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Mind and Body

A willingness to stand up and say no

A reflection upon decisions made – and decisions not shared – during the Vietnam War, and their relevance to our current world consumed by secrecy, lies, deceptions and untruths

Photo by Barr Ashcraft

A Vietnamese woman stirs the rubble of what is left of her home, following the destruction of her village.

Image courtesy of Richard Asinof

An invitation sent in 1969 by the S.W. Koster, the commandant of West Point, asking me to apply to the military academy. Taped onto it is a description of the damage done by B-52 bombings from The New York Times.

Image courtesy of Richard Asinof

The news story that appeared in The Millburn Item,. the local weekly, about the planned high school assembly program to be held on Oct. 16, 1969. Beneath it is the story of local resident who had died in Vietnam.

Image courtesy of Richard Asinof

The postcard sent by Barr Ashcraft inviting me to attend the show of his photographs In October of 2005, with the image of Cambodian soldiers, most of them young boys, about to battle the Khmer Rouge.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 9/11/17
The upcoming documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick on Vietnam has, as an almost prayerful purpose, to ask people to open their hearts and minds to recognize more than one truth, to focus on what it can teach us about courage, patriotism, resilience, forgiveness and ultimately, reconciliation. Will the documentary include the stories about those who had the courage and willingness to stand up and say no, in a nonviolent fashion? I do not know, but I suspect not. Now, at a time when the U.S. is hurtling toward a Constitutional crisis, and the meaning of words becomes much like a jigsaw puzzle where the shapes and the colors of the pieces constantly keep changing, a systemic belief in lying and obfuscation, aided and abetted by apologists and dissemblers, has emerged.
When today’s crowds shout, “Long Live Death!” how will we answer the questions from our children about what we did, or did not do, to preserve American democracy?
Discussion about the Vietnam War, some eight decades after it began, might seem a distraction to some. It might seem as if this publication is the wrong venue. Maybe it is; there is risk involved. In many ways, it gets to the heart of the art of convergence: the need to be able to have conversations, in person, face-to-face; and the need to learn anew how to listen and not just talk at each other, in order to create an engaged community in the digital world we live in.
It may be similar, I believe, to having the courage to talk about sexual abuse, domestic violence or rape, the courage to heal. Or, to share proudly one’s sexual identity.
As Hillel once posed the questions, as quoted in the Pirke Avot: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”

PROVIDENCE – I do not know exactly what will be the content of the new film about Vietnam by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, to be aired in Sept. 17 on PBS. On Memorial Day this year, the film was being heavily promoted in a series of op-eds, stories and trailers.

Burns and Novick talked about the need to talk about the Vietnam War, to bring it back into public conversation.

“There is no simple or single truth to be extracted from the Vietnam War,” Burns and Novick wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times published on May 29. “Many questions remain unanswerable. But if, with open minds and open hearts, we can consider this complex event from many perspectives and recognize more than one truth, perhaps we can stop fighting over how the war should be remembered and focus instead on what it can teach us about courage, patriotism, resilience, forgiveness and, ultimately, reconciliation.”

It is a noble statement of purpose, well written, almost prayerful. But I have doubts about what the film can actually accomplish in the realm of reconciliation, whether it is watched on PBS, streamed on Hulu, recorded for later viewing or played on DVDs.

In part because there was always a secret, hidden history about why we were in Vietnam, one that Michael Herr described so well in Dispatches: “Straight history, auto-revised history, history without handles, for all the books and articles and white papers, all the talk and the miles of film, something wasn’t answered, it wasn’t even asked. We were backgrounded, deep, but when the background started forward not a single life was saved by the information. The thing had transmitted too much energy, it heated up too hot, hiding low under the fact-figure crossfire there was a secret history, and not a lot of people felt like running in there to bring it out.”

I also question whether documentaries, no matter how good they are in telling compelling stories, can compete in today’s world of media click bait and distraction.

If one is susceptible to believing that climate change is a hoax, or that vaccines are inherently dangerous, or that America has become a captive of sharia law, or that Hillary Clinton ran a child sex trade operation out of a pizza joint in Washington, D.C., no documentary is going to alter those beliefs. What was the phrase that fascist supporters of Franco shouted during the Spanish Civil War? “Long live death!”

