October 7, 2001
It was fairly late that night in October 1967. There were no cars, no people. My then-wife Jane and I were about to cross a main street when a car suddenly appeared and swerved to a stop. Two big guys got out. They both had fresh buzz cuts and looked like Marines. One of them had a hammer in his hand. One end of the hammerhead was normal, and the other end was a sharp pick-like thing. They came toward us. One of them circled around to my back, as the one with the hammer came straight at me. Jane tried to position herself between me and the one with the hammer, but was just thrown aside. This gave me time to turn to the other who was coming at me from behind.
Both of them were screaming that they were going to kill me. I pivoted and punched the one behind me. He went down. The other one was still coming at me with that hammer, so I started talking. I don’t even remember what I said, but it stopped them both. The one with the hammer spoke back to me.
Turns out, they were Marines who had just gotten orders to go to Vietnam. He didn’t admit it, but they were afraid and they had been recruited by some college guys to kill me.
This was in Norman, Oklahoma, home of the University of Oklahoma, where I was the Southwest Regional Organizer for an antiwar organization. I had left school and committed my life to ending the war in Vietnam. At that time, the vast majority of Americans wholeheartedly supported the war. The little bit they knew about it came from what they saw on television. And the news just parroted whatever the U.S. Army and the government told them. By that time, in 1967, I had lost count of the number of times I had been called unpatriotic, un-American, a communist and even a traitor.
The first casualty of war is the truth — the rest of the casualties, unfortunately, are human beings.
I came to oppose what the U.S. was doing in Vietnam rather slowly. Most of my friends from the neighborhood I had grown up in served in the military. They were drafted. My friends affectionately called me “college boy.” I was the only one able to go to college, and therefore get a deferment from the service. By the early fall of 1966, I was as gung-ho about killing the Vietnamese as every other good American. Then, a series of peculiar things happened.
Just by circumstance, I stumbled on a book. It was an anthology of articles about the war. It piqued my curiosity, so I read more. I began listening to the news in a new way. I studied the history of Vietnam and the U.S. role in Southeast Asia through the years. I learned things not found on television or in newspapers. The real story was not to be found in our government’s rationalizations about the war. It was not found in the minds of most Americans, who were sending their children there to fight and die. The truth was that there was no reason for us to be in that country or that part of the world. It was over the course of nearly a decade that we were responsible for the slaughter of more than a million men, women and children, along with the loss of 55,000 young American lives.
Make no mistake: knowing the truth and trying to make others aware of it can be a dangerous business. My friend George Vizzard down in Austin, Texas, was murdered because he was an antiwar organizer. As an anti-war activist, I was arrested a half-dozen times, including in Chicago, where I was one of the organizers of the now-infamous demonstrations during the 1968 Democratic Convention.
From 1968 through 1970, I lived in fear and frustration. Fear that ignorance would kill me, and the frustration that nothing I, and the other folks I was working with, did to end the war seemed to impact American public opinion. At the time, few Americans could even find Vietnam on a map, but they were willing to hammer people like me for wanting to end the carnage.
And yesterday, we unleashed the dogs of war again — this time in Afghanistan.
It was B-52s that flew yesterday — planes that are among the oldest in our arsenal. I remember the B-52 well. They are really large warplanes that carry enormous bomb payloads. They fly very, very high. High enough to be safe from antiaircraft weaponry. High enough that they cannot actually see what they are bombing. Each one drops lots of bombs. In those days they called it carpet-bombing: pick a large area and destroy everything and anything down there, way down there.
I first came to oppose the war in Vietnam due to my curiosity about what was really happening over there. And some of those same questions bother me now.
They’re calling it Operation Enduring Freedom. It is, among other things, an alliance with a dozen dictatorships, including several monarchies, one of them being Saudi Arabia. This is the very same country that sponsors the form of fundamentalist Islam that created minds like Osama bin Laden. Did you know that?
So, the question for me today is: can I get you curious about what’s really going on? Are there those of you, like me, who demand some deeper understanding of what is going on?
As of this morning, almost ninety percent of America supports what we did yesterday.
When did the U.S. ever claim that this government called the Taliban was directly involved in the attack against us?
Yesterday, our government officials suggested that we have to accept that war involves killing civilians. They call it “collateral damage.”
Pal, I don’t have to accept anything.
Ask yourself what you know about the history of Christianity in the west and Islam in the Middle East and throughout the Arabian Peninsula. What do you know? It is important to know at least something about the history between these two religions that leads to realities like this.
