Archive for the ‘A BOOK TALK’ Category


Sunday, March 29th, 2009

No one knows better about the costs – physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual – of war.  Their words make great sense and I wanted to pass them on as Pres. Obama prepares for his first journey beyond our borders.  He will no doubt hear other voices raised for peace.  I keep wondering what it will take for our people to say no to war in recognition of what the veterans are saying in this statement, which ends with: “Our collective experience tells us wars are easy to start and hard to stop and that those hurt are often the innocent. Thus, other means of problem solving are necessary.”


NATIONWIDE – March 27 – Today President Obama announced what he termed, “a comprehensive, new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

The President went on to say, “I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan and to prevent their return to either country in the future. That’s the goal that must be achieved. That is a cause that could not be more just. And to the terrorists who oppose us, my message is the same: We will defeat you.”

The national organization Veterans For Peace takes issue with the President’s characterization of the conflict in Afghanistan and his policies. Vietnam War Navy Corpsman and National President of VFP, Mike Ferner, said, “The President has already escalated the war in Afghanistan by an additional 17,000 troops. Today’s announced escalation of 4,000 more troops is another step into the swamp. It doesn’t matter if those steps are big or small, we’re still going into the swamp and we need to turn around. At some point we will undoubtedly stop bombing and start talking. The sooner we do that the better.”

Ferner, who as a Corpsman attended hundreds of wounded troops, added, “Some of what the President said will help the situation, but it is all undercut by the basic belief that more force will provide security. U.S. use of force in the region has caused the deaths of thousands of civilians, greatly increasing opposition to U.S. presence and undermining confidence in the local government. Our military operations in Pakistan have aggravated an already unstable environment, and expanding them will only increase instability. Obama’s plan will ensure more of the same in both countries.”

VFP Executive Director Michael T. McPhearson stated, “President Obama expressed concerns for the women and girls in Afghanistan. VFP shares those same concerns for the women serving in our Armed Forces who are more likely to be sexually assaulted than their civilian counter-parts. What I do not hear in this discussion is the fact that those who suffer the most in war are women and children. War does not protect the vulnerable, it throws social mores out the window and women are seen as spoils. VFP urges the President to rethink his plan of escalation and put the full force of U.S. efforts in diplomacy, economic assistance and humanitarian aid.”

In their August, 2008 Annual Convention VFP passed a resolution calling for: “the government of the United States to immediately withdraw all military and intelligence forces from Afghanistan and Pakistan; to provide humanitarian aid directly to the people of Afghanistan, in non-coercive forms, to help the Afghan people rebuild their own nation and their lives in cooperation with other nations in the region; and to allow the people of Afghanistan to freely determine their own government without interference by the US.”

The resolution also renounced the claim that the war in Afghanistan is somehow the “right” war and reaffirmed their position that war must be abolished.


Veterans For Peace is a national organization founded in 1985. It is structured around a national office in Saint Louis, MO and comprised of members across the country organized in chapters or as at-large members. The organization includes men and women veterans of all eras and duty stations including from the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), World War II, the Korean, Vietnam, Gulf and current Iraq wars as well as other conflicts. Our collective experience tells us wars are easy to start and hard to stop and that those hurt are often the innocent. Thus, other means of problem solving are necessary.

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009

Yet Another Wake-Up Call – Iraqi Soldiers are Taking their Own Lives – Our Help is Needed

The article below tells a tragic tale and one that needs to be broadcast.  The war our governmet has waged for 6 years has taken and continues to take an extrardinary toll on the service men and women who have been its victims.  It is essential that the Obama administration begin to make restitution for the unforgivable actions of the Bush regime and IAVA has a plan to change policy and fund the Veteran’s Administration so it can addres the needs of those whose lives are in danger.  Denial, politics as usual and a horde of distractions cannot be allowed to derail these efforts.  The article tells the story…

More Soldiers lost to Suicide than to Al Qaeda in January: Iraq Veterans Storm the Hill

Posted by Paul Rieckhoff on February 10

Last month, suicide took the lives of more American soldiers than Al Qaeda and the Iraqi insurgency combined.
The article below tells a tragic tale and one that needs to be broadcast.  The war our government has waged for 6 years has taken and continues to take an extraordinary toll on the service men and women who have been its victims and perpetrators.  It is essential that the Obama administration begin to make restitution for the unforgivable actions of the Bush regime and IAVA has a plan to change policy and fund the Veteran’s Administration so it can address the needs of those whose lives are in danger.  Denial, politics as usual and a horde of distractions cannot be allowed to derail these efforts.  The article tells the story…

According to preliminary numbers, as many as 24 soldiers killed themselves in January. That’s almost five times as many suicides as the same month last year. News of this shocking spike in suicides comes as no surprise to anyone who has been following this issue. 2008 marked the highest rate of military suicide in decades, and suicide rates have been rising every year since the start of the Iraq war.

