Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Taps for the North Country Dead

Forty-five years ago, just after sunset on a hillside along the border of New York and Canada, the sad sounds of taps echoed through the hills. It was a warm evening in the summer of ’67 when hundreds of townspeople – nearly everyone living in Ausable Forks, a tiny hamlet of 500 or so souls – came out to pay last respects to a local boy, James Saltmarsh, killed a week earlier in Vietnam. An honor guard had fired 21 rifle volleys as yet another son of the North Country of upper New York State was laid to rest. Finally the elegiac lament of the bugle was heard, closing the burial ceremony in the breathtaking High Peaks region of the beautiful Adirondack Mountains.

High Peaks, Adirondacks, northern New York
It was an ordinary burial ground, not a place dedicated to the military dead. Over the years I had become familiar with military cemeteries, having visited several abroad.  I rarely came away unaffected by the magisterial simplicity of those solemn places, calling to mind legions of eternal youth no longer walking the earth. Mostly young, of course – so many truncated lives. My first such experience was when passing through eastern Poland in the ‘60s. I was visiting a Polish colleague at a university near Lublin. He took me for a drive, he wanted to show me something.
We came to a small elegantly fenced-in area. Entering, I realized it was a cemetery, but an unusual one. There was just a single stone obelisk with Cyrillic script, standing guard so to speak, over rows of widely spaced, carefully landscaped low mounds, each with a bronze marker. This was the burial place of hundreds of Soviet soldiers who fell liberating Poland in 1944. No trace of individualization, a fast moving army had buried its dead quickly and collectively. The men of 8th Guards Army lay with their comrades, regiment by regiment.  I was well aware of the scale of Soviet war losses, but still seeing them up close left me stunned.
Some years later I was visiting friends outside London and, walking about a suburban town, happened upon a vast military cemetery, the largest in Great Britain. There lay nearly 5000 young Englishmen, Canadians, New Zealanders, Australians, South Africans, and even some Americans from the two world wars – each with a simple stone marker carved with the man’s name, rank, unit, and, inevitably, short life span. The place was beautifully kept, symmetrical rows of white markers stretching across immense lawns as far as the eye could see.

