A History Lesson (Part Three) The Bonus Army

Katie Aguilera

They’re better off, I can hear whoever sent them say, explaining to himself. What good were they? You can’t account for accidents or acts of God. They were well-fed, well- ‘loused, well-treated and, let us suppose, now they are well dead. But I would like to make whoever sent them there carry just one out through the mangroves, or turn one over that lay in the sun along the fill, or tie five together so they won’t float out, or smell that smell you thought you’d never smell again, with luck. But now you know there isn’t any luck when rich bastards make a war. The lack of luck goes on until all who take part in it are gone.

Ernest Hemingway, Who Murdered the Vets? September 7, 1935

On July 28, 1932, the United States Army was ordered to oust thousands of US Army World War I veterans from the streets of Washington D.C.  Three tanks, 200 mounted cavalry with sabers drawn, and 300 infantrymen with loaded rifles and fixed bayonets, proceeded through the city, driving everyone from the streets.  They launched tear gas grenades at the crowds, and ignited fires in the makeshift camps the veterans and family members had erected over the previous months.  Different accounts of the event allege that at least one, possibly two babies died from tear gas inhalation during the attack, though the official investigation would later deny those claims.  Area hospitals were reportedly filled with injured people.

It was a violent attack largely condemned by Americans across the nation in the days that followed.  But it is a story that is mostly unknown to Americans today, 85 years later.

After World War I ended, many veterans returning to the states found it difficult to find employment.  The jobs they held before serving in the military were now filled by people earning higher wages than they had.  Veterans’ groups began to lobby Congress for what was then called “adjusted compensation.”  This push for additional compensation was derided by many as an effort to obtain bonuses the veterans didn’t deserve, and the veterans were often derogatorily labeled “bonus seekers.”

In 1922, Congress did consider a measure to provide additional compensation, but President Warren Harding vetoed the bill.  The veterans’ groups continued their efforts, and in 1924, Congress passed what was popularly known as the Soldier’s Bonus Act.  President Calvin Coolidge vetoed the bill, reportedly stating “patriotism which is bought and paid for is not patriotism.”  However, his veto was overridden, and the veterans were awarded bonuses.

According to this US history website, “Adjusted compensation was to be paid at the rate of $1.25 per day for time spent in foreign service and at the rate of $1 per day for domestic service.  The sum earned by veterans was not to be paid in cash, but was to be used to create a 20-year endowment; in the short term, participants were entitled to borrow up to 22.5 percent of the value of the fund.”

After the crash of 1929, and the resulting collapse of the US economy, many veterans found themselves destitute and they pushed to have the bonuses paid out immediately.  In 1932, Texas Representative, Wright Patman, introduced a bill into the US House of Representatives that would do just that.

Walter W. Waters, a former Idaho and Oregon National Guardsman, took notice of this bill and decided something should be done to bring more attention to it.  Waters was born in Burns, Oregon, and had served both in the Idaho National Guard in 1910 and the Oregon National Guard with which he went to fight in France in 1917.  He was living in Portland, Oregon when Patman’s bill was introduced, and Waters organized a march on Washington D.C. in support of the bill.  250 to 300 men from Portland joined him, and with a banner declaring “Portland Bonus March—On to Washington,” they set off in May of 1932.

The media took notice, and Waters’ group, calling themselves the Bonus Expeditionary Force, was given positive coverage in newspapers and radio broadcasts across the nation.  They were popularly referred to as the “Bonus Army” and gained wide support from the public, and sympathetic authorities.  Many more veterans traveled to Washington D.C. to join in, often riding the rails to get there.  Railroad men refused to turn the illegal passengers in, and supporters donated money and food to the veterans.

The Bonus Army veterans began arriving in Washington D.C. on May 25, 1932.  Most reports state the group was as large as 20,000 men.  They began establishing camps around the city. The largest camp, by the Anacostia River, was named Camp Marks.  Veterans and family members erected shelters from scrap material, and the camp was organized like a city with named streets.  They set up a post office, a library, and their own newspaper.  Waters was strict, and the camp didn’t allow drinking, begging, weapons or fighting.  Anti-government, radical talk and Communists were also forbidden.

