Friday, February 01, 2019
When All Hell Broke Out And The Army Half-Mutinied In The Heat Of The Vietnam War-One Generation of ’68 Story On The 50th Anniversary Of His Induction-And Maybe A Cautionary Tale-For The Army
When All Hell Broke Out And The Army Half-Mutinied In The Heat Of The Vietnam War-One Generation of ’68 Story On The 50th Anniversary Of His Induction-And Maybe A Cautionary Tale-For The Army
By Frank Jackman
Some anniversaries like say the start of the French, American and Russian revolutions are world-historic events and should be given a nod to every five of ten years in a big way complete with updates on where they stand in the up and down of human history. (I remember being somewhat shocked when Zhou-En-Lai the old Communist foreign minister under Mao who never was on the losing side of a faction fight remarking that the lessons of the French Revolution had not run their course in his time-today either.) Same with specific events related to decisive political events like the establishment (and demise) of the leftist historic Paris Commune of 1871 which gets commemorated in this publication every year hence such awkward designations as 144th and so on. Then there is the purely personal political events commemoration like the one mentioned in the headline to this piece-the also decisive 50th anniversary of my induction into the U.S. Army in January 1969 which in its own way has reverberated unto this day. (Strictly private personal events like birthdays, weddings, and new relationships are found in appropriate places in stories written for this and other publications by me and others some who like myself were “present at the creation” in 1974 when this whole business got started.)
I was, frankly, not going to make any effort to commemorate this personal event since the story has been told several times by various writers here who know what happened, and what by the same token, had happened to them in that unhappy youth time which ravaged this country to the core and we have been fighting a rearguard action ever since for not winning back then when the world was young and we were knee-deep in seeking a newer world. That cohort of writers among those who I grew up with in the desperately poor Acre section of North Adamsville took different routes than I although we wound up in the same place after the dust was cleared-forevermore hostile to wars, and rumors of war which have plagued our existences since then.
The initial impetus for deciding to “tell all” about that military experience had been oddly in the response by several readers to a recent film review of the 2018 film The Post where I mentioned in passing my own way of opposing the Vietnam War when it counted as did heroic whistle-blower Dan Ellsberg in “leaking” what became The Pentagon Papers to the public via the major newspapers. The gist of what these readers said is that they were unaware of my experience (a few related their own experiences at the time monotonously familiar) and that I should tell my story on my own hook, as a cautionary tale if nothing else.
That readership urging would not have been enough though if on an assignment for another publication I had not landed in San Francisco to follow up on that story (and where I am writing this piece). As is not unusual these days San Francisco for me and other old time Acre corner boys like Alex James is flooded with memories of the late Pete Markin, another of the cohort I grew up with, who couldn’t go the distance, who fell down for a lot of reasons including sheer hubris and wound up with a couple of slugs in his head done in not so sunny Sonora, in Mexico when some outlandish drug deal which was going to put him on easy street went very wrong under circumstances which are still shrouded in mystery. Just the way the bastard would have liked it. I was not thinking so much of Pete’s military service where he was fatefully in more ways than one drafted, also inducted into the U.S. Army about a year before I was but the halcyon days of the Summer of Love, 1967 which he was the first to partake in and dragged the rest of us, most of us I think except Brad Webber, out here to the Western end of the world, to the place where everything goes to the China Seas.
I won’t go into detail on that 1967 experience, or on what amounted to Markin’s fateful decision to drop out of college to see what was happening out here which in turn led to that induction notice because I have, and others as well, especially when Allan Jackson, also one of the Markinp-dragged crowd was the site manager before being pushed out by the younger writers. The only thing I will say is that Pete was really a prophet when he somehow sensed early in the 1960s when the rest of us were worried about getting a car, getting laid, getting dough all mixed together he kept harping that a new breeze was coming-and then it came. Too bad the silly bastard that we still shed tears over every time we mention his name couldn’t have gotten out of his own way. Yeah, the silly beautiful bastard who has left us here to mourn him fifty years later.
