In The Mind Field News & Commentary from Veteran Writers/Activists Thu, 03 Dec 2015 14:22:52 +0000 en hourly 1 The Fall of Saigon — Forty Years After . . . Mon, 04 May 2015 17:21:06 +0000 Thomas Brinson  What a difference 40 years makes! I was a struggling actor/director in New York City, twice divorced and two-and-a-half years sober, when sobbing in a rage I did not understand, I obsessively watched as much news as I could about the Fall of Saigon during April 29th and 30th of 1975. I was glued to the screen of a small B&W TV set in the W. 71st Street apartment of my then actress girlfriend, Barbara. In 1975, there was no CNN or 24-hour cable news channels, but I was able to watch the nightly news on ABC with Howard K. Smith and Harry Reasoner, CBS with Walter Cronkite, and NBC with John Chancellor and David Brinkley, which followed one another in the early evening. I also watched local late night news and got up early in the morning to watch Today on NBC and the Morning News on CBS.

The chaos in Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City, was most disheartening to witness on the flickering B&W TV set, as dusklight fell and the sun rose upon New York City, bursting forth in the new life of another splendid Spring. Oblivious, eyes glued to the searing scenes, I instead obsessively watched agitated reports about the shelling of Tan Son Nhut airfield, the pushing of Huey helicopters into the South China Sea, the scrambling of thousands of Vietnamese frantically trying to get rides on evacuation vehicles — helicopters, planes, ships, even ancient landing craft, and finally T-54 Russian tanks smashing through the gates of the Presidential Palace.

The week before — or maybe the week after, I can’t remember which — Barbara and I saw the documentary, Hearts and Minds, which had won the award for Best Documentary at the 47th Academy Awards the previous April 8th. I choked back sobs through much of that as well, remembering again too vividly the year I spent in that strange, and most devastated, third-world foreign country, South Vietnam, during 1967-68, before and after the brutal Tet Offensive, which was the turning point for the hearts and minds of a sizable portion of the American public, regarding the senseless loss of precious blood by American soldiers and the billions of dollars of military expenditures, supposedly to prevent the communists from invading San Francisco.

Though our relationship only lasted several months longer, I’m most grateful for the compassionate care and comfort Barbara provided me during that most traumatic and depressing time for me.

It is now forty years later. I’m an elder, still sober, living in contented retirement from a career not the theatre, but in the treatment of addictions, with my fourth wife, Jill, on the seacoast of Oregon. Last week on American Experience broadcast on PBS stations, we watched the spurious documentary, Last Days in Vietnam, by Rory Kennedy, niece of assassinated 1968 anti-war Presidential candidate, Robert F. Kennedy.

As colleague Michael Uhl effectively explicates in this review, Last Days is a highly emotional distortion of the 30 year history of miscalculations the clusterf**k that South Vietnam would always prove to be for the United States. At the end of the Second World War, Vietnam became a major contested hotspot in the ensuing Cold War between Communist Bloc nations and the West. Under the rationale of stopping godless communism, America allowed itself to be drawn into a thirty-year-long quagmire, which resulted in the killing of 3-5 million Southeast Asians and the expenditure of vast sums of monies and materials. As well, some 58,303 Americans lost their lives and countless others were wounded, not only physically, but also mentally and emotionally from moral injury.

In Last Days, Kennedy mentions the ruthlessness of advancing Communist forces, while she totally ignores decades of genocidal behavior towards the people of Southeast Asia on the part of the US and its allies, South Vietnam and the nations of SEATO , rationalized as necessary to contain communism. This behavior included:

  • massive carpet bombing of North Vietnam, as well as bombing and forays into Cambodia and Laos,
  • extensive use of napalm and white phosphorus throughout Southeast Asia,
  • Agent Orange contamination throughout the countryside of Vietnam,
  • the dubious metric of body counts in search and destroy missions, mostly innocent Vietnamese civilians, as an indication the US was winning the war,
  • numerous documented massacres of civilians, the most notorious being My Lai on March 16, 1968,
  • free-fire zones and strategic hamlets, which forced Vietnamese to move off their ancestral lands and be relocated in primitive camps for displaced persons,
  • the notorious Phoenix Program, which assassinated thousands of alleged Viet Cong officials and supporters,
  • the seeding of countless numbers of anti-personnel mines throughout Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos,
  • a cruel 19-year embargo of Vietnam which drastically impacted its ability to rebuild until relations were normalized in 1994.

 Last Days does, however, effectively portray the ignominious defeat of the vastly superior military forces of the US and its ally, South Vietnam, against the combined military forces of North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, who were supported by nations of the Communist Bloc, but who had no air power. The US was soundly  defeated in Vietnam by the guerrilla warfare tactics and resiliency of the NVA and Viet Cong. They were, after all, fighting for their country’s independence. We, after all, like the French, Japanese and Chinese had previously done for centuries, had invaded their homeland.

In a word, Last Days is the consummate propaganda antidote to Hearts and Minds, which poignantly portrays the negative impact the Vietnam War had throughout its sordid history on the common people of Southeast Asia. Last Days, therefore, becomes an appropriate set piece to kick off the Pentagon’s 50th Anniversary Commemoration of the Vietnam War, which seeks to reframe — to ennoble even —  this hapless misadventure in militarism and nation-building as another grand and glorious example of American military prowess comparable to our victory in World War II.

My Experience with Russian T-54 Tanks

 Watching the T-54 Russian Tanks crash through the gates towards the end of Last Days, I fondly remembered my visit in 2002 to what is now known as Reunification Palace as part of the first healing return trip back to Vietnam. Formerly, it was the Presidential Palace during the Vietnam War. In November of 1975, it was dedicated as a Memorial to Ho Chi Minh and the victory of the NVA and Viet Cong. Here’s a memoir piece I wrote about the visit several years ago:

Two of the most significant of the many wonderful gifts I’ve experienced during the first decade of the 3rd Millennium is that I’ve been able to return twice to Vietnam, where I fought in the American War during 1967–1968.

Both trips yielded innumerable incidents of incredible meaning and healing for me, but one of the most memorable events occurred on my first day back “In Country”. We landed at Tan Son Nhut Air Base fairly early in the morning, seeing some of the same berms built by US forces in the 1960’s, now protecting MIG fighter-bombers instead of Phantom F-4s. After being processed through customs, a rather daunting affair, confronting again under much different circumstances, the uniforms of our former enemy, we checked into the Rex hotel in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. During the American War, the Rex Hotel was one of several BOQs for American officers in what shall always be for me Saigon. In January of 1968, I had stayed in the Rex Hotel on TDY duty just before the Tet Offensive, which proved to be the turning point of the ill-conceived invasion and long occupation of Vietnam by US armed forces. It was, indeed, most moving to be returning to the Rex Hotel as a veteran civilian, where I had stayed as a young citizen soldier and US Army officer.

Later that afternoon, we went to see the former Presidential Palace. During the war, this is where Ngo Dinh Diem and Nguyễn Văn Thiệu ruled the Republic of South Vietnam and lived with their families. Today, it is a memorial to Ho Chi Minh and the victorious Vietnamese communist forces. The tour was somewhat interesting, but after awhile the party spiel from the guide about the corruption of the past and the glorious purity of the present regime began wearing somewhat thin, so I broke away from the formal tour and went outside onto the palace grounds.

There were two of the Russian T-54 tanks that knocked down the gates and came roaring into the Palace grounds on April 30, 1975, signaling the end of the long American War, as helicopters airlifted the last remaining Americans from Saigon to ships out in the South China Sea.

Taking pictures of the tanks with me was a young Amerasian man in his mid-30s with an older Vietnamese woman close to my age, nicely dressed in Western clothes with short-cropped hair. The man in halting English told me that his mother wanted a picture with me standing in front of one of the T-54 tanks. Would it be okay for him to take our picture. “Sure,” I said, and naturally put my arm around her. It struck me, as the young man was focusing his camera, that he was old enough to be my son, that perhaps his father had been an American like me. The picture was taken, and the woman turned to me with a sad smile, saying, “Hello GI. Nice to see you again.” 

