A Personal History
During the month of April 1969 I witnessed traumatic, horrible scenes of small rice and fishing settlements in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta within minutes after they were decimated by 500-pound shrapnel and napalm bombs. In one instance I was standing on the edge of a small community not far from the Bassac River in Vinh Long Province looking over the bloodied and blackened strewn corpses of well over 100 villagers, the vast majority of whom appeared to be young females and children. I was in shock. I threw up, then wept. All of a sudden I saw these people lying all around me, now maimed and murdered, as part of my human family, but they were lying in their village, not mine, which was located 10,000 miles further east in an equally small farming community in upstate New York. The overwhelming awareness that I felt viscerally in my body that day–in effect an epiphany that radically changed my life–provided me with a perspective that essentially remains intact to this day. I was not seeking an epiphany, as I was relatively content with my typical "American" worldview. But once I saw the interconnected weave of life, I could not seem to rid that revelation from my mind and heart. I sensed without knowing exactly why that this experience was likely to become a big obstacle to my life plans to become what I hoped would be as a successful criminal lawyer. My eyes were seeing the world dramatically different from anything I had ever before experienced.
For years I felt ashamed that I had been so ignorant, so dumbed-down as it were. My ignorance virtually pre-empted any capacity to independently critique reality, ask logical questions, or to assess the lawfulness or unlawfulness of an order. I made a commitment that I would make every effort to never be so "dumb" again, that I would study and become aware of what my government was really saying, and really doing, both at home and around the world.
Almost two years to the week following this traumatic and life-changing experience, I found myself among the thousand or so Vietnam veterans participating in "Dewey Canyon III," described as "a limited incursion into the country of Congress" in Washington, DC, organized by Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) during the week of April 18-23, 1971. [NOTE: Dewey Canyon I was the code name for the first invasion of Laos that occurred in late January/early February 1969; Dewey Canyon II was the code name for the February 1971 invasion of Laos.] That week remains one of the highlights of my life, despite my shy participation in what was truly an extraordinarily historic, nearly revolutionary anti-war action. I met many other vets who were utilizing their own experiential capacity to assess the morality and legality of their war behavior and that of our entire government. Hooray for liberation and empowerment! My initial thoughts out of Vietnam to become aware and empowered were being validated in a manner and place I could never have dreamed of. I was absolutely ecstatic to be hanging out with a thousand other Vietnam veterans, mostly ex-grunts, who were vigorously expressing in a variety of ways their revulsion for the war that they, like I, had recently fought in. But, I thought, these guys were the real vets. I had been somewhat protected as an Air Force first lieutenant who, as head of a 40-man combat security unit, only witnessed horror, but did not have to go in the bush looking to kill while always anticipating death. The danger I was exposed to was limited to the numerous mortar and recoilless rifle rounds that were regularly lobbed onto our small airbase housing some of the small fighter-bombers that the Vietnamese villagers knew were targeting their communities. I had the luck of avoiding being struck. Men in my unit suffered only minor injuries, none directly from shrapnel. The only injury I sustained was damaged elbows from diving onto bunker floors during attacks.
Living, working, and completing law school in Washington, DC during April 1971, I didn’t have to travel as far as most of the other veterans did in order to participate in this series of activities. I simply changed clothes from a suit into my military fatigues and walked the four blocks from my day-time office to the quadrangle on the mall where the veterans were encamped a short distance from the U.S. Capitol.
On Monday, the U.S. Department of Justice had enjoyed a short-term injunction barring veterans from camping on the DC mall which was surprisingly quickly lifted by the Washington District Court of Appeals. The Justice Department quickly appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Meanwhile the veterans were very much encamped, not inclined to leave. On Tuesday afternoon, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Warren Burger reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals, likely the speediest process of an appeal to the Supreme Court on record. The injunction was once again in effect and the veterans were ordered to break camp by 4:30 on Wednesday afternoon, April 21. No one had left camp by 4:30. The mood was tense. Numerous U.S. Park Police with their paddy wagons were visible on the mall. The U.S. Supreme Court was at that moment meeting in a special session, with former Attorney General Ramsey Clark representing VVAW.
