storytelling as dissent

youngblood-9781501105746_hrYesterday’s War Horse post only spotlit one small share of the vast number of veteran writers and artists, like the one pictured,  charting the forever war. They’re musicians, they’re poets holding incredible slams, they’re winning Pulitzers and National Book Awards.

The current bounty has me thinking about how the presence of such artists forms an arc throughout the history we’re charting — one that likely starts with Edgar Allen Poe and Ambrose Bierce, continues with e.e. cummings and Lewis Milestone and and busts out after World War II as Randall Jarrell, Joseph Heller, John Huston — until Vietnam givesi us Bill Erhart, Tim O’Brien and so many others (now on my cutting-room floor). If I include journalists and filmmakers to the mix, it becomes a cacophony.

Why the increase? And does the plentitude of stories just release tension, or begin the process of creating dissent as personnel know they’re not alone?

I don’t know if these questions are for trauma studies,military history or English class. But I do think they’re worth tracing. And maybe we can send today’s veteran stars a questionnaire, to find out if Bierce and Jarrell really do whisper in today’s texts.

privateperrypoe

48 years ago today, a match was struck that helped burn down the Vietnam War.

At least one can make that argument: certainly the war crimes of March 16, 1968 in the village of Son My/My Lai spurred more investigation and controversy than the almost-daily similar incidents more recently covered by Nick Turse in his magisterial Kill Anything That Moves It certainly shook the world of the ‘family’ of vets included in my Vietnam chapter.Their voices, as with the massacre’s impact on our culture,  so strong that my editor just asked me: “Is My Lai the fulcrum of that chapter?”

book-pinkvilleBut for today’s anniversary I wanted to call attention to a different book: The Witness from Pinkville, published today – written by someone who was only 11 when his family was  slaughtered. There are only 1,000 copies of the book in English, and only available at the memorial site established for the events; the author, Pham Thi Cong, is head of the Son My  vestige site. (Image above is from VietnamNet, which bills itself as the first English-language online newspaper in Vietnam.)

Time to contact my VVAW friends, and/or see if there’s any other way to get the book. The fact that he’s only 5 years older than me is heartbreaking.

Cong said the 248-page book recalled the events in the village (now in Tinh Khe Commune) nearly half a century ago….[He] said the massacre was the worst tragedy that he witnessed at the age of 11, when his mother and six brothers were killed by American soldiers in their house. He was seriously injured but was eventually saved by his father.

American soldiers killed 504 unarmed civilians in the massacre.

“I lost my father in 1970 and became homeless and an orphan,” Cong said.

Ron Kovic’s Convention speech

Kovic at Florida Memory

Which no one ever heard, because the networks had stopped filming in 1972. (They’d already wrecked the candidacy of WWII veteran Edmund Muskie. ) We’ll never know if that speech might have rocked the world of Richard Nixon.

Now, thanks to Studs Terkel’s chat with Hunter S. Thompson, you can hear it starting at minute 36.

The rest of the discussion is worth listening to, especially the conversation about “objective journalism.”

Many thanks to the vets who corrected my initial mistaken impression that this was the Democratic Convention. This was just as Kovic was starting out as an activist, long before we all knew his birthday.

 

 

#Bergdahl = Rashomon

It’s now more than two weeks since the Army brought charges against Robert D. Bowdrie Bergdahl, known to most of us as Bowe.. In that time, journalists and commentators have rushed to characterize a young man most of us knew only from last years’ headlines, and photos of a skinny Army private in Arab robes squinting at the sun.

The charges against Bergdahl, who was released in June 2014 after 5 years as a Taliban prisoner, are stark: desertion and “misbehavior before the enemy” for leaving his Afghan post. But the charge sheet differs substantially from Bergdahl’s own account of what happened that week, which was released by his defense attorney Eugene Fidell (co-founder of the National Institute of Military Justice).

 The media blitz has come before the upcoming Article 32 hearing, the military version of a grand-jury process, at which a wide range of evidence can be presented by either side for consideration. While most major outlets try to present a balanced picture, others have rushed to judgment, convicting or acquitting before all the facts are known. The truth likely has elements of each:

  1. Bergdahl’s a traitor (e.g. Fox News, National Journal.) Between his hippie dad (who spoke Arabic in the Rose Garden when Bergdahl was released) and Bergdahl’s own e-mails to that same dad (published by Rolling Stone in 2012) that said he was “ashamed to be an American,” conservative outlets from Fox News to National Journal have long been calling for the harshest punishment possible. This week they zeroed in on photos of Bergdahl seemingly joking with his captors, and interviewed members of Bergdahl’s unit who challenged his account of the week he was captured. Many quote those platoon-mates and others as substantiating the root of one of the “misbehavior” charges:, that lives were lost as his peers were ordered on search missions to find him.

