Peace and War in the Heartland - Veterans Stories - A002


What happened to you in the war? - A002

You went to Germany. But you resisted the war from within the military. Yours is a long and winding family history of military service.

I actually happen to come from a family with a proud tradition of Military Service. The tradition begins with my grandfather. He was drafted into the Romanian army at the turn of the century (that is, the previous turn of the century), when Romania, then under the rule of King Carol, was at war with Turkey, in one of the countless wars in the Balkans in the decades preceding World War I.

Because of the rampant anti-Semitism of the era, there may have been some suspicion about the depth of loyalty of Grandfather to King Carol's regime. And so Grandfather was assigned to the cavalry, and he served his military career entirely within the stables. Romania at that time had a sizable cavalry, hence a sizable number of horses.

The sizable number horses naturally produced a sizable amount of manure, a commodity of sizable importance to the war effort since it could be sold to the local peasants as fertilizer, bringing a great deal of revenue to the coffers of the Romanian Army. It was Grandfather's military assignment to place the manure into burlap bags and then onto wagons to be delivered to the peasantry.

Although this was an assignment of sizable importance, grandfather apparently was not pleased at his military career, or his life in Romania. He left Romania, made his way across Europe to Antwerp, and boarded a ship to America.

Hence I here today to relate this tale. Years later, the military tradition passed on. Although grandfather and I addressed our military service obligations under relatively unambiguous circumstances, for the generation between us, my father, the circumstances
were considerably more difficult.

It's 1937, in New York City. Civil war has broken out in Spain. Four fascist generals, led by Generalissimo Franco are in revolt against the elected democratic left government Madrid. Hitler and Mussolini are sending arms, planes and soldiers to aid Franco. Britain and the United States under the guise of neutrality refused to aid the beleaguered Spanish democracy.

In New York, recruiting begins for the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, part of the International Brigade of volunteers to defend the Spanish Republic. Dad and a friend go down to the recruiting office. In the disorganized early days it is chaotic. Dad and his friend look at each other and say, let's come back another day. They never do.

Years later, as a teenager, I heard this story and I wanted to ask, Dad, you blew your chance. This was history. Why didn't you do it? I never actually asked him that. But now I think I know. Years later, when I was in the US Army in 1971, there were 100 of us in a room once, and the Sergeant, trying to get our attentions said: "Look around the room, look at your buddies. One of you will die in Vietnam" His estimate of the odds was right.

Of all the American soldiers who went to Vietnam, about 99% came home. But for the American soldiers who went to Spain, 1 out of every 2 didn't come home. Half of them were buried in Spanish soil. So I don't fault my father for looking long and hard at those odds and wondering, as a 25 year old man, if there was some other way he could help the cause and live his life.

Five years later, in 1942 Dad was drafted. By this time, he is married with a child, my older brother. He served in the American Army on Staten Island, a ferryboat ride from Manhattan. His job was in the laundry, where he learned how to do launder large batches of clothing efficiently, a skill which he then assumed in our house, and a skill he has passed on to me. Just ask my wife.

According to Dad, they did call him out of the laundry one day to go to the rifle range to learn how to shoot, something Dad said simply that shooting a rifle didn't serve his temperament, and besides he had a terrible migraine headache that day. I don't know exactly what happened, but according to Dad, he managed to serve out his term without once firing a rifle. With this proud military heritage, surely the burden of family tradition would someday fall on my shoulders, and so it did.

One of the first Vietnam peace demonstrations I attended was in the fall of 1964 in New York City. That was the year of Mississippi Summer, when college students went to Mississippi to help with voter registration efforts. I applied to go, but was rejected because I was 17 and the minimum age requirement was 18. But from my school, Queens College, we sent Andrew Goodman. Andy never came back. He was murdered in Mississippi with James Chaney and Mickey Schwerner in one of the many atrocities of that era.

And so the picket sign that I carried that day read GET US TROOPS OUT OF VIET NAM, AND INTO MISSISSIPPI. I remember that one of the organizers of the demonstration, a fellow by the name of David McRenoylds, came up to me to challenge the wisdom of advocating the sending of US troops to Mississippi. It was my first encounter with pacifism, an ideology I came to respect, but could not adopt.

