Tag Archives: VVAW

Unstuck in time again, in a good way

It’s been forever, I know. I should have at least updated my other shop’s cheers as Sotomayor became a Justice, especially the soulful essay about how she, a wise Latina herself, felt during that confirmation ceremony. But given the demands of that other shop (go look! Make comments!) and that I’ve been writing the last two chapters of my book simultaneously, I’d made a conscious decision not to blog until I was done. Well, not completely conscious, or else I’d have put up one of those “Gone Fishin”signs.

But last week I finally went to this convention, which I’ve described to friends as “like going to a party where fully half your characters are there to answer the questions you never asked.” Veterans for Peace, founded in the wake of the collapse of the Nuclear Freeze movement, and containing many of the folks I’ve now been writing about for years.It began with a rousing statement from Rep. Donna Edwards (above), who like me isn’t a veteran, but who may as well be: her father was career military, and she remembers when her father was stationed in the Philippines and “if we wanted ice cream, we had to go all the way to  Quezon City” because in military facilities, including the huge Clark Air Force Base,  “all the hangars and freezers were filled” — she choked up — “with the caskets of young men and women who had died in Vietnam.” That told her, she said, “When we ask our young people to sacrifice, it’s our responsibility to get it right.”

I remember when Edwards was “just” the director of the National Network Against Domestic Violence, and we were working together on military issues: that one, like many of the issues jostling in  my brain and this book, was challenge and enriched by the information streaming everywhere last week.

coxMuch was  super-informal, with benefits: e.g. I warned Paul Cox (right), who I’ve known nearly 15 years now, that he was a star of my Vietnam chapter, and as a bonus he let me see and upload some 1969 photos he’d just got hold of.  (They proved what I’d always guessed: he was even more of a babe at age 19 than now.)

ellen_barfieldWRLAfter dropping by the Women’s Caucus — where I also got to check in at the long-pervasive issue of military sexual abuse and homophobia— I got to interview Ellen Barfield (U.S. Army 1977-1981, now on the board of War Resisters League.) Barfield told me about being stationed in 1980 at Camp Humphreys, in South Korea, when her unit and many others were suddenly put on lockdown during the Kwangju Massacre.

barfieldportraitWe were put on high alert; the combat troops were given orders, and up in our unit we started getting riot training.” she told me.  Asked by fellow officers if women should participate, she and other women said hell yeah, we’re soldiers too — but matters never got that far. “That’s as close as I ever came to combat,” Barfield reflects now. “But – it wouldnt have been combat, it would have been killing civilians!” Already a Nation reader who’d been struck by the grinding poverty she saw in Korea, she set about upon leaving the Army to learn more about U.S. involvement in backing up Sung’s repressive government. “People are kept for so long from knowig their history,” she told me.  She learned a lot from members of the then-newborn VFP such as former CIA Asia specialist aideChalmers Johnson and Brian Willson, who’d lost his legs protesting U.S. aid to repressive governments.

plow8bBarfield was soon drawn in by the nuclear-freeze movement, just as Philip Berrigan and the rest of the Plowshares movement were getting arrested  at nuclear plants all over the country: Barfield was soon doing the same at the PANTEX plant near her hometown of Amarillo, Texas, and has been a “soldier for peace” ever since. I learned some of the latter story from a panel on nuclear-weapons issues, where a hikabusha (survivor of Hiroshima) asked through a translator what the  U.S. was doing to teach its children about nuclear weapons.

At panels on The GI Rights Hotline and on active-duty resistance, I learned more about the still-ongoing cases of current resisters such as Agustin Aguayo (above), and of those in exile fighting for asylum, like Andre Shepherd (below), whose German support network includes a woman who’s been doing this work on and off since the Vietnam years.I didn’t think then — but do now as I write this – that if I had stayed at CCCO a mere year longer, I might never have felt able to leave.

Despite the friendliness of the members of Iraq Veterans Against War, though, I was perhaps too shy about the IVAW workshops, fearing they were tired of me already — something I regret and don’t, now.

johnjudgeBecause on my way out of town, I touched base with John Judge — who  has been doing this work literally since I was two years old, including with the G.I. Project of  VFP’s vibrant predecessor. John described for me what he witnessed when  Vietnam Veterans Against the War was  neutralized  by the Red Squad in 1974,  “destroy[ing] the single most visionary and effective peace group in history.”   (I’d already written about these events here, drawn from documentary evidence).

wintersoldier_bannerWhen the RU moved into VVAW’s Chicago headquarters (note the North Vietnamese star at the center of the logo), so did posters and newspapers with appropriately “militant” headlines, such as: VVAW BATTLES V.A. THUGS. A civilian volunteer named John Judge, who watched the transition, was astounded. “Were they really advocating physical violence against medical personnel?”

The transition did, Judge added, have its comic elements: “They came in with these handlebar mustaches and sideburns, like Stalin, and these flannel workshirts.” Romo and his RU peers also told Judge to stop reading a pop history book in his bag, because We only read Marx and Engels here. “I told them, Those books are 150 years old now.” But the new regime also purged any members they deemed not “correct,” which included many who had been working triple time to help the new veterans get what they needed.

The January 1975 issue of THE VETERAN, whose “Vets Fight V.A” article was just before the “Victory to the Indochinese,” was also its last until 1996. The closer RU got to its goals, the more complete the damage to an organization once powerful enough to scare Nixon.

road_from_ar_ramadi_coverThat conversation with John stayed mostly comic/elegiac.  We did touch on the question I’ve since been trying, separately, to sort out: if the same has already begun to happen to IVAW, perhaps under the influence of it outgoing board president Camilo Mejia, the brilliant young scion of Nicaragua’s revolution? I mention the latter fact in full respect; Mejia (with whom I share a literary agent!)  grew up in the fullness of a poet’s revolution, and his father, Carlos, wrote the Sandinista National Liberation Front’s national anthem. His speech last Thursday was compelling, as when he noted that the U.S.’  unfortunate Asian land war had left room for all the democracy movements south of the border.