I was speechless, dumbstruck with emotion, and before I could recover and say something back to them, thank them, thank her, they had disappeared. I do so wish that I had taken a picture of them. As well, I also wish I had had someone take a picture of the three of us.

 Did We Learn from the Debacle of Vietnam?

On December 14, 2014, President Obama formally announced the end of combat missions in Afghanistan against Taliban insurgents. But a New York Times article recently noted both drone and Special Ops missions have increased of late. The security forces of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani have steadily been losing ground to Taliban units. Negotiations are presently taking place to delay the planned drawdown of American troops in Afghanistan.

In 1975, after the revelations of The Pentagon Papers, the scandals of Watergate, and the well-organized, pervasive anti-war movement, neither Congress nor the general public were in any mood to authorize more monies to aide the failing South Vietnamese government nor the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, which offered little resistance to the advancing communist forces despite billions of dollars the US had spent to equip and train them.

Forty years later, I wonder if this will be the case in Afghanistan. What will happen if the government of Afghanistan is again threatened to be overwhelmed by the Taliban, such as happened in 1996, when they took power in Afghanistan and instituted strict Sharia law? What will President Obama and Congress do?  These are much different times than 1975, when propaganda for military solutions is today much more acceptable by a majority of Republicans and Democrats in both the Senate and the House. I suspect that there’ll be considerable support to continue, if not double-down, on our present day quagmire in the seemingly endless war on terrorism in Afghanistan.

This saddens me, but in my elder years, looking out my window as spring again graces the land, what real choice do I have, but to accept the things I cannot change? Nevertheless, I am immensely grateful that I survived the war of my generation in Vietnam and continue to heal from the moral injury I suffered as a result of what I experienced 47 years ago as a young US Army officer.

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The New Anti-Communism? Revising the Meaning of the Vietnam War Mon, 09 Feb 2015 18:15:52 +0000 Michael Uhl With “Last Days in Vietnam,” a full length documentary film contending for an Oscar in 2015, comes the disturbing realization that the spirit of the age has finally flipped the lessons of the Vietnam War from a progressive cautionary tale of longstanding, to a simplistic recitation of half-truths designed to nurture the turn toward reaction that grips the public mind today.  That a polemic supporting such a perversion of the record ushers from the artistic, ahistorical, politically muddled imagination of the daughter of a man who was assassinated when exposed to personal danger in 1968 as a highly visible presidential candidate in opposition to the Vietnam War, underscores my dire evaluation of the times.

Whether one views the filmmaker Rory Kennedy as a manipulator of the historical record, or as a victim of manipulation incapable of approaching a complex subject with sharper critical tools, her film objectively defies her father Bobby Kennedy’s legacy in its complete failure to address even the most rudimentary contexts that led Bobby, along with tens of millions of his fellow citizens, to reject an American military adventure that would dominate world events for over a generation.  In Rory Kennedy’s film the saga of Vietnam’s struggle to free itself of foreign domination is reduced to a sentimental micro-historical vignette focused almost entirely on the failure of the United States in the final month of the war to evacuate members of the South Vietnamese military elite and other collaborators of the puppet regime caught in Saigon when the liberation forces finally captured the city on April 30, 1975.

One might still shed a tear for those trapped in Saigon, whether by design or circumstance, and destined to face victor’s justice, and even admire the pluck of a handful of soldiers among the small contingent of Americans left as advisors in one capacity or another after the U.S. had evacuated its troops following the Peace Accord in January 1973.  These men are the heroes of Kennedy’s Vietnam War, and with the aid of some spectacular archival footage, she faithfully documents their acts of decency and loyalty toward South Vietnamese counterparts in the officer corps and Saigon government of Nguyen Van Thieu, moving logistical mountains – often in opposition to their superiors – to organize the means to evacuate the most compromised collaborators, or in some cases simply the family baby sitter.

Kennedy is relentless in her ridicule of the American Ambassador, Graham Martin, a man of great Southern charm we are told, and marvelously revealed through snippets of interviews in the final hours before his own departure, affirming his fantastic belief that the incompetent and uncommitted South Vietnamese military – the ARVN – would stem the advance of the armies from the north, which, incidentally, they not only outnumbered – at least on paper – but also outgunned thanks to the tons of materiel their U.S. sponsors had supplied them.  Recall that Saigon had an air force, while Hanoi did not.  Undoubtedly some, if not a truly significant increase, of the high and middle ranking adherents to the southern regime and their families would have made good their escape if Martin had not so deluded himself.  But the fact was that the U.S. authorities had no mass evacuation plan, and the fates of their allies were sealed long before Saigon was threatened.

The two major factors, I think, confirming why that was the case were that, not only Ambassador Martin, but no one anywhere that I remember (except perhaps the Pentagon who held a calculus on ARVN ineptitude even greater than Hanoi’s) had an inkling when the North Vietnamese regulars launched their offensive from I Corps within South Vietnam in March 1975, taking advantage of the post-Watergate confusion then besetting the American government, that their forces would accomplish the objective of reunification with such lightning speed; moreover, it was generally assumed that the U.S. would rally militarily to the aid of the South, and not let the ally on whose behalf it had invested nearly sixty thousands American lives and billions of dollars, simply fall.

Kennedy addresses the scenario of an American comeback directly, but she misses the play of forces that determined that outcome, citing one of the obstacles to military intervention, but not others that were equally telling.  Kennedy gives the role of explainer to Henry Kissinger, if not exactly an architect of the conflict, ultimately a pro-war zealot who wielded the power of a field marshal.  Now, admittedly, antiwar activists of the Vietnam generation, including many war veterans like me, harbor unkind thoughts toward the man the author of Catch 22, Joseph Heller, famously described as “that little fat fuck.”  Kissinger is an offensive presence to us, an evil mastermind, a Moriarty, a corrupter of the guileless like Rory Kennedy.  Henry tells her that Gerald Ford, in office barely six months after Nixon resigned in disgrace, had asked the Congress to appropriate an emergency military funding bill of $722 million, and it failed to pass.  In Kennedy’s narration, this happened under pressure from the antiwar movement… allowing Henry to play the classic Dolchstoss card, the knife in the back by a Fifth Column that snatched defeat from the victory our brave combatants had deserved.

A friend of mine suggests that, in fact, “the peace movement had shriveled tremendously to the point that it did not engage in the emergency funding debate at all. The prime reason the funding did not pass was that the Pentagon opposed it.”  But if we parse the term “peace movement” into its component parts, we will find that the activist core of the movement remained thoroughly engaged, but was incapable at that moment of mobilizing on the street the kinds of numbers from a larger pool of non-activist opponents that would compel the immediate attention of the Congress.  Thus the mass movement might have been persuasive, but on this occasion it wasn’t.  That said, opposition from the Pentagon was a powerful deterrent; but even without the pressure of mass demonstrations, the Congress had taken the pulse of public opinion.  And if the public was done with Vietnam, then the antiwar movement could claim its share of the credit.

What fatally robs Rory Kennedy’s documentary of the moral force she claims for the Vietnamese victims, despite what was clearly an American failure of responsibility – some would say disinterest – in saving them, is the arrogance or chutzpah to debut such a work during the fiftieth anniversary year of the U.S. invasion that evolved into that long, bloody and ultimately futile land war in a remote and strategically insignificant corner of South East Asia.

Futile for us, devastating for the Vietnamese, not only in the loss of life into the millions, tens of thousands of whom (take note MIA stalwarts!) still remain among the missing; not only in the persistent poisoned landscape with its attendant and tragic public health consequences resulting from the wide scale spraying of dioxin-laced herbicides like Agent Orange, or the large patches of land still saturated with unexploded ordinance which primarily punishes the natural curiosity of children playing in the dirt; but also an economy “bombed into the stone age,” made infinitely worse by the postwar imposition of a vindictive American embargo, slowing Vietnam’s recovery, and benefitting least those left behind who had fought or worked against reunification.  In that project, as any serious history will inform you, Hanoi always enjoyed the overwhelming support of the Vietnamese population.

