This is a re-post of a two part piece I posted a year ago. This is one of my favorite pieces I have published here, and I wanted to re-post it today, Veterans Day.
I was poking around the internet a little while ago, reading and exploring new sites, when I came across an essay written by Doug Rawlings entitled “Don’t Thank Me For My Service,” published on The Indypendent site on April 9th, 2015. I was moved by what he had to say in that essay, and as a co-founder of Veterans For Peace, I thought Mr. Rawlings might have some interesting things to say about encouraging more veterans to speak out against the wars. I thought he might have some interesting things to say about the increasing war mongering and corruption we are seeing in our government, and some ways we can put a stop to it. So I reached out to Mr. Rawlings, and I was right, he does have many interesting things to say. I am so grateful to Mr. Rawlings for taking the time to consider and answer my questions, and for allowing me to share them here.
SeekingRedress (SR): You were drafted into the Army and served in Vietnam. Since then, you co-founded Veterans For Peace (VFP), and I’m sure you have interacted with many veterans over the years. What encouraged you to speak out? What do you think is the most difficult thing about speaking out against our wars as someone who has served in them?
Doug Rawlings (DR): I should begin this process with a few disclaimers of sorts. First off, I have found that the task of crafting poems from my experiences has proven to be therapeutic for me. The key, though, is if a poem not only “works” for me but also works for the reader. And that’s the cutting edge where therapeutic scribblings become more than that, where they become a form of art, where they become poems. I tend to think of poetry as a valid means of communication on a regular basis, not merely some artifact to occupy a dusty corner of some bookshelf. I use poetry a lot. So to answer the question “what encouraged you to speak out,” let me offer this poem…
Bicentennial Poem: Autumn 1976
My daughter is two now
and can almost
speak in complete sentences
Why, if this were seven years ago
and she Vietnamese
She would almost
be old enough
to sell her mother
This captures for me some of the reasons why I chose to use my military experience as a tool, if you will, to educate all of us of the complexities of war. I “served” on a landing zone and a fire base in the central highlands of Vietnam with the 7/15th artillery, attached to the 173rd Airborne. Since the village of Bong Son was off limits, we were supposed to remain behind our concertina wire and sand bags unless we were setting out on convoys to other fire bases. Yet every day village children and mama sans would venture up to the wire to try and sell us stuff, or just out of curiosity. Although at the time, I was unmarried and not a father, something in me stirred when I looked at little kids who were scared of me and whose eyes seemed so sad. Then, when I had children of my own, a daughter and a son, I really became aware of the wonder and joy that we took away from those Vietnamese children years ago. So when I joined with four other veterans to form Veterans For Peace in 1985, I was really motivated by my concerns for children in Central America who were then suffering under the same abusive forces let loose when we engage in war. Here is what I wrote in 1985:
Fifteen years ago I survived that latest, crazy forgotten war of ours. And for a long time I was more or less satisfied with that. After all, survival was better than the other alternative I witnessed in Southeast Asia, that some of you witnessed on the six o’clock news, and that our children catch glimpses of in their distorted text books. But now I have children of my own. Beautiful, happy children. And I remember the faces of other so-called ‘survivors’: the five year old Vietnamese girls selling their mothers; the ten-year-old ‘dump boys’ who scrounged for our garbage by day and snaked through our barbed wire by night; and now the faces of Central American children surviving yet another onslaught of our mindless, blood-soaked technology. Survival may have been good enough for me fifteen years ago, but it is not enough for my children-or yours. It is not enough for the children of El Salvador, for the children of Nicaragua, for the children of Honduras, or for the children of Guatemala. It is not enough.
As a veteran, then, I feel a specific obligation to bring back old memories, to rekindle anguish and despair long buried, and to speak out against this military madness that has so grotesquely distorted our past, that is tearing apart our present, and that threatens to extinguish our future. We, as veterans, as survivors, should ask for…DEMAND…more than survival for the children of the world.
