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One of our greatest political leaders for peace has passed away. The highlights of Ron Dellums’ extraordinary career in Congress and his lifelong commitment to the pursuit of justice and peace are nicely captured in the New York Times obituary.

I can add a few points not mentioned by the Times.

Dellums was a member of the Board of Directors and Executive Committee of SANE during the years I was Executive Director of the organization. He spoke at a number of our events over the years, and he assigned his very able assistant Carlottia Scott to be his representative at organizational meetings. Scott was a constant, supportive, brilliant source of political guidance and support throughout the 1980s when SANE and the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign were at the peak of their influence.

Dellums and I spoke together at a number of rallies and conferences during those years. He was an eloquent speaker with a gift for words. He spoke of the need to connect disarmament and the struggle for racial and social justice by reminding audiences that the bomb is “an equal opportunity destroyer.” No one is safe from the indiscriminate mass annihilation of nuclear weapons, he would emphasize.

He linked the quest for greater domestic social spending to antimilitarism by quoting Dr. King’s famous indictment of the Vietnam War: the bombs being dropped over Hanoi were exploding in the streets of Harlem. The unconscionable sums of money wasted on war and weapons are diverting funds from programs to create economic opportunity and social uplift here at home.

I had occasion to reach out to Dellums again a few years ago when we invited him to deliver an opening keynote at the “Vietnam: Power of Protest” conference in Washington DC commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first antiwar protests. It was inspiring to see him, and to hear again that clear clarion voice calling us once more to the cause of peace.

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Dellums speaking at “Vietnam: The Power of Protest” Conference. Credit: Brewster Rhoades.

Here is a link to the video of that May 2015 speech from Amy Goodman and Democracy Now.

Dellums recalled that evening how his life was changed when he heard Dr. King’s 1967 speech at Berkeley against the Vietnam War. Dellums realized then, he said, that “the peace movement is the ultimate movement, peace is the superior idea … Peace is not just the absence of war, it is the absence of conditions that give rise to war.”

Amen, brother Dellums. You will be missed, but we stand on your shoulders and will carry on the movement for justice and peace.

 

Last week I had the extraordinary opportunity to witness and participate in a reenactment of one of the highlights of my life and a significant event in antiwar history, the 1970 court suit against the Army, Cortright v. Resor. The reenactment took place on May 8 in a courtroom of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in the Thurgood Marshall United States Courthouse in New York.

The program was sponsored by the Federal Bar Council Inn of Court before an audience of more than 100 jurists, attorneys, and legal professionals. Participants were able to earn Continuing Legal Education credits for attending.

The past President of the Federal Bar Council Inn of Court, Honorable Denny Chin, recently contacted me about the reenactment. A sitting member of the Second Circuit, Judge Chin explained that he and his teams at the Inn of Court create reenactments of major constitutional law cases that have come before the court, and they were planning to present my case as a test of the First Amendment rights of soldiers to dissent against the war. He interviewed me about the case and asked if I wanted to attend. Of course, I said yes.

In the court case many years ago, I joined with other members of the 26th Army band at Ft. Hamilton New York to file a suit against the Army for denying our First Amendment right to speak out against the Vietnam War. We argued that the punitive transfers and work assignments that had been imposed against our unit were an unconstitutional attempt to silence our dissent. We had signed a public petition against the war that appeared as a full-page ad in the November 9, 1969 issue of the New York Times, and we were involved in a second petition that our commanders suppressed.

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Also at issue in the case was an incident in which several band member wives and my fiancée at the time protested against the war during a Fourth of July parade at which the band was performing. The Army claimed that the transfers and onerous work duties imposed against us were for military necessity, but we had evidence and argued in court that these actions were specifically intended to suppress our right to speak out and get rid of me as an antiwar “troublemaker.”

We filed our case in Eastern District Federal Court in New York in July 1970. The presiding Judge Jack Weinstein ruled in our favor in March 1971 holding that my transfer was an improper attempt to deny constitutional rights and ordering that I was to be transferred back to Ft. Hamilton from Ft. Bliss Texas where I had been sent. The Army appealed the case to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, where Chief Judge Henry Friendly led a three-judge panel. A few months later the appellate judges ruled two-to-one to overturn the decision of the District Court, expressing judicial reluctance to interfere in the internal decisions of the Army. We then appealed to the Supreme Court but were denied review in the spring of 1972.