You would think from Rory Kennedy’s film that such a line of thinking about the events that gave rise to the devastation I describe above either pale in significance or are somehow irrelevant when compared to the personal tragedies of those in “the last days” of Vietnam who failed to get aboard the last chopper and therefore to a way of life they could not win on the battlefield.  It is that vision of “freedom,” measured against the stronger urge of a whole people – still mindful of its long exposure to French colonial subjugation – to resolve the national question, to expel this latest foreign invader, that Rory Kennedy offers as the new meaning of the Vietnam War in lieu of a single reference to the shameful horrors that the Americans and their Vietnamese clients inflicted on an entire nation.  Why, my friend Paul Cox has asked, does Kennedy “choose to ignore a vast reality, in service of a ripping good yarn?  There are war stories abundant.  What we need in this country is not some feel good battle flick, but a hard look at that vast reality.”

If the peace movement has lost the likes of the daughter of Bobby Kennedy, can we also then not imagine a day, given the structural political shift I assert at the beginning of these comments, when one’s history of opposition to the Vietnam War will become not merely unfashionable, but a potential source of overt repression?  I’m not playing Chicken Little here, but, to the degree we understand that an honest telling of the history of the Vietnam War defends a broader progressive and antiwar agenda, we can better articulate why a falsification of that history best serves the war agenda of the radical Right.

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A Flâneur On the Road Mon, 01 Dec 2014 18:08:44 +0000 Thomas Brinson

Le Flâneur, 1842

Recently I learned from my colleague here on ITMF, John Grant, a new term — flâneur. Since the mid-19th Century, a flâneur is known as a wanderer throughout urban landscapes, who leisurely takes it all in from a somewhat detached point of view, while musing upon the vagaries and ironies of one’s life and experience.

From August 25th through October 10th of this year, I was a flâneur on the road in my Miata hardtop convertible. In essence, I embarked upon a seven-week pilgrimage, camping when I could and visiting a number of cities where I’ve lived during my long and most fortunate life. This article will describe some of my reflections while on the road. Need I mention that war and my experience of war figure prominently throughout these musings?
Little Bighorn, MT

Little Bighorn Battle Monument

My second night on the road I camped a 15-minute drive from the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, where the dashing, and arrogantly incompetent Major General George C. Custer with some 210 of his soldiers were killed by combined forces of Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho Native American tribes. Far too often the reverse happened, such as the Sand Creek Massacre of November 29, 1964 150 years ago this past weekend — under the command of Col. John Chivington 700 calvary troops ruthlessly murdered some 200 peaceful old men, women and children of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. This massacre changed the course of history, resulting in continued Indian Wars for the next fifty years throughout the American West. One of it’s results was what happened to Custer and his men at Little Bighorn in June of 1876. Sadly, American military history is full of similar inhumane massacres of “the enemy other”: Hiroshima, No Gun Ri, My Lai, Highway of Death, Fallujah, Haditha, ad infinitum . . .

It was dusk when I drove into the National Monument. I parked my car at the Visitor’s Center and walked up to the crest of the hill dominated, where I noticed a number of white stone markers scattered around the Monument. A sign informed me each marker designated where Custer or one of his men had died.

There were several other elderly white folks like myself, but also a young couple, who looked like Native Americans. I queried the young man, “Are you Indian?”

“Yes,” he responded. “My sister and I live here on the Crow Reservation.”

“You folks sure wiped some white-boy butts here that day,” I said. He laughed, and we high-fived. His sister, smiling, joined in. The three of us whooped it up, improvising an impromptu war dance around the white stone markers, including the one where Custer’s body was found. The other white folks looked at us aghast in shock and amazement.

Driving back to my campsite as the last vestiges of daylight faded into night, I mused that it was too bad such collaboration between Indian tribes didn’t happen more often during the 19th Century. Perhaps, the manifest destiny of our nation’s expansionist history might have been somewhat altered. Of course, we of European descent in the melting pot of North America have successfully utilized an evolving strategy of divide and conquer ever since. It’s essentially the same strategy used by Caesar during his conquest of Gaul some 2,000 years ago. As the alleged world’s sole super power since the mid-20th Century, the US utilizes it still today, both militarily and economically, throughout the world.

Woodland Lake near Albany, NY

My first stop after being on the road for four days was at Woodland Lake, NY. I visited a long-time fellow activist and Vietnam War buddy, Vince, over the Labor Day weekend. I met Vince in 1981, when we were both members of VVA and VVAW, during the four years I lived in Albany, NY, working in the New York State bureaucracy.

Woodland Lake

Both platoon leaders in Vietnam and recovering alcoholics, we were among the first to do seminal research and training within the VA and the field of mental health at large to establish the virulent correlation between PTSD and addiction in combat veterans. Though sober, in 1987 we both ended up in psyche wards after being hospitalized for PTSD-related depression following suicide attempts. We spoke to each other, heavily sedated, on pay phones from our locked wards.

Vince married a psychologist, another PTSD expert, who worked at the Albany VA Hospital. We helped organize protests against the hospital for cuts in mental health staff due to a lack of sufficient federal funding for mental health services for veterans. Vince’s wife was one of the professional staff who lost her job in the late 1980s due to reduction in force decisions by VA management.

We also served together on the New York State Temporary Commission for the Readjustment of Vietnam Veterans. We organized the first national conference to deal with PTSD and Addiction. One of the recommendations in the 1989 Final Report of the Commission was to establish a residential treatment facility for veterans with PTSD and addiction. It finally opened in 1996. Let me put this in perspective — it took considerably longer for New York State to open this one facility than it took the US to mobilize for World War II and to defeat both Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan.

In 2001, right after 911, I lived for a couple of months at their lovely lakeside home, following the dissolution of my third marriage partially due to continuing PTSD-symptoms. There, I was able to begin the slow-healing process after being devastated by the divorce.

The Labor Day weekend visit was most lovely. We ate sumptuous Italian home-cooked meals prepared by his Sicilian wife and visited the nearby world-tourist town of Saratoga Springs. Mostly we reminisced, laughed a lot and were grateful that we not only survived Vietnam, but have faired better than many of our veteran brothers and sisters, often in spite of ourselves.

As I drove away from their home, I thought it somewhat ironic that while we both survived suicide attempts, veterans today are killing themselves at unprecedented rates. Also, that the VA still struggles for requisite funds to hire sufficient numbers of medical staff to meet the continuing needs of veterans both from past wars as well as those currently continuing throughout the world ever since 911.

New York City, NY

For most of my adult life, I lived in or within commuting distance to Manhattan.  As early as a pre-teen, New York City was the Mecca of my mind. As a kid, I was fascinated by B&W TV shows about New York City, such as The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy. I was especially enamored with the crime drama, The Naked City, with it’s closing line, “There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them.”

I finally moved to New York in 1972, after flunking out of theatre graduate school due to being addicted to alcohol and drugs. I planned to make a career in the theatre as an actor and director, but I ended up getting sober instead and pursuing a career in the field of addiction treatment — that was a fortuitous occurrence indeed!

Andy Sipowicz

My favorite time in New York City was during the 80s and 90s, which are wonderfully captured in the long-running TV series, NYPD Blue. One of the reasons I loved the show was that one of it’s leading characters was Andy Sipowicz, played by Dennis Franz, a Vietnam Veteran, who served with the  82nd Airborne Division in Vietnam. His portrayal of Sipowicz won my heart, because Andy was a Vietnam vet suffering from PTSD that was exacerbated by a virulent drinking problem.

During my four-day visit to New York City, I walked all over Manhattan. It has vastly changed, certainly from the old B&W TV shows, but also from the more recent time of NYPD Blue. Much of downtown Manhattan, including the former Bowery skid row, where I had my first job in the field of addiction, as well as the Meat Packing district have been gentrified into expensive lofts and condos, upscale restaurants and boutiques for the world’s elite classes. To a large extent, working class people have been dispersed to the outer boroughs and suburbs. Huge swarths of city blocks on the Westside have been torn down and replaced by towering glass and steel condominium buildings — it’s like New York City is being metastasized into Dubai on the Hudson.

