Contents: The Sir! No Sir! blog is an information clearing house, drawing on a wide variety of sources, to track the unfolding history of the new GI Movement, and the wars that brought the movement to life.
Where applicable, parallels will be drawn between the new movement and the Vietnam era movement which was the focus of the film Sir! No Sir!
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This article, by Harvey Wassereman, was published by the Rag Blog, October 24, 2009
Some military coups are still done the old-fashioned way. Tanks surround the capital, generals grab the radio station, the slaughter begins.
Here, the Declaration of Independence scorned King George III for elevating his army over our colonial legislatures. The founders opposed a standing army. Our first Commander George Washington warned against military entanglements. So did Dwight Eisenhower nearly two centuries later. These "quaint" monuments to civilian rule form the core of our constitutional culture.
So when the Pentagon wants to trash inconvenient opposition and escalate yet another war, it seeks subtler means. For example: the "virtual coup" now being staged in league with the New York Times, aimed at plunging us catastrophically deeper into Afghanistan.
It's how they drove us into the abyss in Vietnam and Iraq. It demands we decide who will rule -- the Pentagon, or the public.
It was the military's manipulative misreporting in Vietnam that fueled Lyndon Johnson's 1965 disastrous escalation. With the much-medalled William Westmoreland front and center, the Pentagon concocted a non-existent attack in the Gulf of Tonkin, warned that a communist victory would bring on the Apocalypse, told LBJ he could win, and ran its occupation army up to 550,000 troops.
When its last advisors fled in shame off that Saigon rooftop, the Pentagon blamed those who had opposed the war from the start. It assaulted the heroic independent reporters who exposed the war's true horrors. It even attacked the corporate media that had been its willing partner in the war's creation.
To its credit, the Times broke from its early support, making welcome history by publishing the Pentagon Papers, among much else. As today, it published opposing views all the way through.
But its big guns enlisted again in Iraq. The Bush Administration needed no convincing, but the American public did. Led by warhawk cheerleaders Thomas Friedman and Judith Miller, the Journal of Record sold a war based on Weapons of Mass Destruction and Dick Cheney's "grateful" Iraqi citizenry, both of which were non-existent.
Today central casting has brought us Stanley McChrystal to rerun the role of Westmoreland/Cheney. Now the hero of an endless stream of hauntingly familiar puff pieces, the General's carefully leaked "secret" demand for "a bare minimum" of 40,000 more troops to avoid "mission failure" has become the ultimate blackmail note, the core of a virtual coup in the making.
It comes as the Times concocts a report on "frustrations and anxiety [that] are on the rise within the military." Among “active duty and retired senior officers” there is "concern that the president is moving too slowly, is revisiting a war strategy he announced in March and is unduly influenced by political advisers in the Situation Room."
"Unduly influenced by political advisers?" Does this mean that for the Commander in Chief, elected by the people of the United States, advice is duly acceptable only from hawks in uniform?
Joining Tom Friedman (again!) is the Times's Roger Cohen, who says Obama needs "endurance" because if we lose in "Afghanistan, Pakistan and Pashtunistan" there "would be a disaster for Western security."
Sub in "Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos" and you can be reminded that our military is again backing a cabal of world-class heroin dealers.
And would the "loss" of AfPak, whatever that means, be a greater "disaster for Western security" than another trillion dollars diverted from education, health care, the environment, and domestic employment in a nation in deep financial chaos?
McChrystal is certainly entitled to his First Amendment rights. But so far, the American public is not buying. Polls show the country deeply divided, with slight majorities opposed to McChrystal's demand for more troops. That means, there is nothing like the public consensus that should be required for any military excursion.
The key may be the money. In the booming sixties, we could "afford" to blow $100 billion or more on a futile, senseless war merely by bankrupting our health care system, blowing college tuitions through the roof, sacking our infrastructure, failing to upgrade our grid and power systems, debasing our currency, falling from an exporting powerhouse to an import addict, and much more.
The Pentagon's gratuitous squander of another trillion in Iraq has helped squeeze the last of that "fat" out of our economy. A U.S. far beyond the brink of bankruptcy is being told to "stay the course" in the Graveyard of Great Powers, a country the size of Texas, a deathtrap to every invader for the past 2,300 years, including the Soviet Union. Pakistan is about twice the size of California. AfPak together have more than 200,000,000 people, more than 2/3 the population of the U.S.
Official military reports say there are about 100 members of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Despite the global nature of terrorism we are allegedly there to stamp out, no other nation seems compelled to join us there in any meaningful way.
Obama was elected in large part because the American public has sensed that -- unlike his predecessor or opponent -- he is intelligent enough to grasp all this. He ran promising a full commitment in Afghanistan. Now he has dared to take his time making a final decision. But will he have the courage to stand against the brass at crunch time?
Robert Gates, the Bush holdover at Defense, who won't set a timetable for withdrawal, has gone public with his demand for more troops. As Yale's David Bromwich puts it, the brass at The Times wants "a large escalation in Afghanistan. The paper has been made nervous by signs that the president may not make the big push for a bigger war; and they are showing what the rest of his time in office will be like if he does not cooperate."
In other words, the virtual tanks have again surrounded the White House.
We cannot let them win. Another bloody, trillion-dollar Lone Ranger fiasco will definitively end any hope for health care, employment, education, the environment, a decent life for our children.
As usual, the Pentagon will be enriched and empowered. We will be impoverished and disenfranchised. Isn't that what coups are all about?
So when the military and its minions demand we defer to their "experts," we might recall the Cuban Missile Crisis. At its most terrifying peak, President John Kennedy -- himself genuine war hero -- polled the Joint Chiefs on how to respond to Soviet warheads in the western hemisphere. The generals unanimously demanded a nuclear attack. Thankfully, the president and his brother, the Attorney General, stood their ground.
Obama must now do the same. There are nuances in all global conflicts. But in an electronic age, when perception means virtually everything, the question is not just what happens in Afghanistan.
It is who rules here at home -- the Pentagon, or the public.
This article, by Conn Hallinan, was posted to Foreign Policy in Focus, September 10, 2009
One of the oddest — indeed, surreal — encounters around the war in Afghanistan has to be a telephone call this past July 27. On one end of the line was historian Stanley Karnow, author of Vietnam: A History. On the other, State Department special envoy Richard Holbrooke and the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal. The question: How can Washington avoid the kind of defeat it suffered in Southeast Asia 40 years ago?
Karnow did not divulge what he said to the two men, but he told Associated Press that the "lesson" of Vietnam "was that we shouldn't have been there," and that, while "Obama and everybody else seems to want to be in Afghanistan," he, Karnow, was opposed to the war.
It is hardly surprising that Washington should see parallels to the Vietnam debacle. The enemy is elusive enemy. The local population is neutral, if not hostile. And the governing regime is corrupt with virtually no support outside of the nation's capital.
But in many ways Afghanistan is worse than Vietnam. So, it is increasingly hard to fathom why a seemingly intelligent American administration seems determined to hitch itself to this disaster in the making. It is almost as if there is something about that hard-edged Central Asian country that deranges its occupiers. Delusion #1 In his address to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Obama characterized Afghanistan as "a war of necessity" against international terrorism. But the reality is that the Taliban is a polyglot collection of conflicting political currents whose goals are local, not universal jihad.
"The insurgency is far from monolithic," says Anand Gopal, a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor based in Afghanistan. "There are shadowy, kohl-eyed mullahs and head-bobbing religious students, of course, but there are also erudite university students, poor illiterate farmers, and veteran anti-Soviet commanders. The movement is a mélange of nationalists, Islamists, and bandits...made up of competing commanders and differing ideologies and strategies who nonetheless agree on one essential goal: kicking out the foreigners."
Taliban spokesman Yousef Ahmadi told Gopal, "We are fighting to free our country from foreign domination," adding, "Even the Americans once waged an insurgency to free their country."
Besides the Taliban, there are at least two other insurgent groups. Hizb-I-Islam is led by former U.S. ally Gulbuddin Hekmatyer. The Haqqani group, meanwhile, has close ties to al-Qaeda.
The White House's rationale of "international terrorism" parallels the Southeast Asian tragedy. The U.S. characterized Vietnam as part of an international Communist conspiracy, while the conflict was essentially a homegrown war of national liberation. Delusion #2
One casualty of Vietnam was the doctrine of counterinsurgency, the theory that an asymmetrical war against guerrillas can be won by capturing the "hearts and minds" of the people. Of course "hearts and minds" was a pipe dream, obliterated by massive civilian casualties, the widespread use of defoliants, and the creation of "strategic hamlets" that had more in common with concentration camps than villages.
In Vietnam's aftermath, "counterinsurgency" fell out of favor, to be replaced by the "Powell Doctrine" of relying on massive firepower to win wars. With that strategy the United States crushed the Iraqi army in the first Gulf War. Even though the doctrine was downsized for the invasion of Iraq a decade later, it was still at the heart of the attack.
However, within weeks of taking Baghdad, U.S. soldiers were besieged by an insurgency that wasn't in the lesson plan. Ambushes and roadside bombs took a steady toll on U.S. and British troops, and aggressive countermeasures predictably turned the population against the occupation.
After four years of getting hammered by insurgents, the Pentagon rediscovered counterinsurgency, and its prophet was General David Petraeus, now commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East and Central Asia. "Hearts and minds" was dusted off, and the watchwords became "clear, hold, and build." Troops were to hang out with the locals, dig wells, construct schools, and measure success not by body counts of the enemy, but by the "security" of the civilian population.
This theory impelled the Obama administration to "surge" 21,000 troops into Afghanistan, and to consider adding another 20,000 in the near future. The idea is that a surge will reduce the violence, as a similar surge of 30,000 troops had done in Iraq. Delusion #3 But as Patrick Cockburn of The Independent discovered, the surge didn't work in Iraq.
With the possible exception of Baghdad, it wasn't U.S. troops that reduced the violence in Iraq, but the decision by Sunni insurgents that they could no longer fight a two-front war against the Iraqi government and the United States. The ceasefire by Shi'ite cleric and Madhi Army leader Muqtada al-Sadr also helped calm things down. In any case, as recent events have demonstrated, the "peace" was largely illusory.
Not only is a similar "surge" in Afghanistan unlikely to be successful, the formula behind counterinsurgency doctrine predicts that the Obama administration is headed for a train wreck.
According to investigative journalist Jordan Michael Smith, the "U.S/ Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual" — co-authored by Petraeus — recommends "a minimum of 20 counterinsurgents per 1,000 residents. In Afghanistan, with its population estimated at 33 million, that would mean at least 660,000 troops." And this requires not just any soldiers, but soldiers trained in counterinsurgency doctrine. The numbers don't add up. The United States and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies currently have about 64,000 troops in Afghanistan, and that figure would rise to almost 100,000 when the present surge is completed. Some 68,000 of those will be American. There is also a possibility that Obama will add another 20,000, bringing the total to 120,000, larger than the Soviet Army that occupied Afghanistan. That's still only a fifth of what the counterinsurgency manual recommends.
Meanwhile, the American public is increasingly disillusioned with the war. According to a recent CNN poll, 57% of Americans oppose the war, a jump of 9% since May. Among Obama supporters the opposition is overwhelming: Nearly two-thirds of "committed" Democrats feel "strongly" the war is not worth fighting. Delusion #4 Afghanistan isn't like Iraq because NATO is behind us. Way behind us.
The British — whose troops actually fight, as opposed to doing "reconstruction" like most of the other 16 NATO nations — have lost the home crowd. Polls show deep opposition to the war, a sentiment that is echoed all over Europe. Indeed, the German Defense Minister Franz-Joseph Jung has yet to use the word "war" in relation to Afghanistan.
That little piece of fiction went a-glimmering in June, when three Bundeswehr soldiers were killed near Kunduz in northern Afghanistan. Indeed, as U.S. Marines go on the offensive in the country's south, the Taliban are pulling up stakes and moving east and north to target the Germans. The tactic is as old as guerrilla warfare: "Where the enemy is strong, disperse. Where the enemy is weak, concentrate."
While Berlin's current ruling coalition of Social Democrats and conservatives quietly back the war, the Free Democrats — who are likely to join Chancellor Angela Merkel's government after the next election — are calling for bringing Germany's 4,500 troops home.
The opposition Left Party has long opposed the war, and that opposition gave it a boost in recent state elections.