An irony, I suppose, is that I first met Ken Burns when we both attended Hampshire College in the early 1970s. And, in the late 1970s, we were both involved in trying to develop fledgling film and TV production companies, focused on documentaries. His efforts at Florentine Films proved far, far more successful than mine, for sure. What I do recall, during all the times that our paths crossed, is that we never talked about the Vietnam War.

I never shared my experiences, and Burns was never curious enough to ask. I had registered for the draft as a conscientious objector; in turn, I had never asked Burns about his own experiences; I expect he had received a 2-S student deferment.

The art of deflection
What I had hoped for when I first wrote, “A willingness to stand up and say no,” in 2009, almost a decade ago now, was that I would share my own truths and doubts about the Vietnam War, that somehow writing this would help the scars heal, and I could let go of the story I had carried with me, much as a survivor does, and move the conflict into the sunlight, out of the shadows.

It was also an attempt to answer the proverbial question: Dad, what did you do during the war? [My parents’ generation rarely talked about what happened during World War II. A friend recently recounted the story about his father, a Jewish paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne, who had parachuted into France on D-Day, been wounded, recovered and then parachuted into Netherlands, where he had been badly wounded. The stories had never been shared with his son, they were only learned a decade after his father’s death, tracking down what actually happened through an Internet search. With Vietnam, that silence has been even more pronounced.]

What I found, instead, was how difficult it was to be heard and understood; it was much easier to be misunderstood. My guess [and I hope I am proven wrong] is that there will be few if any stories in the new Vietnam documentary about those who had the courage to stand up and say no, in a nonviolent fashion – and face the consequences of their actions.

I suspect that the film will contain some reference to Martin Luther King’s speech at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, opposing the war, exactly one year before he was assassinated.

“We have no honorable intentions in Vietnam,” King said in that speech. “We have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Vietnam.”

But, will the film mention that King recommended that all young men confronting the military draft declare themselves conscientious objectors?

I also suspect the film will retell the refusal of boxer Muhammad Ali to serve in Vietnam, having registered as a conscientious objector for religious reasons, and then Ali how refused induction, saying he had no quarrel with the Vietcong. It is a story that, like the riots that were to come later that summer of 1967 in Newark and Detroit, helped to polarize the racial divide in America. Love it or leave it.

But, will the film talk about how the actions of Randy Kehler, who went to jail as a conscientious objector, influenced the decisions of Daniel Ellsberg to reveal what became known as the Pentagon Papers. [If my memory serves me well, there may be an archival clip in the 1975 film, “Hearts and Minds,” about this. There are plenty of published references, including a story I wrote for In These Times.]

In 1987, Ellsberg testified in a trial in defense of activists who had been arrested attempting to halt CIA recruitment at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Ellsberg had testified under oath that the catalyst in his decision to reveal the secret study had been his meeting with Kehler in 1969. Ellsberg said that Kehler's stance had floored him, making him ask this question of himself: What can I do nonviolently, truthfully, to help end this war? And, "Do I, Daniel Ellsberg, have a right to be silent because I've been ordered to be silent?"

[For whatever reason, Ellsberg was excluded from interviews by Burns and Novick for their documentary.]

What was heroic?
One friend from high school, upon reading the piece in 2009, told me how heroic our high school classmate, Carol, had been to rescue me from the assault underway by the high school football coach in the school’s foyer. Her chance encounter and intervention, not my wrestling with Vietnam, was what he saw as heroic. So it goes.

If that was the takeaway, I had failed. Or rather, I had misunderstood how much emotional deflection occurs when people confront their own uncomfortable memories about what they did or did not do.

Another reader, a student that had been mentored by Barr Ashcraft, saw the story as a reflection of Barr’s “greatness,” rather than understanding Barr’s sense of profound loss, captured in Barr’s own words, about how distorted and mistaken his view of life in Vietnam had been.

“I received a kind of perverse pleasure in going to death’s door and knocking in quiet defiance,” Barr had written. “Going to the precipice of death at the time seemed to make each day much more meaningful… The wanton destruction we witnessed and photographed in Vietnam and Cambodia was then, to us, commonplace. But today the death of Neil Davis [who had been killed while covering a coup in Thailand, with the final epiphany of his camera covering his own death and then being broadcast] is a cold, uncommon numbing experience. It has heightened no awareness nor brought any fullness of life to me. This time there is no perverse pleasure in surviving; there is only profound, haunting and agonizing loss.”

