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"Peace with Honor"

By Ben Chitty

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This talk was delivered on April 30, 2000, at the celebration of the 25th anniversary of peace in Vietnam at the Simon Wise Free Synagogue in New York City.

A RealAudio recording of this talk is available in the Democracy Now Archive, for May 1, 2000.


It was bittersweet to me when the war came to an end 25 years ago -- I got drunk as a skunk somewhere in North Carolina. The war had finally ended, but I wanted more, I wanted "Peace with Honor." Honor is not so mysterious -- it means being honest, accepting responsibility, making amends for injuries. I wanted official apologies, reparations, technical assistance for Vietnam, and a change in the government, a whole new government, here at home.

Instead we got new fronts in a never-ending war. Counter- insurgency operations, "low-intensity conflict", and police actions abroad -- Afghanistan, Lebanon, Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, Persian Gulf, Somalia, Haiti, Kosova, looks like the next stop is Colombia. Censorship and repression at home, orchestrated by the military-industrial complex and the national security state and their allies and agents: look at what happened to the Sanctuary movement, the South African solidarity movement, militant environmentalists; look at the new federal anti-terrorist measures.

Somewhere along the line the Soviet Union disintegrated, but not the subversion of democracy. No repudiation of the policies which created such destruction. No resolution of the prolonged crisis of legitimacy. The system still isn't working for most people; it's still killing people, at home and abroad.

So some kind of peace came to Vietnam 25 years ago, but not to me.

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For one thing, we were changed. The war was unwinnable long before most of us got to it, but no one told us (or we didn't listen) -- we found it out for ourselves... it was an experience which could raise your consciousness.

We learned a new American history: the U.S. is not a democracy but an empire, and not an especially benign empire, founded on genocide and slavery, expanded on commercial interest and chauvinism wrapped in a missionary spirit.

A new military history: most U.S. wars have been wars first of conquest then of intervention -- sending soldiers somewhere to fight with the people who live there about how they can live, or which government they can have. Even the details look different. The U.S. military learned to practice total war, wars on entire populations, "modern wars." We fought the native Americans for centuries, killed or relocated them, and took their land. We took "Indian fighting" to the Philippines, then found "gooks" to fight in Mexico, Haiti and Nicaragua. We refined our technology of death, machine gunning Moros on Mount Dajo in 1906, fire-bombing caco bands in the Haitian boondocks in 1919, strafing Sandinista villages in 1929, finally incinerating Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. We refine it still -- in the Gulf we proved the futility of opposing U.S. interests with fuel-air bombs on the Highway of Death; according to one report, that videotape persuaded Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw from Kosova. Makes Nogun Ri in Korea, My Lai in Vietnam, the firefight in Mogadishu -- look like trivial excesses, lapses of discipline. After all, most of the people we killed in Vietnam were non-combatants, and we killed them at a distance, with explosive and incendiary devices.

Even a new veterans history: our government has only rarely kept faith with its veterans. From the Revolutionary War vet cheated out of his bonds, to the Civil War veterans defrauded by lawyers in cahoots with corrupt Veterans Administration officials, to the World War I Bonus March vets dispersed by bayonet from their nation's capital, the Korean War POWs accused of disloyalty, and the atomic vets of the Cold War dying of cancer by friendly fire...

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For another thing, we had problems of our own.

We had to help heal ourselves -- we formed rap groups to deal with alienation (the original "Vietnam syndrome") and post-traumatic stress; we started going back to Vietnam to help rebuild what we had helped to destroy; we even built our own memorial -- the Wall in Washington, now so popular with tourists that we forget how bitter was the opposition to its design.

We had to deal with the POW-MIA legend, a story started by the Nixon administration to rally support for his secret plan to end the war, then fostered by anti-communist fanatics (and more than a few crooks and charlatans) inside the government and out.

We tried to force recognition of dioxin poisoning from Agent Orange exposure -- the government began to give us that finally, just as it began sending half a million men and women into the Persian Gulf, where the Pentagon did them with depleted uranium, nerve toxins and experimental vaccines the same way it had done us with defoliants.

We watched as the major legislative reforms of the Vietnam era -- the War Powers Act and the Independent Counsel statute -- were ignored or flouted, or perverted in an orgy of partisan bickering then abandoned.

We saw another "reform" -- the all-volunteer army -- racked by the everyday and deadly oppressions of our society -- race and class, which loaded up the military with minorities, poor people and immigrants; gender, which left women subject to sexual harassment at every level; sexual identity, where "don't ask" gave a green light to witch hunts and finally murder.

