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(This commentary piece also appears in THE VETERAN, Fall 2018 (Volume 48, Number 2).)

The River Keeps Flowing


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From the VVAW National Office

"No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.—Heraclitus

Demo at the VA, Chicago, September 1974.

Perhaps it is time to contemplate how VVAW has understood and acted in the struggle for change, our particular river.

Many, if not most of us, actually enlisted in the military, many specifically for Vietnam. The world we saw, having experienced the 1940s and 1950s, was black and white, good versus evil, communism against democracy. We, the USA, were the good guys; we wore the white hats. We were going to save the world from evil.

Then, through direct experience inside the military, the world seemed to change around us, as we came to face the reality of the lies we had been taught. We were ready to junk the old black and white way of thinking and replace it with a new black and white way of thinking. The former "bad guys" were now the good guys to us. Unthinkingly, we were still trapped in a two-dimensional worldview while the "river" flowed on. We were not the "same," but we had not yet figured out what that meant.

The world became more complex to us, and a struggle for peace and social justice was not going to be that easy - or simple. The material reality required deep analysis and flexibility in tactics and strategy, not knee-jerk responses. We owned up to the atrocities committed in Vietnam through our Winter Soldier Investigation as a way of fighting against our war. These were hard lessons for most of us; "good guys" might not be totally "good," and "bad guys" often did "good" things.

For example, we could point to LBJ's "Great Society" in contrast to his knowingly deepening US involvement in an unjust and immoral war. Or, we might look at John McCain who used his POW "heroic" status to attain political power and push for more military conflict—Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran—as against his willingness to work with John Kerry in opening up diplomatic relations with Vietnam after a twenty-year embargo.

Over the years many peace groups welcomed our involvement in their efforts. Some attempted to manipulate us and pushed us to the front of the struggle, to legitimize their movements. We eventually learned that we in VVAW should determine our own level of involvement in any struggle. "Smiling faces" were not going to trap us for their own purposes. Unity of purpose, not unity for the sake of unity.

In our anti-militarism activities, we engage in counter-recruitment to expose young people to the lies of recruiters, to only join up with their eyes wide open. We use our own experiences to show what the military can be. We do not take a moralistic stance on whether or not someone should join the armed forces; That is their decision and they should make that decision only after serious thought and investigation.

In our struggles for peace and self-determination for all peoples, we sometimes found ourselves in opposition to pacifists and others on the "Left." Here is how we tried to explain our position some years ago:

"We have never cared about the so-called 'legality' of any war. If a war is just we support it, and if a war is unjust we oppose it, no matter the Constitution or the UN resolution. Korea and the Gulf War were both 'legal' by US and UN legalities, and yet no one in VVAW would have supported those unjust struggles....VVAW has stood for a reality not tied to abstract legalisms and excuses. We have supported black people's rights even when the law denied them. We supported Native American rights at Wounded Knee even when US law denied them. Human rights, REAL rights, REAL people suffering and dying are the basis of our political reality and our social justice activism, not the abstractions of a third year law student or some pompous academic." (The Veteran, Vol 29, no 2, Fall/Winter 1999)

Today, in the context of a racist and sexist pro-billionaire regime and its attack on many positive social programs, we in VVAW have linked up with a broad range of veterans' organizations to save the VA from privatization, whereas, in 1974, in a different set of real circumstances, we were engaged in a fight against the VA due to cuts in medical and educational benefits.

The river keeps flowing, and we in VVAW will stay true to the uncompromising struggle for peace and social justice. But we must always be aware of changing circumstances. Dogmatism and political purity will only isolate us.

Thanks to Jeff Danziger and Billy Curmano for their cartoons. Thanks to Joe Miller, Mike Hastie, Bill Perry, Judy Randall, Ken Dalton, Marc Levy, Brian Matarrese, Michael Orange, Rick Danzl, Al Meece, Harry Wagner, and others for contributing photos.

Jeff Machota
Ellie Shunas
Bill Branson
Jen Tayabji

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