Crumpled green uniform
Ribbons edged with dirt
Scuffed shoes, stubbled face
Eyes rimmed red with fatigue
I emerge from the bird’s womb
The returning warrior
The family pounces
I stand tall in their eyes
They think me whole
Grateful I am unscraped by war’s steel
I wince at their sympathy
All wounds do not pierce the skin
I must play my role
My pain will be theirs
I suppose starting a diary with a poem is not exactly the way to attract the policy wonks’ interest. In the seemingly interminable pie wars that have raged over the past several weeks, one of the central defenses offered has been “Well, it’s HIS site.” Agreed.
So. This is MY diary.
This is the result of several different strands of thought that have been stimulating me over the past week; not sure I can pull them all together here, but I’m going to give it a shot.
The first was the wonderful diary by Meteor Blades here talking about his experience in the civil rights movement in the sixties. The second was an article by Ron Kovic here. For those of you whippersnappers in the audience whose perception of reality does not predate the eighties, Ron is a paraplegic anti-war Vietnam veteran who wrote the book on which Oliver Stone’s movie starring Tom Cruise was based. This article by Kovic brought back a whole slew of memories of my life immediately after I returned from Vietnam. Then, there are the reports and diaries here and here detailing the latest screw-the-veterans moves of the the current administration.
A few reminiscences:
I joined the army in the Spring of 1968, shortly after the Tet offensive (young people, read your history books if you don’t know what I’m talking about). I joined in a spasm of working-class patriotism, coupled with a need/desire/determination to “prove” myself worthy of my ancestors. I mean, both my grandfathers served in WWI, my father and uncles served in WWII; hey, Vietnam was my war; it was a no-brainer.
I came home from Vietnam a changed man, disgusted and disillusioned. My patriotism had been spent like chump change in a penny arcade, wasted on a futile effort in a dirty war where survival was the only measure of success. I soon joined the organization Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). VVAW was an extraordinary and, at the time, unique organization. Originally formed by six Viet vets who met one another at an anti-war demonstration in 1967, by 1971, it had grown significantly in numbers (the membership list was over twenty-five thousand, but the majority of those joined from a free ad posted in Playboy magazine, and never did anything but respond to the ad; the actual active membership was never greater than a few thousand) and in impact. It started off doing guerilla theatre with Operation RAW (Rapid American Withdrawal), a limited incursion into New Jersey. Vietnam veterans and friends marched through the surburban towns of that state, demonstrating through the theatre what it was like when an American infantry platoon marched through a town in Vietnam.
In 1970, VVAW held the Winter Soldier Investigation. This was in response to the government’s assertion that the atrocities of My Lai (check your history books, kids) were the result of the deviant actions of a small group of low-level soldiers (sound familiar?). Many of you might remember that this investigation surfaced during Kerry’s presidential campaign, bandied about by the Swiftie liars as proof that Kerry had branded American soldiers as war criminals and “baby killers”. Of course, as usual, this is the exact opposite of what really happened. It was the government that had branded individual soldiers as “baby killers”. The central purpose of the WSI was to show that the atrocities that had happened and continued to happen were not the result of the decisions of individual soldiers, but the result of the POLICY decisions made by the government.
In 1971, the year I returned from Vietnam, VVAW held perhaps its most famous anti-war action — Dewey Canyon III — when about one thousand Vietnam veterans came to Washington DC, camped out on the mall for three days, and climaxed their series of anti-war demonstrations by throwing back the medals they had won in Vietnam to protest the war.
My absolute favorite newspaper headline of all time happened during this time. The Nixon administration went into federal court to get an order to remove VVAW from camping on the mall. It went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in Nixon’s favor. The members of VVAW — after debating among themselves through half the night — took a vote, which was extremely close, but the majority voted to stay on the mall. The Park Rangers refused to go in and remove VVAW. The Washington Star had this front page headline the next day: “Vets Overule Supreme Court.”
