Sunday, May 30, 2010

War Heroes, Wannabes and Dissenters

My war hero dad and my anti-war hero friend were cut from similar cloth

I came back to DC from Chicago last week with a new treasure, one of Dad’s World War II medals. In all, he earned probably a baker’s dozen medals, the most important of which are his five Air Medals and three Distinguished Flying Crosses. I don’t think often about Bernie’s record as a war hero, but he was the real deal.

He served in the Army Air Force as a navigator and rose to the rank of captain. In the pantheon of heroes, navigators are generally ranked lower than army grunts and fighter pilots, but there’s little question that Dad belongs on the big list. He flew somewhere between 25 and 50 bombing missions over Germany and Eastern Europe, and was the lead navigator on many of those missions, which sometimes involved hundreds of planes. Clearly, and with only a little effort, I could come up with a more precise number, but the total would only reflect the fact that he showed up on time and ready to go every time Bomber Command called.

It was the lead navigator’s job to get the flight safely to target and home afterwards. Dad’s comparative record in that respect was sterling; as a consequence he was chosen again and again to lead, though he did have one story to tell about an apparent mission failure for which he ended up with a medal, anyhow. He told me the story after he found out I was reading Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, a strikingly vivid anti-war novel featuring the Army Air Force during WW II.

Heller’s protagonist, Yossarian, receives a medal after leading a huge bombing mission on an apparently disastrous run over southern Europe. Forced by stiff German air force resistance and anti-aircraft fire over known targets, the bombers use up huge quantities of fuel with extensive evasive measures. The maneuvers force them to skip their primary and secondary targets; in consequence, safe return to home base becomes the highest priority.

Lead navigator Yossarian’s goal becomes finding an unpopulated area to drop their bombs. Later, after the remnants of the squadron return to base, more detailed charts show that they have bombed a remote village. Military intelligence reports received later made the village, the location of a manufacturing facility critical to the Axis war effort, a target.

Originally picked by his superiors to be the fall guy for a possible war crime, Yossarian becomes the principal hero in the revised story of a successful attack on a military objective. By the time the “good” news comes in, Yossarian, tormented by constant preoccupation with the deaths of numerous airmen on a mission he led, and dreaming vivid dreams about innocent villagers waking to horrific explosions and certain death, has lived through many dark nights of the soul. He eventually shows up naked at a formal award ceremony to accept his medal.

The catch is that no matter how crazy Yossarian appears to be, his Army shrink believes that the navigator’s bizarre behavior is a sane response to the insanity of war. He gets no excused absence from his shrink. This particular contradiction, one of many on a long list, is “Catch-22.”

The novel captured Dad’s imagination and conscience in a way that other war stories had not. His disturbingly parallel experience led to the award of one of his three Distinguished Flying Crosses. As lead navigator on a mission involving planes from multiple English air bases he ended up with the Yossarian problem—finding an unpopulated area to dump bomb loads so that the remnant of his squadron, broken apart by heavy German air resistance and ground fire, could return safely to their bases. Unhappily, the spot in the Carpathian Mountains where they dumped their load turned out to be the village of Eagre, Czechoslovakia, not uninhabited territory.

In Catch-22 fashion, Dad was first suspended from duty pending an official investigation and later was awarded a medal when follow-up intelligence identified Eagre as the location of a war products factory. Though Dad never won an individual Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest armed forces award for valor, he was selected to receive the medal on behalf of his unit when his bomber group was awarded the Medal of Honor, Unit Citation for its overall record.

In light of recent news about Connecticut Attorney General (and Democratic senatorial candidate) Richard Blumenthal’s outing as a Vietnam-era vet who has erroneously claimed to have seen combat in Vietnam, Dad’s story, among others, seems especially relevant. So, too, is the story told by Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen (“A right to not fight,” May 25, 2010), in which Cohen discusses his choice to enlist in the National Guard so that he might avoid being drafted and, ultimately, serving in Vietnam.

Cohen feared a Guard mobilization that might land him in the middle of the war, anyway. But that never happened. Cohen notes that there was no particular dishonor attached to most ways men used to avoid service in Vietnam. Arguably, no war in American history, even the deceptively packaged invasion of Iraq, was more seriously and vigorously challenged by the men who were tapped to fight it. The allegation that some international “Communist monolith” had invaded Vietnam was demonstrably false, Cohen writes.

“The South Vietnamese government was corrupt. Why should I fight for it? What, exactly, was I supposed to die for anyway? I thought I had the right to know.”

