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My name is Sanford Kelson. I was born in 1944, graduated high school in 1962 and am now 68 years old. I am a lawyer and I also teach in a special program for gifted and talented public school students.
When I was growing up my education caused me to believe certain things. Education is not just what you learn in school. It’s what you learn at home, from TV, newspapers, the movies, from music, art, etc. I got a consistent message from all these sources. I learned that we Americans were special. We were better than others. Our form of government was the best; our economic system was the best; our leaders were more intelligent and just; we were more honest, smarter, more trustworthy and brave. God was on our side. And I learned that there were bad people in the world. Communist were bad back then. We wore the white hats and people in bad countries wore black hats. And there were weak countries that, like us, wanted peace and freedom. We had to protect them from the bad guys. A nice and simple picture to understand the world was painted for us. Good versus evil.
So, in 1963, young and patriotic, I enlisted in the US Army for a three year tour of duty – a chance to kill commies for God and country. I took certain written tests and I was told I had very high scores. I was told that I could pick my own MOS, military occupational specialty, i.e., job
Nevertheless, I volunteered for the infantry, to be a grunt. Visions of being John Wayne, a hero, danced in my mind. Heroes always got the fast cars and pretty girls. I was proud of my high-test scores. I thought I was smart. With hindsight I came to realize that the tests did not measure intelligence. The test results proved I had been successfully socialized and propagandized. My high scores told them that I’d do whatever they wanted. I’d be a good robot.
Two and 1/2 yrs after joining, in December 1965, I was 21 years old and stationed in Alaska. I was a sergeant in charge of a 10-man machine gun squad. The squad had two M-60 machine guns; awesome and deadly weapons.
It is important to remember that members of a military unit become very close, good buddies. Troops, 40 in total, slept together in a large bay; 10, a squad, in one row; 4 rows per bay; 4 bays per company. We woke up together. We did physical exercise together, ate meals together, trained and worked together, showered together, spent our off duty time together, usually drinking beer. We did everything together every day. We bonded. We became really close buddies. I now know this was no accident. You see, we had all only been in the army for months or at most for a few years while our government had a two hundred year plus tradition of militarism. Our leaders knew that when we were thrown into combat that all of our heroic visions would disappear, that our wanting to fight for freedom, democracy or God would quickly vanish. We’d be fighting to stay alive and for one another.
A necessary corollary to this bonding is the military’s dehumanizing the people we were to fight. During the time of my service the Vietnamese were dehumanized. Our leaders referred to them as gooks and slant eyes. Today the enemy is referred to as rag heads and sand niggers. It’s hard to kill human beings so they must be made less than human.
In December 1965, my outfit received orders to ship out to Vietnam. We were one bunch of frightened young boys. The immediacy of being in the heat of deadly battle started to work against my desire to be a hero. We started getting ready to ship out. We sharpened our bayonets and the edges of our folding shovels. The shovels were designed to dig foxholes but somebody figured that in close combat they’d be good to swing at the enemy and maybe cut off his head.
We were told the purpose of our mission. There were two countries: North VN and South VN. The North was evil and was trying to forcibly impose communism on SVN. SVN was one of those weaker countries that, like us, wanted peace and democracy so we had to protect it from the bad guys. We had been getting the same message on TV, in newspapers, magazines, on the radio, everywhere.
Just before my outfit was due to be shipped out, my commanding officer, a captain, summoned me to his office. He explained that since I had less than 90 days remaining in my three-year tour of duty that I would not be going to VN. My orders were changed from going to VN to being discharged from the army and being shipped back home to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to safety, to the bosom of my family, while my outfit, my buddies, would be going to VN, into harm’s way. I was so naive and stupid that I had no idea what this would mean to me later on.
After I got home, I started getting letters from my friends who were in VN. The letters told of horror after horror. One buddy, Jimmy, 18 or 19 years old, was somebody who would make us all laugh but he’d remain stone faced, not even smiling at we who were engaged in uncontrollable laughter. We’d look at him, see that he was not even smiling and we’d all stop laughing momentarily to ponder how he could keep such a serious demeanor. Then we’d all break out laughing all over again because it was just so funny that he could get us to such uncontrollable laughter but he wouldn’t even crack a smile. Well, Jimmy was standing among a group of his buddies when a hand grenade was thrown at them. Jimmy instinctively jumped on the grenade and clutched it to his stomach. None of his buddies were hurt but he had been blown in half. I called his parents. Their grief was mine. We cried.
