FALL ISSUE--The Christmas Truce of 1914

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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.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Saying No To War Crimes

A One-man Christmas Truce

by Tom McNamara

“I’m afraid that they will forget about the moral and legal issues raised by this war”
 -Captain Michael J. Heck, B-52 pilot,
speaking in 1973 after being
discharged from the US Air Force
for refusing to bomb civilians in North Vietnam.

A U.S. Air Force Boeing B-52D dropping bombs over Vietnam. This aircraft flew its final combat mission on 29 December 1972 and was one of the three final B-52 aircraft to bomb North Vietnam during "Operation Linebacker II" (aka “the Christmas Bombings”).

Predator drone firing Hellfire missile.
Between December 18 and 29, 1972, the United States carried out an intense bombing campaign over North Vietnam (the “Christmas Bombings”). Its aim was to destroy North Vietnam’s infrastructure and bring general terror to her civilian population. At least 20,000 tons of explosives were dropped, mostly on the city of Hanoi.

While bombing was halted on Christmas Day (one could imagine for reasons of Christian charity), on the days both before and after the celebration of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) saw fit to fly 729 night-time sorties, bringing death and terror (just as designed) to the civilian population of North Vietnam. Communist officials at the time said the dead numbered about 1,600, but many believe the actual death toll was much higher.

On the day after Christmas, December 26, 1972, Captain Michael Heck, airborne commander for a group of three B-52s, was informed that bombing raids over North Vietnam were to recommence. It was at this time that he notified his commander that he would be refusing to take part in the bombing of North Vietnam. On 175 previous occasions, Capt. Heck had flown his missions without question or incident. But this day would be different. Capt. Heck told his superior officers that he would not be taking part in any more bombing missions and that this refusal was based on “moral considerations and matters of conscience.” When asked by his commander if he was a conscientious objector he confirmed that he was. For his actions Capt. Heck would be charged with “refusing to obey a lawful order,” and it was recommended that he be court-martialed. He was eventually discharged from the USAF under less than honorable terms.

Captain Heck was believed to have been the first USAF pilot to refuse to take part in a bombing mission in America’s war in South East Asia.

In the days immediately following his act of insubordination, Captain Heck said, “I came to the decision that any war creates an evil far greater than anything it is trying to prevent” and that “the goals do not justify the mass destruction and killing.” “I’m just a tiny cog in a big wheel. I have no illusions that what I’m doing will shorten the war, but a man has to answer to himself first.”

Since America was attacked on September 11, 2001, she has been engaged in a Global War on Terror, a war that is, conveniently, undeclared and has no end date. A major component in this “war” is the use of attack drones. And while President Obama assures us that drones are not being used “willy nilly,” facts on the ground might lead one to another conclusion.

On December 12, 2013, it was reported that 15 people were mistakenly killed in a drone attack in Yemen. The victims were on their way to a wedding when their party was spotted and attacked in the belief that they were an al-Qaeda convoy. This is not the first mistake, nor the most serious. Back on October 30, 2006, at least 82 people were killed, many of them young children, when a madrassa (school) was attacked by a drone on the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is believed to be the single deadliest attack carried out by the U.S. to date in Pakistan. In March of 2011, a series of attacks were carried out that killed between 26 and 42 people in the North Waziristan region of Pakistan, during a jirga (tribal council) that was arranged to help resolve a local mining dispute. Even more disturbing are reports that first responders and rescuers arriving to the scenes of drone strikes have themselves been targeted in immediate follow up attacks on the same location (a practice known as a “double tap”). There is even evidence that attacks have been carried out on mourners attending funerals. An estimated 18 to 45 civilians were killed in an attack on a funeral in 2009, again in North Waziristan.

For their part, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has estimated that up to 951 civilians (including up to 200 children) have been killed in Pakistan by CIA drone attacks alone between 2004 and 2013 (A good question to ask might be, “Why does the CIA have its own fleet of attack drones?).

Human Rights Watch has said that the U.S. killing of civilians with drones is a violation of international law. Of this there can be no doubt. One only has to ask, “What would we say if China, Russia, or Iran were engaging in the exact same behavior, but closer to American shores – say in the jungles of Central or South America?”

It is clear that the U.S. and her citizens would recognize these actions for what they really are. War crimes and terror of the highest order. One can only hope that the day will come when the U.S. servicemen and women who are taking part in these actions will realize this for themselves, and refuse to take part in these crimes. Just as one man courageously did 42 years ago this Christmas.

Tom McNamara is an Assistant Professor at the ESC Rennes School of Business, France, and a former Visiting Lecturer at the French National Military Academy at Saint-Cyr, Coëtquidan, France.


“AF Discharges Flyers Who Balked” Associated Press, through The News and Courier, February 10th, 1973. Accessed at:

“Air strike kills 15 civilians in Yemen by mistake: officials” by Mohammed Ghobari, editing by Sonya Hepinstall, Reuters, December 12th, 2013. Accessed at:

“B-52 Pilot Who Refused Mission Calls War Not Worth the Killing” By George Esper, The Associated Press, through The New York Times, January 12th, 1973

“Covert Drone War” by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Accessed at:

“Linebacker II” by Walter J. Boyne, November 1997, Air force Magazine. Accessed at:

“North Vietnam, 1972: The Christmas bombing of Hanoi” By Rebecca Kesby, BBC World Service, December 24th, 2012. Accessed at:

“Obama defends ‘judicious’ use of drone strikes during online Q&A” by Christi Parsons, The Los Anglese Times, January 30th, 2012. Accessed at:

“Operation Rolling Thunder: Strategic Implications of Airpower Doctrine” by John K. Ellsworth, Colonel, USAFR, April 7, 2003, U.S. Army War College. Accessed at:

“Pilot Who Balked Gets A Discharge” by Anthony Ripley, the New York Times, February 8th, 1973. Accessed at:

“The linebacker campaigns: An analysis” by Colonel Warren L. Harris, May 1987, Air War College. Accessed at:

“US: Reassess Targeted Killings in Yemen” Human Rights Watch, October 22nd, 2013. Accessed at:

“’WILL I BE NEXT?’ US DRONE STRIKES IN PAKISTAN” by Amnesty International, 2013. Accessed at:

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The War Crimes Times provides compelling, ongoing information on war and the war crimes that invariably accompany war, the many costs of war, the effects of our war culture on our national character and international reputation, and the need to hold accountable those who initiate and conduct illegal wars. Additionally and importantly, we also report on the efforts of the many people who sacrifice their time, money, and comfort to work for peace.

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