On Memorial Day, remember these priests, poets, politicos and pranksters!

That’s how I’ve tended to characterize the huge, diverse and boisterous movement working to stop the U.S, war against Vietnam, 1963-1975. I should have written an essay here about them last month, for the anniversary of the 1975 evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, but I could barely fit them in a chapter for the book.

A surprising number of the above, though, were recent veterans of World War II, who then popped into mind during the anniversary of V-E Day; so I wrote something that will run tomorrow in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Given space constraints, I’m informed there won’t be a photo: so here’s a photo preview of those included in the piece, which wasn’t even all of those in the movement. An honor roll of some for whom Memorial Day was an open wound, in their hearts every day:

 

 

Rev. William Sloane Coffin, greeting POW Americans in North Vietnam.

Rev. William Sloane Coffin, greeting POW Americans in North Vietnam.

 

  • Former Army intelligence officer William Sloane Coffin, founder of the hugely influential Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam (CALCAV).

 

 

 

 

  • howardHoward Zinn, whose long career as an historian, organizer and inspiration to us all was preceded by the young (already anti-fascist) bombardier seen at right.

 

  • Burning draft cards in Catonsville. Md.

    Burning draft cards in Catonsville. Md.

    Philip Berrigan, survivor of the Battle of the Bulge, shown here in prhaps the moment symbolizing his work during Vietnam — one of the first stops in a lifetime of anti-militarist  civil disobedience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • William_Kunstler_Former Army cryptographer William Kunstler, who followed his Pacific service by co-founding the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represented war resisters from Berrigan, above, through the years to Gulf War objector Colleen Gallagher in 1991. In  1968, his face and voice became inescapable during the trial of the Chicago Seven, as at right.

 

 

 

 

  • Kurt-Vonnegut-US-Army-portrait (2)And this skinny little private was Kurt Vonnegut, Jr, captured in the Battle of the Bulge, he became a prisoner of war — and turned that exoeriene into one of the strongest anti-war novels ever written.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ll post the link tomorrow, which includes more on all of these. There are so many more who I couldn’t squeeze l into 750 words: not Lew Ayres and the other World War II COs, not Rev. Paul Moore, who found his pacifism after the abbatoir of Guadalcanal. But I still think this is a fine Memorial Day tribute to those lost in all our wars.

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“Hollywood’s conscientious objector.” The subtitle wrote itself.

I’ve been reading a lot of biographies of late. These days, most are marvels of narrative nonfiction. I just finished Jean Harvey Baker’s  work on Mary Todd Lincoln,  (via Michelle Dean at the New Yorker), which taught me that the much-reviled First Lady was less a loon than a feminist that coulda been.

And sometimes  the most enjoyable part of my research for Ain’t Marching has been checking in with bios: Roy Morris’ Alone in Bad Company, about Ambrose Bierce, and Kate Larsen’s spectacular Harriet Tubman bio, Bound for the Promised Land: Portrait of an American Hero.  

coffin ayres bioAnd now I’m blown away by a book about one of my favorites in my WWII chapter: Lewis Ayres, who went from being Greta Garbo’s last silent screen kiss to being the iconic Paul Baumer in All Quiet on the Western Front to earning the apt subtitle given a new book by Lesley Coffin.  I started the book meaning to only read the opening chapters and finish it that night — and couldn’t put it down, racing to the end like a tween just gifted with The Hunger Games.

Coffin, who tweets at @filmbiographer, hooks us early with Ayres’ Minnesota childhood (he worked as a golf caddy at 10 years old and dropped out of high school at 14 to help out) and his early days as a silent starlet who loved to make music.

drkildareWe then watch him grow into the singular figure that compels me, through a Hollywood lens that includes his cash cow Dr. Kildare series (at right), and a lifetime of feature and character roles.

EBRB100ZAn alert reader can see in the earnest young man the Ayres I’ve spent much time with, the one who went to the “conchie” camp in 1942 and then became one of the most famous 1-A-O objectors, training as a medic and then becoming a chaplain’s assistant as his unit deployed to Asia. (At left, YANK Magazine shows Sgt. Ayres in action.)  And true to its cinematic focus, the book also lets us in to how war first had Ayres swearing off Hollywood, promising to dedicate himself to the ministry, and then changed his mind, after he realized how important movies were to the common soldier.

