the power and the glory

Wondering what to read for Veterans Day? Try this round table sponsored by Boston Review, in response to the essay “War is Betrayal” by Chris Hedges. The responses are from three veterans, a Texas professor of history, and mio — I was honored to be invited. Check out some bracing prose, including

  • Phillip Carter: “War is hell, to be sure, but it is also an incredibly complex endeavor that registers the gamut of human emotions and experiences: the inhumanity of killing without justification; the conflicted act of killing for a just cause or in the name of self-defense; the fear and courage of soldiers and civilians…”
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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?”

watch?v=Qxk0x5wuRH0

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?

How long does the pain last – forever?

I’m far from the only one to have shared that heartrending New York Times essay by Shannon Meehan, entitled “Constant Wars, Distant Ghosts.”  And perhaps as a result, veterans of all generations raised their voices and became this piece on “War and Conscience.” Some bits that hit the hardest:

As a former World War II combat infantryman, I really appreciated this piece — especially for how well it was written. Sixty-five years later, I still remember the sight of my first enemy corpse (I hadn’t killed him) and the thoughts are still with me of what his death had meant to a family like mine in another country….

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I never killed anyone or even fired my weapon in anger. I was trained to do it and I believe I would have done it but who knows for sure when until the moment is upon them? At one time, I agonized over the fact that I did not have “combat vet” on my resume. Thirty five years later, and uncounted reminiscences like Captain Meehan’s, I think maybe I should be grateful that I never had to be in that position.

And one that I’ll be mulling over awhile, from a young woman:

I served in the 1st Cavalry as well and witnessed that which I pray my children never have to. However I like to believe that I returned from Iraq with a higher regard for human life, not an eroded one. Facing your own mortality and living in the shadow of those who did not survive changes a soldier. But not always for the worst. It is so very often assumed that the soldier always comes back broken from their experiences. We may not come back the same but that doesn’t mean that we always come back worse. I am a better parent to my children, a better spouse to my husband but most of all an even more grateful human being because I know what it is like to have lost so very much. I never lost regard for my own life. The deaths of my peers, if anything, instilled in me a greater regard for my life and the promised life that awaited me once I left that hell hole…..

Those voices swirl and debate, but without the animus that keeps me out of most comments sections. Go read the whole thing.

Leave no FNG behind: thoughts on Kelly Kennedy’s They Fought for Each Other 

TheyFoughtForEachOthercoverI’ve hoped to grow up to be Kelly Kennedy ever since my friend, rockstar author Alia Malek, profiled the Military Times reporter for Columbia Journalism Review. I knew it was impossible, of course, as the very first line of Kennedy’s author bio makes clear: “Kelly Kennedy served as a soldier in Desert Storm and Mogadishu, Somalia.” Back when I was stuffing envelopes and marching to stop the wars she was in, Kennedy was in uniform, making all my experiences working with GI’s kind of feel beside the point.

Still, the latter may have accounted for the way I responded to her book, a month-by-month chronicle of the travails of Charlie Company, 10th Mt. Division, in the first few years of the Iraq war — during which the tight-knit unit lost more than half its men.

The book’s climax, I knew before I started, was a mutiny: echoing for me those during the Vietnam War chronicled in David Zeiger’s film Sir! No, Sir! Kennedy notes that echo, but also notes that these soldiers acted not so much in opposition to the war but because they knew their orders would likely result in losing more men.

In an email exchange before I got the book, she and I talked about the difference. When I said “her” boys belonged in my book, she asked “Oh, I guess you mean the mutiny?” I said yes — especially to illustrate an important change among today’s soldiers. In Vietnam, troops went in and out one by one (thus the “he’s a short-timer,” common lingo in all Vietnam films). Now, with whole units staying together through multiple deployments, members re-enlist. don’t go AWOL. take all their action out of a deep sense of loyalty — that profound love about which soldiers that Homer wrote so beautifully.

“In the framework I’m working in,” I told Kelly, “[that mutiny] feels like a near-perfect example of how a strategy designed to make wars go smoothly (encouraging greater unit cohesion than in, say, Vietnam or Korea) can have unplanned consequences when you take today’s slightly older, mostly brilliant, thinking soldiers into account.” And she agreed: “I’d say that’s what the title says, really — In Vietnam, nobody cared about the FNG [fucking new guy], and it seems as if the guys could opt out of getting to know people they knew they’d lose. These guys got to the point where they didn’t care about the war, but cared deeply about each other.”

