COLUMN SIXTY-EIGHT, FEBRUARY 1, 2002
(Copyright © 2002 Al Aronowitz)
TO WAR: A HISTORY OF THE VIETNAM VETERANS' MOVEMENT'
THE WINTER SOLDIER INVESTIGATION
following excerpt on the Winter Soldier Investigation from Gerald Nicosia's HOME
TO WAR: A HISTORY OF THE VIETNAM VETERANS' MOVEMENT (Copyright - 2001
Gerald Nicosia) is used here with the permission of the author. HOME TO WAR:
A HISTORY OF THE VIETNAM VETERANS' MOVEMENT (Crown, 690 pages) was picked as
one of "the best books of 2001" in nonfiction category by LOS
ANGELES TIMES, Dec. 2, 2001. It
has received numerous excellent reviews, including cover reviews in the LOS
ANGELES TIMES, the SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE and the DALLAS MORNING
NEWS. Yet the NEW YORK TIMES
has failed even to mention the book's existence. More information about the book
and its author can be obtained by clicking on http://www.geraldnicosia.com/.
Gerald Nicosia may be contacted at GNicosia@earthlink.net
cofounder of SDS and still a leader of the New Left, passed through Detroit in
February, 1971, while Vietnam Veterans Against the War was staging its Winter
Soldier Investigation (in fact he first met Jane Fonda, his future wife, there).
He claims that until he listened to veterans speaking about their war
experiences, it had never occurred to him that the United States might lose the
war. In other words, before Winter
Soldier, the war for him was chiefly a foreign-policy issue.
Afterward, at least in part because of what the vets said there, he began
to see more clearly that "losing a war is a state of mind." The major loss for individual soldiers, he learned, was not
of the territory they were holding, but a loss of their own mental peace:
loneliness; it's seeing your buddies die without believing that they died for
anything worthwhile; it's marking your time, hoping that you don't get killed
for nothing; it's indulging in mindless, nihilistic behavior.
There's nothing good about it, and it goes on for 24 hours a day for most
of a year of a young man's life, until they get out. And so it's personally felt
in all kinds of ways in your head and in your gut."
Scott Camil, formerly a gung-ho Marine, now looking Christ-like with long hair and beard
compelling, HOME TO WAR is a monument in words to those who fought abroad for
their country and then returned to do battle for a cause with its own kind of
chiseled Semitic features, was one of the most dramatic witnesses at Winter
Soldier. Camil testified about
slitting old men's throats and the abominable sexual torture and murder of a
female Viet Cong suspect. He stated
that he had always believed in the rightness of his actions, and in his nation's
urgent need for him to perform these terrible tasks.
It amazed him, therefore, to see a band of American neo-Nazis marching
through the snow and bitter cold outside the motor inn, carrying banners that
JOHNSON'S HARBORS REDS" and "JANE FONDA IS A COMMUNIST."
Communist was the furthest thing from Camil's mind.
He came to
There was an
innocence among these veterans that was almost childlike, and totally
incongruous with the hell of experience they had just come from.
They could not imagine that anyone would think they were lying, or that they had some
"HOME TO WAR is amazing. It is simultaneously a horror story and a history lesson, a love story of camaraderie and a whacked-out, often humorous series of biographical sketches."'san Francisco Chronicle
ulterior motive in bringing forward such gruesome testimony.
They came, for the most part, without political motivation, nor did they
expect to be categorized politically for their action.
They assumed it would be obvious, as Joe Urgo puts it, that "they
had every reason to expose the truth and get this stuff off their chest."
Moreover, many of them believed that Winter Soldier, rather than
continuing to politicize the war, would in fact put an end to their nation's
naive belief," wrote Bill Crandell, "was that the testimony of 125
American combat veterans on the criminal nature of the Vietnam War would simply
end it, that an America already shocked by war crime and already turning toward
calls for peace would simply demand an end to the slaughter of innocents and the
waste of our brothers."
Yet the depth of the testimony, both very personal and very comprehensive, generated its
to War is gripping, sobering and profound in its eloquence, and casts a dark
shadow over the image of what most of us grew up believing about our moral
essence as a nation."
political impact, because it was not just the portrait of a war that was being
painted, it was the portrait of a whole society. Urgo recalls being struck as if by a revelation when he heard
one vet testify:
been getting us ready for Vietnam since grade school."
found himself listening with new ears to testimony about racism in schools and
sexism in the culture and the role of churches in supporting the
military?--for confessions that began with traumatic war stories often ended
with vets reflecting on how they'd ended up in such an unlikely,
down-and-dirty fight so far from home.
