Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Day after Holidays

Spring near Ground Zero, NYC (photo: Jan Barry)

Holidays, like anniversaries of certain dates, can be hard on survivors. So can the day after. Not to mention, subsequent days. Memorial Day, celebrated with solemn ceremonies and happy festivities yesterday, is not just a springtime holiday for war veterans. Buddies who died didn’t all expire on the last Monday in May. But our culture has decreed that all those depth charge explosions of grief from wartime losses be expressed on the designated day.

But grief is unruly. It has its own timeline. Sometimes, the hardest time is the day after the official social rituals.

War Holiday

The day after Memorial Day 2014
A Marine vet I know
Tried to kill himself—
This is what he said
To a group of fellow vets:
“The day after Memorial Day,
I tried to kill myself—
Woke up in the hospital
Being resuscitated…
I’ve had 17 friends commit suicide—
I’ve lost more friends to suicide
Than in combat…”

Where’s the wall
With those names on it?
Didn’t they get the memo:
Happy Memorial Day

--Jan Barry


Sunday, May 3, 2015

Fading from History: Vietnam Peace Campaign

Rep. Barbara Lee speaking to peace marchers   (photo: Jan Barry)

“It was the power of your protests that ended the Vietnam War!” Congresswoman Barbara Lee shouted out to a history-making group of graying peace activists who marched past the south lawn of the White House and trooped across the Mall to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC on Saturday.

But her enthusiastic shout out was undercut by the indifference and bewilderment of swarms of tourists who stared at the spectacle of Washington police politely shepherding through the streets a motley crew of largely geriatric hippies, many of them unfashionably outfitted in faded denim, protest tee-shirts and 60’s peace signs.

As we marched along routes that were once lined by hostile riot-control cops whenever the peace movement came to town, I recalled so many previous attempts to convey a message of patriotic dissent—to president after president—against our government destroying a distant small nation and our own troops in a coldly blind fury, and viciously directed at home against anyone daring to seek discussion of peaceful alternatives.

Vets for Peace march in Washington, DC 1967

Few of those hundreds of thousands of peace marchers—many of them military veterans of World War II, Korea, Vietnam, plus civilians of every sort, preachers, teachers, students, parents, businessmen, housewives, families with young children, joined by members of Congress—who courageously challenged the government’s war policies in those previous times were there Saturday. This peace march was more like a civil war battle reenactment half a century later by a few hardy survivors.     

In many ways, it was a last hurrah for age-challenged peace activists commemorating the 40th anniversary of the end of the US war in Vietnam in 1975 and the 50th anniversary of the first major peace march against Washington’s escalating war in Vietnam in the spring of 1965. In the front row of Saturday’s memory laden event was 84-year-old Daniel Ellsberg, the former Pentagon official who spirited a secret, internal, damning account of the military campaign to the news media, and several fellow octogenarians.

“The curtain is going down on our generation of activists,” former SDS sparkplug Tom Hayden, age 75, told a gathering of several hundred fellow 60’s peaceniks earlier in the day at a conference at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, titled “Vietnam: The Power of Protest.”  

“Like the Vietnam veterans,” he continued, “we are dying every day.” It was an apt comment to a crowd that included a dwindling number of surviving members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Veterans for Peace in Vietnam and other groups of dissenting soldiers from back in the day of a raging war that sucked young men right out of high school and college classes and into combat in Vietnam.

Addressing the reunion of Social Security pensioners who were once young, hearty peace campaigners challenging the military might of the United States government, Hayden aired another sobering observation:

“There’s an effort to punish us in retrospect by eliminating us from history,” he said. A major sign of this attempt to rewrite history is President Obama’s 2012 proclamation that the US role in the Vietnam War is to be celebrated by the nation for 13 years. The official website for this war celebration, created at the Pentagon, left out the peace movement. 

Another sign is that no one representing the Nobel Peace Prize-winning president attended the Vietnam peace movement commemoration to congratulate these compatriots of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his Nobel Peace Prize-winning stance in the 1960s. Not even Secretary of State John Kerry, once a leader of Vietnam Vets Against the War, appeared to deliver greetings from the administration, so busily conducting secret negotiations tangled in endless wars in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere.

And so the little band of peace activist elders was greeted by Julian Bond, long retired from government, who was elected to Congress as a civil rights leader and Vietnam peace activist long before Obama sought public office and sought to fashion an historical mantle as a peace-seeking candidate for president.

“It is fitting that we should have come to this place,” Bond told the peace march participants gathered at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. “Dr. King believed that civil rights and peace were inexorably linked.”

The burial of this vital part of American history was abetted by the mainstream news media, which provided no coverage of the Vietnam peace campaign commemorative gathering. Imagine if Obama and the news media had ignored the 50th anniversary commemoration of the 1963 civil rights march on Washington at which King gave a rousing speech, now lost to history.

And so actor Danny Glover read a passage from King’s peace in Vietnam speech, a portion about how the war was destroying the fabric of American life for so many people. Danny Glover’s voice was nearly drowned out by a Marine helicopter buzzing overhead, as it circled yet again to do a series of practice takeoffs and landings on the White House lawn.

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.