I got a letter about a buddy from Missouri. He was a six-foot tall African-American who was quiet, honest, polite and respectful. He was a joy to be with. It was obvious he had been raised with loving care. He was riding with his squad in a helicopter. A .50 caliber bullet fired from the ground went through the belly of the copter, through the canvas seat he was sitting on and into his buttocks and then spine. He became a quadriplegic. He would lie on his back forever, never to have a job, a wife, children.
I then got a letter about John. John and I were close. He was from New England. He was fit, lean and strong. He was a reliable and serious young man. He was the lead man in a jungle patrol when the Viet Cong sprung an ambush. It was sprung early and only John was in the ambush zone. The VC caught John alive. The VC wanted to entice the rest of the American patrol members into the ambush area. It was all set with booby traps and explosives. To do this they began to torture John. They started by stabbing him in his arms and legs with his bayonet, they cut off his ears and tongue and his penis, which they stuck in his mouth. John, while he could, screamed uncontrollably in fear and pain, begging for help, but his buddies knew it would be instant death to try to save him. When John’s body was retrieved nobody could recognize him because he had been so badly mutilated. Naturally I was sickened. I felt like I had abandoned my friends by getting out of the army and coming home. I felt as though I had let them down. Maybe I did.
Then I got the most important letter I had ever received. A buddy wrote and said, Sandy, everybody here hates us. I wondered, how could any of them hate us? My friends were dying to protect them from communism, from the North. We were spending billions of dollars in VN. How could they hate us? We were the good guys, we wore the white hats. I was confused. Things didn’t add up. I began to critically think – possibly, for the first time in my life. Up until then, I had believed what I had been told by my government on faith. Faith is the belief in something for which there is no proof. I started going to the library and I read everything I could on VN.
Prior to WWII, VN was a French colony. When WWII started most of the French occupying force in VN went back to Europe to fight the Germans. After the end of WWII, France wanted VN back as a colony. The US supported the French. The US transported French troops to VN to fight Ho Chi Minh, a nationalist who wanted freedom for VN. The problem for the US government was that he was infected with a deadly virus, he was a communist. Nevertheless, the American enlisted men on the transport ships protested in a letter to then President of the US, Harry Truman. They wrote that it was against US principles to help subvert freedom of a people and to help those who would oppress them. Truman ignored the enlisted men. The US financed the French in a bloody war but nevertheless the Vietnamese beat the French in a big battle at Dien Bien Phu and the war was over.
The warring parties signed a peace treaty, the Geneva Accords. The accords called for a temporary division of VN, north and south, to take account mostly of the then relative strengths of the respective opposing forces and provided for free and fair elections to be monitored by the international community. The Vietnamese were to finally determine their own fate. There never were two separate Vietnam nations. The CIA told the then US president, Eisenhower, that if the elections were to occur that Ho Chi Minh would win with over 80% of the vote, even in the southern portion of VN. Eisenhower sabotaged the elections and US troops began replacing the vanquished French. So much for democracy. With this history, it all came together for me. I was no longer confused. The US was not fighting in VN to prevent the forced imposition of a form of government that the Vietnamese did not want but to impose one on them that they did not want. The US was the oppressor. That’s why my friends were hated. My own elected leaders, whom I had revered, had lied to my friends and me and had duped us. I felt violated. Raped. My friends were dying for lies told to them by their own elected leaders. I was angry and hurt. I continued to read.
My grandfather served in WWI. The American people, before the US entered the war, were overwhelmingly anti-war. The US government formed a propaganda organization, the Creel Commission. The commission was so successful that within six months most Americans were pro-war. President Woodrow Wilson told Americans that the purpose of the war was to end all wars. That it was a war to make the world safe for democracy. However, after WWI, in a speech in Ohio, President Wilson said: “Is there any man here, any woman, nay any child who does not know that WWI was a war caused by commercial and industrial rivalry.” After 10 million dead, after no immediate need for more warriors, the truth was told.
