First, click here and register for Friday’s VFP event marking Winter Soldier. You won’t regret it
These days I’m drowning in anniversaries. “Anniversaries” are famously-lazy hooks for journalism. But they’re hard to avoid sometimes, especially now as I try to eke the last of the new-book juice out of IAMA, and when multiple wars dangle anniversaries in my face.
There’s the just-passed 30th anniversary of Operation Desert Storm, about which I managed to write exactly nothing and for which I now defer to Kelly Kennedy’s plangent memoir at The War Horse, which ends with Gulf War Syndrome but not before conveying so much more. There’s the 50th anniversary of “The Pentagon Papers,” as the New York Times tagged Daniel Ellsberg’s leak about U.S. misconduct in Southeast Asia. 50th anniversaries are particularly frequent, since 50 years ago the movement against the Vietnam war was at its height.
Just this week, headlines marked one for The Burglary, the moment when activists robbed an FBI field office and exposed its secrets — including the long-disputed COINTELPRO, which proved yeah, they were really infiltrating and inducing crime inside peaceful orgs.
Meanwhile VVAW, after the Winter Soldier Investigations failed to seize the national imagination, was planning their peaceful invasion of Washington, D.C., tagged “Operation Dewey Canyon III.” And on March 31, Kurt Vonnegut’s book about the WWII massacre he’d witnessed was published in the guise of a science-fiction novel.
Slaughterhouse-Five is a book that tries to talk honestly and intelligently about war and about death, and finds that they are both impossible to talk about. It’s impossible even for Vonnegut, whose precise, understated prose can make almost any topic sound conversational — any topic except for a massacre.
I’m among the millions (billions?) whose first encounter with the book was about the little green men, not about the atrocity it dances past for lack of a way to describe it. Still, I read and thought about Vonnegut’s experiences for the book, but what I wrote was then cut for space, leaving only this sentence about saturation bombing: “In February 1945, that bombing included Dresden, where Chicago recruit Kurt Vonnegut was a prisoner of war; he would later call the bombing his “Armageddon.” He titled his final collection Armageddon in Retrospect, to include wartime words that didn’t fit in Billy Pilgrim’s story. I wonder what he would have made of all the fuss being made about the book’s anniversary, 50 years of its antiwar message being completely ignored.
Still, that attention is better than nothing–which is what most of the VVAW events are getting so far, Even my Winter Soldier piece was only on Waging Nonviolence, a venue I’m proud to be part of but still mostly read by the choir. So now I’m trying to reach beyond the choir, for a story about the next VVAW anniversary–that of Operation Dewey Canyon III, also known as the other time veterans swarmed the Capitol. I sent this to someone on the NYTimes editorial board:
“In a year full of 50th anniversaries, ODCIII is right now largely remembered for the debut on the public stage of former Secretary of State and current Climate Envoy John Kerry; he spoke on Meet the Press and in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee he would later serve as chairman, and joined dozens who tossed aside their medals at the Pentagon.
Kerry’s debut was part of a larger, well-organized campaign within which hundreds of vets lobbied Congress, filled hearings chaired by Ron Dellums and George McGovern, and camped out at West Potomac Park and the Mall. They crossed the Potomac–some in wheelchairs or on crutches–to Arlington National Cemetery, where a former military chaplain led a funeral service for the war dead, and refused to stop sleeping on the Mall despite orders from the Supreme Court. Their object was not to disrupt democracy but to activate it — and by the end of the week they had certainly called Congress to attention and alarmed the Nixon Administration. The war they hoped to stop didn’t end until four years later, but its course and that of the nation was altered by their movement, and many of them are still fighting for change today.”
I’m also hoping to write a Philadelphia-based story focusing on the vets who filled TWO Ryder trucks to get to the Capitol, some of whom now form a “Philly VVAW” group on Facebook. That might end up being the only story I write, but that could be because the local vets are both compelling and mostly unsung.
Meanwhile, do go register for Friday’s event; it includes not just old friends Susan Schnall and Garett Reppenhagen but former police and Border Patrol officers, drawing connections between the struggle 50 years ago and those we face every day. If the anniversary is the lazy news hook, the work still demands our attention.