Back to Hassna's Index | Columns | Features | Sonoma County Free Press Home Page
Issue: November 1999
Part One: 1967 to 1975
by Steve Hassna
The old Drill Sgt. here, and as I said in my first column, history is strange, strange indeed. This column will prove that, a column I find myself at odds to write. But history, being what it is, I guess you have to look at it whether you like it or not.
The following is an e-mail I rceived two days ago.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
From the Vietnam Veterans Radio Network News Service
The Illinois Attorney General's office has confirmed that it is investigating the National Office/Officers of the Chicago-based VietNam Veterans Against The War, Inc. for violations of the state's Not For Profit Corporation Act.
The IAG's investigation was sparked by "formal complaints" from VVAW members in Minnesota, Missouri, California and Arizona, who allege that the National Office/ Officers illegally denied them access to the organization's membership and financial records; conducted illegal hearings to "suspend' and "expell" members; staged illegal elections that excluded the majority of members from voting; and illegally continued to solicit " tax- deductible donations" for nearly five years after being " involuntarily dissolved" by the Illinois Secretary of State's Office in November of 1983.
Those VVAW members who have been disenfranchised by their National Office/ Officers have formed a "National Caucus" calling for "Integrity, honesty, and brotherhood in the National Office".
Well ,troops, how's that for some shit! Here's an organization with a long and stormy history of anti-war struggle and it comes to this. I was forced out of VVAW after 26 years by one of the ruling clique's "hearings" in the spring of `98. I will cover these current events later in this column. History. . . what a trip. But first let's go back and look at a Vets group that unlike any before, has, as I would put it, a very colorful page in history.
I went by to see Mr. Peabody. He opened the door and seeing my solemn mood and realizing that nothing bad had happened on our last trip in the Wayback Machine, he just said, "Where to, Drill Sgt?" "I got a hard column this time", I said. "Are you going to get a headache from it?" he asked. "Yes", I replied.
"Good", he said, turned and started walking to the back room, where the Wayback rested.
"You deserve it", Mr. Peabody chuckled. "After all the crap you have put me through, I might just enjoy this."
We entered the room to the Wayback, he made some settings, his boy Sherman showed up as we entered the Wayback, hopped in and off we went. "Where to?" Mr. Peabody said, fiddling with some knobs. "New York City, 1967", my reply.
Anything special?" he said, over his shoulder, while he set the time and location.
"Yes, anit-VietNam war demonstration", I said. "Oh yeah, the war at home, that doesn't seem to get much play in the history books these days", and he spun the dials. "No, it don't" I said. "The powers that be don't want people to know just what was going on here in the US, "The World". Let's just look at the war in Nam and how it got torn apart. Not what that war did to this country and how it ripped it apart", I sighed. "Funny how that works, now isn't it?" he said, as he made some more adjustments.
USA,1967 and things weren't looking good on the home front. In Nam things were looking from bad to ugly for the troops that were there. No matter what General Waste-more-lands had to say on the subject, it just looked like shit to the troops in the field. Didn't matter what the General said or how many pins he put in the map. The bottom line was, the VietNamese were not going to quit till we were gone. Kind of sounds like our fight with the British in the 1700's. But I digress.
1967 and a mounting opposition to the war had grown. There had been outcries from the start, but now a whole lot of people were saying end the war, just what are you meatheads doing, and lest you forget, bring the damn troops home!
A huge rally was called for New York City and around the country. Everyone showed up that wanted the war to stop. The streets were full and the media were having a field day. In the midst of all this were six VietNam Vets, opposed to the war and their roles in it. Now there have been vets who have spoken out to the insanity of war throughout our country's history, Vets for Peace, for one. But these guys were Vets newly returned from the war that was just escalating into hell, and they wanted it to stop. A bit of a new twist, you might say. They marched under the banner of "VietNam Veterans Against The War". That pretty much said it and the idea took off like a grass fire on a hot August day. Now I was in the Nam and had no idea this was happening. Grunt in bush, no info... You following me here? The troops in Nam didn't know that so many poeple were outright pissed at what was happening. Everything is just fine at home, don't worry, be happy. Oh, by the way, better take extra ammo when you leave the perimeter tonight. Wag the dog, in reverse.
