Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Vietnam War Commemoration

In a case of historical overkill, the United States Government is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War—not just this month, but for 13 years.

Fifty years ago, in March 1965, the big news across America was that the Marines had landed in Vietnam. For many in the news media, the landing of two Marine battalions at Da Nang was the beginning of the US war in Vietnam. A better way to put it is that in 1965 Uncle Sam’s secret war in Southeast Asia emerged out of the shadows.

In an attempt to provide some historical perspective, the Obama Administration began commemorating the 50th anniversary of the war in Vietnam on Memorial Day 2012. This means that the Pentagon’s official history now says that the war started in 1962.

Having arrived in Vietnam in December 1962 to report to an Army aviation unit that flew Special Forces teams on secret missions, I’m curious to know exactly when the war started. In any case, by the time I arrived, the US government had implemented a memo circulated at the Pentagon in January 1962 that proposed developing a “suitable cover story” for our escalating military operations in Vietnam, in the words of Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric.

That cover story, maintained for years, was that US military units were not engaged in combat but were “advisors” to the South Vietnamese military.

These official twists of semantics are still being used in Iraq and Afghanistan as cover stories for secretive combat missions by US forces. Indeed, much of what the US government did after getting militarily involved in Southeast Asia in the 1940s is still taking place as secretive, official policies.

Despite the fancy proclamation signed by President Obama in 2012, the cover up of the falsehoods of the Vietnam War and disastrous aftermath continues.

Obama’s proclamation of the Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War states that “In recognition of a chapter in our Nation’s history that must never be forgotten, let us renew our sacred commitment to those who answered our country’s call in Vietnam…” by staging “a 13-year program to honor and give thanks to a generation of proud Americans who saw our country through one of the most challenging missions we have ever faced.”

How cruel these words must sound to the ghosts of tens of thousands of Vietnam veterans who died of suicide, drug overdoses, cancer and other illnesses likely caused by exposure to Agent Orange and other toxic chemicals used in the war; who ended up homeless, imprisoned, beset by post-traumatic stress disorder and other disorienting illnesses that for decades the United States government denied acknowledgement of or treatment for.

For a great many Vietnam veterans, their treatment at home by government agencies was worse than what they endured in the war zones. But that is not what the Obama Administration is calling attention to in this 13-year-long public relations campaign to tidy up the horrendous history of the Vietnam War.

Across the country, veterans (military and civilian) of the Vietnam peace movement are organizing teach-ins and other educational actions to challenge the Pentagon’s multi-million dollar propaganda campaign, which Obama inexplicably endorsed. Apparently, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate president never read what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said about the disasters of the Vietnam War being visited upon Americans at home.

“The time has come for America to hear the truth about this tragic war,” King said in a widely quoted sermon in April 1967. “Perhaps the more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hope of the poor at home. It was sending their sons, and their brothers, and their husbands to fight and die in extraordinarily high proportion relative to the rest of the population.

“We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem,” King continued. “So we have been repeatedly faced with a cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same school room.”

Perhaps by the time this Vietnam War-camouflage campaign winds up in 2025, the next president or two will have learned something about how to truly honor real work for peace and justice in Vietnam, at home and around the world. 

For more information:

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Bookends: The War at Home

Citing a new book about the Iraq War by a harshly critical war veteran, President Obama says Americans need to think more clearly about the costs of sending troops into our Middle Eastern wars.

“Over vacation, I read a book of short stories by Phil Klay called Redeployment," Obama said Sunday on CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS program. “And it's a quick but powerful and for me painful set of stories about the experience of ordinary soldiers in Iraq. And I think it's a reminder, particularly important for a commander in chief, that the antiseptic plans and decisions and strategies and the opining of pundits that take place in Washington, you know, is very different from war and conflict as it's experienced by people on the ground.

“And part of the reason that I am deliberate about decision making when it comes to foreign policy, and part of the reason that I do think it's important to aim before you shoot is because I've met enough young men in Walter Reed [Military Medical Center] and talked to enough families who have lost loved ones to remember that there are costs to the decisions we make,” Obama continued. “Sometimes we have to make them, but they are real and they are serious. ... If we're going to deploy folks to war, it better be for a darn good reason. We better have a very clear objective that is worthy of the sacrifices that these folks make.”

As noted in a Politico commentary on Obama’s comments: “The president’s praise for the book comes months after he ordered several hundred American ‘advisers’ back to Iraq, although not in a combat role — and months into a public debate over how to best fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.”

Phil Klay’s book was previously lauded by jaundiced war correspondents and literary critics. “’Redeployment’ is military for ‘return,’ and Klay’s fiction peels back every pretty falsehood and self-delusion in the encounter between veterans and the people for whom they supposedly fought,” George Packer wrote in The New Yorker.