I spent lots of time walking around New York University, Baruch College and Columbia University, where the average age on the streets was 20-something. In any 2-block stretch of sidewalk I would overhear 5 or 6 foreign languages — Manhattan has not only become one of the playgrounds for elites of the globalized world, but also where many of the world’s richest and most privileged families send their children to get educated.

I was most grateful to visit a number of rooms where I first received the gift of recovery from addiction and to be able to walk around so much of the City I love — where I spent almost half (47%) of my life — remembering and reflecting upon the rich and bountiful life I experienced here.

Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD

APG Top of the Bay Officers Club

In October of 1966, I began my two year active duty obligation with the US Army as an ROTC-commissioned 2nd lieutenant at Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD, where I attended the Ordnance Officer Basic Course. My third week there, I met a young woman, Kathy, on a blind date. She was a junior at Goucher College in nearby Towson, MD. As I recall, she nearly drank me under the table, not an auspicious beginning to any relationship. Later, we attended a dinner dance for my Basic Officers class at the APG Top of the Bay Officers Club.

Though I was most ambivalent, we continued to date, both while I finished the Basic Officers Course and during my MOS training as an Ordnance Supply Officer at Fort Lee, Virginia. I found out she was pregnant while on leave before I shipped out to Vietnam. I hurriedly changed my plans and returned to Maryland to marry her in the Baltimore City Hall. Two days later I flew out of BWI Airport for Vietnam on April 5, 1967. I was terrified if I didn’t marry her, she would slap me with a paternity suit, not exactly an honorable occurrence for an Officer and Gentleman by act of Congress!

I also was discharged from active duty in the US Army at APG in July of 1969. Upon DEROS from Vietnam, I was assigned as a supply management instructor for both the Basic and the Career Ordnance Officer courses. Yes, Vietnam was my first active duty assignment — I barely knew how to march a platoon, much less what to do with one in a hostile environment. I was fortunate to understand I didn’t know what I was doing, so I turned primary management of the Ordnance supply platoon in the sprawling Qui Nhon Depot Support Command over to Platoon Staff Sergeant Kris, who had served in WW II and Korea. He did most of the day to day heavy lifting, as we convoyed Ordnance supplies throughout II Corps before and after the Tet Offensive.

This past September, I sat for a long while overlooking the Chesapeake Bay beside the Top of the Bay Officers Club, musing about how fortunate I was to have survived Vietnam so long ago. I also remembered a poem I wrote in the winter of 1969, after being on a field exercise with young Basic Ordnance Officers like I had been in the fall of 1966:

I move in high circles

 Run rings with the best of them

Often am I equally at ease

In conversation important

And discussion peacock-puffed strategic

With colonels majors career-toughened NCOs

And the young eager student officers

Dedicated accomplices to murder all

The pay may be small

But proud and stirring are the PSAs

With a feeling of patriotic pride

I sometimes strut adroitly

In my rut of accomplishment

One day — this morning as a matter of fact it was

After just having lectured

Lucidly and gallantly

Impressionable newly-minted officers

Feeling dutifully important

‘bout being a VN veteran

I happened to see lying on the ground

Its severed head God knows where

A dead, quite brittle chipmunk

Half-buried by brightly-turned leaves

It jolted me

Deflated me

Like a pin-pricked balloon

For a long, long moment

Choking back deep, deep tears

I was off track

Wishing I could go back

Maybe start differently

All over again

I recalled how young I was when I first arrived at APG, and how much older I was when I left in 1969. As well, I had the realization that I have been traveling up and down I-95 just west of APG for some 47 years, almost two-thirds my life.

Washington, DC 

82nd Airborne Guards National Mall

Upon discharge from the US Army, my small family settled in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC. My wife worked for Potomac Bell Telephone, while I was a graduate student in the Theatre Department of Catholic University.

While still on active duty at APG and after discharge, I participated in every major mass peace protest demonstration during those turbulent years in our nation’s capitol — the only one I missed was the first one in 1967, the March on the Pentagon, when I was in Vietnam. I helped organize the 1970 Student Strike at Catholic University, after Kent State and Jackson State students were murdered following the invasion of Cambodia. The following year, during the three-day May Day Stop the Government protest, when Federal Troops were dispatched to guard national monuments, I was rounded up with some 12 thousands of other protestors for peace and bused out to RFK Stadium. To date, it is the largest mass arrest in the history of the country I fought for in Vietnam. However, my belief is that the Department of Homeland Security is well prepared to incarcerate many, many more citizens in the event of a perceived threat to the National Security State.

A major regret I have is that I was oblivious about VVAW during this time and missed participating with other Vietnam Vets Against the War in Dewey Canyon III . I only became informed about VVAW after the 1972 demonstrations against the Republican Convention in Miami upon seeing The Last Patrol.

In September, my wife Jill flew to Maryland for a week from our home in Oregon, so we could visit together our two daughters and five grandchildren in Walkersville, MD. We spent a day at the National Mall down in DC. From the Washington Monument, we walked along the southern shore of the Tidal Basin. We stood for a long while in the rotunda of the Jefferson Memorial and walked through the 1996-installed FDR Memorial, as well as the Martin Luther King Memorial opened to the public in August of 2011 on our way to the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Wall.

It was most daunting, even chilling, to read the enlightened quotes from Jefferson regarding his conception of a democracy at the very beginning of our history as a nation. Likewise, I was moved by FDR’s observation that the rule of an oligarchy “is not new and it is not order” and, I was pleasantly surprised that the Martin Luther King Memorial included a quote from his April 4, 1967 speech at Riverside Church in New York City, during which he passionately spoke out against the Vietnam War.

At the Lincoln Memorial, we stood where MLK delivered his “I have a dream” speech in 1963, perhaps his most remembered accomplishment. I thought how ironic it is today that “stand your ground laws” in many states allow whites to kill blacks with impunity, if they feel threatened. Rampant killing of African American young men by heavily armed white police officers, such as recently happened again in Ferguson with the usual no indictment, is still too common a practice throughout the US. Viewing blacks as demonic is still a powerful dynamic among the predominantly white establishment especially throughout the South and rural areas of the  Midwest, where the radically conservative Tea Party movement flourishes.

Looking at the Vietnam Wall

Our visit to the National Mall ended with a visit, of course, to the Wall. I stood for a long while, gazing up at the shocked expressions on the statue of three of us Vietnam Vets in battle gear, staring across the green field at the 58,286 names engraved on black granite slabs that make up the the long and deep V of the  Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. We were so young then, so naive, so innocent, thinking we were actually fighting to defend freedom and the democratic American way of life.

I’m an old man now, and I have come to accept that we were duped to fight not for freedom, but to protect the ever-increasing profits of the oligarchical class of elites in USA USA USA — Hoo Rah !~!~! Today, some 50 years later, young men and women are motivated by the dearth of well-paying blue collar jobs and mainstream jingoism to join the Armed Services, once more not to spread democracy to the Middle East nor the Ukraine, but to continue to increase the obscene profits for that same oligarchical class of elites. Further, as a result of judiciary decisions such as Citizens United, members of the elite class are able to buy the support of politicians they fund through Super PACs, so that polices which primarily benefit them may continue to be made manifest throughout the world.

Cincinnati, OH

In the late summer of 1961, Freedom Riders from the North were converging south on my hometown of Jackson, MS, during the height of the Civil Rights struggle. Meanwhile, I was traveling north with Mother and Father in our 1955 red & white Chevy station wagon in route to Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. Earlier that summer, I had accompanied my parents to several small SNCC gatherings on the Black side of town to support and help organize the first voter registration drive under the leadership of Bob Moses in McComb, MS. Though both were from elite Mississippi families, Mother who was born in Detroit and Father who went to high school and college in Indianapolis were most progressive, holding radically different political views from most Mississippi white folk, especially regarding civil rights.

