Report on the 25th Reunion of Vietnam Veterans Against the War
Jack Mallory, Santa Cruz, CA
Mike Phelan and I headed north up the Pacific Coast Highway. We were on our way to San Francisco International to catch a flight to Houston, and make a connection to La Guardia. Our destination: the 25th anniversary of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. As we passed Año Nuevo, I looked out to sea and saw a Cobra helicopter paralleling our route. When I mentioned it to Mike, he said he hadn't seen it--but it was there, it really was. For most Americans, helicopters are simply a strange form of aircraft. For Vietnam vets they either whisper, or shout: logbird, medevac, gunship, pink team, hot lz, big orange tracers going down, big green tracers going up... Like every chopper I've seen or heard in over 20 years, the Cobra took me back to that place where green was the predominant color: green grass and jungle, green uniforms and tents, green tanks and ACAVS. Even corpses seemed to pass through a green stage on their way to being not much more than dark stains on the ground.
I thought about Vietnam every day when I was a full-time VVAW organizer. Now it comes to mind perhaps once a week. What's the difference between who I am now, and who I was then? Am I now "normal," or at least a "normal" VVAW type, whatever the hell that means? I came reluctantly to the reunion, in search of an understanding of what normal might mean. I hoped to see myself in the context of the political vets I once knew.
I heard about the reunion two weeks before it happened. I immediately got in touch with my old VVAW partner, Mike Phelan, who lives in the next town. Mike and I had been VVAW regional coordinators for Washington, DC during the '71 V-vet's demonstrations (Dewey Canyon III), Mayday, and other political actions of the early 70's. We both burned out by '72, before the Miami Convention actions. I was peripherally involved with VVAW during the mid-70's, but had been out of contact for about 15 years.
Mike and I were both very doubtful about attending: I pushed, and Mike resisted; then Mike pushed, and I resisted. With some prodding from Kalí Tal, support from Peg, my wife, and free frequent flier tickets from Mike's brother, we talked ourselves into it. Kalí and I then went to work on Dan Okada and the voodoo chile [Mark Adin]--both even more nervous about going than Mike and I. All the communication between Kalí , Dan, voodoo, and myself was by e-mail: although Dan and voodoo are colleagues at the same university, Kalí and I had never met them, or each other, in person. (E-mail is a unique form of communication: there are simply no physical constructs on which to build assumptions about people. One of my major motivations in going was to meet these folks, who seemed like such kindred spirits when their messages appeared on my terminal.) It was comforting to know that other old VVAW members were equally reluctant to attend this event.
Everyone I questioned at the reunion recounted similar strong hesitation to attend. Some of this is common to all reunion situations, I gather, but I think something special was happening here. The war used to permeate our lives . It was our daily reality for years after the war--it was a reference point by which we evaluated every issue, defined every value, reacted to every new acquaintance. For many it was an unconscious process, or a process carried on closeted, hidden from all others; for VVAW folks, luckily, I think, it was a conscious and public process. If I may borrow an idiom, we came out early.
Vietnam no longer permeates my life at the surface, daily level. It's not gone--and I'm glad, in many ways, that it's still there--and I'll come back to ways that the war continues to reappear, the way shrapnel can continue to pop from the skin, or malaria reoccur unexpectedly years later.
But I no longer put my VVAW pin on my shirt in the morning, or wear my jungle fatigue jacket daily. Perhaps it is the disappearance of the war as a well-known checkpoint that made us nervous about coming together with people we had known during those constantly conscious, angry days. Would they still be what we had once all been--would they have that focused rage, that energy, that bitterness, that consumed us and gave us the purpose to survive those brutal years? And if they were still so consumed, what would that say to and about us, who now live our lives in at least a semblance of normalcy: we go to work, we raise our families, we drag ourselves to the polls to choose between tweedledum and tweedledee, we take our children to the latest round of demonstrations for peace here, and justice there, and leave early to get the laundry done.