The witnesses at Winter Soldier "were exposing every aspect of the superstructure," Urgo recalls. "They were showing that all of education, all of religion, all of the laws,
"Gerald Nicosia's exhaustive chronicle of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) and the numerous organizations descended from it [covers] an important but largely unknown chapter in our nation's history ... HOME TO WAR remains a monument to the only heroism emerging in that particular nightmare." " Newsday
leading us toward having to defend this empire in a certain way ... It was
completely overwhelming, because I'd never realized the extent of the crime that
we'd committed. And so it made me
more serious. And I think it made me more angry, more determined to stop the
was going down at Winter Soldier was not for the most part an intellectually
apprehended experience. It was
deeply felt, as evidenced by the many vets, both among the witnesses and in the
audience, who broke into tears over and over again.
to the relative austerity of the National Veterans' Inquiry being held in
Washington, D.C., Winter Soldier was a mob scene.
There was never a time when the main hall of the Howard Johnson's wasn't
packed with people---sitting on the floor, lining the aisles, even listening out
in the hallways. A little over 100
veterans testified, but another 500-700 veterans from all over the continental
United States came to listen and share.
wanted to testify were carefully screened by Oliver, Hubbard,
Despite this meticulous documentation, many of the Midwest papers, such as the Detroit News, tried to discredit the hearings by questioning the authenticity of the veterans who testified; with all their digging, not one fraudulent veteran was discovered. The East
"In his essential new book, HOME TO WAR, Gerald Nicosia gives us a comprehensive history of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, from its inception through court cases involving Agent Orange as recently as two years ago; his time and commitment show up on every page.""Los Angeles Times
avoided the whole issue of credibility---and kept from looking foolish---by
simply refusing to cover the hearings. The
local stringer for the New York Times explained that he found nothing
newsworthy to report because "this stuff happens in all wars."
There were a
smattering of articles sympathetic to the veterans in the underground press; and
Pacifica Radio, with major channels on both coasts, devoted to a pacifist,
left-wing perspective on current events, gave them excellent coverage.
The CBS television crew that showed up were themselves deeply impressed,
but none of their footage made it to the nightly news.
still showed inexperience when handling the press, but overall
"Home to War is an excellent new book on the ravages of war " it makes for a compelling read, not only in terms of the pointless and savage nature of the Vietnam War but of the heroism of those vets who turned the tide in this country with their dramatic testimony and protests."--Robert Scheer, KCRW radio, Los Angeles
number of non-veterans
who were lending a hand. Two
Catholic anti-war activists provided the house that the VVAW steering committee
used as their base in Detroit; and five clergymen of different denominations,
including the director of missions for the Detroit Metropolitan Council of
Churches, offered safe housing for the witnesses.
was presented by unit. Sunday,
January 31st, there were speakers from the 1st Marine Division, 3rd Marine
Division, and 1st Air Cavalry Division; Monday, February 1st, from the 101st
Airborne Brigade and 5th Special Forces; and Tuesday, February 2nd, from the
25th Infantry Division, 1st Infantry Division, 4th Infantry Division, 9th
Infantry Division, and Lieutenant Calley's Americal Division.
In the evenings, and in between panels, the veterans held talks on such
subjects as "What We Are Doing to Vietnam," "What We Are Doing to
Ourselves," violations of international law (including outlawed weapons),
POW's, racism in the military, and press censorship.
There was also a special panel of psychiatrists, several of whom had
served in Vietnam, discussing the impact of the war on American society.
The first public testimony about the potential toxicity of Agent Orange
was given by Dr. Bert Pfeiffer of the University of Montana.
as the atrocities testimony was, some of the insights given by
"Gerald Nicosia's passionate account of the Vietnam veterans' movement reminds us [that] the war continues to haunt the American soul ... Sometimes it is difficult to tell who is angrier, Nicosia or the veterans he chronicles.""Chicago Tribune
would come to be known in future
Watergate and Contra-Iran investigations as the secret or "shadow
government" of the United States---had even greater national impact.
Perhaps the most startling "news" to come out of Winter Soldier was
the revelation of the U.S. invasion of Laos in February, 1969---code-named
Operation Dewey Canyon I.