I lived in Cincinnati from 1961 until 1966 while attending Xavier University and teaching for a year as a Graduate Assistant before entering the US Army. Graduating with honors in the spring of 1965, I was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant Ordnance Officer upon completion of an advanced ROTC course. Active in student government, I was an early member of SDS and helped organize one of the first teach-ins against the burgeoning war in Vietnam, which was keynoted by SNCC cofounder Julian Bond. Nevertheless, a couple of years later, I volunteered to serve in Vietnam — hey, it wasn’t a good war like WW II, my Daddy’s and Uncles’ war, but it was the war of my generation, and I wasn’t going to miss it.

JFK Plaque

In October of 1962, I was part of a rousing crowd in downtown Fountain Square to hear vibrant, young, and articulate JFK give a speech in support of several Congressional candidates for the Democratic Party during the 1962 mid-term election. Later that month, I lived in terror with the rest of America during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Cincinnati was at the time a center of the milling machine industry that manufactured the machines that make other machines and a prime target of Soviet Missiles. A year later on November 22nd, shaken to the core, I walked home from an ROTC class after JFK had been assassinated in Dallas. I remember how solemn was Captain Mitchell, who with tears in his eyes broke the sad news of Kennedy’s death to our class and dismissed it. To this day, it’s my deep belief that had JFK remained President our tragic history in Vietnam might have been vastly different.

Eden Park Overlook

On a gorgeous fall day this past September, I sat for awhile in one of  my favorite places, the overlook at Eden Park, watching traffic speed along Columbia Parkway on the Ohio shore of the Ohio River and whizzing across the Daniel Carter Beard Bridge along the I-471 Beltway that connects Ohio with the hills of Kentucky, which were ablaze with fall colors, as two river barges slowly made their way up river.

I remembered Judy, a honey-skinned mulatto girl with dazzling green eyes, whom I dated briefly during my junior year at Xavier. Ironically, in 1969, in the middle of some 500,000 protestors during the November 15, 1969 Moratorium March on Washington, I ran into her darker skinned brother, whose name I don’t recall, carrying a huge cross. For several yards I dragged that heavy cross along Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House before relinquishing it to the much stronger, hulking Brother. It’s fifty years since I dated her and forty-five since the Moratorium March — time, it just keeps unwinding into an unknown future . . .

Abbey of Gethsemani, KY 

Fr. Louis Merton Grave

I always visit the Abbey of Gethsemani whenever I am in the vicinity. It was where one of my most cherished spiritual mentors, Thomas Merton, aka Fr. Louis Merton, a Trappist monk, lived most of his life and where he is buried. A world renown poet, philosopher and ecumenical theologian, who studied and embraced Buddhism, he was also an ardent activist for peace. He was an outspoken critic of the American War in Vietnam and was accidentally(?) electrocuted while taking a shower on December 10, 1968 just after he addressed an international conference between Catholic and non-Christian monks in a suburb of Bangkok, Thailand.

I just found out that a biopic feature film, The Divine Comedy of Thomas Merton, is currently in production and scheduled for release sometime next year. It will deal with all aspects of Merton’s fascinating life to include his falling madly in love with a student nurse half his age following back surgery in Louisville. He extensively journaled about this relationship during 1966 and 1967 in Learning to Love, before recommitting to his vow of celibacy and returning to the monastic life.

When I first visited the Abbey in the winter of 2002, I was most moved by the grave nearby his of a Vietnam Veteran, who spent the rest of his life after returning from Vietnam in 1968 at the Abbey of Gethsemani. As I sat on the Abbey grounds in the gathering dusk of a late September afternoon, I wondered if perhaps the life of that unknown veteran might have been a better choice to wage peace than my life of “sound and fury” as an ardent activist for peace in VVAW, VVA, and VFP.

Jackson, MS

Where my first memories lie. Where I grew up. Where I first was struck by unrequited, obsessive love, the first time with Patricia Sloan in the third grade and every year thereafter with another lass until I left for Xavier University in 1961. Where I learned to play football as a St. Joseph High School Rebel, perhaps the ur-metaphor for combat between manly men. Where I ardently played war games deep into dusk. Where I read voluminous histories of WW II and the Civil War, as well as every war novel I could lay my pudgy fingers upon. Where the mandate was deeply imprinted within me that young southern males must join the military and volunteer to defend their country, even if it’s run by Damn Yankees. Where I had vivid, red-blue-and-white day dreams of heroic combat to save my God, my Country, and my frightened, little sweetheart back home. Where my naive and idealistic innocence was a set-up to become the bemused, detached, somewhat cynical observer of the passing scene today.

Confederate Dead Memorial

I did not visit the Memorial to Confederate Dead on the grounds of the old State Capitol building beside the Mississippi War Memorial Building. Nor did I visit the Jackson Memorial to Vietnam Veterans, which used to be downtown in front of the Hinds County Courthouse. I just spent an hour or so searching the Internet and Google Maps for a picture of it, but I can’t find any reference to it today. Maybe it was removed and consolidated with the Mississippi State Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Ocean Springs on the Gulf Coast. When I visited the Jackson Vietnam Memorial in the 80s or 90s, I didn’t recognize any of the 50 or so names on it, but I did pause with a chill of considerable gratitude and take note of the one lieutenant from Jackson, whose name was engraved on the memorial.

I spent a couple of days in Jackson visiting some friends and driving around to see where the old haunts used to be. A couple are still there, but most have disappeared into the vacuum of time past. I did camp one night in LeFleurs State Park on the banks of the Pearl River behind the house of my closest high school buddy, John Albert. A couple of times we camped out in the swamps there, once getting royally drunk on stolen altar wine. It was most surreal camping on the same ground more than 50 years later. Besides the plaintive call of heron, ghosts of memories haunted me throughout the night. I remembered the irony of another time we camped just after the resolution of the Suez Crisis in 1956. That night we bullshited about how terrible it was that President Eisenhower with the support of those Commies in Russia had negotiated a settlement with Israel, France and Great Britain to cease hostilities. This, we wrongly concluded, meant we wouldn’t have a war within which to valiantly fight. At that time, Vietnam was a minuscule, mostly unknown hotspot on the far other side of the world that would explode right in the middle of our generation — oops, we got our war after all !~!~!

On the surface much is radically different in Jackson today than it was during my years growing up there. The races intermingle in stores, restaurants and public spaces. It’s wonderful to go to a recovery meeting where both blacks and whites are welcome and friendly with each other. But as is indicated by the Stars and Bars being a prominent part of the state flag, white supremacy is still the prevailing dynamic that keeps the races for the most part separate and not equal. As during my childhood, Mississippi still ranks among the lowest of the fifty states on most metrics of social progress, especially regarding education.

New Orleans, LA

The last city that I visited was the enigmatic City of New Orleans with it’s mixture of influences from the Spanish, French and British Old World Empires that have been grafted upon the Confederacy of the Old Plantation South. World famous for its unique cajun cuisine and the birthplace of jazz in the late 19th Century, it is perhaps the most unique city in the US. Devastated by Hurricane Katrina the last week of August in 2005, today there are few signs of it ever having happened, at least in the downtown, French Quarter and Garden District sections of the sprawling City through which winds the wide and muddy Mississippi River. Only does one catch scant glimpses of boarded up homes or vacant parking lots with empty signs in the outer suburbs along Interstate Highways.

New Orleans was the largest city that I was aware of during my callow youth. It was a city of mystery and intrigue. One weekend three classmates and I spent a weekend in NOLA, unsuccessfully trying to find the notorious House of the Rising Sun or any other house of ill repute. When I knew I was going north to Cincinnati, the only non-southern accent I was familiar with was the Brooklynese-sounding accent of high school friends from New Orleans, which I mimicked, not wanting to be identified as a southern hick.

