Well, it’s one, two, three, look at that amputee,
At least it’s below the knee,
Could have been worse, you see.
Well, it’s true your kids look at you differently,
But you came in an ambulance instead of a hearse,
That’s the phrase of the trade,
It could have been worse.
— First verse of a Vietnam-era song written by U.S. Air Force medic Bob Boardman off Country Joe McDonald’s “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag”
There was the old American lefty paper, the Guardian, and the Village Voice, which beat the Sixties into the world, and its later imitators like the Boston Phoenix. There was Liberation News Service, the Rat in New York, the Great Speckled Bird in Atlanta, the Old Mole in Boston, the distinctly psychedelic Chicago Seed, Leviathan, Viet-Report, and the L.A. Free Press, as well as that Texas paper whose name I long ago forgot that was partial to armadillo cartoons. And they existed, in the 1960s and early 1970s, amid a jostling crowd of hundreds of “underground” newspapers — all quite aboveground but the word sounded so romantic in that political moment. There were G.I. antiwar papers by the score and high school rags by the hundreds in an “alternate” universe of opposition that somehow made the rounds by mail or got passed on hand-to-hand in a now almost unimaginable world of interpersonal social networking that preceded the Internet by decades. And then, of course, there was I.F. Stone’s Weekly (1953-1971): one dedicated journalist, 19 years, every word his own (except, of course, for the endless foolishness he mined from the reams of official documentation produced in Washington, Vietnam, and elsewhere).
I can remember the arrival of that newsletter, though I no longer know whether I subscribed myself or simply shared someone else’s copy. In a time when being young was supposed to be glorious, Stone was old — my parents’ age — but still we waited on his words. It helped to have someone from a previous generation confirm in nuts and bolts ways that the issue that swept so many of us away, the Vietnam War, was indeed an American atrocity.
The Call to Service
They say you can’t go home again, but recently, almost 44 years after I saw my last issue of the Weekly — Stone was 64 when he closed up shop; I was 27 — I found the full archive of them, all 19 years, online, and began reading him all over again. It brought back a dizzying time in which we felt “liberated” from so much that we had been brought up to believe and — though we wouldn’t have understood it that way then — angered and forlorn by the loss as well. That included the John Wayne version of America in which, at the end of any war film, as the Marine Corps Hymn welled up, American troops advanced to a justified victory that would make the world a better place. It also included a far kinder-hearted, but allied vision of a country, a government, that was truly ours, and to which we owed — and one dreamed of offering — some form of service. That was deeply engrained in us, which was why when, in his inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy so famously called on us to serve, the response was so powerful. (“And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”) Soon after, my future wife went into the Peace Corps like tens of thousands of other young Americans, while I dreamed, as I had from childhood, of becoming a diplomat in order to represent our country abroad.
And that sense of service to country ran so deep that when the first oppositional movements of the era arose, particularly the Civil Rights Movement, the impulse to serve was essential to them, as it clearly was to I.F. Stone. The discovery that under your country’s shining veneer lay a series of nightmares might have changed how that sense of obligation was applied, but it didn’t change the impulse. Not at all.
In his writing, Stone was calm, civil, thoughtful, fact-based, and still presented an American world that looked shockingly unlike the one you could read about in what wasn’t yet called “the mainstream media” or could see on the nightly network news. (Your TV still had only 13 channels, without a zapper in sight.) A researcher par excellence, Stone, like the rest of us, lacked the ability to see into the future, which meant that some of his fears (“World War III”) as well as his dreams never came true. But on the American present of that time, he was remarkably on target. Rereading some of his work so many decades later set me thinking about the similarities and differences between that moment of eternal war in Indochina and the present endless war on terror.
Among the eeriest things about reading Stone’s Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia coverage, 14 years into the next century, is how resonantly familiar so much of what he wrote still seems, how twenty-first-century it all is. It turns out that the national security state hasn’t just been repeating things they’ve done unsuccessfully for the last 13 years, but for the last 60. Let me offer just a few examples from his newsletter. I think you’ll get the idea.
* With last June’s collapse of the American-trained and -armed Iraqi army and recent revelations about its 50,000 “ghost soldiers” in mind, here’s Stone on the Laotian army in January 1961: “It is the highest paid army in Asia and variously estimated (the canny Laotians have never let us know the exact numbers, perhaps lest we check on how much the military payroll is diverted into the pockets of a few leaders) at from 23,000 to 30,000. Yet it has never been able to stand up against handfuls of guerrillas and even a few determined battalions like those mustered by Captain Kong Le.”
* On ISIS’s offensive in Iraq last year, or the 9/11 attacks, or just about any other development you want to mention in our wars since then, our gargantuan bureaucracy of 17 expanding intelligence outfits has repeatedly been caught short, so consider Stone’s comments on the Tet Offensive of February 1968. At a time when America’s top commander in Vietnam had repeatedly assured Americans that the Vietnamese enemy was losing, the North Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front (the “Vietcong”) launched attacks on just about every major town and city in South Vietnam, including the U.S. Embassy in Saigon: “We still don’t know what hit us. The debris is not all in Saigon and Hue. The world’s biggest intelligence apparatus was caught by surprise.”