I think much of the apprehension that Mike and I felt about going to this reunion paralleled our feelings about our VVAW friend RK, who was so fucked up by the war (two years as a teenage medic with the 101st). We love R dearly but he makes us feel extremely uncomfortable. In fact, he drives us fucking nuts much of the time, but we would never cut him off--he'll always be a part of our Vietnam war experience. Mike and I discussed this throughout the reunion, without resolution. Do we suffer some kind of survivor's guilt vis-a-vis R? Do less-fucked-up vets in general feel this way about the truly fucked-up? It's not just "there but for the grace of god or luck go I," but a very strong unease in his presence. We can appreciate where he's coming from, what he's been through, but cannot share it fully--does it make us feel less a v-vet than he? Is this a common feeling of those who saw less combat about those who saw more? Do we worry that R resents us, thinks less of us? I don't think R feels that way, but does
the possibility bother us? I don't know, but Mike and I did worry that we were going back to a reunion of RK's.
RK called last night. He missed the reunion because he is back in the hospital again, and the doctors fear some form of chronic (lung) transplant rejection. Got me to thinking again: is it R's death, always rumored to be or truly potentially imminent, that bothers? I came out of Vietnam with a strangely dichotomous attitude about death: I was aware of the fragility of human life (more specifically, that the human body is so easily separated into a few large, or many small, pieces). At the same time, back in the States, I felt invulnerable for many years--what else could life do to me that hadn't already been done, or nearly done? Now, in middle age, I have lost that invulnerability in the face of such mundane things as high cholesterol and marginally high blood pressure. Does R remind me that any of us can go anytime--and certainly will go, eventually? Is it R's mortality that Mike and I are bothered by?
So, we spent the night with Mike's brother in Duchess County, and took the train down from upstate into Manhattan. A toddler I never saw was crying behind me in the car, with a sound that identified him as just Devlin's age--somewhere around 20 months. It made me think of Devlin at home with Peggy, and it brought tears to my eyes. It also made me think of kids and wars, and how in the US many people think of war solely as a military phenomenon--failing to see that all wars engage civilians, and children, in ways that fortunate Americans have not understood since the Civil War, if then. Later that weekend I saw very explicit news footage of the mortar attack on the Bosnian city market: people lying in enormous pools of blood, limbs missing--things I have seen, but can no longer see vividly: both a blessing and a curse--I am glad I cannot see, but fear forgetting.
War is disastrous in an infinite variety of ways: simply typing that statement is so weak a representation of the horror of war as to make me cringe. It is impossible, on paper or film, to let the reader or viewer know what war is "really" like. But I must at least try. I owe it to my son, to someday tell him the horrible things my father never told me, in the hopes that he will never be able to tell his sons and daughters those things. I must tell him about RK, about how a boy was sent to save other boys' lives in a real war, at an age where they were but a few years from "bang, yer dead" in children's games. About how that real war destroyed R's life, although he kept on living and is trying to build a new life.
I must tell him about the day of the dead girl and the dead ARVN. Leaving our base camp in a jeep, headed into Quon Loi during the time that I was the 11th ACR's liaison to the Vietnamese District Chief. On a side road immediately outside our camp, I noticed several children--I couldn't tell what was happening, but something was "wrong" enough to turn down the road to check it out. When we got there, we found some kids standing around a young girl, perhaps 8-10 years old, lying under a tree. She appeared unharmed, but was quite dead. I checked her out, and found a single, fingernail-sized hole in the center of her chest. She must have died instantly, as there was little blood. My interpreter quizzed the kids, and told me that she had been up in a tree, breaking off dead limbs for firewood. An explosion knocked her from the tree and killed her.
The local VC had placed a grenade in the tree, with a wire across the road intended to catch the radio antennae of any military vehicle passing below and pull the pin. She got there first. One of those meaningless, random deaths--the VC hadn't meant to kill her, but she was dead just the same. She wasn't the first wounded child I had seen--I spent a lot of time running MedCAPs in the villages--but she was the first dead child.
Later that day, coming back from Quon Loi, we pulled up behind a long line of stopped vehicles. Not caring much to sit there exposed, we pulled up to the head of the column and found more random death. One of our cowboy deuce-and-a-half drivers, renowned for their speed and carefree ways driving through villes, had hit an ARVN pedestrian on the side of the road. He, also, was quite dead. Another meaningless, random death--the American hadn't meant to kill him, but he was dead just the same. I must tell my son that day kind of summed up the war for me. People, kids, dead for piss-poor reasons. None of the rhetoric, none of the justifications, whether from Kennedy, Johnson, or Nixon, added up to a pile of shit in the face of those two dead Vietnamese, or the dead and wounded Americans I saw.