It’s clear that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are taking a tremendous toll on our troops, our veterans and their families. And suicide isn’t the only challenge we’re facing. Seven years of war have taken their toll on our military families, especially military marriages. Divorce rates among female servicemembers are especially alarming. Unemployment rates are up in general, but new veterans are being hit especially hard. Among Iraq and Afghanistan-era veterans of the active-duty military, the unemployment rate was over eight percent in 2007, about 2 percent higher than their civilian peers. And already, at least 2,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have shown up in one of our nation’s homeless shelters.

It is time for bold and immediate action.

That’s why I’m leading a delegation of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans from across the country to Washington, DC this week to educate our nation’s leaders on the most pressing issues facing today’s troops and veterans. We hit the ground running with a congressional briefing in the Capitol, and we’ll be meeting with over 100 legislators’ offices throughout the week.

Each day, we’ll be reporting live from DC, so follow us at

We’ll be hitting all the top points in our Legislative Agenda, including better screening for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury, a stronger veterans’ component in the stimulus package, and correct implementation of the historic new GI Bill. And we’re also making sure that the stimulus package includes a robust veterans component. But the top issue we’re tackling is the need for advance funding for veterans’ hospitals.

What does advance funding mean? Year after year, the VA budget is passed late, forcing the largest health care provider in the nation to ration care. Hospitals cannot plan for needed repairs, or be sure when they’ll have the funding to hire new employees. It’s a real problem for veterans across the country of all generations, who have to rely on aging and understaffed hospitals. One veteran on my team today told a staffer that she has to wait an hour at her local VA just to park her car. Without advance funding, this is what can happen. It is like trying to plan for your family’s budget without knowing how much your next paycheck will be for. Funding the VA health care budget one year in advance would put an end to the broken VA funding system, and it wouldn’t cost a dime. If advanced funding is good enough for Big Bird and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, it should be good enough for veterans.

Sounds like a no brainer, right? I’d agree with you anywhere but on Capitol Hill, where common sense solutions go to die. But I’m optimistic. We’ve got the support of all the major veterans’ service organizations, and a lot of support in Congress. We’re going to make sure this easy, crucial fix moves this year.

We’re bringing the largest IAVA delegation to Capitol Hill in our organization’s history, and the week promises to be exciting. Don’t miss out on the action. Our delegation is counting on your support.

Talking to Hampshire College Students about CALLED TO SERVE

Friday, October 19th, 2007

On Tuesday of this week I was invited by Prof. Stephanie Levin to speak about the process of creating CALLED TO SERVE for her class entitled WARRIORS AND RESISTERS.  In particular Prof. Levin wanted me to address the experience of being an interviewer, since her students are about to do a project involving interviewing veterans going back to World War II and up through the Iraq War.  What follows is the talk I gave.  Afterwards I was asked numerous provocative and thoughtful questions by many of the 25 students taking this most stimulating and timely course.  Also in attendance was Rob Wilson, head of the Veterans Education Project, which provides speakers to share their war experiences with high school and college students.  He was there to make connections between the students and some of the veterans he knows in the VEP.  After Prof. Levin’s introduction of the book and me I had this to say:

The truth of the matter is I get “interviewed” by friends and acquaintances not infrequently about why I chose to write a book about the Vietnam War era draft 34 years after it ended and 36 years after I was drafted.  I think it’s a fine question and one that I want to answer to begin my conversation with you.  Yes, I would like this to be a conversation – or perhaps even an interview in which I will tell you some of the background of the book and then open up the discussion so I can respond to your questions.

I wrote the book because it has been one of the two books I have wanted to write for over 30 years.  The other book, which I still hope some day to get to, will be about white allies of people of color through American history – men and women who have fought racism because they refused to accept injustice regardless of the consequences.  I believe both white folks and people of color need to read such books because they can both educate us about what people have always done to undue racism and because they can inspire others to do similar acts.  Quite incredibly, many of those who would be included in the book continue to go unrecognized despite their contributions and dedication to their cause.