* On our drone assassination and other air campaigns as a global war not on, but for — i.e., to recruit — terrorists, including our present bombing campaigns in Iraq and Syria, here’s Stone in February 1968: “When the bodies are really counted, it will be seen that one of the major casualties was our delusion about victory by air power: all that boom-boom did not keep the enemy from showing up at Langvei with tanks… The whole country is slowly being burnt down to ‘save it.’ To apply scorched-earth tactics to one’s own country is heroic; to apply it to a country one claims to be saving is brutal and cowardly… It is we who rally the people to the other side.” And here he is again in May 1970: “Nowhere has air power, however overwhelming and unchallenged, been able to win a war.”
And so it goes reading Stone today. But if much in the American way of war remains dismally familiar some five decades later, one thing of major significance has changed, something you can see regularly in I.F. Stone’s Weekly but not in our present world. Thirteen years after our set of disastrous wars started, where is the massive antiwar movement, including an army in near revolt and a Congress with significant critics in significant positions?
Think of it this way: in 1968, the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was J. William Fulbright, a man who came to oppose U.S. policy in Vietnam and wrote a book about this country titled The Arrogance of Power (a phrase no senator who hoped to stay in Washington in 2015 would apply to the U.S.). The head of the Senate Armed Services Committee today: John McCain. ‘Nuff said.
In the last six decades, the American national security state has succeeded strikingly at only one thing (other than turning itself into a growth industry): it freed itself of us and of Congress. In the years following the Vietnam War, the American people were effectively demobilized, shorn of that sense of service to country, while war was privatized and the citizen soldier replaced by an “all-volunteer” force and a host of paid contractors working for warrior corporations. Post-9/11, the citizenry was urged to pay as much attention as possible to “our troops,” or “warriors,” and next to none to the wars they were fighting. Today, the official role of a national security state, bigger and more powerful than in the Vietnam era, is to make Americans “safe” from terror. In a world of war-making that has disappeared into the shadows and a Washington in which just about all information is now classified and shrouded in secrecy, the only way to be “safe” and “secure” as a citizen is, by definition, to be ignorant, to know as little as possible about what “our” government is doing in our name. This helps explain why, in the Obama years, the only crime in official Washington is leaking or whistleblowing; that is, letting the public in on something that we, the people, aren’t supposed to know about the workings of “our” government.
In 1973, President Richard Nixon ended the draft, a move meant to bring a rebellious citizen’s army under control. Since then, in a host of ways, our leaders have managed to sideline the citizenry, replacing the urge to serve with a sense of cynicism about government (which has morphed into many things, including, on the right, the Tea Party movement). As a result, those leaders have been freed from us and from just about all congressional oversight and so have been able to do what they damn well pleased. In practice, this has meant doing the same dumb, brutal, militarized things over and over again. From the repetitive stupidity of twenty-first-century American foreign — that is, war — policy, you might draw the conclusion (though they won’t) that the citizenry, even in revolt, has something crucial to teach the state.
Serving the Country in Opposition
Nonetheless, this demobilization of us should be seen for what it is: a remarkable achievement. It means that you have to be of a certain age (call me “I.F. Pebble”) even to remember what that urge to serve felt like, especially once it went into opposition on a massive scale. I.F. Stone was an early model for just that. In those years, I was, too, and there was nothing special about me. Untold numbers of Americans like me, military and civilian, engaged in such acts and thought of them as service to country. Though they obviously didn’t fit the normal definition of American “patriotism,” they came from the same place.
In April 1968, not so many months after the Tet Offensive, I went with two close friends to a rally on Boston Common organized by an anti-draft group called the Resistance. There, the three of us turned in our draft cards. I went in jacket and tie because I wanted to make the point that we weren’t hippy radicals. We were serious Americans turning our backs on a war from hell being pursued by a country transforming itself before our eyes into our worst nightmare.
Even all these years later, I can still remember the remarkable sense of exhilaration, even freedom, involved and also the fear. (In those years, being a relatively meek and law-abiding guy, I often found myself beyond my comfort zone, and so a little — or more than a little — scared.) Similarly, the next year, a gutsy young woman who was a co-worker and I — I had, by then, dropped out of graduate school and was working at an “underground” movement print shop — drove two unnerved and unnerving Green Beret deserters to Canada. Admittedly, when they began pretend-machine-gunning the countryside we were passing through, I was unsettled, and when they pulled out dope (no drugs had been the agreed-upon rule on a trip in which we were to cross the Canadian border), I was ready to be anywhere else but in that car. Still, whatever my anxieties, I had no doubt about why I was doing what I was doing, or about the importance of helping American soldiers who no longer wanted to take part in a terrible war.