For the reenactment last week Judge Chin and his team prepared a tight 55-minute script of the case based mostly on transcripts of federal court proceedings and rulings. The script included excerpts from oral testimony in the District Court hearing; portions of Weinstein’s decision in our favor; oral arguments in the Second Circuit hearing; excerpts from internal voting memos of the three Second Circuit judges; and excerpts from the final decision of the Second Circuit to overturn our case. The script concluded with vignettes about the careers of those involved, especially Judge Weinstein, who became a legend at the bench.

It was an amazing and almost surreal experience to relive the case and see our words and actions dramatized. The reenactment brought that experience to life and deftly presented the core arguments and judgments at stake. Members of Judge Chin’s team played the roles of those involved: me, my fiancée, some of the other members of the band who testified in court, the attorneys for our side and the Army, the military commanders who were ordered to testify in court, and the judges who presided. It was fascinating to hear the arguments and written reflections of Judge Weinstein and the appellate jurists as they pondered the issues in the case and made their decisions. The reenactment even included a short vignette in which three women picked up antiwar posters and paraded around the courtroom shouting “Nix on War” and “Kill Poverty Not People” (the actual slogans the women used back in the day).

Accompanying the reenactment was a slide show presenting images of the New York Times petition, scenes of antiwar soldiers marching in Vietnam peace rallies, photos of judges Weinstein and Friendly, and the iconic Richard Avedon photo from 1969 in which I appeared with a dove above the slogan, “who has a better right to oppose the war.”

Judge Chin’s reenactment not only captured the emotion and drama of that experience but also brilliantly articulated the legal issues at stake. Federal judges do not normally interfere in the operations of the Army, as decided in Orloff v. Willoughby, but in this case, senior military officers admitted in court that I was transferred because of my antiwar activities. The Army tried to argue that the transfer was a normal administrative procedure, but our side proved that the generals singled me out for a transfer because of my role in organizing the petition. The Army argued that the band was a public relations unit and should not present antiwar views, but we never protested while performing for the Army.

The case also hinged on the Army contention that we should have controlled our wives and prevented the protest at the Fourth of July parade. The Army argued that we were responsible for the actions of the women, a view which our senior attorney Fred Cohn called “a most chauvinistic attitude.” I testified in court that we knew of the women’s plan to protest, but we did not initiate or organize the action. I didn’t think a demonstration at the parade was a great idea and worried that it could cause trouble, but I did not feel I could tell my fiancée and the other women what to do. The protest of the women did indeed cause a disturbance among people watching the parade, requiring police intervention and resulting in newspaper stories about the incident the next day. That was the precipitating event that convinced the Army to crack down on us and transfer me out. In effect, we were being punished because of the actions of our wives and my fiancée.

At the end of the reenactment, I was introduced and stood to read a few lines from the script about the purpose of our action. In response to a question, I explained that the experience of opposing the war and suing the Army changed my life and gave me a sense of purpose. I committed myself to working for peace and I am still at it nearly 50 years later. Were you scared back then, another young lawyer asked. “Terrified,” I replied. We were operating in uncharted territory and were afraid of what might happen, but we felt a moral obligation to speak out against an unjust war.

Judge Chin came up to thank me and the audience rose in a standing ovation. I thought their enthusiasm was for the presentation, which was truly excellent, but the judge wrote the next day that the applause was for me. Many people came up to me afterwards to thank us for standing up for what we believed. I felt proud to have brought the lawsuit and thrilled to be part of an event that preserves a key piece of the history of antiwar dissent in the Army during the Vietnam War.

 

I was amazed during my recent trip to Vietnam to see how the Vietnamese people have moved beyond the war and are committed to seeking reconciliation with Americans.  Despite the horrific pain and hardship their country suffered at our hands, the people we met—government officials, military veterans, teachers, students—expressed no ill feelings toward Americans and were eager to build a relationship of friendship and cooperation.

This spirit of peace was especially evident during the ceremonies at My Lai marking the 50th anniversary of the massacre. Officials at the commemoration event offered condolences to the victims and their families, but they focused on the goal of achieving reconciliation and peace. We remember the pain of the past, they said, but we strive to heal the wounds of war and build peace with the United States and the entire world.