In 1978, when teaching freshman English as an adjunct instructor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the first writing assignment that I gave my students was this: “When did the Vietnam War start?” The students dutifully turned in their assignments; I mixed them up and passed them out, and asked the students to read out loud to the class what their other classmates had written.

Almost every one of the 25 or so students had copied, word for word, what they had found in the Encyclopedia, giving the date of 1965 and the introduction of U.S. ground troops. By the sixth or seventh reading, it became apparent what had happened, and there was a chirping of nervous laughter as each student repeated the same words, again and again. [Talk about fake history and fake news.]

Only one student wrote a more thoughtful response to “When did the Vietnam War start?” asking a second question: “For whom?”

There were many brave, courageous men and women who fought on both sides of the conflict. Numerous times I have walked down the path next to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., with its slow descent past all the names of American men and women etched into the black marble, and each time I am overwhelmed, my tears flowing freely, overcome by the enormity of loss. And then, an anger would well up inside me, and I would ask: “For what?”

Why re-publish?
Why re-publish this in ConvergenceRI? Good question.

Discussion about the Vietnam War, some eight decades after American involvement with it began, might seem a distraction to some. It might seem as if ConvergenceRI is the wrong venue.

Let me push back, because I believe that publishing the piece, in many ways, gets to the heart of the art of convergence: the need to be able to have conversations, in person, face-to-face; and the need to learn anew how to listen and not just talk at each other.

As the nation hurtles its way toward a Constitutional crisis, and the meaning of words becomes much like a jigsaw puzzle where the shapes and the colors of the pieces constantly keep changing, there appears to be a systemic belief in lying and obfuscation, aided and abetted by apologists and profane dissemblers.

We live in an era of big data, where our opinions are mined to determine trends like a temperature gauge on an overheating car, and we sit and watch the Weather Channel, or tweet about the changes in the weather. How hot was it, Johnny?

The Vietnam War was our first big data war: the kill ratio and the body count used as the measure of success, no matter how inaccurate the numbers. The secret Pentagon Papers were actually a study conducted at the government’s behest by the Rand Corporation.

It was our first televised war; it was also our first war of targeted assassinations carried out by the Phoenix program under the direction of the CIA, killing more than 10,000 Vietnamese.

As the U.S. slouches toward another Presidential impeachment, many reporters employ a curious kind of telescope as they look back at the Watergate era.

The actual high crimes and misdemeanors of President Richard Nixon began in March of 1969, more than three years before the break-in at Watergate, when he, along with Henry Kissinger, authorized the secret and illegal bombings by B-52s of Cambodia, then a neutral country. Congress was intentionally deceived, records of the bombings were intentionally hidden, and the American public was kept in dark for years.

In the original articles of impeachment drafted by the House Judiciary Committee, one article, written by Father Robert Drinan, then a representative from Massachusetts, focused on the illegal, secret bombings of Cambodia. It was later dropped, as a compromise, to move the impeachment process forward.

When today’s crowds shout, Long Live Death!, how will we answer the questions from our children about what we did, or did not do?

A willingness to stand up and say no
IN OCTOBER OF 2005, my aging oil furnace broke apart, causing water to pool beneath it on the basement floor, sending smoke billowing up the basement stairs, filling the house, a sure sign that it was now beyond any hope of repair or redemption.

For the New Year, it seemed, I was to be inscribed for a blessing in the book of life and in the book of debt.

Cleaning up my basement, I literally stumbled over a cardboard box, and unsure of what it contained, dug out a bunch of papers. It was a collection of artifacts from when our nation had been at war in Vietnam, and when I, turning 18 in April 1970, had registered for the draft as a conscientious objector. The papers were support materials documenting my claim.

I was young, Jewish, athletic, intellectual – and unwilling to fight in Vietnam. For me, it was an illegal war, built upon lie after lie, deception after deception – by Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon – for which I was unwilling to risk my life. My beliefs were confirmed by the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, a year after I registered, and by many subsequent books – from Fire in the Lake to Dispatches to Sideshow.