But my concern was rooted in more than Camilo’s charisma: rumor has it that while I was worrying about ANSWER (Workers’ World Party) and World Can’t Wait (RCP) leeching off the younger group, I was too distracted by their sideshow to see the steady recruitment tactics of this group, only a few years younger than RCP and hipper/younger/jazzier in its presentation.

It’s not a meaningless question: dissenting soldiers are already being marginalized every minute. I hope those rumors are incorrect, but I’m not that optimistic.But my job now is to find out what actually happened, and to tell that story as honestly as I can.

(p.s. Thanks so much to Gerry Condon, whose comment below helped me correct some errors born of hurry and 50 percent humidity. That’s part of what this blog is for.)

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of time warps, and beside-the-point ANSWERs to worlds that can wait

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.

drillsgtI 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:

1975wintersoldier_banner

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.

“Let’s hope I don’t have to call you from under a freeway bridge”

From one of the veterans’ lists I’m on, a cri de couer from Placido Salazar, retired USAF who served in Vietnam:

This Wednesday morning, I heard that DOD/VA were holding Suicide Prevention “hearings” at the most luxurious hotel (Grand Hyatt) in downtown San Antonio. I was able to get there for the afternoon session. I read through the agenda – and heard some briefings, with all the talk focused on seeking help or helping your buddy if he feels suicidal.

Dr. Ira Katz, the VA top-doc for mental health was the last speaker. When he finished, he was trying to rush out the door without taking questions. I yelled out, “Just a minute, I have a question, specifically for Dr Katz.” There were several hundred GIs from Ft Sam present in the auditorium, from PFC to Generals. You could hear a pin drop. I then took the mic and started real soft and mellow… “You know, Dr. Katz, three days ago, I woke up with a high fever, hard cough and severe pain below my rib cage. I went to see my doctor who did the routine and then ordered Xrays, informing me that I have pneumonia and placed me on antibiotics.”

Katz asked, “What is your point?” I replied, “The point is that, in order to treat my cough, the doctor first checked to determine what the root of the illness was. Once he determined the presence of pneumonia, he put me on antibiotics, to treat the cause and the symptoms. I have checked the agenda for these ‘hearings’ and I find FOUR very important words missing entirely.

Dr. Katz, why don’t you tell these young soldiers who just returned from Iraq THE TRUTH . Why don’t you tell them that THE REASON behind their suicidal tendencies, after risking their lives in combat, is a VA-recognized illness called ‘Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’ – known as PTSD, and not “a READJUSTMENT PROBLEM”…. Tell them that PTSD is treatable, but not curable…. And that if they returned with serious PTSD problems from Iraq or Afghanistan, that they should fight for DISABILITY RETIREMENT, instead of allowing the military to kick them out the Base Gate, perhaps to possibly commit suicide or to live on the streets. Tell them that if their PTSD (or mental problem) was ‘pre-existing’, they would not have made it past the recruiter.” I added, “Approximately two years ago, I was allowed to speak at the Congressional PTSD Committee in DC and Representative Bob Filner (House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chair) chastised you on this same subject, but apparently NOTHING has changed…. VA is still trying to evade the truth.”

At that point, Dr. Katz dismissed the audience and came and sat face to face with me and asked, “What do you suggest?” Again, I insisted, why not try THE TRUTH. He suggested that, “More advocates as yourself need to come to DC to light a fire under us.” I reminded him that when he comes to San Antonio, the government pays for him to fly first-class, to stay at the most luxurious hotel, with a generous per diem to pay for his meals. When other Veterans and I travel to Washington, to fight for all our Veterans’ medical care and other needs, which should not be necessary, we have to travel AT OUR OWN EXPENSE – and stay in visitors’ quarters at a military base, five to a room, if we are lucky to find vacancy. I departed by saying, “Besides, why should we have to travel to DC to get a Government employees to do your job, when you guys get paid a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year?”

Are repercussions possible? Let’s hope I don’t have to call you from under a freeway bridge.

I’ve been thinking a lot about vets’ suicide rates from 1812 on — not being able to decide if it’s some sort of tipping point or if, like desertion, it’s important but kind of perpedicular to dissent. Salazar’s letter is all of the above, I think.

The tipping point is coming. I don’t know if it’ll be like the Ron Kovic era above,  but I can feel the pressure mounting.

why I went to New York this week: video

Just a brief note to annotate the video above. Filmmaker David Eric Allen, who I met there, did a good job of conveying the event I was there to witness – the arraignment of 15 young veterans and their supporters   — and even intermixed footage of Monday’s events with that of the moment on October 15 when Nassau County police brought in mounted units, on their horses, to keep unarmed veterans away from the the October 15 presidential debate. Allen also told the vet’s attorney (seen in the clip) that he also has footage of one cop saying: “This is New York –  you have no rights.” I may have found my prologue for the book.

I’ve mentioned many of the defendants here. Kris Goldsmith, who led my Winter Soldier piece, looked simultaneously looser and far more exhausted, while Adam Kokesh was as ever more wired than I am, and I was glad to meet the already-iconic Mathis Chiroux, who seemed taller than the rest in more ways than one.

In other shots you see some of the Vietnam vets who have their backs:  Bill Perry, who works overtime helping New Jersey veterans with, well, everything, and Joe Urgo, who ends the clip by saying “On to Boston!” Survivors of the first Winter Soldier, who have helped midwife the second,  both of the latter present as cheerful uncles, masking the dead-seriousness of this task of stopping a war before it goes on longer than the one that still sometimes claims them.