Home to War: A History of the Vietnam Veterans Movement
Gerald Nicosia interviewed some 600 men who took part in the Vietnam War and later became active in the antiwar movement. Nicosia tells the story of the antiwar years, and of antiwar veterans including the leaders of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW).
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This is the afternoon magazine and while el-Banna Good afternoon silastic when Gerald Nicosia is with us this afternoon he’s the author of Home to war. The book is a history of the Vietnam Veterans movement. It chronicles the battles on the home front from their role in the anti-war movement to the campaign for compensation for being exposed to Agent Orange. Nicosia conducted hundreds of interviews for this book it took 12 years to do the research. The Los Angeles Times named at one of its notable books last year home to war a history of the Vietnam Veterans movement is just out in paperback edition from three rivers press and Gerald
Nicosia is in Champaign-Urbana for a talk in a book signing this evening at pages for all ages bookstore. That’s set for 7 p.m. this evening. Gerald Nicosia is the author of nonfiction fiction and poetry. He’s the author of an award winning biography of Jack Kerouac titled memory babe a critical biography of Jack Kerouac. Listeners I invite you to join the discussion with your questions and comments in Champagne Urbana. The number is 3 3 3 9 4 5 5 That’s 3 3 3 W I L L. Anywhere else. Call toll free 800 2 2 2 9 4 5 5.
Also in addition to the pages event there is another event a little earlier today at 2:30 this afternoon. Our guest Gerald Nicosia will be at Barnes and Noble in champagne.
Gerry Nicosia thank you for joining us this afternoon.
It’s great to be here to meet you in person because we talked on the phone before.
That’s true we did when the book first came out in hardback. Have you kept in touch with the vets who got to know as a result of writing home to war.
Oh very much so. The vets became my friends and I mean not that they all Ron Kovic of course was my friend and that was through Ron Kovic born on the Fourth of July fame that I met many of the other vets.
But by interviewing them and you know getting to the depth of these personal stories and personal tragedies and finding that most of these people had such tremendous courage and such ability to overcome tremendous trauma tremendous loss tremendous pain. I couldn’t help but just sometimes felt like these people were heroes that I just wanted to love and take care of and you know became very deeply emotionally involved with them and very tragically I’d say at this point maybe 30 of the people that I’ve interviewed are dead already from a whole range of things. Agent Orange cancers and suicides and drug problems and stress of course leads to early
death too and so many vets suffer from post-traumatic stress. It’s been very painful because I’ve been been watching these people who became my friends now now dying and as you know from my book there’s some actual health studies going on that the Vietnam vets are dying much too young that there are too many of them are dying in their fifties now. But anyway yes. You know I keep in touch with them and some of them have sort of become mentors to me and and all of them are inspirations to me. How do we you know how do you deal with pain and go on in life. So the war continues to have quite an impact on the lives of vets Oh Vietnam veterans I think of all political stripes tell me that they think about the war all
the time even the ones that still believe that the war was a righteous cause and there are plenty of those vets around. But when I asked them you know do you still think about it every day. You know I still see one guy the guy probably mench you remember from the prologue Philip Joia who was a grew up at West Point you know son of a West Point instructor and a very much pro-military and he carries in his pocket the photos of his friends that died in Vietnam and he says whenever things get too tough I just pull out those photos and pull out my wallet and look at those photos so there’s no question I think that Vietnam will be with those veterans for the remainder of their life.
Do you think the impact of that war or the Vietnam War has been different than that of other wars and the people who fought them.
Not really I think that all wars have a tremendous impact. Mean the Civil War veterans were talking about the Civil War to the end of their lives. World War II veterans carry that around with them more as you know it’s an extreme human experience. It’s one of the most extreme if not the most extreme human experience because you have every range in war. You know you have the most brutal the worst brutality the simply cutting apart blowing up of human bodies in front of you you know rape pillage name you name all the worst human things you can think of at the other end of it you have camaraderie support selflessness people that sacrifice their lives for their friends. So you have this huge canvas of human emotion and human capability and
human virtue versus sin that stamps you know such and it’s Technicolor it’s it’s such a tremendously powerful imprint. You know compared to what we go through you know we have a little trouble today somebody cheated us on our bill in a restaurant or something. It’s nothing like what these guys experience are men and women now since we have women in combat you know and those months or whenever that they’re in combat these experiences are so intense that they can’t help but live with them for the rest of their lives.