None of this chat prepared me for the book itself — which I recommend highly, but also recommend keeping a box of tissues nearby. I had to stop reading for days on end because I kept crying: because she has made me care about Oscar Avila, More Campos, Ross McGinnis — and then she blew them up, or rather the war did.

I can’t even choose passages to quote, because just reading the names makes me well up. Go ahead and buy a copy, share it with everyone you know.

Last, two lessons for me from the book’s compelling writing:

First, she integrates the complexities of today’s PTSD challenges as well as anyone can — and keeps it close to the narrative. The medical professionals come off as both essential and often clueless about how to cope with these responses in the middle of a war zone. It’s stunning, actually.

Second, Kennedy does not appear as a character ONCE. Having just read another acclaimed book whose author kind of gets in the way of her story, I’m even more determined to keep my own details away from the book as a whole.kennedycover

People who Died: Now Murtha, too (UPDATE Two)

Murtha endorses another whistleblower, a year after the "Murthquake."

Three obituaries inside a week or so: first the World War II-vet peers Howard Zinn and J.D. Salinger, only one of whom became a dissenter. Now Murtha, of the Vietnam generation but only a dissenter much later, who I sort of pre-eulogized last week when he went into hospital. Respect to CBS News for not playing politics with the obit notice.

I’ll add more to this when I see how people react.

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6:32 p.m. OK, the news blips have gone from not-shocked-quick-notices to something more nuanced. The President’s statement was actually pretty elegant saying a lot in very few words:

He was a devoted husband, a loving father and a steadfast advocate for the people of Pennsylvania for nearly 40 years. His passion for service was born during his decorated career in the United States Marine Corps, and he went on to earn the distinction of being the first Vietnam War combat veteran elected to Congress. Jack’s tough-as-nails reputation carried over to Congress, where he became a respected voice on issues of national security.

The Washington Post’s obit noted that Murtha also exhibited that tough-as-nails approach to the president’s new “budget freeze,” noting that “He has to come to us,” meaning Congress.  Their full coverage includes a slide show and a range of responses.

The announcement that has replaced Murtha’s Congressional site gave more details on his military background, for the curious:


He learned about military service from the bottom up, beginning as a raw recruit when he left Washington and Jefferson College in 1952 to join the Marines out of a growing sense of obligation to his country during the Korean War. He earned the American Spirit Honor Medal, awarded to fewer than one in 10,000 recruits. He rose through the ranks to become a drill instructor at Parris Island and was selected for Officer Candidate School at Quantico, Virginia. He then was assigned to the Second Marine Division, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. In 1959, Captain Murtha took command of the 34th Special Infantry Company, Marine Corps Reserves, in Johnstown. He remained in the Reserves after his discharge from active duty until he volunteered for Vietnam in 1966-67, where he served as the S-2 intelligence officer for the 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division and received the Bronze Star with Combat “V”, two Purple Hearts and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry. Upon his retirement from the Marine Corps Reserve in 1990, he was awarded the Navy Distinguished Service Medal by the Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps.

It was Sam Stein, at Huffington Post, who got to the reason why Murtha ended up in my book title, saying that “the Johnstown native forever cemented his legacy during a mid-November afternoon in 2005 when he went public with his skepticism about the course of the Iraq War.” Calling that day “the Murthquake,” Stein adds:

It is rare that a political figure can literally re-chart the course of his political party. But in coming out for an immediate troop withdrawal, Murtha gave his Democratic colleagues the cover they needed to express their own reservations about the war. Those who worked closely with the congressman at the time — both on and off the Hill — credit him with elevating Iraq on the Democratic platform and in turn putting the party in a position to benefit from the wave of anti-war sentiment that swept the 2006 elections.

“John Murtha showed us how to be strong,” adds MoveOn’s  Tom Matzzie. Click here for some delicious footage of Murtha  refusing to back down when chicken-hawks abused him.