A few days before Obama’s shout out, the author drew a standing-room-only crowd for a discussion about his book, which won a 2014 National Book Award, with students and faculty at Ramapo College of New Jersey.

Klay said he wrote this work to explore dilemmas that 12 characters in the short stories faced during deployment in the war and after coming home. “The beauty of fiction,” he said, “is that you can bring someone into the head of someone else as they try to choose what to do.” 

He credited readers of his early drafts—at NYU’s Veterans Writing Workshop and at Hunter College’s MFA program—for prodding him to clearly state what he felt should be drawn from various experiences he was part of or learned from others.

In response to questions from the audience, Klay said he didn’t come home from Iraq traumatized but rather uncertain what he felt. “One of the problems coming back is you were part of this massive global thing that you didn’t yet know what you felt about it,” he said. “Writing the book helped me get a better perspective on it.” 

To illustrate his point about the complexity of the war for many veterans, he told a story about another vet speaking at an event, who said “he used to be proud of being a Marine in Iraq. Now he felt the war was an evil thing. So what did that make him?” Klay said. “That guy felt he had to bear the weight of an enormous thing.”

For more information:

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Big Game

"Throwing the Bomb"   Watercolor by Jan Barry

Super Bowl Sunday. 
A classic clash of football titans. 
The ultimate razzmatazz of pigskin pummeling. 
My wobbly right knee often sharply recalls playing this game 
decades ago in great delight despite incredible pain. 
A high school classmate at a reunion years ago 
enthusiastically remembered seemingly every move in every game. 
I’ve forgotten most of the details, but my body still feels the pads, 
the cleats, the helmet, the uniform, the hard smack of blocks and tackles, 
the exhilaration of running and maneuvering until smacked to the ground. 
And so it went on the crowd-roaring road to war. 
Choose sides. Cheer, cheer, jeer: 
Throw the bomb. Destroy the other team.  


Saturday, January 31, 2015

Selma: America’s War at Home

Library of CongressImages: civil rights marchers in Selma

The historic march for civil rights featured in the new film, “Selma,” was sparked by the death 50 years ago this February of a Vietnam veteran, Jimmie Lee Jackson, shot by an Alabama state trooper. As chilling scene after scene in the film shows, Alabama in 1965 was a dangerous place for a black-skinned war veteran to join a peaceful demonstration for the right to vote.

Jimmie Lee Jackson’s death in seeking to exercise the rights of democracy he fought for in Vietnam was the tip of cascading war casualties at home.

“A state trooper pointed the gun, but he did not act alone,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said at Jackson’s funeral. “He was murdered by the brutality of every sheriff who practices lawlessness in the name of law… He was murdered by the timidity of a federal government that can spend millions of dollars a day to keep troops in South Vietnam and cannot protect the rights of its own citizens seeking the right to vote…”

As noted by historians and featured on the King Center website, “Jackson’s death was eulogized by Dr. King and was the inspiration for the Selma to Montgomery March that occurred a few days later, leading to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”

“Selma” is a rare feature film that puts viewers into the harrowing setting of Americans demonstrating peacefully for a just cause and taking vicious beatings from police officers and fellow citizens who hate people challenging long-established traditions. 

While critics debate aspects of the film, the events it depicts were the real deal—an historic clash of cultures in which hard-eyed men with guns lost the battle to peaceable protesters willing to endure brutal violence and death for their cause.

Exhorting the crowd of angry black people infuriated by a state trooper shooting Jackson as he tried to shield his mother and grandfather from troopers chasing down and beating demonstrators, King said, “Jimmie Lee Jackson is speaking to us from the casket and he is saying to us that we must substitute courage for caution … We must not be bitter, and we must not harbor ideas of retaliation with violence.”

This is not typical Hollywood fare, in which the hero saves the day with guns blazing. 

For more information:

Friday, January 30, 2015

Rod McKuen, Love and War Poet

Rod McKuen, 1933-2015     (www.rodmckuen.com)

Rod McKuen was one of my go-to poets when I felt black and blue after serving in Vietnam. I stumbled across some of his early poetry collections in bookstores in New York and gravitated to the poems he wrote about love and loss and Army service in Korea.

There are some wounds I never
                        speak about.
Some things that words have done to me
that none will ever know…

McKuen wrote in a sequence of poems set during his tour in the Korean War, published in Listen to the Warm in 1967. Obituaries popping up in the wake of his death yesterday, at 81 in Beverly Hills, California, make little note that this prolific songwriter and poet was a war vet who battled depression by crafting a monumental collection of sweetly soaring and melancholy love songs.

