To the editors:
“Lessons and Hopes in Vietnam” (New York Times, May 24, 2016) is breathtaking in its failure to articulate a single useful lesson from the ten-year US war in Vietnam, and its failure, therefore, to offer any hope that the US will behave more wisely moving forward.
Millions of us who lived through those perilous and hopeful times concluded that the US must learn to live as a nation among nations—not the self-styled “world’s last remaining super-power,” not the uber nation playing cop to the world, and not the arrogant exception to the standards all other people must live by. We hoped the US could at long last learn that war is not the answer, and that wherever the US boot (or drone) comes down, death and destruction, displacement and devastation follow. Those lessons are playing out in front of our eyes every day.
But those are not the lessons learned by Secretary of State John Kerry, senator John McCain, and former senator Bob Kerrey, each a veteran of the Vietnam war and each deeply involved in US international policy today. Their opinion piece is a stunning mishmash of misdirection and mythology, dissembling and deception.
Misdirection: The subtitle of the piece is, “Veterans see a bright future for a country with a troubled past,” and that reference is to Vietnam, not the US. The ahistorical detachment is dazzling. “Troubled past?” Troubled by an invading army willing to commit war crimes “on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command” as Lt. John Kerry said in1971. The US needs to face its own troubled history honestly if it ever hopes to move forward in balance and harmony.
Mythology: “We must never again confuse a war with the warriors,” they write, echoing a legend long-promoted by America-first ideologues, and oft-repeated in an attempt to silence principled opposition to the next invasion, and the next. Veterans were in fact the heart of the largest antiwar movement in US history from 1968 onward—they still are—and peace advocates made a hard distinction then (and now) between the troops who were overwhelmingly African-American and working class, and the powerful masters of war who sent them into harm’s way from the safety of their conference rooms.
Dissembling: They write that “with sufficient effort and will, seemingly unbridgeable differences can be reconciled.” They would have us believe that what we have here, as the warden says repeatedly in “Cool Hand Luke,” is “a failure to communicate.” In reality, when the gun boats and war planes arrived, no amount of effort would resolve the fact that the Vietnamese did not want to be occupied by the US or any other foreign power.
Deception: “Our leaders need to be honest with Congress and the American people,” they write, without a nod in the direction of the ongoing creation of a massive secret surveillance state organized by the CIA and the NSA. They add that the US should “exercise humility in assuming knowledge about foreign cultures,” once again, without a word about the destruction of Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Pakistan, and Iraq. The resultant pain and suffering, the massive refugee crisis throughout Europe and the world, are fresh reminders that a key lesson from the Vietnam war that these former fighters ignore is that wars are a leading cause of forced global migration.
The Vietnam war included the deaths of 6000 people a week—mostly civilians, and including women and children—for ten long years. The lessons Kerry, McCain and Kerrey draw from that catastrophe are anemic at best.
As we grapple with the reality that Palestine Legal’s founding Advisory Board member and trailblazing human rights attorney, Michael Ratner, is no longer with us, we wanted to share some examples of his thinking and work for Palestinian human rights. Since his death last week, much has been said of his pioneering legal work – from the Democracy Now! special, to the New York Times obituary, to the Center for Constitutional Rights’ (CCR) statement, and beyond.
Less known and celebrated is his work on Palestine in particular, which illustrates the principled commitment to justice on which Michael operated. As Maria LaHood, Deputy Legal Director at CCR and Palestine Legal Advisory Board Chair, says:
“One of the many legacies Michael Ratner has left us with is CCR’s work for Palestinian human rights, which began more than two decades ago seeking accountability against a U.S. tear gas manufacturer for Palestinian deaths resulting from Israel’s use of its tear gas in the 1990s. CCR’s Palestinian rights work flourished during Michael’s tenure as board president, including cases brought against Israeli officials and Caterpillar for war crimes as well as a campaign to halt Israel’s desecration of Mamilla Cemetery in Jerusalem. It should be no surprise that Michael’s bold tenacity extended to the principled struggle against Israel’s impunity.
As we noted last week, it was Michael’s prophetic vision that led to the founding of Palestine Legal in 2012. He saw, before many, that one of the most pressing issues in the universe of legal work for Palestinian rights was the attack on activists who advocate for these rights, even right here in the U.S. Palestine Legal is built on the theory of lawyering that Michael practiced: one that married the legal with the political, and that uses law as a tool to support, protect and further movements for genuine social change, working at the service of movements even when the law itself is weighed against them.