But I digress. My turn came years later. I was a Vietnam peace activist for many years and experienced the great frustration we all felt at a senseless war that went on, and on, and on year after year, despite innumerable rallies, lobbying, picketing and demonstrations. I saw the best minds of my generation (I love that line from Allen Ginsburg) fall into desperate traps of ultra left politics, drugs and counter-culturalism without counter-politics. We were all searching, searching, for the key thing.

The key thing that could turn the country around, wake America up, and stop the damn war. A couple of things began to make their marks on my mind. In the late 60's we began to see the unprecedented emergence of dissent within the US Army, several cases of soldiers in uniform expressing opposition to the War in Vietnam, in a myriad of ways. I heard a talk by some folks who worked in a coffeehouse outside a US army base in Fort Hood Texas, a coffeehouse specifically geared towards attracting Gis and exposing them to antiwar films, literature, and speakers. This made sense to me. What could be the key to stopping the war might be American soldiers saying no to the war.

I remember going to an anti-war demonstration where we marched onto the base at Fort Dix, New Jersey. We got tear gassed very bad, by soldiers in MP uniforms. The choking sensation, the blinding teargas made its mark on me. I recall thinking that we needed to get those soldiers on our side. Did it make sense I wondered, to join them? To enlist in the Army for the sole purpose of spreading the anti-war message from within?

My opportunity didn't come right away. But my draft notice certainly did. I got called down to my draft physical in Brooklyn in the spring of 1970. At the time I was employed by Liberation News Service, a left collective that provided news packets to the alternative press of the era. It felt like the center of the world. When the killings at Kent State happened, and every major campus in America went on indefinite strike, we were the focal point of news distribution. The phone would ring incessantly from Paris, from Havana, from around the country, news bureaus hungry for the latest updates.

And although the idea of going into the army was gnawing away in my brain, this was not the right time. And so, I decided that I did not wish to be drafted. I knew all the rules and all the tricks of the draft dodging game, and, if I do say so myself, I executed them masterfully.

If you remember Arlo Guthrie's song and movie "Alice's Restaurant", then you'll remember that there was then a rule that if you had any kind of arrest record, at the time of the draft physical, you would be required to see a psychiatrist in order to determine if you were morally fit to join he army after committing your special crime.

And so, at the end of the physical when they told me I passed, and that an induction order would be sent to me within a week, I said I had an arrest record and I wanted to see the shrink. There were two clerks in the room at that moment, an elderly man, probably in his 70's and a young woman of perhaps 18 or 20. The old-timer asked me what I was arrested for... I said protesting the damn war. The old timer got very indignant telling me I could not use language like that in front of a young lady.

In a flash, I saw my path to victory. With a racing heartbeat, I calmly proceeded to lecture the gentleman on the true nature of obscenity. I reeled off a list of contemporary expletives and suggested that the obscenity of these words paled in comparison to the obscenity of his president dropping napalm on children.

The poor fellow could not deal with my oratory. He got on the phone to all the Military Police, and in an instant, an armed MP ran into the room shouting loudly, in great contrast to the relatively quiet conversation we had been having in the room.

I said hello to the arrival, and completely ignoring his shouting, I calmly inquired if he could direct me to the office of the psychiatrist. And indeed he did.

To the psychiatrist, I calmly said that I considered myself a Revolutionary Communist. I had just returned from Cuba, where I had met revolutionaries from around the globe. I told the doctor that if drafted, I would not refuse service, but that at all times I would consider it my prime military mission to overthrow the illegal Nixon regime currently in Washington. With nary a word on the shrink's part, I was out of there in 5 minutes. My new draft classification was 4F. For those who don't remember, that classification meant that you were totally unfit for military service. I walked off the base a free man. Victory was sweet.

But alas the sweetness did not last. In a short while, I was no longer working for Liberation News Service. The women's caucus informed me, that although I was a nice enough fellow; they had declared a policy of only hiring women for a while. And so, without going into details, I soon found myself out of a job, out of New York, and into Chicago.

