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student history class
Questions about the Vietnam War
Date: Fri, 17 May 2002 22:19:30 -0400
To: Kate Kolbert-Hyle
Subject: Re: Questions about the Vietnam War
From: John Judge
Subject: Questions about the Vietnam War
Date: Mon, 13 May 2002 21:10:41 EDT
From: Kate Kolbert-Hyle
To: John Judge
We are studying the Vietnam War in history class. For an English assignment we have been asked to find somebody involved in the Vietnam War to answer questions and reflect on their experiences. You can answer any, all or none of the questions as i can understand it might take awhile. If you'd rather reflect on a specific experience that would be just as good. Thanks so much for your help and if you have any questions let me know!
- Were you involved in the Vietnam War?
I was involved with the Vietnam war, as was almost all of my generation and other generations that came before us, in one way or another. The war became a national question because it made young men face questions about their social duties and sense of alienation that had built up since the 1950s. The war also brought social costs at home, guns instead of butter, thousands of deaths, and eventually a recession. Those who fought the war became increasingly alienated with it as well, due to the nature of the weapons, the high levels of civilian deaths (90%), and the lack of clearly defined military objectives. It became a war of attrition (reducing the numbers), not only of the "enemy" but of the Vietnamese people.
The war did tremendous damage to Vietnam as well, and what was once the rice-producing capitol of the world now imports most of its rice. Horrible ecological damage resulted from the bomb craters (26 million in a country the size of Rhode Island), the chemical spraying and de-forestation, the breakdown of barriers between salt and fresh water, loss of topsoil which irreversibly hardens the clay soil beneath (called laeterization), the deaths of many natural species and types of plants and the normal interaction of the different levels of the ecology there.
The Vietnamese people are still being poisoned by chemicals in the water and soil, have high rates of birth defects (25%), are still harmed by unexploded bombs in the soil, and have never been given any reparations or help following all the destruction. So, yes, I was very involved with the war and with those who fought it or refused to. I read all I could about it starting in the early sixties, and collected information all through the war years.
Had you fought in the military before?
I was never in the military and also never fought outside the military, either. I have been a pacifist my whole life. Even before I knew a word for it I refused to fight with fists or any weapon. This was in part because my mother became a pacifist after WWI, but decided that Hitler had to be fought during WWII. She worked for the Pentagon, as did my father and my aunt. But, she never let me have toy guns or weapons as a child, and she taught me how to deal with people without fighting with them. When my father tried to teach me to box, and I refused, my mother backed me up and said that was not the way to solve differences.
- Was there a possibility that you were going to fight?
There was a possibility that all young men in my generation, what is now called the post-war (WWII) baby-boomers, might be called to fight by the draft or Selective Service System. I would never have fought, or used a weapon. I had even been confronted with weapons and still to this day shun them, even a fist. I certainly had no reason to want to use weapons on people living 17,000 miles away who I did not know save by reading books about their history.
I had a student deferment, which meant as long as I was in college I would not be drafted. When that ended, I had a very low lottery number based on my birth date (#14), and I was sent a "1-A classification" by my draft board in 1969, the summer after graduation from the University of Dayton (UD). There was a very good chance I would be given orders to report for induction into the military.
Almost all of us faced this situation until we turned 26, or until the lottery started in the late 60s. If you had a high lottery number (anything over #195 out of the randomly numbered 365 days of the year) you knew you would probably not be called. Every year you were not called it became less likely you would be, because that year's young men would all have to be called before they came to you, as well as any other years younger than you. Most of us sweated what would happen and most of us did not know what would. I already knew that if called I would refuse to go and fight, so I risked going to jail if forced to that decision.
- If not, how did you avoid the draft. If so, what was the drafting system?
Actually, I was a draft counselor from 1965 on, and helped many young men facing that situation. I learned the Selective Service law and what rights people had for appeals and deferments or exemptions. I helped them once they decided what they wanted to do or why they did not want to be drafted. Some avoided, some resisted, some went into the military anyway. Not all those who resisted went to jail, only a very few actually went to court, and less to jail. Usually the boards or courts would find some other classification for them, assign them to civilian work, or just ignore them because they had enough other men to take their place.