All this happened before I joined. I was in DC at the time of DCIII (April, 1971), but did not participate. I had been back from Vietnam only a month by then, and I was still decompressing. I joined in the fall of that year, at the college I started to attend. Our VVAW chapter (about thrity-two members) decided that our first action together would be to march in the Veterans Day parade as VVAW. We applied to the parade’s organizers and they rejected our application. We threatned to take them to court, and they seemed to agree to allow us to march. We showed up the night of the parade, and, after additional haggling, they informed us that we could not march in their parade, and if we marched anywhere that night as a group, we would be arrested. Fuck it. We marched; we got arrested. So, the first time in my life that I was ever arrested was for trying to march in my first Veterans day parade back from Vietnam. It was not to be my last.
After that incident, I threw myself into VVAW work. I was soon elected/selected (no one else really wanted the job) as the state coordinator for VVAW, then in the Spring of 1972, I was elected as one of six national coordinators. I dropped out of school, and headed to NYC where the national office for VVAW was located.
1972 was a presidential election year, and, by a quirk of fate I don’t really remember all the details of, both parties’ national political conventions were to be held in Miami Beach. The local VVAW chapters in Florida were doing the bulk of the on-the-ground organizing for the inevitable demonstrations to take place at the conventions, and I was chosen by my fellow national coordinators to head down to Florida to be the national office liason to the local chapters. I went to Gainesville Florida, where the Florida state coordinator, Scott Camil lived and went to school. There were a series of meetings concerning the planning of the demonstrations. Ninety-five percent of the meetings dealt with all the mundane things associated with having large numbers of people in the same place at the same time: what about port-o-sans; do we have parade permits; will the city allow us to sleep in the park; how are we coordinating with other groups planning demonstrations? Etc. After the meetings were over, and we were all starting to relax (let’s not talk about the “means” we used to relax; suffice to say, it was illegal). One of the vets in the room started talking about some of our worst fears, namely, that there would be some kind of a police riot, similar to or worse than what had happened in Chicago in 1968, and started spinning “what if” scenarios.
Now, one of the problems with VVAW was that many other organizations in the anti-war movement tended to see VVAW as the movement’s cops, security, or enforcers, and I’m afraid that we tended to see ourselves that way as well. So, when this roomful of altered-state, mellowed-out Vietnam veterans — most of us having returned from Vietnam within the past two years — are presented with the scenario “What if the cops block off all the causeways to Miami Beach, and then start shooting the demonstrators, what’re we gonna do?”, needless to say, as Vietnam veterans, we came up with an appropriate response to that scenario.
Turns out, the vet posing these questions was an FBI informer (apparently, he had been busted on a drug charge, and they offered him informing as a way to avoid jail). Turns out, there were a number of other informers in the room at that time, the massive infiltration of VVAW by agents and informers having been Nixon’s present to us in return for Dewey Canyon III.
Three months later, during the middle of the Democratic Convention in July, I was indicted along with seven other members of VVAW by a federal grand jury for conspiracy to incite a riot at the Republican Convention, which was yet to happen in August (with conspiracy, you are not charged with actually committing the crime itself, you are charged with PLANNING to commit the crime. In most criminal cases, conspiracy is a secondary charge to the charge for the crime itself, but the Nixon administration found the “conspiracy” charge on its own — even if the “planned” crime had never been committed — to be a convenient tool to use against the anti-war movement).
Just to give some historical perspective, the meeting from which these charges stemmed occurred in April, 1972, the Watergate break-in happened June 17, 1972. The first response from the burglars concerning the motive for the Watergate break-in was that the Democratic Party was cooperating with radical organizations which were planning to disrupt the Republican convention with violence. The grand jury that indicted us was convened on July 1, and the indictments handed down on July 13. I will keep my tin-foil hat on the shelf, but you figure it out.
The case (called the Gainesville 8 case) went to trial in August of the following year. During the trial, a man I had considered one of my best friends surfaced as an FBI informer who proceeded to testify (and lie) against me. After a month-long trial, it took the jury four hours to find us not guilty (we understood from talking to the jurors later that it actually took about an hour, but one of the jurors — a black Vietnam vet — convinced everyone to stick around a little longer and have one more meal on the government).
Geez, this has gone on way longer than I figured. Beware of old farts telling stories. Ok, try to pull it all together.
