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.

Iraq and a hard place

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All this Manning talk has distracted me from writing about this amazing mural, powered by the singular organization Warrior Writers. They’re poets, essayists, performers and visual artists of all stripes, mostly from what their director calls “veterans who’ve served since September 11.” Together with the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program,  they produced this testimonial a half-mile away from where I live, entitled “Communion Between a Rock and a Hard Place.” It was funded in part by veterans’ health agencies who believed sort of what I do: that creating art is a key way to tapping the strength inside the trauma.

I was there for the opening on Veterans Day, when the commissioners and City Council folk celebrated the work of the artists and all the vets who helped them create this mural. You get to decide if dissent is involved, but to the extent that vets turn their own trauma into something that speaks truth, there’s no question it deserves our attention.

At the mural opening, I also had the privilege of meeting a newer member of Iraq Veterans Against War, a talented writer from Western Pennsylvania. And he gave me permission to post the poem he read that day, which you should read aloud to yourself: I think it even without the line breaks it sings.

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the singer of the song

I’m in final revisions on the AMA book, so my focus here is shifting for the next five weeks or so; expect to see some musings on the book’s themes, and new stories getting inserted at the last minute. But I’m unlikely to be following the news quite so closely, and there will be silences.

In the meantime, seek out the movie above if you can. Between his traumatized World War II vet dad, his time at military school (see left),  and his proud history at GI coffeehouses, one can’t imagine someone better to provide this book with its title than Philip David Ochs.

Can you handle the truth? A guest post from Jane Fonda

The role of Jane Fonda in the Vietnam-era GI movement has always deeply intrigued me, but I had no idea she’d been turned anti-war after meeting deserters in Paris. The fuller story fascinates.

I’ve long known the “Hanoi Jane” stuff was a smear job. Now, in “The Truth About My Trip to Hanoi,” which she explicitly asked be reposted,  Fonda gives the fullest description yet of her role before her Vietnam trip as well as what happened to create the infamous photo.  It’s a story that deserves far, far broader circulation. And someday, I hope to talk to Fonda about the GI Rights Hotline.

I grew up during World War II. My childhood was influenced by the roles my father played in his movies. Whether Abraham Lincoln or Tom Joad in the Grapes of Wrath, his characters communicated certain values which I try to carry with me to this day. I remember saying goodbye to my father the night he left to join the Navy. He didn’t have to. He was older than other servicemen and had a family to support but he wanted to be a part of the fight against fascism, not just make movies about it. I admired this about him. I grew up with a deep belief that wherever our troops fought, they were on the side of the angels.

For the first 8 years of the Vietnam War I lived in France. I was married to the French film director, Roger Vadim and had my first child. The French had been defeated in their own war against Vietnam a decade before our country went to war there, so when I heard, over and over, French people criticizing our country for our Vietnam War I hated it. I viewed it as sour grapes. I refused to believe we could be doing anything wrong there.

It wasn’t until I began to meet American servicemen who had been in Vietnam and had come to Paris as resisters that I realized I needed to learn more.

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For the 40th anniversary of Kent State

I’m listening to a program on NPR’s Talk of the Nation about the events of May 4, 1970, at Kent State University. including a survivor of the shootings and a few historians that reminded/explained the super-intense political context. While I was eight years old at the time, this year I feel I do have some memories to offer: those of the people I’ve spent four years writing about. A few paragraphs from the book:

vvaw_logoThe U.S. had just invaded Cambodia, sparking mass protests around the country. William T. Ehrhart, later of the laureates of Vietnam poetry, told Gerry Nicosia, author of Home At War, that he and his fellow vets in Philadelphia were stunned:

We hadn’t heard of [Vietnam Veterans Against the War] yet but they were in green and they were obviously Vietnam vets and they were obviously trashing the ROTC building with great glee. And the students ate it up: “The Vietnam vets are going crazy!” The next morning we found out about the students getting killed at Kent State.

On May 4, four students were shot and killed by National Guardsmen after the university’s ROTC building was set aflame. The lasting image in a nation’s mind was not the one the protestors remembered, of hippies facing down children who’d joined the Guard (perhaps to avoid Vietnam) and putting flowers in their M-16s, but one young girl weeping over the dead body of Alison Krauss, twenty years old.

