By Mariann G. Wizard / The Rag Blog / August 25, 2010
Combat by Trial: An Odyssey with 20th Century Winter Soldiers by Nancy Miller Saunders. (iUniverse, Inc., 2008.) 591 pp, $34.95. Available at www.iuniverse.com.
Turning the Guns Around: Notes on the GI Movement by Larry G. Waterhouse and Mariann G. Wizard (Praeger, 1971). 221 pp., published at $6.95.
In 1971, my second husband and good friend Larry Waterhouse and I, through a fortuitous series of chances and choices, wrote a book on antiwar activity in the U.S. armed forces for a respected New York publisher. Turning the Guns Around: Notes on the GI Movement (Praeger) was researched and written entirely in four months to conform to a deadline occasioned by the failure of a previously contracted writer to deliver a manuscript.
Following Robert Sherrill’s successful Military Justice is to Justice as Military Music is to Music (HarperCollins,1970), Praeger was eager to jump on the military dissent bandwagon, and to fill the hole in their spring line-up.
Turning the Guns Around gave ’em more than they bargained for. With chapter titles like, “Gen. Baconfat vs. the Red Menace” and “Today’s Pig is Tomorrow’s Bacon,” and copiously drawing from the irreverent and often profane underground GI press of the day, we proclaimed the entry of activist grunts, swabbies, jarheads and/or flyboys, along with some servicewomen, into the ranks of revolution.
Drafted out of graduate school at UT Austin on November 25, 1969, Larry made no secret of his sympathy for Vietnam’s National Liberation Front during induction and basic training. As a result, he spent his entire 14-month military career at Ft. Ord, California, near Monterey.
By the time I joined him the next summer, he’d made the transition from leadership in UT’s Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) to leadership in the Ord chapter of Movement for a Democratic Military (MDM). The group rented a house off-post where off-duty soldiers could meet, hang out, and talk; published an erratic newspaper; and engaged in anti-war actions as well as solidarity actions with, groups like the lettuce-boycotting Farmworkers Union, protesting the enormous amounts of lettuce being served in Army mess halls.
We had each worked with individual anti-war vets in Austin, and with anti-war GIs somewhat through the Oleo Strut, an anti-war coffeehouse in Killeen, Texas, near Ft. Hood, and knew from history the potential importance of rising dissent within America’s armed forces.
Despite rising rapidly to a responsible and even rather sensitive position in Ft. Ord’s payroll office, Larry never earned a stripe, remaining a proud buck private throughout his military servitude. His only bling was a Sharpshooter medal.
We signed our book contract at Christmas in 1970, in a Houston hospital, at the bedside of his Mom, who we thought might not live to see the book (she did). We’d flown to Texas on emergency leave when Gretchen had a heart attack, but tried to save money on the way back by delivering a “drive-away” car to Los Angeles. This became a marathon trip-from-Hell that landed us back in Monterey on Jan. 2, 1971, at about 4 a.m. I fell into bed. Larry put on his uniform and went to work.
An hour or so later he woke me with amazing news: he was being summarily, and honorably, discharged. Apparently the brass didn’t want an active duty private authoring a book about dissent in the armed forces!
Back in Austin, we finished the book, found a place to live, figured out what was next in terms of employment and school, and along the way met and started working with a good-natured Army vet, Terry DuBose, to organize an Austin chapter of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW).
It wasn’t long, however, until we found ourselves in the best place organizers can be: not needed. By the fall of 1971, VVAW was an organization of, by, and for combat vets and their spouses, and Larry and I were politely asked to step out. We continued opposing the seemingly endless Vietnam conflict in other ways.
VVAW continued to emerge as a leading anti-war organization, especially as the beleaguered student movement imploded, until the war finally ended and the last U.S. troops came home.
Nancy Miller Saunders’ memoir, Combat by Trial, tells VVAW’s story not only from her point of view, that of a non-veteran “insider,” but also, by skillfully interweaving the stories of veterans, government documents and vintage press reports, paints a collective memoir of a very crazy time. She was not, and does not present herself, as a VVAW leader, but was a trusted collaborator and confidante of many of VVAW’s key players, especially in the Southern region, over several years.