A group such as Veterans For Peace can offer us, veterans of war, a vehicle to bring our special message to the children of the world. Together we can work for a world where there will be no more war memorials. It is the least—and the most—we can do.
SR: What do you think is the most difficult thing about speaking out against our wars as someone who has served in them?
DR: As you well know, this is a complex issue. Trust me, Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day are two very difficult times for those of us in VFP who are determined to use our military experience to counter militarism and war itself. The dilemma is this for me: in some sense I do want to be acknowledged for having had a period of my life wrested away from me and having been put into harm’s way. On the other hand, I am not proud for having contributed to the suffering of the Vietnamese people. But I do have an obligation not to shrink from self-analysis, from looking into the mirror, no matter how dark it gets. That process has led me to the conclusion that the most difficult self-revelatory hurdle to leap involves coming to terms with betrayal. No matter if you joined the military out of some genuine patriotic fervor or if you were led into it because you lacked the moral fiber to resist induction, you have to admit that you were duped. You were susceptible to what the poet, Robert Bly, refers to as ‘…Americans’ fantastic capacity for aggression and self-delusion…’ And, unfortunately, not only do you pay the price for such self-delusion, but those who came before your weaponry and your instinct to survive at all costs, pay in spades. So here are another two poems about Veteran’s Day that I have written over the past two years:
November comes on to me like a C-130
slinking into Dover Air Force base
laden with tin caskets
draped in red, white, and blue
I know. I know
I should just
let it be
I can still do this:
push my shopping cart down
the local IGA’s aisles
pick up cheese and wine and crackers
while avoiding aluminum cans
like the plague
pay the cashier
smile at the bagger
push the cart out into the parking lot
neatly place everything I just bought
into the dumpster out back
light up a smoke
you want me to join in
on your celebrations
bless our bounty
accept your thanks
for my service
as if I were some Pilgrim
come home to receive your grace
It is November, you say, and we set aside
a day just for you to wrap up war
with a dissonance of fife and drum
and bagpipes blaring down main street
as if we can all finally dance
to the same tune
Sorry about that
My dancing days are long gone
I’d rather skate across the pond alone
I have more faith in ice
Veteran’s Day 2015
What strange creatures we are
setting traps for our own young
using words as spoor to mark the trails
leading them to their excruciating fate–
call it the war to end all wars
call it the good war
call it a war of liberation
desert storm desert shield
and knowing that we lack the power
we use our clever little minds
to design plastic limbs from
the remains of extinct forebears
to hide their pain from our sight
And then each cycle of twelve full moons
we choose the interim
from one dawn
to one twilight
to trot them out
yet one more time
in quaint uniforms
to make them shuffle before us
to grovel for our gracious thanks
to disappear back into the deep forest
of our collective forgetting
so much dust
so much ashes
SR: How do you encourage veterans to speak out, and what do you think we who haven’t served can do to encourage more veterans to speak out?
DR: First off, a veteran has to be prepared for some serious blowback, because he or she is challenging the core of many veterans’ beliefs that their ‘service’ was noble in some sense. To say to them that they were ‘duped’ into serving something other than the Constitution of the United States or the ‘homeland’ is to suggest that their service and their buddies’ sacrifices were for naught. But once they have reached that conclusion, then they are encouraged to speak from their heart of their experiences, to avoid self-righteousness for having ‘found the truth,’ and to weave their messages into narrative form. Most people will resist being preached to, so rather than lecture, we tell narratives of who we are and how we got to this place in hopes that others will follow suit. You who are not military veterans can help us out by, first off, listening non-judgmentally, by resisting the urge to talk over the narrative with your own experiences, and then, then, sharing your own experiences as someone who is on the receiving end of the narrative. It is important for us veterans to hear what our loved ones are going through as they engage our pain, our angst, because their lives matter too. Here’s a relevant poem:
First off, drop the ‘P’
There’s nothing ‘post’
about a mirror that threatens
to slit your wrist
But keep the ‘D’
I’ll take ‘disorder’-sweet chaos–
any time over this close order drill
that haunts my early morning hours
Then let the healing begin:
(1) Ask yourself: “Who am I?”