Erhart told Nicosia what the killings meant to new vets — to people who, like him, had thought they were sent abroad to prevent the harming of U.S. civilians. It isn’t enough to send us halfway around the world to die, I thought. It isn’t enough to turn us loose on Asians. Now you are turning the soldiers loose on your own children. Now you are killing your own children in the streets of America. GI’s and civilians protested together in dozens of cities. In Seattle, near Fort Lewis, nearly 13,000 blockaded the Seattle Freeway, to protest both the Cambodia invasion and the Kent State and Jackson State killings.

Turned cynical by Chicago '68, Ochs always turned up for soldiers.

Turned cynical by Chicago '68, Ochs always turned up for soldiers.

Two weeks later, the national Armed Forces Day traditionally celebrated near military bases was celebratcd differently at some U.S. bases, in the first annual Armed Farces Day. At Fort Bragg, 700 GI’s marched through the base, addressed by Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland at the rally’s end; at Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota Phil Ochs, in his now-trademark gold suit, asked over his guitar “Who’s the criminal here?”

At Fort Lewis, 20 miles from Seattle, my old friend Steve Morse, once a young Quaker who had not been subject to to the draft, was Sgt, Morse, appearing before a special court-martial for distributing seditious material. Instead of a term in the brig, though, Morse was soon headed to Cambodia as a member of K-Troop, 11th Cavalry Division.

What? I hear you cry.

That same question was sort of what inspired me to do the book in the first place; I first published Steve’s story, about the Quaker boy who ended up a GI organizer, as an article in the 50th-anniversary magazine of the now-defunct Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors. (When I started the book I phoned him and said, “Steve, I’m writing a book about….you!”) To read my version of the rest, you’ll have to wait till the book comes out.

But I’ll take this moment to salute the veterans who, just like the former hippies, are busy calling each other to say – “F***k, has it really been FORTY years?”

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p.s.  Since I mentioned Phil Ochs, here he is a year after that Armed Farces Day, shortly after his legendary performance to launch the 1971 Winter Soldier Investigation. Legendary because I have yet to meet ANYONE who remembers hearing him that week, even those who were central to the event like Scott Camil and Bill Perry.  Maybe someone reading this remembers that early concert?

A draft? part two: “send me to Iraq and not my mother.”

I’m strangled by multiple deadlines today. But needed to hail Dwayne Betts, writing at Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Atlantic site:

Right now my moms is at an airport in Maryland waiting on a plane to send her to Germany, then to Kuwait, then to Iraq. She turns fifty years old on Thursday. At first, I thought she was an anomaly. I believed that there were no other 40+ year old women headed to Iraq.

“I was wrong. With my mother there are at least two other women in their forties. It is a distressing thing to get emails describing training drills that involve jumping out of humvees and handling assault rifles.
You grow up watching GI Joe and all of the war movies and war is a glamourous thing. Even people who die seem to die heroically, or at least as a part of someone’s else’s hero tale. The wars are always fought by the young. You never see the weary eyes of a man who knows too much blood and is much too honest after three shots of bourbon. And yet, the failure to see what I’m beginning to recognize as the reality of war is not the disturbing thing.
What’s disturbing is how the President and Vice-President continue to talk about the 90,000 troops to be returning home from Iraq between now and summer. Just two days ago the AP quotes Biden as saying the Iraq war hasn’t been worth its “horrible price.” It also mentions the 90,000 combat troops. My mother and her friends, the people in her unit, platoon or whatever slang they use laugh at those numbers – because they have inherited the stories of the men and women they are replacing.

Sgt. Leigh Hester, I hope you're still OK since the Army photographer got this picture at Ft. Riley.

He goes on to talk about how his mom and others basically joined out of poverty, and ends his post with: “In a way, I feel like a draft, at least, would send me to Iraq and not my mother. Would send my cousins instead of women with new born babies. Instead of what seems like a lot of single mothers” like Alexis Hutchinson, who Betts had just discussed.

