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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Monday, November 10, 2014

Reclaim Armistice Day and Honor the Real Heroes

 To put it bluntly, in 1954 Armistice Day was hijacked by a militaristic congress, and today few Americans understand the original purpose of the occasion, or even remember it. 

by Arnold Oliver

More than a few veterans, Veterans For Peace among them, are troubled by the way Americans observe Veterans Day on November 11th. It was originally called Armistice Day, and established by Congress in 1926 to “perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations, (and later) a day dedicated to the cause of world peace." For years, many churches rang their bells on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month - the time that the guns fell silent on the Western Front by which time 16 million had died.

To put it bluntly, in 1954 Armistice Day was hijacked by a militaristic congress, and today few Americans understand the original purpose of the occasion, or even remember it. The message of peace seeking has vanished. Now known as Veterans Day, it has devolved into a hyper-nationalistic worship ceremony for war and the putatively valiant warriors who wage it. 
Here is a news flash. Most of what goes on during wartime is decidedly unheroic, and heroes in war are few and far between.

I have to tell you that when I was in Vietnam, I was no hero, and I didn’t witness any heroism during the year I spent there, first as a U.S. Army private and then as a sergeant.

Yes, there was heroism in the Vietnam War. On both sides of the conflict there were notable acts of self-sacrifice and bravery. Troops in my unit wondered how the North Vietnamese troops could persevere for years in the face of daunting U.S. firepower. U.S. medical corpsmen performed incredible acts of valor rescuing the wounded under fire.

But I also witnessed a considerable amount of bad behavior, some of it my own. There were widespread incidents of disrespect and abuse of Vietnamese civilians including many war crimes. Further, all units had, and still have, their share of criminals, con artists and thugs. Most unheroic of all were the U.S. military and civilian leaders who planned, orchestrated, and profited greatly from that utterly avoidable war.

The cold truth is that the U.S. invasion and occupation of Vietnam had nothing to do with protecting American peace and freedom. On the contrary, the Vietnam War bitterly divided the United States, and was fought to forestall Vietnamese independence, not defend it.

Unfortunately, Vietnam wasn’t an isolated example. Many American wars — including the 1846 Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War in 1898, and the Iraq War (this list is by no means exhaustive) — were waged under false pretexts against countries that didn’t threaten the United States. It’s hard to see how, if a war is unjust, it can be heroic to wage it.

But if the vast majority of wars are not fought for noble reasons, and few soldiers are heroic, have there been any actual heroes out there defending peace and freedom? And if so, who are they?

Well, there are many, from Jesus down to the present. I’d put Gandhi, Tolstoy, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the list along with many Quakers and Mennonites. And don’t forget General Smedley Butler, who wrote that "War is a Racket", and even, sort of, Robert McNamara, who came around in the very end.

In Vietnam, Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson stopped the My Lai massacre from being even worse.

Another candidate is former U.S. Army specialist Josh Stieber who sent this message to the people of Iraq: “Our heavy hearts still hold hope that we can restore inside our country the acknowledgment of your humanity, that we were taught to deny.” Ponder a million Iraqi deaths. Chelsea Manning sits behind bars for exposing those and other truths.

The real heroes are those who resist war and militarism, often at great personal cost.

Because militarism has been around for such a long time, at least since Gilgamesh came up with his protection racket in Sumeria going on 5,000 years ago, people argue that it will always be with us.

But many also thought that slavery and the subjugation of women would last forever, and they’re being proven wrong. We understand that while militarism will not disappear overnight, disappear it must if we are to avoid economic as well as moral bankruptcy.

As Civil War General W.T. Sherman said at West Point, “I confess without shame that I am tired and sick of war.” We're with you, bro.

This year on November 11th, Veterans For Peace will bring back the original Armistice Day traditions. Join them and let those bells ring out.

Arnold “Skip” Oliver writes for PeaceVoice and is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio. A Vietnam veteran, he belongs to Veterans For Peace, and can be reached at soliver@heidelberg.edu.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Stop the Killing

I want to make a special appeal to the people of the United States.  Each of you is one of us. The peoples you kill are your own brothers and sisters. When you hear a person telling you to kill, remember God's words, 'thou shalt not kill.' .... I beseech you, I implore you …I command you to stop the repression.
Stop the Killing
by Kathy Kelly

On August 9, 1983, three people dressed as U.S. soldiers saluted their way onto a U.S. military base and climbed a pine tree. The base contained a school training elite Salvadoran and other foreign troops to serve dictatorships back home, with a record of nightmarish brutality following graduation. That night, once the base's lights went out, the students of this school heard, coming down from on high, the voice of Archbishop Oscar Romero.