Early in the evening Clark met with the assembled veterans to announce that the Supreme Court had offered an option: stay on the mall without sleeping and be free from arrests; or sleep on the mall and be arrested. I sensed some dissonance among some of the organizers but I was not privy to their dynamics. For a number of hours, as the evening moved into darkness, veterans met in their state caucuses, mixing with each other to discuss the pros and cons of complying or defying what was touted as the highest law of the land. U.S. Park Police officials had indicated no arrests would be made until Thursday morning if the vets decided to sleep that night. Some were in favor of breaking camp, or alternatively, remaining but sitting up all night so as not to sleep. There were clearly many vets who wanted to defy the Supreme Court. The debate lingered into the night. Finally a decision was made to have a direct democratic vote. The majority chose to sleep which quickly morphed into a consensus that all would sleep. The tension among the vets intensified because it was expected that at daybreak the Park Police would begin arresting and transporting them via paddy wagons to jail and court.
However, no arrests were made. Vets were still encamped, many sleeping when not involved in lobbying or political guerrilla action in the city. But something astounding occurred on Thursday afternoon. Seeing that the court order was not to be enforced, a District Court judge angrily dissolved the injunction and admonished the Justice Department for requesting the injunction, then not bothering to enforce it. It is believed that President Nixon could not afford the nation to witness this scene of decorated veterans saying no to the war being thrown into police paddy wagons. You might say that it was a moment when the moral authority of a group of returned scruffy war vets preempted the highest law of the land. It was one of those lifetime unforgettable moments when we tasted the incredible empowerment of truthforce.
This was the incredible scene in which I met tall, ex-U.S. Naval officer, John F. Kerry, who had served, like myself, in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. Being one of the organizers, Kerry was regularly visible, and I was so impressed with his eloquent words against the war that I managed to initiate several short conversations with him. I do not know whether he would remember me from those conversations since I was not one of the organizers or state caucus spokespersons.
On Thursday, the same day the District Court judge angrily dissolved the injunction, John Kerry was asked to deliver a speech before Senator William Fulbright’s Foreign Relations Committee. I will never forget his incredible anti-war
speech that day, a speech that made him an immediate celebrity, and thus, as it turned out, a threatening figure to the Nixon administration and its continued fraudulent war policies.
The concluding words of that powerful speech:
"Our determination [is] to undertake one last mission, to reach out and destroy the last vestige of this barbaric war…and so when in 30 years from now our brothers go down the street without a leg, without an arm, or a face, and small boys ask why, we will be able to say ‘Vietnam’ and not mean a desert, not a filthy obscene memory, but mean instead the place where America finally turned and where soldiers like us helped in the turning."
I never forgot those eloquent words, nor the man, the Vietnam veteran, who so proudly proclaimed them. I stood near the hearing room doorway listening with tears rolling down my cheeks.
On Friday, the VVAW organizing committee created another powerful event, this one with some apparent reluctance from Kerry. There was to be an emotional, war-medal-returning ceremony at the west steps of the Capitol. Many hundreds of vets returned medals and/or ribbons accompanied by eloquent words directed symbolically to Senators and Representatives. A sample of articulations that included compassion as well as rage, typically included words such as "Take these medals drenched in the blood of the innocent, medals of dishonor and…!" Kerry returned what appeared to be his medals. I did not possess any medals to throw away, but I watched the ceremony, often welling up with tears as visceral feelings in my body expressed tremendous joy and relief/release, knowing that I was personally experiencing an extraordinary moment of validation and healing. I don’t know that I have ever felt a moment so empowering as that one.
Eleven or twelve years later, in late 1982, Kerry and I met again. This time he had just been elected Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts, while as a small business owner, I was involved in veterans’ issues from my rural base in Greenfield, Massachusetts. Subsequently I left my business to become director of the Western Massachusetts Agent Orange office, which quickly morphed into being one of the busy state-funded storefront veteran outreach centers. I was selected as a member of the state’s Vietnam Veteran’s Advisory Committee which Kerry and the commissioner of veterans services chaired together. We met often, discussing how to address the increasing numbers of chronic problems experienced by Vietnam veterans–a syndrome of physical ailments and mutagenic problems with offspring, seemingly related to exposure to various chemicals (Agent Orange, Agent White, Agent Blue, among others) used in the war, and a syndrome of behavioral dis-eases that were becoming known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), frequently manifesting in alcoholism, drug abuse, insomnia, hyper-alertness, nightmares, daily intrusive thoughts, and homelessness.