Here, we share, in Michael’s own words, some highlights of his thinking on Palestine:
In March, 2014, The Real News Network interviewed Michael about his personal journeyfrom a Zionist youth to an outspoken critic of Israel. (March 4, 2014)
In 2015, Michael spoke about the suppression of Palestine advocacy and criticism of Israel in the U.S., or ‘The Palestine Exception to the First Amendment,’ as he coined the phrase that would become the title of Palestine Legal and CCR’s report on the issue. (April 27, 2015)
Most recently, Michael and co-author Katherine Franke wrote about the hypocrisy of lawmakers passing bills to punish economic boycotts of Israel. (April 29, 2016)
In early 2015, Michael discussed the bias and prejudice implicit in a US case against the Palestinian Authority (PA), which ultimately held the PA responsible for the killings of Israeli and US citizens. (February 23, 2015)
Michael also spoke out vigorously against the tainted conviction of the Holy Land Five defendants. Here, he speaks together with Noor Elashi, the daughter of Ghassan Elashi, who was convicted and sentenced for 65 years under material support for terrorism charges for his work with one of the largest Muslim charities in the US sending humanitarian aid Palestinians. (October 26, 2012)
Exemplifying his history of going after powerful actors for their abuses of everyday people, Michael called for criminal accountability of Israeli leaders for the attacks on Gaza in 2014, not only for war crimes, but also for genocide, crimes against humanity, and apartheid since 1947. Showing his passionate dedication to Palestinian freedom and his belief that the law by itself doesn’t solve the problem, Michael ended his comments saying: “Yes we must hold Israel and its leaders accountable in courts throughout this world. But that will still not be sufficient. In the end, we must end the occupation, and Palestine must be free.” (July 27, 2014)
And so, we carry on Michael’s torch in our small way, ensuring the continued freedom of those who are working for a free Palestine.
He came to Cuba often. The last time was in February 2015, on the
occasion of the International Book Fair in which the Spanish
edition of “Who Killed Che? How the CIA Got Away with
Murder” was presented. It was the result of painstaking
research and more than ten years demanding access from relevant
authorities to official documents jealously hidden.
The work of Michael Ratner and Michael Steven Smith proved beyond
doubt that the murder of Ernesto Guevara was a war crime
committed by the US government and its Central Intelligence
Agency, a crime that does not have a statute of limitations,
although the authors are on the loose in Miami and flaunt their
We met again in July on the occasion of the reopening of the
Cuban Embassy in Washington. We were far from imagining that we
would not meet again. Michael Ratner looked healthy and showed
the optimism and joy that always accompanied him. On that
occasion we celebrated that the Cuban Five anti-terrorist Heroes
had returned home and also the fact that President Obama had had
no choice but to admit the failure of Washington’s
aggressive policy against Cuba.
Michael was always in solidarity with the Cuban people since as a
very young person he joined the contingents of the Venceremos
Brigade. That solidarity remained unwavering at all times. His
participation in the legal battle for the freedom of our
comrades, including the “amicus” he presented to
the Supreme Court on behalf of ten Nobel Prize winners, was
A tireless fighter, for him no cause was alien. He stood always
on the side of the victims and faced with courage, even at the
risk of his life, the oppressors who dominated that judicial
system. He also did it with rigor, integrity and love. More than
a brilliant legal professional, he was a passionate fighter for
justice.He was present in 1968 at the Columbia University strike
before completing his studies, and fought racial discrimination
together with the NAACP. Soon after graduating he represented the
victims of the brutal repression at the Attica prison. Thus he
began a remarkable career –impossible to describe in just
one article– which knew no borders: Nicaragua, Haiti,
Guatemala, Palestine, a never ending list.
When nobody did, he undertook the defense of the hostages in the
illegal naval base in Guantanamo. He convened more than 500
lawyers to do so –also for free– and achieved an
unprecedented legal victory with a decision by the Supreme Court
recognizing the rights of the prisoners.
Many other cases absorbed his time and energy, working in a team,
without necessarily appearing in the foreground. He did not
hesitate, however, to legally prosecute powerful characters like
Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush whose
“impeachment” he tried very hard to obtain.
He also accused Nelson Rockefeller, when he was governor, and
more recently Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. He published
books and essays in favor of legality and human rights. He was
considered one of the best American lawyers and chaired the
National Lawyers Guild and the Center for Constitutional Rights
and founded Palestine Rights. He combined his work as a litigator
with university teaching at Columbia and Yale and helped train
future jurists able to follow his example.
He was the main defender of Julian Assange and Wikileaks in the
United States. An insuperable paradigm of a generation that aimed
for the stars, he was an inseparable part of all their battles
and will remain so until victory always.