In spite of this strict rule, however, communists did enter the camps to argue their cause.  According to this article on Waters and the Bonus Army, the veterans “seized the communists, held trials, and sentenced them to fifteen lashes.  More than two hundred communists were expelled from Bonus Army camps.”  This article states, “rumors about communist revolutionaries soon spread throughout the city, and deeply affected the highest levels of government.  At the Justice Department, J. Edgar Hoover’s Bureau of Investigation labored to find evidence that the Bonus Army had communist roots, evidence that never existed.”  This would later be used as justification for the July 28 attack on the camps.

On June 15, 1932, the US House passed the bill sponsored by Representative Patman, to pay $2.4 billion in bonuses to veterans immediately.  It passed with a margin of 211 to 176 one day after Tennessee Congressman Edward Eslick dropped dead from a heart attack while giving a speech in favor of the bill in Congress.  The bill went before the Senate on June 17, 1932, and as many as 8,000 veterans waited at the Capitol Building for the decision.  The city police had succeeded in keeping another 10,000 veterans from entering the city by raising the Anacostia drawbridge.

It wasn’t until 9:30 that evening that the decision was announced.  The bill was defeated by a vote of 62 to 18.

In the days that followed, some of the Bonus Army veterans left the city, but many stayed, vowing to continue the protest until the bonuses were paid.  Numerous politicians, President Herbert Hoover included, grew increasingly concerned that the protests would become violent.  According to this article, “depression had settled in, the government had been fearful of the possibility of an armed insurrection against Washington.  Even before the arrival of the Bonus Army, the army had developed a plan to defend the city with tanks, machine guns, and poison gas.”  President Hoover ordered the police to evict the protestors, and on July 28, 1932, the police attempted just that.

A violent clash erupted.  One veteran was killed and three policemen were injured.  The police chief, Major Glassford, determined that the police could no longer control the situation and agreed to assistance from federal troops.  Army Chief of Staff, General Douglas MacArthur ordered the army to put its plan into action, and the US Army hit the streets in force.

General MacArthur held a press conference that night and stated, “had the President not acted today, had he permitted this thing to go on for twenty-four hours more, he would have been faced with a grave situation which would have caused a real battle.  Had he let it go on another week, I believe the institutions of our Government would have been severely threatened.”

President Hoover said, “a challenge to the authority of the United States Government has been met, swiftly and firmly.  After months of patient indulgence, the Government met over lawlessness as it always must be met if the cherished processes of self-government are to be preserved.  We cannot tolerate the abuse of Constitutional rights by those who would destroy all government, no matter who they may be.  Government cannot be coerced by mob rule.”

He would order an investigation into the events by the justice department, which ultimately concluded that, “the prompt use of the military to outnumber and overawe the disturbers prevented a calamity.”  The investigation report, submitted by Attorney General William D. Mitchell, concluded by stating, “The right to peaceably petition Congress for redress of alleged grievances does not include assemblage of disorderly thousands at the seat of the government for purposes of coercion.”

While the investigation report conceded that the Bonus Army protestors were law abiding and peaceful up until the Senate vote, it focused much attention on the numbers of protestors who had not served in the military during World War I, those that had criminal records, and those that were communists, radicals, and anti-government.  It also downplayed the actions of the police and the federal troops, and the number of injuries.  The public’s negative opinion of the attack on the Bonus Army wouldn’t change however, and the event certainly didn’t help President Hoover in his re-election bid which he lost to Franklin D. Roosevelt months later.

World War I veterans continued to lobby Congress for the bonuses in the years that followed, returning to Washington D.C. annually.  The number of transient veterans in the city was increasingly viewed as a problem and many veterans were sent to rehabilitation camps in the Florida Keys.  These were work camps for road construction projects, a way to provide jobs for the men.  Unfortunately, hundreds of the veterans were killed by the September 2, 1935 ‘Labor Day Hurricane’ when the camps were not evacuated before the storm.  Their deaths prompted Ernest Hemingway to pen his 1935 piece, Who Murdered the Vets?  Investigations into whether the deaths were the result of negligence were conducted.  One such investigation concluded that there had been negligence, but the report of that investigation was suppressed for decades.

It wouldn’t be until four years after the Bonus Army protest of 1932 and several months after the deaths in Florida that the veterans were finally successful.  3.2 million veterans were paid the bonuses in 1936.