In 1984, Kerry decided to run for a U.S. Senate seat from Massachusetts when Democratic Senator Paul Tsongas unexpectedly announced his resignation due to a terminal illness. After winning a hard-fought Democratic primary, Kerry faced off with a wealthy Republican opponent with plenty of supporters, including General George Patton III, who accused him of being a virtual traitor for his VVAW anti-war activities, and "giving aid and comfort to the enemy." I was one of about a dozen Vietnam veterans volunteering on Kerry’s campaign, nicknamed by the press as "Kerry’s Commandos," by Kerry as his "Doghunters." Patton and others were especially furious for Kerry having thrown his medals in 1971, considered as virtually a treasonous act. Kerry’s response was very disturbing to me: He had not really thrown his own medals, he said, but instead those of a World War II veteran. I was shocked, thinking that surely he knew this bordered on being a serious deception, especially since the act of medal throwing was so personally meaningful for each vet, having required great courage, and likely remembered as an extraordinarily memorable emotional and political life moment.
After Kerry’s hard fought victories in both the primary and general election, success largely attributed to us "doghunters," Kerry asked me and others to serve on his new Veteran’s Advisory Committee. At a subsequent victory party in Boston, after Kerry had been in Washington for a few months, he reiterated that his initials "JFK" would someday carry him to the White House. He also explained that because of his new, "secret" briefings from the Department of "Defense" and CIA, that he had a new appreciation for the need for covert actions and the funding and arming of "contra" revolutionaries. I was kind of shocked, and began to feel betrayal. Washington groupthink was rapidly setting in, certainly not unusual for the 535 elected politicians there, but naively I had thought that a proven anti-war Vietnam veteran in the U.S. Senate would somehow be different.
I started to develop a more distressing assessment of John as I put together bits and pieces of Kerry’s background. In his 1966 senior year at Yale he was one of the few elite selected for membership in the infamous secret "Skull and Bones" club (as George Bush II would be two years later in 1968). He gave an anti-war commencement address as he was preparing entrance into the Navy as an officer on his way to the war. The video footage of his actions in Vietnam were taken with a camera of his own acquisition. Maybe this is not uncommon, but I never met any other officers in Vietnam who earnestly carried a video camera around to document their own actions. I am not denigrating Kerry’s courage and risk-taking in Vietnam as I have no way for vouchsafing for that. Swift Boat commanders were like sitting ducks as they meandered through the narrow waterways in the Mekong Delta whose banks were laden with thick vegetation. But it seemed strange that he was consciously videotaping himself, an activity that would certainly distract from the super vigilance demanded. Later, hearing him tout his initials "JFK," learning that he had not thrown his own medals, and his new groupthink that U.S.-created "contra" activities (in effect, "terrorists") were important for U.S. "security" interests, I really became disillusioned with Kerry.
Kerry was typically antagonistic to the popular Sandinista government in revolutionary Nicaragua in the 1980s. Although he generally opposed aid to the terrorist Contra forces created by Reagan to militarily overthrow Nicaragua’s sovereign government, he did vote for "humanitarian" aid to the Contras in 1988. As with most other Democrats in Congress, Kerry supported the economic blockade that was designed to strangle that impoverished country. And like virtually all of his peers he voted for the largest CIA contra operation ever–in Afghanistan. We know what that led to–the Taliban, the Mujahedeen, and Osama Bin Laden.
God, Kerry was so eloquent in 1971, having learned so well about the lies of the fraudulent 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident that provided the phony pretext for 11 years of brutal, illegal war. What happened to his personal, experientially learned wisdom? What happened to John Kerry? Or was John Kerry all along covering all his bases, assuring he would have the proper political standing to fulfill his aspiration for an ultimate White House run? Perhaps Kerry’s presidential aspiration could be called an obsession?!
By 1986-87, my own politics were moving further and further outside the claustrophobic "American" box, and by 1988 I departed Washington, DC and Kerry’s advisory committee altogether. Although I have followed a bit of Kerry’s political career, especially his Senatorial hearings that uncovered revelations about connections between the CIA, drug running, and funding Contras, I have generally merely noted that he has a reputation for being libera
l on environmental and some social issues but seems very hawkish on foreign policy matters. His support for Clinton’s draconian welfare reform program was depressing, as was his support of Clinton’s Counterterrorism and Death Penalty Act of 1966, a precursor to the 2001 Patriot Act, the latter of which Kerry also supported.
Kerry’s October 11, 2002 clearly unconstitutional vote to grant nearly unlimited, virtual generic war-making authority to George W. Bush was for me just too grotesque. It meant that John F. Kerry had clearly, tragically placed his obsessive quest for the White House above his oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution and international law, and ignore the lessons he had learned about corrupt dishonest governments using phony pretexts to rationalize murdering countless people in foreign lands while placing our own soldiers in harm’s way.