The system when I turned 17 and registered was the system in place since WWII. Once you registered they sent you a classification form which you filled out with any claims you had about reasons you should be exempt or deferred (delayed from being called up and drafted in).
In those days, the Pentagon would figure out how many men they needed each year, in advance (that was actually my mother's job to project those figures for the Joint Chiefs of Staff from information she was given), and call five times that number to be sure. Half would flunk a physical, as I did in Cincinnati. One quarter would get deferments or exemptions. 10-15% would refuse to appear. Then they were back to the 20% of the total they needed.
The draft back then worked by taking the projected numbers each month that my mother figured out and dividing them up by state (population) and then by draft board, a monthly quota they had to meet out of their pool of eligible registrants. This sometimes led to boards who easily met the quota being lenient about claims and objectors, or those who could not be harsh. Some boards granted every objector application and hardship claim, others never gave a one, like my board in Falls Church, Virginia which was mostly retired military officers.
- If you were involved in any anti-war activities what were your actions?
I decided from my reading and studies that our role in the war in Vietnam was wrong in 1964. I came into UD with that idea, but no idea what to do about it. Most people did not even know where the country was at that point, or even that we had troops there. My first anti-war action was to help form a campus group called UD Students for an Informed Campus, and we did three things:
- We went out for a weekly silent vigil against the war in front of the Student Union at noon on Wednesdays, the one hour when nobody had classes during each week, so most of the students were out and saw us, and more and more students and faculty joined us over time. We got the idea from a newspaper clipping of students in Berkeley, CA doing the same thing.
- We started a petition to get rid of mandatory ROTC for all freshmen and sophomore males, and my roommate in the dorm and I were the first two students in the history of the school let out of ROTC because of our moral beliefs.
We also did a demonstration at the annual review of the ROTC troops by the President of the school, Fr. Roesch. They got quite upset that we would hold up a sign saying "Voluntary ROTC Now" at such an important event. So they brought Dayton cops, campus police, and military intelligence agents from Wright Patterson air force base to stop us. The Dean of Students tore our sign in half, a Marianist brother. They even tried to force us to go to a psychiatric interview afterwards, but the faculty that went out with us made them stop that.
The picture of our sign being torn made national news and embarassed the university. They told the ROTC troops that if we lay down on the field to step on us. I was spied on by other Air Force intelligence agents in my classes, probably because my mother was so high up at the Pentagon.
It also upset them that I would leave my ROTC class at ten till noon on Wednesday and wear the uniform to the silent vigil against the war. The local newspaper had a picture of a few of us in uniform with anti-war signs. They made a special rule for me that I could come to class in suit and tie instead, and skil drills. Fine by me.
Finally, they let me out altogether and had me take a health course instead. Eventually, we got so many freshmen to refuse to go to ROTC class that they dropped the rule. Students angry about that issue and others eventually took over the Adminstration Building and the school had to take us seriously and change.
- We began a table inside the Student Union every day to educate other students about the war and what we thought was wrong with US involvement there. Sometimes we got heckled, but we stood our ground. Over time, the majority of the students and the country came to see the war as wrong, including many of the veterans. I eventually began another table with some friends to do draft counseling. Eventually I counseled and helped tens of thousands of young men on and off campus facing the hard choices of the draft, then GIs who were AWOL who found me, and then returning veterans with their own sets of survival problems.
In that sense, I feel like I have been in all four branches of the military on several tours. I will never forget the stories I heard from Vietnam veterans about the horrors of that war, nor will it end for them. More Vietnam veterans killed themselves after coming home than died in the war, three times as many before the VA cut off the statistics.
