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The Ghosts of Viet Nam Haunt a President

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On Veterans Day, George Bush exploited the veterans once again by trying to push forth his agenda for oil, save the rotting legacy of his presidency and blame others for his failed policies. It is an old story that those who were alive during Viet Nam will well remember. Those causing the death of our young men and women and tens of thousands of innocents abroad while proclaiming their patriotism and calling opponents cowards are a common phenomena. My father an 83 year old WWII combat veteran cannot even force himself to watch George Bush on television, turning the channel while shouting "lying bastard" at the disappearing image. He told me he doesn't know one combat veteran who supports George Bush's war in Iraq. A retired truck driver, union man, WWII vet, small town councilman, hardly lunatic fringe.

George Bush is like most of his affluent friends during the Viet Nam war who supported the war but didn't participate. Always someone "lessor" must take their spot on the firing line while they profit from their death. Bush's behavior and current events in Iraq make necessary a discussion of the revisionist history provided by the Republicans of Viet Nam that they are still using today to try and rally support for their criminal exploitation of the American military.

It is interesting that those supporting George W. Bush say that his service record, or lack of it, is irrelevant to the election but point out the anti-war record of John Kerry after his return from the war. John Kerry's change from war hero to anti-war activist is understandable when history is remembered as it was, not as the Republicans have revised it for political gain. I have watched for some time the interesting distortion of events that has happened in order to court veterans of the Viet Nam War and to absolve the Republican Party of the death of thousands of American soldiers and millions of Vietnamese under Richard Nixon. The Republican version goes somewhat like this; the war was a right and justified intervention that was distorted and lost by war protestors in this country who hated veterans and undermined them at home. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The truth is the anti-war movement sprung from young people who saw their brothers and friends being drafted for an illegal and immoral war based on lies. There too the Johnson and then the Nixon Administration lied about the reasons they went to war, repeatedly violated international law to advance an agenda based on a false premises and failed to properly support the young men they sent there. The premise that time was to prevent the scourge of communism. I have to shake my head when I hear the same justification for our war in Iraq. "We have to stop them there or fight them in the street here". There is no more reason to think that the Iraqi's posed any danger to the U.S. then North Vietnam was going to invade the U.S.

At that time the justification was the "domino theory" that if South Vietnam fell all of Southeast Asia would become Communist. Well Vietnam did fall, the rest of Southeast Asia did not become Communist, except for Cambodia for which a strong case can be made that we destabilized by violating their neutrality. What is becoming abundantly clear is that we may see a domino theory in reverse in the Middle East. Having destabilized Iraq into warring factions we may have given Muslim fanatics the fuel to spread their war throughout the area by bringing Iran, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, possibly Egypt and others into the battle.

Each Protestor a Personal Journey

I could be called a draft dodger in that I had a student deferment from 1967 until the lottery in which I drew number 321. I was glad that I wasn't drafted and would have considered leaving the country if I had been. My student deferment however, was not sought out to avoid the draft. College was the opportunity of a lifetime. It was something that my family had encouraged since I was a child and that they hoped was a way out of the working class life of long hours of physical labor and hoping beyond hope that no medical or other emergency happened that would push the precarious family financial position over the edge. I was the first child in my immediate family and only the 2nd in a large extended family to go to college. Between working two jobs in the summer, one during the school year and tuition scholarships I was able to complete my degree.

Being interested in history and current events I had began to follow the events in Viet Nam in about 1965 two years before entering college. There were already significant questions being asked as to the appropriateness of our cause, the validity of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution and value of sending a growing number of our young men to fight for something most Americans couldn't really explain.

The defining time of the war for me was as anti-war sentiment grew in the country a young Native American man that I had played high school football with who had joined the Marines after graduation was killed. No one knew how or why. It was obvious to my 16-year-old mind that something was wrong here. A young man whom I had admired and respected had died for a hill that was promptly given to the enemy after sacrificing his life to keep it. I was deeply troubled by this event and became anti-war but not involved in active protest even as I watched more of my high school friends get drafted.