I worked in Chicago for an anti-war organization called the Committee of Returned Volunteers, for the princely sum of $25 a week plus lodging. This was a national organization of close to 1,000 former Peace Corps Volunteers who were disgusted at the war and the foreign policy of our nation. Characteristic of the times, 1969-1970, the organization was moving rapidly to the left. That was not necessarily a bad thing, but it meant that the unifying force that brought the organization together, a belief in the Peace Corps was no longer viable.

We said that the mission of the Peace Corps was completely corrupted by US Imperialist foreign policy, and we even called for abolition of the Peace Corps. With the one thing that brought us together now irrelevant in our eyes, the
organization headed for self-destruction. It was not the nasty kind of end that SDS experienced at the time. It was a friendly breakup as different folks headed into other groups, mostly local anti-war collectives.

For the Chicago historians among you, it was the dissolved Chicago Chapter of CRV, the returned Peace Corps volunteers, that then went on to found the New World Resource Center, a great Chicago institution and bookstore that 30 years later survives and prospers today.

But I, alas, was out of a job. And so, as I saw the end coming, I said to myself it's time.
On December 2, 1970, the first anniversary of the assassination of Fred Hampton, I walked into the US Army Recruiting Center, then on Adams and Halsted, and I enlisted voluntarily in the Army of the United States of America. Remember that my draft records were in New York. Remember that this was a time when getting people to enlist was not easy. And so I passed the physical, I said I want to serve my country, I raised my right arm and swore to uphold the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, both foreign and domestic (I put the emphasis on domestic), and they shipped me off to Fort Lewis near Seattle for Basic Training. I also put in a few phone calls to friends and contacts in the national organization of civilian supporters of GI resistors to tell them what I was doing.

At Fort Lewis, in the Spring of 1971, I did basic training. There was actually a book at the time about how to do resistance in the army and I remember well the advice, don't try to do much in basic training. You're there with a bunch of guys you will know for 8 weeks before you all get split up. They will all be driven daily to complete exhaustion in the physical training and mental harassment. So just wait it out.

And that I did. I found myself for the first time in my life with a lot of tough street kids, black and white, not exactly a college crowd. And it was great. I made friends good friends, and I learned from them. Basic training was tough. I wasn't so good at it, and as a result I only got a pass to leave the base once in those 8 weeks. I made a beeline direct for
the local anti-war coffeehouse, the Shelter Half in nearby Tacoma Washington. At that time outside of all the major military bases in the United States, there was an anti-war center of some kind, aimed at supporting GI dissent or resistance. On a national level, an organization called USSF (United States Serviceman's Fund), helped finance and coordinate many of these coffeehouses. And yes, Jane Fonda, bless her once radical heart, was a major financial backer of USSF.

I walked into Shelter Half in my new Army uniform and introduced myself. I was a strange animal. At first they didn't quite believe me, but when I used the movement rhetoric of the era, and demonstrated a profound knowledge of the left tendencies of the era, not to mention the left in-fighting, my credentials were established. We promised to keep in touch, but I never got to see those folks again.

From basic training, I got shipped to Fort Gordon, Georgia, near Augusta, to learn my military specialty, field repair of Army Helicopter Radios. There the local GI support group was on hard times. We had a newspaper called the LAST HARRASS, to which I made several contributions, but the local movement seemed to have peaked in 1969, and by 71, was on a decline. In a couple of months, with all my training over, I was sent to Fort Bragg, near Fayetteville North Carolina. There, the movement was in full swing. Donald Sutherland and Jane Fonda and a very young Holly Near had passed through a few months earlier, doing a show at the local coffeehouse in nearby Fayetteville, called The Haymarket that drew hundreds of wildly enthusiastic soldiers.

The anti-war paper, BRAGG BRIEFS, was well written and very popular. There was a staff of 4 to 6 civilians at the coffee shop and a regular core of a dozen so GI. We held a march through town (perfectly legal for soldiers off base and out of uniform) against the poor treatment of soldier, racism in the military, and the ongoing war.