But the war went on, for me and everybody else. And I continued to do my part, because people depended on me, and I didn't know what else to do, and because I didn't want to go to LBJ. And more bad things happened, and I came home in early May of 1970 as the Cav rolled into Cambodia, and my family asked me about the war, and I said, I think, "It sucks." And a day or two later I spoke against the war at my old high school's post-Kent State/Cambodian invasion demonstration; and six months or so later I was a full-time organizer for VVAW. I have heard others say that VVAW saved their lives, and I suspect that's true for me: only among people who shared a similar degree of rage, bitterness, sorrow, guilt, and heartfelt opposition to the war could I have worked out those feelings and come all the way home. It was VVAW and our struggle against the war that brought me home, not that afterthought of a parade in Washington, or tips of the hat to veterans after the Gulf War.
These are the things I must tell my son. And I must tell him that wars are only ever over for those who didn't go to war, or have war come to them. For those who saw war, it goes on, and on, and on. It fades, like old film footage, but it never ends. We can live with it, most of us, but we will never live without it.
I will tell my son these things. I told these things to other children, to high school and college kids when VVAW was speaking in schools during the war. And I told these stories to other vets, years ago when they were almost our sole form of conversation. But these are not easy things to tell, and I no longer tell them readily. Perhaps another reason so many of us approached the reunion cautiously is that we wanted neither to listen to nor tell these stories again.
So Mike and I got to the city, and walked from Grand Central down to the hotel, which I had understood to be somewhere in lower Manhattan. Along the way we stopped in a liquor store and sprang for a bottle of Glenlivet (livin' high in the Big Apple). In the liquor store a singularly decked-out black dude (leather shorts, vest, roller skates, multiple earrings) noticed my VVAW patch and asked if I was a V-vet. He said he was also, and at my question said he had been with the 11th ACR--my old unit. Now, I haven't run into more than half a dozen people from the Blackhorse since leaving Vietnam, and running into this guy on the way to the reunion was a little like having that Cobra accompany us up the coast.
Given the reasonable room costs at someplace called the Vista Hotel where VVAW had booked a block of rooms, Mike and I had been afraid that we were headed for some sleaze-ball dive (anyone remember the DeSoto Hotel, outside Ft. Jackson?). VVAW was never a high-rolling operation in terms of the organization's budget or the finances of its members. Sleeping bags on the floors of church basements and sympathizers' living rooms were the usual accommodations for VVAW events.
In fact, that had been an option for the reunion, but Mike and I swore that we had put our floor-sleeping days behind us, and that our hard-won credit ratings would treat us to our own room in the Vista, and we'd just hope the toilet flushed. But the Vista Hotel turns out to be the World Trade Center hotel! If someone had told me in 1972 that we'd be holding a reunion at the World Trade Center in 20 years, I'd have told them to lay off the Thai stick for a while. This should have been my first hint that we were no longer what we once were: not only Mike and I, but many or most of the vets attending had VisaMaster-AmExDiscover cards in their wallets, families, pets, mortgages, etc. All of these were pretty rare, 20 years ago.
I said to Mike as we approached the towering glass and steel hotel that this must be an FBI sting operation--they were going to clamp on the cuffs as we registered: "This case has been 20 years in the making, and we've got you commie motherfuckers now!" But no; a 21st floor room with an enormous window overlooking the Hudson: a staggering view. Hospitality suite with free drinks in the pm, and free breakfast in the am. It later occurred to me that this was the only VVAW event I'd ever been to where no one was concerned about who might be a cop, about who the informers or undercover agents might be. We had once spent an inordinate amount of time worrying about whether or not so-and-so was a cop; most of those we suspected weren't, some of those unsuspected were. It don't mean nothin' anymore.
Friday night there was a reception (read party) upstairs in a local "Irish" bar--a place much more like what we had expected: dark, noisy, smoky. About 60 people there: v-vets, families, and an element unfamiliar to me: non-veteran academics, interested in the war and the era from both personal and intellectual perspectives. Among these were Lydia Fish, a folklorist; and Dan Duffy and Kalí Tal, editors of Viet Nam Generation. I had read my first issue on the plane, and found it a fascinating compendium of non-fiction, fiction, poetry, and what might even be referred to as chit-chat about a wide range of Vietnam-related issues.