Talking to the guys I am still in touch from back in the Acre as well as the few who write here on occasion, I have been taken aback by how much that whole period of the Vietnam War affected every guy who came of military age. I have mentioned the Acre already and the way the war devastated a lot of us. And not just in the Acre but our generation, our baby-boomer generation, what Sam Lowell was the first in our group to call the Generation of ’68 and that sticks out as the right way to put the matter now with some pride. Most of the stories though from the Acre are like Johnny Blade’s, Sergeant John Richard Rizzo, 1946-1967 whose name is forever on the North Adamsville town hall memorial and down in black granite in Washington. Johnny could hardly wait to get into the Army, wait to get at the commies the government was always talking about who needed some killing and win himself some glory.
Johnny along with the recently departed Jimmy Higgins, who we are still shedding a few tears for our long last youth over, was the “muscle” for our corner boy corner in front of Tonio’s Pizza Parlor a valuable asset when trouble was around. Johnny Blade got all he asked for in Vietnam, and then some. Laid his head down, fell down in the rice paddies of the Mekong Delta for no good reason. After I did what I did in the Army which will be described below it took a long time and the intervention of our old corner boy leader Frankie Riley to get Johnny’s parents to even talk to me, to stop disowning and disrespecting me in the neighborhood even after I long ago left the place.
It is hard even now to overestimate how strong the ethos of the Cold War Red Scare night which gripped the childhoods and neighborhoods of the Generation of ’68 brethren. The Acre and as far as I can tell most neighborhoods in most cities we similarly smitten. We believed in whatever it was our government, mostly when it counted the WWII hero Grandpa Ike, POSTUS during the coldest periods of that freeze. Bought into some murky variation of the need to kill every Red under the bed, to turn in every mommy if she was a commie to keep the Russkies from our humble doors. To keep the satanic beasts from letting us breath the fresh air of so-called democracy and loveless capitalism. Even though we were literally the poorest of the poor with Markin’s family, no, I stand corrected Jimmy Higgin’s family down at the Bottoms section of the Acre near the river at the very bottom in a tiny shack of a house with five brothers and how they moved in the place after a recent visit for his funeral I don’t know.
This in the “golden age of the working man” we hear about now in retrospect, but it never came down to us, no way. Still we believed what we believed about whatever the civics and history books said and whatever our leaders worked out over us. If you don’t believe me ask your parents, grandparents but I hope not great-grandparents what it was like come air raid drill time during the present at the creation nuclear weapons time when we all huddled, worthlessly when you think about it, under desks, trash cans whatever would “protect” us from the blast. Yeah, we had powerful enemies and no quarter was to be given, none asked for either.
This is the set-up for us, for the corner boys from Tonio’s Pizza Parlor and a million other locations like 125th Street in Harlem, the working-class quarters of Toledo in Ohio, the wide swarths of the barrios of East LA, along the decimated and dishonored Hopi trail of tears out where the states are square. The guys, maybe not the smartest guys or the most well-read but at least not unpatriotic as we knew the term then. When the deal went down, whatever our sympathies, whatever we had intended to do- we went. My case was only slightly more problematic since I had a girlfriend who was adamantly and fervently against the war while I was more lukewarm in my opposition and needed the wake-up call of induction before I figured where I stood. I was in 1968 more interested in the real chance once Lyndon Johnson abandoned the field to get beautiful newer world ruthless Irish Bobby Kennedy elected POSTUS and I could proceed with my childhood dream of being a maker and shaker in the political world, what I would later call bourgeois politics but then my “meal ticket” out of that poverty I knew only too well.