 

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Healing On The Range: A Look At Central Oregon Veterans Ranch

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Katie Aguilera

Alison Perry described the 19 acres of land situated between Bend and Redmond, Oregon, as a place of peace while leading a tour of Central Oregon Veterans Ranch on Friday, December 2, 2016. She said the ranch will help veterans find a sense of purpose and meaning, and it is designed to be a community for veterans, built by veterans.  Perry also described a desire to bring attention to the lack of services currently available for Central Oregon veterans in spite of the large number who live in the area.  She pointed out that veterans make up nine to ten percent of the Central Oregon population, numbering around 20,000.

Perry is the executive director of Central Oregon Veterans Ranch.  She has been working with veterans since 2003, including as a trauma therapist for the Department of Veterans Affairs.  As she spoke with the group of around twenty-five people gathered for the tour, Perry described a couple of cases she had dealt with that inspired her to found the ranch.  She talked about the efforts that have gone into creating this place of healing, and the plans for its success.  Her determination to help veterans, and her dedication to this project were very apparent as she described her work and the ranch.

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The Central Oregon Veterans Ranch is a working ranch.  Currently it is home to numerous animals; chickens, pigs, goats, sheep, even mini donkeys.  The ranch plans to build a greenhouse for growing produce, and has received donations for this project from Central Oregon rotary groups.  Veterans can volunteer to help on the ranch, and Perry said just the day before the tour, 18 local veterans had come out to work, many of them dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Coming to the ranch, working on projects there, and helping with the animals, is therapeutic.  According to the ranch brochure, “studies and pilot programs prove that veterans engaged in farming and ranching and returning to meaningful forms of service succeed.  Combat veterans struggling to re-engage in their communities after returning from deployment become productive members of their community and beyond after participating in sustainable agriculture and ranching activities.”

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The tour ended with a look at the bright and airy home that will soon be opened as an adult foster care facility serving up to four terminally ill or aged veterans.  The home has been recently remodeled, with money from a private grant, and much of the work has been done by veteran volunteers.  It has been furnished with money donated by the Central Oregon chapter of 100 Women Who Care. There are three bedrooms for the residents, with four beds covered with beautifully made, red, white, and blue quilts.  There is another space for a live-in residential assistant, who is already living at the ranch, and described the job as a dream job.

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Priority will be given to Vietnam veterans suffering from Agent Orange related illnesses, according to Perry, and the cost of the service is based on a sliding scale which will allow the ranch to serve indigent veterans.  The home will provide “an environment that fosters dignity, improves quality of life, and provides specialized care for the unique needs of the Veteran population,” according to the ranch’s website.  Perry pointed out that there are no veterans’ specific senior care facilities currently in Central Oregon, and she said the facility intends to place a lot of focus on healing at end of life from PTSD.

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The ranch is a beautiful place, with a stunning view of the Three Sisters and Broken Top. Perry said she has been told by volunteers that they feel a sense of peace as they cross the cattle guard at the entrance to the property, and she stated, “the property itself is an intervention.”  It is easy to see why it can bring peace and healing to anyone visiting or working there.

The Central Oregon Veterans Ranch continues to raise funds to grow the operation.  Currently they are inviting people to become a part of the First 100 Campaign by being one of the first 100 to make a donation of $1000.00 or more.  Those who do will have their name memorialized in a Peace Garden planned for the ranch.  Donations of any size are welcome, including donations of services, time, and goods, such as the coffee donated by Strictly Organic of Bend that was served during the tour.  Of course, there is also the weekly veterans volunteer day on Thursdays.  The ranch also invites anyone to tour the property.  More information can be obtained by calling 541-706-9062, and by visiting their website at www.centraloregonveteransranch.org.

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While the Pentagon Wastes Billions of Dollars, Soldiers Are Forced to Repay Re-enlistment Bonuses

As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (and other countries) have dragged on for more than a decade, maintaining an all volunteer military force has become increasingly challenging.  The Department of Defense has relied on large cash incentives to keep the ranks filled, offering re-enlistment bonuses for soldiers in jobs that are in high demand.  (A former Air Force service member in the drone program told me about a re-enlistment, tax free, bonus of $72 thousand!)  Unfortunately, those bonuses were not always given to personnel that qualified for them.