But now, the “zeitgeist” of the time has changed, Cohen says. As a result, political candidates like Blumenthal pad their resumes with allusions, if not fraudulent claims, to actual combat service in ‘Nam. “But his most appalling lie was to turn a complex truth of that era into a simple matter of shame. It was obscene to send young men into a war that had lost its purpose… Opposition to the war was not merely a matter of avoiding duty but an agonized grappling with a hideous moral dilemma…”

In deceiving others and aggrandizing himself, Blumenthal makes it appear that avoiding service during the Vietnam War was a shameful, dishonorable act. Cohen ends his piece on this note: “I keep reading about how Blumenthal betrayed a generation of young men who actually fought. Maybe. He certainly betrayed those who would not.”

The problem with Cohen’s piece, for me, is that it does not do enough to survey the political universe of the time and the range of perceived moral choices that the Vietnam War created for others. The suggestion that enlisting in the National Guard was a way of “grappling with a hideous moral dilemma” seems problematic to me, though I can acknowledge that others who choose the Guard might have also seriously considered that they were choosing a path of resistance despite feelings that they also had a patriotic duty to serve.

I thought otherwise—that my patriotic duty was not merely to refuse to serve, but to resist. There was not simply a war, there was a war machine, spawned by a military industrial complex that survives to this day, profiteering on war and on preparations for war. Enlisting in the National Guard, the choice made by George W. Bush, hardly seemed like a moral response to the duty to oppose an unjust war and the system that prosecuted that war. To address that issue, I offer my own story—and the story of Fred Chase, an old friend, whom I regard as a hero on the same basis that my father was a hero; he saw his duty and he did it.

The simple version of my story is that I didn’t serve in the military of the time and enlisted, instead, in the anti-war movement, an enlistment that turns out to have been a lifetime commitment. Ironically, I entered college in 1965 with a burning desire to fight and die for my country. College, of course, was not the place to go on such a mission, but middle-class kids who lived in their parents’ home did not enlist out of high school, they went to higher school. This, it turns out, would not be a long stay for me.

My first day at the University of Michigan included attendance at an ROTC class where I found out that my poor vision ruled out the possibility that I might one day be commissioned as an infantry officer. This development instantly obliterated my fighting-and-dying ambition and left me without a coherent goal of any sort to guide me through the years of college that loomed ahead. It also shortly became clear that the academic indifference that had characterized my high school years would persist in college. As it happens, being out of my parents’ home and away from their scrutiny left me free to embrace the life of a dropout in a college town.

Though Dad was a loving man, he was also authoritarian and exact. In high school, I conformed as much as possible to the letter of his law, all the while breaking them in spirit as often as I thought I could get away with it. My new found, away-from-home freedom created exciting opportunities for self-indulgence, but it also led me to the discovery that I could be genuinely interested in ideas and issues when I encountered and explored them on my own, beyond the influence of convention or of my very patriarchal father. The Vietnam War, hotly debated everywhere, became just such an issue for me.

I don’t claim to have appropriately resolved the vexing question of how best to express my opposition to the war and fulfill my desire to impede the war machine. The arc of my life from 1965, my first year in Ann Arbor, until the end of the war in 1976 makes clear that I did not “show up on time and ready to go every time” anti-war duty called. Like Blumenthal and Cohen, I was no hero.

But Fred Chase was. As a teenager, Fred developed a real admiration for the Catholic Worker movement, the left-wing group founded by Dorothy Day as a way for progressive Catholics to express their commitment as Catholics to peace and justice issues. By the late ‘60s, Fred’s conscience had focused him on anti-Vietnam War activities. But the relentless expansion of the American military presence in Southeast Asia, the consequent increase in casualties for both Vietnamese civilians and U.S. servicemen, and the strain the war put on the domestic economy and social programs, persuaded Fred and others that more direct action aimed at stopping it was required. Fred and his colleagues planned and conducted a break-in at a Selective Service office in Chicago where they pulled files of draft-eligible young men and poured red paint on some files, and dragged more into an alley, where they doused them with gasoline and burned them, hopeful that by doing so they would damage the war effort and create a memorable image that would persuade a public increasingly skeptical about the war, that the break-in and destruction in Chicago to stop the war was far better than further bloodshed in Vietnam.

"We intended that our action have a practical aspect beyond the symbolic efforts of the Berrigans and others," Fred told me. "We destroyed some 20,000 files and delayed a lot of inductions in the disproportionately impacted black community on Chicago's south side. But it was just a delay and I'm sure the SSS didn't have any problem finding replacements elsewhere. In some ways it's like all the anti-war actions were just symbolic; and it's only when all of those just symbolic actions created a wall too tall to ignore that the war started winding down.