Things did not work out that way in that endlessly action-packed year where decisions had to be made on the fly or you would get left in the dust. Sure, when that notice came to take my physical and then the notice to report for induction I had my doubts, had small, very small thoughts of not going like a lot of guys, the draft resisters but I couldn’t quite get there then. Besides, truth be told, where was I to get any support for such a bold step. Not from home, not from the blessed Acre, and not from the now mostly already in the military corner boys who were far from ready to bring down the government if necessary-then. Certainly not in the ethos of the neighborhood with a few guys, including Johnny Blade having already laid down their heads in some godforsaken jungle or rice paddy.
Certainly not in my family filled with veterans including my Marine Corps father having done their duty when called if they hadn’t volunteered out of hand like my father did come Pearl Harbor. It would be many years and much estrangement before my father, and by extension my mother, would finally see for me what I did was right-and honorable even if he, they believed in the war well pass anybody except may Senator Henry Jackson and AF of L-CIO President George Meany. So I went, went one cold winter morning in January very early and dark up to the Boston Army Base for induction.
Inducted and sent not as expected to Fort Dix in New Jersey where all the other corner boys did their basic training but to Fort Jackson down in South Carolina and from there to Fort Gordon in the red clay of Augusta, Georgia home of the Masters golf championship and ex-POSTUS Grandpa Ike’s favorite course, or at least that is where they let him play. That distance from home and some resources would make things harder in the end but let’s back up. Back up to that trip down to Fort Jackson where I stayed for about three days, three days when I realized two things, the obvious one that I had made a mistake by allowing myself to be inducted and there was no way I was going to Vietnam which even then had my name written in blood on it.
Being in the South being far away from any support system, or advise I went through the basic training and then when I was given AIT as my military career assignment, AIT meaning Advanced Infantry Training down in Alabama I knew the die was cast, that I was up shit’s creek. Guys were being so chewed up and spit out in Vietnam that every AIT guy knew exactly where he was going once the training was completed. Vietnam just then was the only place in need of such services. Fortunately, as I would learn later when I met guys in the stockade, my orders allowed me thirty days leave before reporting to Fort Lewis out in Washington for transport to Vietnam. Some guys were ordered immediately to Vietnam with not much time to do anything but kiss their asses good-bye, that is what one guy said. He had been sent under guard to Fort Lewis and left there only to go AWOL and a bunch of other stuff once he was released on the base. He went a different route for the same reason and would up as I in the same place-the only virtuous place in the military-the stockade.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was somewhat lucky that my number came up in 1969 rather than say 1966, 1967 since the anti-war movement in its radical activist end had expanded from supporting and making counselling available for draft-resisters to include military resisters as the war dragged on with no end in sight despite grand illusion lies by high military commanders that there was some kind of light at the end of the tunnel-and there was when the North Vietnamese pulled the hammer down in, well, 1975 long after what happened to the Acre corner boys happened. Between the citizen soldiers, the rough and tumble eyes at least half opened draftees less and less eager to go to the quagmire as the reports came back to the neighborhood, or as the funeral trains got longer who were being impressed into the military and guys who had come back disillusioned or fucked-up the Army was getting less and less reliable. The anti-war movement began to see that you needed to get to the GIs if the war was going to stop. The government, certainly the Nixon government, was not going to stop the damn thing, not with “peace with honor” their eternal mantra.
That shift helped me personally for when I got back to North Adamsville I immediately contacted the Quakers at the Friends Meeting House in Cambridge. Well not immediately since I still had enough corner boy in me to check up with whoever was around and have a few drinks to drown my sorrows, and theirs. Also, that pesky anti-war girlfriend turned out to have, and I quote, a new-found respect for me now that I had “gotten religion,” my term, on the war. Was ready to do something and so was very, well very and let’s leave it at that. No, let’s leave it at a variation of the famous photograph of three fetching young women, women dressed for the times with the slogan “girls say yes, to guys who say no-to the draft. So yes, not exactly immediately.)