The men that you got to know through the book home to war your friends who are Vietnam veterans. Have you talked with any of them about the conflicts the U.S. has been in since Vietnam Central America the Gulf War the Balkans the war on terrorism.
Yes I have.
And you know I mean I’ll preface it by saying that the sample might be a little skewed because I tend to know more peace vets and anti-war vets than I know pro-war vets and there are the pro-war vets out there. But I would say that the ones among the ones I know there’s there’s a very strong skepticism about whether any war is really worth fighting. During the Gulf War many vets were leading the protests against that many veterans I know now are saying you know we should have been going through the international courts this is crazy to just start dropping bombs. The reason being I think that of course in Vietnam they were told and we were all told I was just lecturing of course
here. Mark lefts course on political dissent.
You have I that you know we look back in hindsight and we say oh well the Vietnam War was a bad war it was a wrong war. But that’s not what we were told at the time.
At the time we were told the Vietnam War is essential as much as absolutely as much as we’re being told right now that the war on terrorism is essential in 1964 or 1965 we were all told as a nation if we don’t stop those communists in Vietnam all of Southeast Asia will fall to communism. Pretty soon the whole Pacific Rim will fall the communist etc. it’s going to come to the United States. There was no question that you had to fight in Vietnam and one vet that heard that then went and saw that you know now we look back and we say it was the unnecessary war although some other Michael Lynch that it was a necessary one but anyway most people I think say it was the unnecessary war. Then they’re very skeptical it’s like well didn’t we hear this
before. This is this you know remember World War II was going to be the it wasn’t World War One was going to be the War to End All Wars and you know every war you kind of hear this is the big one this is the one that’s going to clear evil out of the world whenever you get a president who starts to say this is the war is going to get rid of evil especially veterans their skepticism my skepticism goes up. I’m not a veteran.
You know I have your views on war. I’ve been shaped as a result of researching and writing home to war to the extent that that I have come to honor and respect veterans a lot more.
I mean I was a POW. I am a pacifist and I was anti-war during the Vietnam War days and I certainly never had any negative feelings toward veterans. Another interesting question in this class today was well you weren’t the Weren’t the peace people all spitting and spitting on vets and attacking vets. I said No not at all. Most of the I was in Chicago I knew LDS people I was in the anti-war movement in Chicago all of us had you know friendly feelings toward vets if not respect. It was at least you know there but for the grace of God go I could have been one of these people let’s help them. I didn’t know anybody that spit on that. But on the other hand I didn’t quite understand that there’s a real nobility to what these people are doing. You know the war can be wrong. The war
itself may be a mistake because politicians have made bad judgment but these are people that have made a decision that I’m going to risk my life for something my country asked me to do and you can’t take that lightly you really have to look and say somebody has made a very selfless decision. Even people who are drafted you know they can always run away if they were drafted but they went in and they did it. So in some ways I’m in kind of a curious position because people say well you’re a pacifist How come you’re hanging out with all these veterans and I just what I respect is the courage of what they have done and the way that they followed out their commitment to a point of being willing to risk lose their
own life for that for a certain commitment. So you know my whole point now is you have to honor and take care of your veterans. You have to try to stop war because I’m also believe in abolishing war and abolishing the possibility of a nuclear war which I don’t think anybody’s ever going to win. I think there’s a you know a suicidal mania going on again in the world unfortunately and let’s escalate the arms race. But at the same time you know you have to take care of the people that you’re asking to fight those wars.
So you can be a pacifist and a patriot at the same time.
Well I don’t even like to call myself a patriot because patriotism worries me. You know as Dr. Johnson who said patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels. Patriotism means you’re abdicating your moral responsibility. I’m at the Roe V and Thoreau said every man has to make his own moral judgments. But it’s more you know it’s more respect for human beings and the diversity of human beings because everybody doesn’t follow the same path everybody is not Gandhi. You know people have different paths in life and I believe that people can can do noble work by being a soldier. You know there’s a thousands of years of heritage of of warriors having noble roles in society but it’s unfortunately how those warriors sometimes get misused and
become pawns of the political process. That’s the problem.
You mentioned how today in a class that somebody brought up the subject of how vets were treated when they came home and we have heard the stories about vets being treated very badly when they returned home.
The men that you interviewed I would imagine had a range of experiences is that the case.