"They're talking about Afghanistan as being longer than Vietnam, and no end in sight," he added. "That's based on a Vietnam timeline from the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution to the withdrawal of the last U.S. combat troops in '75. But the first U.S. "advisor" died 8 years before Tonkin in '56... longest or second longest, Afghanistan has been too god damned long from its first day. It's a damned shame we don't have a movement effectively building that wall of symbolic actions that could bring its end."

Fred spent several years in federal prison for his act. When he was finally released, he came out of prison with his zeal for social justice and change entirely intact. Most of his adult life since has been spent working for nonprofits, raising his children, and organizing union locals on behalf of the Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW, whose members, committed to One Big Union, were known as Wobblies).

Never in the mainstream, Fred’s forty-year commitment to and membership in the IWW is a measure of his dedication to fundamental principles, including democracy in the workplace and worker-based governance. The IWW’s heyday, its membership high-water mark, was almost 100 years ago. But the One Big Union was decimated and permanently damaged by the Red Scare of 1919 and the Palmer raids, when the Justice Department swept both left-wing citizens and immigrants, mostly European-born, off the streets and deported them.

But for Fred, it was always first a question of what his principles were, and second a question of finding the best possible vehicle for carrying those principles into the everyday world, waging the best possible fight with the tools at hand. For Fred, the Wobblies were the best possible vehicle; for Dad, the best possible vehicle for a man who wished to give his country all he had was the Army Air Force. There’s no question that Dad’s vehicle was better suited for the task ahead of him than Fred’s. But the two men share a singular quality, they both showed up on time and every time their duty called them. Heroes, both.


  1. What a wonderful memorial to your dad and to your friend Fred.
    My dad like yours was in the Air Force in the late 50's prior to the escalation of Vietnam war. He was against it and this was a constant source of tension as we were living on military bases at the time. I can remember when I was 7 and 8 years old, doing verbally sparing with the 'Real American' kids talking trash about my dad or mom because of their "black radical pinko commie socialist" views. I remember saying that killing civilians and the bombing was wrong.
    But in reality, my dad like yours participated. He was caught up in the issues of his day and coming out of poverty felt he had few options for raising a family.
    He did his best to stay on the education track by teaching , teaching, but being on active duty there was no way to weasel around the war itself. He knew it and drew a 'mental line' where he could rationalize his life where at one time he was an electrical engineer preparing B-52 planes for bombing missions overseas. The 'mental-line' that he he had draw was a decision to leave the air force if he was ever assigned to go to Vietnam himself. I knew this as a child as he an my mom spoke of it on more than one occasion. He also read Catch 22 (along with other social satire) was active civil rights issues including organizing an event at an air force base in 1968 -- where Jesse Jackson spoke.
    He challenged the status quo, taking to task officers who claimed someone couldn't have mistreated a black cadet because he was "after all a christian". And worked with cadets to help them steer clear of some of the more racist military brass.
    He told me he had a hard time befriending white folks,but was glad that his children could, Over time he did have a close frend who was a jewish guy he played cards with because he knew that this friend was truly aware of what he calls the "ugly underbelly" of western & U.S. society.
    When an uncle who volunteered at 17 to fight in Vietnam ended up in trouble with the military authorities for refusing to carry a gun once in the field of battle. My dad worked to have bogus drug charges reviewed so that this uncle could be discharged regularly (shouldn' t have even been allowed to enlist at such a young age)
    I wonder how many people were permanently damaged by their participation in the inhumanity that was the Vietnam war.
    While my uncle saw a lot during his short stay in Vietnam, I think he lives with a clearer conscience than my dad does for his role with B-52s even at a great distance from the war.

  2. Janet,

    Thanks for responding. As you suggest, figuring a place to draw "a mental line" between performing one's duty and collaborating in an unjust war is a tough thing do. Especially if performing one's duty was a way for a Black man to use his skills to provide for his family.

    My Dad didn't have to figure out where that line was--nothing in his experience suggested that WWII was an unjust war. Certainly, there were compromising elements, e.g., the bombing of Dresden, and the atom bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the country was never so divided against itself in wartime as it was during Vietnam.

    In '69 or '70, I worked briefly for Insight Magazine, a black publication that came out only sporadically. Our cover story for one issue was a roundtable interview with six Black Vietnam vets. They all saw serious combat and were all full of rage and sadness. None of them, at the time, seemed to have made a successful adaptation to civilian life, but some of them seemed very wise. They understood that serving in the military frequently seemed like the only choice a Black man had, but they were committed to letting their community know that serving in 'Nam was a ruinous choice, bad for Black people, bad for the communities they returned to, and bad for the Vietnamese. They were all very familiar with Muhammad Ali's refusal to serve based on principle and the understanding that "no Vietnamese never did nothing..." to him.