The United States and NATO can't — or won't — supply the necessary troops, and the Afghan army is small, corrupt and incompetent. No matter how one adds up the numbers, the task is impossible. So why is the administration following an unsupportable course of action? Why We Fight There is that oil pipeline from the Caspian that no one wants to talk about. Strategic control of energy is certainly a major factor in Central Asia. Then, too, there is the fear that a defeat for NATO in its first "out of area" war might fatally damage the alliance.
But when all is said and done, there also seems to be is a certain studied derangement about the whole matter, a derangement that was on display July 12 when British Prime Minister Gordon Brown told parliament that the war was showing "signs of success."
British forces had just suffered 15 deaths in a little more than a week, eight of them in a 24-hour period. It has now lost more soldiers that it did in Iraq. This is Britain's fourth war in Afghanistan.
The Karzai government has stolen the election. The war has spilled over to help destabilize and impoverish nuclear-armed Pakistan. The American and European public is increasingly opposed to the war. July was the deadliest month ever for the United States, and the Obama administration is looking at a $9 trillion deficit.
What are these people thinking?
This article, by Norman Soloman, was p;osted to Common Dreams, August 26, 2009
This month, a lot of media stories have compared President Johnson's war in Vietnam and President Obama's war in Afghanistan. The comparisons are often valid, but a key parallel rarely gets mentioned -- the media's insistent support for the war even after most of the public has turned against it.
This omission relies on the mythology that the U.S. news media functioned as tough critics of the Vietnam War in real time, a fairy tale so widespread that it routinely masquerades as truth. In fact, overall, the default position of the corporate media is to bond with war policymakers in Washington -- insisting for the longest time that the war must go on.
In early 1968, after several years of massive escalation of the Vietnam War, the Boston Globe conducted a survey of 39 major U.S. daily newspapers and found that not a single one had editorialized in favor of U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. While millions of Americans were actively demanding an immediate pullout, such a concept was still viewed as extremely unrealistic by the editorial boards of big daily papers -- including the liberal New York Times and Washington Post.
A similar pattern took shape during Washington's protracted war in Iraq. Year after year, the editorial positions of major dailies have been much more supportive of the U.S. war effort than the American public.
In mid-spring 2004, a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll was showing that "one in four Americans say troops should leave Iraq as soon as possible and another 30 percent say they should come home within 18 months." But as usual, when it came to rejection of staying the war course, the media establishment lagged way behind the populace.
Despite sometimes-withering media criticism of the Bush administration's foreign policy, all of the sizable newspapers steered clear of calling for withdrawal. Many favored sending in even more troops. On May 7, 2004, Editor & Publisher headlined a column by the magazine's editor, Greg Mitchell, this way: "When Will the First Major Newspaper Call for a Pullout in Iraq?
Today, the gap between mainline big media and the grassroots is just as wide. Top policymakers for what has become Obama's Afghanistan war can find their assumptions mirrored in the editorials of the nation's mighty newspapers -- at the same time that opinion polls are showing a dramatic trend against the war.
While a recent ABC News-Washington Post poll found that 51 percent of the public says the war in Afghanistan isn't worth fighting, the savants who determine big media's editorial positions insist on staying the course.
Recycled from the repetition-compulsion department, a spate of new hand-wringing editorials has bemoaned the shortcomings of Washington's allied leader in the occupied country. Of course the edifying pitch includes the assertion that the Afghan government and its armed forces must get their act together. (Good help is hard to find.)
"President Obama has rightfully defined success in Afghanistan as essential to America's struggle against Al Qaeda," the New York Times editorialized on Aug. 21. Yet Al Qaeda, according to expert assessments, is scarcely present in Afghanistan any more. There are dozens of countries where that terrorist group or other ones could be said to have a much larger presence. Does that mean the U.S. government should be prepared to wage war in all of those countries?
Paragraph after paragraph of the editorial proclaimed what must be done to win the war. It was all boilerplate stuff of the sort that has littered the editorial pages of countless newspapers for many years during one protracted war after another -- in Vietnam, in Iraq and in Afghanistan.
When congressional leaders and top administration officials read such editorials, they can take comfort in finding reaffirmed support for their insistence on funding more and more war. If only public opinion would cooperate, there'd be no political problem.
But, increasingly, public opinion is not cooperating. While the media establishment and the political establishment appear to belong to the same pro-war affinity group, the public is shifting to the other side of a widening credibility gap.
In a word, the problem -- and the threat for the press and the state -- can be summed up as democracy.
Now, one of the pivotal questions is what "liberal" and "progressive" online organizations will do in the coming months. Many are led by people who privately understand that Obama's war escalation is on track for cascading catastrophes. But they do not want to antagonize the leading Democrats in Washington, who contend that more war in Afghanistan is the only viable political course. Will that undue deference to the Obama administration continue, despite the growing evidence of disaster and the sinking poll numbers for the war?
A cautionary note for those who assume that the impacts of public opinion will put a brake on the accelerating U.S. war in Afghanistan: That assumption is based on a misunderstanding of how the USA's warfare state really functions.
Under the headline "Someone Tell the President the War Is Over," the New York Times columnist Frank Rich wrote: "A president can't stay the course when his own citizens (let alone his own allies) won't stay with him." That was way back in August 2005. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/14/opinion/14rich.html (The next day, I wrote a piece headlined "Someone Tell Frank Rich the War Is Not Over.") http://www.commondreams.org/views05/0815-24.htm The war on Vietnam persisted for several horrific years after the polls were showing that most Americans disapproved. The momentum of a large-scale and protracted U.S. war of military occupation is massive and cataclysmic after the engine has really been gunned.
That's one of the most chilling parallels between the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan. The news media are part of the deadly process. So are the politicians who remain hitched to some expedient calculus. And so are we, to the extent that we go along with the conventional wisdom of the warfare state.
This article by Dick McMichael, was published in the Ledger-Enquirer, August 21, 2009
William Calley, the former Army lieutenant convicted on 22 counts of murder in the infamous My Lai Massacre in Vietnam, publicly apologized for the first time this week while speaking in Columbus.
“There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai,” Calley told members of the Kiwanis Club of Greater Columbus on Wednesday. His voice started to break when he added, “I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry.”
In March 1968, U.S. soldiers gunned down hundreds of civilians in the Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai. The Army at first denied, then downplayed the event, saying most of the dead were Vietcong. But in November 1969, journalist Seymour Hersh revealed what really happened and Calley was court martialed and convicted of murder.
Calley had long refused to grant interviews about what happened, but on Wednesday he spoke at a Columbus Kiwanis meeting. He made only a brief statement, but agreed to take questions from the audience.
He did not deny what had happened that day, but did repeatedly make the point — which he has made before — that he was following orders.
Calley explained he had been ordered to take out My Lai, adding that he had intelligence that the village was fortified and would be “hot” when he went in. He also said the area was submitted to an artillery barrage and helicopter fire before his troops went in. It turned out that it was not hot and there was no armed resistance. But he had been told, he said, that if he left anyone behind, his troops could be trapped and caught in a crossfire.
Asked about American casualties, Calley said there were two injuries, but neither was the result of enemy fire, adding, “They didn’t have time.”
One person asked about the story of a helicopter coming into My Lai during the massacre and its pilot threatening to open fire if the killing of civilians didn’t stop.
Calley said the pilot asked if he could take children out of the area and he relayed that request to his captain, who said the pilot could.
As far as any threats to fire on American soldiers by the pilot, or any threats of firing on the chopper, he said he does not recall hearing about that. He did say the helicopter was making a lot of noise during his conversation with the pilot.
Asked if the story about the threat to fire on troops killing civilians came from the pilot, Calley replied, “It certainly didn’t come from me.”
When asked if obeying an unlawful order was not itself an unlawful act, he said, “I believe that is true. If you are asking why I did not stand up to them when I was given the orders, I will have to say that I was a second lieutenant getting orders from my commander and I followed them — foolishly, I guess.” Calley then said that was not an excuse; it was just what happened.
The officer Calley said gave those orders was Capt. Ernest Medina, who was also tried for what happened at My Lai. Represented by the renowned Defense Attorney F. Lee Bailey, Medina was acquitted of all charges in 1971.
That same year, Calley didn’t fare as well.
After four months of testimony in a Fort Benning courtroom and almost two weeks of jury deliberation, he was convicted of premeditated murder. After the verdict was read, but before sentencing, Calley was allowed to address the court.
“I’m not going to stand here and plead for my life or my freedom,” Calley said. “If I have committed a crime, the only crime I have committed is in judgment of my values. Apparently I valued my troops’ lives more than I did those of the enemy ...”
Calley was sentenced to life in prison, which was later shortened considerably.
Many at the time considered Calley a scapegoat, forced to take the fall for those above him. That sentiment had been very strong when the late federal Judge J. Robert Elliot released Calley from custody after a habeas corpus hearing. An appeals court reversed Elliot’s ruling and Calley was returned to Army custody, but the Army soon paroled him.
Calley then settled in Columbus, married a young woman named Penny Vick and worked in her father’s jewelry store here for years. He now lives in Atlanta with his 28-year-old son, Laws, who is doing doctoral work in electrical engineering at Georgia Tech.
Calley has been free now for years, but he remains stripped of some of his civil rights.
“No, I still cannot vote,” he said. “In fact, I’m not even supposed to go into the post office, I guess.”
This article, by Alan Koenig, was publishedin the CUNY Graduate Center Advocate, February 2009
“I admire President Nixon’s courage. It is difficult for me to understand . . . why people are still criticizing his foreign policy — for example, the bombing in Cambodia.” — Lt. John McCain, 1973
“Collective guilt is . . . partly constituted by individual shame.” — Peter Forrest
In the aftermath of Barack Obama’s exhilarating victory, many on the Left are wondering how much of their agenda he’ll fight for, and as the early exaltations cool, progressives and militant liberals are staking positions, mustering arguments, and searching for the pressure points necessary to impel President Obama to hold war crimes trials for the Bush administration’s most appalling deeds. How far President Obama is willing to go in battling the inertia of a political culture that never seems willing to confront the sins done in its name is not yet clear, but the early signs don’t look promising. As Newsweek recently reported, “Despite the hopes of many human-rights advocates, the new Obama Justice Department is not likely to launch major new criminal probes of harsh interrogations and other alleged abuses by the Bush administration.”
As far back as July, Cass Sunstein, an informal Obama advisor, set off progressive alarms by warning The Nation magazine that war crimes prosecutions against the Bush administration might set off a “cycle” of criminalizing public service, and that only the most “egregious” crimes should be pursued. Faced with such early hedging, those dedicated to pursuing war crimes against American officials must fight a two-front war: the first against those timid moderates within the center-left who shy away from the political costs of war crimes prosecutions, and the second against the reactionary nationalism of the American right, which still needs to be persuaded as to the moral necessity of such a campaign.
Integral to both fronts will be a task requiring unusual imagination and finesse, framing the issues surrounding war crimes in such a way that a majority of the American public feels a collective sense of responsibility to redress them. Developing a narrative to inspire the American public to hold war crimes for its own elected officials treads on some exceedingly difficult ideological terrain, for there are no readily accessible frames to incorporate such a dark history of America into a positive sense of contemporary patriotism. An effort to introduce the public to the repressed regions of its historical consciousness all at once would shut down discussion. What, for instance, is the worst atrocity America has perpetrated since World War II? The question doesn’t inspire easy conversation; even asking can invite reproach for being rude, jarring, perhaps challenging to one’s patriotism. There’s no polite way to ease into those vile parts of American historical memory that most citizens don’t dwell on as they go about their days. Many people, however, on some level of consciousness, are aware and that might be the place to start.
Students from the seventies onward have graduated from liberal arts colleges having learned the whole Leftist litany of American war crimes and atrocities, and that horrific history is extremely depressing to ponder: coups, assassinations, massive bombing campaigns against neutral South East Asian countries, Central American death squads, ad nauseum. What is one to do with this knowledge? Or, more importantly, what is one to do with it upon realizing that the public doesn’t want to hear about—and our politicians don’t want to deal with—our shameful history of atrocities?
In puzzling through this dilemma, the genocide scholar Ernesto Verdeja uses an important distinction between public knowledge and acknowledgment first made by NYU’s Thomas Nagel. While the raw information about official complicity and culpability is readily available in a robust historical record, Verdeja sees the difficulty of pursuing higher justice less in the dissemination of that knowledge than the moral awareness that follows.“The problem,” he told me in a recent interview, is not public ignorance, rather it is
“the assumption by many human rights activists and critics of the administration that knowledge equals acknowledgement; in other words, that when people know how bad things are, they will ‘do something’ about it, or demand that something be done. Acknowledgement implies moral awareness, a willingness to reflect on the moral consequences of actions and behavior and take responsibility—or demand accountability—for the commission of violations.”