Mississippi Vietnam War Dead

During March 14 thru March 19 in 2006 I took part in the Veterans and Survivors March for Peace and Justice from Mobile to New Orleans along the Gulf Coast.  Sponsoring organizations included VVAW, VFP, IVAW and MFSO. I captured some of what happened on a blog, Marchin’ to New Orleans. March 16th was the 38th Anniversary of the My Lai Massacre. We held a solemn, ragged formation at the Mississippi State Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Ocean Springs, MS, where we paused at attention for severals moments to remember civilian victims of war everywhere. It was most poignant to remember the tortured pictures from My Lai, while viewing the youthful innocent faces of Mississippians, some blacks, but surprisingly mostly whites, who were killed in action during the long war of my generation.

Jill and I spent a lovely three days in New Orleans meeting and eating sumptuously with several of my St. Joseph high school classmates. A memorable meal was in Tujagues, the second oldest restaurant in N’Orlins established in 1856. When I was 10 or 11 years old, my parents took me there for my first experience of haute cuisine. To honor their passing in gratitude for their legacy, I stuffed myself with the traditional five course meal with a main entrée of the Tujagues 8 oz. Filet Mignon topped with Gulf Oysters and a Crystal Hot Sauce Bearnaise Reduction — it was decadent, but I thoroughly enjoyed and thanked my parents for that fabulous meal.

*          *          *

It took me several days to drive back to my home in Seaside, Oregon. I didn’t stop in any other city, but I do have two more vignettes I want to relate to conclude this article:

Menard, TX

I stopped in Menard, a small town in the Hill Country of Texas, looking for one of the three veterans, David Johnson, who are featured in two exceptional documentaries by the British film maker, Michael Grigsby. Spanning a forty year period, they most effectively portray the longterm aftermath upon soldiers who fight in wars that mostly benefit the privileged classes of any society. I wrote a review of these two documentaries, War’s Never-Ending Aftermath, in which I quote David Johnson. He most succinctly sums up what my lifetime experience of war has been, both with the veterans from my war, as well as those that have continued thereafter:

It always comes down to money, any way you look at it, it’s gonna be money and at the end there’s not going to be no money. There’s no money. You’re gonna have the same thing that you grew up with, no more no less — just a few rich people and the rest of us are gonna stay the same!

I had hoped to meet David, to hug him, to thank him for his service, veteran to veteran, but most of all for having survived, like me, our war despite it all. I didn’t find him, but I left my business card with a message for him to contact me with a waitress who knew him in the small-town Menard cafe. Maybe he will.

Lake Cochiti, NM

I had planned on camping for a couple of nights in Monument Valley, Utah, but torrential rains from west coast Hurricane Simon nixed that. I did, however, spend a glorious night camping on Lake Cochiti, a federal government recreation area managed by the US. Army Corps of Engineers, midway between Santa Fe and Albuquerque, NM. There, I experienced another gift of serenity and acceptance of this f**ked up world just as it is, which I recount in this poem, describing a meditation I was bestowed by the mystery of the Kosmos:

meditation smile

first light from rising moon

reaches over its reflection

on Lake Cochiti across

the wide, darkening sky

to merge with dusklight

from setting sun

i sit listening to

a guided meditation

tara brach suggests imagining

a smile as wide as the sky

i lose myself counting breaths

again i get lost in maya

open eyes to see full moon

pulsate above Cochiti Lake

it becomes the bright third eye

of the Buddha within

underneath flowing clouds

a smile stretches across the sky

startled i smile wide and full

overflow with brimming gratitude

 It was an excellent way to begin the final leg of this six-week pilgrimage On the Road. The next morning, I had breakfast in Albuquerque with fellow peace activist, Will, who has also retired from the “sound and fury” of peace activism to focus his remaining energies on teaching people how to grow self-sustaining, environmentally safe, organic gardens. I was most pleased for him to be doing something local and on a small scale, which, in my present jaded perspective, has more potential for actually making a difference than all the rousing demonstrations for peace with justice we’ve both participated in for most of our adult lives.

I, then, turned my trusty Miata steed north and west to return to my contented home by the sea in Oregon. Here, I hope to be able to practice more adeptly the Serenity Wish throughout whatever remaining time on this decidedly earthly plane I have:

 May I have the Serenity 

To Accept the things I cannot change

Change the things I can

And the Wisdom to know the difference

]]> 4 Thomas Friedman Comes In From the Cold War: Vietnam Was About Liberation! Thu, 30 Oct 2014 20:21:17 +0000 John Grant Three-time Pulitzer Prize winner New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has discovered that the Vietnam War was not really about stopping communism. That was an emotional delusion. The Vietnam War, he writes, was about anti-colonial nationalism, what the Vietnamese called liberation from a French/American military yoke. When the Vietnamese beat the French, its patron, the United States of America, took up that militarist yoke. Then it took the Vietnamese 21 more years of terrible slaughter before the Americans gave it up.

That’s the narrative Friedman has recognized. The pathetic irony is that the Vietnamese admired America and loved the Americans they fought with during World War Two against the Japanese. The 1945 decision to turn against our WWII ally has to be one of the saddest betrayals in world history.

Recently "love-bombed by Vietnamese," Thomas Friedman (insert) and modern Saigon, AKA Ho Chi Minh City

I’m a Vietnam veteran. I was a young radio direction finder in the military operations in the mountains west of Pleiku along the Cambodian border. My job was to locate radio operators so our forces could use all available means of mechanized death to destroy entire Vietnamese units and anyone else who got in the way. I didn’t discover what Friedman has discovered until the late seventies, after maturing and reading a host of highly respected books of history. Before that, I had been a good American and had dutifully accepted the national narrative lie that the evil North Vietnamese had without provocation invaded the innocent nation of South Vietnam.

As a good, pliant soldier I learned to hate the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong guerrillas. We called them gooks, dinks, zips and slopes. We treated all Vietnamese like dogs. We killed them up close and in great numbers. We killed between two and three million of them. They  managed to kill 58,000 of us. More on both sides were maimed; families were destroyed; and in Vietnam many thousands simply went missing, doomed to wander as improperly buried ghosts. We destroyed without a thought; we ecologically poisoned much of the land. The legacy is horrible.

While it took me a while to come to this realization, the American and International Peace Movement had figured out the anti-colonial meta-narrative long before all the killing began. Some say President Franklin Roosevelt was inclined to support the anti-colonial, nationalist impulse Friedman has recognized. Thanks to a cerebral hemorrhage, we’ll never know what FDR might have done. Harry Truman, the senator from Missouri put on the ticket to replace the controversial left-leaning VP Henry Wallace, had little sympathy for these anti-colonial, nationalist impulses. He was influenced by the rising Cold War fears. The decision in 1945 to support French re-colonization turned out to be a choice for 30 years of the cruelest sort of war on the Vietnamese. As Friedman’s revelation suggests, it didn’t have to happen.

What caused the capitalist cheerleader Friedman to see the history differently was a recent visit to Vietnam where he was “love bombed by Vietnamese, who told me how much they admire America.” He was in Vietnam, no doubt, to see how globalization and capitalism is doing there. What he saw there made him think of the history: “I couldn’t help but ask myself: ‘How did we get this country so wrong?’ ”

Where the United States went wrong, he realizes, was in “failing to understand that the core political drama of Vietnam was an indigenous nationalist struggle against colonial rule.”

As I read Friedman over morning coffee, I found myself laughing out loud and exclaiming to the empty room, “No shit, Sherlock!” Not only was Thomas Friedman conceding the anti-Vietnam War Peace Movement had been correct (of course he would never actually say this) he adds that the government of South Vietnam was “often seen as corrupt and illegitimate.” It was “seen” that way because it was “corrupt and illegitimate.” South Vietnam was a creature of US policy created to foment a civil war after US leaders effectively undermined unifying elections agreed to in Geneva for 1956. Why did they do this? It was clear from polls that Ho Chi Minh was going to sweep the elections in a landslide of at least 80 percent.