(2) Ask your lover: “Who are you?
(3) Remain still. Wait for he or she
to whisper: “Who are we?”
Now the ache
has permission to leave
and the sunrise
can ease you into
If we can create a community, even if it is only a community of two, then all of us can build a meaningful life together. We veterans need you as much as you need us. Unfortunately, the current insidious phenomenon of framing each veteran’s ‘service’ as ‘heroic’ creates a barrier between the veteran and her or his loved ones. It challenges the veteran’s need to speak honestly, truthfully, of what he or she has witnessed and done—almost all of which, if not all of it, is hardly heroic.
SR: People seem to feel so obligated to thank veterans for their service. I wonder if some of that comes from a sense of guilt that we silently continue to allow war to be waged in our name. What do you think can be done to change that, to convince people that withdrawing our support for war, for the need for that service, doesn’t mean we have to withdraw our support for those who served?
DR: Excellent question that many of us in VFP grapple with all the time. First off, I think guilt is a debilitating, self-referential response that gets us nowhere. Yes, we should face up to our past actions and recognize where we have failed. But if we spend time wallowing in our guilt, we remove ourselves from meaningful action. But back to being thanked, here’s one answer in this poem I wrote after being in Washington D.C. last year for Veteran’s Day:
Walking The Wall: A Song
#Note: My time in Vietnam started in early July, 1969—Wall panel number W21—and ended in early August, 1970—panel W7, line 29—a walk of about 25 paces past the names of around 9800 dead. I call this ‘walking The Wall.’
Got to tell you that you’re making me nervous
Every time you thank me for me service
I know you’re trying to be nice and kind
But you are really, truly fucking with my mind
Trust me, it’s not that I really care what you think
You who have had too much of their kool-aid to drink
Trust me, you don’t know shit about what service really means
You just need to know that nothing really is as it seems
So take a walk with me down the Wall some late evening
Where we can all listen to the ghostly young soldiers keening
But don’t waste your time thanking them for their service
They just might tell you the truth—all your wars are worthless
Now, I realize this poem is somewhat harsh, but it did come out of the experience of people offering their gratuitous ‘thanks’ without knowing anything about my so-called ‘service.’ I think it’s better to ask, ‘how are you? Would you care to talk about your military experience?’ But, of course, that would take more time and might lead us down some uncomfortable pathways. A veteran friend of mine, an ex-Marine, says this: “I didn’t serve. I was used.”
Now, you also bring up a very real scenario that we in VFP have had to face over the years—we are often accused of ‘not supporting the troops.’ Even though we are veterans, troops ourselves in a previous life. If given the chance, I ask those people who accuse me of not supporting the current military forces how much time they actually devote to thinking about today’s soldiers. I know I think of these soldiers a great deal. Like many of my fellow Veterans For Peace, I have chosen to remain engaged with the very military that I have pledged to restrain as much as I can from dehumanizing the ‘other.’ I provide weekly writing sessions in our state’s VA psychiatric hospital; a fellow veteran, who was a nurse in Vietnam, works with homeless veterans; another was recognized as the national hospice volunteer of the year for working with homeless veterans; and on and on. We in VFP are actually disappointed in those who merely offer a fatuous ‘thank you’ to veterans and then continue on with their lives. We appreciate those among us who actively work to right the wrongs we have participated in during our so-called ‘service.’
SR: I worry it has become too easy to feel that merely thanking a veteran fulfills our sense of duty. It encourages me greatly to hear about actual outreach and activism that you at VFP do. It inspires me, and I hope it will inspire anyone reading this to reach out as well in any way we can.