Well most of them had bad experiences even the even the pro-war so-called right wing vets I think would tell you they had bad experiences the world war II vets basically disowned the Vietnam vets which was one of the tragedies. You know they felt that not only the world war II vets but a lot of the country felt that the Vietnam vets were at fault themselves for the loss of the war that they were too weak. Many many Vietnam vets told me they were basically almost run. They were either run out of VFW halls. Veterans of Foreign Wars the world war II group or or they left voluntarily because these guys were the older guys would come up and say we won our war we were tough enough. What’s wrong with you guys you’re the weaklings that couldn’t win your war
and the whole nation to some respect had that attitude you’re a bunch of druggies. You know you guys couldn’t fight. And of course the left wing was not entirely sympathetic. There were certainly there’s a lot of mistaken this there wasn’t a lot of spitting on vets and there was often a lot of cooperation among peace groups and veterans at the same time some of the Left did blame the vets along with everybody else. The course a big part of my book is also the government itself just wrote these guys off part of it was that Nixon was a very vindictive president a very vindictive man and when the veterans came back to Washington threw their medals back said the war is no good. Nixon was furious. He couldn’t believe that his own
soldiers were contradicting him saying that his policy was wrong and Nixon then told his leaders owns the Congress and the V.A. slashed those guys benefits cut their benefits we’re not going to be giving those guys benefits they’re you know they’re speaking against my policy. And he set a precedent of G.I. bills that were just horrendously low with no psychiatric treatment no counseling no treatment for Agent Orange dioxin poisoning. And that precedent went on for years that it took veterans decades to reverse some of that to begin to get compensation for Agent Orange. So a big part of my book is not just the reception by the general public but it’s the government that
sent these people to war then turned its back on them that’s perhaps the worst disgrace.
One of the many moving stories included in the book is The Story of the anti-war demonstration at the Capitol in April of 1970 71 excuse me. Tell us what happened that week in Washington.
Well Vietnam Veterans Against the War was founded in 1967 by a small group of veterans and it was founded because a lot of Vietnam veterans who saw that the war was not doing any good.
They all went there. I tell people I think all the vets went there very idealistic. Even the ones that were drafted I think went there with the sense we were all so idealistic growing up in the 60s you know we had John F. Kennedy for president and we civil rights was finally breaking through with laws and the Civil Rights Act. We all felt like this country was really a great nation that was doing its best for humanity and these vets that went to Vietnam felt they were going to do good there and help people and that was why they were going there. Excuse me and they they got to Vietnam and they found that most of the people hated us that we were inflicting a lot of hurt on that land we weren’t really doing a great humanitarian mission there and they were very disillusioned by that.
They came home and they saw there was a peace movement a civilian peace movement saying the war is wrong but that movement wasn’t getting much credibility it was being discredited by the governments you know commie pinko OWS and weaklings the government was trying to say that you know if you’re against the war you’re just too weak to fight it. And the veterans felt well you know we need to speak out because we have the medals we can show we’ve been to war we had the courage if we say the war is wrong people will listen to us. And initially what they were trying to do was kind of like a college speaking bureau where they would you know veterans would go to a college campus and tell people what the war was really like but it wasn’t again having very much of an actual political impact and finally the vets got
together especially John Kerry who is the senator from Massachusetts now and said What we really need to do to have an impact is to go to Washington D.C. and Mohs you know a thousand 2000 of us march on the Capitol throw our medals back on the steps of the Capitol and then the nation and the government will pay attention and indeed it worked and it was called Operation Dewey Canyon three because the veterans knew about all the secret missions in those days. We weren’t supposed to be going into Cambodia and Laos we were and there were always these codenames operation Dewey Canyon one and Dewey Canyon two I think were code names for the Secret Invasion of Laos and so they said Ours will be Operation Dewey Canyon three and this will be a not so secret
invasion of Congress in Washington. And they went in there in April of 71 and the worldwide news media captured those images which will live forever now.
Veterans throwing their medals back at Congress and Kerry at that time he testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about Vietnam.
He made quite an impact as was John Kerry’s first public speech. And of course he’s a very dramatic characters six foot six and somebody said he looks like Lincoln but he speaks like a Kennedy. And there he was you know he’s very eloquent he was Yale educated he had a silver star which was impressive also which he had won in combat and testified about not only the wrongness of the war but one of the things he said it was a beautiful speech it was a 3000 word speech that just really kicked off his political career which we know may end up in the presidency now right. He’s talking about running for the presidency. But one of the things he said in there is that in war one of the worst crimes is
abandoning your wounded you know the military has a tradition that when we have wounded we’ve. Isn’t this what I haven’t seen the movie Blackhawk Down but it’s about to go in and get your wounded right. And it’s a crime in the military to abandon your wounded. And he said what have what have these leaders of ours like McNamara and Dean Rusk and Lyndon Johnson read off a whole list. What have they done but to abandon the young men that they sent to war. Is that not the highest crime. Of course he said it with his Yale accented eloquence and it really brought the house down.
