Like the guy in the show above, I can’t believe it: I’m finally out of 1973. Unlike LBJ, I got out of Vietnam, sort of. (I ended up with a 60,000-word chapter, in a book that’s only supposed to be 110.000 words total!) I can almost say that I’m in the home stretch on this book, and am starting to frame its end – including scenes I witnessed personally (such as Ron Kovic confronting Colin Powell in 1995, when many thought the latter should be President). Meanwhile, the very lateness of the hour means I’m seeing another phase of the story take shape, as the Afghan war becomes the topic of the hour.The voices of vets like James Gilligan, who tunneled through Afghanistan before going to Iraq, suddenly seem more urgent to hear.
But first, a little rant, about something that’s none of my business.
The months sunk into the “Vietnam years” made me feel more strongly than ever about trends I’m seeing in some of these newer veterans’ groups — stuff I keep TRYING, in good journalistic fashion, to shut my mouth about so that I can just watch it happen in real time. It’s about the perpetual dance between dissenting veterans and groups of the sectarian left, for whom the latter are sort of a dream date.
When one young vet blithely proclaimed I could interview him at an event sponsored by World Can’t Wait, I instinctively refused, having grown up avoiding WCW’s sponsor at demonstrations in NY and Washington. I wrote a piece about WCW’s Maoist doppelganger, equally “militant” and equally cloaked in multiple spinoff organizations. Both pour a lot of money and support toward whatever young veterans they can find, support that has likely felt essential and important when the wider world is trying to ignore the wars. But the effect, throughout history, has not always been…. productive.
I don’t want to go after those two groups in particular; and I can’t claim to be against military-civilian alliances or the need to look deeply at the power structures that sustain these wars. But witness the collapse of Vietnam Veterans Against the War in 1975, as narrated by the late Steve Hassna. I met Drill Sgt, Hassna in the 1990s, and I trust his description of what he called “The Split”:
A debate started in the organization in mid `72 about the future and what to do when the war was over. By this time everyone knew that, in fact, the war was going to end soon, just not sure when. One train of thought was we “struggle”, (that’s a leftist term, for “fight the good fight”) to see the war end. Then decide what we were all about. The other was, “We need to build an organization for the revolution, be the vangaurd, and all that other crap. Continue the fight against the capitalistic power structure and embrace a Marxist- Leninist analysis for a people’s revolution, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah!!
This sort of thinking really gave most of the members in VVAW a headache, and many left in disgust. This type of thought train was coming from VVAW members and non-veterans working in the organization who had adopted that Marxist analysis. The one thing to remember is that these people were coming into VVAW to push their special agenda. They were not there to stop the war, they were there to advance their political thought. Everything from the R.U.(Revolutionary Union),R.S.B (Revolutionary Student Brigade),Venceremos, October League, S.W.P.(Sociallist Workers’ Party), CPUSA (Communist Party United States of America) and last but not least, the one, the only,the RCP (Revolutionary Communist Party). Though small in numbers, they were able to get into positions of power that would let them set VVAW policy….
The ANSWER prototype was no better, at that point still working on defending Stalin and weeding out “revisionists.” Of course, back then the FBI was watching all this – having installed an impressive set of informants by then. And the FBI was also tracking the WCW precursor the Revolutionary Union, as the latter instructed its Midwest “cadre” that ““veterans are potential revolutionary force” and advised its cadre “to link up with veterans” in the “fights . . . against the Veterans Administration for benefits” because they could use any Washington demonstrations to “begin to realize our goal of linking the veterans’ struggle with the overall anti-imperialist movement.” Not to actually secure any veterans benefits, mind you; not to heal the hole in vets’ hearts or figure out why so many were sick. It was all about the “movement.” Finally, Hassna continues:
In 1973 VVAW got a new name, and a whole new set of headaches. Now it was VVAW/WSO, VietNam Veterans Against the War/ Winter Soldier Organization. The addition of WSO meant that non veterans could join and be in positions to set policy. The left played on the guilt and pain that members had from the war. We (members) had to embrace Marx and bare our souls to our crimes against humanity. Meetings turned into political education classes, with criticism/ self-criticism periods thrown in to help us move forward for the revolution. Do I need to say how much of a royal pain in the ass all this was? On top of all this, there were people who took this crap seriously.
As you see above, they even changed the banner on the group’s newsletter, to strongly resemble the Chinese flag.
I’ve read more scholarly accounts of this entire evolution from less folksy sources; check out tthe three major histories of the VVAW to a 1975 dissertation on the G.I. movement by a rather conservative Chicagoan who points out that the sectarian left had “different priorities.” More crucially, he added, the emphasis on “hating the brass” prevented them from making common cause with the officers who agreed with them.
No way to know whether the future for today’s rapidly-morphing soldier-dissent will play out similarly. But nothing I’ve learned in the past year has made me feel, personally, any different from when I first saw Garett Reppenhagen, a man I respect hugely, first appearing at a podium with ANSWER streamed at the front.
I shouldn’t care about this, as a writer. There’s a lot of Yeatsian circle-the-gyre energy to all this. But as someone who sees the need for clear opposition to war and values the role of the soldier/vet, I do care. As the need to counter Obama-as-LBJ grows stronger, the fastest way to bury that voice in the margins is to dress it in such ridiculous clothing. Luckily, there are whole swaths that are already steering clear; I’ll watch as quietly as I can, to see what happens to the rest.