For anyone who doesn’t remember, here’s what happened that November day in 2005:

The flashbulbs started the moment Rep. John Murtha approached the podium. Despite all legislative business, on the last day before the 2005 Thanksgiving recess, the House press room was packed and the cameras on. CNN had even cut into its regular programming. The dais was lined with American flags.

Murtha looked around briefly as he took the stage. A beefy man with sharp blue eyes and brilliant-white hair parted on the side, the former Marine colonel wore a gray business suit, not his uniform or his medals. His colleagues, and the press corps, were already aware of his Bronze Star, his Purple Hearts, and his Silver Star. It was why they were there.
This wasn’t Russell Feingold or Nancy Pelosi, whose opposition to the war had been steadfast from the beginning. This was the first Vietnam veteran ever elected to Congress, a well-known hawk from the part of Pennsylvania often nicknamed “Alabama,” who prided himself on working behind the scenes with both Republican and Democratic Presidents. He’d been in the inner circle during the Persian Gulf War and voted to authorize military action against Iraq. What was he about to propose?
Murtha took a deep breath and summoned the spirit of his mentor and fellow Irishman, Thomas P. (“Tip”) O’Neill, who had famously told Lyndon Johnson that the Vietnam War had gone horribly wrong. He knew this president wasn’t, likely, listening. But he hoped his fellow members of Congress were.
“The war in Iraq,” he began, “is not going as advertised. It is a flawed policy wrapped in illusion.” He blinked as the flashbulbs went off.
There was no whispering, no side conversations in the pressroom. Only Murtha, who was about to introduce a resolution calling for withdrawal of troops from Iraq “as soon as practicable,” spoke passionately and slowly, blinking back at the cameras as if daring them to tell him to stop.
By the end of the speech, Murtha had named the presence of coalition troops as a source of the insurgency, and gone into more detail about troops who’d lost limbs in Iraq – “These are marvelous people!” — only to be hounded by bill collectors on their return.
“The future of our military is at risk. Our military and their families are stretched thin. Many say that the Army is broken. Some of our troops are on their third deployment. Recruitment is down, even as our military has lowered its standards. Defense budgets are being cut. Personnel costs are skyrocketing, particularly in health care. Choices will have to be made. We can not allow promises we have made to our military families in terms of service benefits, in terms of their health care, to be negotiated away.” Murtha took a breath, looking as weary as the soldiers he was describing.
The flashbulbs hadn’t quite stopped before the political response began. As Murtha arrived at the House floor, ready to introduce his resolution, Democrats burst into applause. Republicans glared; a newly elected Ohio representative, Jean Schmidt, who had just been nearly beaten in her solidly Republican district by a young Iraq veteran, took the floor and gave Murtha a message from “a Marine I know” (who turned out to be a far-right state legislator). “Cowards cut and run, but Marines never do.” The response echoed that directed at John Kerry, both in the 2004 campaign and back in 1971, when the recent Navy lieutenant stood before a Senate committee and asked, “How can you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

The words above are actually mine, written nearly four years ago; at least some of them will end up in the book. I’m so sorry we never got to talk (we were working on an interview date when he got sick) but there’s no question he belongs there. If there’s a non-rogues gallery for “my” soldiers in heaven, he’s sharing a beer with Ambrose Bierce and explaining to William Sloane Coffin that his scorn in the 1970s was nothing personal.

Wednesday, Feb. 1o – Last update: I can’t leave out John Nichols’ remarkable obit for The Nation. He describes the moment how Murtha, long an ally of Bush I, won against the chicken-hawks when he changed his mind.

The clearest evidence that Cheney really did not “get it” when it comes to defense policy was his decision to take on Jack Murtha. The draft dodger who had admitted that he “(didn’t) know a blankety-blank thing about defense” looked the fool when he picked a fight with the Marine he called in to help him understand military matters.

America had a chance to choose between Cheney and Murtha. And as the results of the 2006 and 2008 election cycles (in which Murtha became a key campaigner for Democratic challengers) confirmed, they chose to side with the old soldier, as opposed to the old armchair general.

Nichols also pointed out that Murtha was also beginning to sour on Obama’s Afghan policy, too. For that reason alone, this loss is huger than many know. Semper fi, sir.

I still want to hear the song below a few more times.