Gerald Nicosia is our guest this afternoon here on the afternoon magazine. We’re talking with him about his book home to war a history of the Vietnam Veterans movement. Listeners you’re invited to join the conversation. You can join us with the telephone call in Champaign-Urbana the number 3 3 3 9 4 5 5 That’s 3 3 3. W I L L.
Anywhere else call toll free 800 2 2 2 9 4 5 5 800 1:58 w you l. Let me mention that. Gerald Nicosia will be at Barnes and Noble this afternoon at 2:30 p.m. for a talk and a book signing. And then this evening he will be at pages for all ages bookstore. That event set for 7 p.m. 3 3 3 9 4 5 5 toll free 800 to 2 2 9 4 5 5. I would like very much if you would read an excerpt from the book home to war about this very thing that we’ve been talking
about this week in Washington D.C. In April of 1971 it was at the end of the month and very very moving story in the book one of many moving stories in the book.
But here we have these young men and well I think in this excerpt that I’d like you to read I think we’ll get a real sense of how difficult this this active protest was for these men it wasn’t something that they that they took on lightly at all was it not at all the return of the medals was the most disciplined action of the entire week.
Whereas on other days at other demonstrations there had been wrangling over tactics and the splintering off of radical groups. The tone of this final action was utterly solemn and respectful. Some vets chose not to participate but those who did formed a long orderly line leading up to a table and microphone in front of the six foot high fence at the foot of the Capitol steps.
And I should interject the fence had been erected specifically by Congress because they were afraid of the Vietnam veterans coming to Congress as the process began something like 800 vets stood patiently awaiting their turn to give back their medals. Though some could not keep from sobbing loudly as they inched along skip down a little bit. As each veteran came forward Jack Smith a veteran checked his credentials. Smith who was the first to return his medals set the precedent by identifying himself and making a brief statement at the microphone. Smith declared the medals a symbol of dishonor shame and inhumanity and like
many who followed he offered their return as a kind of apology to the Vietnamese people whose hearts were broken not one by acts of quote genocide racism and atrocity unquote. Some men were crying so hard that when they got to the microphone they could not speak at all. In Smith’s view the tears were mostly for the internal anguish that people were feeling. From our point of view it wasn’t what the government did to us. It’s what we had done together the government and us as individuals. And we wanted to come to terms with that. Take our part of it and the government in the healing had to take its part of it to say here’s how we
screwed up and then we could heal. There were some people who wanted to translate that into let’s get the government or it’s all their fault. We wanted to rip the mask of hypocrisy off of what was going on and deal with it so that we could all get back as a country to the values that we had grown up on and that we felt we stood for many vets dedicated the return of their medals to fallen comrades. And for some like Ron freezy this act was also a ritual purge of guilt Ferizi prefaced his story by saying he had chosen to return his medals even though his wife planned to leave him if he went through with it. He then told how he had been on a recon mission when the
lead helicopter was down by anti-aircraft fire. His chopper had landed nearby and he had rushed into the burning craft futilely trying to save the men trapped inside an act of heroism that won him the Silver Star along with a Purple Heart and a handful of other medals before hurling them all at the bronze statue of Chief Justice John Marshall freezy named those who had died virtually in his arms. This is for specialist for Bob Smeal and for Sergeant Johns and for Lieutenant Panmure off who were killed on behalf of their country. Freezy then fell crying into the arms of
rusty Sacks who had just made a similar dedication. Freezy explained to a Washington Post reporter so many people are dead like they don’t exist anymore and now they give me a bleeping medal. That’s supposed to make everything ok again. Neither the metal or the act of throwing it away could bring those people back. But for freezy as for so many others that day the return of their medals was an act of making peace.