The idea of active protest filled me with internal turmoil. My father was a WWII combat veteran. I was raised in a small town where the values of church, community and country were foremost. We celebrated Fourth of July and Memorial Day with parades and celebrations, on cold winter afternoons we watched John Wayne, Dana Andrews and Audie Murphy fight the nemesis of fascism in old WWII movies. We had been trained to get under our desks and not look at the windows if there was a nuclear attack from the evil communists who were out to destroy everything we loved. We had tensely watched the Cuban Missile Crisis unfold on TV, sure that WWIII would break out at any moment. While I felt something was deeply wrong in Viet Nam, I couldn't yet bring myself to protest against my government. It was against everything that we had been taught to believe that our government could lie to us. That is why when most of us finally accepted it we felt so betrayed.

In January 1968 the siege of Khe Sanh started. It lasted for 77 days but was held at the cost of 250 American lives. Two weeks after the battle was over, Khe Sanh was abandoned by the American military. At the same time the Tet Offensive swept throughout South Viet Nam. Attacks in every major city including Saigon showed that the enemy was far from being close to defeat as predicted by Gen. Westmoreland. President Johnson entered peace negotiations in Paris with North Vietnam and there was some hope the end of the war was in sight. Nixon was elected though and who new his secret plans to end the war would take seven more years.

My first two years at a state college were fairly uneventful except having to learn how to balance unrestricted freedom with academic achievement. I got a girlfriend, joined a fraternity, learned to smoke and drink and tried to not think too much about the war. Countering that were those events were beyond my control. My pursuit of a history major continued to educate me about American Foreign Policy, as did news about increasing protests on more campuses and daily events in Viet Nam. Nixon and Kissinger proceeded to bomb civilian populations in the north and troop strength was increased by 100,000. The thing that influenced me most however, was my exposure to returning vets who entered college and shared their personal experiences.

This conundrum of dealing with war on a personal level reached a breaking point with this exposure to veterans and a set of events. In my junior year, I was elected to the student Senate. Amongst those represented were a number of political activists and several students who were leaders of the Viet Nam Veterans Against the War. These mostly combat vets brought their stories, bravery and commitment to the movement against the war. My exposure to them, the invasion and bombing of Laos and Cambodia (a neutral country) and the killing of unarmed protestors by National Guard Troops in Ohio at Kent State University and Jackson State eliminated any mental opposition to action. There was no doubt that loyalty to my country demanded protest of these continued illegal and immoral actions.

After that I quickly became involved and a leader in non-violent protests against the war. Those I worked along side and respected the most were Viet Nam Vets. The war had become very personal after Kent State. It wasn't just that American college students were gunned down, but that their peers were commanded to do it. Viet Nam Vets inspired us to do what they had learned overseas, that the only just cause to risk your life for was each other, your friends who were serving overseas and those who were by your side in the protest marches. Our motto "don't trust anyone over 30" didn't differentiate between vet and non-vet. We all felt that we were in a battle to make the world a better place. Never was there antagonism towards vets during those years in the anti-war movement. Vets were seen as victims of a failed policy just as the majority of the Vietnamese people who were caught in the middle of a civil war. Vets were whom most of us were protesting for.

Working Class Resistance & Nixon's War

It was the same through out the rest of middle class America as vets came home. Americans began to understand what was happening in Viet Nam. While much credit is given to the influence of the war on television every night as changing public perception it is only part of the story. Veterans coming home with physical and mental scars, drug problems, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or in flag draped coffins to their homes spread the message of what was going on over there to their parents, brothers, sisters and friends. In a draft army this information spread by personal experience turned middle and working class America against the war.

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John Kelley is the Managing Editor of a monthly progressive newsmagazine, "We the People News", in Corpus Christi, Texas
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