A few days later our Veterans For Peace group cosponsored a dialogue session with Vietnamese military veterans at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. Our Vietnamese counterparts gave heart-rending accounts of the wounds and tortures they suffered in the war and the loss of brothers, fathers and entire families. Yet they also spoke passionately of their desire for peace and reconciliation between our two peoples. The combat veterans among our group spoke of the pain and killing they witnessed and sometimes caused, and also of their opposition to the war. Several expressed sorrow for what our country did and asked for forgiveness.

Diplomatic and economic relations between Vietnam and the United States have improved in recent decades. American businesses are popping up everywhere in Vietnam, and diplomatic relations are starting to normalize. Each side benefits from increased trade and investment, and both share an interest in balancing the rising power of China.

This growing amity between former enemies was on display in mid-March when the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Carl Vinson made a port call at Da Nang and sailors from the ship came ashore to make goodwill visits in centers for disabled children, including one run by the Da Nang Association of Victims of Agent Orange.

The improvement in U.S.-Vietnamese relations is welcome, but genuine reconciliation is much more than a relationship of commercial or political convenience. Reconciliation is the building of new relationships based on apology, forgiveness, and trust. It requires an honest recognition of painful truths, a willingness to take responsibility and make amends for the damage done. It also means adjusting behavior to avoid repetition in the future.

Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of the challenges of reconciliation in his famous sermon “Loving Our Enemies.” At the core of the biblical command to love all, he said, is the obligation to forgive those who have harmed us. We forgive because it is necessary to overcome hatred. But forgiving does not mean forgetting. We remember the pain and suffering that has been done, but we do not let that recognition stand in the way of forging a new relationship. We face the truth of the past in order to build a better future.

The United States has taken initial steps to heal some of the wounds of the past. We have assisted the Vietnamese in locating unexploded ordnance and are working to clean up Agent Orange toxic hot spots. Much more is necessary, however, especially to take responsibility for the Vietnamese victims of our chemical poisoning. Over the years the Veterans administration has started to recognize and provide compensation to growing numbers of affected American military veterans and their families. Some form of acknowledgment and restitution is also due for the much larger number of military and civilian victims in Vietnam. This would be difficult for American political leaders to accept, but it would go a long way toward healing and deeper reconciliation.

Even more difficult for Americans leaders to accept is the fundamental injustice of the war. Robert McNamara admitted in his book In Retrospective that he and other war planners “were wrong, terribly wrong,” but he did not apologize or admit the immorality of assaulting an impoverished peasant nation that did nothing to harm the United States, whose only crime was to seek liberation from foreign domination. More than 58,000 Americans died in that futile struggle, and the death toll among Vietnamese was more than two million according to McNamara’s estimates.

The United States has shown no sign of acknowledging the enormity of the disaster we caused in Vietnam, or of abandoning the policies of military interventionism that led us to that grim fate. Our government still claims the right to conduct military operations and drop bombs in other nations solely on our own authority, without regard for the United Nations or international law.

Until we as a nation turn away from our continuing addiction to war, the search for reconciliation will remain unfulfilled.

A Letter from My Lai

I have come to Vietnam as part of a delegation from Veterans For Peace to commemorate the 50th anniversary of My Lai.

We are here to acknowledge what happened in this place half a century ago, and to express our condolences and deep sorrow for the suffering our country caused for the Vietnamese people. As Americans, we own this place, whether we like it or not. We cannot escape the responsibility for what happened. We have come to bear witness to that reality and seek reconciliation.

We are half a world away from home, and yet this is very much an American event. We’re here now because America was here then, and the consequences of that tragic day resonate through time and endure now and into the future.

It is a sunny, hot and humid day, very much like that fateful morning 50 years ago when soldiers of the 23rd Infantry (Americal)  Division entered this verdant village and committed unspeakable atrocities in one of the darkest days in U.S. military history.

We stroll slowly through the memorial site and visit the museum. We follow the footpaths where the carnage occurred, now cement walkways with images of feet and hands imprinted. Next to us is the infamous irrigation ditch, where 170 villagers were herded together and gunned down in cold blood, women, children and old men. We walk past markers where family huts once stood, plaques giving the names and ages of the family members killed, so many in single digits.

Walking through the museum we see the faces of victims. The front entry wall is covered with a plaque listing the 504 names of those killed that day here and in surrounding hamlets. As we approach, an elderly woman is leaning forward and pointing emphatically to the names of family members engraved on the wall. A Vietnamese man approaches and asks her to turn around and lift the back of her blouse, revealing a grotesque scar that stretches across her torso. She is one of the survivors of the assault.