Five veterans described their role in the invasion, claiming that an entire regiment of the Third Marines had penetrated several miles into that neutral nation, conducting combat maneuvers along Highway 922 and beyond, and "suffering dozens of casualties in fierce fighting." They further charged that the U.S. military had refused to medevac out (evacuate by air) the wounded and dead, to prevent press discovery. Their expose made front-page headlines in Detroit and Chicago, and a follow-up investigation by the Detroit Free Press uncovered other veterans throughout the country who testified to having taken
"Home to War is an improbable page-turner.
Nicosia skillfully weaves together a large cast of characters for a
riveting work of nonfiction. Hollywood can't touch this."
part in the
operation. The testimony was
explosive because the Pentagon had issued a blanket denial only days before,
never had ground troops in Laos."
revelation of Operation Dewey Canyon was followed for days and months by other
news stories in which American military personnel testified to systematic
fighting in Laos. In late 1972, the
St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Boston Globe ran credible stories
asserting that the United States had regularly transported combat troops into
Laos over a sixteen-month period that extended to the very end of 1971.
were helicopter pilots from the 101st Airborne who had participated in the
top-secret program code-named Command and Control North.
Although the missions, consisting usually of mercenaries commanded by
Army Special Forces, were primarily intended to gather intelligence, these
troops had been involved in combat and several had been killed.
Such missions were in violation of the Cooper-Church amendment, passed in
1970, which prohibited the use of American ground troops in Cambodia and Laos.
But even before Cooper-Church was passed, it would have been a violation
of international law for the United States to launch combat troops against a
neutral nation. And even as these
missions were occurring, the Pentagon was issuing statements denying that
American combat forces were operating in Laos, and asserting that all Special
Forces had already been withdrawn from Vietnam.
Clearly, Winter Soldier drove a heavy wedge into the American government's credibility, creating a crack that kept widening all the way through the Nixon Administration's Watergate fiasco in 1973 and 1974. The American military's credibility had already been
"HOME TO WAR is an essential chronicle of a history that no one but the participants know well. Nicosia's rich narrative [proves that] more than a quarter-century after the end of that shameful war, attention must still be paid.""Washington Post
damaged by the 1968 Tet Offensive and the perennial failure of Vietnamization,
but Winter Soldier took that challenge a quantum leap farther, questioning the
morality of America's superpower status and habitual interventionist politics.
One of the points brought out at Winter Soldier, and verified in subsequent news stories, was that servicemen participating in these illegal missions were often required to sign papers in which they promised never to tell the true location and nature of their activities. When they went out on the missions, they wore uniforms stripped of all American insignia and personal identification tags, and if caught in Laos they were under no circumstances to reveal their true identity; but even if they did, the United States would not acknowledge them as its soldiers. On certain missions the Americans even dressed in North Vietnamese Army uniforms and carried the Russian weapons commonly used by the NVA.
"Home to War illuminates the efforts of the men who
fought not just in the jungles of Vietnam, but also when they returned to
America. We should be grateful to
Gerry Nicosia for documenting this struggle in a meaningful and heartfelt
In effect, the American
government was attempting to turn a generation of young men into liars in order
to cover up its own misconduct?--or, to put it more charitably, to hide the
gap between its stated foreign policy goals and the Realpolitik it practiced.
Winter Soldier came off as such a professional and convincing presentation was
that for once the vets were not limited by a bare-bones budget.
The total spent on the affair was estimated at between fifty and
seventy-five thousand dollars. In addition to Fonda and Lane, there were donations from a
wide spectrum of individuals and organizations---among them, the United Auto
Workers' Emil Mazey, Michigan Secretary of State Richard Austin, and the
Business Executives Move for Peace.
rockers Graham Nash and David Crosby (who were contacted by Jane Fonda) and
folk-singer Phil Ochs gave benefit concerts before and during the hearings.
Still, as with Operation RAW, VVAW went into the red before it was over, but
they counted on the book contract they had with Beacon Press (to publish
excerpts of the testimony), the forthcoming films of both RAW and Winter
Soldier, and other revenue-bearing projects to bail them out.
Winter Soldier heralded a significant change of opinion in the American public toward the Vietnam veterans---not only in terms of a new willingness to hear their side of things, but also in the amount of respect and credibility they were accorded. Over a dozen members
"Home to War is far-reaching and exhaustive.
Its value lies in the details. Who
were these vets? Where did they
come from, what were they like before they went to Vietnam, what happened to
them there, what did they do upon return? Want
a look at the surreal world of veterans? issues and how it works for an
unpopular war? Check out Home to
of Congress endorsed the hearings.