 "I want to make a special appeal to soldiers, national guardsmen, and policemen: each of you is one of us. The peasants you kill are your own brothers and sisters. When you hear a man telling you to kill, remember God's words, 'thou shalt not kill.' No soldier is obliged to obey a law contrary to the law of God. In the name of God, in the name of our tormented people, I beseech you, I implore you; in the name of God I command you to stop the repression."

The three in the tree with the loudspeaker weren't soldiers – two of them were priests. The recording they played was of Archbishop Romero's final homily, delivered a day before his assassination, just three years previous, at the hands of paramilitary soldiers, two of whom had been trained at this school.

Fr. Larry Rosebaugh, (who was killed in Guatemala on May 18, 2009), Linda Ventimiglia, and Fr. Roy Bourgeois, (a former missioner expelled from Bolivia who was later excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church because of his support for women’s ordination) were sentenced to 15 -18 months in prison for the stirring drama they created on the base that night. Romero's words were heard loud and clear, and even after military police arrived at the base of the tree and stopped the broadcast, Roy Bourgeois, who would later found a movement to close the school, continued shouting Romero's appeal as loudly as he could until he was shoved to the ground, stripped, and arrested.

As we approach the nightmare of renewed, expanded U.S. war in Iraq, I think of Archbishop Romero’s words and example. Romero aligned himself, steadily, with the most impoverished people in El Salvador, learning about their plight by listening to them every weekend in the program he hosted on Salvadoran radio.  With ringing clarity, he spoke out on their behalf, and he jeopardized his life challenging the elites, the military and the paramilitaries in El Salvador.

I believe we should try very hard to hear the grievances of people in Iraq and the region, including those who have joined the Islamic State, regarding U.S. policies and wars that have radically affected their lives and well-being over the past three decades.  It could be that many of the Iraqis who are fighting with Islamic State forces lived through Saddam Hussein’s oppression when he received enthusiastic support from the U.S. during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Many may be survivors of the U.S. Desert Storm bombing in 1991, which destroyed every electrical facility across Iraq.  When the U.S. insisted on imposing crushing and murderous economic sanctions on Iraq for the next 13 years, these sanctions directly contributed to the deaths of a half million children under age five.  The children who died should have been teenagers now; are some of the Islamic State fighters the brothers or cousins of the children who were punished to death by economic sanctions?  Presumably many of these fighters lived through the U.S.-led 2003 Shock and Awe invasion and bombing of Iraq and the chaos the U.S. chose to create afterwards by using a war-shattered country as some sort of free market experiment; they’ve endured the repressive corruption of the regime the U.S. helped install in Saddam’s place.

The United Nations should take over the response to the Islamic State, and people should continue to pressure the U.S. and its allies to leave the response not merely to the U.N. but to its most democratic constituent body, the General Assembly.

But facing the bloody mess that has developed in Iraq and Syria, I think Archbishop Romero’s exhortation to the Salvadoran soldiers pertains directly to U.S. people.   Suppose these words were slightly rewritten:  I want to make a special appeal to the people of the United States.  Each of you is one of us. The peoples you kill are your own brothers and sisters. When you hear a person telling you to kill, remember God's words, 'thou shalt not kill.' No soldier is obliged to obey a law contrary to the law of God. In the name of God, in the name of our tormented people, I beseech you, I implore you …I command you to stop the repression.

 The war on the Islamic State will distract us from what the U.S. has done and is doing to create further despair, in Iraq, and to enlist new recruits for the Islamic State.   The Islamic State is the echo of the last war the U.S. waged in Iraq, the so-called “Shock and Awe” bombing and invasion.   The emergency is not the Islamic State but war.

We in the U.S. must give up our notions of exceptionalism; recognize the economic and societal misery our country caused in Iraq; recognize that we are a perpetually war-crazed nation; seek to make reparations; and find dramatic, clear ways to insist that Romero’s words be heard:  Stop the killing.
(This article first appeared on Telesur English.)