But something was happening and the powers that be had no way to stop it. Kind of like pissing in the wind, it just gets all over you ...
From that rally came an organization that went on to really be a pain in the butt for the government. Kind of hard to tell the people that you trained, equipped and sent to do the fighting, that they didn't know what they were talking about. Civilians are easy, just blind them with bullshit. It don't work that way with grunts, they have been shown, first hand, just what bullshit is. It's called combat!!! And many had stepped across " TheThin Red Line", and were seriously annoyed at its effects.
"The Thin Red Line", that's when, in combat, you lose your humanity and go insane in the heat of battle. Even though it ends, as all battles do, you are never the same and never will be again, for eternity.
`67,`68,`69,`70 and VVAW grew as the war went on. By 1972, when I joined, the population of VVAW across the country had grown to 25,000 very noisy members. Now that may not seem like much, given the whole number of people involved in VietNam, but it was a first, and an outspoken one at that. Most veterans just went home and tried to forget, which at times was impossible. The mood of the country and the nightly coverage of the war wouldn't let them. This is what happened to me and many others.
Edwin Star's song, "War, What Is It Good For", was straight to the point. I got my come-uppance in May 1970, watching the nightly lie on the tube. Richard (I am not a crook) Nixon, announced to the world that US forces had invaded Cambodia to wreck the supply bases of the V.C.(Viet Cong), and N.V.A.(North VietNamese Army) for the first time. I sat straight up in my chair and told my wife Cindy that that was a lie. My unit, 1st. Bde. 101st Airborne Div., had been in the same exact place in 1967. There's one lie, more to follow. Then a few days later, Kent State, Ohio. My feelings were, they have stepped over the line and will gun down students, thinking that they (students) will shut up and go home. Kind of like throwing gasoline on a fire, then being surprised when it blows up in your face. Which is just what it did; all over the country, campuses were in chaos.
The same thing happened at Jackson State, Mississippi, barricaded students were fired on by troops of the Mississippi National Guard. Not much coverage on Jackson State though, it is mainly black students. All this sent me over the edge. I had, for about a year after I was out if the Army, just tried to fit in at home in the S.F. Bay Area. That was over now. I quit my job at the computer center for Kaiser Permanente, one that was leading to a promising career. When asked by my boss why I was quitting and is there something that could be done? I said No, I like you, the job, my co-workers, the whole thing. But if I work here, I pay taxes, if I pay taxes, I pay for the bombs dropped on S.E. Asia. I was a participant in that war, now I am paying for it through taxes, and that, I will not do any more, period! I will not participate from now on. Turned and walked out the door. Cindy did not take this very well; she left, and took the kid with her. Can't say as I blame her, I was not a nice person anymore, sleepless nights, nightmares, trauma, stress, startled reactions, and a bad attitude. She was also about to have another kid, so her decision was sound and the only thing to do. Lost everything, family, home, job, the whole thing. Why? Because I saw the lie of VietNam and it was too much to bear.I put a back pack on and went on a walk-about for over a year. It was not till the early `90s, in the midst of the Persian Gulf build-up, that I was reunited with my son and daughter, Jeff, and Julie.
During this time VVAW was, as it had been doing for some years, working to stop the war, and deal with the attitudes of its members. VVAW became a brotherhood of war survivors. Veterans that had been there and had no one else to turn to. The common goal: Stop The War, and survive till it is over. Whether you remember it or not, the VietNam Veteran in the early `70s took heavy casualties from suicide, drug and alcohol, murder, and incarceration. This was due to society's rejection, blame for losing the war, and guilt for giong, and coming back. Welcome home Johnny, now die! VVAW was a group that cared for the Vietnam Vet. Most chapters became extended families, based on mutual survival.
