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VVAW In Our Own Words
By Dave Kettenhofen (Reviewer)
Winter Soldiers: An Oral History of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, by Richard Stacewicz. (Twayne Publishers, 1997)
On Veterans' Day, November 11, 1997, Richard Stacewicz officially released his new book, Winter Soldiers. I was fortunate enough to be present that evening, at a bookstore in Chicago, where Richard held a book reading and signing. Barry Romo and Mike McCain, two significant characters in the book, sat on stage alongside Richard to help field questions. The place was absolutely packed. All available copies of the book were sold within minutes and backorders were taken. It was a very uplifting experience for the many VVAW members in attendance, but even more so for Richard, I'm sure.
"We did what we did because we loved our country and wanted our country to realize that it made mistakes. I am just as patriotic as my father or my uncle or anybody." Those were the words of Jack McCloskey(1943-1996) as he explained his reasons for speaking out against the Vietnam War. In Winter Soldiers, Richard Stacewicz interviews thirty past and present members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War to give the reader an inside look at what has made the organization tick for the past thirty years.
The style of the retrospective interview used in the book works marvelously. Richard leads into each chapter with a brief historical background of the period, then skillfully guides the interviewee through the period with simple but excellent questions. The storytellers are given the freedom to "let go" and speak their minds - and they do. The result is a very intimate, colorful, easy to read series of memoirs. Continuity is maintained by returning to each of them as history marches on. In each successive chapter we learn a little more about the characters and are drawn into their conversations. Curiosity beckons the reader to look ahead for glimpses of other views in the forthcoming chapters.
Stacewicz begins with the storytellers facing the prospects of war. Barry Romo says, "I thought I was going to Vietnam to save my Catholic brothers and kill communists, who were the new Nazis in the world." And Dave Cline remembers, "I recall thinking, I know that there's people saying it ain't right and stuff like that, but at the same time, I really didn't think that I was in a position to make that judgment." Some had very strong convictions, others were confused and unsure of what they should do. Most ended up basing their decisions on the strong, religious, anti-communist upbringing that was prevalent in the 1950s: America is always right, be a patriot and do what you're told.
Many diverse opinions that had existed between the young citizen-soldiers soon vanished as they were united with the common bond of opposition to the war. Innocence was lost as the young soldiers experienced the reality of war and life in the military. "It was like a bubble, a membrane in front of my brain went. I thought, What the fuck did I do? I turned 180 degrees at that instant. At that moment I changed my mind. I'm not bullshitting you. I says, Holy shit, I fucked up," recalls John Lindquist on his first day of boot camp. Stacewicz probes the vets' memories for their experiences and the reasons why they came to the conclusion that America's war was indeed wrong, and why it was patriotic to express their opposition to that war.
On April 15, 1967, in New York City, a small group of Vietnam veterans marched in a peace demonstration behind a banner that read: Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Jan Barry was one of them: "By June 1st...we actually had our first organization meeting. I had the names of maybe two dozen people. We formed an organization utilizing the same name that was on the banner." As the war raged on through the Sixties and into the Seventies - Tet, My Lai, Cambodia, Kent State - the war protests escalated and VVAW's influence spread throughout the country with a membership of over 50,000. As Mike McCain put it, "We started understanding as a group of people [that] it was easier to be a soldier than it was to be a critic of the government, of the state, of the society; but that if we were to be true citizens, that's what we had to do. You can't accept things at face value."
Stacewicz's coverage of the volatile 70s is of particular interest. VVAW's most noteworthy operations such as Dewey Canyon III, Operation RAW, the "Winter Soldier" hearings, and Operation Peace on Earth took place. We are privy to the planning and execution of these events which catapulted VVAW to the forefront of the antiwar movement and gave it a true legitimacy. Also, during this era of tremendous growth, the organization was forced to fight off heavy attacks from the government, most notably the trial of the "Gainesville Eight". Ann Hirschman says, "...you could hear John Mitchell stating in public on the radio that the Vietnam Veterans Against the War were the single most dangerous group in the United States. We scared a lot of people."
With the war nearing its end, VVAW was forced to deal with internal divisions. There were differing opinions on which direction the group should take; some wanted to concentrate on anti-imperialist issues, others primarily on veteran issues. Participants on both sides of the debate are given the opportunity to express their positions in the book. The events that transpired took a tremendous toll on the organization but didn't kill it. "A lot of people who originally went with them [RU/RCP] said "Fuck you," separated, and stayed VVAW. They just couldn't control us. One thing about us: whatever kinds of infiltrators and police and whatever we had, we shed ourselves of a lot of them," recalls Bill Davis.
Many continued the fight. VVAW's focus on veterans' issues continues to this day. Agent Orange, PTSD, homelessness, VA cuts, Gulf War issues, historical revisionism, et cetera, are still problems that are being dealt with. As Mike Gold put it, "I feel that VVAW is still living. On the twenty-fifth anniversary you could really see that. There were lots and lots of people who came here and really wanted to be a part of it again."
Richard Stacewicz has put together a really fine book. Through this oral history, students of the Vietnam War are able to hear the candid voices of those who fought that dirty war and then returned home to fight the war against war. He has done a great service not only to them, but also to the men and women of VVAW. I would like to add that, in addition to the tremendous amount of research that Richard put in on this book, he has worked many long, hard volunteer hours alongside other VVAW members on various projects over the past seven years. Thank you Richard!
Dave Kettenhofen is a National Coordinator for VVAW and member of the Milwaukee chapter.