Until that connection is developed on an explicitly moral basis, all sorts of crimes can fall through the cracks—and already have.
Back in December of 2000, while the Supreme Court was still deliberating over who would be our next president, Bill Clinton took a farewell tour through South East Asia. As a diplomatic gesture, Clinton released previously classified Air Force data to the Cambodian government about the true extent and targets of the so-called “secret” bombing campaign conducted by the Johnson and Nixon administrations. According to an article written by two members of the Yale Genocide Studies program for The Walrus, the tonnage of bombs dropped on neutral Cambodia was five times greater than previously realized, and exceeded the combined tonnage of bombs dropped on both Germany and Japan during World War II—including the two atomic bombs: “Previously, it was estimated that between 50,000 and 150,000 Cambodian civilians were killed by the bombing. Given the fivefold increase in tonnage revealed by the database, the number of casualties is surely higher.”
Though Clinton’s revelatory report was briefly covered, no major news media or watchdog group paid sustained attention to the new bombing figures or what the moral implications might be. What does it mean that massacres on an industrial scale can be committed by American democracy and the perpetrators go…unpunished? Or, like Henry Kissinger, are feted as the wise old men of America’s foreign policy establishment? There’s a certain futility in posing these questions. Since Vietnam, there has been no place to go with a politics that seeks justice for American war crimes at the highest levels of the government. To broach these topics is to touch upon larger questions of democratic culpability and national shame, and avoiding such themes has been a political no-brainer. Shame does not sell in American politics.
Indeed, in America, the cachet of war crimes can even provide fleeting glamour. Against the wishes of much of the Army brass, President Nixon pardoned Lt. William Calley, the officer convicted in a military tribunal of the command responsibility for mass rape and slaughter of hundreds of defenseless old men, women and children in Vietnam’s My Lai massacre. Calley, while awaiting trial, appeared in an issue of Esquire; the cover shot showed him in dress uniform, grinning like a demonic chipmunk while holding a lapful of Asian children. According to Time magazine, after details emerged about the atrocity during his trial—and his own soldiers testified that he personally shot a child attempting to crawl out of a trench of corpses—Calley was flooded with thousands of letters of support, personal checks, and flowers. Though controversial, the President’s decision to commute his sentence proved popular, as an overwhelming 79 percent of Americans polled disapproved of Calley’s conviction. Upon being partially pardoned, Calley enjoyed a brief stint as a minor celebrity, a far right rallying figure and lecturer, before slipping into wealthy obscurity.
The journalist and polemicist Christopher Hitchens notes a somewhat similar phenomenon in the career of Henry Kissinger, in that the hints of shamelessness and past atrocities adds a bit of bad boy swagger or frisson to Kissinger’s persona. It’s the kind of buzz that’s good for both cocktail parties and TV appearances with Jay Leno, and the ancient guru’s reputation remains exalted enough that this year’s first presidential debate showed both candidates’ efforts to claim his ideas as closer to their own brand of foreign policy. Even Hitchens’s endeavors to popularize Kissinger’s crimes have run afoul of this bizarre resiliency, providing another cautionary tale of thwarted accountability. Hitchens’s The Trial of Henry Kissinger, a concise and scathing indictment of the former Secretary of State, was released in May of 2001 and was soon followed by a by-the-book BBC documentary. The charges range widely: sabotaging President Johnson’s peace negotiations in Vietnam; cynically leading the Nixon administration’s escalation of bombings throughout Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia; plotting the overthrow of a democratically-elected government in Chile; complicity with the Greek Colonel’s regime and their nefarious machinations in Cyprus; tacitly backing Pakistan’s genocidal civil war against Bangladesh; and giving the go-ahead to Suharto’s atrocity-ridden invasion of East Timor. Written to inflame moral outrage, Hitchens’s slim book portended a long campaign, but 9/11 ripped apart American politics and Hitchens broke with his narrow vision of the American Left in order to embrace the Bush administration and its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. After five years of praising various “Pentagon intellectuals” (and somehow missing the presence of Kissingerians like L. Paul Bremer and John Negroponte throughout the administration), Hitchens was devastated to discover in late 2006 that Bush still took advice from the old monster himself. Kissinger still had the ear of the president. “Will we never be free of the malign effect of this little gargoyle?” Hitchens wailed in a Slate column.
Aside from the relatively rare Hitchensian amputation of Leftist sentiment and sense, and those limp moderates fearing a cycle of prosecutions for unspecified future crimes, Leftists concerned about American war crimes must trim another untidy feather of their own right wing; a Left interventionism that grew up in Bosnia and Kosovo and flew on to Iraq. Not all Left interventionists took this bellicose flight path, but a predominate form of Liberal hawkishness arising in the ’90s focused on the exigency of foreign atrocities at the price of forgetting the dark side of American military might, and too many ended up supporting the crusades of the Bush administration with too few caveats. The Canadian parliamentarian Michael Ignatieff, a prototypical Liberal Hawk, wrote in The Warrior’s Honor, that for the interventionist the mid-90s NATO incursions into Bosnia were:
“a theater of displacement, in which political energies that might otherwise have been expended in defending multiethnic society at home were directed instead at defending mythic multiculturalism far away. Bosnia became the latest bel espoir of a generation that had tried ecology, socialism, and civil rights only to watch all these lose their romantic momentum.”
Many of those Left hawks, like Ignatieff, who joined forces with neocon intellectuals over the “bel espoir” of Bosnia, rode that “romantic momentum” all the way to the Iraq War—only to later recant. (Ignatieff finally retracted his own support in 2007). Some of these Left hawks, in the first years of the Iraq War, got flirtatiously close to supporting the efficacy of torture as a means to combat a greater evil. In 2005, Hitchens praised Terrorism in the Grip of Justice, a ghoulish Iraqi TV-reality show featuring the renunciations of various battered insurgents and terrorists—some of whom, as the journalist Peter Maas has reported, turned up dead after their confessions were broadcast. Hitchens, while acknowledging in Slate that “the possibility exists that other confessions are either staged or coerced,” and that “[the] United States could not have put any of these people on television, because the Geneva Conventions forbid the exhibiting of prisoners,” nevertheless boldly concluded: “[in] my opinion, at any rate, the elected Iraqi authorities are well within their rights in using this means of propaganda.” Evidently snuff films are wrong for America, but some exceptions can be made for allied countries on the battlefront. For his part, Ignatieff wondered in The New York Times in early 2004 to what degree “[to] defeat evil, we may have to traffic in evils: indefinite detention of suspects, coercive interrogations, targeted assassinations, even pre-emptive war,” before disavowing torture much more forcefully in The Prospect in 2006. Regeneration of liberal energies and policies starts at home and has a lot of housecleaning to do before it can confidently travel abroad. While the lesson may be learned, that doesn’t mean it won’t have to be repeated.
Aware of such fissures, how can the Left cultivate the moral awareness necessary to bring more attention to war crimes and call their perpetrators to justice? When it comes to questions of collective shame, the American media environment has always been awful, and since the rise of right-wing radio, FOX News and the trogosphere, the Left must contend with an even more amplified caricature of the shrieking liberal. Condemned by the Right for an apparent lack of sound bite patriotism, and for only harping on the ugly side of American politics that no one wants to see, the Left lacks a compelling frame to raise such dire issues, and it has been a surefire recipe for political disaster when it comes to electoral politics. John Kerry touched this third rail when the Bush campaign merely reminded voters of Kerry’s youthful participation in the Winter Soldier Project, a protest group in which the young Lieutenant acted as a spokesman for veterans who publicly admitted to atrocities in Vietnam. Attacked in the Swift Boat ads, Kerry could never construct a convincing narrative that bridged his youthful anti-war activism and his evolution into a bland US Senator, and his campaign sunk between those contradictions. Indeed, Kerry appeared so spooked by attacks on his past denunciations of American atrocities that he never made Abu Ghraib a major campaign issue.
Clearly then, American queasiness over confronting war crimes doesn’t have to emerge solely from the unhealed scars of the ’60s and ’70s in order to be politically perilous. In June of this year, Major General Anthony Taguba, the officer tasked with investigating the Bush administration’s culpability in the Abu Ghraib horror, publicly accused the sitting president of war crimes in a preface to a Physicians for Human Rights report. Taguba’s bold, declarative statement of guilt once more pointed to the gap between knowledge and acknowledgement:
“After years of disclosures by government investigations, media accounts, and reports from human rights organizations, there is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.”
Now, if you were a foreign journalist covering American politics you might think this political bombshell would searingly seal the gap between knowledge and acknowledgement and become a major issue dividing the nation in the 2008 election. No such luck. Taguba’s report received little sustained attention, and though candidate Obama critiqued Bush for his torture policies and vowed to end them, he was protected on his right flank by John McCain’s rhetorically similar position, and Obama never combined the words war crimes and prosecution in the same sentence. After all, he wanted to win. Having won, his administration will have to decide whether Taguba’s unequivocal statement rises to the standard of what Sunstein labeled “egregious” enough for prosecution.
A potential frame that is truly interested in “change” may reside not in the standard repertoire of Leftist tactics, but deeper in America’s Christian heritage—if moral awareness is to breach the stultifying cloud of cheap patriotism. Some genocide scholars, like Verdeja, remain cynical about the ability of the Left to strengthen its own resolve and win over the American public as to the necessity of pursuing war crimes. “The Left can’t touch these people [perpetrators],” he asserts. “The Right will have to do it, for only Nixon can go to China. It will take a rising, younger generation of conservatives. This has to be a self-critique within the Right, has to be a movement from the Right and this can only happen after a schism.” If there is to be a schism, and that looks tantalizingly apparent, there must be some way for the Left to win over the schismatics, the whole gamut from anti-war libertarians like Justin Raimondo to social conservatives truly concerned with moral values—perhaps like the conservative intellectuals Rod Dreher and Ross Douthat.
The renowned Christian political theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, in his Moral Man and Immoral Society, recognized the value of patriotism but cautioned that American Christians must put their first allegiance above any worldly nation bounded by geography and time and dedicate themselves to the community of Christ. Niebuhr preached the necessity of using power to confront evil, but the wielder of that power must be constantly aware, as if through spiritual exercise, of how easily power corrupts and how badly it is perceived by those it is used against, no matter the moral claims. Christians must fight against the profound selfishness and delusion that accompany patriotism, and guard constantly against the imperial impulse that so easily flows from national self-righteousness. Obviously, this is not Sarah Palin’s Christianity, but the potential tools to bridge the gap between public knowledge and acknowledgement could reside in the broadly ecumenical Christian theology practiced by the majority of Americans. Leftists interested in advancing the moral imperative of bringing war crimes trials home would be negligent to overlook these opportunities. Conceptions of shame and redemption are present all throughout most Christian denominations, and a first step to utilizing them would be familiarity, while a second lays in making such appeals to audiences that claim to hold them. Successful examples of progressive moral movements run all throughout American history from the abolitionists to Martin Luther King Jr. and shouldn’t be forgotten in a more secular age.
If this really is a bridge too far, a rearguard strategy would be a prophylactic one of simply ending criminal policies such as torture, even if their perpetrators go unpunished. Verdeja notes that Americans
“have no history or stomach to put our leaders on trial for this sort of behavior, and clearly there will never be an international tribunal to hold them accountable. Nevertheless, it is important that we don’t simply assume that nothing can be done: we need to continue forcefully discussing and criticizing these policies, with the aim of putting an end to them under the new administration.”
By this logic, bruiting about the sins of war crimes, even if we never hold actual trials, could focus moral awareness to a degree that future crimes can be prevented at conception. A public campaign of shaming would be needed, and while it would require a new cultivation of moral awareness, it’s the least we could do.
If, however, the bridge between knowledge and acknowledgement is never built on Christian ethics, and waiting for a new generation on the Right willing to countenance criminal prosecution is futile, and promises of future abstention are not preventative enough, then maybe a thought experiment is in order. What if the Left were to encourage President Obama to just pull the trigger: institute war crimes tribunals for past officials through constitutional means and just eat the backlash as the price of higher justice? After all, if “we are the change we’ve be waiting for,” then who are the reactionary politicians—or what really are the political considerations—to say otherwise? As Niebuhr himself noted:
“Politics will, to the end of history, be an area where conscience and power meet, where the ethical and coercive factors of life will interpenetrate and work out their tentative and uneasy compromises. The democratic method of resolving social conflict, which some romanticists hail as a triumph of the ethical over the coercive factor, is really much more coercive than at first seems apparent.”