Seeing how mainstream America don't want us around, with the traditional vet's groups (V.F.W.&American Legion) thinking we're cry babies and all druged out. So let's get in their faces. The duty uniform was, jungle fatigues, swamp hat, VVAW patch and attitude. Johnny came marching home, and he was pissed. All across the country VVAW organized against the war. Now where did most of these Vets. go after returning home? Why, to college, where else? This was at a time when most of the campuses in the US were going through a new phase. It was called, Student Riot 101, and a whole lot of students were signing up to take the course. San Francisco State became know as Riot Tech. Plenty of police with tear gas, No Waiting! And there were VVAW chapters formed on campuses all across the country.They got office space from the schools and set out to annoy the masses. Mostly the school adminisrations, who could not understand such anger and attitude, coming from such a youthful appearance. These people obviously are not hippies. Call the TAC squad to be on the safe side. Now here's the kicker: VVAW at no time advocated violence or the use of violence as a means to solve the problem. Violence was not VVAW's line. We had been there, that was what we were working against. Now if the feces material hits the air circulation device, oh well, here we go again. On top of all this there wasn't a heavy political line, ie leftist dogma; just a bunch of people working to stop a very ugly war. That, troops, was about to change.
In 1970 -`71, two events occurred that sent a message to the government that they were not dealing with the run of the mill Veteran. On Sept 4, 1970, VVAW set out on a 90 mile march from Morrsitown, New Jersey to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania(is this symbolic or what!). About 100 VVAW personnel took part in the march. During the march everyone was decked out in jungle fatigues, swamp hat, plastic M-16s and moved in formation as if on search and destroy missions back in the Nam. They would enter small towns on the way and, to the citizens' dismay, they would secure the area, search buildings at will, detain, search, and generally harass the population, just like the good old Nam. Then move on to the next town. VVAW was aided by Quakers and pacifists who volunteered to be the detainees, and subjects of the harassment. They were also jeered at and threatened by, this time, the local VFW and American Legion posts in the area. This sent a somber message to the government. Here were the boys that fought the war, out showing for all to see, how it was conducted. Another problem for the gov. was the fact that not all these people were privates in the military. NCO's and Officers were members of VVAW, which just added to its credibility.
(I was an E-6 Staff Sgt. Drill Sgt. when I left the Army, and I knew an E-6 Marine Gunnery Sgt. and an Air Force Captain who were also members of VVAW when I joined in 1972.)
Then in 1971 the chickens came home to roost, so to speak. From April 19 to 23, 1971, 1,500 members of VVAW decended on the capitol in Washington D.C. In the days that they were there, VVAW lobbied Congressional members to stop the war, staged guerrilla theater, occupied various government buildings. Oh yeah, and got arrested, bad vet...Go to jail...
Finally the Chief of police for D.C. said he was not going to arrest any more vets. Hurrah for our side. Then at the end in a very solomn and emotional display, these same vets threw their medals, discharge papers or parts of their uniforms over a fence and onto the steps of the U.S. Capitol. We are the ones who fought for you, we are the ones you lied to, now take back your awards, and to hell with you and your war! This, folks, was not what the government was looking for in the way of P.R. image in 1971, 1,500 veterans saying, Stick it, gov., where the sun don't shine! VVAW then moved to a new position of government outlook. In one fell swoop, VVAW became, in the eyes of the government, a serious danger and threat to the U.S. government and social order, right behind the Black Panther P
arty, and Weather-Underground (Weathermen). Gee, isn't it nice to be noticed for your achievements. Now the fun started, OK little boys you want to play hard ball, try on the F.B.I. and see how that fits. (James McCord of the Nixon plumbers, during the Warergate hearings in `73, when asked why he got involved in that mess, replied,"Because of the danger from VietNam Veterans Against The War". I saw this live on TV.) With the F.B.I involved, sending in agents, provocateurs, and infiltrators, the scenerio went from nuts to surreal. At the same time, the left was trying to court VVAW for its own exploitation. VVAW was, from the veiwpoint of the radical left, to become the vangaurd of the revolution. I even had one leftist meathead tell me that it made sense to him. Nam vets were, after all, highly trained killers; who better to lead the masses in the glorious proletariate revolution against the capitalist, pig running dogs? Oh, he did not mean as in politically or from a leadership position. He meant from the position of point man in the trenches. We vets were not politically astute enough to make decisions, leave that to the people with Marxism on their side.