“It was a very strange time,” I started to tell my teenage son, as I pored over the newly unearthed documents as if I had uncovered buried Stone Age pottery, the edges of the papers flaking off in my hands. But he easily deflected the start of what no doubt for him was another one of my involved, meandering stories.

So, I began to compose this, in fits and starts. I’d not written very much about what James Thurber once called “draft board nights.” It always seemed too personal; it made me feel vulnerable, much like reliving a catastrophic car wreck from which I had somehow survived. [The caveat, of course, is that I did survive, and yes, in the end, I did not go to Vietnam. As my neighbor, who drove a tank in Vietnam and earned three Purple Hearts, said to me recently: “Good for you. You were smarter than I was.” ]

That summer, in 1970, I received my 1-A classification and, a week later, my notice for pre-induction physical. I responded by frantically writing out my appeals on legal pads, even going to the draft board in person to tell them, in all earnestness, that they’d made a mistake. By not ruling on my other possible deferments, declaring me to be 1-A, they were violating their own rules. Of course, a draft board official just laughed at me, and suggested in stern language that I’d better show up at my physical, or else.

I never went.

IN SEPTEMBER 1970, I began my college career with a 1-A draft card gnawing a hole in my dreams. Many of my fellow students were much too busy having a good time to think or talk about the war, which, to most of them, was an abstraction, a distant thunder.

Some afternoons, while walking to class, the huge B-52s from Westover Air Force Base in Chicopee, Mass., would fly over the campus, a few hundred feet off the ground, having just taken off, the bomber pilots on training flights. First, there would be a sudden shadow spreading darkness, then the thunder of jet engines swallowed up the sky.

As a senior in high school, as a kind of unfunny joke, I had pinned on my bedroom wall the letter from the commandant of West Point, General S. W. Koster, inviting me to apply to the U.S. Military Academy as a result of my scores in the National Merit Scholarship Program. [Koster would later gain notoriety for having covered up the 1968 My Lai massacre.] Over it I had taped a description of B-52 raids in Vietnam from a front-page story in The New York Times:

“An allied official, who has been flying his helicopter over the target areas within five minutes after the B-52 strikes, said: ‘They have been the most lucrative raids made at any time during the war.’

‘Every single bomb crater is surrounded with bodies, wrecked equipment and dazed and bleeding people,’ he related. ‘At one such hole there were 40 or 50 men, all in green North Vietnamese uniforms, but without their weapons, lying around in an obvious state of shock. We sent in helicopter gun ships, which quickly put them out of their misery.’”

The yellowing letter, with the clipping still attached, were part of the recently unearthed documents.

Years later, I would come across the poem, “The Teeth Mother Naked at Last,” by Robert Bly, and think, yes, this is truly an American lyric:

“Massive engines lift beautifully from the deck
Wings appear over the trees, wings with eight hundred rivets

Engines burning a thousand gallons of gasoline a minute sweep over the
huts with dirt floors…

“Helicopters flutter overhead.
The death-bee is coming.
Super Sabres
like knots of neurotic energy sweep
around and return.
This is Hamilton’s triumph.
This is the advantage of a centralized bank.
B-52s come from Guam. All the teachers
die in flames. The hopes of Tolstoy fall asleep in the ant heap.
Do not ask for mercy.”

They taught Hawthorne and The Scarlet Letter in my high-school English classes. Not surprisingly, they were still teaching Hawthorne and The Scarlet Letter to my son in high school, in his “American Studies” classroom. But, no Robert Bly.

Why, I wondered. Bly’s words were written about Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, but their truth still reverberated:

“Now the Chief Executive enters; the press conference begins:
First the President lies about the date the Appalachian Mountains rose.
Then he lies about the population of Chicago, then he lies about the
weight of the adult eagle, then about the acreage of the Everglades

He lies about the number of fish taken every year in the Arctic,
he has private information about which city is the capital of
Wyoming, he lies about the birthplace of Attila the Hun

And the Attorney General lies about the time the sun sets.”

SOME OF THE earliest unearthed papers dated back to September of 1969, when I was a high-school senior in Millburn, N.J. There was a dog-eared copy of the Superintendent’s Bulletin, praising a front-page story that had appeared in the local community weekly newspaper, The Item, with the headline, “Students Join War Protest, Ban Boycott.” It detailed plans for a voluntary assembly at the high school on Oct. 15, an event I had organized. (Truth was, I had also written the article that had appeared in the weekly.) Right next to that story in the weekly was a story about how a former high-school student had recently died in Vietnam, not from combat wounds, but from an infection.

