War—Then and Now
March 6, 2020
~~~Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn~~~
Fifty years ago today three young antiwar activists were killed when a huge explosion ripped through an elegant townhouse on West 11th Street in Greenwich Village, New York. Diana Oughton, Ted Gold, and Terry Robbins were secretly building a bomb they intended to detonate at Fort Dix, New Jersey, the site of a mock Vietnamese village where US soldiers received “Vietnam-specific training” before being deployed to Southeast Asia.
Diana was raised in a large and wealthy Illinois family—she’d attended boarding school and Bryn Mawr College where she’d become a Quaker, and then moved with the American Friends to rural Guatemala to teach children. Ted was a red-diaper baby, his parents left-wing academics, and he had attended Stuyvesant High School and then Columbia College where he was a leading civil rights organizer and antiwar activist. And Terry grew up in Queens, the son of a garment worker, attended Kenyon College and dropped out to become a full-time community organizer and volunteer teacher in a preschool on the East Side of Cleveland.
They walked three distinct paths toward that fateful morning, and yet they were united in their fierce and single-minded determination to stop the war in Vietnam—just expanded into Cambodia—by any means necessary, and united, finally, in death. The bomb that killed them all may have been even more catastrophic had it reached its intended target at Fort Dix: more deaths, even more chaos, and more confusion.
Both memory and time play tricks: we tend to remember mostly in our favor, and larger narratives work hard to erase the inconvenient and the appalling. James Baldwin, pointing to America’s dreadful racist history and our seemingly bottomless and willful social amnesia, asserted that “…the past will remain horrible for exactly as long as we refuse to assess it honestly.”
That refusal runs deep, but attempts to disrupt the denial, and the push to face reality and reconcile with history, are relentless as well. The Civil Rights Movement was one attempt; Black Lives Matter and the 1619 Project are two prongs pointing in that same direction today.
Vietnam—and the role of the US military more generally—is cloaked in myth and self-deception.
When the US decisively lost in Vietnam—its invasion and occupation defeated—it failed, predictably, to admit defeat, face reality, or to take any responsibility whatsoever. There was devastation and wreckage in all directions: 59,000 Americans killed, hundreds of thousands of American lives ravaged by war wounds that would follow and haunt them for decades, three million Vietnamese lives taken—six thousand people each week murdered during the ten years of the American war—and yet our government paid no reparations, organized no truth and reconciliation process, accepted no moral or material debt.
Imagine what might have been had everyone—Henry Kissinger, US generals and ordinary service people, anti-war activists and law-breakers—stood up in the public square, told the truth about what they’d said and the actions they’d taken, and then asked forgiveness from the broadest community, Vietnamese and American.
But that never happened, and because the powerful never admitted defeat and never said they were wrong, the country could never quite overcome the loss or set itself in a new direction. Military men asserted that the US quit or left or lost the will to win, adding that their hands were tied by gutless politicians who weaseled and whimpered. For their part, presidents and politicians and pundits claimed that the whole affair was an inexplicable quagmire, that it was a case of good intentions gone wrong leaving us with no winners or losers, and that it was best to forget the whole mess and move on.
The sad dishonorable truth of Vietnam runs against a solid American myth of might and invincibility—and it reveals something much darker and deeper. Not only was all the pain and suffering, the bloodshed and death and sorrow irredeemable, but it was in the service of rotten imperial goals.
And here we are, fifty years later, dreams of empire explicit and intact: a trillion dollars a year for military spending, 775,000 US troops deployed to Afghanistan over almost 20 years, over 2000 American deaths and over 20,000 wounded, tens of thousands of Afghans killed and the lives of millions disrupted, and now an official report issued by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction that echoes every dishonorable twist and turn we saw in Southeast Asia: deep misunderstanding of local culture and conditions, confusion about allies and enemies, no sturdy institutional memory, rampant corruption, and willful lying to the American public. The list could have come from an account of the British in Kenya or the French in Algeria—the staggering arrogance, the breathtaking faux-innocence, and the unmistakable imperial posture. Today’s endless wars too will produce rage among our young, as well as people around the globe
Once again we pause formally to grieve over the calamity and the losses we couldn’t or didn’t prevent fifty years ago. We face one another and acknowledge our failures, our self-righteousness and our own arrogance. We vow to do better. We focus our thoughts and hearts on the precious lives lost in the furnaces of war, and we remember Diana and Ted and Terry.