Yesterday, it was reported by David S. Cloud in the Los Angeles Times that “nearly 10,000 soldiers, many of whom served multiple combat tours, have been ordered to repay large enlistment bonuses–and slapped with interest charges, wage garnishments and tax liens if they refuse–after audits revealed widespread overpayments by the California Guard at the height of the wars last decade.”  According to Cloud, these “bonus overpayments occurred in every state at the height of the two wars.”

Cloud goes on to discuss several soldiers now faced with repaying these bonuses they had no idea they didn’t qualify for when they received them.  These are veterans who deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of them wounded while serving.  While some have attempted to appeal the decision, that has proven to be a long and difficult process.  Meanwhile, the interest on the amount owed continues to accrue.

One soldier, Bryan Strother, faced with a total of $25,010.32 owed “for mistaken bonuses and student loans,” filed a class action lawsuit in February.  Cloud writes that Strother filed the suit “on behalf of all soldiers who got bonuses, claiming the California Guard ‘conned’ them into reenlisting.”  His lawsuit seeks an injuction to stop further collection, as well as the return of money already re-payed.

Strother was notified in August that the Pentagon would not require him to repay the money he had received in enlistment bonuses, and shortly thereafter, lawyers for the US Attorney “petitioned the court to dismiss Strother’s lawsuit, arguing that it was moot since most of his debt had been waived.”  This motion is set to be decided on by January.  If the case is dismissed, that would take care of the injunction request for all soldiers who received bonuses.

Cloud writes, “even Guard officials concede that taking back the money from military veterans is distasteful.”

“At the end of the day, the soldiers ended up paying the largest price,” said Maj. Gen. Matthew Beevers, deputy commander of the California Guard.  “We’d be more than happy to absolve these people of their debts.  We just can’t do that.  We’d be breaking the law.”

Meanwhile, the Pentagon remains unaccountable for vast sums of tax payer money.  Scot J. Paltrow wrote in this November 18, 2013 Reuters article, “the Pentagon is the only federal agency that has not complied with a law that requires annual audits of all government departments.  That means that the $8.5 trillion in taxpayer money doled out by Congress to the Pentagon since 1996, the first year it was supposed to be audited, has never been accounted for.”

Matthew Gault wrote in his March 31, 2015 War Is Boring article that the Pentagon could not account for $45 billion of the $66 billion that was allocated to the Pentagon for the task of rebuilding Afghanistan.  Gault states, “the Pentagon has a history of wasting billions in the country [Afghanistan] on bad projects, corrupt business partners and disreputable construction companies.”

“It wasted five years and $20 million refurbishing an old Soviet prison that still isn’t finished. The Air Force blew half a billion dollars on transport planes that never flew. It sold the aircraft for $32,000 worth of scrap.”

All that waste, fraud, corruption, bad spending, and lack of accountability for billions of dollars is apparently acceptable.  But when the Pentagon resorts to bribery to maintain its volunteer force (after all, a draft would likely put a stop to these wars pretty quickly), 10,000 soldiers who were mistakenly given bonuses for re-enlisting are forced to repay the money they received.

Sure, that makes sense.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial: An Essay From Sixth Grade

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A Note From The Author:  I wrote this essay in the sixth grade.  I mentioned this essay in my second blog post I published here at Seeking Redress (it was the first that I actually wrote, it was what drove me to start this site), and will be mentioning it again in another post I’m publishing today discussing an important Memorial Day event.  Since this essay played such a role in one of my most vivid memories of my father, and it demonstrates my changing understanding of war and how we memorialize it, I thought I’d just go ahead and share it.  Please forgive the naivete, I was pretty young and only beginning my long journey into researching that painful chapter in history.

The Remembrance of a Nightmare

The Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial started as just a dream for Jan C. Scruggs but it became a reality just the same.  Scruggs asked Senator John W. Warner for $5,000.00 to start building the memorial.  Senator Warner gave the requested $5,000.00 and earned another $50,000.00 within weeks.  So the soon-to-be-great memorial was built.