Kathy Kelly (Kathy@vcnv.org) co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence (www.vcnv.org)

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Sham history

How do you perpetuate our militaristic culture? Easy. Just deceive people into believing that war in necessary and honorable.
 It’s been said that truth is the first casualty of war -- and the U.S. Department of “Defense” wants to make sure that the casualty remains dead with its Vietnam Commemoration project. But voices have been rising to counter the one-sided campaign to rewrite the history of the bloody, criminal U.S. engagement in Southeast Asia a half century ago.

Veterans For Peace has launched its Vietnam Full Disclosure Campaign:
The Full Disclosure Campaign represents a clear alternative to the Department of Defense’s current efforts to sanitize and mythologize the Vietnam war and to thereby legitimize further unnecessary and destructive wars.

Even the New York Times has raised an eyebrow at the deception: 
Now the Pentagon — run by a Vietnam veteran, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel — is planning a 50th anniversary commemoration of the Vietnam War. The effort, which is expected to cost taxpayers nearly $15 million by the end of this fiscal year, is intended to honor veterans and, its website says, “provide the American public with historically accurate materials” suitable for use in schools. But the extensive website, which has been up for months, largely describes a war of valor and honor that would be unrecognizable to many of the Americans who fought in and against it. (NYT, “Paying Respects, Pentagon Revives Vietnam, and War Over Truth”)

President Obama, who didn’t care to look back a couple of years to deal with the Mideast and Central Asian war crimes of the Bush-Cheney administration, wants to look back fifty years to sugarcoat the criminal war in Southeast Asia. In his kickoff speech to ballyhoo the commemoration, among the nonsense he droned on about, he actually said, “Let’s never forget that most of those who served in Vietnam did so by choice.”

I have a different recollection than Barack Obama – who in 1966, when my draft status was 1-A, was 5 years old. Most of my friends and acquaintances then did some time in the military, but it certainly wasn’t their first choice of how to spend a few years of their late teens and early adulthood. Most were drafted; some pushed up their draft or enlisted to get the inevitable over with. Without the draft, damned few would have become members of the armed forces. (Please notice that I didn’t use any form of the verb “to serve” as Mr. Obama did. “To serve” is to do something positive; to be in the military is to be part of a force whose mission is to kill people and destroy things. “Service” is one of many euphemisms employed to make the military seem honorable.)    

Richard M. Nixon, president during the last part of the war, got one thing right: “No event in American history is more misunderstood than the Vietnam War. It was misreported then, and it is misremembered now.”

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

What it means to be human

Jabbar Magruder of Iraq Veterans Against the War
at anti-war demonstration in
Minneapolis-St. Paul, August 2008.
Photograph by Mike Hastie, Army Medic Vietnam.