I was looking forward to meeting Kalí, whose e-mail self-description as a redhead with numerous earrings, a tattoo on her left shoulder, looking like a body builder gone to seed suggested that I would have no trouble recognizing her. And that was the case: shortly after arriving, as Mike and I drank our scotches (another break with tradition: the old days were days of pot and Rolling Rock) and scanned the room for familiar faces, Kalí was quietly evident at a table with several other folks. While her self-description had included a little about her background and the context of her interest in the Vietnam war and Vietnam vets, I was still curious as to why a 32-year old woman would be devoting a substantial portion of her life to understanding an era and a group of people so seemingly irrelevant to her (teaching university students can produce the impression that, to anyone under 30, irrelevance is anything that happened last year, to anyone other than themselves). I will let Kalí explicate her interests herself; suffice it to say that it is undoubtedly ageist and sexist to be surprised that a young woman might be interested in Vietnam, in the widest possible sense. Talking to Kalí, I quickly realized that the motives for her interests were irrelevant; what was relevant was the content. She has thought long and hard about the war, what it did to people and what it means to people. There is no romanticizing of veterans, and in fact she wields a sensitive bullshit detector, which she is kind enough to characterize as "an interest in myth." Our conversation unfolded over the weekend, as we both dropped the defenses necessary when two people, formerly known only by e-mail addresses, meet in person. Trust between those of different ages and genders can be hard to come by, in these troubled times.
All in all, it was a very pleasant, normal evening. Much to our relief, tiger-stripe cammies were almost not to be seen (Mike, myself, and other v-vets we talked to are all amused by an interesting phenomenon: to hear some folks strut their stuff, Vietnam was occupied by about 2 million recon marines and 2 million green berets at any given time during the war). In fact, at the VVAW reunion there were more tweed sport jackets than camouflaged fatigues.
So we sat, and drank--some cokes, some booze; and some smoked--a lot of cigarettes (come on, you guys, give it up--don't die for R.J. Reynolds!), and a far smaller amount of pot than would have been the case 20 years ago. Lot of folks got pleasantly high, and no one got trashed as far as I could tell, but I left around midnight, as I saw a long weekend in sight. Joe Bangert was there, indistinguishable from the Joe of old except that his beard was gone, and he was accompanied by his 8-or so year old son, who was a real trooper about putting up with us boring old folks. And we talked, and talked, and talked.
And you know what? We are a really normal, decent, sane, pleasant, likable group of people. A paucity of war stories, even of old VVAW stories, at least where I sat. Most of the talk was about now, and where we were, what we were doing, politically and personally: our spouses, our divorces, our children. I don't know why this should seem surprising. But while we were immersed in VVAW, as much as we loved each other for what we had been through, and although many of us worked together daily, we seldom if ever had the time and sense of ease to sit down and appreciate each other as friends. And we now have the opportunity to do this, and it's just lovely.
The next morning, some a bit the worse for wear, we shambled rather than marched on down to the NY Vietnam Veterans' Memorial. After some milling around at the memorial, during which I met Dan Okada and voodoo chile, a memorial ceremony took place, involving statements by Barry Romo, Dave Dellinger, Dan Berrigan, and others. Folks carried flags of the various countries in which the US has been recently involved; along with placards giving casualty figures. We then marched to Memorial Park: someone passed out cadences to chant, but it just wasn't that kind of an occasion. Again, folks were just talking amongst themselves.
The scene at Memorial Park was very like the "Old Days." Speakers spoke, singers sang--Country Joe McDonald very well, as usual, others not so well, as usual. Mike moved through the crowd, stopping and chatting; I hung around the outside of the crowd where I have always been most comfortable, talking to Dan Okada, voodoo chile, Kalí, her intern Ben, Dan Duffy, and Lydia: all of us academic V-vets or students of the era--participant observers, rather than full participants, in many ways.