Or at least beginning to make peace with the terrible knowledge that they had survived at the cost of others lives far beyond any condemnation of their own or their governments conduct that simple act that simple motion of the arm whether in fierce anger or as some did it as if they were tossing a grenade or with a gentle care simply laying them down on the steps was a statement that they still cared enough about human life to speak up in its behalf and to sacrifice something they valued in order to honor its preciousness. I feel strange Ferizi told the Post reporter still reeling from the rapid barrage of conflicting emotions he had just
undergone. I feel fantastic. I feel like I’m clean that I’m completely cleansed. Still others pledged some future work of restitution to continue that cleansing. One vet expressed his hope that someday I can return to Vietnam and helped to build that country that we tore apart. Sometimes relatives would come up with or without medals to present the sister of a soldier missing in action MEAA accused President Nixon of taking her brother’s life. A 56 year old World War II vet Gail Olson to overcome to speak played a faltering taps on his bugle then explained that he wished to honor all who
had died in Vietnam including his son William. He tried to say something in behalf of the children of Vietnam but could not continue and ended by saying that he prayed for peace. He had put tears in the eyes of some of the fiercest looking vets two Gold Star mothers came up next. I am here to join all of these men said one of them at each one of them I see my son the publisher I.F. Stone began to weep.
Even the angriest vets were allowed to say whatever they were feeling and some scorch the air with their curses. One hurled away what he called his merit badges for murder. Another call them garbage. One vet called for death to the fascist pigs who held power in America and other disposing of the Purple Heart. He had one in Vietnam said I hope I get another one. Fighting these sleepers some of the reporters and television crew members along with a few of the spectators had gotten behind the fence and they found out just how angry the vets could get when they began to scavenge through the pile of decorations for souvenirs.
Several vets immediately scaled the fence and chased after those ghouls who had taken for trinkets things that had been consecrated to the dead according to Jack Smith the vets were ready to tear these reporters limb from limb. The souvenir hunters quickly returned their booty but as soon as the vets retreated new scavengers dove into the growing pile more chases ensued with the vets growing ever more frustrated that short of murder there was no way to keep the media and the public from trivializing their memorial by treating it like a common trash heap. Certainly many veterans and soldiers who witnessed the return of the medals did not understand and did not approve.
Some like career Army officer Philip Gioia who had two Silver Stars himself and was still serving. Felt very uncomfortable to watch people degrading the military especially those who had served honorably. But Larry Reitman another veteran contended that they were actually honoring the military by proving that soldiers are people of conscience. Moreover Jack Smith felt the return of their medals was the strongest warning they could give other young men not to follow in their footsteps. The medals meant so much to the guys Smith explains. They stood for things that they had risked their lives for. Throwing these things was like wrenching a part of yourself and giving it back. But you had to
make the statement because the country wasn’t willing to listen. Guys who were following after us were still dying in Vietnam.
Gerald Nicosia reading from his book home to war a history of the Vietnam Veterans movement. You know one of the things that will strike readers of home to war that the movement was made up of all kinds of people wasn’t it.
Yeah. Everybody from your you know your working class homeboys on the corner to Brahman’s like John Kerry with the Yale diplomas in their pocket. So and you had you know the again guys from the black ghetto future leaders of America. They of course they were all veterans and they were also in the veterans movement.
What do you think the major accomplishments of the movement were. What do you think the legacy of that movement is.
Well the legacy of the movement is enormous and it’s manifold many many different aspects of it. I mean I could go for hours on any particular one. I’m one of them is that we now have a definition of post-traumatic stress disorder which is a major major field of modern psychology which did not exist prior to Vietnam. As I talked about in my book during World War Two the first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual DSM of the American Psychiatric Association had a chapter on combat stress. It was written by the messengers the famous Kansas psychiatrists and indeed there was much combat stress experienced and diagnosed
out of World War II. But at the height of the Vietnam War 1968 for some mysterious reason never yet explained when a new DSM a new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual came out in 68. The whole chapter on combat stress was wiped from the books just erased. And so when you had all of these stressed out Vietnam vets coming into the V.A. hospital saying I have nightmares and flashbacks and I came sweating all night long and there was nothing in the books to diagnose them with and they began diagnosing themselves and sitting down in rap groups and telling each other about what they were experiencing they bring in noted psychiatrists like the Robert Jay Lifton who had done work with
the Hiroshima survivors and the Holocaust survivors and other people like Dr. Hyam Shaitaan and they would advise the guys they’d sit in on the rap groups. And gradually a picture of what they called post-Vietnam syndrome emerged and it was refined and refined and by 1980 was finally put into the new book The DSM 3 as post-traumatic stress disorder. And since 1980 I mean there must be a thousand books and 10000 dissertations and 50000 therapists out there practicing therapy on victims of traumatic stress and of course what we learned out of this is it’s not just victims of war that suffer from it. Victims of violent crime victims
of natural disasters if you’re in a fire or a flood and you see 300 dead bodies floating past you in the river you’re going to have those same kind of nightmares and inability to function. So this field of psychology is benefiting not just soldiers but then benefiting people of all sizes shapes and Stripes.