On the paneled sides of the wall are printed about 58,000 names of the soldiers who died in the Vietnam War or who remain missing, in the order that the clutches of war finally tore the life out of them.  The people who remain missing are marked by a simple, but important, cross that is circled if the person is found.  1300 of the names are those of missing soldiers.

This memorial has touched the lives of many people across America.  They see a familiar name that triggers their memory and tears flood from their eyes.  It comes as no surprise that the memorial has become one of the most visited memorials in Washington.

A book will be published called To Heal A Nation by Jan Scruggs and Joel L. Swerdlow.  [This book was already published when I wrote this essay, and can be found on Amazon.]  It will, like the memorial, list all the names of these great men.

The people love the memorial and will probably love the book as well.  It is only obvious by the look of gratitude on the people’s faces that they greatly appreciate America’s respect for the men who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country they loved.  Many people have read the names of the veterans and have relived the nightmare of Vietnam in 1961-1971.  Many memories have been spurred by this long granite wall called The Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial.

The End

A Conversation With Doug Rawlings, Part Two

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This is a continuation of yesterday’s post.

SeekingRedress (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

Corporate America
be forewarned:
We* are your karma
We are your Orion
rising in the night sky
We are the scorpion
in your jackboot

Corporate America
be forewarned:
We will not buy
your bloody parades anymore
We refuse your worthless praise
We spit on
your war memorials

Corporate America
be forewarned:
We will not feed you
our bodies
our minds
our children
anymore

Corporate America
be forewarned:
If we have our way
(and we will)
the real war memorials
will rise
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 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

 

A Conversation With Doug Rawlings, a Co-Founder of Veterans For Peace-Part One

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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

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

Okay.
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
relax

Sure, sure
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

and

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
of regeneration
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 challening 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:

PTSD Remedies
For Tarak

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
another day

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
for Don

#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.
Mr. Rawlings has so much of importance to say, that I am going to continue this conversation in a second post tomorrow.  We will talk about activism, solutions, and current projects.  Don’t miss it!!  Read it here.

Are You My Hero?

DSC_0891Katie Aguilera

Dear Members of the US Military, Active and Retired,

It’s Veteran’s Day.  A day to honor those who have served as heroes, a day that has become overwhelmed with military pageantry, a day that has lost its original purpose of remembering those who died and celebrating the end of war.  And it is a day I have to ask, are you my hero?

As a child of a Vietnam War veteran, I am very aware of the sensitivity around this subject.  The only time I saw my father shed a tear was when he was discussing with me an essay about the Vietnam War Memorial Wall that I wrote in the 7th grade.  I don’t remember his exact words, something about honoring those who served, those who died.  Something about how those who had served in Vietnam had waited a long time for that honor.  As he spoke, I was startled to see a tear drop onto the page, and that tear haunts me to this day.  It has taken me a long time to reconcile the feeling that I’m supposed to support the troops with the fact that I am opposed to what the troops are doing.

We all make decisions in life, we all choose the path we will walk.  I have made many, many bad choices, some due to ignorance, some due to fear, some due to not really considering the repercussions.  And the truth is, I nearly made the same choice as you, I used to want to enlist.

One of the first things I can actually remember wanting to be was a fighter pilot.  I loved WWII era airplanes as a kid.  And I developed an obsession with Vietnam War stories when I was eleven or twelve (curiosity about what my father had experienced, perhaps.) and one of my favorites was a series of books by Mark Berent that involved a fighter pilot and a Forward Air Controller, and I fell in love.  I’m sure the movie Iron Eagle had some influence too.  I was determined to learn to fly, and a kind school bus driver who had a little, homemade, two-seater airplane took pity on me and took me flying a couple of times.  I was hooked.  I was more than ready to join the Air Force in order to fly.  I wanted to be the first female fighter pilot (maybe there already were some, but we’re talking about grandiose childhood dreams of glory here.)  This was my goal for many years, until I turned 15 and headed for the DMV for my learner’s permit.  I was forced to admit that I needed glasses and my dream of being a fighter pilot was smashed, like many pairs of my glasses in the following years.  After a suitable period of grief, I moved on.  I read the book Chickenhawk by Robert Mason and decided I would fly helicopters for the Army.  Once again I was more than ready to enlist.  And by no means was I unaware of what exactly happens in war, as I said, I was obsessed with war stories, gore and all.  I knew what these aircraft were meant for, and I was still willing to enlist to reach my goal of flying.  Then I learned about scouts who go out ahead of the front lines to scout out the enemy, and for some reason I thought I would like to do that too.  But, women weren’t allowed jobs like that, so it was obviously not an option.  I don’t know what would’ve happened had I been a boy.  I don’t know what would’ve happened had my eyesight been perfect.  I don’t know if by the time I was 18 and graduated high school I would’ve still wanted to enlist.  I was, after all, easing into my hippy phase by then.  I do know now that I’m extremely glad I didn’t enlist.  But, because I chose a different path, I can’t address these seemingly never-ending wars from the perspective of someone who has served in them.