Later that afternoon it was off to a local church for lunch, scheduled for 2:00, preceded by 25 toasts which turned into 25 speeches. The Vietnamese Ambassador to the UN spoke so long that I thought we'd have to call in an air strike to get him off the podium. I'm afraid I tuned out--as at the Memorial Park, I've just heard too damn many speeches. I'd rather talk with than be talked at. Folks towards the back did begin to talk among themselves, although various school-teacher types up front frequently turned and "shushed" the crowd sternly. It was getting on to about 3:30 when a popular movement in the direction of the kitchen started, and soon enough turkey, roast beef, and other items had been liberated to make sitting through the speeches bearable. Saturday evening saw the "Concert," which actually meant Country Joe and a couple of other groups playing at a bar in Soho. I thought at first that VVAW had taken the place over for the evening, but as the regular crowd began to arrive around midnight, I realized that it was just an age-distribution phenomenon, with the middle-aged vets arriving and mostly leaving early, and the younger folks then taking over. It was a pleasant time, but again with a bit too much smoke and noise for me. Very difficult to talk to folks, and Kalí, Ben, and I tottered back to the hotel around midnight, with Mike following later.
The next morning a number of topics were scheduled for discussion in a local church. This could have been the occasion for some interesting introspection about where we've been and where we're going (a bit like this piece, come to think of it). Skip Delano had set up a display of FBI files about VVAW, retrieved under the FOIA. I was amused to see my name crop up in a newspaper article, quoting me on the aims of the veterans' demonstration in DC in 1971 (Dewey Canyon III). I had gotten my own file many years ago, and had been amused to see that much of the "Confidential," 400-page file consisted of copies of newspaper articles, press releases, leaflets, and other publicly distributed material. When I think of the millions of dollars wasted in accumulating that stuff... It's apparent that it's the process of collecting it that's important, that's intended to frighten people into inactivity; the "intelligence" itself is meaningless.
Folks were a bit worse the wear from the previous evening; it was pouring rain, and people were moving slowly. A lot of people had already left for home. The seating of people in pews didn't contribute to discussion; what we ended up with was Quaker meeting style testimony. A number of people spoke about the need for continued work for peace and justice; but Jack McCloskey reminded us that we needn't let that work consume our lives completely, that we have as much right to a normal life as anyone. I was reminded of demonstrations when the cry, "Vets to the front" would go up as confrontation with the cops neared, and veterans were expected once again to make a sacrifice others were unwilling to make. We did it, then, but I don't think we're willing to keep doing it. Much of this was very moving, but the "theme" of the reunion for many of us had been conversation: the testimony style didn't fit the mood, and the church pew didn't fit my butt. About midday, the "'Original' Stage Door Deli" across the street overcame our dedication, and Mike, Kalí, Ben and I ran through the rain toward the pastrami.
After lunch, we parted ways rather quickly. There was no need for any extended farewell, as we knew we'd be in touch. As mundane as all of the foregoing seems, what it was doing for me was providing an important reality check. We have been so bombarded by media visions of Vietnam vets, and our images of our own "vetness" have undergone so many changes over the years, that it can be hard for us to know who "we" as a group are, and what "we" are really like. This is especially true for people like Mike and me, who have been separated from other VVAW folks for so long. This event allows us to check ourselves against each other, to remind ourselves who we are, what we are really like; to tell ourselves that we made it, we are sane survivors, as normal as one can be given our experiences. It is a chance to check myth against reality, to the degree that is possible, to make ourselves comfortable with the parts of the myth that approximate reality, and reject what we feel to be "false" myth.
One evening, while taping my reactions to the day's events, I expressed my inability, perhaps reluctance, to pick it all apart and analyze what it all meant. I knew I felt comfortable with everyone at the reunion. They were "my" folks, folks who, not matter how alienated, had once understood the world like I did, and as no one else seemed to. And now, they are still "my" people. We were a crazy crew then, desperate in our own way, and we are now such a settled bunch of people, most of us. Listening to my voice on the tape, there is a sense of surprise that we were having such a good time, that people seemed so normal, and happy. And I went on to say, "I guess we've earned it. We earned it in Vietnam, we've been paying dues ever since . . . and, what the hell do you pay dues for unless you get something out of it, get something in return? And maybe that's it--we're happy now because we have paid for it--we did our duty as the country defined it in Vietnam, and we did our duty as we defined it afterwards, and maybe that should buy us a bit of happiness.