I studied about Smedley D. Butler, a Major General in the US Marines, who was awarded two Congressional Medals of Honor, the highest medal given by the US government for bravery in combat. In 1938, in bitter reflection on his military career, he said:
“I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-12. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested. Looking back on it I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in 3 city districts. We marines operated on 3 continents.”
My parents and uncles served in WWII. In high school we were told that on December 7, 1941 Japan engaged in a surprise attack against Hawaii (a US colony at the time), a day that would live in infamy. We were taught that the attack was particularly dastardly because the Japanese had delegates in Washington DC to talk peace. The peace talks were top secret back then. I started to read about the peace talks, which had been declassified. I learned that the Japanese had invaded Nanking, a province of China. The Japanese were very harsh occupiers. They tied human beings to telephone poles to be used for bayonet practice. They raped young children, middle aged woman and the elderly. They used live Chinese for germ, arctic and chemical warfare experiments.
In the peace talks the US never objected to what the Japanese were doing to the citizens of Nanking. What the US wanted from the Japanese was access to the Nanking markets on the same terms as the Japanese enjoyed. Japan refused. The Japanese explained that the US had the Monroe Doctrine that provided for the US to dominate Latin America and to protect its markets in the same way the Japanese were doing in Nanking. The Japanese promised to honor the Monroe Doctrine and wanted the US to recognize that Japan had the same right in Nanking. The US refused and placed an embargo against the Japanese islands that effectively denied Japan of needed oil, steel and other resources. Only after the embargo which strangled Japanese industry did the Japanese attack. Sixty million people died in WW II, another war due to commercial and industrial rivalry.
George Kennan was a high-ranking US State Department official. After WW II, in 1948, he drafted and the US government adopted Policy Planning Study 23 which provided:
“We have about 50% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% of its population. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships, which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity. To do so we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and daydreaming and our attention will have to be concentrated on our immediate national objectives. We should cease to talk about vague and unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democracy. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans the better.”
PPS 23, in 1948, was top secret. In PPS 23 the planners were talking to one another. To pacify the public about wars the planners still found it necessary, even to this day, like about Iraq, to trumpet idealistic slogans.
Shortly after WWII, while the earth was still wet with the blood of 60 million dead, American business interests were gleefully counting their war profits. WW II years were the best years ever. US businesses wanted a permanent war footing for the country because it was good for business. A US business magazine lamented that Stalin might accept Truman’s peace overtures and disrupt the profits associated with militarism. Communism was the perfect threat to excuse away Mr. Keenan’s straight power concepts and to keep the profits rolling in. Just like today, terrorism is the perfect threat to justify the use of “straight power concepts” to retain the US wealth disparity. And the lies continue from our leaders as a raging river causing so much destruction to the people and property in its path.
Thomas Jefferson, the third US president said: Never was so much false arithmetic employed on any subject as that which has been employed to persuade nations that it is their interest to go to war.
My buddies died believing they were fighting for a better world, that they were a force for good, just like many US soldiers now serving in Iraq believe and just like many soldiers who served their respective countries throughout the years believed. It is a good sign that leaders must lie to their citizens to get them to fight. This proves that if the people knew the truth they would not fight. One of the most critical lies in every war is that others, the so-called enemies, are less than human.
If we the living don’t work non-violently to bring that better world about, my buddies and millions of other veterans from all over the world who likewise thought they were fighting for the good and the right, will have died in vain. We must realize that people are complicated and nobody wears all white or all black hats, the hats are gray. Nobody is all good or all evil; nobody is better than anybody else merely by reason of what country he or she is born in. To engage in the effort to bring about that better world so my buddies will not have died in vain, what we call: Abolish War – The Last Campaign, I joined Veterans for Peace. I will not abandon my buddies again.
I have been speaking to students to tell them my story. I ask that students do not take what I say as truth. If students do, then, in a way, I will have done to them what others did to me as a young person. I will have caused them to believe something by blind acceptance, on faith. What I told you is my truth. I ask that you not accept what anybody tells you as truth. Not your parents, not your teachers, not your religious leaders. You must explore, by reading, discussing and critically thinking and find your own truth and then to act on it for the benefit of all the peoples of the world, our brothers and sisters.
Sanford Kelson is a lawyer in Pennsylvania.