I demonstrated against the war, wrote and spoke out in public, helped to organize a student strike at UD against when the war spread into Cambodia, went to national demonstrations and meetings, and eventually worked for or sat on the national boards of groups like Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, National Council for Universal and Unconditional Amnesty, National Council on Agent Orange, The National Committee Against Registration and the Draft, Vietnam Veterans Against the War/Winter Soldier Organization (I helped to found their National GI Project and organized 5,000 active duty GIs who were against the war inside the military). We did a weekly radio show for three yeas with VVAW veterans on WYSO, an alternative station in Ohio.
Were they successful?
Yes and no. We certainly educated the public and changed the opinion of 85% of the United States population against the war by 1968 and onwards. I worked against that war for so long that I got nostalgic about it. It was a major part of my life and my thinking. Helping the GIs and veterans helped me understand more about the military and the nature of war and what it does to people.
Eventually, the Vietnamese played the largest role by refusing to give into the US invasion of their country. They credited the GI resistance movement with stopping the war as well. Finally, the Pentagon had to choose between having a war on the ground or having a military they could control, and they took the troops home and used bombs instead, and paid the corrupt rulers of South Vietnam to fight the war instead.
Finally, as my mother was told to plan it, the US involvement in the Vietnam war ended ten years after it began, with 57,500 American dead and nearly 3 million Vietnamese dead. Vietnam gained the independence it wanted in the first place. America learned a lesson. The lesson is that not all wars are good wars, and that people have a right to decide whether they can fight in them.
This is a lesson they hope we will forget. But, having worked with GIs during the Gulf War and even today, I know we will not entirely forget. Napoleon once said, "If my men could think, they would not fight". Even since 9-11 there has been no major rise in enlistments. I felt that my counseling work was successful because I knew it made a difference, if only a sense of support, to the young men and women I spoke to. I didn't always get justice or victory, but it could have been much worse had I not been there to help.
Why did you feel so strongly about not fighting the war?
For me it was a moral issue. The war was illegal, immoral, unconstituional, genocidal, and without any rational basis. Some could ignore the war, or support it with little cost to themselves, but most took a position. It divided the country in some ways. The old values of unquestioning patriotism, and doing your "duty" had carried over from WWII. The draft was seen as a "fair" way to divide up the burden of war among a large population, but it never was. Blacks made up 65% of the draftees and even higher percentages of the front line troops. They died in numbers well above their percentage of the ranks.
I grew up in a time when you were not supposed to question the government or the military, but having grown up in a community of CIA, NSA, DIA and Pentagon employees, I knew the government would lie. I had known that since the U-2 spy plane incident, when a plane went down in the Soviet Union and the government had to admit they were lying about not spying on the Soviets. It was the first in a long string of lies told about communism and the cold war, and the wars that came out of that period.
Many things happened that made people suspicious and angry, including the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and many local political organizers over the years, as a result of FBI and CIA spying on them and disruption of their rights.
People used to say "America, love it or leave it" and we would respond "fix it or forget it". In my view it is those who cannot tolerate dissent who should live outside democracies. They want us to be so happy we have rights that we never use them I guess.
Some tried to claim that they were fighting and dying over there so I could have the right to protest. I told them that no Vietnamese person ever tried to stop me from exercising my rights, and that I never gave them sanction to kill in my name.
What upset me then and now is that there was and is no direct democratic process by which people can decide if they want the country to be at war. Some argued that after having lost a certain number of troops there we had to keep fighting so that they would not have died in vain. To me that made as much sense as cutting your fingertip off in a lawnmore and honoring it by going up to the elbow. I wanted the killing and the dying to stop, on both sides, and I knew in my heart the war was wrong.
Were you involved in any protests or rallies?
Too many to count, including organizing them. In the mid-90's I organized A Day Without the Pentagon to highlight the cost of the military for just one day and what that could mean to social services. More recently I have helped to organize a candlelight vigil by hundreds of people following 9-11, and an anti-war demonstration of 3,000 people here in DC on September 30 last year. The only way to retain rights like assembly, free speech and petition or dissent is to use them. I have never been or done anything violent in my protests, nor would I condone it from others. Practicing democracy between wars is like being a vegetarian between meals.