Brookwood Military Cemetery, Woking, Surrey, England
But for me the most affecting of these sad sights was in 1990 on the eve of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Traveling by boat up the Volga, I and my companions went ashore at the place formerly called Stalingrad, the scene of one of history’s legendary battles, where well over a million Russian and German soldiers met their deaths.
Our Russian guide, a young woman, led us to the Soviet victory memorial, a massive stone building on a high bluff over the river.  We entered the structure and were struck by its eight-story circular atrium interior, every inch of the soaring walls carved with names of the dead. Pointing high up, the guide said to me quietly that her grandfather’s name was up there. What could one say – I bowed my head.
What of the North Country dead for whom there was no victory. They simply came home to local graveyards in the obscure little towns and villages where they grew up, played football, or marched in the band – places of several thousand residents with names like Cape Vincent, Hannibal, Lowville, Phoenix, Rouses Point, and Ticonderoga. A little further south – in the foothills of the Adirondacks – Glens Falls, the ‘metropolis’ of the region with a population just over 18,000, already had 15 fatalities early in the Vietnam War, nine alone just in the first six months of ’67.
Similarly, in the much smaller town of Mexico on the shores of Lake Ontario in New York’s Oswego County – replete with early American history like the entire region – the local high school had lost three recent graduates in less than a year by fall of ‘67. The Vietnam War dead of the North Country, interred over a huge, sparsely populated area and in numbers disproportional to their percentage of the state’s population, rest in union with nature in an alternate space for the military dead spread over forested mountains and across green valleys along the fast moving streams and rivers.
The great majority of the North Country dead were not drafted – they enlisted, volunteered. What impelled so many to step forward into a war that became increasingly unpopular. Settled in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the region had been relatively prosperous from mining, logging, valley farms, and numerous sawmills, pulp/paper mills and other riparian enterprises strung along the many waterways of the Adirondacks.
By mid-20th century, however, the North Country was in decline – in the 1890s New York had created Adirondack State Park, the largest of its kind in the United States, designating 6,000,000 acres ‘forever wild’ which greatly restricted logging. Mining was played out, and many of the small riverside mills long shut down, their giant water wheels turning aimlessly, while the larger paper companies had gradually moved to the South, a land of cheap labor, less environmental concern.
By the ‘60s, the North Country had become a region of little economic opportunity. For the boys graduating from high school in its many small communities, there wasn’t much work. Sure, around the many lakes there were jobs serving the summer tourist trade, but those were seasonal. New York State had by then created an extensive state higher educational system, including many inexpensive two-year community colleges – at all of which deferments from the draft awaited. However, many of the North Country boys, a large number of whom grew up on farms, had neither interest nor money for pursuing further education.
With the unemployment rate 50 percent above the statewide average, the military beckoned to the boys of the upper Adirondacks, attracted by a combination of adventure, challenge, and, not least, employment. Nearly a lifetime later, as I riffled through myriad obituaries of the North Country dead, it was uncanny how many of those young men had been athletes, opting for the Marines or airborne. Often they virtually went from the football field to distant battlegrounds with exotic names like Dak To, Con Thien, Khe Sanh – for so many of them, places of no return. As one 20-year old in the process of filling out enlistment papers at a local recruiting office put it, “There just isn’t that much for a young guy to do.”*
For the boys of the Adirondacks, the journey was all too often a short one. Vietnam tours were 12 and 13 months, and when a GI or Marine was done, he could head home, ‘back to the world’ as they called it. Some 58,000 never completed their tours, including the North Country dead. They’d go off to war – Basic Training, Advanced Infantry Training, deployment to Nam, often cut down by enemy fire or a land mine early tour, mid-tour, and occasionally just weeks before return. Next of kin notified.
During WWII, it was the dreaded telegram. Or, as depicted in Saving Private Ryan, a farm mother standing at the kitchen sink looking through the window, seeing a khaki brown car in the distance, watching with apprehension as it turned into the access road, steadily coming up the hill to the house.
In modern wars with their ‘lighter’ casualties, notification can occur at warp speed and is always personally delivered. A few weeks back in Mechanicville NY just south of the Adirondacks – the smallest city by area in the state – a middle-aged mother awaited a call from her Marine son. Since deployment to Afghanistan earlier in the fall, he rang home every week at 6 AM Sunday morning. His mother set the alarm, rose early, but no call. A few hours later a knock at the door – two Marine officers, the young man had been killed 24 hours earlier – shot in the neck, just over a month in-country. She told the press he had wanted to serve in Afghanistan adding, “I’m extremely proud of my son.”**

Mother of a Fallen Marine, Mechanicville, NY, 2012
For the fallen from Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, it’s home in a box, family and neighbors gather, a sad requiem, the flag folded, presented to the mother, almost always the mother, the gravediggers standing at a respectful distance turn to the final work. What then of the enduring casualties of war, of all wars, the survivors, the parents, a young wife. From the mother and father of a Russian soldier killed in the Soviet Afghan War, a final message carved on his tombstone, “Dearest Igor, You left this life without having known it.”† The lost one is of course buried in the hearts of those who loved him now left with just memories and photos.
Some years after Vietnam, in a documentary on the war, an older couple was filmed sitting quietly in their living room, a picture of a young man in uniform in a silver frame between them, their only child, a pilot shot down over North Vietnam. Not for them the revisionism of defeat – we shouldn’t have been there, lives wasted – no, the war remained a just cause, their son did his duty, they were ever proud. Or fighting back tears, the same sentiments more recently by the mother of an Afghan GI, Sgt Orion Sparks: “He didn’t shirk any of his years. … I felt honored that he was my son and I was able to be part of his life.”***
Long after the guns go silent, time passes, rights and wrongs fade, -- the parents grow old, the young widow remarries, children grow up, move away, but the boy who went to war remains, forever young, in the silver frame on the mantle. The strange poetry of war obits, the military fanfare at graveside, the heartrending notes of taps closing a life – all become distant memory. Pain dulls, but never goes away.