Nearby is a religious temple where we listen to the chanting of Buddhist monks, and the deep resonant tones of a gong. We are invited to light incense sticks and come forward to place them on the altar, a ritual similar to our lighting of candles in church to remember the deceased. I offer a prayer for those killed, and a plea for the forgiveness of my country.

The official ceremony begins with the introduction of dignitaries: the former President of Vietnam, a Deputy Prime Minister, a former Chief Justice, a retired general, and political leaders of the local Quang Ngai provincial government. Also introduced is the director of the My Lai Peace Foundation, an organization hoping to build here a large peace park dedicated to reconciliation and the prevention of war.

The speeches are in Vietnamese but the words are displayed in English on a large screen. The chief minister of the district begins by expressing sincere condolences to the families of victims and compassion for the survivors, but quickly pivots to a more hopeful and conciliatory tone. The main question before us, he says, is not what happened in the past, but how we work in the future to prevent such an incident from ever happening again. Amen to that, I think.

He welcomes our delegation of U.S. veterans, along with the other American groups here from the New York-based Fund for Reconciliation and Development (FRD) and a Quaker-sponsored organization in Wisconsin. Our presence here today helps to close the past, he says, and can build greater cooperation and understanding for the future.

“We must do more than hope for peace. We must take practical steps to heal the wounds of war and assure that no place on earth ever experiences the fate of My Lai,” he says.

The director of the My Lai Peace Foundation speaks of the mission for the proposed peace park. It will encompass more than 60 acres and have a bell tower 50.4 meters high. The work performed at the site will be dedicated to “the lesson of altruism,” according to the park’s description, and will seek to raise the Vietnamese people’s “aspiration to live in peace.” The park will be a reminder for “people around the world never to create any war.”

After the ceremony, the U.S. delegations meet with the chief minister. Veterans For Peace leader Chuck Searcy describes a letter signed by more than 600 Americans expressing deep apology and regret for what happened and our commitment to do all in our power to prevent such an atrocity from ever occurring again. FRD Director John McAuliff notes that many of us in the delegation worked against the war for many years. He calls for the U.S. government to take responsibility for what was done in Vietnam and to provide redress and compensation for the many Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange poisoning and unexploded ordnance.

The chief minister responds positively and praises us for coming to pay our respects. We are grateful for your commitment to peace and truth, he says, and we hope that our two peoples can bond together in friendship and peace. We can never forget the harm that was done in the past, he states, but we can and must work together for peace and economic development, not only for the Vietnamese people, but for all people everywhere.

We leave with continued deep feelings of remorse, but also a small sense of satisfaction that we have been part of an experience of expiation. We have come full circle in our lives. We spent our youth struggling to stop the war, to avoid going to Vietnam. Now we have come back, to a place of immeasurable tragedy, to accept a small measure of our country’s responsibility and also to commit ourselves to overcoming the legacy of war and working for reconciliation.

May that work continue and multiply into the future, so that perhaps out of the ashes of this atrocity will arise not only a peace park, but an enduring commitment to the prevention of war.

I am in Vietnam this week with a delegation from Veterans For Peace. We will be visiting My Lai on Friday, March 16, the 50th anniversary of that horrific massacre. We’re expecting an intensely emotional experience as we remember the more than 500 civilians who were killed that day, including many women and children. It will be an occasion of rededication to working for peace and seeking reconciliation with the Vietnamese people.

That mission of reconciliation remains incomplete. For decades the U.S. government has refused to acknowledge or take responsibility for another heinous legacy of the war: the spraying of toxic Agent Orange over vast areas of the country.

Washington has compensated American veterans affected by the spraying, and is cleaning up toxic sites at the Da Nang and Bien Hoa airports, but so far we have refused to help the millions of Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange, or address the many birth defects, disabilities and illnesses that continue to afflict the offspring of the victims.

A news story this week from Da Nang gives hope for possible change. Hats off to Veterans For Peace colleague Chuck Searcy for sharing the story.

During the recent port call in Vietnam by the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, sailors from the ship visited two centers for disabled children, including one run by the Da Nang Association of Victims of Agent Orange. During the visit members of the Navy band played “Noi Vong Tay Lon,” a Vietnamese song about national unity that was popular during the war.

Reading that story brought tears to my eyes. I too played in a military band during my time in the Army. Mostly we played military marches.

