Red Boots Rebel
By Bob Marion (reviewer)
Red Boots Rebel
by Lawrence Drake
(Outskirts Press, 2016)
"As much as I hate war, I understand there are times when defending our country, friends, and family is a necessary evil. But what about those times when it is for politics or power or just plain stupid? As a military person, am I still obligated to give up my life without question?"
These are the questions Lawrence Drake takes on in "Red Boots Rebel," what he calls a fictionalized biography. It chronicles his transformation from a naive Air Force recruit to a young man whose conscience rebels against his growing awareness of the brutality and senselessness of the war in Vietnam. He was not asked to kill, at least not directly, or to risk his own life. He was in the Intelligence sector, tasked with transmitting the realities of the war up the chain where it would be sanitized for public consumption. Subtitled "Keeping Secrets," this book is particularly relevant now in the age of Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning.
His father was a pilot in WWII, and Drake recalls how as a child he would look through the war memorabilia stowed away in a large cedar chest. "Those flight manuals, navigation manuals, cadet class books, Air Corp magazines, uniforms, ribbons, medals, flight computers and instruments....had become a part of me." (Throughout the book he compares WWII, which he considers just and necessary, and the Vietnam War, which he reckons to have been neither). It was with those memories, along with his Dad's tales of adventure flying B-24 bombers into Burma, that Drake arrived for Basic Training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio in October of 1966. But he quickly discovers his wide-eyed optimism is no match for the "brainwashing that comes with becoming a G.I. Joe." "The program was designed to keep the immature little minds and bodies of new recruits sleep deprived, exhausted, broken and confused. Break a person down, take away his dignity, strip away family, exhaust him physically and mentally, and make him totally reliant on the military. That is the way the military builds men."
Though he had dreamed of being a pilot, it was determined he was best suited to serve in data processing. So in the spring of 1967 he was transferred to the 6927th Air Force Security Squadron and the Joint Sobe Processing Center (JSPC) in Okinawa, officially working under the National Security Agency. There he processed secret coded messages regarding troop movements and body counts in a "windowless, air-conditioned compound filled with electric gadgets and computers, surrounded by guards and barbed wire." He sets up an interesting dichotomy between his double life on Okinawa, working in that windowless room while living in a tropical paradise, and his involvement in and distance from the harsh realities of the war: "Those guys on firefights in the jungle were reduced to magnetic oxide on a reel of computer tape. Bombs fell on real people from our B-52s, and we punched the results into holes on a paper card."
And the secrets became harder to bear: "With a top secret crypto clearance, we saw bits and pieces that only the very elite were privy to, and it wasn't pretty." He and his fellow processors discovered bombing runs that ended up in the DMZ or in Laos (which was out of bounds for US bombers at the time). They saw how, as reported in the press, body counts were altered from what they knew them to be; ours much lower, theirs much higher. They saw the first reports of the USS Pueblo and of the My Lai Massacre. Drake slowly came to realize the government he had trusted and believed in was involved in propaganda, something he had believed was only done in communist countries to control their people: "trying to convince us that this war was worth fighting and that we were winning."
The incident which finally pushed Drake over the edge is described in a chapter titled "The Unthinkable." His Sergeant asks him to deliver some reports to the Briefing Room, where men with "little silver and gold emblems on their collars" are standing around a map watching B-52 bombing runs. Their attention was focused on one particular run deep into North Vietnam. Suddenly, the line ended but it didn't turn back to the south, which elicited cheers from half the room. Drake then realized there was a pile of money on the table, which the cheering officers grabbed up and stuffed into their pockets.
"Wait a minute. I thought...Didn't we just see a B-52 get shot down? Didn't we just witness six of our guys die? And here are a group of officers betting on the outcome? I couldn't believe what I had just seen. How was this possible? I was in total shock."
Drake later learned the B-52 had been hit, causing total hydraulic failure. Though the crew was able to fly the plane back to Danang, the damage to the hydraulics left it without brakes. After the plane landed it ran off the runway into a minefield. Half the crew was killed.
After Okinawa, Drake was transferred to Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio where he was required to sign a security oath. But after all he had been through, all he had seen, he could no longer be part of a military that had such disregard for human life and for the values he'd been raised to believe were American values. He refused to sign the oath, which effectively ended his military career.
This is not the story of a whistle blower. Drake was able to convince his superiors that he had no intention of going public with what he learned and was later relieved from active duty. But this is a compelling story of a young man whose faith in America was broken by the knowledge of the ugly realities of war that are hidden behind patriotic gestures. And his example of refusing to salute and follow blindly is a powerful reminder of the truly patriotic duties of all citizens.
Bob Marion lives in Pittsburgh, PA where he works as a laborer.