  2. He’s a conscientious objector (e.g. The Nation, Democracy Now). The assertion may A make the most sense to veterans who actually achieved a discharge as objectors – something that happens only after a long process in which a soldier persuades his command that s/he’ sincere, not disturbed, and has gone through a “crystallization” in which military service became incompatible with his/her belief system. As a staffer in the 90’s with the Committee for Conscentious Objectors, I had the honor of helping a handful of such soldiers through that process; I’ve since met others, from more recent wars, who were quoted this week in articles positing that Bergdahl was a true dissenter from the war in Afghanistan. They cite Bergdahl’s statement that he was just trying to report some command misconduct and tag him a whistleblower; Veterans For Peace, some of whom are CO’s, issued a statement calling for “An End to the Persecution of Sgt. Bergdahl.”

  3. Just a screwed-up guy, who should never have been in the military in the first place (Military Times, countless editorial pages).These writers want neither to valorize Bergdahl nor execute him, arguing that “he’s been punished enough.” The case has been made that Bergdahl should never have been recruited after washing out of the Coast Guard,instead of being welcomed in 2008 by recruiting commands under pressure to fill the needs of a metastasizing war. Berg’s initial desire to serve appears to have been strong. What he was signing up for is less clear, given his original desire to join the French Foreign Legion and his father’s observation that a young Bowe thrived on hero narratives, that the young man is now was “[legendary British soldier/adventurer] Bear Grylls in his own mind.” There’s also been a pretty strong case made for dysfunction within Bergdahl’s unit, given the loose, unstable chaos seen in a BBC documentary filmed before his capture. Some writers point out his homeschooling and the poor grammar of his written statements, and speculate about whether he was prepared at all.

  4. Besides, what about… Last but not least are those who are less interested in Bergdahl himself than in using him to make a larger political argument, about the 2009 prisoner swap, what President Obama should or shouldn’t have done – or, like Jesse Ventura, to wonder aloud why Bergdahl is being charged long before military personnel who approved torture at secret prisons overseas.

This is all before anyone has seen the evidence headed for that courtroom. Most military journalists I know have urged me, and by extension all of us, to wait at least until the Article 32 hearings are over before coming to any conclusions. But the truth may be hard to come by, since some relevant evidence — intelligence findings about Bergdahl’s captivity – may be declared “classified” and thus closed to the press.

Nonetheless, I hope that as the case proceeds, a sharper picture of the young man in question will emerge, and that we can all shake off our preconceptions enough to see him.–

news: the Monday dozen

AintMarchincoverbyAlexI know I haven’t posted one of these in a few days, but that’s not because there wasn’t much to note. Below is a full baker’s dozen, though some are echoes of stories already on our radar.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Friday news dump, belated

AintMarchincoverbyAlexAs what one writer has called “this insult of a month” comes to an end, a baker’s half-dozen to keep us warm:

  • Famous Veteran: Leonard Nimoy. As many of us mourn the guy who made smart cool, IVAW’s Geoff Millard points out this Military.com Q&A in which Nimoy offered vets tips on making their dreams real.
  • One dissenting soldier interviews another: at CounterPunch, a dialogue between Vincent Emanuele, who’s been writing up a storm 6+ years since his mesmerizing Winter Soldier testimony, and Kourtney Mitchell of Deep Green Resistance, who emerges as a feminist environmentalist while still officially an Army AWOL.
  • In case you thought the end of DADT and Prop 8 meant equality for queers in the military: Texas VA told this Iraq vet and her wife that their marriage didn’t exist.
  • Thank you for your service, VVAW’s Jan Scruggs, who made the Vietnam Wall real and is now stepping aside as his foundation’s president. You deserve the time off,
  • At Foreign Policy, Tom Ricks’ thoughts on the moral-injury concept. Between him and David Brooks, you’d think the idea was nonpartisan or something.
  • And to finish off with Hollywood (where we sorta began), the LA Times on Edward Snowden as a movie star, now that Joseph Gordon-Levitt is playing him in an Oliver Stone movie.

A veteran #suicide story that’s about much more

mstflash A day rarely passes when I don’t hear of a suicide by a vet of these 21st-century wars.I’d do little else if I tried to note each one, but this story out of Tampa tells us that the MST struggle is so far from won:

“I suspect she was assaulted, and she didn’t feel comfortable reporting it for some reason and internalized the incident so she could finish her deployment, which she did with flying colors,” says Leverich. “It’s not anything she told me, just from talking with all her friends this past week, and piecing those things together. I am female active duty, 18 years in the Coast Guard. I am well aware of those issues, and that’s my gut feeling.”

 “Didn’t feel comfortable reporting it.” Think of that next time someone tells you Sen. Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act is unnecessary.