I am encouraged by the nominations of Vietnam veterans Chuck Hagel and John Kerry to the top cabinet posts of Defense Secretary and Secretary of State. It feels like a long overdue acknowledgment and recognition of the experiences of our generation. Perhaps it will reflect and reinforce the deep skepticism toward war many of us learned from serving in the military during that time.
Our country is usually safer and less prone to sanctify military action when our decision-makers have experienced the suffering and horrors of war. Spare us the arm-chair warriors (‘chicken hawks’ the veterans derisively call them) sacrificing soldier lives for geopolitical fantasies.
When I saw the photos published in last week’s New York Times of Hagel and Kerry in their class A uniforms, so young and uncertain, I could see myself many years ago. Like Hagel, I was an enlisted man, never rising above the rank of Spec 4, the same as Hagel’s rank in the photo.
Hagel and Kerry were on the front lines of battle and were wounded in combat. I was stationed safely back in the States playing in the army band. But we were part of the same turbulent, perplexing experience of serving in an unpopular and unjust war.
Vietnam shaped our lives profoundly. As he was medevaced out of the country, Hagel vowed “to do everything I can to avoid needless, senseless war.” Kerry returned to civilian life to become a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, testifying in 1971 before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
I spoke out against the war as an active duty soldier, part of the GI peace movement that spread through the military in those years. I spent my time when not on duty circulating petitions and organizing protests among fellow soldiers. When military commanders punished us for being ‘troublemakers,’ we filed a law suit in federal court to defend our First Amendment rights.
The Vietnam experience drove me to spend my life trying to prevent war and now to researching and teaching ways of building peace and resolving conflicts nonviolently.
I hope Hagel and Kerry will bring more realistic, less militaristic perspectives to U.S. military and foreign policy. Perhaps our nation can finally learn the lessons of Vietnam (and also of Iraq and Afghanistan), to avoid the temptation of war and focus on building peace through international cooperation.