this generation, when they were my students: I’ve also been convinced from the beginning of this war that the White House didn’t know what it was in for when it sent people like this — smart, self-aware kids who believed deeply that they were doing something important — to fight a war that violates many of their core principles.
The other highlight yesterday was meeting Richard Boyle, perhaps best known as the guy played by James Woods for his exploits in Reagan’s first war. Before then, Boyle tooled around Vietnam as a super-freelancer, and in 1971 witnessed first-hand the GI resistance that was pivotal in ending the U.S. war against Vietnam. Back then “the peace movement back home was OVER,” Boyle bellowed yesterday. “They’d marched, and petitioned, and written to Congress — and they were ignored.”
Boyle then described the famous mutiny at Fire Base Pace, up ner the Cambodian border. “They were still saying in the [official briefing, nicknamed by soldiers] Saigon Follies, that there were no U.S. troops up there.” Meanwhile six men on the base were refusing to go on night patrols they deemed suicidal – and sending with Boyle a secret petition, to be delivered to Ted Kennedy. As Boyle writes in his book Flower of the Dragon, the petition read:
We the undersigned of Bravo Company, First Battalion, Twelfth Cav, First Cav Division, feel compelled to write you because of your influence on public opinion and on decisions made in the Senate.
We’re in the peculiar position of being the last remaining ground troops that the U.S. has in a combat role and we suffer from problems that are peculiar only to us. We are ground troops who are supposedly in a defensive role (according to the Nixon administration) but who constantly find ourselves faced with the same combat role we were in ten months ago. At this writing we are under siege on Firebase Pace near the city of Tay Ninh. We are surrounded on three sides by Cambodia and on all sides by NVA. We are faced daily with the decision of whether to take a court-martial or participate in an offensive role. We have already had six persons refuse to go on a night ambush (which is suicidal as well as offensive), and may be court-martialed. With morale as low as it is there probably will be more before this siege of Pace is over.
Our concern in writing you is not only to bring your full weight of influence in the Senate, but also to enlighten public opinion on the fact that we ground troops still exist. In the event of mass prosecution of our unit, our only hope would be public opinion and your voice .[Signed by Sp4 Albert Grana and 64 other men — listed in Boyle’s book.]
After we finished the tape, Al Grana handed me the petition with the sixty-five signatures. It was two-thirds of the company, more than anyone had expected. Time was running out. If I was ever to get out of Pace, it had to be now.
Grana shook my hand the way grunts shake hands, clasping the thumb.
“I hope you can make them listen,” he said
As Boyle recountes it, Kennedy initially refused to meet with Boyle, and then refused to do more than “”request an investigation” of the events at Pace. He also advised John Kerry, whose stirring speech before the Senate wasn’t six months old, not to do so either. All of which explains better, to me, why Kerry was AWOL from the new Winter Soldier, as vivid a presence as he was in 1971. I hadn’t realized that Kerry had already begun, so early, to distance himself from what some consider his finest hour.