The liberal film school graduate encountered VVAW as a member of Winterfilm, a collective documenting testimony at VVAW’s first nationally-noted action, the Winter Soldier Investigation.
Held in late January and February 1971, WSI grouped combat vets by service and division to give public testimony about atrocities and war crimes in which they had participated, and/or had witnessed. The first panel was made up of veterans of the Marine Corps’ highly decorated First Division that had been in Vietnam since 1965.
From painfully detailed testimony in this and subsequent panels a pattern of officially-sanctioned brutality over overlapping tours of duty emerged, demonstrating unequivocally that the recently-revealed massacre at My Lai had been no accident, and no particular exception.
Saunders describes the haggard, haunted, but still child-like men who made these bloody confessions, and her own growing awareness that these gallant, all-American boys had been maimed not only, all too often, in their bodies, but in their souls. VVAW’s quest for an end to the war was at once a quest for their own healing, and for the healing of a nation.
Describing her journey, that of her then-partner, Arkansas VVAW coordinator Don Donner, and of VVAW as a whole from concerned patriots to targets of government intrigue, Saunders dips willingly into her own interpretations, but takes care to label them as such, urging readers to draw their own conclusions.
Her point of view differs from mine, for example, on the role of more radical anti-war groups, who she generally regarded then and now as “crazies” who drew attention from VVAW’s powerful statements and needlessly endangered peaceful protesters. However, her own militancy was raised by threatening events and the intense persecution of VVAW. This internal shift, from being a total pacifist to someone who, on occasion, could not sleep without knowing that a loaded pistol was within reach, is powerfully evoked.
The book made me remember walking into the MDM house in Monterey for the first time and seeing the sandbags lining the walls to protect against occasional drive-by shootings. The story of her and Donner’s reception by the New Orleans “Red Squad” gave me a chill; the Monterey police department knew of my arrival almost before I did.
If you are among those who can’t imagine what led some anti-war protesters of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as Black liberationists, to consider violence, this book is “must reading”! The short version: the U.S. government, through its willful lies, delusional fantasies, and brutally destructive acts, brought much enmity upon itself.
Those who read with interest in The Rag Blog about Federal Bureau of Investigation informer Brandon Darby and the impact of his unmasking will be fascinated with the story of VVAW’s snitches. Even now, with the perspective of years and Saunders’ deep research into FBI files, the motivations of such individuals remain obscure, but the VVAW experience demonstrates that this must be a secondary consideration.
Deliberately false “intelligence” was the result of a political program that aimed to destroy VVAW’s credibility through accusations of planned violence and expensive trials, draining group resources. That this was accomplished, in part, through the testimony of paid informers and provocateurs worked eventually to bring in “not guilty” verdicts for most VVAW members charged with crimes, but the damage had been done. The question of how to defend against such betrayals remains open, and urgent.
In the biggest legal case, veterans were charged with conspiring to riot at the 1972 Republican National Convention in Miami. The trial of the Gainesville 6, that then became the Gainesville 8, and of the “Forgotten 4,” involved Austin’s own “movement lawyers,” most notably Cameron Cunningham for the defense.
Saunders recalls the bickering between and among defendants and defenders; between VVAW’s southern regional leaders — most of those accused in the case — and its compromised national office; as well as the convoluted legal wrangling that led to complete acquittal in Gainesville — but only after the RNC was over and Nixon anointed once more as the nominee.
Although Saunders and Donner were not active here, Austin VVAW’s actions are amply chronicled, largely through Saunders’ conversations with and letters from local leader John Kniffen, one of the Gainesville 8, as well as through her direct observations of VVAW actions in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area and in Killeen.
Kniffin, a taciturn, wiry, former tank commander who did 32 months in-country, joined Austin VVAW in 1971, and became a force regionally, and then in national VVAW, where he demanded — and got — more democratic decision-making.
His recollections, and those of his widow, Cathy, who continues, after John’s death from Agent Orange exposure, to work for veterans’ rights, brought back vivid memories of actions here in which Larry and I participated, the most awesome of which was a gigantic outpouring of peace and justice forces at the official dedication of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library, attended by a Who’s Who of U.S. imperialism, including then-President Richard “Tricky Dick” Nixon.