Finally, in 1971, an Air Force medic named Bob Boardman, angered by the stream of American war wounded coming home, snuck me into his medical unit at Travis Air Force Base in northern California. There, though without any experience as a reporter, I “interviewed” a bunch of wigged-out, angry guys with stumps for arms or legs, who were “antiwar” in all sorts of complex, unexpected, and outraged ways. It couldn’t have been grimmer or more searing or more moving, and I went home, wrote up a three-part series on what I had seen and heard, and sold it to Pacific News Service, a small antiwar outfit in San Francisco (where I would subsequently go to work).
None of this would have been most Americans’ idea of service, even then. But it was mine. I felt that my government had betrayed me, and that it was my duty as a citizen to do whatever I could to change its ways (as, in fact, I still do). And so, in some upside-down, inside-out way, I maintained a connection to and a perverse faith in that government, or our ability to force change on it, as the Civil Rights Movement had done.
That, I suspect, is what’s gone missing in much of our American world and just bringing back the draft, often suggested as one answer to our war-making problems, would be no ultimate solution. It would undoubtedly change the make-up of the U.S. military somewhat. However, what’s missing in action isn’t the draft, but a faith in the idea of service to country, the essence of what once would have been defined as patriotism. At an even more basic level, what may be gone is the very idea of the active citizen, not to speak of the democracy that went with such a conception of citizenship, as opposed to our present bizarro world of multi-billion-dollar 1% elections.
If, so many years into the disastrous war on terror, the Afghan War that never ends, and most recently Iraq War 3.0 and Syria War 1.0, there is no significant antiwar movement in this country, you can thank the only fit of brilliance the national security state has displayed. It successfully drummed us out of service. The sole task it left to Americans, 40 years after the Vietnam War ended, was the ludicrous one of repeatedly thanking the troops for theirservice, something that would have been inconceivable in the 1950s or 1960s because you would, in essence, have been thanking yourself.
Missing in Action
Here are I.F. Stone’s last words from the penultimate paragraph of the final issue of his newsletter:
“No one could have been happier than I have been with the Weekly. To give a little comfort to the oppressed, to write the truth exactly as I saw it, to make no compromises other than those of quality imposed by my own inadequacies, to be free to follow no master other than my own compulsions, to live up to my idealized image of what a true newspaperman should be, and still be able to make a living for my family — what more could a man ask?”
Here is the last verse that medic wrote in 1971 for his angry song (the first of which led off this piece):
But it’s seven, eight, nine,
Well, he finally died,
Tried to keep him alive,
but he lost the will to survive.
The agony that his life would have been,
Well, you say to yourself as you load up the hearse,
At least, it’s over this way, it could have been worse.
And here are a few words the extremely solemn 23-year-old Tom Engelhardt wrote to the dean of his school on rejecting a National Defense Fellowship grant to study China in April 1968. (The “General Hershey” I refer to was the director of the Selective Service System which had issued a memo, printed in 1967 by the SDS publication New Left Notes, on “channeling” American manpower where it could best help the state achieve its ends.):
“On the morning of April 3, at the Boston Common, I turned in my draft card. I felt this to be a reply to three different types of ‘channeling’ which I saw as affecting my own life. First of all, it was a reply to General Hershey’s statement that manpower channeling ‘is the American or indirect way of achieving what is done by direction in foreign countries where choice is not permitted.’ I disassociated myself from the draft system, which was flagrantly attempting to make me live a life without freedom…
“Finally, I entered into resistance against an American government which was, with the help of the men provided by the draft, attempting the most serious type of ‘channeling’ outside our own country. This is especially obvious in Vietnam where it denies the people of South Vietnam the opportunity to consider viable alternatives to their present government. Moreover, as that attempt at ‘channeling’ (or, as it is called, ‘Winning the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people’) met opposition, the American government, through its armed forces, committed acts of such unbelievable horror as to be unbearable to a thinking person.”
Stone’s sign-off, that medic’s song, and my letter all are documents from a time when Americans could be in opposition to, while also feeling in service to, their country. In other words, they are documents from a lost world and so would, I suspect, have little meaning to the young of the present moment. Can there be any question that today’s young are a volunteering crew, often gripped by the urge to help, to make this world of ours a better place? Can you doubt as well that they are quite capable of rising to resist what’s increasingly grim in that terrible world, as the Occupy moment showed in 2011? Nor, I suspect, is the desire for a government that they could serve gone utterly, as indicated by the movement that formed around Barack Obama in his race for the presidency (and that he and his team essentially demobilized on entering the Oval Office).
What’s missing is any sense of connection to the government, any sense that it’s “ours” or that we the people matter. In its place — and you can thank successive administrations for this — is the deepest sort of pessimism and cynicism about a national security state and war-making machine beyond our control. And why protest what you can’t change?
See Tom Engelhardt’s response here.