The Ghosts of Veterans Past Haunt a President: A Protester Contemplates Veterans Day

John M. Kelley

Posted Nov 20, 2005      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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The Ghosts of Veterans Past Haunt a President: A Protester Contemplates Veterans Day

By John M. Kelley

On Veterans Day, George Bush exploited the veterans once again by trying to push forth his agenda for oil, save the rotting legacy of his presidency and blame others for his failed policies.  It is an old story that those who were alive during Viet Nam will well remember.  Those causing the death of our young men and women and tens of thousands of innocents abroad while proclaiming their patriotism and calling opponents cowards are a common phenomena.  My father an 83 year old WWII combat veteran cannot even force himself to watch George Bush on television, turning the channel while shouting lying bastardӔ at the disappearing image.  He told me he doesnt know one combat veteran who supports George BushҒs war in Iraq.  A retired truck driver, union man, WWII vet, small town councilman, hardly lunatic fringe.

George Bush is like most of his affluent friends during the Viet Nam war who supported the war but didnt participate.  Always someone ғlessor must take their spot on the firing line while they profit from their death.  BushԒs behavior and current events in Iraq make necessary a discussion of the revisionist history provided by the Republicans of Viet Nam that they are still using today to try and rally support for their criminal exploitation of the American military. 

It is interesting that those supporting George W. Bush say that his service record, or lack of it, is irrelevant to the election but point out the anti-war record of John Kerry after his return from the war.  John Kerrys change from war hero to anti-war activist is understandable when history is remembered as it was, not as the Republicans have revised it for political gain.  I have watched for some time the interesting distortion of events that has happened in order to court veterans of the Viet Nam War and to absolve the Republican Party of the death of thousands of American soldiers and millions of Vietnamese under Richard Nixon.  The Republican version goes somewhat like this; the war was a right and justified intervention that was distorted and lost by war protestors in this country who hated veterans and undermined them at home.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

The truth is the anti-war movement sprung from young people who saw their brothers and friends being drafted for an illegal and immoral war based on lies.  There too the Johnson and then the Nixon Administration lied about the reasons they went to war, repeatedly violated international law to advance an agenda based on a false premises and failed to properly support the young men they sent there.  The premise that time was to prevent the scourge of communism.  I have to shake my head when I hear the same justification for our war in Iraq.  ғWe have to stop them there or fight them in the street here.  There is no more reason to think that the IraqiԒs posed any danger to the U.S. then North Vietnam was going to invade the U.S. 

At that time the justification was the domino theoryӔ that if South Vietnam fell all of Southeast Asia would become Communist.  Well Vietnam did fall, the rest of Southeast Asia did not become Communist, except for Cambodia for which a strong case can be made that we destabilized by violating their neutrality.  What is becoming abundantly clear is that we may see a domino theory in reverse in the Middle East. Having destabilized Iraq into warring factions we may have given Muslim fanatics the fuel to spread their war throughout the area by bringing Iran, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, possibly Egypt and others into the battle.

Each Protestor a Personal Journey

I could be called a draft dodger in that I had a student deferment from 1967 until the lottery in which I drew number 321.  I was glad that I wasnt drafted and would have considered leaving the country if I had been.  My student deferment however, was not sought out to avoid the draft.  College was the opportunity of a lifetime.  It was something that my family had encouraged since I was a child and that they hoped was a way out of the working class life of long hours of physical labor and hoping beyond hope that no medical or other emergency happened that would push the precarious family financial position over the edge.  I was the first child in my immediate family and only the 2nd in a large extended family to go to college. Between working two jobs in the summer, one during the school year and tuition scholarships I was able to complete my degree.

Being interested in history and current events I had began to follow the events in Viet Nam in about 1965 two years before entering college.  There were already significant questions being asked as to the appropriateness of our cause, the validity of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution and value of sending a growing number of our young men to fight for something most Americans couldnҒt really explain. 

The defining time of the war for me was as anti-war sentiment grew in the country a young Native American man that I had played high school football with who had joined the Marines after graduation was killed.  No one knew how or why.  It was obvious to my 16-year-old mind that something was wrong here.  A young man whom I had admired and respected had died for a hill that was promptly given to the enemy after sacrificing his life to keep it. I was deeply troubled by this event and became anti-war but not involved in active protest even as I watched more of my high school friends get drafted. 