I’d known about this book from its beginnings, actually. I’d tracked down Ayres’ son Justin (who looks more like his dad every day, at least from his photos on Facebook) who said to me instantly, “But you have to meet Lesley!”

I wasn’t surprised that she finished her book before I did, and am glad to report that it not only has exceeded my expectations, but taught me a lot. I hope it made it into the Christmas stockings of many movie fans, who’ll thrill to its glimpse of 50 years of Hollywood history (including Ayres’ early marriages to Ginger Rogers and his romance with Jane Wyman before she met Ronald Reagan). I AM sort of glad her only mentions of Howard Hughes were as a romantic rival, and she left out the hilarious Western Union message in which Hughes told All Quiet director Lewis Milestone how little he thought of Ayres’ acting.I’m hoping to include that one in Ain’t Marching!

It also sent me scurrying to as many of the old movies as I could find (though Kildare is kind of a jerk), and wishing I could see some of the visual art to which he devoted himself in old age. Read Coffin’s book for a multi-faceted portrait whose prose is a joy.

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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….

—-

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.

Howard Zinn, part two

One of the things that makes me personally sad about Zinn leaving us when he did is that I’d hoped to, when Ain’t Marchin’ finally came out, introduce him to Garett Reppenhagen (left), president of Veterans Green Jobs and former president of Iraq Veterans Against the War. The latter had told me, when I interviewed him two years ago, that Zinn’s People’s History had been a catalyst for him. “I walked into this cool bookstore in Colorado Springs,” Reppenhagen told me, “and I said I’m a high school dropout and probably going to Iraq. What do I need to know?” In addition to recommending John Perkin’s Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (also an excellent choice), the bookstore clerk insisted he buy the Zinn. A sniper who was at that moment stationed in Bosnia, it took some time, he said: but afterwards felt changed forever.

Now it turns out that Zinn wouldn’t have been surprised to hear that, since another young vet from the previous Iraq war, Jeff Paterson, also credits him. Jeff, the tireless and inhumanly tall coordinator of Courage to Resist, tells about discovering Zinn in Asia in 1989:

At the time, I was a 20-year-old Marine artillery controller becoming disillusioned with what I was seeing stationed in Okinawa, the Philippines, and Korea. Reading “People’s History” was certainly an unknowing step I took towards later refusing to fight in Iraq in August 1990. It enabled me to see my individual actions as a part of something much larger—yes, even larger than the Marine Corps.Within a matter of weeks in late 1990 and early 1991, nearly a hundred Soldiers, Marines, Airmen, and Sailors pledged to refuse to fight—most eventually did time in stockades and brigs. Twice as many service members publicly spoke out against the Gulf War at anti-war protests and rallies—sometimes to dozens, sometimes to 200,000 people. However, unless you were there, or have read a recent edition of “People’s History”, you wouldn’t know any of that ever happened.

Maybe the book will make a small contribution toward lifting that national amnesia, at least a little. Meanwhile, see Jeff below with Michael Wong, a former Army medic who deserted after he learned about My Lai, spent years in Canada and then worked in exactly my job in San Francisco. Watching them interact makes me feel a little unstuck in time.

take a moment first

Right now I’m working on a post about today’s news, but until I post it, I think it’s crucial to honor the giants one more time — in this case, Howard Zinn.

  • Check out Daniel Ellsberg, like Zinn a hero of my book, telling stories about getting arrested with Zinn in protest of the Vietnam war. That scene — a World War II vet and a formerly gung-ho ex-Marine -— kind of says it all.
  • Meanwhile The Nation (by itself a fantastic partner to many dissenting soldiers for 100+ years) has  a terrific “Remembering Howard Zinn” roundup, featuring Tom Hayden, Marian Wright Edelman, and many others. That one takes time, but what else are most of us doing to mourn him?

Some housekeeping: I finally managed to import posts from my other site (from before I realized the book needed its own), with tons of military-history gossip and some on the writing process. (There’s a fair amount of video, including from a TV series that encompassed how I felt when I was writing the Vietnam chapter.)