- There are many people who are conscientious observers, or Quakers who chose not to fight in the war. What is your take on this? Did you know anybody who did this? What was the opinion on this policy in the eyes of other citizens?
I was myself a conscientous objector, or war objector, though not a Quaker. There are some historic peace churches that shun war, but many objectors came from all sorts of religious backgrounds, or were atheists like myself. I believe most people do not realize they are conscientious objectors until after the war, when they cannot integrate what they have been asked to do with their deeper conscience, morals and sense of themselves. A few of us have the privilege of knowing that before we agree to fight.
I highly recommend a new book called On Killing, The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman. The author tells how they have to train out the natural reluctance of people to kill each other close up in war, and that they never retrain them to put that brake back on.
I think that people have an absolute right to conscience, and believe that it should extend not only to all war, but to particular wars and even particular actions during a war as a legal grounds to refuse or be reassigned or discharged from duty.
There are already over 1,000 Israeli resisters in the military ranks there who will not fight in the current war. I worked with others years ago who would not fight in Lebanon, and with South African men who refused to fight against Black Africans in apartheid wars.
I support the right to refuse and to organize by troops, because I think it is the most effective way to curb those who are intent on war and make profits from it. I think wars should require full public debate and referendum before being fought, and that anyone should have a right to say no to them. I do not believe in conscripted duty, through draft boards or through poverty and lack of educational or employment opportunities.
I do not think war in this century has any possible positive outcome given the nature of international relations, global connectedness and the nature of weapons today that make civilian deaths likely and make combat troop deaths into the real "collateral damage" of war.
The world is too interconnected now to destablilize it with war, and violence solves nothing it just replicates itself. War is a dead end. I knew thousands of conscientious objectors and still work with their national organizations like Center on Conscience and War here in DC.
There is a good PBS film out about the WWII objectors now, "The Good War and Those Who Refused to Fight It". Some stations refused to show it. With each new war we have to fight again for the rights of conscience. The Gulf War refusers were treated worse than the WWI objectors. They were beaten, shackled, denied hearings and sent to the front. Thousands were locked up in makeshift prisons in Saudi for refusing to fight. There are already GIs in large numbers seeking to get discharged because of the current war. There will always be those who say no.
President John F. Kennedy once said, "I long for the day when the conscientious objector holds the same respect in society as the warrior does today". I still go into the high schools here with veterans on Career Days to counter the military recruiters, give students the real story on risks in the military, and not just combat. I also provide them information on civilian alternatives.
I did draft counseling for so long that I had a dream I was doing it and remembered the sign on my table in the dream. The next day I drew it and my friend Kathe painted it for me. It was a picture of long lines of cows going between fences into the Acme Meat Packing Company. One cow has gotten its front legs up over the fence and is looking out with a big grin. The word bubble says, "You mean there's an alternative?"
- What was the spirit of the country back at home? Did friends of yours have strong opinions about actions that were being taken by the government?
The spirit changed over time, from confusion to dissent to contention. Eventually people took sides and had strong opinions towards each other. I tried to work with people no matter what they believed or had done, many would not cross those lines. Lots of objectors disliked anyone in uniform and vice versa. The war split along family lines, friends, lovers (like my college sweetheart who could not comprehend why I cared), and employers or teachers. There were counter-demonstrators at times and nasty police. I got punched now and again, or knocked over by a police horse.
I would have felt much worse had I known that the war was wrong and remained silent. Some also had educated strong opinions and others just had opinions. That used to frustrate me, and led to my choosing to draft counsel instead of running an anti-war table. I saw many more young men facing the hard decisions and got to help them think that through. I had friends who went to jail or Canada, who left town over the draft or the FBI chasing them around, or who were anguished over the choice.
- Were any of your friends fighting in the war?