“If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man's life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”
― Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Lessons from the Vietnam War: What it means to be human
To know thine enemy may be to not have one. Both civilian propaganda and military training are focused on dehumanizing the ‘other’ so that our general aversion to killing is overridden.
  Carol Wilder, Crossing the Street in Hanoi
In his memoir, Blood on the Tracks, S. Brian Willson recounts the gut reaction he had when ordered to plunge his bayonet into a dummy while yelling Kill! during a routine Air Force Ranger training exercise. Brian’s brother Dwight, a post-Korea, Cold War vet, says he went through that same bayonet training in the army, and while he didn’t balk like Brian did, he basically faked the exercise. It felt ridiculous, he said.
These accounts and others lead me to believe it’s not uncommon for soldiers-in-training to feel weird going through the motions of sticking it to a dummy, a weirdness that apparently stems from a deep discomfort with the whole notion of killing. Despite intense conditioning designed to get soldiers comfortable with the idea of killing and inure them to the general violence of war, many stories brought back from war zones tell us that the softer tendencies of the human heart are not so easily overridden.
The death or wounding of comrades, witnessing or being party to atrocities of war, injustice or abuse within the military establishment, and grinding, day-to-day, boots-on-the-ground experiences all can contribute to a creeping antiwar consciousness or just an awareness that the actual mission is something other than that stated in official propaganda. Face-to-face encounters with the enemy can have the same thought-provoking effect.
What follows are examples from the Vietnam War of soldiers recognizing common humanity in the “other,” collected in celebration of the December 1914 Christmas Truce, that moment during the Great War when soldiers from opposing sides spontaneously emerged from the trenches to fraternize in No Man’s Land in the spirit of the holidays. Rather than one large, spontaneous event experienced by many, the following are discrete, individual experiences, but they similarly illustrate a side of human nature that is persistent and common even in war, though rarely acknowledged due to its power to dissolve the construct of enemy that is necessary to justify all wars.
Key in these stories is the element of reflection, both in the sense of seeing one’s own reflection in the face of the bad guy, and in the subsequent thought process this provokes. If not squelched by internal or external forces, these initial thoughts may lead to questioning of the rationale for the war at hand, illumination about the nature of war in general, and even, eventually, to actions leading away from war. It’s important to realize that this is not an entirely intellectual process, but one that often involves the gut and the heart as well.
 “What are they so afraid of?”
The 2014 German documentary, Lighter Than Orange, examines the impact of Agent Orange on Vietnamese veterans and their families. Early in the film, a man tells about being shot during the war. He describes his fear, as he lay wounded, of being discovered by the enemy, and his joy upon finally being rescued by a comrade. The emotional content of this man’s story prompted American veteran Mike Tork to reflect on his own wartime experience:
When I arrived in Vietnam in 1967, I had been well indoctrinated. Everyone, from the top down, used derogatory terms that dehumanized the Vietnamese: Gook, Slope, Zipperhead, Charlie, Chuck, Chink, Dink, etc…. At one point, a new Marine told me that Vietnamese mothers didn’t love their children the way American mothers did, so it wasn’t that big a deal if they lost one. And he believed it! Even though I did believe the Vietnamese were my enemy, something just didn’t fit. Something, deep within my mind, kept telling me these people were human beings just like myself, and that very soft, nagging voice got stronger over time.
One of the things that started my questioning happened while working upriver in the Mekong Delta with the Mobile Riverine Force. At the request of a group of Marines, we were transporting about a dozen Vietnamese prisoners (VC) down river, and I was struck by two things: How unbelievably young they were (of course, I was only 19 myself!), and how frightened they looked. Very, very frightened. I kept thinking, What are they afraid of? We’re Americans. We aren’t going to hurt them. We’re the good guys. I thought about the very real fear I saw in their faces for a long while, and over time I learned that their fear was justified—that we were not the good guys.
I never forgot the fear I saw that day, and in fact saw it in the faces of many Vietnamese I encountered while searching sampans and conducting other military operations. Although my realization that something wasn’t right was very slow in coming, it did come. What I saw in those faces opened my eyes ever so slightly, but at least it was a beginning.
“I wonder if he had a girlfriend?”
David Cline, in the David Zeiger documentary, Sir! No Sir! tells a harrowing story of being wounded (in 1967; for the third time) when his unit is overrun by North Vietnamese regulars. In a hole with his M16 pointed up, he sees the muzzle of an AK47 and pulls his own trigger at the same moment he sees a flash and feels his knee hit, and then blacks out. After the fighting ends, at dawn, he gets to see the guy who shot him.
He was sitting up against a tree stump and he was dead. He had three bullet holes across his chest and his AK across his lap. And the sergeant said, Here’s this gook you killed. You did a good job. And I seen this guy, and he was about my age. And I started thinking, you know, Why is he dead and I’m alive? It was just a matter of pure luck. And I started thinking, I wonder if he had a girlfriend or how his mother’s going to find out and things like that…. I don’t consider he was the first guy I shot, but it was the first guy I shot where … I looked him in the face afterward. And I felt a certain amount of responsibility to him. To make his death not be in vain meant that I had to try and advocate for the justness he was fighting for, because I believe he was fighting for his country.