Mariame Kaba is moving from Chicago to New York. We will miss and remember you, and we will continue to rise up in your spirit:
In 1970, we received a “Letter from the Underground” from Father Daniel Berrigan, printed in the New York Review of Books. It was a note from a comrade, for Dan too was a “most wanted” fugitive from the FBI and federal law enforcement officials at that time. A Jesuit priest, an acclaimed poet, a committed anti-war activist, his “Letter” was delivered, as was much communication then, not by mail or (landline) telephone, but via the media.
Father Dan wrote that “Outlawry is the normal condition in which decent men and women are called upon to live today.” Dan and his brother, Father Philip Berrigan, and Mary Moylan, were three of the Catonsville Nine activists who broke into a local draft board office in Maryland in 1968, and then carried paper draft files out into the parking lot where they set them on fire with homemade napalm. Their federal trial was an appeal to higher law, God’s law, and Nuremberg responsibility. The defendants were found guilty of destruction of US property, destruction of Selective Service files, and interfering with the Selective Service Act of 1967. They were sentenced to a total of eighteen years in prison, Father Dan to three years.
Dan Berrigan refused to report to prison, and during his time “underground” he repeatedly appeared publically to conduct church sermons or to give anti-war speeches, further infuriating FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. His was both a playful “underground” and a passionately moral one. He wrote, of the Catonsville action: “Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children…”
The Weather Underground responded with a much less eloquent “communiqué” to “Brother Dan,” just after he was arrested in 1970. “We watched you, Dan, on TV when they took you to jail, smiling and with hands raised, handcuffed, giving the sign of peace. You have refused the corruption of your generation.”
Mary Moylan would pursue her own path as a fugitive, joining the women of the WUO for a brief period. Phil Berrigan served six years in federal prison, often in solitary confinement; Dan served a year and a half. Their courageous direct actions against the Vietnam War became a catalyst for lay Catholic activism against the military draft and the machinery of war that mushroomed to include some twenty draft board break-ins across the country, and the 1971 “burglary” of an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania. This creative, bold activism against US military aggression, powerfully told in the documentary Hit and Stay: A History of Faith and Resistance (by Joe Tropea and Skizz Cyzyk), took place during an era when the Catholic Archbishops of New York City, Cardinal Francis Spellman and Cardinal Terence Cooke, were vehement anti-communists and outspoken champions of the Vietnam War.
Like many, Dan Berrigan did not stop with the dramatic defeat of the US military in Vietnam. Father Dan and most of his early cohorts accelerated and refined their radical, non-violent, very direct action, anti-war activism. In tandem with the yeasty Catholic activism of Central and Latin American liberation theology, the Berrigans and the vibrant US Catholic peace movement began to focus on abolishing nuclear weapons and forged the Ploughshares Movement.
In 1980, the Berrigan brothers and six friends broke into the memorably named King of Prussia, Pennsylvania nuclear missile factory owned by General Electric and took ball-peen hammers to the warhead cones. The militants poured their own blood over the war materials and then waited for the police to arrive. This time, the legal battle raged over a decade, and Father Berrigan served some twenty-three months, including time in detention awaiting trial. In total, Dan Berrigan spent seven years incarcerated for his direct action activism against U.S. wars. The wars he opposed themselves amount to a litany of carnage, war crimes, and the human agony of permanent war: Vietnam, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Iraq, the former Yugoslavia, Palestine (after visiting the Middle East, he accused Israel of “militarism” and the “domestic repression” of Palestinians), Afghanistan, Guantánamo torture, and CIA drone attacks. He has been a consistent opponent of all forms of social inequality in the US—and of the tyranny of his own Jesuit order.
“No modern war can be just, because it’s indiscriminate and because it’s launched against the people and the world…Man is at war with the global ecosystem and with his fellow man, and I denounce it.”
Dan Berrigan extended and made contemporary the fervor of Dorothy Day, the Catholic Worker movement, liberation theology, and the Christian anarchist movement. His art, his intellectual depth, his training could not predict his lifelong practice of refusing to let his life be a mockery of his values. He acted with his teams, and with imagination and focus. He was willing, even insistent, on taking the consequences of his defiant and illegal actions. He remained an active rebel within his Jesuit order and his church, and within his own country, challenging its ongoing, rapacious addiction to warfare.
Father Dan, Presente.
About the Author
Bernardine Dohrn, activist, academic, international child rights and women’s advocate, is retired Clinical Associate Professor at Northwestern University School of Law, and founding director of the Children and Family Justice Center for twenty-four years. Dohrn is an author/co-editor of three books: Race Course: Against White Supremacy; A Century of Juvenile Justice;Zero Tolerance: Resisting the Drive for Punishment in Our Schools. Dohrn was a Lecturer at the University of Chicago (where she graduated from the College and Law School) and is visiting professor, Leiden University faculty of law, the Netherlands.