By 1972 the situation was nuts, the F.B.I. was running amok, (see my column on Republicans in Miami, 1972) and the left was doing their best to screw up the whole thing. Unfortunately some vets were buying the radical left's outlook. Which if you look at it, makes sense. These people were disillusioned with the existing U.S. politics, had been rejected by the society as a whole and were looking for a new way to do things, with an end to war and more social justice. Picking up the gun and shooting the man, with a Marxist spin on it, wasn't really the way to go about enacting change. But hell, to most of these people, if not all, this was OJT (On the job traning), in its worst form. Here is an example of stupid symbolic gestures. I joined the San Francisco chapter of VVAW in August `72. Shortly before I joined, a plan was hatched by a few members to, now get this, take the beach on the west side of the city, with their backs to the Pacific Ocean. Make demands that San Francisco become a war free zone, or else. The problem with this is that there is a sea wall running along the beach protecting Hwy.1. The police could, from this position, then throw rocks down on the liberators of the Haight Ashbury. The images of Omaha Beach and the Normandy invasion come to mind here. Or maybe better put, the suicide squad of the " Peoples Liberation Army of Galilee" from the Monty Python movie, "The Life of Brian". You have seen this movie? No? Well check it out. This plan was resoundingly poo-pooed by the majority of the chapter membership, thinking too much beer was involved in the planning stage of the event. Unfortunately, one of the planners of this event went on to ride with the SLA(Symbonese Liberation Army) and is doing life in prison for his part in the killing of Marcus Foster, Oakland Superintendent of Schools.
While all this madness was going on, there were positive things happening, that to this day still benefit VietNam Vets and succesive veterans since the VietNam war ended. Through all this, many vets went through college to receive degrees in many fields. One Vet was Jack McClosky, born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Jack went on to be a Navy corpsman, serving with the Marines in the Nam. Wounded and receiving awards for valor, he returned to the US and joined VVAW. I met Jack when I first joined VVAW. He cared about Nam vets and what we had gone through. He worked long and hard to get the point across that we had gone through something that had left us shattered and with a hole in our soul that this country had to look at. In 1972, Jack tried to get people in the medcal community to look at what he called "Post VietNam Syndrome", what we grunt vets were calling the "Screaming Crazys". In fact, those of us who were in VVAW were called the "Screaming Crazys" because we would, at a drop of a hat, go anywhere and get in anybody's face to stop this stupid war. We were young and wanted the killing to stop, and screw the geo- political world overveiw of the cold war. We wanted the killing to stop on all sides. Being combat hardened veterans, we knew first hand, "The Thin Red Line" and wanted no more of it!
Jack's words, and those of others, fell on deaf ears. Why? Because the powers that be did not want to admit that war is not healthy for anyone, and only advances the wealth of a few, weapons merchants and their dealers. It was not until 1981 that the American Psychiatric Association admitted that war trauma caused damage to the people that were subjected to it. So they called it, "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder"." Post" my ass; any vet knows that it was from the first time they got shot at, and many more from the time they got hit, or saw the inhumanity that could be in a war situation." Post", bullshit!!! And people wonder why I have a bad attitude. I hate being lied to....the shrinks just looked the other way until they could not look at themselves in the mirror anymore: So its "Post", we just did not know, blah, blah, blah.....
Because of Jack McClosky's work the Vets Centers around the country exist to this day, helping vets get on with their lives. Jack passed on 3 years ago, gone to rest as many vets have, and I thank him for all that he did and the many he saved.
By the end of 1972 things were, politically and emotionally, around the country, about to come to a rolling boil. And troops, VVAW was about to spin into self-destruction. A debate started in the organization in mid `72 about the future and what to do when the war was over. By this time everyone knew that, in fact, the war was going to end soon, just not sure when. One train of thought was we "struggle", (that's a leftist term, for "fight the good fight") to see the war end. Then decide what we were all about. The other was, "We need to build an organization for the revolution, be the vangaurd, and all that other crap. Continue the fight against the capitalistic power structure and embrace a Marxist- Leninist analysis for a people's revolution, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah!! This sort of thinking really gave most of the members in VVAW a headache, and many left in disgust. This type of thought train was coming from VVAW members and non-veterans working in the organization who had adopted that Marxist analysis. The one thing to remember is that these people were coming into VVAW to push their special agenda. They were not there to stop the war, they were there to advance their political thought. Everything from the R.U.(Revolutionary Union),R.S.B (Revolutionary Student Brigade),Venceremos, October League, S.W.P.(Sociallist Workers' Party), CPUSA (Communist Party United States of America) and last but not least, the one, the only,the RCP (Revolutionary Communist Party). Though small in numbers, they were able to get into positions of power that would let them set VVAW policy. One thing you should remember, is that when all this was going on the Feds were trying their damnedest to wreck VVAW. They (FBI,ect.) were sending in agents to stir the pot and get VVAW to do something stupid. At the same time members were contacted by the FBI to inform on, and keep the FBI abreast of, what VVAW was up to. With the reward of money for services rendered. One can only wonder how nuts it was being a member of VVAW at that time. The general membership of VVAW was caught between a rock and a hard place, with the Feds on one side and the leftist loonies on the other. The going joke was guessing how many agents were at the different demonstrations VVAW attended.