I was struck by two statements that Kovic makes:
The paraplegics, amputees, burn victims, the blinded and maimed, shocked and stunned, brain damaged and psychologically stressed, now fill our veterans hospitals. Most of them were not even born when I came home wounded to the Bronx V.A. in 1968. The same lifesaving medical-evacuation procedures that kept me alive in Vietnam are bringing home a whole new generation of severely maimed from Iraq.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which afflicted so many of us after Vietnam, is just now beginning to appear among soldiers recently returned from the current war. For some, the agony and suffering, the sleepless nights, anxiety attacks, and awful bouts of insomnia, loneliness, alienation, anger, and rage, will last for decades, if not their whole lives. They will be trapped in a permanent nightmare of that war, of killing another man, a child, watching a friend die … fighting against an enemy that can never be seen, while at any moment someone–a child, a woman, an old man, anyone–might kill you. These traumas return home with us and we carry them, sometimes hidden, for agonizing decades. They deeply impact our daily lives, and the lives of those closest to us.
To kill another human being, to take another life out of this world with one pull of a trigger, is something that never leaves you. It is as if a part of you dies with them. If you choose to keep on living, there may be a healing, and even hope and happiness again–but that scar and memory and sorrow will be with you forever.
Some of these veterans are showing up at homeless shelters around our country, while others have begun to courageously speak out against the senselessness and insanity of this war and the leaders who sent them there. During the 2004 Democratic Convention, returning soldiers formed a group called Iraq Veterans Against the War, just as we marched in Miami in August of 1972 as Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Still others have refused deployment to Iraq, gone to Canada, and begun resisting this immoral and illegal war.
In the diaries about the VA underfunding, I’ve seen a lot of outrage, blame of Republicans, and protestations of how WE support and respect the veterans. I appreciate that, but I’m sorry to say, respect is a whole lot more than a pat on the back, a yellow ribbon decal on the car, a “welcome home”, and a blog post. It’s what people DO that counts.
The sad reality of fighting in a war is that many, if not most of those who survive return home with substantial problems. For some, those problems are physical — traumatic, life-altering wounds that will never heal, that will require ongoing treatment for a lifetime. In Vietnam, the life-saving procedures of getting severely wounded men from the front line to the operating room were perfected, and have been reimplemented in Iraq. Lives are saved, but men (and now women) who would have died on the battlefield in previous wars, are given the “opportunity” to live armless, legless, sightless, brainless lives. Such lives are a blessing, I suppoose, considering the alternative, but they cost money. Who will pay? Sure, we’ll all raise our hands now, and demand proper treatment for the returning wounded, but what about ten or twenty years from now, when the war, hopefully, is a distant, painful memory, and the economy is in the tank (given the Bushco economic policies, that seems a reasonable conclusion), and there is real competition for where the federal dollars will be spent? What will happen then, to the invisible, powerless refuse from the long-forgotten war?
And then there’s the other “problems”: the PTSD, the lost jobs, failed marriages, broken lives. As`they say, all wounds do not pierce the skin. There was a point in the seventies and eighties when twenty percent of the prison population in the US were Vietnam veterans. Respect? It’s my experience that when a vet is percieved to have become a problem, people don’t give a flyin flock about his (or her) service. When Iraqi veterans start becoming a “burden” on the community, I’m afraid the “respect” of their neighbors will disappear, regardless of which political party they belong to.
Every benefit that Vietnam veterans got, we got because we fought for it, on our own, with little help. The men and women in today’s army, by and large, come from lower socio-economic groups. As a rule, in our political system that does the bidding of those with the bucks, such people will be cut out of the pie when the time comes. Are you willing to take the money out of your pocket, and put it in theirs for their service, because that’s what it’s gonna mean? If not, then don’t talk to me about respect.
But Kovic also said this:
I saw firsthand what our government’s terrible policy had wrought. I endured; I survived and understood. The one gift I was given in that war was an awakening. I became a messenger, a living symbol, an example, a man who learned that love and forgiveness are more powerful than hatred, who has learned to embrace all men and women as my brothers and sisters. No one will ever again be my enemy, no matter how hard they try to frighten and intimidate me. No government will ever teach me to hate another human being. I have been given the task of lighting a lantern, ringing a bell, shouting from the highest rooftops, warning the American people and citizens everywhere of the deep immorality and utter wrongness of this approach to solving our problems, pleading for an alternative to this chaos and madness, this insanity and brutality. We must change course.
Kovic speaks for me on this. I am an anti-war warrior because I can’t NOT be.