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Busted: A Vietnam Veteran in Nixon's America
By Joe Miller (reviewer)
Busted: A Vietnam Veteran in Nixon's America
by W. D. Ehrhart
(McFarland, Revised Edition, 2021)
I first became aware of W.D. (Bill) Ehrhart through his poetry in Winning Hearts and Minds (1972), published by 1st Casualty Press. At the time, I was in the Chicago chapter of VVAW. My next "encounter" was when I picked up the paperback of Marking Time (1986) published by Avon Books. [Later republished as Passing Time (1989, 2023).] That brought me back to Vietnam-Perkasie (1983), published by McFarland & Co. So I was catching up with Bill and his story by 1987.
In the spring of 1988, while teaching political science at the University of Northern Iowa, I was invited to present a paper at an international conference on "Vietnam and the West" at the University of Swansea in Wales. The most important event at that conference was my chance to meet Bill Ehrhart. And, it was by chance.
One of the plenary sessions that opened this conference was a presentation and discussion between Bobby Muller, formerly of VVAW, and some right-wing Vietnam veteran author (I cannot remember his name). The discussion got rather heated, and this right-wing guy attacked Muller as a "traitor." Then, some guy in the audience stood up, long-haired, mustache, wearing a plaid shirt, as I recall. With a passionate, high-pitched voice, he identified himself as Bill Ehrhart. That got my attention—oh, that's Bill Ehrhart! He then attacked this right-wing vet in the strongest terms and defended Muller's activism.
Bill and I connected during those couple of days through our VVAW experiences. Eventually, when I returned to teaching at the University of Illinois in 1989, I got him invited to the campus to give a presentation on "The Politics of Poetry: Life After Vietnam," the first of many visits to our campus over the years.
If you have not read the two earlier books, you can still jump in on this one. Bill references much of his background/experiences throughout the book as guideposts. That alone should whet your appetite to read Vietnam-Perkasie and Passing Time in succession.
The overarching timeline for this "streamlined" (in Bill's words) story begins on March 6, 1974, and ends on September 9, 1974. There are no chapters here. From page one onwards, Bill takes the reader on a ride through Ehrhart's life experiences and memories, reveries.
It begins with the drug raid on the oil tanker S.S. Atlantic Endeavor, a ship Ehrhart had worked on since August 1973 after graduating from Swarthmore. He was trying to "outrun" America after his experience in Vietnam and his anti-war work with VVAW in the early 1970s. The war, anti-war organizing, and negative public responses to the anti-war movement had driven him "off the beach." The seagoing life was preferred. You did not have to deal with the bullshit in Nixon's America.
This all changed on March 6, 1974, when the Captain and a group of men on that raid pushed his cabin door open.
"Holy fuck, I thought, I'm going to prison. I'm duckshit...After years of looking, I had finally found a place where I belonged. I was going to spend the rest of my life floating around on the margins of the world. They couldn't touch me here, I'd thought. Now, it was gone in the snap of a tripwire. Nowhere was safe." (pp. 2-3)
Bill was booted off the ship, and very soon, the case against him was brought by the Coast Guard. This case's very complicated ins and outs run like an iron cable throughout this book, but this is not a simple "Law and Order" episode. This threat to his work life and personal freedom becomes the basis for many serious vignettes about Bill's life before the raid and all during the period between the raid and the ultimate end of the case, which I will not detail here.
We are faced with his time before joining the Marines in June 1966, time in Vietnam (1967-68), including the Battle at Hue City, and coming home to a country he no longer felt comfortable in. In fact, the country was not "comfortable" with most of us, either. We learn about his early involvement with VVAW, speaking at public gatherings and getting ignored or attacked as a "traitor." Various episodes with the police ensue because of the way he looked in Nixon's America. He writes about friends in the Gainesville Eight (always careful to use pseudonyms). He struggles with what he did during the war and his inability to get people (even his family) to listen.
At many places in the book, Bill is accompanied by three "spirits," or voices, of dead comrades from the war. Bobby, Ski, and Frenchie allow Bill to "talk through" what he has seen and felt since returning home. They become almost "advisors" and, for purposes of the book, one might call them editorial guides for the reader. They help tie things together.
As we follow the twists and turns of Bill's case, he also comments on the news of the day, especially the Watergate investigation that took place during this period. The end of the book, the end of his case, is also the end of Watergate. And, in fact, the day the judgment came down in Bill's case, September 9, 1974, was when Gerald Ford pardoned Tricky Dick. Bill's commentary on that sequence of events is classic Ehrhart.
You should get this small book and be introduced to W.D. Ehrhart if you are unfamiliar with his work.
Joe Miller is a board member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.