While there are a few errors that old Austinites will readily spot (e.g., the University’s West Mall is referred to repeatedly as the East Mall), it’s also fun figuring out who certain unnamed activists must be, simply from their descriptions.
In what I believe to be an original contribution, using FBI and press reports, Saunders alluringly links dirty tricks played against VVAW with Nixon’s Watergate burglary team. Offices and homes of VVAW members and attorneys were burgled, especially in Florida, where Nixon’s plumbers were based; as in the better-known Washington, D.C. break-ins that ultimately brought down the President, only certain papers were stolen.
In the weeks before the 1972 national political conventions, both of which were in Miami, Florida leaders of VVAW were in discussion with Democratic Party headquarters — one of the targets of Nixon’s buggers — about security for demonstrators (“nondelegates”) who would attend. Democrats feared, and hoped to avoid, a repeat of the 1968 Chicago convention debacle, where anti-war youth had been clubbed through the streets on national television.
Was this discussion the reason Nixon bugged Democratic Party HQ? Did the same crew that burgled Pentagon papers whistle-blower Daniel Ellsburg’s psychiatrist’s office burgle VVAW files in Gainesville? Did Nixon hope to tie national Democratic leaders to VVAW’s alleged conspiracy to riot? While no conclusive proof is presented, “coincidences” of timing and personnel movement are compelling. Has anyone offered a more reasoned explanation of what Watergate was all about?
Saunders also presents evidence that on at least two occasions, VVAW’s release of information gleaned from active-duty contacts (the anti-war movement within the military having continued to grow despite its own problems and persecutions) about U.S. troop and materiel build-ups prevented the war from being intensified on Nixon’s watch, rather than eventually being abandoned. This seems a plausible enough reason for the vengeful, plotting Nixon to want the organization destroyed!
The collective nature of Saunders’ memoir is its true strength. By giving free voice to the many vets who entrusted her with their papers, their unpublished memoirs, their own FBI files, etc., she avoids the self-centered quality common in such memoirs, while still allowing herself free voice.
She knows that no one person has the full story, and in fact not even a group of people such as she draws from see everything that happened around them and to them. Part of the immense satisfaction I found in the book came from seeing other views of events I had seen peripherally, in a time that seems both very long ago and strangely like this morning.
In a funny circle-of-life coincidence, a bus Terry DuBose drove with other veterans to Washington, D.C. — a bus belonging to John Kniffin — and wrote about in an epilogue for Turning the Guns Around, pops up in Nancy’s book, stranded by the side of the road, from a completely different source.
DuBose electronically introduced me to Saunders and her husband, Budd — a sometimes contributor to The Rag Blog from rural “Arkansaw” — a year or so ago, which is how I heard about her book, and requested a swap. As a sometimes self-published author myself, I’m happy to recommend this Internet publication in overall quality and value.
You’ll find as many typos in any book these days, and none of Saunders’ are very off-putting. Spelling errors, etc., in sources quoted, add, in several cases, to the authenticity of her documentary. Saunders still sees life through a film editor’s eye, and has a good gift both for description, especially of people and the places where action takes place, and for dialogue, as well as voluminous resources.
Turning the Guns Around was a snapshot of an emerging movement, a Rorschach blot of a moment. Combat by Trial is a deeper, longer, and more nuanced look at that same movement — military opposition to U.S. military adventurism — as it grew, rose, and fell in the 1970s.
Now it is rising again, in our younger brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, who have been to war in the cauldrons of Iraq and Afghanistan. Saunders doesn’t shy away from drawing parallels between Vietnam and the “Afraq” conflicts, and I will not shy away from pointing out that Turning the Guns Around predicted these wars in some detail 39 years ago. Unlike some Vietnam-era memoirs, Combat by Trial has plenty to offer today’s peace warriors.
[Mariann Wizard, a Sixties radical activist and contributor to The Rag, Austin’s underground newspaper from the 60s and 70s, is a poet, a professional science writer specializing in natural health therapies, and a regular contributor to The Rag Blog.]