While I still think calling for a draft isn’t really the answer, as my previous posts have noted, Betts’ testimony is important, and has more weight with me than either Charles Rangel or the others who’ve asked for conscription lately.  Read the whole thing — then bookmark the site, because Ta-Nehisi’s shop is one of the best even when its brilliant padrone’s not in the house.

Meanwhile, speaking of women in combat, Gulf War veteran Catherine Ross, in the Times this week, ripped to shreds that myth that there are no women outside the wire. As if anyone outside some Congressional suites ever really believed it.



today is a moving target

First installment in a not-unprecedented effort to start over and draft a NEW final chapter in plain sight

So the scene I included in my Murtha-obit post? I once thought of it as a prologue for the entire book — except that even if I,’d been right on deadline, that 2005 scene would have felt miserably old. Then, I thought perhaps it should n open my final chapter of Ain’t Marchin, even when I realized that it’s now not scheduled to come out Murtha’s demand had mostly been met, when MOST of the troops Murtha wanted to be out will be back home (inshallah), and perhaps so will most of this year’s Afghan surge (trying not to laugh). If I wrote the chapter like all my others — a straight chronological narrative, touching base with my core themes and characters who exemplify those themes — where *would* I put Murtha’s speech? At the beginning, though many of the newer vets I’ve spoken to were already at stage two-four-five of their griefs? Is there a definable beginning to all this, or an end?

And I realized something important: if I’m only barely qualified to identify beginnings, end, trends and causality in stories of long ago, these wars are just too much of a moving target. And what is also true: what I am not is a sniper, unlike a number of the guys whose stories are before me. (Or the guys above, members of a US Navy 070520-N-0933M-084 Combat Service Support Detachment (CSSD) 1 and CSSD-3 firing the M-4 rifle at various moving targets during a live-fire evolution exercise.)

Better journalists than I have been busy documenting the pieces I care about — George Packer, Kelly Kennedy and Dexter Filkins embedding with active-duty folks, while Helen Benedict, Mark Benjamin and Aaron Glantz have charted the newest efforts to address combat trauma and Dahr Jamail, Sarah Lazare and David Zeigert have been chronicling much of the dissent as it happens. You don’t need me even to hold a flashlight: for the most part, these are young (and some not-so-young) people who are, as I wrote for Guernica late last year, both media-savvy and self aware: “Between the internet and a culture that understands trauma (at least at the Dr. Phil level), they know what PTSD is and how it affects them.” They’re telling their own stories and hacking their own paths through the detritus we’ve thrown their way.

What I can offer instead is a series of scenes, each with what I see as the relevant echoes of the past — some of the latter embodied in actual people who’ve stuck around, or nearly (Zinn, Murtha on the “nearly” list — and my own tentative take on where those scenes, and the people in them, fit along that zig-zag path I talked about in the introduction. If newspapers are the first draft of history, this is a cross between a clippings file and one of those hasty pseudo-autobiographical novels young writers produce when the raw material is too fresh.

I’ve also tentatively decided not to use real names in the case of the young veterans, even those who have already published books of their own. Because another moving target is the actions of the Court of Appeals of the Armed Forces and the Defense Advisory Conscientious Objector Review Boards, or the approval process of the Veterans Administration. And I don’t want something someone said to me, even if they agreed to be in my book, to form the a reason for denial of benefits or a bad discharge decision.  There are no composites, and savvy people will recognize themselves here and I’m happy to provide documentation for any specifics about injuries or sequences if asked. But their experiences are theirs, and while I’m deeply thankful they’ve agreed to be part of this story I’d rather let them self-identify as they see fit after the fact.

More later; until I deliver the manuscript to my editor and agent in a few weeks, I’ll be writing posts like this every day in addition to the news feed.

When journalists talk about something as  a “moving target,” they’re often talking conceptually — the needed skills for the job, or conceptions of women, or definitions of ‘objectivity.’ The only parallel I found for my current near-terror was from medical reporters who talked about cancer as the moving target of reporting because the scientific landscape keeps changing. I’ll refrain from the obvious stupid metaphors, and just ask your indulgence while I sort it out.