|Download PDF of this full issue: v49n1.pdf (28 MB)|
Don't Thank Me for My Service
By John Ketwig (reviewer)
Don't Thank Me for My Service: My Vietnam Awakening to the Long History of US Lies
by S. Brian Willson
(Clarity Press, Inc., 2018)
Brian Willson is a friend. Not a close friend, as we live on opposite sides of the country and I haven't seen him in years, but a GOOD friend. We are from the same area of western New York, we are both Vietnam vets, and we have both spoken out against American militarism and a foreign policy based upon conquer or kill. That said, I am stunned and delighted by Brian's new book!
Don't Thank Me for My Service is a landmark book. It is a history textbook, a moving memoir, a thought-provoking statement about the essence of our country's foreign policy since the first settlers came ashore, and it is an inspiration to any and all of us who are opposed to war and war-making as a way of life. This book defines America's obsession with seizing control of the known world throughout history, and it counts the cost. I wish every high school and college student and every registered voter would read this book.
This is America as people around the globe see us, and Brian Willson skillfully dares the reader to do something about it. For the few who might not be familiar with Brian, he is a Vietnam veteran, a lawyer, and a committed activist. "By the time I made it into the courtroom," he writes in a chapter titled My Story, "I had apparently become far too sensitized — or perhaps radicalized – to obey the protocol of the court. I found I had a very strong visceral resistance to automatically standing up for the judge as he/she entered the courtroom." It is precisely that kind of questioning of authority and "exceptionalism" that permeates Don't Thank Me for My Service, as if the book has been soaked in a brine of cynicism, skepticism, and genuine humanism for months prior to being lined up on bookstore shelves.
In the late summer of 1986, my father passed away after a dreadful battle with cancer. A few days after the funeral I flew to Las Vegas to attend my employer's annual new model introduction ceremony. Having seen my dad withering away, fed by tubes, I found it difficult to look upon a ten-foot table laden with a pile of lobster tails four feet deep surrounded by sequined models and voracious car dealers. On the last morning of that trip, I was eating breakfast with my staff at the edge of the casino while a long train of carts pulled by a lawn tractor carried hundreds of buckets of coins extracted from the slot machines while armed guards kept an eye on the crowd of morning gamblers. Someone passed around the morning's USA Today, and I saw a front-page story of the Veterans Fast For Life on the steps of the Capitol. My acquaintance Brian Willson was gambling his life, starving himself to protest against America's activities in Central America. As soon as I got home to Maryland, I took the family to the Capitol and met the four brave fasters. I credit Duncan Murphy, George Mizo, Charlie Litkey, and Brian Willson for making America aware and preventing a US invasion of Nicaragua. One year later we were appalled to learn that Brian had been run over by a train carrying munitions to the Contras in Central America! He lost both legs and suffered a terrible wound to his skull, but the rear cover of Don't Thank Me for My Service features a photo of Brian dancing on his prostheses.
In the introduction to the book, Brian refers to the Pentagon's "50th Anniversary Vietnam War Commemoration," a $65 million revision and recruiting extravaganza that has produced a blizzard of educational paraphernalia and propaganda for high school students and teachers, and "high quality educational content for classroom use based on best practices of pedagogy." The Commemoration "doesn't deal with" issues like chemical warfare (Agent Orange), PTSD and moral damage, or the effects of the peace movement. A recent exhibition at an area school featured more pamphlets and buttons than any presidential campaign event. Don't Thank Me for My Service simply states: "Celebrating the heroics of past war in a contextual vacuum is part of grooming yet another generation of heroes to step up for our nation's future wars." Precisely! Unlike previous wars, the Vietnam-era draft targeted eighteen-year-olds, because we were impressionable. The Commemoration would have you believe that that strategy worked out well, even as it targets our grandchildren. Today's "War on Terror" is focused on Iran, North Korea, or Venezuela, and the all-volunteer military needs cannon fodder. Well, Don't Thank Me for My Service provides a wealth of historical context to any high school or college student who might read it. It is, by the way, very readable, well-organized and devoid of glitzy, unintelligible words. This is straightforward communication to the masses, a lawyer's summing-up to a jury.
What did Brian Willson learn in Vietnam, and what does he think you need to know? His chapter titles offer clues:
Cold War Hysteria
Chronicle of Barbarism
Upheaval and Resistance at Home
Upheaval and Resistance Among Active Duty Military
The Lasting Toll of War
Like so many of us, Brian Willson went to Vietnam anticipating that he would be serving his country, helping the Vietnamese resist creeping communism, and make the world a better place. Drawing his "historical context" from World War II movies and Memorial Day ceremonies in the village square, he ran head-on into a culture and environment of unconscionable barbarism in Vietnam, and he has been reacting to what he has seen ever since. As veteran suicides continue to mount, moral damage from war has finally emerged as a stark reality among the psychiatric community, and Brian Willson is a poster child. He has little to show for his courage and patriotism but a clear conscience, and for Brian, that's enough. He asks nothing, but his warnings and protests are loud and clear.
America's fascination with war, its ravenous appetite for conquest, and the misinformation it employs to justify its excesses to its public all contribute to a history and a culture that has gone mostly unchallenged for centuries. Vietnam, and the social turmoil it ignited here at home, signaled the end of the public's blind acceptance of the propaganda. Brian Willson is an inspiration, a new breed of patriot who bases his arguments on truth and respect for all of humanity. His message is amazing, important, timely, and immensely worthwhile. In a time when the daily news keeps track of the vast number of lies our President tweets to his unthinking base, Brian Willson's reading of history rings like the peeling of the Liberty Bell. I haven't seen Brian in a long time, but he hasn't changed. I urge every reader of The Veteran to read this book. Buy two copies, and give one to a teenager near you. I would rate Don't Thank Me for My Service as highly, highly, highly recommended!
John Ketwig is a lifetime member of VVAW. He is the author of …and a hard rain fell, and a new book to be published in May or June of this year, Vietnam Reconsidered: The War, the Times, and Why They Matter.