The superintendent had written: “I am gratified that the students proposed that this assembly be held, but I am not surprised. It is another indication that they can approach problems with maturity.”

In 1969, Sam Brown, David Hawk, David Mixner and Marge Sklencar, veteran community organizers, had hatched a scheme to schedule national moratorium days on the Vietnam War. Their idea had been refined from Jerome Grossman’s call in April 1969 for a general strike if the war had not concluded by October. “We ask you to put aside ‘business as usual’ on Oct. 15 and devote the day to organizing your co-workers and neighbors to work actively for an early withdrawal of all our troops from Vietnam,” the organizers stated in their ads. One day in October, two days in November, and so on.

I believed it would be a great idea for our high school to engage in a spirited discussion on the war.

I recruited a history teacher, Dana Stivers, to serve as a faculty advisor, and I enlisted a fellow editor at the high school newspaper, Doug Wilhelm, to be a co-chair. Amazingly, the principal, Donald Koehler, bought into the idea. There would be a voluntary, hour-long assembly program, with speakers, both faculty and students, representing both sides of the Vietnam issue. Following the assembly, there were optional small group discussions, 15 in all, run by teachers paired with about 30 students.

“This program planned for tomorrow will attempt to arouse an interest, to clarify events through discussion, to provide some points for discussion, for thought and for action if one is so moved,” wrote Mr. Stivers, the day before the event, in a mimeographed presentation to faculty moderators, which I retrieved from my box of artifacts, the blue ink faded to a faint aqua.

Not everyone liked the idea of the assembly and small-group discussions. The high school football coach, believing that football players were football players, ordered a mandatory practice for the entire team, preventing them from attending the optional small group discussions. A friend on the football team, Jim Stokes, told me about it, and in the next issue of the high school newspaper, I wrote about it in a front-page article, saying that attendance at the small group discussions had been hindered by the decision to hold a mandatory practice.

The morning after the school newspaper came out, the football coach waited for me to arrive at school in the high school foyer. As I entered, he grabbed me by my jacket and started banging me against the wall, screaming at me, until another student, Carol Watson, went to get the principal to rescue me.

“Would you like to continue this discussion in my office?” the principal asked.

“No, we’re all done,” the coach said.

“Are you OK?” Carol asked.

I said yes, but the truthful answer would have been no. I was shaken, unnerved. I wanted to throw my arms around her and hug her for saving me, but I felt too awkward, too scared.

Later, an assistant football coach literally chased me through the hallways, threatening to kill me. As I sprinted down the hallway, he was gaining on me, so I fled into a classroom where I didn’t belong, sat down, and pretended to be part of the class. The assistant football coach, face contorted, stared in through the small window of the door, clearly conflicted about charging into a classroom to get me. After a minute or two, he left. I stayed in that class until the bell, thanking the teacher profusely. I never told my parents about either incident.

Reading through the faded mimeographed materials prepared for the day, I am amazed at the quality of the preparation [most of the credit must go to Mr. Stivers, as I recall]. There were excerpts from a speech from Nobel Prize winner and Harvard University Professor George Wald. There were articulate, thoughtful questions for the small group discussions: “What happens to American after Vietnam? If we leave Southeast Asia, what happens to the area? Is the Vietnam conflict a moral cause gone wrong – or was it an immoral action from the beginning? Even if Vietnam ended tomorrow, how can we control the so-called military-industrial complex? What happens to our position in the entire world? Can we win the war in a traditional sense? Has there been a failure in American education – a failure to teach patriotic ideals, for example? To what extent can the law be disobeyed without subverting society?”

Substitute Iraq for Vietnam, and these are good questions for high school students to wrestle with today.

The next morning, over breakfast, I asked my son if he thought there could be an assembly at his high school to discuss and argue about the war in Iraq. “Maybe,” he said, “but most of the kids would be bored.”

Do you think the students and teachers would talk to each other about the war?

“Probably not,” he answered, honestly. “It would be too uncomfortable.”