There are many forms of coercion. Coercion wielded through democratically attained political power, constitutionally undertaken and with a full Niebuhrian awareness of its dangers—though never an unalloyed good—may be a necessary one. Arrest and prosecution are forms of legal coercion, and if the longstanding critique is that the Left never knows how to wield power to protect or enact what it holds dear, then demanding the exercise of our political power on an issue of such import and moral clarity would be a strong proclamation of political arrival. It might even provide “change we can believe in,” as other progressive causes could be weighed in relation to the shame not solely of war crimes, but of poverty, inequality, or that of our vast and reprehensible prison-industrial complex. The precursor to this legal and political clash between conscience and power is that the moral exigency of prosecuting war crimes rises to the level of social conflict. The payoffs for such a mobilization and contestation might not be all bad. After all, nothing helps to advance previously resistant conceptions of shame quite like a conviction.
Maybe. While tempting, such an optimistic scenario cannot account for the shock waves sure to follow from the psychic detonation of seeing a former President of the United States in the dock. Or looking bewildered in a prison jumpsuit. This would be so startling, so previously unimaginable, that there’s no telling how the public would react or what the political reverberations might be. While a great precedent in terms of the power of the constitution, many Americans would view it as an assault on patriotism, on the pervasive view that America is fundamentally good. Would such an astonishing event be seen by the majority as a great cleansing, a release from past sins, or an egregious national humiliation enforced by a puritanical few?
It would be the emotional equivalent of regicide, and while our political ancestors, the British, beheaded their king only once in their history, they’ve been pretty uptight about it ever since. If we successfully pressed for war crimes trials for America’s former leaders, we’d have to accept the consequences that go along with a brand of justice for which the public is not yet prepared. Perhaps then, the best way to prepare would be start small, a few degrees of distance from the present regime. Henry Kissinger still breathes in freedom and that could be corrected.
This essay, by Norman Soloman, was published in the Truthout, February 3, 2009
The United States began its war in Afghanistan 88 months ago. "The war on terror" has no sunset clause. As a perpetual emotion machine, it offers to avenge what can never heal and to fix grief that is irreparable.
For the crimes against humanity committed on September 11, 2001, countless others are to follow, with huge conceits about technological "sophistication" and moral superiority. But if we scrape away the concrete of media truisms, we may reach substrata where some poets have dug.
W.H. Auden: "Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return."
Stanley Kunitz: "In a murderous time / the heart breaks and breaks / and lives by breaking."
And from 1965, when another faraway war got its jolt of righteous escalation from Washington's certainty, Richard Farina wrote: "And death will be our darling and fear will be our name." Then as now came the lessons that taught with unfathomable violence once and for all that unauthorized violence must be crushed by superior violence.
The US war effort in Afghanistan owes itself to the enduring "war on terrorism," chasing a holy grail of victory that can never be.
Early into the second year of the Afghanistan war, in November 2002, a retired US Army general, William Odom, appeared on C-SPAN's "Washington Journal" program and told viewers: "Terrorism is not an enemy. It cannot be defeated. It's a tactic. It's about as sensible to say we declare war on night attacks and expect we're going to win that war. We're not going to win the war on terrorism."
But the "war on terrorism" rubric - increasingly shortened to the even vaguer "war on terror" - kept holding enormous promise for a warfare state of mind. Early on, the writer Joan Didion saw the blotting of the horizon and said so: "We had seen, most importantly, the insistent use of Sept. 11 to justify the reconception of America's correct role in the world as one of initiating and waging virtually perpetual war."
There, in one sentence, an essayist and novelist had captured the essence of a historical moment that vast numbers of journalists had refused to recognize - or, at least, had refused to publicly acknowledge. Didion put to shame the array of self-important and widely lauded journalists at the likes of The New York Times, The Washington Post, PBS and National Public Radio.
The new US "war on terror" was rhetorically bent on dismissing the concept of peacetime as a fatuous mirage.
Now, in early 2009, we're entering what could be called Endless War 2.0, while the new president's escalation of warfare in Afghanistan makes the rounds of the media trade shows, preening the newest applications of technological might and domestic political acquiescence.
And now, although repression of open debate has greatly dissipated since the first months after 9/11, the narrow range of political discourse on Afghanistan is essential to the Obama administration's reported plan to double US troop deployments in that country within a year.
"This war, if it proliferates over the next decade, could prove worse in one respect than any conflict we have yet experienced," Norman Mailer wrote in his book "Why Are We at War?" six years ago. "It is that we will never know just what we are fighting for. It is not enough to say we are against terrorism. Of course we are. In America, who is not? But terrorism compared to more conventional kinds of war is formless, and it is hard to feel righteous when in combat with a void ..."
Anticipating futility and destruction that would be enormous and endless, Mailer told an interviewer in late 2002: "This war is so unbalanced in so many ways, so much power on one side, so much true hatred on the other, so much technology for us, so much potential terrorism on the other, that the damages cannot be estimated. It is bad to enter a war that offers no clear avenue to conclusion.... There will always be someone left to act as a terrorist."
And there will always be plenty of rationales for continuing to send out the patrols and launch the missiles and drop the bombs in Afghanistan, just as there have been in Iraq, just as there were in Vietnam and Laos. Those countries, with very different histories, had the misfortune to share a singular enemy, the most powerful military force on the planet.
It may be profoundly true that we are not red states and blue states, that we are the United States of America - but what that really means is still very much up for grabs. Even the greatest rhetoric is just that. And while the clock ticks, the deployment orders are going through channels.
For anyone who believes that the war in Afghanistan makes sense, I recommend the January 30 discussion on "Bill Moyers Journal" with historian Marilyn Young and former Pentagon official Pierre Sprey. A chilling antidote to illusions that fuel the war can be found in the transcript.
Now, on Capitol Hill and at the White House, convenience masquerades as realism about "the war on terror." Too big to fail. A beast too awesome and immortal not to feed.
And death will be our darling. And fear will be our name.
W. said goodbye to us last night, in an appearance that was surely notable for most Americans mainly because of the annoyance that he delayed by fifteen minutes their prime time shows like Gray's Anatomy and Eleventh Hour.
The Bard reminds us that we cannot attribute the dominance of the unworthy ruler to fate, or the stars. If we diminish ourselves and make ourselves underlings and give up our birthright as free citizens, bowing down to a would-be emperor, then we ourselves must accept the blame.
"Ye gods, it doth amaze me,
A man of such a feeble temper should
So get the start of the majestic world,
And bear the palm alone. (1.2.129)
Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus; and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs, and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings. (1.2.135)"
Bush is my slightly older contemporary. I knew guys like W. in college, the frat boys who painted the local lighthouse windows red in the middle of the night after binging on cheap beer and chasing skirts instead of cracking their books. The guys who were rude and arrogant because they did not know how to wear their inherited wealth gracefully, the loudmouths who parroted Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley without having the integrity of the former or the eloquence of the latter.
When I was at college, I was interested in peace movements and spirituality, in Gandhi and Sufism. Bush was obsessed by demon rum, poontang and carpet-bombing peasants. I and my friends marched against the Vietnam War because draftees from our social class were getting shredded in the jungles fighting an Asian nationalist movement for no good reason. Bush and his buddies mouthed Domino Theory and International Communist Conspiracy and had their powerful fathers arrange fancy deferments for them. W. was just another spoiled rich kid who refused to grow up and threw up on the shoes of the rest of us while singing the praises of brutal militarism and unrestrained capitalism.
When W. hit rock bottom in his drinking and womanizing he was about 40, and he got the most rigid and simplistic kind of religion, which suddenly all the rest of us had to support. Why is it that wastrels who find faith are so insufferable? And despite all his personal failures and the clear evidence that if you put him anywhere near the leadership of an organization he would run it into the ground faster than a drunk can down a shot, he kept being given chances because he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and his father had amounted to something. It has long been recognized by historians that the key problem with dynasties is that being born to a powerful father is no guarantee that the heir apparent won't be a royal screw-up.
So Bush, the impudent, opinionated, stubborn socialite is made president in 2000 by his daddy's rightwing friends on the supreme court. And because of September 11 he gets his chance to avenge the failed Vietnam War, and to kill Saddam Hussein, the unpleasant little brown man who had dared defy W.'s wealthy and powerful daddy.
W. wasn't up to dealing with the Middle East. It is a complex, vital, fractious place and is notorious as the graveyard of modern presidencies. Carter was done in by Iranian hostage-takers. Reagan embroiled himself in Iran-Contra. Bush Sr. imprudently took on the Israel lobbies over loan guarantees for Israeli colonies on the West Bank, and that misstep helped cost him reelection.
W. is a frightful combination of ignorant, dull, and pigheaded when to succeed in the Middle East he needed to be well-informed, bright and intellectually agile.
Those were my stomping grounds; I knew them the way W. knows Houston. But when I objected to his policies at this little weblog, my mailbox was flooded with hate mail from people who thought W. knew best about the Middle East. As if you could get experience, knowledge and wisdom about the world from 20 years of bar hopping in Texas. Did the man even have a passport?
His war in Afghanistan was little more than an aerial intervention in favor of the Northern Alliance, who, given close air support, easily rolled back the Taliban. But Talibanism was not merely an ephemeral political ideology that could so easily be defeated. It was a cry for order on the part of a brutalized and often exiled population that had suffered Soviet and warlord wars. It was a cry for authenticity on the part of a people warding off foreign domination. It was a vehicle of Pushtun power at a time when the Dari Persian speakers had found new patrons such as Iran and India. Talibanism was not defeated in 2001, it simply went underground for a while.
Bush had a huge country to deal with in Afghanistan, a little larger than France but with a geography more like the American southwest-- and analogues to the Rocky Mountains and the Arizona desert. It was among the poorest countries in the world, seeded with millions of land mines and haunted by widows, orphans, and the maimed. Riven by ethnic, linguistic, religious and tribal divisions, it was a virtual basket case. Bush promised to make the big investments in it that would bring it back from the brink. He lied. From 2001 through 2006, my recollection is that the US spent $80 bn. on war operations in Afghanistan and $10 billion in civilian aid. It was a drop in the bucket.
Bush boasted last night about Afghanistan being some sort of shining democracy. I wish Afghans well, but no countries that poor and desperate are stable democracies. The Karzai government would collapse in short order if the US and NATO troops weren't propping it up. The Taliban and other guerrilla insurgencies operate with impunity in places like Ghazni not far from the capital. And, Bush's harping on the liberation of Afghan women is just annoying. Women are better off than under Taliban rule, which was pathologically misogynist. But rural Afghan tribes haven't suddenly decided to treat their women differently. Some warlords regiment the women under their control only a little less thoroughly than had the Taliban. And, besides,the Taliban themselves are back and dictating such matters in some of the Pushtun areas.
Bush has not bequeathed us a shining city on a hill in Afghanistan, but a crippled state in need of billions of dollars of investments that we no longer have because of Bush's kleptomaniac buddies, whom he enabled.
Bush essentially left a small garrison in Afghanistan and tried to deal with its monumental problems on the cheap. Instead, he diverted the needed resources to his building war with Iraq already by winter of 2002. All of the lies and propaganda whereby he dragged us into Iraq, all of the fearmongering and falsehoods, are too well known to rehearse.
The US has been involved in unjust wars before. But it had fought few wars of choice, in which it just fell on another country without having been attacked. The US had tried to stay neutral in both the world wars. Bush blustered and grunted, shouted accusations and plotted provocations, postured and told tall tales, and herded us into an illegal war with intimations we faced the threat of a madman with nukes. He had no evidence for these false and outrageous claims.
He praised Iraq as a pro-American democracy last night. Bush confuses elections with democracy. Bush had nothing to say about the price Iraqis played to have this rogue experiment on their lives. Did he kick off conflicts that killed over a million Iraqis? That massive toll is entirely plausible. Then there would be 3 million wounded, and a million widowed, and 5 million orphaned. He had nothing to say about the swathe of destruction he has left across the Middle East, like the slimy trail of a huge calamitous slug. Bush has destabilized the eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf region. Turkish-Kurdish, Arab-Kurdish and Sunni-Shiite battles loom that could redraw the map of the region. We may muddle through, but it is too early to tell. Bush just can't help flashing that "Mission Accomplished" neon whenever he talks about his achievements in Iraq.