Cpl Wm. Aspinall, Plattsburgh, and PFC Chas. Raver, Phoenix
        KIA - Thua Thien, 1967, and  Quang Nam, 1968     
The young men in those picture frames remain unchanged, the boy who went off to war remains as we last remember him. And so it was with my brother Jeff Sharlet who served in Vietnam, was possibly exposed to something there – perhaps Agent Purple, we don’t know – and died several years later at 27. For our parents, now long gone, as for all those North Country families and the mothers of those two Afghan GIs, in spite of reaffirming sentiments, nothing could be worse than losing a child.
I remember the day we buried Jeff. It was a beautiful sunny June day in ‘69. I sat between my parents as the limo sped along the broad avenues toward the cemetery, the hearse flanked by two outriders – booted, helmeted motorcycle policemen, in reflecting sunglasses, astride big Harleys.  To my distraught mind, two images came to the fore – a scene from the 1950 French film Orpheus when ‘Death’, a striking woman cloaked in black, arrives by limo, preceded by goggled motorcycle outriders, submachine guns slung, announcing her authority; and then as we approached the cemetery gates, the more gentle image from the opening and closing lines of Emily Dickinson’s poem:

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me …

Since then ‘t is centuries; but each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses’ heads
Were toward eternity.

*New York Times, July 12, 1967
**Albany (NY) Times-Union, December 3, 2012
***Military Resistance #10J11, October 21, 2012              









Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Antiwarriors Mobilize – Brothers Divergent

Brother Jeff and I returned to the States in the late spring of ’64, he from the Vietnam War still in its infancy, and I from the Soviet Union. I had just finished a year’s study of Marxist legal theory at Moscow University Law School. While I had been studying Communism, Jeff had been fighting it in Southeast Asia. How our experiences shaped us couldn’t have been more different.

We met again that summer at our parents’ place in Coral Gables outside Miami. It was an all too brief reunion – Jeff and I both had to get on with our stateside lives. I headed north to Washington to finish up research on my doctoral dissertation at the Library of Congress. Jeff went west, back to Indiana University (IU) – where I was taking my PhD – to complete his undergraduate education.†

