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April 29, 1971, Vol. XVI, No. 17
The vets & Mayday
By Robin Reisig
WASHINGTON, D.C. — A man in dirty green was shouting at me in a language I didn’t understand. “Dung lai!” Someone said he was asking for my identification. I said I didn’t have any. So he shot me.
Secretaries ran screaming from soldiers saying “nice girl” as they thrust their guns into them. Men were shot because they were men. Soldiers “Overrule Supreme Court,” screamed the headline in the Washington Daily News. One army of police took another army of Americans prisoners, and these American prisoners-of-war shouted in Vietnamese, “Chu hoi! Chu hoi!” — I defect.
There was murder in the heart of the Empire last week, and blood on the steps of the Capitol. The guns were plastic, the bullets toys, the “blood” red goo, and the soldiers acting out “one last mission — to search out and destroy the last vestige of this barbaric war.” The Vietnam veterans, the maimed and bitter men our government sent to war, were bringing the bloody war home to Washington.
With an army of veterans camped out under the setting half moon of the Capitol last week, and with the peace movement committing itself next week to using for the first time the tactics of the civil rights movement — civil disobedience and non-violent direct action — this spring’s peace offensive is indeed different from all other spring peace offensives.
Even the mass spring rite of exorcism of guilt, the seventh (or is it the 17th?) annual spring peace parade, haroo, haroo, the one-day march on an empty Capitol building, struck a new note. There were the usual marchers chanting “Ho! Ho! Ho Chi Minh! The NLF is gonna win!” Only this time the men chanting were “Active Duty GIs.” There were the usual hardhat-looking types who in the past have heckled and hit demonstrators. Only this time, the burly, short-haired men in teamsters jackets were parade marshals, guarding the demonstrators.
As President Abraham Lincoln (and the April 24 march’s slogan) put it: “You may fool all the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all of the time; …but you can’t fool all of the people all the time.”
Or as a march button put it: “Enough.”
You can’t fool the vets. They’ve been there.
The war has gone on too long — long enough for them to come home and unmask the lies. They called their operation “Dewey Canyon III.” It was named after U.S. operations in “northern South Vietnam,” claimed the Washington Star last week. It was named after U.S. operations held “illegally in Laos” in 1969 and now, said the vets.
The Dewey Canyons involved several thousand men who penetrated several thousand meters into Laos, veterans testified before a Senate committee. Were you aware Congress had specifically forbidden this? Senator George McGovern quietly asked. There was no answer.
Other vets told me they had fought deep in Laos and Cambodia in small patrols during all the years when we said we had no ground troops there, and that they had signed statements swearing, under penalty of along prison terms, never to reveal what they had done.
Alan Swann, a former Special Forces Lieutenant, explained why he was in Washington: he had been part of long-range reconnaissance patrols operating in Laos and Cambodia in 1968-69, he said. “We were told by our commander that the President was briefed each morning about our operation.” Then Swann learned that President Nixon was at the same time publicly swearing we had no troops in Laos, “so either Nixon was lying or the military has gotten grossly out of handed — it has no control by the nation.” The duplicity made him distrust America; Richard Nixon had created a rebel.
Paul Withers, a former Special Forces platoon sergeant who said he worked with the CIA in Cambodia and Laos and 15 miles the other side of the “DMZ,” pointed to very faint brownish smears on his pants: “See this blood here — it’s from a little 12-year-old girl a guy shot to see if his gun worked.”
Withers walks with a limp. He had nine purple hearts, a silver star, a bronze star, and a distinguished service cross — symbols, the soldiers’ spokesman said, of “dishonor, shame, and inhumanity,” memories of a “Vietnamese people whose hearts were broken, not won.” He threw the lot at the gleaming Capitol building.
Quietly they marched, 800 or so men begging forgiveness for their “medals for murder,” which they heaped at the Capitol dome, over a wire fence marked “trash,” toward the lap of a statue of former Chief Justice John Marshall, a statue no more deaf, it seemed, than the living Supreme Court Justices – the Supreme Court where more than 100 wounded veterans had come to ask for a ruling on the legality of the war — and were arrested for “obstructing justice.”
The medals flew, the apologies were quietly, painfully said… “I’d like to say just one thing: to the people of Vietnam, God, I’m sorry.”…A man in a wheelchair hurls the medals: “They’re worthless.” …I’m sorry I became part of a hatred so bad I didn’t believe mankind was possible of it.” …A father plays taps for his dead son “for all our wonderful sons, no more, no more.” …”A silver star: bullshit. A bronze star: cram it up your ass.” …”I’m disgraced that I served in a war like this.”
Marines wept and mothers shed their dead sons’ medals, soldiers in tears apologized to the wives of Vietnamese soldiers they had killed…”Here’s my merit badges for murder”…”They’re blood“…”Lieutenant Palmer died so I got a medal, I got a silver star, a bronze star, and all the rest of this garbage. It doesn’t mean a thing.”
The White House reportedly said only 30 per cent of the men were vets. When the 1000 veterans produced their papers, when their wounds and words belied this, White House officials denied making the statement. But no one in the administration visited the encampment.
“We are here to ask, and to ask vehemently, where are the leaders of our country?” John Kerry, a former Navy lieutenant, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday. “We are here to ask: where is the leadership? McNamara, Rostow, Bundy, Gilpatric and so man others, where are they now that the men they sent to war are returned? These are commanders who have deserted their troops, and there is no more serious crime in the law of war. The army says they never leave their wounded. The Marines never leave even the dead. These men have left all the casualties and retreated behind a pious shield of public rectitude…and finally this administration has done us the ultimate dishonor. They have attempted to disown us and the sacrifices we made for this country. In their blindness and fear, they have tried to deny we are veterans, that we served in Nam. We do not need their testimony. Our own scars, and stumps for limbs, are witness enough for others and for ourselves.”
Only Senator Stuart Symington broke the silence. “Mr. Kerry,” he asked, “will you move your mike a little bit?”
“Which way, sir.”
“You have a silver star, have you not?
“You have a purple heart?”
“Yes, I do.”
“How many clusters on it?”
“You’ve been wounded three times?”
“I have no further questions.”
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 3, 2010