By Horace Coleman
"The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past."
William Faulkner said that. "You want the truth? You can't handle the truth!" said Jack Nicholson's character in "A Few Good Men."
Ron Kovic, VVAW contact Leland Lubinsky and I were interviewed for Primary Report, a web-based publication staffed by University of Southern California journalism students.
Kovic said "It is so amazing that the Vietnam War jumps to the forefront of one more campaign after so many years." Lubinsky noted that:
National Guard duty through history has mainly been to put down disturbances at home, according to Leland Lubinsky, a California spokesman for VVAW. "Up until the Vietnam War, those in the National Guard were mostly black. When the Vietnam War started, people began to scramble into the National Guard. It turned from 90 per cent black to 90 per cent white." Lubinski said. The National Guard then became a refuge for those young men who did not want to go to Vietnam.
Kovic also said "In the late 1960s, to join the National Guard was clearly understood as avoiding going to Vietnam." A quote from me was introduced this way:
Coleman said it is difficult to treat Vietnam veterans as a group in supporting presidential candidates, because their political stances spread out in such a wide spectrum. "The conservatives think Kerry is too left. And the leftists think he is not radical enough."
Today's National Guard service and today's circumstances aren't what they were "back in the day." Ravers and ranters and the uninformed haven't changed, though.
Disagreeing with someone's politics or actions is one thing; lying about them and slandering them is another. The over-the-top Super Patriot Ted Sampley calls VVAW "one of America's most radical pro-communist groups." He posted a doctored picture at his website showing John Kerry in front of a Viet Cong flag. Sampley is the same "reliable source" who called Senator John McCain (a Vietnam vet and a POW who was tortured) "the Manchurian Candidate."
Never has VVAW been pro-communist. The communist countries that still exist are more into crony capitalism, corruption and semi-dictatorship than Marxism. Democracy is better; we're just into crony capitalism and corruption. If you're sloppy enough, though, any thing left of ultraconservative is "communist."
Facts shouldn't get in the way of opinions but:
* John Kerry did not found VVAW and was never its "leader." He was a prominent member and a spokesman for a time.
* When Kerry and Jane Fonda spoke at the same rallies, Fonda hadn't yet visited Hanoi or made the unwise decision to sit on an NVA anti-aircraft gun.
* Despite the often-obscene email that VVAW get accusing them of being "traitors," giving "aid and comfort to the enemy" and "communists," the FBI never found that to be true.
* When Kerry talked about war atrocities committed by American troops while testifying before a Senate committee, he prefaced his remarks about atrocities by saying "they said." "They" referred to those who testified at the Winter Soldier Investigation.
* Many original (and current) VVAW members feel that Kerry used the organization to advance his entry into politics and wasn't radical enough in advancing issues pertinent to 'Nam vets and the group.
* I've been closer to Jane Fonda than John Kerry was in some of those doctored photos on the Internet. She no more knows me than the valet who parks her car.
The Seattle Times published a story headlined "The Vietnam War: Choices that defined a generation" (February 19, 2004) with this data in it:
Just under 27 million American men were eligible for military service between 1964 and 1973.
Of that number 8.4 million served in active duty.
Another 2 million served in the National Guard or military reserves.
About 15.4 million got deferments, most for education, a smaller number for physical, mental or family hardships.
2.1 million actually saw service in Vietnam.
570,000 illegally resisted the draft.
58,152 were killed; 153,303 were seriously wounded
Sources: National Archives, Reader's Companion to American History
Approximately 57% of the draft-eligible got deferments; only 31% of them served on active duty. A little more than 7% of the draft-eligible were in the National Guard or the reserve forces. Only about 7% of them served in Vietnam.
"Chickenhawk" is a term for people who were of draft age during the Vietnam War and deliberately stayed out of that war but are quick to advocate that some other generation be sent to pull the trigger. Professional big mouth and hillbilly drug addict Rush Limbaugh got a medical deferment because something was wrong with his butt.
People got married, went to college or graduate school, sought medical deferments for minor problems. Some took jobs that gave them draft deferments, tried to influence draft boards or claimed conscientious objector status. Or joined the National Guard or fled the country. Some sincerely opposed the war. Most simply opposed their being in war. That's why there's no draft now. The general public was and is indifferent and the government wanted less resistance to future wars and adventures.