Another thing I think that is important to remember is the fight regarding exposure to Agent Orange and how we’ve seen that well kind of come around again in terms of the Gulf War Syndrome Well absolutely because and not only has it helped that but you know again there’s many many benefits.
It’s kind of weird to say benefits of so many people suffering. But for those of your audience who don’t know Agent Orange was a very powerful defoliant that was used in Vietnam used extensively to remove all of the foliage 12 million gallons of it were sprayed it was manufactured by some of the biggest chemical companies in this country Monsanto and down among others. And the theory being that if you’re fighting an enemy that’s hiding in the jungle you want to get rid of as many leaves as you can so you can see the guys that they’re shooting at you. Which was a good theory. The only problem was that the defoliant which the chemical companies knew was full of dioxin which is one of the most potent cancer causing and birth defect causing chemicals known to man. There’s even some
significant evidence that the government knew it as well. And so these veterans became home and they were falling sick. You know many were falling sick of prostate cancer in their mid-20s which is unheard of had been unheard of before and histories normally are and men in their 50s that get prostate cancer and all sorts of other strange diseases and gradually that the finger pointed at the dioxin that these men had been exposed to in the Agent Orange and the shameful story of course is that it took decades of lobbying the government by veterans to force the government to admit to all of this and to even begin to compare the compensation didn’t begin until the mid-1990s. But of the many things that came out of this.
First of all just in terms of everybody the veterans promoted a much more intense awareness of the poisonous chemicals that we are exposed to in daily life that the chemical industry just blithely produces because they’re profitable and most of the things they produce have waste products dioxin is actually a waste product that gets into. It’s not the defoliant itself it’s not the dioxin that takes the leaves off the plants it’s a waste product. But even at a very low level it still is a contaminant of that product. And the chemical industry has been notorious for that for years. They produce one chemical but you’re using it. But there’s a little salt little bit of something else in there that’s going to really get you. And so the work in
Agent Orange promoted our awareness of our environment I mean now there’s treaties to try to ban persistent organic pollutants which are I think 12 of them are way beyond dioxin and dioxin by the way still a danger for all of us. Many of the companies in this country that produce chemicals that are involved in chlorine production like the bleaching of paper have dioxin today is a byproduct still going into our ears still going into our water. Dioxin doesn’t take much of it to hurt you. They say it takes five molecules per trillion to possibly cause cancer. That’s a very small amount. And they say anybody living in a big American city like Chicago probably has five parts per trillion already in
their body they didn’t have to go to Vietnam for it just from the chemical chlorine industries. So you know we would have had none of this awareness without the work of Vietnam veterans. And again it’s they’ve made us aware that in modern warfare more and more because of the high tech weaponry like now we use depleted uranium ammunition which is very effective but leaves a certain amount of radiation on the battlefield. We’re becoming They made us the Vietnam veterans made us aware that more and more the injuries from warfare are going to be chemical injuries and indeed we now have 200000 sick Gulf War veterans who are saying hey we were exposed to toxins. They go through a whole range of sarin nerve gas and the agent
orange and I’m not the I’m sorry the depleted uranium and also the. Actually there was a similarity to the burning oil wells produced a chemical called PCBs which is chemically very similar to dioxin. So those guys in the Gulf War were exposed to more toxic chemicals than the Vietnam vets were. Right now they’re being stonewalled by the government and the government is saying you know sorry you guys weren’t really exposed to anything there that would have made you sick and I’ve met so many sick Gulf War. The other day I was in Chicago at the Vietnam museum giving a talk in the Gulf War vet came up to me and he could hardly walk and his wife was with him and he said you know she was saying I don’t remember his name but like you know Joe’s been sick for so many years
and these guys were getting nothing from the government what led you to write this book.
You mentioned earlier at the beginning of the interview that that you met Ron Kovic and the two of you became friends. But you know it takes more than that before. Probably I don’t know. But from meeting someone and being moved by their story to then spending 12 years and conducting hundreds of interviews you know that that’s two very different things.
What led you to finally to want to write this book well Vietnam was a wound for our whole generation I don’t think anybody could have grown up in the 60s and not been wounded by that war in some way it certainly was for me as an idealistic patriotic I was patriotic back in those days you know remember I recoiled from the word a few minutes ago but you know when I was when I was a teenager growing up in Berwyn Illinois I was very patriotic and I believed that I lived in the greatest nation on earth. All of us grew up with that and then I think we felt very much betrayed. Vietnam vets many of them have such anger it’s just tremendous intensity more than I have.