Not many, but I knew a few, and found an old high school chum on the Vietnam Veterans wall, a list of the names of those who died. On the other hand, many GI's and veterans I counseled or organized became friends, and some still are. Many of the anti-war veterans I knew are now dead, lots of drink, drugs or suicide, haunted until the end.
- How was the media responding? Did you here of news instantly? Did it take a long time to hear of the deaths that were happening?
Actually, the media was right on the scene. Eventually the daily body count, theirs and ours, seemed to be the only criteria for judging the war and whether we were winning. Peter Jennings pointed out in the early 70s that if you added all the press reports of Vietnames killed, the whole county would have had to die twice. In some ways, the media helped to end the war by showing it up close.
Since Vietnam, corporate mergers and ownership have ended some of that independent reporting, and the government now refuses to let the media see the front lines. General Alexander Haig said it hurt morale for the troops as well as here at home. He knew that the vast majority of people if asked about going to war would vote not to. He called that the "lowest common denominator of public opinion" and said you couldn't "base a foreign policy on it". I wish they had. Ernest Hemingway said, "If you want to have a war, don't ask the infantry and don't ask the dead."
Now the press are little but distant cheerleaders for the wars, and the wars haven't gone on quite so long because of the technology, and the lack of any equally armed country opposing us, for there are none.
Sometimes, even then, the press went along with censorship and covered-up deaths. They failed to report on a ten-year war we waged in Laos and Cambodia, which involved billions of dollars, bombs and body bags. But it was "secret". A good book about it is Sideshow, Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia (William Shawcross, Simon and Schuster, 1979). The returning disaffected veterans got press, which made a tremendous difference in attitudes. They could tell us we had never been there, but the sincere and outraged veteran was harder to discount.
The press also eventually released the Pentagon Papers, a secret study of the war that showed how corrupt and dishonest the decision makers had been. Now the memoirs confess it, like Robert McNamara's or even General Westmoreland's final report which ackowledged that the southern Vietnamese did not want US troops to come in, but we went in anyway. I still remember news anchor Walter Chronkite crying on the air when his son was beaten to death in the Marine Corps barracks at Camp Pendleton. "If your son goes to Vietnam, write to him," he said. "If he goes to the brig at Pendleton, pray for him."
- Do you have any specific stories or memories from the war era?
I do and some I can't tell, like the guy I knew who got out of the draft using peanut butter in a way nobody had before. Mostly I remember the veterans's stories and the GIs, doing things to hold themselves together in a world that either blamed them for fighting, blamed them for losing, or more often just didn't care.
I tried to stop people from going to Canada, because many of them didn't have to go that far, but they were desperate. I found out things about what war is really like that I will never forget, including men who had to kill their officers just to survive the next day.
Later, I got to hear the stories of the Vietnamese people, and also the stories of the women on both sides. There was another wonderful documentary on PBS about them recently called [We] "Regret to Inform" which is how the notices start to families of soldiers killed in action.
The most powerful documentary for me is still "Vietnam Requiem" (1983) which interviews five Vietnam veterans in prison, who never committed a crime before they went into the service. It still warms my heart like nothing else when soldiers refuse to fight and tell the truth about war.
I remember an old Wizard of Id cartoon about the palace guard telling the king that they were surrounded by demonstrators. "Call out the troops!" the king said. "But, sire," the soldier replied, "it is the troops!"
When militaries change countries change and can for a while hope for democracy again. Now your generation has to face hard choices once more and make informed decisions and make democracy work. It's never easy. If you pay attention you will have your own stories to tell.
I had hoped that what we learned from Vietnam might stay with us as a society, but some of it has not. I had hoped I would never have to see young people face those choices again, but they did and do. I don't know what is harder, finding out the truth or following your heart, but you always have to do both.
Thanks for the chance to answer these questions. If you have others let me know. Sorry I missed your deadline, I worked all day and night Thursday and I am just rolling off to bed now before starting another day. In the morning I'm heading up a discussion circle at a social forum here about peace and how to get there. As always, peace and justice is the only way.