(SR): You say, “the Vietnamese people suffered greatly at our hands. Millions lost their lives, hundreds of thousands still suffer from the ravages of Agent Orange and unexploded ordinance just waiting to be touched and set off.” This really hits me hard, for several reasons. One is that I have been reading about and researching the Hmong people of Laos since high school, the effects of our war on them and their own refugee crisis that happened when we left SE Asia. And, of course, we are facing a new refugee crisis in the middle east and Europe, and since the Paris attacks of November 13, 2015, this has become a raging debate here in the US. There seems to be so little compassion for these people that suffer from our military interventions. Why do you think that is? How can we address it?
Doug Rawlings (DR): I think one of the weaknesses of our culture can be found in an educational system and a religious milieu that does not nourish empathy in our young people and certainly in all generations. I believe we are born with empathy—the capability of putting ourselves in another’s shoes—but that capability has to be worked on, allowed to mature, and then be nourished throughout our lives. Then we could indeed imagine what it must be like for Syrian mothers and fathers, fleeing war torn areas, as they struggle to protect their children.
Of course, another reason is the obvious one—very few US citizens have ever witnessed war as the victims of prolonged bombing campaigns. So it takes education, especially provided by veterans, to nudge Americans into a frame of mind that actually includes others rather than just themselves and their families. (Emphasis added.)
I am also currently under the influence of Naomi Klein’s recent book, “This Changes Everything” that ties self-serving corporate capitalism to the devastation of our global environment while also impoverishing large swaths of people. She points out that the US military that is often employed to protect the interests of ‘extractivist’ corporations is the largest polluter in the world. So we as a people, as US citizens, must work locally, as well as globally, to lessen our negative impact on the world. Finally, I urge all citizens to volunteer their services at their local VA hospitals, to witness firsthand, some of the damage done by war, but also to actively help in the healing process. Compassion can begin at home and then widen out from there..
SR: During the war in Vietnam, America saw huge protest movements. In the run up to the 2003 Iraq invasion, we again saw a wave of protests. But it has been largely silent since. Why do you think that is? What do you think it will take to pull Americans together to stop this increasing militarism and corruption of our current leaders?
DR: I think that for some reason Americans have lost the capacity to become engaged in a social movement for an extended period of time. Think of the movements of the past—the abolitionists, the suffragettes, the civil rights activists, the anti-war activists, the feminists, the nuclear war resisters, etc. I do have hope that real concerns for the environment are galvanizing people to act and that their actions will indeed build into a movement that politicians cannot ignore. I have to say, though, that the current two party system in this country does not inspire me—mainly because both parties are deeply beholden to corporate interests. What scared ‘the man’ during the Occupy Movement was the whiff they got of the counter-culture movement that rose up during the sixties. People involved in these movements just took themselves completely out of the system and created their own lives, lives that were full and satisfying. It took the popular media years to co-opt that pulse in American life back in the sixties. I also believe in the social equivalent of evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of punctuated equilibrium. He used the notion to explain that evolution is not a gradual process but a process that involves real spikes and valleys. So just when it looks like our society is doomed, I hope an uprising will take place to change everything. We just have to keep working to have that uprising take place non-violently. As far as we in VFP (Veterans For Peace) go, I think our major contribution might be in convincing rank and file soldiers that they do not have to participate in the corporate militarism wracking this world. I think there have been tens of thousands of soldiers applying for conscientious status since 9/11. There are also countless deserters from the military floating around, looking for a moral anchor, whom we can help and protect. Finally, I think we can pull together when we wake up to the plantation system we are currently serving—we do not have to be violent, nor do we have to sacrifice the good life—we just have to work together communally and locally welcome others into our communities who share our values. Gandhi knew that the most powerful tool to thwart colonialism was to disengage with it completely. We can work on doing the same with corporatism. (Emphasis added)
SR: What do you think is driving us into this increasing militarism? This constant state of war?
DR: Our fear that our current level of over-consumption will be threatened and taken away from us. Add in a touch of good old American ‘exceptionalism’ and you have a lethal mixture. And, of course, don’t underestimate the power of the advertising industry. I have to admit to being an avid football fan, so I weekly expose myself to the rant and militaristic glorification that surrounds these games. Note: a recommended read is the novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain. The author nails it in this book. We cannot allow ourselves to be manipulated by this “soma.” (see Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.)