Friedman will understandably only go so far; he’s too careful to point out that the reason the South Vietnamese government was so “corrupt and illegitimate” was because the entire US policy was that way: dishonest, underhanded and thoroughly disdainful of democracy. Friedman’s point is the recognition that getting “this country so wrong” meant we had no chance of prevailing. Ward Just, a reporter in Vietnam during the war, put it best in a 1968 book called To What End. “Of course the war was unwinnable. It was useless to fight the Vietnamese. They would have fought for a thousand years. The vast, humid, unquiet land of Vietnam was a leviathan that swallowed everyone up.” Just compares the US in Vietnam to Melville’s doomed whaling ship “adrift on ‘a masculine sea.’”

If American education was not such a regimented system intent on socializing kids into a corporate, national-security state, and, instead, our schools put a greater emphasis on instilling in our kids real critical thinking, then Americans would all know this history of the Vietnam War. There would be no reason to discourage it and overburden it with propaganda; the real history is not a secret. Instead the difficult truth is relegated to the margins, except in the rare case of someone like Friedman stumbling onto this truth in 2014 because it coincides with his interests for better relations with Vietnam as a balance against China in the coming capitalist wars.

What Friedman calls a US failure of perception, I would call a crime of deed. This crime is at the root of a movement of Vietnam vets and others that I’m part of called Full Disclosure. The point is to set the public record straight. Full Disclosure is up against a well-funded government program called the Vietnam War Commemoration Project that avoids the unpleasant history and focuses on recognizing the sacrifices and bravery of US soldiers in Vietnam. It has a website, encourages local events and gives out plaques to supporters of their version of the war. The budget realities between these two elements is what the military likes to call asymmetrical. They have gobs of tax money, while we have a few nickels to rub together.

The meaning of the Vietnam War is a big deal among Vietnam veterans. It’s not surprising there are two distinct views among these veterans. Those like myself have given up defending anything about the war. It’s simply indefensible. Still, it’s important to recognize bravery and sacrifice. Even in a bad war. I know a Vietnam veteran who thinks like me who earned a silver star for an incredibly brave act. I know Vietnam veterans who suffered physical wounds and terrible trauma for what was done to them and, equally as important, what they did to the Vietnamese.

A Vietnamese farmer and a literal yoke used to control his water buffalo

The issue is institutionalized national blinders meant to shut out the unpleasant history of the war. Friedman has helped open this up by recognizing that the Vietnamese were fighting a war of liberation against us. The image of throwing off a yoke is key. My dictionary includes the following metaphoric definition for yoke: “something that is regarded as oppressive or burdensome: the yoke of imperialism.” (Italics in the original.)

The most amazing aspect of Friedman’s column on Vietnam is its linkage to the current war against ISIS, or The Islamic State rooted in Iraq’s Anbar Province. Referring to the fundamental misperception of our leaders concerning Vietnam, he says, “something loosely akin to this is  afoot in Iraq.”

In the spirit of Cold War fears, he characterizes ISIS as “a fearsome ideological movement that triggers emotional reactions” like communists did in the 40s, 50s and 60s. But does this emotional trigger “mask a deeper underlying nationalist movement that is to some degree legitimate and popular in its context?”

Given very real echoes of Joseph McCarthy fear-mongering in 2014, this is an amazing question for a mainstream journalist to ask. If there is a “legitimate” nationalistic basis for the ISIS movement — in this case one that goes all the way back to World War One and the 1916 Sykes-Picot Treaty that carved up the Middle East for European colonial powers — is our military obsession with Islamic fundamentalism off-base just like Friedman says our military obsession with Vietnam was off base because we weren’t seeing the deeper, more important issues at play?

This is getting at the real core meta-narrative factors that drive our wars. Or, as was Friedman’s point I believe, it’s such deep, misperceived realities that sustain our wars, making them unwinnable quagmires, since they aren’t really about what they seem to be about emotionally.

We will lose Friedman at this point if we delve too deeply into the meta-narratives driving the emotional Middle East quandary.

For example, if we can recognize the anti-colonial, nationalistic truth about the Vietnam War in order to finally get beyond our mental quagmire and if we can even apply that to ISIS and see it as an anti-imperial, nationalistic response to history and, specifically, our invasion and occupation of Iraq, might we apply that anti-colonial reality to other crises?

Can it be applied to something like the Israel/Palestine impasse? Sure, that’s a hot button to push — maybe the hottest one there is right now. Still if, as Friedman says, we got Vietnam so dead wrong over a failure to see the impact of colonialism and the concomitant nationalistic impulses of the Vietnamese, why can’t we ask the same questions concerning Israel vis-à-vis the Palestinian people?

Palestine was part of a region colonized by Europeans. With the endorsement of the United States and others, Britain passed its mandate of control over Palestine to Zionist Jews. In the process of making whole the Jewish people who had been so horribly decimated by European Christians in Europe, were legitimate nationalistic impulses of native Arab peoples ignored and trampled on? Is this why the Israel/Palestine struggle is so intractable? The only argument against such a narrative reality seems to be to completely ignore it and to assume a Darwinian narrative of ethnic struggle and eternal violence.

It is said history moves in a dialectic manner: thesis engages with an antithesis and we get a synthesis, which becomes a new thesis, etc, etc. Parting-of-the-fog recognitions like Friedman’s are important in this process. If an American consensus could finally get the Vietnam War right and see it less as a moment of glory to desperately hold onto and more as a cautionary tale as to what to avoid, the United States might liberate itself a bit and be freer to move forward. All it took for Friedman, the champion of globalization, was “a week of being love-bombed by [the] Vietnamese” who some of us once wanted to bomb back to the stone age.

Getting free of past quagmires only requires a different state of mind. Without conceding anything in the area of authentic self-defense, in the final analysis, Friedman’s recognition about Vietnam shows the long-range wisdom of the peace movement’s familiar chant, Make Love Not War.


Comparative messages from two websites that deal with the meaning of the Vietnam War

The two images, above, were taken from the front pages of two websites focused on the meaning of the Vietnam War. They are meant to characterize the differing emphases of the two informational websites. The one at left is from the government’s well-funded site for its Vietnam War Commemoration Project. It shows a local event in which the Pennsylvania National Guard was awarded an official Vietnam War 50th Anniversary Flag (behind the men) and other items like the framed photograph, which reveals a rather serene image of a commercial airliner of the time in a simpatico relationship with a Vietnamese farmer. The photograph on the right is from the Full Disclosure website and shows a quite different image of Vietnamese peasants. It’s what’s off camera and what has caused such horror to be registered on the faces of these peasants that Full Disclosure members feel needs to be put into the public record.

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Where the Real Dangers Lie Thu, 23 Oct 2014 20:34:34 +0000 W.D. Ehrhart By W. D. Ehrhart

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is violent, fanatical, barbaric, brutal, intolerant, and . . . add whatever other adjectives you’d like to throw in.  I won’t argue that these characterizations are not true.  But over the summer and into the fall, I have watched and listened with increasing dismay to the shifting sands of the US approach to the situation.

US Marines being deployed and Middle Eastern anger

Not so many months ago, we were assured that the US would not get drawn into another war in the Middle East.  But all through the summer and into the fall came an endless barrage of stories about Yazidis being raped and buried alive by ISIS, and the horrifying videos of Americans and other Europeans being savagely beheaded by ISIS, and the failures of the Iraqi and Kurdish militaries to stem the advance of ISIS.

The drumbeat for US intervention among US policymakers, lawmakers, and pundits began to grow louder and more insistent, and now the US is regularly sending airstrikes and drone attacks against the ISIS forces.  Airstrikes, but no more, we were assured.  This minimal military involvement, however, does not seem to be working, says counterinsurgency expert John Nagl, who argues that we should put “boots on the ground” by embedding “teams of combat advisers with” Iraqi and Kurdish forces fighting ISIS.

A year ago most Americans had never even heard of ISIS, yet now the US is once again militarily embroiled in a war in the Middle East.  What if we send US advisors and they prove to be ineffective, as they have proved to be over and over again ever since 1961—including in Iraq in the past decade?  Will we then have no choice but to send in the Marines?

Of course, we’re not doing this alone.  Secretary of State John Kerry says that 40 nations have offered to join our coalition, though he adds, “It’s not appropriate to start announcing” which nations will participate and what each will do.  One remembers G. W. Bush’s “Coalition of the Willing” that included such nations as Albania, Latvia, the Fiji Islands, and the Dominican Republic, and can only wonder which nations belong to our coalition this time.