The idea of active protest filled me with internal turmoil.  My father was a WWII combat veteran.  I was raised in a small town where the values of church, community and country were foremost.  We celebrated Fourth of July and Memorial Day with parades and celebrations, on cold winter afternoons we watched John Wayne, Dana Andrews and Audie Murphy fight the nemesis of fascism in old WWII movies.  We had been trained to get under our desks and not look at the windows if there was a nuclear attack from the evil communists who were out to destroy everything we loved. We had tensely watched the Cuban Missile Crisis unfold on TV, sure that WWIII would break out at any moment.  While I felt something was deeply wrong in Viet Nam, I couldnt yet bring myself to protest against my government.  It was against everything that we had been taught to believe that our government could lie to us.  That is why when most of us finally accepted it we felt so betrayed.

In January 1968 the siege of Khe Sanh started. It lasted for 77 days but was held at the cost of 250 American lives.  Two weeks after the battle was over, Khe Sanh was abandoned by the American military.  At the same time the Tet Offensive swept throughout South Viet Nam.  Attacks in every major city including Saigon showed that the enemy was far from being close to defeat as predicted by Gen. Westmoreland.  President Johnson entered peace negotiations in Paris with North Vietnam and there was some hope the end of the war was in sight.  Nixon was elected though and who new his secret plans to end the war would take seven more years.

My first two years at a state college were fairly uneventful except having to learn how to balance unrestricted freedom with academic achievement.  I got a girlfriend, joined a fraternity, learned to smoke and drink and tried to not think too much about the war.  Countering that were those events were beyond my control.  My pursuit of a history major continued to educate me about American Foreign Policy, as did news about increasing protests on more campuses and daily events in Viet Nam.  Nixon and Kissinger proceeded to bomb civilian populations in the north and troop strength was increased by 100,000.  The thing that influenced me most however, was my exposure to returning vets who entered college and shared their personal experiences. 

This conundrum of dealing with war on a personal level reached a breaking point with this exposure to veterans and a set of events.  In my junior year, I was elected to the student Senate.  Amongst those represented were a number of political activists and several students who were leaders of the Viet Nam Veterans Against the War.  These mostly combat vets brought their stories, bravery and commitment to the movement against the war.  My exposure to them, the invasion and bombing of Laos and Cambodia (a neutral country) and the killing of unarmed protestors by National Guard Troops in Ohio at Kent State University and Jackson State eliminated any mental opposition to action.  There was no doubt that loyalty to my country demanded protest of these continued illegal and immoral actions.

After that I quickly became involved and a leader in non-violent protests against the war.  Those I worked along side and respected the most were Viet Nam Vets.  The war had become very personal after Kent State.  It wasnҒt just that American college students were gunned down, but that their peers were commanded to do it.  Viet Nam Vets inspired us to do what they had learned overseas, that the only just cause to risk your life for was each other, your friends who were serving overseas and those who were by your side in the protest marches.  Our motto donӒt trust anyone over 30 didnԒt differentiate between vet and non-vet. We all felt that we were in a battle to make the world a better place.  Never was there antagonism towards vets during those years in the anti-war movement.  Vets were seen as victims of a failed policy just as the majority of the Vietnamese people who were caught in the middle of a civil war.  Vets were whom most of us were protesting for. 

Working Class Resistance & Nixons War

It was the same through out the rest of middle class America as vets came home.  Americans began to understand what was happening in Viet Nam.  While much credit is given to the influence of the war on television every night as changing public perception it is only part of the story.  Veterans coming home with physical and mental scars, drug problems, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or in flag draped coffins to their homes spread the message of what was going on over there to their parents, brothers, sisters and friends.  In a draft army this information spread by personal experience turned middle and working class America against the war.

When Lt. William Calley and the My Lai Massacre became public in November 1969 America turned a corner in its view of the war and for some its view of the American soldier.  Many understood that when you took advantage of the poverty by drafting people and dropped them into a unit of men they didnҒt know on a foreign battlefield, with a mission that made no sense, that there was no public support for, where there was lots of drugs available, where you didnt know who the enemy was, the disaffected and angry result was predictable.  What the American military did through programs like ғvillage pacification (where villages were ordered to be burned to the ground to ԓsave them) was to create a situation in which abuse of local populations was encouraged.  Most protestors fought against the war because of veterans, who were their friends and brothers put in insane and intolerable postions.

As a result of the publicity of atrocities and the disaffected nature, drug use and anti war sentiments of returning Viet Nam Veterans many traditional veterans groups such as American Legion and Veterans of Foreign War members did not openly welcome and in many cases rejected them as dope heads, cowards, baby killers, and war criminals.  Viet Nam veterans returned alone as they had entered combat, separated from their units, to be questioned and looked at with pity or disgust by others who couldnԒt comprehend their experience.  Many no longer fit in at home.  America had changed while they were gone.  As a friend of mine who served fifteen months in combat so that he could get an immediate discharge told the story.  One day he was in the jungle fighting and 48 hours later he was on the street in civilian clothes in San Francisco frightened by the speed of the cars as they passed.  No welcome home party, no parades, no transitional debriefing.