So, look at this vicious cycle—our imperial military (really, we are in the belly of an empire) needs oil to fuel its grand machine, so it must guarantee that oil reserves are protected, so it must occupy other countries to ensure that the flow continues. And now that technology allows us to send in robots (i.e., drones) so that our young soldiers are kept out of harm’s way for the most part, we can sit back and enjoy the fruits of our whiz bang wizardry. For a while. But the chickens will come home to roost—suicide bombers with nothing to lose because we have destroyed their futures. And, of course, the threat of such terrorism fuels even further the fear that war mongers (and munitions makers) use to keep people at bay. Here’s a related poem:
On War Memorials
We* are your karma
We are your Orion
rising in the night sky
We are the scorpion
in your jackboot
We will not buy
your bloody parades anymore
We refuse your worthless praise
We spit on
your war memorials
We will not feed you
If we have our way
(and we will)
the real war memorials
from your ashes
*The ‘we’ in this poem are Vietnam veterans and their friends who believe war is immoral, unjust, and plain stupid.
SR: The final two paragraphs of your essay are really powerful to me:
“It deeply saddens me to see that our nation’s self-perpetuating war machine is cranked up and once again running in high gear. Here in 21st century America, there is an insidious, self-serving faux adulation at play, one that has been fed on steroids, to turn every soldier automatically into a “hero,” so every poor soul coming back from his or her war (and, oh yes, we do own those wars) can’t even cuddle up with a loved one and speak the truths of his or her experience for fear of tarnishing the thread-worn mantle of hometown hero.
This is by design. Unscrupulous politicians use returning veterans as the emotional equivalent of human shields to deflect the public’s frustration with disastrous wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Heaven forbid if these new veterans would ever join us old namvets and stop the palaver about valor and heroics for a moment to acknowledge the grotesqueries of war. Think of how the munitions factories and war colleges would all have to shut their doors. And people would have to publicly thank teachers, nurses, doctors, maintenance workers, police officers for their service. Imagine that.”
You’ve already mentioned some things, but can you offer some solutions, some ideas, of things that we can all do in our day to day lives to end our support of the corporations (“munitions makers”) and politicians who are running our country right now?
DR: We have to accept more personal responsibility for our actions and become more educated, more conscious of how our lifestyles impact others. Klein talks about ‘sacrifice zones’ in her remarkable book—i.e., for most of the privileges and luxuries we enjoy in the western world, a group of people have been forced to ‘sacrifice’ their comforts and their lifestyles to accommodate our rapacious corporations. As Marine General Smedley Butler, two time winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor, remarked: “war is a racket” whereby the military protects the corporations. In addition to that, we have become a nation whose economy is dependent on war manufacturing. For example, we have become the number one exporter of small arms. As we collectively wring our hands about the slaughter of innocents around the world, we should take a moment to see where the weapons the so-called terrorists are using are made. So what we can do is look for weapons manufacturers in our states and begin encouraging them to shift their production from weapons to infrastructure projects. That is not as far fetched as it might seem—military contracts are notoriously fickle and most war production is not as labor-intensive as infrastructure production. So an economic shift to peacetime production could be a win/win situation for everyone. We just have to do our research and then make a commitment to maintain pressure on local and state politicians.
SR: We are approaching the 2016 election. Do you see a solution there?
DR: I waver back and forth. Most of the time I am fed up with both parties—the Republicans have become a dangerous joke, and Bernie sounds good most of the time but then his support of Israel and some military adventures causes me pause. And Hillary is a real war hawk who scares me. Dr. Jill Stein of the Green Party is the most competent and politically savvy of the bunch, but she doesn’t stand a chance with the system we now have in place. So I think we need to work on local and state politicians to push back against the militarists. When it comes to the actual election day, I will probably vote for the candidate who is not a Republican because I can’t contribute to letting any one of those clowns win the day.