Back from Vietnam – Jeff in Florida, Summer ‘64

A half year later Jeff and I were again off on our different trajectories, I starting my academic career at the University of Missouri (Mizzou), Jeff beginning spring term at IU. I was teaching introductory courses on politics and international relations along with an upperclass course on Soviet politics with no prior classroom experience.
Jeff was taking a full course load, including US and comparative politics, American intellectual history, a course on the novel, and a course on totalitarian political patterns—totalitarianism at the time was very much in vogue as a descriptor of Soviet Bloc and Asian communist regimes. Colleagues and I would later successfully challenge the concept, but that’s another story.
Meanwhile back in South Vietnam (SVN), the low-key war had been steadily heating up. The South Vietnamese army (ARVN), assisted by some 15,000 US military advisers, was fighting a communist guerrilla insurgency against the Viet Cong (VC) supported by North Vietnam (NVN). The war was not going well for SVN, which had persuaded the late President Kennedy (JFK) to accede to the South Vietnamese generals’ coup against President Diem in November ’63.
Unfortunately, the situation in Saigon had only grown worse following the coup. A junta of generals, divided among themselves, could not effectively govern. Political instability combined with military ineptitude weighed down the floundering regime. A second coup toppled the junta a few months later.  Then followed a series of coups and attempted coups throughout ‘64. None of this confusion was lost on the VC, nor on their military mentors in the North. By early ’65, the VC had achieved de facto control of large parts of the country.
All this produced alarm among the Washington policy makers. The CIA had forecast that the time was near when the VC could triumph. The US guarantee of the independence of a non-communist SVN was at stake. More and more, the emboldened VC were infiltrating the cities and populated areas specifically to attack US military facilities and places where American personnel gathered for recreation.
On January 20, 1965, President Johnson (LBJ) was inaugurated, and just two days at a confidential briefing of the congressional leadership he broadly intimated that he was about to begin bombing North Vietnam. All he needed was a pretext; the VC obliged in early February with a destructive attack on the American base at Pleiku in the Central Highlands, and LBJ responded with air strikes against NVN. A few days later, a concerned Jeff wrote me, “I could get recalled very easily (Ready Reserves, Vietnamese linguist, Intelligence experience).”
It was soon evident that the retaliatory strikes had been pre-planned dress rehearsals for a full-scale bombing campaign, code-named Rolling Thunder, that was launched in March. Marine combat battalions soon followed to secure the air bases from which strikes against the North were being flown. By those two abrupt moves, LBJ had dramatically escalated the war. The sudden exponential increase in American involvement in the civil war of a country most people couldn’t find on a map, in turn elicited a sharp negative reaction among faculty and students at a number of major universities.

We'll smash down your doors, we don't bother to knock
We've done it before, so why all the shock
We're the biggest and the toughest kids on the block
And we're the Cops of the World, boys
We're the Cops of the World

The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor quickly became the focal point of opposition to the escalation. A number of UM students were veteran activists of the civil rights movement in the South, and the campus had a strong chapter of SDS, Students for a Democratic Society, a national organization formed there in the early ‘60s. Michigan was also home to a sizeable number of politically active professors. These forces came together to organize what became the first ‘Teach-In’ on Vietnam, an initial step toward what would eventually become a nationwide antiwar movement.
As a political and moral response to Washington, a group of Michigan faculty planned a one-day teaching strike. The strikers would refuse to teach their regular classes and instead spend the time introducing interested students to the critical issues of America’s war in Vietnam. Nearly 50 professors signed up, but Governor George Romney and the university president opposed the strike. At the 11th hour, a compromise was reached: instead of cancelling classes, concerned faculty would teach their courses, but continue teaching through the night; thus was born the idea of a teach-in as a forum for informed protest.

Ann Arbor Teach-In Poster
The first teach-in began at 8 PM on Wednesday, March 24th and went on through the night until daybreak the 25th. The dorm curfew for women was suspended, greatly swelling the turnout to over 3,000 students; along with 200 faculty, it was the largest demonstration in the university’s history.
The main speakers were two academics with field experience in Vietnam who knew the country well, an economist from the East, and a Michigan State anthropologist. One speaker recited Vietnam’s long history of fending off invaders, while the other simply pronounced the war unwinnable.


University of Michigan Teach-In, March 24-25, 1965

At other colleges and universities, small groups of activists gathered to listen in to the Michigan speakers via telephone hook-ups. At IU, Jeff was undoubtedly one of the best informed on the subject, judging by the discussion of Vietnam in his letters from that period.