Funny, being in the heavily student Boston area a hotbed of anti-war sentiment where you could go to an anti-war march, rally or something any day of the week I was not sure where to go, who to see, and my girlfriend while an activist was not sure either. By something like a default I turned to the Quakers since I knew they were historically anti-war and had a vague notion picked up from one of the ubiquitous anti-war posters plastered in Harvard Square that they were offering military counselling to distressed G.I.s., to my situation.
I do not remember all the details of the first meeting with the counsellor (who was not a Quaker but knew enough about military procedure to be of great service to me and others). Here is the outline of the plan he suggested as to options (“suggested” an important word since other terms might have led to serious legal, and political, repercussions) which should be enough to satisfy those who want to know my military service story. Since I had orders to go to Fort Lewis and wanted to stay in the Boston area to get help and be with connections that mattered, I had to go AWOL, absent without leave, a military crime treated lightly or seriously depending on the length of absence and other factors. Go AWOL for at least thirty days, better given Army bureaucracy, hell, any bureaucracy, in order to be “dropped from the rolls” out in Fort Lewis. Meaning I was essentially a free agent, free for a minute from those orders hanging over me. Then I was to turn myself in for punishment and reassignment. That turning in place by design Fort Devens about forty miles west of Boston and so a good place to work out my plans from.
After turning myself in I was, beyond whatever paperwork and punishment would accrue from the AWOL charge, to put in paper work for a conscientious objector discharge. That a hard dollar once you were in the military and not based just then on some historic religion training like with Peace Quakers or Mennonites but not impossible. 1969, ,and going forward also turned out to lucky for me since various federal lower court decisions and even an important Supreme Court one which basically set the same standard for military COs as civilian were beginning to force the military to be more serious about such applications. I put in the application although I was too sanguine to expect much since a number of guys who I had met at Devens in the same boat as I were being turned down. As I was, having based my argument on a slight Catholic/ethical axis not what the tight-assed Army standard would regard as a CO. Turned down despite, and this would be important later, being declared by all the line of interrogators to be “sincere” in my beliefs. That negative result meant I was to prepare myself for a reissue of orders to Fort Lewis and then to Vietnam.
Here is where the Quakers, and I will always love Quakers whatever theological differences we have, came to the rescue-they provided me with a lawyer, a lawyer who was building a reputation for getting military guys out of one kind of trouble or another, a new category of lawyer, a civilian lawyer going up against the Army justice system. (Rather than depend on some Army JAG, Army lawyer, who was strictly a company man.) Although it was a close thing, a very close thing since there were those in the Army at Devens, lifers who hated me and wanted to take me to Fort Lewis under armed guard that lawyer was able to get a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) from a federal judge in Boston which kept me under that court’s jurisdiction while the merits of the case were being heard. Whee! (Those lifers were literally searching the fort for me to handcuff me and sweep me away the very day the TRO was issued before it took effect.)
That lifer hatred was not just happenstance. You see once I got “religion” I no longer feared what would happen to me, no longer was a soldier, was an anti-war fire-eater. Once the Army breaks its hold on you, that fear of the stockade that very basic training sergeant warned you against anything was possible. One day before that TRO took effect and while I was waiting for something to move on my case I decided to join a Quaker-organized anti-war rally outside the front gate at Fort Devens. In uniform and during duty hours. Result: Special Court-Martial-the max, six months. Since my case was working its way slowly through the federal court system, I actually served that six months minus some good time.
Once I got out of the stockade on that charge I decided to continue my personal resistance and refused to wear the uniform. Result: Special Court-Martial-the max, six months. Toward the end of that second six months (plus pre-trial time in the stockade this time) that writ of habeas corpus came through and a few weeks later I was discharged, honorably discharged if you can believe that since the judge had decided the Army had screwed up not granting my CO application. Otherwise, who knows I might still be doing an endless series of six month sentences. Tough, yes, tough for lots of reasons, political and personal. But know this I would probably not fifty years later still be fighting the good fight against the endless wars of our times if I hadn’t had that baptism of fire. That can be the cautionary tale if you like.