I was as thrilled to discover his translated from the French lyrics for “If You Go Away”—famously sung by Frank Sinatra, among others—as I was to find his scarcely known war poems. I tried to emulate his lyrical songwriting style, with no success. What provided my poetry better grounding were his grunt-level takes on military affairs.

Who made those wars romantic in the first place?
Who led us down the line in patriotism’s name…

Who told us that as huddled masses yearning to break free
we’d have to kill a man for every foot of ground we gained?...

McKuen wrote in a poem in a sequence called “Did You Say the War Is Over?” published in In Someone’s Shadow in 1969. Even in death, this poet/songwriter mocked by critics for his often sunny lyrics has much to say about the darkness he struggled to rise from.

The first combat I saw was at Fort Ord,
down the coast from San Francisco.
During sixteen weeks of basic training
thirty-six men in my division were killed
                          or killed themselves…

Six weeks into basic,
long after the infiltration course
would take another nine men’s lives,
Corporal Garner, I think that was his name,
got up from bed while the barracks slept
                                          and hanged himself
from the rafter just above his bunk….

The shape of him that morning still circles
                                        in my mind. …

McKuen wrote in “It Was Always Winter in Korea,” published in The Power Bright and Shining in 1980. This poem is posted on McKuen’s website, A Safe Place to Land, dated November 11, 2014.


Saturday, January 17, 2015

The War at Home

It has become a cliché that “18 veterans a day”—and then “22 veterans a day”—die of suicide in America. These appalling figures of the VA’s estimated daily average of military veterans who kill themselves have been reported in the news media for years. Telling the story of one of those veterans, and how his family battled the US government to change how it treats returning soldiers, will hopefully shake up enough people to truly make a difference.
That’s the aim of the authors, editors and publisher of The Wounds Within: A Veteran, a PTSD Therapist, and a Nation Unprepared.  It focuses on Jeff Lucey’s death at home after serving with the Marines in the invasion of Iraq. This is a still startling tragedy, which has been widely told before in news accounts, his parents’ testimony to various government entities, and in previous books, notably The War Comes Home: Washington’s Battle Against America’s Veterans, published in 2009.

The new element in The Wounds Within are the insights of co-author Mark I. Nickerson, a private psychotherapist who was trying to help Lucey navigate the VA treatment maze when the 23-year-old Marine reservist hung himself in his parents’ basement. 

“Never before has a client of mine taken his or her own life while working with me,” writes Nickerson, whose faith in his professional training and skills was shaken. “In hindsight, I was learning about a higher level of risk that can exist for veterans in the aftermath of war.” He was assisted in writing this book by author Joshua S. Goldstein.
Nickerson stayed in close touch with the Lucey family and worked at learning and teaching others how to better assist military veterans beset by nightmares, grief, depression and other symptoms of a mysterious malady that government agencies bureaucratically labeled post-traumatic stress disorder.

Meanwhile, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continued to churn out, over the next decade, a generation of “lost” soldiers who killed themselves in greater numbers than died on the battlefields. Lawsuits by the Luceys and by veterans groups helped uncover a hidden crisis of VA mismanagement of treatment programs for veterans of all ages, with Vietnam veterans accounting for the vast majority of reported suicides.
The Wounds Within also tells the story of Kevin and Joyce Lucey’s campaign to change the system that they felt killed their son. I first heard them speak, in Boston in 2004, when they joined with Military Families Speak Out and Veterans For Peace in challenging the war policy that harmed so many of our own troops as well as terrified Iraqis. They challenged the VA health care system with numerous allied groups. They continued raising these concerns for the next decade, including a meeting with White House officials last summer. 

“After ten years, the reforms still don’t go far enough, but they are extensive,” Nickerson writes. “Quite possibly, if today’s systems had been in place when Jeff returned from Iraq, he would be alive.”
Among the treatments for PTSD that Nickerson feels the VA is getting right are stress management and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), which he specializes in. Yet he acknowledges that many veterans were turned off by how they were treated in seeking VA care.

“An important advancement in treatment over the last ten years is the realization that the old model of deferring trauma treatment until a person is clean and sober is misguided,” he notes. This is one of the VA policies in 2004 that added to Jeff Lucey’s despair that no one could or would help him, as he tried to self-medicate with booze.
Another program the VA is getting right are the Vet Centers, which provide stress management, anger management, and various other treatment programs to vets of all eras in community settings. This is a program, which Nickerson writes the Luceys were not aware of until too late, that deserves a book of its own.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Happy Holidays 2014

When light returns

From winter’s darkest night

Earth rejoices, as do we…

Happy holidays

And new year!

Jan & Paula