The Feds were one thing, but the leftists were something else altogether. With the different political lines all trying to get VVAW to pick up their banner,what resulted was a whirlwind of dogma and jargon. And this caused a major split in the organization. In 1973 VVAW got a new name, and a whole new set of headaches. Now it was VVAW/WSO, VietNam Veterans Against the War/ Winter Soldier Organization. The addition of WSO meant that non veterans could join and be in positions to set policy. The left played on the guilt and pain that members had from the war. We (members) had to embrace Marx and bare our souls to our crimes against humanity. Meetings turned into political education classes, with criticism / self- criticism periods thrown in to help us move forward for the revolution. Do I need to say how much of a royal pain in the ass all this was? On top of all this, there were people who took this crap seriously.
The next thing to come up and slap the membership, was the question of leadership. This one was a real mind trip. To this day I scratch my head and wonder what ding-dong came up with this. I think this was done to see if you could really drive VietNam Veterans nuts while smiling at them, and saying,"This is to help you". One should remember that these folks were going through a political birthing and all this Marx stuff was new to them. They were interpreting all this from their respective backgrounds: ethnic, social, political and religious. Now if you are coming from working class to middle class, white, Catholic, Baptist, etc., post WWII Republican or Democrat, you can imagine just what would happen. These folks, having had their bells rung because of the Nam, (in-country or at home), rejecting their whole belief system, were embracing a new political outlook. You got it, the "Spanish Inquisition", with modern Marxist analysis thrown in for good measure. It's not to say that all these people were not well- intentioned, they were. They were looking for a new and better way, a fair and more equal way. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Now yours truly came from East Oakland, California, Irish/Syrian Catholic, working class. My grandfather had been run out of Ireland by the Black and Tans before WWI, and I had been raised to think for myself . That's why I cut 3/4 of my first year of 1st grade. That's right, 1st grade! It was Catholic school and I just would not get with the program. They were glad to see me go after my second year of 1st grade. I have teacher friends who just shake their heads when they hear that story. You cut 1st grade??!?! Hey, I was young, the sun was shining, and the Penguins (nuns) were driving me nuts. What else could I do? So the new order did not set well with me and others. And this was going on throughout VVAW coast to coast.
Here's how the drill went. VVAW was mostly men, with a few women vets here and there. Mostly white, with some people of color, and of course in-country and combat vets. This made us ripe for "political re-education". Here's how that works. We were men and men were in charge, so we were guilty of "elitism". We were white, double guilt here. We were Veterans, more guilt, and I mean heaped on by the snowshovel full with a Stalinist attitude. The terms "White skin privilege" and "Bourgeois baggage" were flung at the membership like old shoes at an alley cat. We could have joined the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars),where at least you understood the insults without having to look in Mao's little red book for translations. To the VFW we were just crybabies and druggies, plain and simple English.
You can imagine how myself and other grunts felt about these new turn of events. We were expected to accept leadership from someone, (woman, man, color or not), on face value, whether they were qualified to lead or not. Now I learned in the Nam that rank does not make a leader, officer or NCO. There were competent officers and NCO's and there were also incompetent ones. The incompetent people got others killed, plain and simple.Now if you are a competent leader I will work with you and follow your stead; if not, forget it. And now myself and others were going to have to accept new leadership, period. I'm not talking a bake sale or a quilting bee, oh no, not that simple. We're talking the great proletariate revolution, with guess who as the point men. Nam grunt, one each, expendable! Revolution, yeah right. Most of these people could not lead themselves to the toilet, let alone know what to do once they got there, without a steering committee to analyse the situation. With this in mind, you can imagine the fight that resulted within the organization.And what a fight it was! This did not happen overnight; from late `72, through `73, and into `74, the bullshit raged. Funny thing is, US involvement ended in `73, which took a lot of wind out of the revolutionary's sails. Many members went home, now that the war was done, and got on with their lives. The population of VVAW dwindled rapidly, but still many held on to see the war through to its conclusion, the total unification of VietNam. That was a year away. In the meantime let's just keep kicking this political crap around.