SR: I am really concerned about the things we are taught, and not taught, about history today. You are currently involved in a project that is addressing the way the historical narrative about the war in Vietnam is portrayed. Will you tell me a little bit about Vietnam Full Disclosure?
DR: Thanks for asking. Unfortunately President Obama has dedicated $65 million for a Pentagon scheme to “commemorate” a series of fifty year anniversaries over the next decade focusing on the Vietnam War. The Pentagon purports to be the ultimate source for young people to turn to if they are studying the war. We have found their website to be woefully inadequate, mainly because it provides only a superficial context for most events, pretty much ignores the plight of the Southeast Asian people caught up in our war, and almost completely ignores the significance of the anti-war movement. We are convinced that their motives are not to be purely educational, but that they want to sugarcoat this war and make it more palatable for young Americans so that it loses its significance as a real “canary in the mine” (as in, “look what happens when we bring our military into a civil war, when we choose to side with the over-reaching landlords, when we sacrifice our own young soldiers in an immoral war”). We believe their intent is to put this war in what they consider to be its rightful place, so that they can wage more wars like it. And the insidious part of this enterprise is that they are couching their efforts in the terms that make it sound as if they are finally giving us Vietnam veterans our due. Hogwash. So we have mounted our own website at vietnamfulldisclosure.org as a resource. We have developed our own timeline, and asked for articles, art, music, personal narratives, and historical accounts to flesh out what that war was really like. And we pay special attention to the Southeast Asian perspectives as well. Finally, we have put together a series of teach-ins around the country and will continue to do so for the next decade. We would love to collaborate with high schools and colleges in this endeavor.
SR: I love this. I encourage everyone to check out this website, and to share this! I’ll be looking into the teach ins more, and the idea of working with schools, because I think its critical RIGHT NOW to make our youth aware of the truth about war, since they are inheriting this increasingly scary mess.
Are there any current or upcoming events you would like to bring to my attention, that I can share with readers? Also, is there somewhere you would like to direct us to see more of your writing?
DR: Well, one event that holds a special place in my heart is our annual Memorial Day letter writing campaign. Last year we sent out a request for people to write a letter to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. (The Wall). We asked them to speak directly to the names on the memorial. We received 151 letters and 32 postcards, each expressing a heartfelt response to the war. Some were written by medics who directed their pain towards those on The Wall whom they could not save; some were written by the children of veterans; some were written by military deserters who fled the US rather than serve in the war; some were written by conscientious objectors; some were written by partners of those who died. Almost all of the letters shared one theme—the authors were deeply dismayed by the futility of that war. In any event, on Memorial Day, we placed those letters and postcards at the foot of The Wall and encouraged passers-by to read them. We witnessed some very moving encounters with these words. Then, a few weeks later the National Park Service contacted us and asked to put some of the letters on display. So, we will be asking for a thousand more letters this year—please write one.
By the way, if anyone is interested in my poetry, I have two collections published—Orion Rising and A G.I. In America—that can be purchased through Lulu.com. (Just go to their bookstore and then to their poetry section and put in my name.)
SR: I am just going to include the link for your poetry books here.
Again, I want to thank you, this means so much to me to be able to share your thoughts and ideas. And some of your poems, which I find to be so honest and moving. I sincerely hope that people will consider what you’ve said, and spread the word! Here is one more of your poems, which I think says a lot:
Unexploded Ordnance: A Ballad
for Chuck and the thousands of Vietnamese who are working to undo what we have done.
So I was maybe all of twenty-one
when they whipped me
into some kind of soul-less shape
Yet another one of America’s
weeping mothers’ sons
Sent forth into this world
to raze, pillage, and rape
And now it’s coming on
to another Christmas Eve
And songs of joy and peace
fill up our little town
How I ask myself
could I possibly believe
I could do what I did
and not reap what I had sown
In that land far away
from what I call home
A grandfather leads
his granddaughter by the hand
Into a field where we did
what had to be done
They trip into a searing heat
brighter than a thousand suns