Activist Leaders at Indiana – Bernella & David Satterfield, ‘64

Thanks to national media coverage of the Michigan event, the teach-in format was soon replicated at over 100 other campuses, including the University of Missouri. At Mizzou, however, the organizers decided to stage a teach-in as a balanced debate between pro- and anti-Administration speakers. In contrast to brother Jeff’s growing opposition to US policy, I along with an American historian was the lead debater on the pro side of the question. We were opposed by two scholars of South Asia, one a political scientist, the other a historian.
For nearly five hours, the four of us debated US policy in Vietnam before an audience of 500+ students crammed into an auditorium in the Business School. The South Asian specialists both viewed the Vietnam conflict in historical and regional contexts, emphasizing the need for a negotiated settlement before the US got in too deeply. At the time as a JFK liberal internationalist, I looked at the problem within the framework of the bi-polar Soviet-American Cold War conflict.
The Cold War was then at an uncertain point. Khrushchev, a reformer, had been ousted from power in Moscow by a coalition of former Stalinists just six months earlier. Although he’d been aggressive in the international sphere (witness the Cuban Missile Crisis of ’62), the following year he’d agreed to JFK’s proposed treaty banning nuclear tests in the atmosphere – a very important step in the effort to slow down the dangerous arms race. By the spring of ’65 when I spoke at Mizzou, the full foreign policy intentions of Khrushchev’s successors, especially in the former colonial world now called the Third World, were by no means yet clear.
Hence, I saw Vietnam as a surrogate war between NVN, a Soviet and Chinese Communist ally, and SVN, a US ally. In those years, the US had put in place a policy of global ‘containment’ by means of an encircling network of bases and military alliances. The idea was to keep the Soviet empire and, by then, its rival Chinese sphere of influence, in check, i.e., not permit either the Soviets or the Chinese to extend the authoritarian communist model beyond their borders.
The US was particularly concerned about the Third World, which was undergoing rapid decolonialization that left power vacuums in its wake. South Vietnam was, of course, a Third World country; from a Cold War angle of vision, both the USSR and China were probing, via their proxy NVN and its agent, the VC, to expand the international communist domain to the South. No one, not even the ‘doves’ had any illusions that the North could carry the fight to the South without massive military and economic aid from the two giants of the Communist world.
After the debaters presented, the Mizzou audience was invited to pose questions or make short statements from the floor. In retrospect, the most prescient remark of that long afternoon was made by Professor William Allen, a noted young historian of Germany. He vigorously opposed US policy and advocated complete withdrawal from Vietnam. Of course, he was right.

It's written in the ashes of the village towns we burn
It's written in the empty bed of the fathers unreturned
And the chocolate in the children's eyes will never understand
When you're white boots marching in a yellow land†††
At the end of the debate, the moderator asked the audience to signal by applause which set of arguments they found most persuasive. While both sides found support, by dint of applause, the pro-Administration position seemed to prevail.
Most notable of the post-Michigan teach-ins were the national teach-in in mid-May and the ‘mother’ of all teach-ins that season, the huge one at Berkeley toward the end of the month. At the national event in Washington, broadcast live on radio and television throughout the country, two leading specialists on Vietnam, Kahin of Cornell and Scalapino of Berkeley, duked it out.
The Berkeley affair attracted an aggregate of 30,000 participants from the San Francisco Bay area listening to nearly 50 speakers over a period of 36 hours, by far the longest and the largest teach-in that spring. Although not intended as a balanced debate, at least one pro-Administration speaker was included. He and the lead-off presenter ended up as polar opposites in the spectrum of comments at the teach-in – one wildly idealistic, the other darkly dystopian.
A historian from Yale opened the teach-in, proposing civil disobedience so massive and persistent that LBJ and his war cabinet “will forthwith resign.”* At the other end of the spectrum, a Berkeley political scientist foresaw – absent continued US resistance – SVN as “Communist totalitarian regime” with a regimented population wakened in the mornings to the sound of bugles and forced to work long days in pursuit of the regime’s goals.**
That first turbulent spring of the newly escalated American war in Vietnam came to an end with what would become legions of ‘antiwarriors’*** mobilizing on the nation’s campuses. As for Jeff and me, our respective academic business finished for the summer, we continued our separate ways – he off to Mexico to hang out with friends; I to Washington to advise on US-USSR arms control. Brothers divergent.
*L Menashe, ed, Berkeley Teach-In: Vietnam (1966), 3


***The term is from Melvin Small, Antiwarriors: The Vietnam War and the Battle for America’s Hearts and Minds (2002) 

††† White Boots Marching in a Yellow Land: