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Indian Wars & the Vietnam Experience

By Ben Chitty

[Printer-Friendly Version]

By the time we were drafted or enlisted to fight in Vietnam, we had already been indoctrinated for that war since childhood by the mythology of America. One myth we soaked up was "cowboys and Indians" - the long saga telling how white Europeans carved a great nation out of a land inhabited by savages. But when we went to war, it wasn't much like the movies. Not much of a script. The guys in white hats weren't winning, and weren't the good guys anyway. The victims weren't grateful. Death wasn't noble. War was mostly confusing and sometimes terrifying. At best, we survived to come back.

War taught us some things. We learned that politicians tell lies, and call themselves "patriots," that the "national interest" usually means someone can make a lot of money. We knew that the honesty and loyalty and sacrifice required of us in war were worth a lot more than the dishonest, manipulative, greedy politics which sent us into combat.

But Vietnam had another, harder lesson for us. We saw the "American way of life" from a different angle, at the edge of the empire. We enforced it, made it work. Nations occupied. Populations terrorized and decimated. Countrysides laid waste. Societies and cultures destroyed. For what? So that people would fear us, and learn that opposing the United States government meant poverty, misery, and death. So that corporations could keep making money. So that colonels and commanders could become generals and admirals. So that politicians could get re-elected.

Back in the world, home looked different. The country we served - it turned out to be a racist nation from the very beginning, when the indigenous peoples were killed to clear the land, and Africans enslaved and transported to work the newly-cleared land. The system we defended - it was set up so that a lot of people had to be poor so that a few could get rich, and poor and working people, our own families and friends, had to squabble over fewer and fewer opportunities. The same culture which taught us to be soldiers also turned women into objects, things to be bought and used, brutalized and discarded. It taught such fear and hatred of homosexuality that gay people were beaten on the streets, just for "fun." It produced masterpieces of machinery which no one could control, and stripped and poisoned the land to protect and increase the margin of profit. What a world to come home to.

Then when we looked again at our own history, our war in Indochina turned out to be an all-American war. The Dominican Republic, Korea, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Haiti, the Philippines, Cuba, Mexico: American soldiers fought in all these countries, occupying some, annexing others, installing puppet regimes in the rest, extending or defending an empire. A bitter irony - we had wanted to serve: we wanted to be patriots. African Americans whose parents couldn't vote; Chicanos and Puerto Ricans whose culture dissolved into assimilated poverty. Poor and working-class whites tracked into the draft instead of college or the National Guard. Native Americans proving they too were "real" Americans. The real war - it turned out - was here at home too, and we had been on the wrong side.

If this country is ever to be the kind of country we wanted to serve, it has to change. The change has to come from the beginning, from the very foundations of our society. The real war goes on still - Angola, Grenada, Cambodia, Nicaragua, Panama, Iraq - are all combat fronts which opened after the fall of Saigon. But the oldest war in our history is the Indian War, the war over the land. Our own war looked something like this war. The "wild West" was a free-fire zone. General Custer was on a search-and-destroy mission at Little Big Horn. Not much to choose between Wounded Knee and My Lai, or between forced relocation to new reservations and the resettlement camps we built in Vietnam.

One lesson we learned is also the same. The only basis for a just and lasting peace is freedom - the recognition of the right of all peoples to self determination.

500 years is long enough: it's time to make an end to this, the oldest war in our land.

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Author's note: This was first drafted for the Veterans Peace Convoy to Big Mountain, which crossed the country in 1990 to deliver humanitarian supplies to the Dineh living in resistance on Hopi-Partition Land in the Big Mountain area in Arizona. It was revised and reissued for the 1992 Columbus Day gathering at the United Nations.

Distribution encouraged, no copyright claimed.

Ben Chitty
Clarence Fitch Chapter
Vietnam Veterans Against the War
April 1998

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