But after only a few months there, my overseas orders came. This was towards the end of 1971, when US troop levels in Vietnam were slowly declining, but still very sizable. As fate would have it, I got orders for Germany. Many guys I trained with went to Viet Nam. Did I get the luck of the draw, or had they by then identified me as a troublemaker and decided they already had enough trouble in Vietnam? I don't know. I'm glad I didn't go. I don't know if I could have handled it.

But to Germany I did go, and I spent all of 1972 there, finally getting nabbed for my activities in January 1973, just as the Paris Peace Agreements were signed. Germany was very exciting. The US Army there was filled with GIs who had spent a their year in Viet Nam but still had time to serve out on their enlistment contract. Many were fed-up with the military, and totally un-intimidated by Army discipline. Most were receptive to an explicit anti-war message. But the drug situation was terrible. Very powerful hashish and Quaaludes, a downer, were the most popular drugs at the time. The odor of hashish in the barracks every night after duty hours was overwhelming. And racial tension was very high. This was the time of the Black Panthers in the states, and racial tension in the states was reflected in the US Army everywhere in the world.

There was a core of civilian anti-war supporters, American, German and international centered in Heidelberg, the beautiful university town, 10 miles from my army base in the city of Mannheim. There was a small lawyers group from the LMDC - lawyers military defense committee, a project of the National Lawyers Guild with ACLU backing. And so even before I arrived in Germany, I had contacts, names addresses and phone numbers and soon after I arrived, these became good friends and comrades in the struggle. We leafleted a Rock Concert with Impeach Nixon petitions and started yet another GI "underground" newspaper, called "Fight Back" with emphasis on the letters FTA in the title. I met and worked with a couple of American soldiers who were members of a Maoist group, the Progressive Labor Party. It was, in my opinion, a crazy left tendency, but I give them credit for actually doing, what many other left groups only talked about ---- telling their draft-age members to enlist and organize from within.

Movement people from the States periodically came through, so we had a strong sense of connectedness with the anti-war movement back home. Because the cost of sending packages to soldiers abroad was very inexpensive if it went to their APO - Army Post Office address, (just a small fraction of the cost of normal international postage rates) I began to receive boxes of anti-war literature and periodicals from various groups in the States for distribution to US soldiers. Many days after duty on the base, I would go to the base post office and see a big box of stuff that I had to get off the base as quickly as possible before the next locker inspection.

These were good times. We made the military spend huge resources spying on us, a handful of GIs and civilian supporters. Getting the message out was easy, and the audience was very receptive. If the goal, in 1971 and 1972 was to make it unambiguously clear to the military and the politicians that their army was no longer a reliable means to wage their war in Viet Nam, then we succeeded hands down.

My day of reckoning came in January 1973. I had my 15 minutes of fame, actually, more like 45 seconds, on CBS national evening news, when the Army rounded up a group of us troublemakers and scattered us back to remote bases in the States.

I was shipped to Fort Polk, in rural Louisiana, a base then for basic training, with no local civilian support structure. There had once been one, and there had been an underground newspaper called the "Fort Polk Puke". But by now, it was 1973; the Paris Peace Accords had been signed. Fighting was continuing between the Saigon Army and the Liberation forces, but US casualties were far fewer. The draft was over, and the US anti-war movement was a shadow of its former self.

And so I viewed my last year in the Army as punishment. I saw it a effectively minimum- security prison, for the good work I had done before. I took it in stride. My assignment was in the base TV repair shop, working with civilian employees of the army, not with other soldiers, fixing the TVs from the recreation rooms on base. I read a lot of books. I wrote a lot. Time passed slowly. I was a bit lonely, but it wasn't so bad. In December 1974, I received my honorable discharge signed by Richard M. Nixon.

I flew to Chicago to enroll at the University of Illinois, a very happy man.



Read other letters:

A001   A002  A003   A004   A005   A006   A007   A008   A009   A010





The military Selective Service Draft has been activated!

What is your Lottery number? Click here to find out.