ALL DAY LONG, as I waited for the plumber to arrive, banging away at the computer, my mind kept drifting back to Oct. 15, 1969. For sure, our discussions and dialogue that day did very little to change the outcome of the Vietnam War, or, for that matter, the opinions of many in the audience.

The moratorium, and its criticism of the war, did provoke a strong response from then Vice President Spiro Agnew, the stand-in hammer for Richard Nixon, who called the demonstrators “an effete corps of impudent snobs.” More chillingly, Agnew later spoke about the need to separate “the bad apples.” Nixon, in a wonderful non-denial denial, said he would not be influenced by the demonstrations. And, of course, the bombs from the B-52s were still falling in Vietnam – and illegally in Cambodia.

In Millburn, hawks were still hawks, doves were still doves, and the superintendent, in his next weekly bulletin, preserved in my conscientious objector archives, was still very self-congratulatory. The panel of three students and three faculty members, he said, “did a good job with a difficult subject, approaching it from a number of different positions. One position they seemed to have in common was that we should not continue in the war, but how we got in and how we should get out was not a topic on which most of the panelists could agree.” Some four decades later, his words had an eerie resonance with the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The superintendent went on to say: “The television channels gave wide coverage to mass meetings in New York and elsewhere on October 15th, but nothing that I saw on TV was better or more effective than what I saw in our high school assembly.”

A FRIEND OF MINE, Barr Ashcraft, a former combat photographer for Time-Life in Vietnam, was having a show of his photographs at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst that fall. Barr sent a photograph of the show as a postcard, inviting me to come. My son, who saw the postcard, agreed to go see the exhibit with me the next week.

We went on Rosh Hashanah. It is a chance to be reflective of the past and of the upcoming year.

My son’s favorite photograph in the show was of a Vietnamese woman, clutching a bamboo stake, who had been rummaging through the rumble for what remained of her home and family after being bombed. The camera had caught her expression, angry, sorrowful, her fist clenched around the bamboo. It seemed to capture so much of the waste of the war, yet another place destroyed so it could be saved.

In April 1977, two years after the fall of Saigon, as managing editor of The Valley Advocate, an alternative weekly newspaper in Amherst, Mass., I published a number of Barr’s photographs. It almost cost me my job. His images, mostly of Vietnamese and Cambodian troops, cut through the verbiage of so much that had been written about Vietnam and got to the essential truth about war: it’s about killing people. Even for a self-proclaimed alternative newspaper, the truth about the war crossed a boundary.

Ever since then, Barr and I had engaged in an extended dialogue about the war. It was the quintessential event of his lifetime, he would argue, and he would berate me because I had chosen to miss it. I always answered by saying: I fought the war at home, and I had no reason or desire to go to Vietnam.

He had spent 1965-1975 in Asia, and when he returned, the world he had left behind no longer existed.

Two events reshaped our dialogue. In 1985, his friend and former colleague, Neil Davis, was shot and killed while covering a coup in Thailand. As he was hit by a tank’s machine gun, Davis fell forward, dropping his camera. “Neil had performed the final irony,” Barr would later write, “the terrible horror of photographing his own death.”

The macabre scene was then broadcast worldwide, and when Barr saw it on TV, he went into a post-traumatic shock episode, falling to the floor of his bedroom, desperately trying to shield Neil from the gun, the way that Neil had saved Barr’s life on numerous occasions.

At that time, I was an assistant news editor at a local daily in Greenfield, responsible for the editorial page, and I asked Barr to write the story about his relationship with Davis. For the first time, after years of posturing with a bravado about the rush of performing on the razor’s edge during combat, and surviving, Barr admitted to himself that the thrill of war was a hollow emotion.

“I received a kind of perverse pleasure in going to death’s door and knocking in quiet defiance. …Going to the precipice of death at the time seemed to make each day much more meaningful… The wanton destruction we witnessed and photographed in Vietnam and Cambodia was then, to us, commonplace. But today the death of Neil Davis is a cold, uncommon numbing experience. It has heightened no awareness nor brought any fullness of life to me. This time there is no perverse pleasure in surviving; there is only profound, haunting and agonizing loss.”