If You Cant Win Avoid Blame

This situation worsened as the war dragged on under Nixon for another seven years.  As a majority of the American people grew to reject the arguments for continuing the war it became the in thing to be against it.  Splinter groups from the original peace movement started to be over represented by the media because of their violent and vocal tactics. Violent radicals such as the Weatherman and Jane Fonda types who crossed the line in their support of North against American troops were given more coverage in the press than their numbers warranted.

NixonҒs promise of an end to the war with honor seemed like a cruel joke, especially to those who were still being drafted and sent. As John Kerry testified How do you apologize to the last man who dies for a mistake?Ӕ  By that time everyone knew that Viet Nam was a tragedy including those who were still being sent.  One of the ways Bush supporters have tried to smear Kerry is to paint him with peaceniks who supposedly spit on and called returning Viet Nam vets baby killers. There is only one problem with that argument it never happened.

Note this quote from the March 14, 2004 issue of the Cleveland Free Times:  In 1995 sociologist Thomas Beamish and his colleagues analyzed all peace movement-related stories from 1965 - 1971 in the NY Times, LA Times, and SF Chronicle (495 stories). They found no instance of any spitting on returned troops by peace movement members, nor any taunting. Indeed, they found few examples of negative demonstrations involving returning troops of any kind, or even of simple disapproval of returning soldiers. Three years later, sociologist Jerry Lembcke conducted a similarly exhaustive study for his book, The Spitting Image, with like results. He discovered war protesters being spat upon by war supporters, and hostile acts toward Vietnam veterans by conservative, pro-war groups like the VFW, but no taunting or spitting on returned veterans by peace movement members. Returned veterans and in-service GIs were welcomed in the peace movement, and many assumed leadership roles. Yet the myth endures

After the war everybody wanted to forget it, even liberals went back to their own lives, everyone failed to provide vets with the support they needed.  However, veterans couldnt get back to their lives they still carried the emotional and physical scars of war.  While the Republicans didnҒt do anything to the help them either, they exploited that pain by implying a revisionist history that tried to lump all protestors with Jane Fonda and spread the anti-vet mythology.  They reinforced the idea that the defeat in Viet Nam was not a product of failed foreign policy but caused by lack of public support produced by protestors.  It was necessary that they make people forget that they continued to expand the war and send U.S. Troops to Viet Nam for seven years after they promised peace with honor.  This cynical exploitation was for one purpose to divide the public and gain votes.

Ultimately those who were against the war had more in common with those who were drafted to serve then those who were for it but avoided service or protest.  The affluent that supported the warӔ but used their influence to get in the National Guard, or other wise avoid the draft without making any real commitment for or against the war are the ultimate hypocrites.  These are the same people who now hope to divide veterans and others for their own agenda where they enrich themselves on the sacrifices of a whole new generation of soldiers drafted by economics.  They learned from Viet Nam, that is why they tried so desperately to divide protestors of Iraq and soldiers and their families by equating support for the troops with support for the President. 

It is time for veterans and anti-war groups to join arms once again and say, no moreӔ.  No more lies, no more draft by either economy or law, no more blood for profit, no more empire building, no more neglect of returning veterans, no more divisiveness between good citizens for the benefit of corporate war mongers.  Every veteran who served needs to be honored for his or her sacrifice.  That honor should be doubled for those who have been used for means other than the defense of our country, for their sacrifice is even greater.

As the Republicans look to expand their war shipping our young people to Syria, Iran, Haiti, Columbia, Venezuela and Africa, we must let those in power know that we remember the lessons of Viet Nam too. The swing of public opinion is moving back towards the anti-war movement, sooner this time. People remember after Viet Nam that sometimes those in government will lie for their own ends at the cost of our brave young men and women in uniform.

Veterans Day is for remembering.  On this Veterans day I remember friends who died in Viet Nam and those who died afterwards from the other wounds of war, of those who lost their ability to participate in large parts of their own lives, of those who I marched with against it. I remember my father who fought for his country not his government. Today I remember it is my duty to fight against politicians that would exploit our military brothers and sisters for their own gain. I thank them for their sacrifice to protect that freedom and know that they expect me to do my job of questioning their orders when they are prevented by circumstance or law from doing so. We must remember not to be divided again by those who would send others to serve for their gain. I remember it every time I see George Bush on television.

John M. Kelley is a teacher, philosopher, writer, artist, political activist, singer of ballads, rebellious Irishman and agent for change who worries daily about the world he is leaving for his grandchildren.  His blog is at