The "Split", as it was known, started in early `74. VVAW just splintered in all directions. The war was over for the US , it would be a year more till the guns fell silent for good. The good folks from Southern California, Berry Romo and crew, decided to take over the National Office in Chicago. This was basically a RU/RCP takeover, under the guise of reshaping VVAW for the future. Somewhere along the line Berry Romo realized that the RCP would be in control and not him. He was, after all, an officer in Nam and was supposed to be in charge, now wasn't he? I think that Berry had his eye on running the RCP also, but Bob Avakien, said no, no, no, me lead, you follow. This is only my speculation on what came down, but it sure rings true, as you will see. What did Berry and crew do, being good Marxist-Leninist-Stalinists? Why they had themselves a good old fashioned coup and purge. Berry renounced his wicked Stalinist ways and became a Democrat again. Now seeing how the membership by now was down to nill, this didn't mean much. There were small chapters around the country, but nothing like a year and a half earlier. VVAW/WSO was what was going on and that didn't last long.
By mid `75 VVAW was dead completely on the west coast. The fall of Siagon in April and the final unification of Vietnam helped a lot: party over, time to go home. There was one more thing that put the last nail in the coffin for VVAW on the west coast. A group called the SLA got itself barbequed in a shoot-out with the police in Compton, Ca. (L.A. area). Seeing how the radical left was connected to VVAW, whether we liked it or not, the Feds landed on the San Francisco Bay Area like a bad rash. Joe Romero was a member of VVAW, also Venceramos, and finally the SLA. The SLA was formed in the Bay Area, and their members were from a variety of leftist and anti-war groups. Many people who were associates of, or knew SLA members without knowing what they were up to, or even that there was a group called the SLA, had their lives turned upside down. I was a member of VVAW in the Bay Area, and knew Romero. After a short time I got to disliking him, and had no use for his brand of politics. Well, guess whose name was in little Joey's address book, when he and Russel Little were busted in Concord, Ca. (East Bay, San Francisco Bay Area)? Yours truly, thanks a lot!
Here are two"revolutionaries" driving around a white middle class neighborhood in the suburbs late at night. When stopped by the police, a shoot-out ensues and Little and Romero are arrested. Not only did Romero have his address book with all the names and addresses of people he knew on him, but he also had the gun that killed Marcus Foster, (Oakland Schools Superintedent), on his person. Not too smart! He is currently doing life in prison for that killing. Also in the van were literature and posters of the SLA. Why were Little and Romero driving around Concord late at night? Because they could not find the safe house the other members of the SLA had rented. If you haven't noticed, most houses in any subdivision look pretty much the same. Gee, is that the one? Don't know, let's ring the bell and see. These people didn't have a clue what they were doing, but they were going to lead everyone else in the glorious Revolution. Yeah right, I think I will pass. The SLA violated every rule of guerrilla warfare and paid for those mistakes with their lives. Romero and Little's arrest was followed by the Patty Hearst kidnapping , then the final shoot-out in Compton. With each of these events the left in the Bay Area and in Southern California ran for cover. With the final shots, the left decided to take long vacations out of the area, and the streets of Berkeley were as deserted as a church at midnight on a Tuesday. It was not long after that, that VVAW was done on the west coast, and what remained was in the midwest and New England states. But even then, it wasn't much, compared to what it had been.
Well troops, that's it for part one of this saga. Up next, part two: `76 to the end. This has been a very hard column to write, but that's history. And guess what, it gets worse.
Stay tuned for part two, it will be up soon.
Till then, keep reading those newspapers and watching the tube for what we all know and love: The American Historical Process.
See you around the base camp!
Drill Sgt Hassna.... OUT...
Send Email to Drill Sgt. Hassna
Send Email to Sonoma County Free Press
Letters to the Editor . Supporters