We learned of the environmental costs -- the toxic wastes abandoned in the Philippines and Panama, and also Kaho'olawe, Eglin Air Force Base, Cape Cod, Fort Drum, Fort Dix. Diamond Shamrock's production of Agent Orange in the Ironbound community in Newark left a "superfund" site so toxic that today it's capped and fenced, and under guard 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

We saw how the "lessons" of our experience became military control of the media and minimum American casualties -- which turned into unreported deaths and hidden injuries. How many Panamanians died in Operation Just Cause? No one counted. How many Allied soldiers were injured in the Persian Gulf? That count is still coming in.

These events have some things in common. The real lessons of our experience have been ignored or corrupted, by the same folks who sent us to Vietnam (and their political heirs). The machinery of death is more efficient, certainly more expensive and profitable - - indeed it may be politically dangerous to risk a soldier's life in responding to ethnic cleansing in the Balkans but it's okay to send nineteen Marines to their deaths in a flawed and unnecessary but very expensive airplane like the Osprey.

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Well, it's enough to make you crazy. So how crazy are we?

People say we could have won the war -- we know we could not.

People say the anti-war movement harassed and betrayed the soldiers -- we remember that the government drafted and enlisted us, lied to us, and let us die. By giving me something constructive to do, the anti-war movement saved my sanity, maybe saved my life.

People say the anti-war movement lost the war -- wait a minute, let me get that straight -- I get sent to a war I can't win and I should not be fighting, I come back and say this has to stop, so now it's my fault?

Of course, this revisionist obsession with alternative fictions is not really about strategy or tactics, or geopolitical constraints, or even the various and notorious "betrayals" -- the liberal media, Walter Cronkite, Robert McNamara, even Jane Fonda. It's about you and me -- the folks who told the truth about the war. If we were right, then the people who supported the war, the folks who favored intervention, the people who sent us crusading against communism -- they betrayed us, their own sons and daughters. Anti-war veterans are the witnesses against them -- we had been through the meatgrinder, we saw the system was not working, we knew the war had to stop.

And we're still here. We know Operation Just Cause was little more than a badly bungled arrest. We know we went to war in the Persian Gulf to put the Emir of Kuwait back on his golden throne. We know that the Sudan missile strike was a clear case of homicide by depraved indifference. We know the Balkan bombing campaign -- a "perfect war" with no American casualties (so they say) -- failed to bring peace to the Kosovars, whether Albanian, Roma or Serbian.

How many of these Panamanian, Iraqi-Kuwaiti, Sudanese, Kosovar people better off for American intervention?

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We know more.

We know the question is one of democracy, of political power and accountability. We know the problem is not bad people -- though I've met some -- but a bad system. We know the answer will be based on mass mobilization and militant resistance.

Here's an example. On the island of Vieques off Puerto Rico, several dozen people practicing non-violent civil disobedience have stopped the U.S. Navy from bombing their island for more than a year -- the largest and longest civil disobedience campaign in recent U.S. history. We know Puerto Rico is a colony in the U.S. empire. We know the Pentagon has told lies, broken promises, and we know Navy's claims of national security are bogus. We understand what's going on in Vieques, and why it's important: if -- when -- the people of Vieques chase the Navy off their island, it will be our victory too.

Now even in VVAW's glory days -- defying the Attorney General and the Supreme Court at Dewey Canyon III in Washington, disrupting the Miami conventions, seizing the Statue of Liberty, walking out of the Gainesville courthouse acquitted on all counts -- VVAW was more than just an organization. "Vietnam "Veteran Against the War" was a state of mind. Vietnam veterans against the war turn up in many places: Black Veterans for Social Justice, Veterans for Peace, Project Hearts and Minds, the Veterans Vietnam Reconstruction Project. What we bring to the movement -- besides passion and credibility -- is this. We have learned something about just and unjust wars. We know that for us this never-ending war of ours, the real war, the civil war in the heart of the empire, the belly of the beast, is a war of self-defense. We know the system can waste you in a heartbeat. Walk around the protest camps in the live-fire zone on Vieques -- you'll meet veterans.

Just one more example. I'm a Vietnam veteran -- I'm alienated, maybe even a little grumpy; I don't like the way things are; I don't trust the government. Barry McCaffrey also served in Vietnam -- he thinks we can cure the pestilence of drugs in our communities by locking up a lot of people here at home, and by arming a brutal and corrupt military and its paramilitary allies who use terror to keep the rich rich and the poor poor in Colombia, a country fully integrated into the freest of global markets, the international drug trade. Which one of us is nuts?

So 25 years after the fall of Saigon, I'm still a Vietnam veteran, still against the war. And I'm still looking for peace with honor. But I'll tell you what -- I'll settle for peace with justice.

Ben Chitty served in the U.S. Navy 1965-9, and deployed twice to Vietnam (1966-7 and 1968). He is a co-coordinator of the Clarence Fitch Chapter of Vietnam Veterans Against the War in the New York metro area.

Distribution encouraged, no copyright claimed.

Ben Chitty
Clarence Fitch Chapter
Vietnam Veterans Against the War
April 2000

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