Some years later, Barr told me another story that, much as a piece of twisted shrapnel, had taken 20 years to work its way out of his flesh. He described visiting the family of a young Vietnamese boy in a village north of Saigon. Barr had taken off his flak jacket, left it in the hootch, and went off to photograph the village from a nearby ridge. While he was there, looking through his telephoto lens, he watched as a Viet Cong patrol entered the village, found his jacket, accused the boy and his family of collaborating with the Americans, and executed them. All Barr could do was watch through his camera.

Barr had planned to meet us at the show, but it turned out that he was too ill. So, we journeyed to his home in Shutesbury, where we found him in a makeshift cot, cared for by his brother, Peter, and a hospice worker. For the last few years, he struggled with prostate cancer, a battle he seemed to be winning, but then it returned, with a vengeance.

We talked for a while, until he could not longer stand the pain; the hospice worker connected his IV with a sedative. We said our good-byes. Barr died a week later.

SO, WHAT HAPPENED? It’s a question my son often asks of me, when I’m in the middle of a story and I pause, drifting into silence, lost in a tangent of memory. A gentle reminder that I have become, like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five, unstuck in time again.

It was a few nights after we had returned from Shutesbury, and I had just gotten back from the high school’s open house and parents’ night. In his American Studies class, in which history and English courses are team-taught, I found myself struggling whether ot not to ask the teachers a question.

I had been trying to figure out how to ask a question about Robert Bly, Vietnam, and the Iraq conflict, but I had been unable to think of a way to phrase the question. I kept quiet. It was my question, not my son’s, I realized.

One of the mimeographed pages I found had listed the students and teachers who helped lead the small group discussions. Becky Varner and Carol Watson. Prosie Stanziale and Linda Dowdell. Alan Bateman and Jan Hoffman. Gary Henoch and Liz Pasquale. Where are they today? What, if anything, do they remember about the Oct. 15th moratorium? Do they have sons and daughters who are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan today?

We are fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that bear an eerie resemblance to Vietnam. The conflicts are different, but our leaders have lied to us about the reasons we entered both battles. In each, the stated goal is to promote an illusory version of American democracy, taught to us in our high school history classes. Once again, we find ourselves in a conflict without an exit strategy, draining our nation’s wealth, to defend a flawed concept of national security. We have projected our insecurities onto these conflicts, much as we did in Vietnam.

The stench of blatant corruption in Iraq and Afghanistan is everywhere; it mirrors the same pus-filled infection that was Vietnam and Southeast Asia. Heroin trafficking. Targeted assassination squads. Torture. Contractors making millions. There is even symmetry with the investigative reporting – Sy Hersh broke both the My Lai massacre in 1969 and the Abu Ghraib prison torture stories in 2004.

Yet in our history classes, in our high schools, there was an absence of dialogue, of discussion, of thoughtful inquiry. Why?

I did not know what lasting influence or memories the Oct. 15 moratorium had on my high school classmates. I knew that it influenced me, for the better.

What it all comes down to, I believe, was a willingness to stand up and be heard, to speak up and say no, and to say it out loud, and in public. It took more courage to say no, rather than yes, to swim against the current, rather than with it.

The source of the Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg, who gave them to Neil Sheehan at The New York Times, when asked the reason why he did so, said he had been strongly influenced by his interaction with Randy Kehler, a conscientious objector.

NO, WHAT HAPPENED with the draft? It was late April 1970, a week after I registered for the draft as a conscientious objector. I went to Seton Hall University in South Orange to meet with my draft counselor from the Fellowship of Reconciliation. He had been helping me prep for my appearance before the draft board. At the end of the session, he asked, as an afterthought, looking at the thick lenses of my glasses: “What’s your spherical equivalent?”

Huh? What?

“What’s the prescription for your eye glasses?” he asked.

“Oh, that’s easy. It just changed. Minus 8.75 and minus 9.00.”

“You’re out of the army!”


“Regulation 2-13 C. Anyone with a spherical equivalent exceeding plus or minus 8.00 is exempt from military service.”

“You’re kidding me.”

“No. What you need to do is file for a medical interview. Get a letter from your ophthalmologist stating what your prescription is.”

And so, a few weeks later, I sent a request for medical interview, in addition to my request to be a conscientious objector. By then, the world had changed dramatically, with the invasion of Cambodia, and the killings of students at Kent State and Jackson State.

