Rusty Nelson on Peace and War
Veterans for Peace is such a tonic for me that it seems almost unthinkable there could be sharp divisions among its members and chapters. I remember the thrill of solidarity at the national convention in Seattle a few years ago and affirmation from Spokane vets who attended subsequent conventions. I loved being with Western Washington members last November in Auburn, and in Tacoma in February, not to mention planning, laughing, and solving global problems with our local members.
What disharmony could exist among veterans who agree that war should be abolished as our default foreign policy and that our leaders should be accountable for the devastating costs of war? Alright. That’s a silly question for anyone who’s spent years working in peace and justice organizations. Peace mongers come in all imaginable types. In fact, it was reassuring to hear VFP leaders talk, at our Tacoma conference, about recent internal squabbles, because they involve disagreements which allow for constructive discourse and encourage independent points of view.
As one who joined VFP about the time I started working for PJALS, I was not drawn to the regional conference to be enlightened by workshops, but to be part of the community-building for our chapter as well as among state-wide chapters. Feeling some success in that, I was caught off guard by one workshop: “Vietnam Commemoration.”
News junkie that I am, I missed the Obama administration’s 2012 announcement that the Pentagon has $65 million for more than a decade of commemorating the U.S. role in our glorious war in Vietnam. As Pentagon funding goes, that’s a trifle, but everything about this campaign sets off alarms for us who feel exploited in the mass murder of millions of Vietnamese, not to defend our country, but to stimulate corporate profits and insure that the U.S. can wage far-flung wars in perpetuity. There’s also the matter of re-writing history so the next generation of cannon fodder will never suspect we lost that war.
It’s a shame we didn’t learn from that dirty, illegal war, that wars can no longer be won, that all sides lose, that military solutions are problems, that military victory is a quaint concept that can hardly be validated for any deadly conflict since the U.S. manufactured an excuse for the Spanish-American War.
The president and executive director of VFP were on hand to make us feel better if we hadn’t seen this coming, giving us contact information for the point man of the project to derail this disgraceful campaign of nationalistic misinformation. However, two Vietnam Vets from the Seattle chapter were already in harness. They leafletted an ROTC event at Seattle University and heard an army colonel speak of the importance of the commemoration to thank brave American troops who stopped the dominoes to save our exceptional land from communist domination.
I gasped, laughed and cried to think they want to make me feel like a hero instead of a war criminal so young, sentimental patriots will rush into war at the whim of our politicians and the corporations who own them.
My government wants to revive the domino theory which was refuted even by congressional hawks in the 1960s.
I’m through crying for American troops who succumbed to our epidemic of idiocy around Vietnam, whether they bled at my feet on the deck of a Mike Boat, or disintegrated with a Bouncing Betty among rice paddies, or exploded with a latrine hit by a hurried mortar round.
But, I grieve still for those who came home with contagious moral wounds, with addictions and needs unmet by money and medals thrown at them by a clueless Congress and benighted bureaucracy. I weep for families who had loved ones come home in boxes or without the humanity that once made them loveable. I cringe at the increased domestic and community violence stoked by veterans taught that our problems could be solved by preparedness to kill and destroy. And I ache for the Vietnamese who suffer today because the centers of their families were smashed with my support, whether or not they ever lifted a finger against the U.S. And I shudder as I watch that pattern reproduce while we pretend to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan.
We were wrong to glorify WWII with a statue of marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima. The statue should have been of the piled bodies of young men from Japan and America, piles like those etched forever in the memory of my VFP comrade Mike Ladich, who cannot tell you why it is that he survived that bloodbath. This may seem a strange forum to discuss WWII, but I’m not a boomer. I proudly went to Vietnam as a war baby. I met my father when I was 18 months old and he returned from the Pacific, at the end of the war.
“End of the war.” What a concept. And, it should be pointed out, Americans never flooded the streets to celebrate a military victory. The mantra was, “It’s over!” Getting the public to think of winning the war took commercial and political spin campaigns, and even after those efforts, we were unwilling to send troops to Korea unless we could call the expedition something less than war. By the time we entangled ourselves in France’s imperial quagmire in Vietnam, a declaration of war was unthinkable, and only corporate interests and ambitious military officers saw anything to gain. But we Americans had a treaty and a winning tradition and no patience with anyone who dared call our intervention an illegal war. If the incident in the Gulf of Tonkin had not been twisted to suit the needs of the Pentagon, another would have been found soon enough. Win or lose, this was the war to perpetuate all wars, without regard for the disgraced slogan that eased us into WWI.
Yes. Vietnam should have been the war to end all U.S. affinity for war, but hearts and minds were fickle or persuaded by massive public relations efforts. As a combatant, I didn’t feel betrayed by my country, but began to think for myself and learn, to my dismay, that my beloved country did not always have pure motives, did not always tell the truth, rarely spared the innocent, and never sought a level playing field. And we lost, anyway.
Of course we lost. Everyone knew that in 1975, but today, even before this morbid campaign, you’ll find vast elements of the public, even Vietnam vets, who don’t recognize that reality. The only win our country had was the popular struggle to end the war. When the people realized they had a voice in how and whom we fight, getting out of Vietnam got easier, if not prettier. Losing sooner became more desirable than winning someday, a lesson that could have spared the world so much misery in recent years.
That’s why Veterans for Peace will push back against a whitewash of my ugly war. That’s why we’ll speak out and ask for your input for a local campaign to rescue the next generation from the lies that can spend our freedom on the next war and make justice ever more elusive. If you let the Pentagon take away the bad taste of Vietnam, you’ll soon let your children or grandchildren create and kill new enemies in Iran, or North Korea, or the next in a long line of “Vietnams.” Learn history. Teach peace.