There are weasels among the pundits who say that Bush has been vindicated, insofar as Iraq has regained better security than it had in 2006. This is like saying that the Norwegian brown rat was vindicated when the Black Death ran its course, having killed a third of Europe before it subsided.
Bush has not redeemed the Vietnam War but rather made us live through something very like it all over again, the only difference being that this time we are likely to have the sense to get out before we are thrown out.
Bush even dared address us about how wonderful things are in the Middle East now without bringing up the ongoing massacre of Palestinians in Gaza or the continued expropriation and statelessness of the Palestinian people, who may as well be slaves. Bush was the first US president to call for a Palestinian state, and he had pledged that he would accomplish something to revive the peace process in the final two years of his catastrophic presidency. But he ended his second term with a mediocre rightwing Israeli prime minister openly boasting of ordering him around.
Bush was never more than a screw-up. He admitted when running for president that there were deficiencies in his knowledge and experience, but he said he would make up for that by appointing good people around him. It turns out that if someone doesn't have a lick of common sense, he won't even know which of his advisers is giving him wise counsel, and he sure as hell won't know how to appoint wise people to advise him in the first place. W. thought the trustworthy, competent people were Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. He doesn't seem to have taken Colin Powell seriously, and the way he used and discarded Powell is yet another stain on his disastrous presidency.
W. had the gall to exploit people of color at his stage-managed farewell, even though his party is overwhelmingly White and he has driven people of color into much deeper poverty in contrast to Clinton, who raised the standard of living for the poor and actually enforced civil and voting rights. W. brought a native of New Orleans before the cameras last night, as though this gesture could erase his maddening unconcern toward the damage done one of the country's great cities by his own lackadaisical attitude.
Bush lumbers off into his Dallas gated community (until recently whites-only), having dropped the pretense of being a rancher who liked to "clear brush." He has enriched his cronies in the military-industrial complex, and opened Iraq to investment by US petroleum firms. But the US economy was hollowed out by an administration that did not believe in auditing the books or actually regulating businesses as the law required. Bush was a socialist on military and security issues and an anarchist when it came to curbing the abuses of corporations or the white-tie superwealthy that he called his base.
Bush never escaped the habits of his ne'er-do-well undergraduate days at Yale. In the end, he replaced being drunk on beer with being drunk on power. He replaced wooing the women with wooing the corporations. He replaced frat boy hijinks with ruinous wars that wrought a devastation across the rugged expanse of West Asia unlike anything seen since the pagan Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258.
Our nation renews itself, and makes small revolutions with its political campaigns. We have the opportunity now, to choose truth over propaganda, responsibility over recklessness, compassion over brutality, altruism over self-interest, and ability over incompetence. We have the opportunity to repudiate the past 8 years, and to transcend them once and for all, to redeem ourselves as a nation. The persons we choose to serve us as first among equals in our republic can bring us shame or honor as a nation. But it is our choices as individuals that make us shameful or honorable in ourselves. We must never again allow a crew of crooked bullies to make us underlings, lest we be laid to rest in dishonorable graves.
This article, by Aaron Glantz, was published by the Guerilla News Network, December 31, 2008.
SAN FRANCISCO – Roy Lee Brantley shivers in the cold December morning as he waits in line for food outside the Ark of Refuge mission, which sits amid warehouses and artists lofts a stone’s throw from the skyscrapers of downtown San Francisco.
Brantley’s beard is long, white and unkempt. The African-American man’s skin wrinkled beyond his 62 years. He lives in squalor in a dingy residential hotel room with the bathroom down the hall. In some ways, his current situation marks an improvement. “I’ve slept in parks,” he says, “and on the sidewalk. Now at least I have a room.”
Like the hundreds of others in line for food, Brantley has worn the military uniform. Most, like Brantley, carry their service IDs and red, white and blue cards from the Department of Veterans Affairs in their wallets or around their necks. In 1967, he deployed to Vietnam with the 1st Cavalry Division of the U.S. Army. By the time he left the military five years later, Brantley had attained the rank of sergeant and been decorated for his valor and for the wounds he sustained in combat.
“I risked my life for this democracy and got a Bronze Star,” he says. “I shed blood for this country and got the Purple Heart after a mortar blast sent shrapnel into my face and leg. But when I came back home from Vietnam I was having problems. I tried to hurt my wife because she was Filipino. Every time I looked at her I thought I was in Vietnam again. So we broke up.”
In 1973, Brantley filed a disability claim with the federal government for mental wounds sustained in combat overseas. Over the years, the Department of Veterans Affairs has denied his claim five separate times. “You go over there and risk your life for America and your mind’s all messed up, America should take care of you, right,” he says, knowing that for him and the other veterans in line for free food that promise has not been kept.
On any given night 200,000 U.S. veterans sleep homeless on the streets of America. One out of every four people -and one out of every three men -sleeping in a car, in front of a shop door, or under a freeway overpass has worn a military uniform. Some like Brantley have been on the streets for years. Others are young and women returning home wounded from Iraq and Afghanistan, quickly slipping through the cracks.
For each of these homeless veterans, America’s promise to “Support the Troops” ended the moment he or she took off the uniform and tried to make the difficult transition to civilian life. There, they encountered a hostile and cumbersome bureaucracy set up by the Department of Veterans Affairs. In a best-case scenario, a wounded veteran must wait six months to hear back from the VA. Those who appeal a denial have to wait an average of four and a half years for their answer. In the six months leading up to March 31st of this year, nearly 1,500 veterans died waiting to learn if their disability claims would be approved by the government.
There are patriotic Americans trying to solve this problem. Last month, two veterans’ organizations, Vietnam Veterans of America and Veterans of Modern Warfare, filed suit in federal court demanding the government decide disability claims brought by wounded soldiers within three months. Predictably, however, the VA is trying to block the effort. On December 17, their lawyers convinced Reggie Walton, a judge appointed by President Bush, who ruled that imposing a quicker deadline for payment of benefits was a task for Congress and the president-not the courts.
President-elect Barack Obama has the power to end this national disgrace. He has the power to ensure to streamline the VA bureaucracy so it helps rather than fights those who have been wounded in the line of duty. He can ensure that this latest generation of returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan does not receive the bum rap the Vietnam generation got. Let 2008 be the last year thousands of homeless veterans stand in line for free food during the holiday season. Let it be the last year hundreds of thousands sleep homeless on the street.
This report, by Keith Morrison, was originally broadcast by NBC Dateline, May 27, 2008
ANN CURRY: Good evening and welcome to DATELINE. I'm Ann Curry.
A powerful story this Memorial Day weekend about a struggle so many of our soldiers face: the battle to make peace with the realities of war. For one veteran, healing came in a remarkable way, through a keepsake he snatched by chance from the battlefield. It was a photograph of a child, just a tiny picture, but it would launch an epic journey. Here's Keith Morrison.
Mr. RICH LUTTRELL: It just sticks in your gut. Just like somebody just, you know, jammed you in the gut with a bayonet or something. I mean, it just--and it's always there.
KEITH MORRISON reporting: (Voiceover) He's pushing 60 now, young for a great grandfather. Though his wife jokes that he looks much older. Perhaps because he has seen the future, through his own turmoil, for thousands of American service people over here. It's time now, he says, to warn them.
Mr. LUTTRELL: How many more people out there that are experiencing the same thing as I am?
Unidentified Soldier: Ready?
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Yes, a great many of them, as we will find out later in this hour.
Mr. LUTTRELL: I've wanted to meet you so bad, Tammy.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Rich Luttrell has spent years working with veterans, most of whom, just like him, are deeply proud of their service. Volunteers. True patriots. He knows all too well what many of them are in for back home.
Mr. LUTTRELL: (Voiceover) These guys need somebody to talk to.
Mr. LUTTRELL: I mean, they really do. You know, that's the worst thing for me, was a--was to come home and bury that. All those years, just to bury it.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Bury it? Bury what? The flip side of the valor our men and women practice in war, the price they pay for what they do for us. And Rich Luttrell? Well, what happened to him is, as you'll see, almost beyond imagining.
Mr. LUTTRELL: It was the one moment and the one act in combat that has been a burden for me for 33-some years.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) It was 1967. Richard Luttrell, just barely old enough to sign up, was where he wanted to be, in the 101st Airborne. He volunteered for Vietnam.
(Bombings; photos of Luttrell as a young soldier; soldiers in combat; helicopter; flags; Vietnam)
Mr. LUTTRELL: (Voiceover) The day I got to my unit, the chopper come down in the jungle, and I seen members of my platoon standing around, my age. And these are some tough-looking guys. Just their eyes. And I can remember thinking, my God, what have I got myself into?
MORRISON: And so this puny kid from the projects found himself in a world for which no amount of training could adequately prepare. It is hot here, or wet, or both. No roof, no bed, no rest, no break from the fear. Just a scrawny kid with a backpack almost as big as he was who learned that the first rule is: You keep going and going and going.
Mr. LUTTRELL: (Voiceover) There was times I can remember contouring a mountain trying to choke the tears back.
(Mountain; soldiers moving through jungle)
Mr. LUTTRELL: Like, God, please, stop, I can't go no more. And we'd do that from daylight to dark. And I thought, what am I going to do if we get in a firefight? I mean, I can't move. I'm so tired. What do I do in a firefight? And I never was prepared for that.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) And then came the day that changed everything. It was hot, as always, like wearing a coat in a steam room. He had no idea his enemy was just a few feet away in the jungle.
(Vietnam; fog; jungle)
Mr. LUTTRELL: (Voiceover) And out of the corner of my right eye I seen movement.
Mr. LUTTRELL: I could see an NVA soldier leaning over with an AK-47 squatting.
MORRISON: First time you'd ever seen a North Vietnamese soldier.
Mr. LUTTRELL: Right. In my whole life, ever seen one.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) He was barely 18, suddenly flooded with fear. His body seemed to freeze. He couldn't let it.
(Jungle; photo of Luttrell as a young soldier; jungle)
Mr. LUTTRELL: I had to react. I had to do something. It was my decision.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) He was in the enemy's gun sight. Death was a heartbeat away. He turned, looked at the enemy soldier full in the face.
(Man with gun; jungle; silhouettes of men; jungle)
Mr. LUTTRELL: It seemed like we stared at each other for, I mean, for a long time.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) And then, like it was all in slow motion, he pulled the trigger.
(Jungle; man with gun; gun)
Mr. LUTTRELL: (Voiceover) And I just started firing, full automatic. And he went down.
Mr. LUTTRELL: It turned into a pretty heavy firefight. And I wasn't smart enough to hit the ground. And somebody tackled me and took me to the ground.
MORRISON: Did you realize that particular North Vietnamese soldier could have killed you before you even saw him?
Mr. LUTTRELL: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I'd wonder, even today, I go through my mind, and I wonder why didn't he fire?
MORRISON: (Voiceover) But that is not what played on Rich, haunted him year after year after year. Not the gunfight, nor the living in the moment of that terror. There would be a lot of that. No, it was the one thought he hadn't truly considered before, wasn't prepared for it.
(Luttrell walking; jungle)
Mr. LUTTRELL: You know, after the firefight's over and the adrenaline rush is over and you started--you know, you're all soaking wet and just feel like your legs won't hold you, you know, it hits you. I just took a life.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) And that's when he saw it. The tiny photograph. Right there on the jungle path is where it began to weave a whole new story for his life.
Mr. LUTTRELL: (Voiceover) I seen this picture sticking out, partially out. And it looked like a little--it looked like the face of a little girl with long hair or something. And I pulled it out, and it was real tiny, and it was a picture of a soldier and a little girl.
Mr. LUTTRELL: I can remember holding the photo and actually squatting and getting close to this soldier and actually looking in his face and looking at the photo and looking at his face.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Here was the man he had just killed. But who was that little girl? His daughter? They seemed so serious, so sad, somehow, like the picture was taken just before they said goodbye, before her father went off to war.
(Photo of Lan's father and Lan)
MORRISON: And that hit you?
Mr. LUTTRELL: Yeah. It hit me really hard.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Not for long, mind you. Rich stuffed the tiny picture into his wallet, and within minutes they moved out again. Not for a moment, by the way, should you believe that Rich was a reluctant soldier. When it came time to use his weapon, he did not hesitate. He developed an uncommon expertise at the dangerous and gruesome business of clearing underground tunnels of enemy personnel. He became skilled at hand-to-hand combat, at surviving.
(Photo of Luttrell as young soldier; photo of Lan's father and Lan; soldiers in combat; photos of Luttrell as young soldier; soldiers in combat; photo of Luttrell as young soldier)
Mr. LUTTRELL: (Voiceover) I can remember being on a hill one night and mortar rounds just pounding in the dark and hearing guys screaming and getting blowed out of holes...