If something doesn't bother you enough to personally do something about it, then it really doesn't bother you. Vietnam and the treatment of Vietnam veterans in America never bothered most of those who are loud, long, strong and wrong now and were silent and indifferent then. Recent events indicate they don't intend to do any better by our current warriors.
It takes more to be a patriot than paying the taxes you can't avoid, flying a foreign-made American flag and saying "Support our troops!" Where were all the armchair patriots when VA facilities were being closed? When Congress tried to cut the troops' combat pay and family separation allowance? When activated Reservists and National Guard troops needing medical care wait like people in a traffic jam? When there's not enough modern body armor for troops in Iraq?
Colonel William Campenni (retired) of the Air Force/Air National Guard wrote a letter published in the Washington Times ("Bush and I were lieutenants," February 11, 2004). He wrote, "The F-102 could not drop bombs and would have been useless in Vietnam. A pilot program using ANG volunteer pilots in F-102s (called Palace Alert) was scrapped quickly after the airplane proved to be unsuitable to the war effort."
F-102 Delta Daggers were used in Vietnam (1967-68) for air defense missions. The colonel's letter also said:
While most of America was sleeping and Mr. Kerry was playing antiwar games with Hanoi Jane Fonda, we were answering 3 a.m. scrambles for who knows what inbound threat over the Canadian subarctic, the cold North Atlantic and the shark-filled Gulf of Mexico.
Please! There's been nothing in the Gulf but a few airliners off their flight plans — or planes smuggling dope, money or illegal aliens — since the Russians left Cuba.
Other pilots and planes were flying over arctic waters at the same time. They were intercepting fighters and bombers with CCCP (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) on their tails, probing U.S. air defenses. But, how did the then Mr. Bush get to the head of the line to get into the ANG?
Democracy requires an informed — not just an opinionated — citizenry that keeps an eye on the issues, and capable politicians. People used to promote something called "the common good" and to think about long-term, as well as short-term, needs.
The rest of the world has a few educated, intelligent and entrepreneurial people in it. The playing field is leveling. More fingers can pull the nuclear trigger now. We have to pay the cost to be the boss.
Colonel Campenni also made these points:
The image of a reservist at that time is of one who joined, went off for six months' basic training, then came back and drilled weekly or monthly at home, with two weeks of "summer camp." With the knowledge that Mr. Johnson and Mr. McNamara were not going to call out the Reserves, it did become a place of refuge for many wanting to avoid Vietnam.
Pilots, he says, were an exception to this — though many were excused from duty early. Because we have no draft now, the burden of being in war is definitely not widely or fairly shared. It's easier to be asleep and just along for the ride while someone else drives the train. But where the train ends up is important to us all. Colonel Campenni also wrote:
If the 111th FIS and Lt. Bush did not go to Vietnam, blame President Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, not lowly Lt. Bush. They deliberately avoided use of the Guard and Reserves for domestic political calculations, knowing that a draftee only stirred up the concerns of one family, while a call-up got a whole community's attention.
Re-fighting the Vietnam War by proxy (which is what Vietnam really was, a proxy war with the Russians) is not pertinent to this election. We paid the Russians back in Afghanistan for their assistance to the North Vietnamese by arming and training anti-communist factions in Afghanistan, which led to the rise of the Taliban and its alliance with al-Qaeda. Which led to 9-11. Which led us to Afghanistan — and us wandering into Iraq.
The current uproar about 'Nam is just unfinished business (for some people). America's internal culture wars and its "business plan" for the future are more important. Bush's "snatch up and trickle down" economics aren't working — for the majority of citizens.
Are we going to jettison and exchange our "useless" retirees and unemployed for younger, less well-paid, illegal immigrants? Reduced Social Security and unemployment checks might go further outside the USA. If we can't produce anything else the world really needs, we can always replace the UN's ineffective peacekeeping forces with our troops and openly become the world's cops.
People used to say Democrats tax, spend, and start wars. BushCo has cut taxes (in ways that disproportionately favor corporations and the upper class) and spends wildly while starting one justified and one unjustified war. It's as if we wanted our part of the world to be a gated community. Meanwhile, the Democrats have become fiscal conservatives and leery of war. Go figure.
We should take good care of our troops and use them well. They deserve that. We go thousands of miles away to look for trouble while not dealing with important issues six feet away. We argue about where to park the car while the house is burning.
We're #1!! At what? Shouting "We're #1?" Looking the wrong way? Moving to Mars?
Horace Coleman is a veteran, poet and writer living in California. He is a contact for VVAW in California.