And so I had that and I had the wounding of somebody that wanted that. You know I didn’t know how to deal with all had to deal with that. Do we go to prison or do we go to Canada we go to the war and kill people we really don’t want to kill. I was going to go to Canada. I was going to exile myself. That was my choice. I didn’t think I’d survive in a prison. I wish I was in Chicago and anybody who knows about Chicagoans their roots go really deep and really for you know your community your neighborhood or your family. I had a talian Czech ethnic roots in Chicago. The idea of leaving that and living in Canada. Thousand miles away from everybody was terribly traumatic. I managed you know through through a few little
quirks of the law to not have to exile myself. But when the war was over for me the trauma ended to a large extent and not during during those days of the war I used to have literally literally nightmares about being in a strange place among strange people nobody I could talk to those kind of nightmares pretty much ended for me when the war ended. What I didn’t realize and what I realized when I met Bill Ehrhardt in 77 and then a few other veterans and then in a big way when I met Ron Kovic and his hundreds of veteran activist friends was that the war was still going on for these people.
And it really shocked me and shocked me in a way because I realized that I have been so ignorant that I hadn’t been paying attention to the fact that some that there were other people that were still living the war. Maybe I had some problems back then but I got over it. These guys were still homeless and jobless and in prison and having drug problems and broken marriages. And on and on and on they say 100000 have committed suicide since the end of the war and it was that kind of shock and also at the same time realizing what amazing human beings these people were seeing people that you know like Kovic that lost three fourths of their body seeing people that had overcome morphine addiction seeing people that had overcome the sights of their you know many of the medics had got to know a few
of the medics and they had they had some of the worst delays just because these these guys watched the guys die in their arms and they couldn’t do anything about it you know you’ve got somebody who’s dying and they say am I going to live doc and that you have to say yeah you’re going to live you don’t tell somebody going to die. And then the guy dies and then you have that huge guilt. I lied to him. I saw these people take all of that hurt and turn it around and and just want to spend the rest of their lives helping people you know. And I’ve noted that Vietnam vets I think go into lots of service professions they become counselors they become teachers they coached little league baseball teams they become nurses because they want to help in and make the hurt in the world a little bit better and you know I think it was a combination of that. Celeste it was a combination of my shock at my own
stupidity in not seeing that the war was still being causing suffering and at the same time admiration for people that could take that much hurt and turn it around. You know we have our little problems in our life. We see how we’re going to get through this how are we going to get through that. These people got through the worst that you could get through and turned it around and made something good out of it. That’s why I wanted to write about them.
What’s Kovach doing these days.
Ron is living in Redondo Beach. He hasn’t been to well like a lot of paraplegics it becomes very hard for them in their 50s. Their bodies you know they don’t their muscles keep atrophying because they’re not using their muscles. Ron was always using a hand wheelchair and he was very proud that he could push the wheelchair two miles up and down the beach. He called me recently said we’re going to think any less of me but I’m going to have to get an electric chair now. I said No Ron had not got any less of you and so I got to get a van because he used to be able to swing himself in and out of an actual car and use the hand controls and now he’s finally breaking down. You’re going to get a van. But you know he’s he’s very much against strongly against the current war on terrorism feels that you know we’re killing a lot of people when we should be using
diplomacy and international law. That war is war war is infliction of pain. And as Howard Zinn said in modern war the casualties more and more civilians are noncombatants.
You know when when I hear the name Ryan cover immediately born on the Fourth of July comes to mind. I know that you’ve taught courses on literature including Vietnam one or here at the University of Illinois at Chicago and UCLA.
What’s out there that you’d recommend.
