Story of an Anti-war Portrait

Avedon photo
Antiwar poster for the Student Mobilization Committee, 1969, Richard Avedon and Marvin Israel Photograph by Richard Avedon © The Richard Avedon Foundation

Here’s the story of how I came to pose for this poster by the great photographer Richard Avedon.  (Yes, that’s a real dove.)

I served in the U.S. Army during Vietnam, an experience that made me realize the folly and horror of war. Uncle Sam turned me into a peace activist.

It was the summer of 1968, an unfortunate time to be a young man in the United States. Military draft calls were at their peak, with more than half a million U.S. troops on the ground in Vietnam. Most of my friends and my brother were already in the army. Within days of graduating from Notre Dame (goodbye student deferment!) a notice from the Selective Service arrived, ordering me to report for the draft. Soon I was in the army, my head reeling.

To avoid being sent into the infantry I signed up for the army band. Yes, I defended my country by playing a baritone horn and trumpet.

Before I entered the army I had not really thought about war. As I went through basic training, however, questions began to rise. The explanations our commanders gave for why we were in Vietnam did not ring true. The returning war veterans told harrowing tales of what they had experienced. ‘Wait’l you git there, sucka,’ an embittered vet shouted at me one day in the coffee shop.

Doubts began to swirl, and I started to read about Vietnam. Halfway through the first book (a history by Bernard Fall), I realized that almost everything our leaders were saying about the war was wrong. This was not ‘communist aggression from the North’ but a struggle by the Vietnamese to overthrow foreign domination and unite their country. The U.S. had supported French colonialism, violated the 1954 Geneva accords, turned the ‘temporary demarcation’ line dividing the two regions into a de facto border, created and funded a separate state in the south, and then sent an American army to prop it up. U.S. bombers were raining death and destruction across Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Questions turned to shock and outrage as I realized the war was unjust and immoral.

What to do?

I desperately wanted to escape, but it was too late. I was stuck in the army, a small part of the green machine, forced to participate in a cause I could not accept. I thought about deserting, or filing as a conscientious objector, but the former would have separated me permanently from family and friends, while the latter was not available to Catholics like me. I was angry and increasingly depressed. I had to do something.

One day I saw a magazine story about soldiers at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, speaking out against the war and forming a servicemen’s union. That was it! I could oppose the war even as an active duty soldier. Perhaps if enough of us spoke out, political leaders might pay attention. I realized that speaking out would be risky, that I would likely face some kind of punishment or harassment as a result. But I didn’t care. I couldn’t continue with business as usual. I had to speak out against the madness and would face whatever consequences might come.

The rest, as they say, is history. I became part of the GI antiwar resistance, a story recounted in my book, Soldiers in Revolt. As active duty soldiers, we marched and spoke at antiwar demonstrations. We signed petitions of active duty soldiers against the war, the most famous of which appeared as a full-page ad in the New York Times the Sunday before the historic Moratorium rally in Washington in November 1969. When our commanders cracked down against us with harassment and punitive reassignments, we filed a lawsuit against the army.

One day in 1969, while I was stationed at Ft. Hamilton in New York, a representative of the Student Mobilization Committee asked if I would pose for an antiwar poster. Sure, I said, and a few days later I put on my uniform and arrived at the photography studio of one Richard Avedon. Yes, the Richard Avedon. At the time I had no idea who he was, so I didn’t know enough to be nervous. The resulting poster (yes, that’s a real dove) was widely used in the antiwar movement. It was not intended to be a portrait of me personally, but an image of the antiwar G.I. as archetype — the thinking soldier who asserts the right and duty to speak out against illegal and unjust war.

That was how I gained political consciousness and started on the path of working for justice and peace. I have not strayed from that path in all the years since. I guess I should be grateful to the army. It taught me about war, and convinced me of the need to study, teach and work for peace.

22 thoughts on “Story of an Anti-war Portrait

  1. Hi David,

    Thank you for sharing your story. Each of our stories of how we got started working for peace and justice illuminates a path for others.

    FYI, a few colleagues and I are relaunching 2020 Vision as 2020 Action. Our Core Group is researching, writing and sending out monthly action postcards (by email and post) on US environment and peace issues with a focus on nuclear weapons and climate change. Our ‘new’ and ‘improved’ 2020 postcards combine ART & ACTION. Each postcard features a photograph that celebrates the beauty and wonder of the natural world we are working to protect. Visit 2020Action.org to learn more and to join.

    Good luck with your blog. I’ll subscribe.

    Lois Barber

  2. It’s good to hear from you David. At the moment, I just want to subscribe.

    Best wishes, we hope to see you in Boston.

    Shelagh

  3. A note of clarification. I was drafted in the summer of 1968 but decided to enlist for three years rather than take my chances with the two-year draft, which in those days was a direct ticket to Nam. I was what they called a ‘draft-induced volunteer.’ There were lots of others in the same boat, and many of us were active in the GI peace movement. I found later, as I was researching my book Soldiers in Revolt, that volunteers were more likely to be politically active against the war than draftees. This seemed counterintuitive to many, since we were suppoedly in the army of our own free will, but in fact our service was most definitely compulsary–and we had another year to become frustrated and angry about the war, and to do something about it.

  4. Dear Professor, I am your student in UJI. Your class of Nonviolent Movement were such an inspiration for all peacemakers in the class that I am sure that seed will turn to many trees advocating nonviolence movements to advocate for peace and justice. It is very encouraging when I read yours. Thank you for all your efforts regarding very peacefully changes and for all your inspiring speeches which come from your deeply desire for a peaceful environment.

  5. David,
    Keep up your excellent work. Glad to know that you have never stopped since the Army days.
    Jim Miller
    Former 26th Army Band member

  6. Hi David

    Great piece-a fellow Army bandmate from Ft Bliss sent me the link. When I was in the 8th Infantry HHC band in Germany, the piano/glockenspiel player from the Staten Island band was in that band, and and later, a drummer from SI and i were roommates for a few years. Small world. I look forward to reading more of your writing.

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  8. Thanks David, i enjoyed reading your story. It seems to me that issues of war and peace need to be higher up on the agenda of today’s activism. Your story I’m sure can inspire others. Nancy Kurshan (‘60s/70s peace activist)

  9. Kudos for finding a legitimate way to protest. You did not go to Canada you held your ground. I know many Vietnam vets who are/were the epitome of fucked up; fellow Red Cross volunteer who ended a five year relationship because I would not have sex with him. He was married. He had flashbacks during national disasters claiming to smell dead bodies. A Vietnam veteran uncle who stole millions from my grandmother leaving her to die a Ward of the State. Another uncle who died of AIDS. He mentioned he discovered his homosexual orientation in the Army in Vietnam. These are but a few of my relationships with Vietnam vets. I have a son who is a Marine vet of Afghanistan.

    He served 7 years and wanted to be a grunt. He was. Served 7 months in war. Did did not re enlist. He is now a pastor. The Vietnam vets struggle daily with disease of Agent Orange, depression, sex, drug and alcohol addiction, STD and cancer. It was the end of communism. The price paid by the American working class was astounding. We can not redo history. This begs The question, which can never be answered, was it worth the horrific, bloody, life changing consequences of the fight against communism?

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