Mr. LUTTRELL: ...and pulling my rucksack over my head and thinking, God, don't let one hit me.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) He had just 20 days left when the bullet ripped into his back, the wound that sent him home.
(Photo of Luttrell as young soldier; newspaper article)
Mr. LUTTRELL: (Voiceover) I can remember when I get on the helicopter, all of a sudden this tremendous guilt hit me, like where are you going? What are you doing?
Mr. LUTTRELL: What are you leaving these guys for?
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Rich came home to a case full of medals and married his hometown sweetheart, Carole. And as the '60s gave way to the '70s, the '80s, he tried to put Vietnam behind him.
(Helicopter; case of medals; photos of Luttrell and Carole)
CAROLE: (Voiceover) He really didn't talk about Vietnam for years.
(Photo of Luttrell and Carole)
CAROLE: Just was something he kept very personal and very hidden.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) But all the while there in his wallet was that picture, the little girl who would not let him go. Of course, he didn't know yet--how could he?--what that little image had in store for him.
Mr. DUERY FELTON: (Voiceover) That haunted me for years and years, as to who the little girl was.
Mr. LUTTRELL: (Voiceover) I really formed a bond, and especially the little girl in the photograph.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) It was so odd, so strange. All the horrors Rich had seen in battle. And it was this little face that kept coming back to haunt him.
Mr. LUTTRELL: Here's a young daughter that doesn't have a father thanks to me.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Year after year he kept it in his wallet. As the torment he felt failed to go away, as it settled on his life like a darkening cloud.
CAROLE: The only thing I could ever say is, `Why don't you just get rid of it?' You know? `Let it go. Get it out of your life and you can forget and go on.'
MORRISON: (Voiceover) And 20 years after his return from Vietnam, that is what Rich determined to do. They were on vacation, he and Carole, in Washington, DC, and when he saw the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Rich knew what he could do with that now-tattered little photograph.
Mr. LUTTRELL: (Voiceover) I said, you know that picture? I said I'm going to leave it at the Wall.
Mr. LUTTRELL: And her face lit up. Like, I could just see it. It was--this is something good.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) And sitting in their hotel, he decided to do it right.
Mr. LUTTRELL: I sat down on a bed with a--just a scratch pad that was in the hotel room. And I started thinking, I thought, if there was any way possibly that you could talk to that soldier, what would you say?
(Voiceover) And in like just a couple of minutes I scribbled out a little note.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) In it he said those few things he'd always wanted to say. Not that he regretted being in that war, not that he regretted serving his country. No, he didn't. It was instead that unending guilt, that uncontrollable sorrow, at having taken away a young father's life.
Mr. LUTTRELL: (Reading) "Dear sir, for 22 years I've carried your picture in my wallet. I was only 18 years old that day we faced one another on that trail in Chu Lai, Vietnam.
(Voiceover) "Forgive me for taking your life. So many times over the years I've stared at your picture and your daughter, I suspect. Each time my heart and guts would burn with the pain of guilt. Forgive me, sir."
MORRISON: (Voiceover) The next day Rich placed the photo and the letter at the foot of the memorial, under the names of 58,000 Americans who lost their lives in Vietnam.
Mr. LUTTRELL: (Voiceover) And at that moment it was like I had just finished a firefight and dropped my rucksack and got to rest. And that load I was carrying was gone. It was...
MORRISON: All lifted off.
Mr. LUTTRELL: Oh, all lifted off. Just felt great. I felt--I felt free. I felt relieved, I felt free.
MORRISON: Or so he thought. Every day hundreds of people say goodbye to bits and pieces of the war and leave them here along these granite walls, and every single thing, sacred or profane, is collected and boxed up by park rangers. Including Rich's photo, which just happened to land at the top of one of those boxes, which just happened to land face up, which just happened to be seen by another Vietnam veteran, who knew right away this was something different.
Mr. FELTON: I thought, what is this? So I reached down and picked it up.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Duery Felton is curator of the Vietnam veterans memorial collection. He has seen just about everything here. But a picture of an enemy soldier?
Mr. FELTON: And I really did a double take.
MORRISON: You don't often see a thing like that at the wall?
Mr. FELTON: I haven't seen it in about 30-odd years, that green uniform.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) And he read Rich's letter of apology.
Mr. FELTON: I read that letter, and it was about taking a life. It's very difficult to do that. That decision has to be made in a matter of seconds, and you have to live with those decisions for the rest of your life. So it was somewhat comforting, if that's the proper term ...to know that someone else had been through that, but they've sat it down on paper.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) And before long, the little photo and all the emotion it conjured up infected this veteran, too, a tiny, determined spirit floating from one old soldier to the next, reminding them both of the price they paid for pulling the trigger.
Mr. FELTON: (Voiceover) And that haunted me for years and years, as to who the little girl was.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) What is it about that image that was so powerful that you'd hang on to it? That he'd hang on--that you couldn't let it go, in a way?
Mr. FELTON: I think it resonated someplace in my psyche.
(Voiceover) You have to understand that I was in a combat unit. This is about taking someone's life.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Of course, Rich knew none of this back in Rochester, Illinois. He was getting on with his life. He thought he was finished with that little girl. Except she wasn't yet finished with him. Coming up...
Mr. LUTTRELL: (Voiceover) It was almost a nightmare.
Mr. LUTTRELL: It was like, you know--you know, `little girl, what do you want from me?'
MORRISON: (Voiceover) An obsession returns, and a journey is launched.
Mr. LUTTRELL: I'm going to find that little girl. I'm going to find that family.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) There is a powerful, silent emotion that surrounds the monuments to America's wars. And at this one, the remarkable wall, a great and ever growing collection of the bits and pieces of survivor memories and griefs. When Duery Felton was asked to help produce a book, "Offerings at the Wall," he had a warehouse of objects and images from which to choose. He put that little girl and Rich's letter right there in the middle. And of course Rich, who by now worked for Veterans Affairs, received a copy.
Mr. LUTTRELL: (Voiceover) And I turned to page 53, and there was a picture of the picture I had left at the wall and the note I'd wrote to the soldier.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) It was as if she were staring right at him, refusing to go away, as if she was accusing him of trying to abandon her.
Mr. LUTTRELL: For me that moment was almost a nightmare. It was like, you know--you know, little girl, what do you want from me? I mean, you know, what do you want from me?
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Now the obsession returned full force. He knew he had to get the picture back. So he contacted Duery Felton, who'd become so attached to the photo himself he personally flew from Washington, DC, to Illinois to hand deliver it back to Rich. And anyone who didn't understand might have found it rather strange that two middle-aged men who didn't know each other, had never met, would hold on and weep real tears for a small girl neither knew.
Mr. LUTTRELL: And I was talking to my wife one evening, and I said, you know, I don't know if it's something mystic or fate, but I said, somehow I have to return this picture. And she said, `What do you mean?' And I said, I'm going to find that little girl. I'm going to find that family of that soldier.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) A ridiculous idea, of course. He no longer even knew the country or the language or what she looked like now, or even if she was alive.
CAROLE: I didn't badger him about it saying you can't do it, just give it up, forget it, it ain't happening, you know, it's not worth the effort, I'm tired of hearing it.
MORRISON: Did you get tired of hearing it?
MORRISON: This is an obsession.
MORRISON: Hard on you as much as on him.
MORRISON: How much did you want that to go away?
CAROLE: I don't know that I wanted it to go away. I wanted him to find peace with it.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) So Rich called a newspaper man he knew in St. Louis.
Mr. LUTTRELL: (Voiceover) I spent a couple of hours talking about it. And the story made the front page of the Post Dispatch on a Sunday, I believe.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) The plan kept forming as he went. He folded up the article and stuck it in a letter to the Vietnamese ambassador in Washington, DC.
Mr. LUTTRELL: He'd told me he would forward it to Hanoi. And he said something to the effect that `maybe we'll get lucky.'
MORRISON: It's a needle in a haystack, Richard.
Mr. LUTTRELL: Oh, yeah. A million to one.
MORRISON: It's a big country.
Mr. LUTTRELL: A million to one.
MORRISON: And so a copy of the photograph made its way all the way around the world again to the capital of Vietnam, to Hanoi, where an enterprising newspaper editor recognized a good story when he saw one and published the photograph, along with an appeal: Does anyone know these people? If the article failed to hit its mark, well, it was a shot in the dark anyway. But there's another way newspapers make their way around, a time-honored tradition, as wrapping paper.
(Voiceover) It just so happened that a man in Hanoi decided to send his mother a care package. He happened to wrap that package in this newspaper, the one containing Rich's photo. And then, by some bizarre coincidence, probably, the package made its way to a rural village north of Hanoi, where an old woman unwrapped it, saw the photo, took it to a neighboring hamlet, and told a woman there, `Here. This is your father.' And before long, thousands of miles away, Rich Luttrell received a letter. The girl had a name, Lan. She had children herself.
Mr. LUTTRELL: (Voiceover) It just didn't seem possible. It seemed surreal.
Mr. LUTTRELL: I just couldn't believe it was happening. I mean, of course, all the emotion again and, you know, now it's real.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) And it was complicated, too. He wrote a letter to Lan and her family trying to explain how he felt.
Mr. LUTTRELL: (Voiceover) The difference between guilt and regret. OK?
Mr. LUTTRELL: I do carry some guilt because of that action, but I have no regret as a soldier and participation in that war. And it was important for me to make sure they understood that.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) But around then it finally dawned on him: He would have to go back to Vietnam himself, would have to carry the photo and give it back. But how could he face his own closet full of horrors? And how would he face the girl?
Mr. LUTTRELL: How do you tell a little girl, `Hi, my name's Rich Luttrell, I killed your father in Vietnam'? There's a risk there. There really is. There's a risk there. I don't know how they're going to react.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Decades after Rich Luttrell aimed his weapon at another human being and pulled the trigger in service of his country, he was about to perform his own personal act of atonement. Coming up...
Mr. LUTTRELL: This is not easy. It's really hard.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) It was early one springtime when Richard Luttrell set out in search of a cure for what tortured him.
Mr. LUTTRELL: (Voiceover) The whole thing's bigger than I am.
Mr. LUTTRELL: It's hard for me to understand it sometimes myself.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Years ago he swore he would never go back to that place. He had seen too much killing, too many horrors. All that suffering reflected in that one small image. But now here he was, on his way to Vietnam, drawn by a photo no bigger than a postage stamp and, like a live thing, it had made its way from a dead man to a dusty trail in Vietnam to an American GI, a war memorial, to a book, to a wallet, to this bag, on its way home.
Mr. LUTTRELL: This is the flight I've been looking for, huh?
MORRISON: (Voiceover) To present the picture to that little girl, the daughter of the man he killed. Will he even know her? He's no teenage grunt, and she must be, well, 40 or so. It's the smell that hits him first. Every memory has one--Normandy, Vietnam, Iraq. The day before he is to meet the girl--now woman--in the photo, Rich is almost beyond nervous.
Mr. LUTTRELL: (Voiceover) I'd almost rather face combat again than face this girl.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) It's a cloudy Wednesday morning in Hanoi. Rain is threatening as Rich boards a van for the two and a half hour drive to Lan's village, a drive through a world changing fast, but still utterly different. Past markets crowded with faces amazed to see this entourage, this white-haired man. The village draws closer. In the van he fidgets, edgy.
Mr. LUTTRELL: I have to bring flowers.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) And then suddenly Rich and Carole are here, walking. Here is where that somber, serious soldier lived, had his children, the place to which he never returned.
MORRISON: How you feeling?
Mr. LUTTRELL: Nervous.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) And then, just around a stone wall, Rich sees a woman. And is sure.
Mr. LUTTRELL: I've already seen her. I know who she is.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) He takes a moment to compose himself, then walks toward her. And here they are. They had never laid eyes on each other before.
Mr. LUTTRELL: (Vietnamese spoken)
LAN: (Vietnamese spoken)
MORRISON: (Voiceover) For a few seconds they don't know what to say. They're intimate strangers.
Mr. LUTTRELL: (Vietnamese spoken)
MORRISON: (Voiceover) He recites a sentence he has learned in Vietnamese.