The book about which we will be talking today I have wanted to write for related reasons: because the stories I have had the privilege of receiving are worthy of being shared since they invariably include much personal challenge and soul-searching; because these oral histories touch on so many aspects of our culture – family relationships, politics, moral values, music, drug use, religion, just to name a few; because the men and women whose stories are contained in these pages were your age and faced an enormously difficult and life-affecting decision at a time in their lives when they were not necessarily prepared or equipped to make it; because I heard stories like these back in the ‘70’s and was struck then by their variety and by their profoundly moving qualities; because my fellow draftees and friends are now in our late ‘50’s and early ‘60’s, so if the stories aren’t shared now they will, as so many stories are, be lost; and because the stories are rich in what makes for good stories – drama, conflict, pain, humor – believe it or not – and catharsis.  On the catharsis level, two of the last few interviews I conducted serve to express the answer to the question of why I undertook this project quite compellingly.  One was from a man who left the country for Canada.  After almost 2 hours of interviewing, I asked him what he felt when he reflected on his experience and he said, “I realize in the telling, that the decision to leave the country is the decision I am most proud of in my life”.  Within a few weeks I had the privilege of interviewing his ex-wife who lived in Canada with him for several years before returning to this country after unconditional amnesty was offered in 1977 by the  Carter administration.  At the end of her interview I asked her if she had any regrets about anything that happened and she said that she regretted never having told her ex-husband how much she admired his stand and his wherewithal to withstand what happened to him.  She told me that she had decided over the course of re-living the experience in the interview, that she would write him a letter and let him know what she felt – 36 years after the events had transpired.

There is one more reason and it became a much more central reason with the candidacy of John Kerry in 2004.  He represented a rare opportunity with regard to Vietnam since he had been both a soldier and an anti-war activist.  His candidacy provided the chance for those who served and those who chose other ways to respond to the war to reconcile their differences.  For a whole host of reasons that didn’t happen.  By including the range of experiences in my project, I, too, am hoping to contribute to the healing that still needs to take place among those who were affected by the war in this country.  Towards that end I have created a website and blog entitled, A CALL TO READ AND WRITE STORIES whose purpose is to provide a place to access some of the stories from the book – a few under each category of experience – and to have those who so choose tell their Vietnam story as well as to discover a variety of posts including quite a few that compare and contrast the War in Iraq with the Vietnam War.  One of the books mentioned in the list of Vietnam resources on the blog is IRAQ AND VIETNAM: HOW NOT TO LEARN THE LESSONS OF THE PAST.  It is a series of essays comparing and contrasting the two wars and its thesis is that the only way we have a prayer of avoiding such way beyond costly mistakes as these two horrific wars represent is to pay great attention to history and to the lessons that are there for the learning.

Another question I will ask myself on your behalf before I open this up to your questions is how did the project evolve once it began 4 years ago.  The answer to that allows me to begin to get into what I want very much to pass on to you and that is my experience with being an interviewer for these 57 interviews.  This project evolved from my original conception of a book about the draft lottery.  I had always felt that the lottery, which first took place in 1969 and included all men between the ages of 18 and 25, was a very important event in the course of the war since it intended to level the playing field as well as provide more soldiers for the war effort.  Despite these hopes, I became aware that, even without college deferments, those of us with economic advantages could still play the system and increase the likelihood of getting a deferment.  But as I began to seek out men with lottery stories, I became aware that there were many others who were affected by the draft whose stories, once I became open to hearing them, were at least as compelling – a man who enlisted because he was told that he would never end up in Vietnam where the draftees were sent, but ended up serving there for 2 years and coming home addicted to heroin; a man whose mother hid the letter he received ordering him to report for a physical because she had already watched 4 sons be drafted; a medic who experienced so many horrors that he escaped into alcoholism for 16 years before poetry saved him and he joined the group of Vietnamese and American poets and writers whose fellowship has advanced the cause of reconciliation and healing.  And there were those who resisted and those who left, each a chapter in the book and presenting extraordinary stories of conflicts with family and society as well as exhibiting much courage and bravery.  So over time the project morphed into the book you see today and I highly recommend that whenever you conduct your interview you are open to its possibilities and don’t preconceive of either its direction or its content.

Finally, before hearing your questions, I would like to say a few words about being an interviewer.  As I have written on a couple of occasions in the book, this has been one of the most rewarding and satisfying experiences of my life. In many ways, although it is terrific to finish this project, I didn’t want it to end because being the person who was witness to these stories along with the revelations, the tears and the memories that they jogged was a great honor and privilege.  I definitely evolved as an interviewer through the process.  At the outset I would show up with my preconceived questions, which over time I came to realize had the effect of limiting what was shared.  Not only that, but I also was more intrusive in earlier interviews and even though I, of course, edited out my responses and questions, it wasn’t until I began to realize that what I was doing was curtailing spontaneity that I started getting out of the way.  What this meant was that I would simply set the stage for the interview by stating what I wanted my subject to do with words like these: “Please start where you believe the story needs to start about your experience of the war and the draft.  Include as many details as you can including names and dates of people and places.  I am looking for the ways in which this affected you emotionally, physically and psychologically.  If there is something you tell that I feel needs clarifying or elaborating I will ask, but this is your story and I want you to tell it the way it feels most real and satisfying.”  When something came up that I felt would be very compelling to hear more about given my growing awareness of the range of stories and their emotionality I would definitely pursue it, but more and more I asked less and less.