Dissent from the Ranks

Random Lengths News | August 18, 2005
The notion that anti-war protesters spit on returning Vietnam War veterans is one of the most powerful myths used to discredit civilian anti-war organizing. This may help to explain the weakness of the anti-war movement, despite an early August Gallup poll showing that 54 percent now regard the invasion of Iraq as mistaken and 56 percent want to withdraw some or all of our troops.

Yet, the reality was 180 degrees different, according to Vietnam Veteran Jerry Lembke, whose 1998 book, The Spitting Image, convincingly argues that story is a fabrication that did not appear until several years after such events supposedly took place. In reality, contingents from Vietnam Veterans Against the War routinely lead anti-war marches and demonstrations, and the attempt to discredit them politically was one of Nixon’s great obsessions.

Indeed, a 1971 article in Armed Forces Journal, “The Collapse of the Armed Forces,” by Colonel Robert D. Heinl, Jr., depicted a military “in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and non commissioned officers, drug-ridden, and dispirited where near mutinous.” In addition, a disgusted Heinl wrote, “At least 14 GI dissent organizations (including two made up exclusively of officers) now operate more or less openly.”

Thus, it is not really surprising that the most striking criticisms of Bush’s Iraq debacle have come from an Iraq War Veteran, Paul Hackett, who narrowly lost a special election in Ohio’s heavily-Republican Second Congressional District (OH-2) on August 2, and from gold star mother Cindy Sheehan, whose son Casey was killed in Iraq in April, 2004. and who is now camped out in the Texas sun waiting for a meeting with the man whose lies lead to her son’s death.

The Downing Street Memo—smoking gun proof that “the facts and the intelligence were being fixed around the policy” to justify Bush’s war—is “not a story,” according to the conventions of the Bush Era press corps. But a grieving mother like Cindy Sheehan is something else again, especially in the ultra-slow news environment of Crawford, Texas in August. A day before the corporate media storm finally broke, Sheehan told a conference call of bloggers, “If they were truly reporting the news objectively they would be reporting this. Natalie Holloway is a tragedy from one family. But this is tragedy for millions of families.” After days of equivocating, suddenly the corporate media decided that Sheehan’s news judgment was right.

Hackett, an outspoken Iraq War veteran came within four points of winning a special election in Ohio’s Second Congressional District (OH-2), which usually goes Republican by 70 percent or so. Unlike John Kerry, who lost OH-2 by 18 points, Hackett did not pull punches in attacking Bush’s Iraq policy—or on anything else for that matter. He told USA Today that Bush’s line, "Bring 'em on!" was "the most incredibly stupid comment I've ever heard a president of the United States make."

When the GOP started panicking, and launched a “swift boat” attack on him—with Rush Limbaugh devoting two days to smearing him, Hackett dismissed Limbaugh as “that fat-ass drug addict.” And he uses the colloquial term “chicken-hawk” for people—like Bush and Limbaugh—who are gung-ho for war, but avoided going themselves.

Hackett’s rise depending largely on Hackett himself, and local and national grassroots support he was able to generate with his record, his platform, his blunt talk and the internet, where his candidacy was widely touted on liberal blogs. Veterans were a mainstay of Hackett’s campaign. The day after the election, Hackett told Democracy Now host Amy Goodman, “To the chicken-hawks out there that think that what I say about this administration is not representative to some large degree in the military, I say that this was only a shot over the bow. You had better wake up and smell the coffee, because we are minting young Democrats day by day in Iraq, and maybe it didn't happen in this election, but it's going to happen in many elections in the future.”

Hacket even got a phone call from a family member of one of the Ohio-based Marines killed the day before the election. Of 20 Marines killed in two attacks on successive days, 14 were part of the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines, headquartered in Brook Park, a Cleveland suburb. A memorial service was held for them the following Monday, organized by Brook Park Mayor Mark Elliott and anti-war Congressmember Dennis Kucinich, whose words and deeds have always clearly distinguished between opposing the policy of war and support those who serve.

"Their lives were sacred," Kucinich said. "Their commitment to our country is sacred."

Elliot told Random Lengths that the community’s immediate reaction was one of stunned shock, grief, and reaching out to comfort those who had lost family members and friends. “It was very important for the families of those fallen heroes to know that there is a lot of love for them, to know we share your grief, our thoughts and prayers are with you.” Individual services were still being held at the time of the interview, but there was already some talk of creating a memorial.

“I’m proud of our community because they reached out and wanted to help,” Elliot added.

The issue of the war itself had not come up in the community. “It’s a time of grieving,” he said, simply. In time, “It will be interesting to see what it does do in terms of people speaking out one way or the other.”

Cindy Sheehan has already been where they are. Her family met with Bush, along with the families of other troops killed in Iraq. “I was still in a deep state of shock and a deep state of grief,” Sheehan now says.

"We haven't been happy with the way the war has been handled," Sheehan told the local paper, the Vacaville Reporter, at the time. "The president has changed his reasons for being over there every time a reason is proven false or an objective reached." But the family decided not to raise those issues, “deferring to how they believed Casey would have wanted them to act.”

Fourteen months later, the rightwing media tried to smear Sheehan as an opportunistic flip-flopper, taking other passages of that story out of context to misrepresent her as happy with Bush, rather than deeply ambivalent—an ambivalence that has faded as Bush’s flip-flops in justifying the war have continued, and as he has used meetings like the one he had with her and her family to shore up political support. Toward the end of the 2004 campaign, MoveOn.org raised money to air an ad with Sheehan in battleground states.

Bush’s August 3 response to the Marines killed in Iraq included two statements that caught Sheehan’s attention: "We have to honor the sacrifices of the fallen by completing the mission," and "The families of the fallen can be assured that they died for a noble cause."

The next day, Sheehan announced that GSFP would go to Bush’s Crawford vacation home and confront him on those statements, challenging their illogic—something the corporate media has repeatedly failed to do. Her statement said:

1. We want our loved ones sacrifices to be honored by bringing our nation's sons and daughters home from the travesty that is Iraq immediately, since this war is based on horrendous lies and deceptions. Just because our children are dead, why would we want any more families to suffer the same pain and devastation that we are.

2. We would like for him to explain this "noble cause" to us and ask him why Jenna and Barbara are not in harm's way, if the cause is so noble.

3. If George is not ready to send the twins, then he should bring our troops home immediately. We will demand a speedy withdrawal.

Bush’s refusal to meet with her is drawing broad criticism. Attempts to smear her have not caught on.

“It’s hard to come down on a Gold Star Mother,” Lembke observed. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it comes down to a backlash against antiwar veterans rallying around her, and we get a lot cries that these guys aren’t really veterans. It’s a bit early to say how it’s going to go,” he added.

“One can make the case that the [2004] election was decided by the Swift Boat Veterans, all of which echoed the betrayal narrative,” Lembke stressed. And he reports a new spate of Vietnam-era spitting claims have surfaced in papers recently.

“My fear is that this war in Iraq is going to go down as a lost war, and that’s going to promote a whole new round of scapegoating,” Lembke cautions. “I don’t think the Bush Administration is going to abide this loss peacefully, and I think that’s part of the ambiguity of this period.”

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Founded in 1979 as a counterbalance to the conservative, corporate- owned daily paper, Random Lengths News draws on the rich history of the Los Angeles Harbor Area. The name harkens back to a description of the lumber that used to...
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