(Luttrell and Lan)
Mr. LUTTRELL: (Vietnamese spoken)
MORRISON: (Voiceover) `Today,' he says, `I return the photo of you and your father which I have kept for 33 years. Please forgive me.' Finally, it all comes pouring out, this terrible, painful release. As if right now at this moment she is finally able to give in to grief and cry for the father she never really knew. She clutches Rich as if he were her father himself, finally coming home from the war. Her brother tells us that both of them believe that their father's spirit lives on in Rich. They expect we'll think it's just superstition, and perhaps, they say, it is. But for them, today is the day their father's spirit has come back to them.
Mr. LUTTRELL: I've heard she has a new father.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) The whole village has turned out to see the photo returned. Once Rich had wondered about formality, ceremony. But not now.
Mr. LUTTRELL: Tell her this is the photo that I took from her father's wallet the day that I shot and killed him and that I'm returning it.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) She is 40 years old, and it's the first time she has held the photo of herself and her father in her hands. And in this moment and during the afternoon that followed...
Mr. LUTTRELL: He died a brave man and a courageous warrior.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) ...in the company of former enemies, Rich Luttrell felt as if his wounded soul had been stitched up and made new again.
Mr. LUTTRELL: I'm so sorry.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) At which point we could almost imagine some Hollywood director shouting, `Cut! Print!' Except, of course, life isn't quite like that. And in the chapter that follows you'll see why.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Coming up, a new generation, back from a new war, and haunted just like Rich.
Marine Sergeant JESSE ODOM: When you kill a man, you start to think, `Did this guy has a three-year-old daughter back home? Did he have a wife?'
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Who will help heal their wounds? When Coming Home continues.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) It is not a simple thing, as Rich Luttrell can certainly tell you, coming back from a foreign war. He was hardly alone as he suffered through flashbacks and bouts of depression. Rich saw it for himself firsthand, in his work at the Veterans Center in Illinois: The struggle to heal, for many, was deeply wrapped up in guilt over killing other human beings.
Lieutenant Colonel PETER KILNER: War and the killing that goes on with it, those get into the biggest issues of life.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Here on the bluff overlooking the Hudson River, a world away from the jungles of Rich Luttrell's Vietnam or the sand-blown towns of Iraq, a West Point professor named Lieutenant Colonel Peter Kilner tells us a researcher poring over a study of Vietnam vets came to a remarkable conclusion.
Lt. Col. KILNER: That the single greatest factor into whether a Vietnam War veteran experienced symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder was whether they had killed someone. The remarkable thing...
MORRISON: It's not the firefights or being hit by a bullet or seeing the enemy firing at you. It wasn't that. It was killing somebody else?
Lt. Col. KILNER: Yes.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Of course, there are many factors that can contribute to PTSD. The trouble is, says Professor Kilner, in the Army and out, the subject of killing and its relation to PTSD seems virtually off limits.
Lt. Col. KILNER: The topic of killing in the profession of arms is the elephant in the living room that no one's talking about.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Failure to face the elephant, says Kilner, can invite a lifetime of torment for the people who have served us in combat.
Lt. Col. KILNER: Because they're good people. So in a strange way, an ironic way, having psychological problems after having killed in war can be a sign of moral health.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) And yet, to bring it up in polite company back home, very difficult.
Lt. Col. KILNER: Mothers and fathers are proud to see their children come home and have medals and have served their country honorably. They probably still don't want to hear that their son or daughter killed another human being.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Rich Luttrell remembers writing home to his mom just hours after killing three enemy soldiers.
Mr. LUTTRELL: I went and dug a prone position that night, and I went to write my mother a letter. And I just broke down and started bawling, just like a baby. I mean, you know, how do you tell your mom that you just killed three people? How many more people out there that are experiencing the same thing as I am?
MORRISON: A whole new generation of them.
Mr. LUTTRELL: A whole new generation. Yeah. Another generation.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) In a small apartment in Akron, Ohio, live Jill Stacy and Matt Frank, soul mates since they were 14, and now as close as any two people can be. And then Matt came home from Iraq.
Ms. JILL STACY: I would wake up in the middle of the night because he--his entire body would be shaking and he would be screaming.
MORRISON: Pretty scary.
Ms. STACY: Very scary.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) He joined right out of high school, couldn't wait to be in the military.
Mr. MATT FRANK: Getting into the Army was like a new sense of stability that I never had before. I loved it.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) In Iraq he was a humvee gunner, which took him to a town called Baquba, where, one day during an uprising, Matt and his buddies came under blistering attack.
Mr. FRANK: Everybody was shooting at us. At least that's the way it seemed. And you just kind of shoot at every possible spot you that think somebody could be in. You just basically fill every window, every rooftop with as many bullets and everything that you can. But there was this one person that wasn't shooting at us. So he's hiding behind a trailer, he thinks he's fine. You know, and he's not. And then it happens. You have a bunch of people shooting at each other, somebody's bound to get hurt that wasn't supposed to be. I mean, bullets don't have a mind. They just keep going. Especially large ones. They go through everything. And then they got him. And that was the worst. And his dad comes out and he sees him there. He's laying there on the ground. You know, he's dead. He's not dying. He's dead. And the dad's just, you know, freaking out.
MORRISON: And you're watching this?
Mr. FRANK: I'm watching this, yeah. That's what I think about. That's probably the thing I think about the most.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) It was understandable, of course. Not his fault. He was defending himself, defending his buddies. He never meant to kill that young man. Never even saw him. So why does he feel guilty?
Sgt. ODOM: As soon as we entered the city limits we got in the worst fire--I mean, it was terrible.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Then there's Marine Sergeant Jesse Odom, caught in the fiercest fighting in the battle for Baghdad, and suddenly under fire himself from an insurgent in an alley, very close.
Sgt. ODOM: The guy, you know, he was, as we called it, spraying and praying. He just didn't aim in or nothing like that. And he went back around his little corner. He came back, and I shot him. And I shot him several times, you know, until he stopped moving. I justified it in my head at that time that, you know, I had a legitimate reason to do what I did.
MORRISON: Well, you did. You did the right thing.
Sgt. ODOM: Mm-hmm. Thank you.
MORRISON: You would have been killed if you hadn't.
Sgt. ODOM: I think I would have. Or somebody would have been killed if...
MORRISON: And yet you're giving me kind of the reasons a man gives when he feels sort of bad about something.
Sgt. ODOM: It's complicated. You know, it's complicated because, at one point, you know, you have one extreme where this guy is trying to kill you, you know. And then, as part of that--part of that whole moment is you've done something extreme and you've killed a man. You start to think about things, `Did this guy have a three-year-old daughter back home? Did he have a wife?'
MORRISON: (Voiceover) A daughter? A wife? Just the sort of thing Rich Luttrell worried about for so many years.
Mr. GARRETT REPPENHAGEN: I did my job. You know, I engaged my enemy, and I killed them.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Garrett Reppenhagen was an accomplished sniper in Iraq, nickname "Warhorse."
Mr. REPPENHAGEN: You're put in a situation where you've got to think consciously what you're doing, calm yourself down, put a man in your sights, and kill him.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) As a sniper, most of Reppenhagen's kills were at a distance. And then he went on patrol and saw his enemy close up.
Mr. REPPENHAGEN: You know, I hit him in the chest, and he fell on his back, and he started arching his back and screaming, and--like clutching his chest like I shot him with an arrow or something and he was trying to pull it out or something. And he's just in agonizing pain, you know, writhing all over ground. You know, it's like, this is--this is what it is to kill someone.
MORRISON: So those are the moments that live with you.
Mr. REPPENHAGEN: Yeah. It's different than--different than shooting targets.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) And then in his head, or his heart, or his soul the trouble began. How could he heal from that?
MORRISON: The act of killing people and--how do you describe it? Is it a psychological toll or a spiritual toll or a moral toll? What's the word you use to describe?
Mr. REPPENHAGEN: It's all of those, you know. It affects you on so many levels. You find God. You lose God. You, you know, wonder if you're ever going to get redeemed. You wonder about where you're going to be in your afterlife.
MORRISON: Three young men desperate to find a way to feel better after doing so well at what we asked them to do. But how? Rich Luttrell went back to Vietnam. What could they do now?
Mr. FRANK: And then there's always that one that goes, `Did you kill anybody?' Now, how do you answer that question?
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Coming up, our struggle and theirs.
Sgt. ODOM: One of my friends had everything going for him, and he hung himself.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Whether they return from the jungles of Rich Luttrell's Vietnam or the sand-blown towns of Iraq, after having fought and killed in combat many veterans struggle--not with what was done to them, but with what they did to others. West Point military ethics Professor Peter Kilner says police officers get counseling and psychological help after a shooting, so why shouldn't combat veterans?
Lt. Col. KILNER: What breaks my heart is that there's people who are great Americans who volunteer to serve their country, but if we haven't empowered them to be at peace with their consciences then and for the rest of their lives, then we're not doing them justice.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) American combat troops are some of the best trained in the world, due in part to a remarkable discovery by a World War II historian.
Lt. Col. KILNER: (Voiceover) That usually only a quarter of those in battle were actually aiming and intending to kill the enemy. Some people aimed high...
MORRISON: Three-quarters of people at least were not firing their weapons when they saw the enemy in their sights?
Lt. Col. KILNER: They may be firing their weapons, but they weren't firing to hit the enemy.
MORRISON: That's pretty extraordinary.
Lt. Col. KILNER: They weren't cowards.
(Voiceover) They would risk their own lives for their buddies. But he said in general the individual riflemen, most of them chose not to engage and kill the enemy.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) That report, issued shortly after World War II, controversial and disputed even today, sent shock waves through the military. The result was a revolutionary change in training. Soldiers spent less time on the parade ground and more time on mock battlefields firing rounds into pop-up targets.
Lt. Col. KILNER: The research shows that by the time the US Army a generation later was fighting in Vietnam that the firing rates, which had been 20 to 25 percent in World War II, were up closer to 85 to 90 percent.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) It's that superb training that saved lives on the battlefield and transformed US troops into such a dominant military force. But what happens to a highly trained combat soldier who's been discharged and no longer wears the uniform?
Mr. REPPENHAGEN: We learn how to effectively kill people. But nobody tells you how to deal with that and manage it.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Without that help, could there be another wave just like there was after Vietnam of veterans returning home quietly suffering from post traumatic stress disorder? Or maybe the wave is already here. A report released last month by the Rand Corporation says a minimum of 300,000 returning Iraq and Afghanistan service members, about 20 percent of those deployed, are suffering from PTSD or major depression. And even that might be an underestimate. Why? Listen to Garrett Reppenhagen, who, when he returned from Iraq, filled out a document similar to this one, a post-deployment health assessment form.
Mr. REPPENHAGEN: You're given a 30-day leave when you get out of the war. And we were told if you had any issues you would have to stay after and visit the mental health clinic to resolve these before you got to go back to the United States.
MORRISON: And maybe not get your 30 days.
Mr. REPPENHAGEN: So a lot of the guys were like nope, no problems. No problems here.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) The Army says it's discovered that problem, too. So now is scheduling follow-up evaluations six months after soldiers come home. They've also deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan more than 200 stress control teams to offer soldiers counseling in the field. And, searching for signs of trouble, the military asks returning soldiers questions like this: Were you in danger of being killed?
Lt. Col. KILNER: Coming back from Iraq a few months ago, I was asked those questions. I still wasn't asked, did I kill someone.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Even though, says Kilner, unresolved guilt over killing may be one of the significant causes of the more extreme forms of post traumatic stress disorder. But whatever the cause--and there can be lots of those--it's a diagnosis, a label, which many soldiers try very hard to avoid. The Rand Corporation study found that only half of service members who have symptoms of PTSD admitted to the military, and fewer than half of them receive anything like adequate treatment.
MORRISON: Do you suffer from PTSD?
Mr. FRANK: To say somebody has PTSD is to say they have a problem. There's nothing wrong with me. There's nothing wrong with me. There's nothing wrong with any of these guys. They're fine. They're good people. You know? They're not sick. They got--they went to a screwed-up situation, and now they're coming back.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) But while Matt Frank and the others tell us they do not have PTSD, they all say they have friends who do.
Mr. REPPENHAGEN: Right now a lot of my buddies are just popping pills. Then they go out drinking, you know, to try to suppress it even more. And you know, it's just an awful mess.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) They are decent people, these three, engaging, extremely bright, deeply moral. Which is, says Jesse Odom, part of the problem, as he discovered when it hit too close to home.
Sgt. ODOM: One of my friends was a great leader. Apparently, he suffered from, you know, what we did over there.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Chip Wicks, a Marine Corps Sergeant, as indestructible as they come. And then Odom came home from Iraq and saw a news story about his friend Chip.
