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Tin Soldiers


by Gary Gordon

This was written April 29, for May 4. A slightly edited version appeared on the editorial page of the Santa Monica Mirror, May 9-15

A few weeks ago former Mayor Judy Abdo was among four women honored by the YWCA for her many works contributing to a better life for many, many people in Santa Monica.

During the award ceremony, a slide show featuring a brief history of her life and summary of her works included mention of a turning point in her life. She was, according to the presentation, a regular person pursuing a normal life until an incident occurred on May 4, 1970.

What happened on that day changed her.

And I related to that, because what happened on that day changed me, and a lot of people I knew and know and have met on this journey.

On May 4, 1970, Ohio National Guardsmen on the campus of Kent State University shot into a crowd of anti-Vietnam War demonstrators, and killed four students.

On that date, 31 years ago, for many of us, the war came home.

Some of you can still see the footage of the Guard in your mind, or the photo where, half-shrouded in tear gas, they fire; you can see the photo of the young girl next to Jeffrey Miller's prone, face-down, dead body.

Others may remember Neil Young's song, and certainly those who are from subsequent generations may only know of the shooting from the song.

"Tin soldiers and Nixon's comin'..."

I've been working with Judy through her participation on the Main Street Merchants Association Board for almost three years and I had no idea until the banquet a few weeks ago that we had that moment in common. It surprised me, and it didn't.

The illegal invasion into Cambodia and the killings at Kent State lead many political activists to increase their activities; others began to become political activists.

I had been in high school, destined for college, eager to participate in the anti-war movement, 2-S-ing out of the draft as that was phased out and the lottery was phased in. My friends in high school had turned me around from someone who thought all wars fought by the U.S. were good to someone who realized how insane, immoral and unjust the Vietnam war was.

I had a vague sense that we were challenging the establishment, with our long hair and rock bands and dress code violations; I had seen the viciousness of the Chicago police on TV in '68 as they rioted, attacking anti-war demonstrators like Bull Connor's police attacked the Civil Rights marchers a few years before at the Edmund Pettis Bridge. But TV was at a distance and I was young, so despite all the evidence of violence and brutality perpetuated by the forces of law 'n order in the name of democracy, I know I didn't grasp the extremes to which defenders of the war would go until the Guard shot those four students. Having been raised in a college town by a college professor I guess I thought of campuses as somehow safe. And I wondered if, on a campus the following year, I would face armed Guardsmen.

As my friends were turning me around (from LBJ to McCarthy in less than 4 years), a man who has since become a friend of mine was fighting and beating the odds recovering from a dozen shrapnel wounds from an enemy grenade in Vietnam.

Joe Haldeman, known to many as an award-winning science fiction writer (The Forever War), and survivor of that grenade, was in town with his wife, Gay, over the weekend for the Book Festival at UCLA. We had a chance to chat after his booksigning. Joe now lives in Gainesville, Florida, where I'm from; we met fifteen years ago when an informal group of Gainesville writers began gathering at a wine & cheese watering hole. Our conversation Saturday included writing (he's famous, I'm not), music (he dabbles, I have a band and CD), and how different friends were doing, which meant, inevitably, a trail back to the war. Our mutual friends, Bill Hutchinson, Bob Mason, John Chambers, and Scott Camil, were all in the war-not just in Vietnam, but in the war. (Bob's book about it, Chickenhawk, was a bestseller several years ago.)

Joe said, "It's interesting. Now that I think about it, none of the guys I knew who fought there have regular careers." Bill runs a theatre and works for the city in cultural affairs programming, Bob and I are authors, John makes instruments, and Scott has returned to being an activist after taking a few years off, after he was shot by the police in the back of a squad car for being an activist.

Scott had been once of the leaders of an organization known as the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The VVAW. It's the same organization Senator John Kerrey (D. Mass) helped lead. Among other things, the VVAW organized the demonstration in D.C. when veterans threw their medals away.

This organization, formed around 1970, became formidable in 1972, so much so that Nixon and Attorney General John Mitchell made sure it was infiltrated with agents provocateur, as part of the COINTELPRO program. In the summer of 1972, seven VVAW members, including Scott, were busted by the Feds for conspiracy to cross state lines to incite to riot at the Democratic and Republican political conventions-- the same charge Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman et al were busted on in '68. Ultimately, none of the VVAW leaders went to jail, Nixon resigned in disgrace, and Mitchell and several others (but not Kissinger) went to jail.

Scott and John Kerrey appeared in the same documentary, shot around '71. Called the Winter Soldier Investigation, it is a documentary that I'll bet you've never seen. I don't think it's ever been shown on PBS, and unfortunately Vidiots doesn't have it. It is one of the most disturbing documentaries on the Vietnam war ever made, and I suspect it's been buried for that reason.

This is a documentary of Vietnam Veterans from all over the country who gathered to "put themselves on trial"; they testified to each other and to the cameras about the atrocities they committed in Vietnam. My friend Scott talks about his collection of ears. Others speak of gunning down women in rice paddies. And so much more. They are tin soldiers who are repentant, who are filled with guilt and remorse, and who feel utterly betrayed by their leaders.

I think perhaps if this documentary had aired every year on PBS or TBS or the History Channel, as so many movies and other series about war do, then this new revelation about former Senator Bob Kerrey (no relation to John) and his SEAL team could be quickly put into prospective.

It is not news that U.S. soldiers killed civilians in that war. As one of the vets in the documentary says, "When we got in country, we were told 'If they run, they're V.C. If they don't run, they're trying to get you think to think they're not V.C., so waste 'em.'"

But what Bob Kerrey did, and what John Kerrey and my friend Scott did, and what the Ohio National Guard did, and what all the others did pales in comparison to what those who prosecuted the war did. Especially Henry Kissinger.

Kissinger was the subject of Christopher Hitchens's remarks last Sunday night at the Midnight Special bookstore. Hitchens, who writes for The Nation and Vanity Fair and other publications, has a new book out: The Trial of Henry Kissinger. His point is simple: Henry Kissinger is a war criminal who participated in and in some cases organized individual and mass killings in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Chile, East Timor-the list goes on.

Now many of us have known for a long time that Kissinger is a war criminal. The fun part, according to Hitchens, is that the evidence to indict him-the documents, transcripts, etc.-is now complete enough, and relatives of his victims are planning to sue him in U.S. civil court for wrongful death.

To paraphrase Hitchens, many say this would be impossible to bring about, but how many thought bringing Pinochet to justice would never happen? Hitchens listed several of Kissinger's international contemporaries, colleagues and co-conspirators who are all in jail or in court. Kissinger, he said, is the only one living still free.

Indicting and imprisoning Kissinger will not bring back the four young students killed at Kent State 31 years ago. It probably won't spark a discussion of our continued bombing of women and children in Iraq, even as we discuss Bob Kerrey's raid.

But anything that makes the tin soldiers and their leaders think twice is a step in the right direction.

And if you have a moment, give a moment of silence this Friday for the four who died at Kent State, and for all the other peace, civil rights and human rights activists who were gunned down.

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