God there’s so much can I can I recommend a book that is sort of about about all war. I just want to mention this guys from Illinois. So I should mention him right. He’s a young novelist named Dan Buchmann and he’s from Kankakee and he publishes with the smallest publisher in New York called a case checkbooks a K S H I see his first novel was actually handed to me by Larry Heinzman now since you want some recommendations we’ll start with Larry Heinonen of course Packo’s story Chicago novelist also a friend of mine won the National Book Award and of course Tim O’Brien. I would recommend
anything by Tim O’Brien but Larry handed me this book Larry was a combat Vietnam veteran also wrote close quarters another great book about the Vietnam War. Larry said you got to read this now. He’s a peacetime that Dan Buchmann 35 years old was in the Airborne in the 80s was sent to Central America just at the time when we were about to start a war in Nicaragua and then we backed off so he never actually got to fight he was ready to go. He wrote a novel about that experience called water and darkness that was his first novel about two years ago. Larry hired him and handed it to me said You won’t believe how well this young guy writes and I read the book and I said oh my god this guy writes as well as Hemingway and he’s just published a new
novel just out the door or maybe not even in the stores yet but I’m going to tell your readers about it it’s called the names of rivers. It’s about the Rust Belt Kankakee south of Chicago and it’s about these generations of young men that go into the military because there’s nothing else really where they can get as much dignity as in the military it’s about one. The father has been in World War II the grandfather was in World War II the father was a Vietnam vet. The young guy joins the Marines to get some sense of dignity because everything else is not there the jobs have gone. And it’s about the military and why young men go into the military it’s a tremendous book.
It sounds like me but I have a knowledge. You should absolutely OK. We’ve got a listener who wants to talk with us this afternoon.
Caller in Champaign County on line 1 good afternoon.
Hi. I’m very much your work putting all those years into talking all these people in the area described how painful it was for for many of the people and. Well anyway. But I I actually wanted you to talk a little bit more about what I remember and I don’t know where it corresponds to the the organizer of the metal throwing but are are delivering back to the government I guess the winter soldier’s testimony was that done in D.C. or on the same time I think that was maybe some months earlier and this was where people prepared testimony I think that is
where Kerry spoke to. But I’m not sure.
OK. Well it’s a little confusing because originally the Vietnam Veterans Against the War before they threw their medals back before they got that idea which actually was the most successful of all their their missions just thought that maybe what would be successful would be to have testimony about some of the atrocities in Vietnam the fact that civilians are killed. Prisoners are killed. Torture has been committed by American troops and things like My Lai the massacres and so they were going to have staged a big session of testimony where veterans would tell what they saw. Originally it was going to be in Washington D.C. at the nation’s capitol and then there was a lot of infighting within the
organization one side saying do this and one side doing that. Jane Fonda was providing the money for it and she got really mad at some of the people and she said well I want to go to Detroit because it’s more working class we have to reach the workers because she was kind of in her you know communist reached the workers phase. And so she took the money and she took a group of the veterans off to Detroit. But the first group of veterans did hold some hearings in Washington D.C. There actually were some Maybe you remember it was a very small affair was at the Dupont hotel. I didn’t get a lot of coverage at all and it wasn’t called Winter Soldier I don’t know what they call it national veterans testimony. I don’t know. But the big thing the bigger group of veterans followed Fonda because she had the money to stage it to
Detroit and that was called The Winter Soldier Investigation that was the end of January 1971 a little bit before the Dewey Canyon episode and that did get a certain amount of media coverage. But again most mostly the media blacked it out because it was just too powerful for people to take people didn’t want to hear stories of Marine sergeants cutting Vietnamese people up into pieces and so on. And some of the stuff is pretty grisly. There was actually a film made out of it called Winter Soldier and it’s never been shown on PBS it’s a 60 minute black and white film that sometimes shows up on college campuses but it’s so powerful it’s like people are afraid to listen to it.
Something more contemporary and you were asked about this earlier the idea that what are what are the Vietnam veterans doing about current conflicts. And I I know that there was a big schism in the G8 about Kosovo and I don’t know there’s not true. I mean I don’t know whether you studied that but it was a pretty important phenomenon I saw the irony of someone from VVA giving a testimony against people going into the military at the same time supporting the bombing of Kosovo was contemporaneous with the bombing so and I thought that did a lot more damage than it did
good myself and still do and well anyway I just wanted to say that it’s important to do that to know that people are still engaging on these issues and it’s it’s a shame that regular media doesn’t doesn’t cover anymore and I appreciate your effort in getting it out.
Thanks for the call this afternoon we’ve got to wrap it up pretty quickly here you want to make a last comment.
Well I wanted to say to the caller that you know Vietnam veterans are all over the board on everything and some of them are pacifist. Now some of them feel that all war is wrong and there’s a group called Veterans for Peace and some of them are not some of them do feel that that you know militarism is justified under certain circumstances so there’s no way of saying you know what any given Vietnam veteran will will believe about about anything there’s certainly as much diversity maybe more diversity there than anywhere else.
I want to thank our guests this afternoon Gerald Nicosia for talking with us this afternoon. His book home to war a history of the Vietnam Veterans movement is just out in a paperback edition from three rivers press.