What were the Crusades? They ended with the European seizure of Jerusalem around 1021. Why do most Arabic peoples know more about the Crusades and their history in general than we do?
Here are some other questions to consider: Why did the U.S. overthrow the first democracy that Iran ever knew back in 1954 and install a young military officer who went on to become the dictator and brutal despot we knew as the Shah of Iran?
Why did we invade the Dominican Republic in 1964?
Why did we overthrow the democratically elected government of Chile and install a military dictatorship in 1973?
Why does much of the world know more about the history of U.S. policies than the average American?
Why, when virtually all of our allies disagree with us, do we maintain sanctions against Iraq?
People are starving and unnecessarily dying of disease there for lack of medicine. At the same time, those who control that country live as well as they did before the Gulf War.
Did the U.S. seek to destroy the Ayatollah’s regime in 1979? How did Iranians feel about that? How did they feel about U.S. support for Iraq during the bloody war between Iraq and Iran in the ‘80s? Why are so many Arabic Muslims angry at the continued U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia, home to the two holiest sites in Islam, Mecca and Medina? What is Mecca? What is Medina? Should we know the answers?
Is seeking historical and political truth the first casualty of war? If so, what are we left with? What exactly is being endured by Operation Enduring Freedom?
More questions to think about: Who are the Taliban and how did they come to power? What happened in Afghanistan immediately after the Soviets left after losing 15,000 of their children in their version of Vietnam?
I have some answers. When they left in 1989, the Soviets had destroyed the government of Afghanistan. At the end of that war, Afghanistan became a nation of fiefdoms ruled by vile and violent warring thugs who were overthrown by the Taliban. The Taliban brought rule to a lawless place and generally united the country — but they were ruthless and unyielding in their application of Islamic law. The old warlords are now known as the Northern Alliance. Why is the U.S. expecting this group, which controls just five percent of Afghanistan, to save the day, when the Taliban has much more widespread support throughout the country? What is the real history here?
How much trouble am I getting in here by asking these questions?
Does my raising these issues in any way suggest that I don’t find the terrorist actions of September 11 as awful and despicable as any other American does?
Al-Qaeda is a global network of fundamentalist Islamic terrorists. These cats have allegiance to no nation — their only loyalty is to their warped version of their religion. They actually care less about the people of Afghanistan than we do.
And who do you think died in the inferno of exploding missiles and bombs yesterday?
And if what we are doing isn’t waging war on the people of Afghanistan, then what are we doing?
Are we better or worse citizens for questioning the choices made by our government?
Do you really buy the official answer that these terrorists are just crazed fanatics who hate our freedom? Maybe, just maybe, there is more to their rage than some ephemeral notion that they hate democracy.
These terrorists set a trap, and we just walked right into it.
Back in the ‘60s, we tried to build a movement against the war. What was one of our key recruitment tactics? We relied on the authorities to overreact. It worked every time.
Have we just begun to end the threat of terrorism, or just enacted a recruiting campaign for the likes of Osama bin Laden? One that’s beyond his best expectations?
Is it asking too much of my friends and neighbors to read between the lines of the news and to read a book or two as we go to war? Is it too much to ask that all informed citizens study what is really going on?
When we bury our heads in the ground, all we see is somebody else’s dirt. The truth is almost always found somewhere else.
When the dogs of war are unleashed, their fangs are not very selective.
If freedom is not about the right to dissent, then just what is it that we claim to be protecting?
What is to be learned by other wars against terrorism? The Israeli war against Palestinian terrorism? The British war against the IRA? The anti-terrorist war in Columbia? The Algerian terrorist war against colonial France in the ‘50s? Egypt’s war against the same terrorists who killed the peacemaker Anwar Sadat? These same Egyptian terrorists make up much of the core of bin Laden’s global terrorist network. If we look at these, what is to be learned? Does our war against Afghanistan suggest that our leaders have learned the right lessons?
Do you know that the Koran specifically forbids suicide? That it makes no mention of a paradise full of virgins? That it dictates that violence can only be used in self-defense? That it demands that non-combatants not be harmed in war?
If the goal of terrorism is to cause terror, what was our goal in the massive bombing operation yesterday? Can we expect people in other parts of the world will call us terrorists? Is seeking historical and political truth truly the first casualty of war? If so, what are we left with?
If freedom doesn’t demand that we think for ourselves, again just what is it we are protecting?
Memory is a funny thing. That October night in 1967 seems like yesterday. Maybe it