Sgt. ODOM: And I read in the article that he had had PTSD. And I couldn't imagine that guy, being such a strong person, athletic, good-looking guy, you know, smart, had everything going for him. And he hung himself.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) There was no note, no explanation. Wicks' father told us his son was a sensitive man and was not the same after Iraq. But there are ways, says Lieutenant Colonel Peter Kilner, for even a tortured soul to heal.
Lt. Col. KILNER: If you look at people with PTSD, those who get better, a lot of times spirituality is a big part of it.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Perhaps, he says, we should borrow a tradition of more ancient civilizations, one used by the Roman Army and later by the Catholic Church: a cleansing ritual, a proper recognition of what we've asked them to do.
Lt. Col. KILNER: So I actually know of some Army chaplains, when they come back, they're going to offer their soldiers a chance to go through a purification ritual, something that recognizes those feelings, that guilt that happens just whenever you have a hand in the death of another person.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) It's what Rich Luttrell was trying to accomplish himself back there in Vietnam: purification, absolution. Some kind of peace for people raised on the commandment "thou shalt not kill." After leaving the Army, former sniper Garrett Reppenhagen has been searching for solid ground. He says he still loves the military, yet found himself working for Iraq Veterans Against the War for a while, even testified before a congressional subcommittee about veterans' health care.
Mr. REPPENHAGEN: (Congressional Subcommittee hearing) I was a sniper and I served in Iraq.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) He's back now, living with his mom outside Colorado Springs, going to college.
Mr. REPPENHAGEN: All right, thanks.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Though he says that his classmates have little stomach for his war stories.
Mr. REPPENHAGEN: People ask you, but they don't really want to know the answers. People want to--people want to eat their hamburger, but they don't want to know how the cow's butchered.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Since coming home, Jesse Odom got married, went to college, is building a house. He describes himself as jumpy, cautious, on guard. He keeps a pistol in his car, he says, a shotgun under his bed. He has trouble sleeping.
Sgt. ODOM: I lock myself in a room with a six pack of beer and I'll write, you know, until three or four in the morning.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) That's been Jesse Odom's purification ritual, his way to heal since leaving the Marine Corps.
Sgt. ODOM: That's how I deal with it.
MORRISON: You need that?
Sgt. ODOM: That's my vent.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Hundreds of pages worth. So much that a book has emerged about his unit's time in Iraq, to be published this very weekend, called "Through Our Eyes." For Matt Frank, it isn't necessarily over. He's in the reserves. He could be sent back. And Jill remembers the last time and imagines saying goodbye again.
Ms. STACY: It was very difficult. Yeah. It was hard.
MORRISON: You remember that moment, saying goodbye?
Ms. STACY: I'm sorry.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) For now he's in college, where his fellow students stress out over finals and he struggles with lessons from Iraq.
Mr. FRANK: I can learn from it, but I can't change it. The only thing I can do now is not kill anybody else.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Rich Luttrell, for all his trying, the trip to Vietnam, the meeting with that woman, the girl from the picture, there is one thing he has still every day: the picture in his mind of the lives he had to end.
Mr. LUTTRELL: I would hate for anybody to have to live through the emotional pain that I've gone through. It's just incredible. I mean, it just like--you know, it just sticks in your gut.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) The legacy of what he and they did for us.
This interview, with david Zeiger, was originally posted by James R., to Indymedia Ireland, March 21 2008
Some weeks ago, with last weekend's Winter Soldier event on the horizon, I talked to David Zeiger, through the freebie magic of Skype. He's the directer of the documentary Sir, No Sir. It's a Displaced Films and BBC production that came out about two years ago, and focused on the GI movement to end the war in Vietnam.
It consists in part, of interviews with veterans explaining why they resisted the war, and in some cases went as far as to defect. Hundreds went to prison and thousands into exile, by 1971 it was a movement that in the words of one colonel had “infested the entire armed services” - yet few people today are aware of this soldiers movement against the war in Vietnam.
The film was completed in 2005 winning both the audience award at the LA Film Festival and the Starfish award for best documentary. I interviewed David for some context on the current movement of war resisters, he also spoke about unmaking Hollywood legends around Vietnam and the process of radical news making. Here you can read the transcript of our talk or listen to the full audio, vocal ticks and clicks galore at the link below.
How did you get in touch with that older generation of dissident troops that you talked to in the movie?
Well I was involved with a lot of them back during the Vietnam war. I wasn't a Veteran but I was a civilian supporter of the GI movement. I worked for about three years in a little town in Texas, just outside of Fort Hood, in a coffee house. That was part of a network of coffee houses that helped support soldiers who were organizing against the Vietnam war. To give them legal advice and to help with printing and that sort of stuff. So I knew a lot of these guys and when I decided to make the film I started with the people I knew and just kept going deeper and deeper - just trying to track down a lot of people I knew existed, but didn't know exactly where they were.
So you were involved in running a cafe called the Oleo Strut?
Yeah, we profile it in the film, yes this was part of a network of coffee houses that were set up in the US and actually overseas a lot in Germany and in Asia. These were staffed by Veterans and civilians who were supporting the soldiers who were organising against war and against racism in the military and that kind of stuff. So this was a story that I was very familiar with but over the last 30 or 35 years the story of what had happened in the military really got sort of buried and a lot of the guys had just gone back into their lives.
You do describe on the film posters by-line, that this is the “suppressed story of the GI movement to end the war in Vietnam.” Can you give me some sort of idea of just how far off mainstream agendas this movement has been and I guess how the documentary has placed it back into the centre of how we can imagine an anti-war movement? Where does this conservative revisionism around Vietnam come from? Do you think the contemporary anti-war movement has lost a sense of the role of soldiers as participants in such movements?
Well absolutely. This story was deeply buried after the war, for a variety of reasons. I mean, first of all, just to give you some sort of perspective, the movement inside the military against the war had become so widespread that the military, essentially not that they had given into it, but they had no real choice but to pull troops out of Vietnam and to try and make real changes. They did a survey in 1971 that showed that over half the soldiers in the military had engaged in some sort of protesting against the war. And it was very public, it was very out there and it was covered in the media. There were huge events and there were mutinies.
And after the war, for one thing and for the people who had been involved in it and for the anti-war movement and everything there was kind of several years of people just wanting to move on. So it opened up the field to a lot of revisionism about what had happened. Starting in particular under the Reagan administration, the reality of what had gone on in the military was replaced with a string of films from Hollywood that presented the war as being loyal soldiers who came home and were betrayed by the American people who had opposed the war, who had turned their backs on the soldiers. And turning your back on the war and opposing the war, got turned into turning your back on and betraying the soldiers.
There were over 200 films made since Vietnam about the war and none of them, until my film ever said a word...except for another one that was suppressed at the time...ever said a word about opposition inside the military. There was some stuff about veterans, but nothing about the organizing inside the military. So this thing was... and you know the idea that replaced it was the myth that was so wide spread in this country the past ten years, that soldiers came home and anti-war activists and hippies were waiting at the airport and spat at them and you know, threw stuff at them. The fact is that none of this is true. There was never a verifiable incident of something like that actually happening.
But it became so widespread, that I think its safe to say that most people in the anti-war movement today in this country, believe that during Vietnam the soldiers were betrayed by the anti-war movement. It has a big chilling effect. It gives the idea that if you are too active against the war, or if you accuse the war of being genocidal or targeting civilians you are by definition, targeting or vilifying the soldiers. None of that is true and bringing out that, in fact, this is not what happened during Vietnam has a big impact on how soldiers look at what is going on and how a lot of civilians see it.”
So you've talked about the Rambo effect, the troop returns home and gets rejected by civilian society – have you seen any of the recent Hollywood films on Iraq and are they dealing with it in a manner different to how film dealt with the Vietnam conflict?
I've seen a lot of the films that have come out. I think in the documentary world there's been more of an attempt to honestly get at the reality of what is happening on the ground. There's From the Ground Truth and some other films that are trying to get at the opposition that is growing inside the military. One film, of the ones that's started coming out of Hollywood...I've not seen Redacto, but I've heard its a very powerful movie that does portray how American troops have just essentially been unleashed on the people and the kind of atrocities that it can create.
The tendency in Hollywood and just in general is still, that in this country the focus is so deeply on American service men. The issue everyone wants to deal with is “what effect is this war having on our troops?” So much of the horrendous nature of the war, in terms of the hundreds of thousands of civilians killed, the occupation, the brutality – all of that, gets buried under the question that keeps getting put on the agenda here, which is: “is this hurting American troops?” Which I think again is a result of the pretty successful propaganda campaign that went on about Vietnam in the eighties and the nineties.
Several people in my film point out the Vietnam war was not about the American troops, it was about what was going on in Vietnam and what the US was doing in Vietnam. I think that's true of Iraq. The Iraq war is not about the American troops, it is about the US invading and occupying a country and it's interesting how things get kind of twisted around here.”
The GI movement against the Vietnam war probably gets more recognition within the military than outside of it, in the sense that people speak of the Powell doctrine and the creation of an all volunteer army as a consequence of the belief that the draft allowed a series mutinous movement to cohere within the military. But is it possible to speak of an economic draft today and how do you think the GI movement may have revolutionized the military itself?
Well I think the interesting thing is that, in a lot of ways eliminating the draft more spoke to the civilian movement than the GI movement because you know the draft became a real focus of the student movement and it sparked a lot more widespread protest I think than they wanted. Inside the military, although the draft had a big role in the movement, really the what sparked it and drove it was volunteers. People who had gone into the military, thinking they were doing the right thing, going to defend America just as their uncle did in Korea and their father did in World War Two, and their grand-father did in World War One. How much of that is a mythology is another question.
But there was a sense of betrayal among the troops, and really the troops that felt most betrayed were the ones that had volunteered. In many ways that kind of speaks to today and the fact that there is an all volunteer army, and a lot of it is an economic draft – there is a very high level of desertion going on right now, which is both political and an expression of “this is not what I joined the military for.” The politics of soldiers seeing that they've been lied to, that they were told that we are going over there to defend democracy, going over there to help the people of Iraq, just as they said about Vietnam, and seeing that this is not at all what is going on. That betrayal is what causes the turmoil in the military rather than people being press ganged into it.
So I think there are a lot of changes. The military did a lot to defuse the potential for a GI movement again, they've been doing that for a long time, and its not just the draft. They try and make the military more appealing. They put McDonald's at the bases and do little stuff, to make it feel more like home weirdly enough. They also try to create a stronger sense of unity among the troops, that you are there fighting for your buddies, you may not be fighting for America, but you are fighting for your buddies to try undercut the opposition inside But the reality is the reality and I think that is what is driving a lot of soldiers to deeply question and oppose the war today.”
In the movie you highlight that there were 300 underground newspapers, and that really testifies to what a remarkable network the antiwar GI movement was. How was this done under the very nose of the command structure, there must have been an awful lot of work involved? Do you think the internet could be put to a similar use today? I mean producing a newspaper is a lot harder than producing a website say. Do you see any echoes of that?
Well its interesting. The underground newspapers in the military were a fascinating and interesting kind of thing. They were considered to be illegal by the military. Especially when they first started coming out in '68 and '69. There were all kinds of attempts by the military to court martial people who were putting them out, to court martial people who were distributing them. Both for the actual charge of subverting the military and for trumped up charges, drugs and that sort of thing.
But it became so wide spread and people were so creative in how they were getting them out and getting them on bases, that eventually the military really couldn't do anything about it. I think it was around 1970 or 1971, there was a memo sent out by the Pentagon outlining what was acceptable and what wasn't acceptable – essentially accepting the existence of these papers and trying to control them without outright suppressing them as they had been doing in the early part of the war.
And the difference, its a funny thing the Internet. The GI newspapers created a lot of a sense of a community of opposition and it was great. And that was this physical, tactile kind of thing. Centering around this newspaper, guys would get together and you'd have to write the articles, you'd have to figure out how to paste it up, how to get it printed and fhow to get it distributed, and all that kind of thing.
The Internet on one hand eliminates the need for all that stuff because you can create your blogs and do whatever you can to get your stuff up there, and you are instantly in contact with the world. But on the other hand there's this isolation to it because everyone is sitting at their terminal doing this. So far it hasn't at least helped build that sense of an actual community of opposition. I think it is in a certain sense, but not in the sense of the physical opposition that it is going to take to really do something about the war. So I don't know, it's both a boon and a curse in some ways.
I guess thats' an interesting question to end an interview for a website like Indymedia, so thanks for that.