By this time, Cline had already gained awareness that the war was based on lies, but the way he tells it, it was this incident that cemented his commitment to the GI resistance movement.
Elements of Cline’s story are similar to Tork’s. He notices how young the guy is that he’s killed. Seeing someone about my age, his next thoughts are about a girlfriend, a mother. And I started thinking… he says twice, in telling his story for Zeiger’s camera.
 They’re just people.
When I traveled to Vietnam in the early 2000s, I happened to meet Steve Sherlock, an American vet hanging out at the R&R Bar in Hanoi. He had a nonprofit that arranged donations of medical supplies and equipment to Vietnamese hospitals. Sherlock is a great storyteller, and the story of his progressive transformation from super war supporter (1966) to member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (1971) is included in Christian Appy’s excellent oral history of the war, Patriots.
Sherlock’s reflection begins while he’s still stateside, doing riot control duty in D.C. with the 82nd Airborne after Martin Luther King’s assassination. “About three-quarters of my platoon were black or Hispanic and they’d all just come back from Vietnam,” he recounts. “It was clear that I was already in the middle of a kind of war. It just didn’t feel right…and Vietnam was somehow connected to it.”
His state of mind by the time he got to Vietnam in 1968 was one of confused neutrality, and although he didn’t fully understand the politics of the war, his gut feeling was that the Vietnamese were “just people.” He describes having to collect the bodies killed during firefights (for the sake of the body count); finding one man decapitated and discovering that a woman they’d killed, though probably a local guide for the Viet Cong, was a village schoolteacher. Sherlock’s disgust with the killing part of his duty led him one day to admit to his captain, “I’d like it…if they didn’t run into us and we didn’t have any more fights.” Unable to relate anymore to the concept of “evil Communist enemy,” he insisted, “They’re people just like us.” Though seen as traitorous by his commanders, Sherlock was merely expressing his humanity.
A Lesson for Us All
In our society, indoctrination starts early. Toys, games, school curricula, and recruitment materials are just the beginning of an endless stream of media messaging designed to inculcate an unquestioning glorification of war and the “brave troops” who “fight for our freedom.” But there are other voices, perhaps very soft, nagging voices at first, inviting us to question these messages and find our own voices in speaking out against the immoral madness of forever war; to point out the very clear meaning behind all the images and first-person accounts (and there are many) that depict the horrors of war. It is our right and our duty to share and to celebrate the stories, found in every generation, of soldiers who have discovered their own humanity by recognizing it in others, whether World War I vets who survived to tell of the amazing Christmas Truce or the hardcore individuals of another generation who survived to form Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
Walter Dean Myers, a prolific African-American writer of juvenile fiction known for writing books that depict marginalized people as fully rounded human beings, collaborated with illustrator Ann Grifalconi to create a picture book titled Patrol, in which a Vietnam War grunt has a number of experiences while out on patrol. In spare, poetic style, he captures the experience of a soldier recognizing common humanity in the other: Crouched against a tree older than my grandfather, / I imagine the enemy crouching against / a tree older than his grandfather.
In trying to understand why, when confronted with a Vietnamese mother and children killed by U.S. bombs, he had a sudden unbidden thought that they were members of “my own family,” Brian Willson came to believe that empathy is a deep, archetypal human characteristic. This idea is certainly supported by the spontaneous questions, thoughts of compassion, and recognition of shared humanity that arose during the traumatic wartime experiences of Mike Tork, David Cline, and Steve Sherlock.
In telling his story to David Zeiger, David Cline remarked, “I had to kill a revolutionary to become a revolutionary.” In an age when fear is used to wage a forever war against a nebulous enemy called Terror, when upside-down priorities continue to value profits over people while the war on the environment threatens the very survival of our species, it is more important than ever for us to get in touch with our humanity and to recognize our connectedness to every person on the planet. Let these stories serve as a rallying call to seek our reflection in those who would be our enemy and engage together in revolutionary acts of compassion and empathy.
Becky Luening grew up during, but far removed from, the Vietnam War.  She later developed a deep interest in the history and politics of that war, fed by involvement with the Vietnam Friendship Village Project (vietnamfriendship.org), travel to Vietnam, and friendships with veterans. She engages her anti-war passions as an associate member of Veterans For Peace Chapter 72 in Portland Oregon, where she lives with her partner, Brian Willson.

Appy, Christian G. Patriots: The Vietnam War remembered from all sides. New York: Viking Penguin, 2003.
Lighter Than Orange:  The Legacy of Dioxin in Vietnam. Matthias Leupold. Berlin, 2014.
Myers, Walter Dean and Ann Grifalconi (illust.). Patrol: An American Soldier in Vietnam. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.
Wilder, Carol. Crossing the Street in Hanoi: Teaching and learning about Vietnam. Bristol, UK/Chicago: Intellect Ltd., 2013.

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