South Dakota Senator George S. McGovern, who would challenge Richard
Nixon in the 1972 Presidential race, and Congressman John Conyers, Jr., of
Michigan called for full Congressional investigations into charges leveled by
the veterans at Winter Soldier; and Berkeley's radical black Congressman Ronald
Dellums offered the veterans office space in Washington, where they could repeat
their charges withi
striking about Winter Soldier was the great humility of all involved.
These men, who deserved to be honored for the courage it took to bare
their pain and to assume responsibility for actions their country had asked them
to perform---even as they had already been honored (at least minimally, with
medals and citations) for risking their lives in the performance of those
deeds---now came before the world in an attitude of profound apology.
On the last night of Winter Soldier, several carloads of veterans drove
across the border to Windsor, Canada, to meet with a delegation of Vietnamese
students in exile, who had been denied visas by the Canadian government to come
to Detroit for the hearings.
American veterans signed their own symbolic "people's peace treaty"
with the Vietnamese. As Jan Barry
recalls, the gesture was intended as a means of embracing the people they had
harmed, of asking forgiveness for those they had killed.
Despite the leftist orientation of many of its sponsors, Winter Soldier did not come off as an attack on the United States. What the veterans insisted over and over was that America knew better than to do the things it was doing in Vietnam. They pointed out that
"Nicosia spins a riveting story?he clearly empathizes with VVAW leaders such as Jan Barry, Larry Rottmann, Scott Camil, Al Hubbard and Ron Kovic (of Born on the Fourth of July fame) all of whom are vividly and compellingly portrayed. It's difficult to envision anyone even remotely concerned with the subject reading this deeply informed account without having an opinion about it--the mark of an important book."-- Publishers Weekly (starred review)
search-and-destroy missions, free-fire zones, the relocation of
people into strategic hamlets (which were enclosed by barbed-wire, and hardly
more congenial than a concentration camp), defoliation of agricultural land, and
B-52 pattern-bombing raids against undefended villages and populated areas
(which refused to distinguish between combatants and civilians) were all in
violation of codes and treaties which the United States had previously signed or
accepted: the Rules of Land Warfare, the Geneva Conventions and Accords, and the
In effect, the veterans were asking America to listen to its own much-touted morality, and to begin to practice what it had spent two centuries preaching. At the same time, though, the veterans were careful to point out that the war crimes the United States was committing in Vietnam did not stem from the misconduct of individual soldiers---which the government had tried to establish by scapegoating Calley and a handful of his fellow officers---but resulted rather "from conscious military policies... designed by the military brass, National Security Council, and major universities and corporate institutions, and
"Home to War is an extraordinary achievement of research and writing. Its eloquence and power will serve the cause of justice for veterans, but also give to all Americans a sobering lesson about war, peace, and broken promises. I hope it will be widely read.""Howard Zinn, author, A People's History of the United States
passed down through the chain of command for conversion into Standard
Operational Procedures (SOPs) in the field."
Soldier Investigation had more than a few echoes of what had taken place at
Nuremberg a quarter century before, when Nazi officers and administrators were
held to account and for which they sometimes were asked to pay with their lives,
for war crimes committed by their nation---National Socialist Germany. Not the
least of these echoes was the shock engendered in good men upon learning how far
other good men would go in violation of their own conscience when called to
serve their country. John Kerry was
one of these good men, who found himself extremely uncomfortable at Winter
"There was a lot of stuff that I hadn't heard [at Winter Soldier]," he recalls. "There was a lot of rough stuff out there, and it blew some of my images. I mean, it shattered some of my conceptions. It educated me to a degree about certain aspects of the thing, and it was hard to understand what was believable and what wasn't. Was it all real? Or wasn't it? It was shattering stuff, it really was, to sit there and listen to these guys talk about things that they personally said they did. And there were enough bona fides in many of
Nicosia has written a powerful, encyclopedic book that it's all-important for
everybody to read--a historic account, not just of the peace movement, but
specifically of the Vietnam veterans who were killed and did kill, and came back
ill in more ways than one, but nonetheless sane in
people---you saw their DD-214's, you knew where they'd served, you could talk to
them and see the anguish---you could cut through what was bull and what wasn't.
And it was a very, very heavy, difficult kind of thing to listen to.
And it was painful."
the veterans were always quick to point out the humanity of so-called war
criminals, and to suggest that Americans needed to learn a new way of thinking
more than they needed to be put on trial. Bill
Crandell stated that it was unfair to blame atrocities on individual soldiers.
spent our whole lives being trained to obey orders," Crandell explained.
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