All of these things have made me hesitant to address this.  Who am I to preach at any of you who have served in the military?  What right do I have?  Well, this is America, where at least for now, we have the right to state our opinions.  And as a concerned American, I can no longer keep silent on mine.

I don’t wish to offend or dismiss anyone who has served in the military with what I have to say, though I’m sure it will offend some.  I believe that most of you are willing and courageous people.  I believe you have done many heroic things, saving lives, protecting civilians, providing assistance in disasters, raising your children, and so on.  I respect and admire the desire to serve the people and to protect those you love.  I share those sentiments.

But, I find nothing heroic about the wars our country is waging.  Nothing is heroic about invading Afghanistan, or Iraq, or Syria, or any of the 100+ countries we have military deployed in.  There is nothing heroic about dropping bombs on these countries or sniping the people in their streets.  This is not protecting me, or our country.  This is not about fighting the battle over there so we don’t have to fight it here.  These wars are about greed, empire, the filthy rich getting richer while the poor suffer and die.  The truth is, it is putting us at greater risk with the growing anger and hatred towards our nation.  It is eroding any hope of economic recovery and stability for generations to come.  And, it is tearing apart our society with devastating effectiveness.  People are coming home destroyed from these wars (according to a 2012 estimate, more than 20 vets A DAY commit suicide!!).  Broken minds, broken bodies, broken families.  Just like Vietnam.

So, my answer to the question is no, you are not my hero.  I cannot, in good conscience, thank you for your service.  Ultimately what message would that send, to the people around the world we are attacking?  To the kids nearing the age of 18 who are considering the decision to enlist?  To my own sons?  Certainly not the message that I vehemently oppose these wars.  I did not want you to fight, to kill, to die in these wars.  I am furious, and terribly sorry, that you have had to.  It has to stop!  I want to see your courage used for the every day heroic things that hold our society together, not squandered away in some foreign land so that mega corporations can become more mega.

I realize that many of you enlisted because you saw no other occupational opportunities, or you saw it as a starting point to reach your goals (like my desire to enlist simply because I wanted to fly.)  I realize that many, many, many of you enlisted because you saw the towers fall and believed you were doing the right thing to ensure that never happens again.  I realize the majority of us in this country are ignorant of many truths because we aren’t taught real history, the history that isn’t written by those who wish to control the narrative.  We certainly aren’t told much by our so-called free press.  I realize we live in this weird time where we glorify our military to an extreme degree and the history that we are taught glamorizes our past wars, glossing over the true costs.  I don’t blame you for your choice to serve, I have no idea why you made that choice, and, as I said, I nearly made the same choice.  It would be counter-productive anyway.  But, I am as tired of feeling like I have to support the troops, shifting the blame solely to those in charge, as I am of keeping my mouth shut in this mind-numbing society.  We all have to take responsibility for our actions, our choices.  We can choose to follow orders regardless of our conscience, or we can choose to make a stand and change things.

Since you are still reading, let me tell you about something I do find heroic.  Speaking out against these wars.  Many of you have and I thank you for finding the courage to do so.  I want more of you to do so, to tell the apathetic, desensitized people of this country that war sucks for everyone but the few who profit from it while sitting safely in their castles.  You have been there, you can tell it from the perspective of someone who has served.  Your voice is so important!

Let’s change the course our nation is taking.  Let’s refuse to fight their wars, but rather fight for our own peace.  We the people, let’s take a stand together, right now, before we are turned completely against each other.

 

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