In the aftermath of Kent State, I asked the principal to set aside time for an assembly, where students could express their feelings with an open microphone. It went well, until a knucklehead suggested that what we needed to do was kill Nixon. I pulled him away from the mike, but things quickly unraveled. It was decided to hold a silent protest the next day in front of the high school.

That afternoon, getting dressed for baseball practice, I got beat up, thrown around in the locker room by a number of the players. Then, the baseball coach ordered us to sit on the third-base bench, when, shouting and waving his hands all about, he threatened any player with suspension who attended the protest, as well as formal letter in his college file. The coach then fell down on his knees, in front of me, and said, “I’m so sorry, Richard. I didn’t know you were here,” as if it were some kind of joke. He broke up with laughter, and the team joined in. Something else I never told my parents.

For the rest of the season, the coaches called me “Red” as in communist, and I wasn’t allowed to play, or even coach third base, until the last two games of the season, when he had to play me because the other catcher was hurt.

A month after graduation, in July, my local draft board, in its infinite wisdom, decided to interpret my request for a medical interview as a desire to join the U.S. Army. Inexplicably, I was sent my 1-A notice as well as a date for my pre-induction physical.

I was glad that I had made the decision to register as a conscientious objector before ever knowing about spherical equivalents; I was not surprised that the draft board seemed to be out to get me.

WHY HAD I CHOSEN to be a conscientious objector? There were many influencers. In 1967, when I was 15, I spent my summer studying computer mathematics at Columbia University, working on an old IBM 7094, learning the computer language known as Fortran Four, punching key cards with each line of mathematical formulas. I was in class, when a message reached the professor, for me, saying that Newark was under martial law, I would be unable to get home by my normal commute.

That evening, after getting picked up at a diner in North Arlington, N.J., I drove with my father through streets of Newark lined with the National Guard, the smoke drifting from the blackened buildings on South Orange Avenue, through the war zone in America. It forever changed my worldview.

I began to read about the Vietnam War, researching the history. The more I read, the more I became convinced that our leaders were not telling us the truth. It was reinforced by the shattering events of 1968 – the Tet Offensive [and the front-page photo in The New York Times of the South Vietnamese official executing a suspected Viet Cong terrorist, shooting him in the head], President Johnson’s withdrawal, Martin Luther King’s assassination, Robert Kennedy’s murder, the riotous Democratic National Convention, and “Nixon’s the One.”

I attended three lectures by David Schoenbrun, the former CBS News correspondent, at the New School for Social Research.

At his first lecture, Schoenbrun explained how after the Geneva Peace Accord in 1954, when Vietnam was artificially divided into North and South, pending an election, it was the United States that refused to hold an election, because President Eisenhower was afraid that the Communists would win. It was startling to hear what was clearly the truth.

NO, WHAT HAPPENED to you, and the draft? In late November 1970, my local draft board sent me a 4-F card, granting my status as requested in the medical interview. I tossed my 1-A card in the fireplace, with my parents looking on.

Today, there is no military draft, and as we prepare to withdraw troops from the Iraq war and increase our forces fighting in Afghanistan, it’s difficult to imagine teachers and students in our high schools engaging in any dialogue about the issue. Too many of our elected representatives, it seems, are bought and paid for by corporate interests. All that’s missing is the NASCAR-style jacket proudly listing the logos of the corporate sponsors.

There are some who might challenge my wisdom of declaring to be a conscientious objector. If they push hard, I would gladly say I would have served in World War II, but not in Vietnam. Mostly, it comes from men and women who didn’t serve in Vietnam, or those who are much younger and arrogant – who somehow believe that we could have won the war in Vietnam, that the Tet Offensive was an American victory, that we can still win the war in Iraq [and Afghanistan].

However, no one who ever actually served in Vietnam – from tank driver to Green Beret, from Airborne paratrooper to CIA interrogation officer, from fighter pilot to Navy lieutenant – ever questioned my courage, or the fact that I had been correct. Whenever the question has come up in conversation, with men my age: “Did you serve?” when I answered that I was a conscientious objector, I am always treated with great respect and dignity – and honor.

Editor's Note: This story was previously published in July of 2017; it is being republished because the documentary on Vietnam by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick will begin airing on PBS on Sept. 17.

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