Back in 1990, when Saddam Hussein accused the Kuwaitis of slant-drilling and stealing his oil, the US ambassador to Iraq told Saddam that the US “does not take sides in Arab-Arab disputes.”  What would you make of that if you were Saddam?  Only after he acted on what appeared to any reasonable person to be a Green Light from the US did the US decide that putting the Emir of Kuwait back on his gold-plated toilet was a moral imperative.

We were told by a tearful young girl that Iraqi soldiers tore Kuwaiti babies from their incubators and threw the babies to the floor.  Only much later did we learn that the “eyewitness” turns out to have been the Kuwaiti ambassador’s daughter, who was coached in her testimony before Congress by the same public relations firm that had handled George H.W. Bush’s 1988 election campaign.  Her testimony could not be and has never been corroborated.

Meanwhile, the vaunted Iraqi Republican Guard turned out to be a bunch of rag-tag peasant draftees who were far more eager to run away than to fight Americans.  American audiences were never shown The Highway of Death by the American media, but the rest of the world saw it.  You want to talk bloodthirsty savagery?  Google “Highway of Death” and see what you get.

And a year later, no less a person than George Will—no bleeding-heart liberal—admitted that the Kuwaitis had been doing exactly what Saddam had said they were doing: stealing Iraqi oil.

Before the US started putting boots on the ground in the Middle East in August 1990, Iraq was a stable country.  Syria was a stable country.  Libya was a stable country.  Not happy places, to be sure.  But stable.  And secular.  Al Qaida didn’t exist.  ISIS didn’t exist.

Almost a quarter of a century later, with the US 5th Fleet headquartered in Bahrain, US air bases in Saudi Arabia, and US army bases in Kuwait, how is the Middle East doing?  After eight years of US boots on the ground in Iraq, how is Iraq doing?  After thirteen years of US boots on the ground in Afghanistan, how is Afghanistan doing?  How is Libya doing after being liberated from Muammar Gaddafi with significant help from the US?  Have we neutralized al-Qaida?  How can ISIS be so effective a fighting force with no air force, no navy, no Pentagon, and no assistance from any major world power while those on whose behalf we want to expend American treasure and American blood can’t defend themselves without our help?

For that matter, where did al-Qaida come from?  Isn’t al-Qaida the direct descendant of those Afghan mujahadeen the US so gleefully armed and funded against the Soviet Union back in the 1980s?  Isn’t ISIS a direct outgrowth of al-Qaida?

Do we never seem to notice the Iron Law of Unintended Consequences playing istelf out over and over again?  Do we not notice that the United States of America cannot make the world behave as we would wish?

I am not arguing that what is happening in the Middle East is anything other than a disaster for those who are living in the midst of it.  I am not arguing that ISIS deserves a seat in the United Nations.  But I am asking: how much more damage are we going to do in the process of trying to fix the damage we have already done?  How many more enemies will we make trying to kill the ones we’ve already made?  Will the Middle East be better off after we have intervened once again?

Decaying water pipes, an overcrowded Texas classroom and a rusting bridge

Finally, which is the greater threat to our national security?  Al-Qaida or a crumbling infrastructure of highways, bridges, and tunnels, leaking municipal water systems, and an ancient electrical grid.  ISIS or failing public schools, understaffed hospitals, and overcrowded prisons?  Afghan Taliban or a national debt of nearly $18,000,000,000,000 and rising every day by $2,450,000,000?  Islamist jihadis or a dysfunctional Congress gerrymandered beyond any possibility of compromise?

We cannot bend the world into the shape we desire through military might, or by any other means for that matter, and our attempts to do so have failed time and time again.  Yet we seem to remain, as a people, as gullible as ever, once again stampeded into winless war by leaders so besotted by the hammer of American military might that they persist in seeing every problem in the world as a nail.


W. D. Ehrhart, a Marine combat veteran of the Vietnam War, holds a PhD from the University of Wales in Swansea, UK, and is author or editor of 21 books, most recently Dead on a High Hill: Essays on War, Literature & Living (McFarland, 2012).


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The Arrogance—and Ignorance—of Power Thu, 19 Jun 2014 15:06:17 +0000 W.D. Ehrhart As I watch events unfolding in Iraq over the last weeks, I find myself wondering if Iraq War veterans are feeling the way I felt in March and April of 1975 when the fiction that was South Vietnam collapsed like a house of cards. Eight years earlier, I had arrived in Vietnam as an 18-year-old Marine, convinced of the rightness of our cause, and eager to save the Vietnamese from the scourge of communism.

Atop the US embassy building in Saigon 1975, and Iraq in turmoil 2014

I left Vietnam thirteen months later, wounded in body and spirit, struggling to process the reality that our Saigon allies were corrupt and incompetent, their soldiers largely unwilling or unable to fight, while my Viet Cong enemies were dedicated and relentless.

When, seven years after my return, the entire edifice crumbled in a matter of weeks, even after more than twenty years of US support and a decade of massive US military effort, I was neither surprised nor angry nor jubilant. I just felt empty. Utterly empty. Fifty-eight thousand dead Americans, some of them my friends. Millions of Vietnamese and Laotians and Cambodians. And for what?

Years later, Dean Rusk blamed our defeat on the failure of the American people to have the will to soldier on to victory. Peter Braestrep blamed it on the liberal media who, he argued in his book The Big Story, made the US victory at Tet 1968 look like a US defeat. The redoubtable Col. Harry Summers, Jr. (Ret.) argued that we never lost a single battle. Others blamed the antiwar movement or the meddling politicians who made the military “fight with one hand tied behind its back.”

It never seems to have occurred to any of these very bright and powerful people that Vietnam was not and never had been ours to win or lose. It never occurred to them that Vietnamese dedication, motivation, and determination—an ancient proclivity to resist the presence of armed foreigners in their midst—might have had something to do with the US defeat. One might reasonably argue: not something, but everything.

Now, once again, we are witnessing the incompetence, corruption, and inability of a government we created and have supported for over a decade. And once again, according to a June 14, 2014, op-ed piece in the Washington Post written by a prominent counterinsurgency expert, “by declining to provide a long-term security assistance force to an Iraq not yet able to handle the fight itself, we pulled defeat from the jaws of victory.”

He goes on to argue, “We are reaping the instability and increased threat to U.S. interests that we [emphasis in the original] have sown through the failure of our endgame in Iraq . . . There is a clear lesson here for those contemplating a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.”

It does not seem to occur to him or those who agree with him, as it did not occur to the politicians and generals who created and persisted in the disaster that was the Vietnam War, that Iraq was never ours to win or lose. Just as we could not train our Saigon allies to become self-sufficient in spite of massive US aid and intervention, now we seem to have failed to create a viable and self-sufficient government in Baghdad—and it’s all our fault because we pulled out too soon instead of having the moxie to stay the course.

It has nothing to do, according to this point of view, with the motivation, composition, determination (or lack of determination) of our allies and their opponents; it is all about us: US. U.S.

The Iraq War is not, of course, the Vietnam War. The differences are myriad. But there are two similarities, and these two trump all the differences: 1) in each case, US policymakers tasked the military with achieving goals that were and are unattainable by force of arms; and 2) when you send scared and heavily armed kids into a hostile environment they have no hope of understanding or navigating, nothing good will result.

Oh, yes, there is one more similarity, and that is the arrogance of bright and powerful people who persist in imagining that American military might can accomplish whatever they desire, and in blaming their failures on anything and anyone but their own ignorance.

W. D. Ehrhart holds a Ph.D. from the University of Wales at Swansea, and teaches at the Haverford School in suburban Philadelphia. He has written poetry, essays and books like Vietnam-Perkasie: A Combat Marine Memoir. He is the subject of a recent critical anthology called  The Last Time I Dreamed About the War: The Life and Writing of W. D. Ehrhart (McFarland 2014). 

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