How much more I would have enjoyed playing for the kind of mission the sailors of the Carl Vinson performed! For that I would have played my heart out.

The Navy visit was mostly symbolic, but hopefully it will be a first step toward taking responsibility for addressing this vital humanitarian legacy of the war.

Gene Sharp, the pioneering and prolific scholar of Gandhian nonviolence and civil resistance, passed away this week at age 90. His life was dedicated to examining the ways in which nonviolent action achieves political change.

While studying Gandhi’s methods at Oxford in the 1950s, Sharp realized that it is not necessary to convert people to pacifism in order to organize effective nonviolent action. Many of those who followed Gandhi in the Indian freedom struggle did not accept his pacifist principles. They used his methods because they found them to be most effective for their strategy of winning independence from British rule.

This understanding of nonviolence as a superior method of political action was a key conceptual breakthrough. Nonviolent action is not only the right thing to do, it is also the most effective.

Sharp’s thesis on the superiority of nonviolent methods was later confirmed in the work of Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, whose 2008 book Why Civil Resistance Works provides empirical data showing that campaigns utilizing nonviolent means are twice as effective as those that employ armed struggle.

Sharp devoted himself to the study of nonviolent action as a pragmatic means of achieving change. He published many important books and pamphlets, including his three-volume classic, The Politics of Nonviolent Action (Porter Sargent, 1973) and Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential (Extending Horizons Books, Porter Sargent Publishers, 2005). His booklet, From Dictatorship to Democracy, published originally by his Albert Einstein Institution in 1994, was subsequently reprinted and translated into more than two dozen languages, including Arabic.

The youth leaders in Egypt who led the revolution overthrowing the Mubarak regime in 2011 read and received training in Sharp’s work. This prompted the New York Times to credit the bookish octogenarian scholar with creating the playbook for revolution, a claim Sharp denied although he expressed satisfaction that the revolutionists found his ideas useful.

Sharp’s ideas and insights live on in the work of the Einstein Institution, the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict and in the work of peace studies and civil resistance centers around the world. Let us commemorate his life by re-reading his work and renewing our commitment to nonviolent action for justice and peace.

Secretary of State Tillerson recently announced that U.S. troops will remain in Syria even after the fight against ISIS ends. The military mission will include preventing the Assad regime from re-establishing control over rebel-held territories. This means the U.S. is taking sides in the bloody Syrian civil war, sliding ever more deeply into the quicksand of permanent war in the Middle East.

All of this without public debate or legal authorization.

Hats off to Senator Corey Booker and Professor Oona Hathaway for pointing out in the New York Times that keeping U.S. troops in Syria without the approval of Congress or the UN Security Council would be illegal. The same could be said for other U.S. military operations in the world today.

According to the U.S. Constitution, the authority to declare war rests squarely with Congress. That authority has eroded over the decades and was dealt a body blow by presidential war-making in Vietnam. In 1973 Congress passed the War Powers Act in a faint attempt to recover some of its constitutional authority. The law requires the President to notify Congress within 48 hours of sending troops into hostilities and to end military operations within 60 days if Congress does not declare war or authorize the use of military force.

This attempt to constrain executive war-making was steamrolled in the stampede to war after 9/11. Congress adopted an initial Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) allowing military action to suppress Al Qaida under the principle of self-defense. That thin authority has since been stretched, warped and distorted beyond recognition into a blanket authorization for permanent military operations without geographic or temporal limits. The U.S. is bombing Libya, Somalia, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan and has forces deployed in those countries and an unknown number of others.

Under the Charter of the United Nations, a treaty binding on the U.S. which the U.S. basically wrote, nations are prohibited from using military force in other countries unless in self-defense or when authorized by the Security Council. The outlawing of war was derived from the Kellogg-Briand Peace Pact of 1928, in which the United States and dozens of countries vowed to renounce the use of war as an instrument of national policy. Read The Internationalists by Hathaway and Scott Shapiro for the stirring story of how that prohibition emerged.

We know of course that political leaders often sign such documents with fingers crossed, but the prohibition against war is a legal fact and a sound principle.  It was established as a way of avoiding war and discouraging nations from sending troops across borders without authorization.

If we want to be a nation of laws, as we claim, a good place to start would be in obeying international prohibitions against military intervention. We’d better do it fast before we get bogged down in the chaos of Syria.