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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.

Memories of the Master

Marcus Raskin died this past week in Washington DC. He was the founder and long-time director of the Institute for Policy Studies, the influential left-liberal think tank that was at the heart of the Vietnam antiwar movement and many progressive projects over the decades.

Raskin was my teacher and mentor for PhD studies and guided the writing of my dissertation, which became the book, Soldiers in Revolt.

In the years I was at the Institute, 1972-75, Raskin was constantly in motion, always organizing conferences and antiwar actions, meeting dignitaries and donors, endlessly fundraising, engaging in intense political and intellectual conversations with the leading thinkers and doers of the day. I knew how difficult it was for him to fit advising my dissertation into his packed schedule and was immensely grateful for his willingness to read and discuss my chapters and guide my studies.

I remember spending a lot of time in those days waiting outside his office. Often he would be late or called away to another priority. Then he would come rushing in, greeting me warmly, and quickly getting down to the business of scholarship, peppering me with probing questions about the research and writing.

Those were shining moments of enlightenment for me. He would question my assumptions and conclusions, agreeing with some and challenging others, and urge me to look into additional sources, always suggesting important works for me to read in political theory, international relations and national security.

Raskin was the classic scholar-activist, a concept he developed at length in his important book, Being and Doing: the scholar who studies for the purpose of social betterment, the activist who is deeply grounded in scholarship. I have tried to apply that model throughout my life and always share it with my students.

Raskin also played a critical role in guiding my career. He introduced me to the directors of SANE, the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy when they were searching for a new director. Several years after I became executive director of SANE, he became chair of the board of directors, and we worked together closely during the 1980s in building the movement to freeze and reverse the arms race.

We met almost weekly during those years, spending time on organizational matters but also discussing strategic and programmatic direction. We didn’t always agree. He was more interested in the broad vision of disarmament, calling for a renewal of the 1961 plan for general and complete disarmament, while I was more focused on achievable policy steps, such as a U.S.-Soviet halt to nuclear testing. But he was always supportive of the organization and my leadership and never wavered in his commitment to building and supporting a strong movement against nuclear weapons.

We mourn his passing, as always when the great ones leave us, but we also recognize and pay tribute to his monumental contributions. The master is gone, but his work lives on in our continuing struggle against the war system that dominates U.S. foreign policymaking.

Photo with Marcus Raskin

Marcus Raskin with Jonathan Hutto and me at the 2007 Letelier-Moffitt award ceremony.

Recently I had the privilege of attending the Vatican-sponsored symposium, “Prospects for a World Free of Nuclear Weapons and for Integral Disarmament.” It was a transformative and inspiring experience that included an audience with Pope Francis. The Vatican invited Notre Dame’s Office of the President and Kroc Institute to collaborate in the event, and five faculty members and a dozen current and recent students made the trip to Rome. Among the more than 300 participants were Nobel laureates, ambassadors and governmental representatives, Church leaders, civil society leaders and nuclear experts from dozens of countries.

The highlight of the event was the audience with the Holy Father, which took place in the Vatican’s magnificent Clementine Palace. The Pope delivered an important address that broke new ground in strengthening the Church’s commitment to the abolition of nuclear weapons. Noting the grave risk these weapons pose to humankind, the pontiff declared “the threat of their use, as well as their very possession, is to be firmly condemned.” This was the first time a pope rejected the very possession of nuclear weapons.

After the address, all of us at the conference were invited to greet the Pope. As I stood in line inching closer to the Holy Father my knees were shaking. I kept thinking of my long departed mom, who was so devout in the faith, and how proud she would be of her sometimes wayward son finding his way to the Vatican. I took deep breaths to compose myself and tried to focus on the moment as I stood now in front of the Holy Father. He reached out and smiled warmly, and I stepped forth and clasped his hand. I can’t remember what I said to him. Time seemed to stand still and for a moment I had no idea where I was. Then I turned and walked slowly back to my seat, floating on air, overwhelmed with a deep feeling of gratitude and joy, aglow with the spirit of this most blessed of popes. I noticed similar deep smiles of wonderment on the faces of many conference participants as they returned to their seats.

The symposium was historic not only in expressing the Church’s condemnation of nuclear weapons but in articulating the concept of “integral disarmament,” which can be understood as a companion to the Church’s doctrine of integral human development. Denuclearization is an imperative not only for humanitarian reasons to save innocent lives, but to redirect public resources toward programs that address the needs of the poor and enhance human flourishing. As with integral human development, the goal of integral disarmament is to protect life in all its dimensions and to support inclusive approaches to economic and social opportunity. Integral disarmament also encompasses Pope Francis’s concern for protecting the environment and respecting God’s creation, as expressed in Laudato si’. All of this is woven into a capacious conception of disarmament that seeks not only to prevent nuclear holocaust but refocus public priorities toward serving human and ecological needs.

Attending the historic symposium and greeting the pope was a privilege, but with that honor comes the responsibility to heed the pontiff’s words and redouble our efforts for peace and integral disarmament.

With Pope Francis

Recently more than a hundred veterans of the Vietnam antiwar movement and peace scholars and activists gathered in Washington, D.C. to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the October 1967 March on the Pentagon, arguably one of the most significant and iconic demonstrations of the peace movement, also the subject of Norman Mailer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Armies of the Night.

The commemorative event included a vigil at the Pentagon near the site of the original protest, a conference with analyses of the antiwar movement and recollections from the March by those who participated, and a walk to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Washington Mall.

At the Memorial, aka “the Wall,” we gathered to lay a wreath in honor of those who suffered from the war. We noted that if the Memorial were extended to include the names of the millions of victims of the war in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, it would stretch more than two miles to beyond the Capitol building and across the Potomac past the Pentagon.

I was asked to offer some words on behalf of the soldiers memorialized at the Wall and those who served during the war. My comments are below:

 

We approach the Wall with a deep sense of reverence.

This is sacred ground for many of us, a hallowed place in which we remember and pay respects to the more than 58,000 American soldiers who lost their lives, to the hundreds of thousands who suffered severe injuries, to the millions who experienced post-traumatic stress and continue to suffer to this day, and to their families, friends, and colleagues who suffered with them.

This is a place of sadness and mourning, which is always the case when we remember the losses of war, but in this case, the sadness and mourning are particularly poignant and tragic, for a war that we know was unjust and unwinnable. A war of imperial ambition. A war that was profoundly immoral and a violation of international law. A war that was unnecessary and in vain.

And so this must also be a place of recommitment and rededication to working for peace, to struggling for justice and human rights to prevent war. To opposing and stopping the unnecessary and futile wars our country is pursuing today in Afghanistan and half a dozen other countries.

We hereby devote ourselves in the years we have remaining to carry on the struggle for justice and peace, to pass along our ideals to the children and grandchildren and young people everywhere who come after us, to carry on the movement against war.

And if we are successful, if we can turn America away from militarism and wars of intervention, if we can build a culture and politics of peace, then perhaps those we remember here today will not have died in vain, and we can create a future with no more victims of unjust war.

 

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Rick Hind, a veteran of the Vietnam antiwar movement and longtime legislative director of Greenpeace, lays a wreath at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, on behalf of the Vietnam Peace Commemoration Committee, October 21, 2017.