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As Iraq Burns, Haunted by Vietnam

In Castlegar, draft resisters and vets met to voice dissent.

By Bill Metcalfe 27 Jul 2006 | TheTyee.ca
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Kim Phuc, caught in famous photo of U.S. napalm attack, spoke at event.

In a dark night of chaos on a battlefield in the Vietnam War, David Cline killed the man who had just shot him in the knee. It was the third and last time he was wounded in Vietnam. Next morning the stretcher-bearers took him past a dead man leaning against a tree, and told him, "This is the gook you killed, good job."

Cline had killed many people already in Vietnam, and was honoured for it with several medals. But this time was different. "I looked at this guy dead there, and I started to wonder if he had a girlfriend. I wondered how his mother was going to find out about this. And I didn't realize it at the time, but what I was doing was refusing to give up on his humanity."

Cline went to the hospital and then back to the U.S. where he became active in the resistance to the Vietnam war. Now, as president of Veterans for Peace, he's working to stop the Iraq War.

Cline was one of the speakers and workshop leaders at the Our Way Home Reunion, which took place earlier this month in Castlegar, B.C. He told his story in a workshop called Two Roads Taken. He also told it recently in a new documentary film by David Zeigler, Sir, No Sir, about the resistance to the Vietnam War within the military at the time. The film opened the Our Way Home event, with live commentary from the stage by Cline and '60s activist Tom Hayden.

The Our Way Home event was designed to honour the contribution made to Canadian life by the U.S. war resisters who came to Canada during the Vietnam War, to honour the Canadians who helped them resettle, and to recognize the plight of American soldiers seeking safe haven in Canada now, during the war in Iraq. "Roll out the resistance to war," was one of the event's marketing lines. Or, as Fox News correspondent Dan Springer dramatically told his viewers by live satellite feed during the event, "What was billed as a reunion of draft dodgers seems to have morphed into some kind of anti-war rally!"

Tough letter home

In the Two Roads Taken workshop, Cline, a plain-spoken man from a working class background, decided to read the participants a letter he'd written to his mother after he was wounded that last time. But it was too emotionally charged. He was unable to read even the first word. He handed the letter to Michael Klein, a Vietnam "draft dodger" sitting beside him, and asked him to read it for him. But Klein only managed to read the date on the letter and was unable to continue. So David Cline tried a third person: he passed the letter to Robert Dungey, a Vietnam veteran who now heads the National Coalition Building Institute in Canada. Dungey clearly and confidently read the letter, in which Cline told his mother he was glad he was wounded so badly, because it meant he could come home.

That collaboration between veterans and draft resisters in reading a wounded soldier's letter home was typical of the conciliatory atmosphere at the Our Way Home Reunion. But that kind of bridge-building happened in a much smaller way than the organizers had planned: hundreds of members of the group Vietnam Veterans in Canada were expected to attend the event, but only one of their members showed up. There were some veterans at the event, but few compared to the crowd of Vietnam draft resisters attending from both countries.

In 2004, organizer Isaac Romano announced that the conference would include the erection of a statue in Nelson in honour of the Vietnam draft resisters who came to Canada. This provoked a storm of hate mail to the City of Nelson from the right wing in the U.S. Since then the monument sculpture has been made, and was unveiled at Our Way Home. It's made of bronze, about three feet high and four feet across, and depicts a Canadian man welcoming an American couple across the border.

Since 2004, Romano has been looking for somewhere to put the monument, having been refused by the municipalities of Nelson and Castlegar. Ernest Hekkanen, a Nelson writer who came to Canada to escape the Vietnam draft, has offered to display it in front of his home, which doubles as a small art gallery.

Hekkanen says he has been surprised by the reaction of some people on the left. "They ask me if I'm worried that my house will be fire-bombed," he said. "They are expressing a fear that the American right wing has somehow managed to inculcate in them. The left in Canada had better get some backbone. Every time the right wing in the States growls or barks, they hightail it out of town."

Gandhi's son

The Our Way Home event featured talks by Senator George McGovern (U.S. Democratic presidential candidate in 1972), Arun Gandhi (grandson of the Mahatma), Rabbi Michael Lerner (editor of Tikkun magazine) and many other activists and academics from both sides of the border.

Our Way Home was also a musical event: '60s mainstays Country Joe McDonald, Buffy Ste. Marie and Holly Near shared the stage in evening concerts at the Brilliant Cultural Centre with local classical and folk musicians. Music was incorporated into the day-time proceedings as well. Before Senator George McGovern spoke, Holly Near sang and classical guitarist Alan Rinehart played. Arun Gandhi was introduced by performances from the Doukhobor Choir and actor Bessie Wapp.

The Brilliant Cultural Centre is a Doukhobor facility, and that group, with its centuries of pacifist roots reaching back to Czarist Russia and its current reputation for communal hospitality, was a fitting host for the Our Way Home event.

Arun Gandhi started the M. K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence in the U.S. a few years ago after a full career as a journalist and social activist in India. As a teenager, he was sent from his home in South Africa to live with his grandfather in India for 18 months and the lessons he learned have never left him. "I am often asked," he told his audience of several hundred, "how I cope with living in my grandfather's shadow. People think it must be very difficult for me. Well, at first it was. But I have turned the shadow into a light. My grandfather is a light for me."

Gandhi talked about passive violence: those thoughts and attitudes that indirectly harm others. He told us passive violence also includes having more possessions and privileges than others.

'I had my mind raped'

Back to the Two Roads Taken workshop. After David Cline told his story, a man who told us he had travelled from the U.S. to attend this event said, "When I went to military training in 1968, I had my mind raped. When I went to Vietnam I had it raped many times over. When I got back, my mind was raped again by the way we were received by the public. Since then it was been raped over and over again by the memories and dreams and substance abuse."

He said he did not know why he had felt compelled to come to this event. His friends at home, most of whom are vets too, were mystified. "But I came, and I have found out that the people who left for Canada are my brothers." He said he has learned that they have pain too.

The rest of us in the room, whether we were Vietnam veterans or not, knew this man was telling his story for the first time and that the experience was momentous and scary for him.

He said, "For my whole life since Vietnam I have been trying to find the young man I was before I went to war. I don't know if I will ever find him."

When that young man shipped out for Vietnam, he was about the same age as one of the presenters at Our Way Home. Kyle Snyder, born in Utah in 1984, enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2003, went to Iraq on the promise that he would be building roads and bridges there, found himself in combat, and deserted after a few months. Now he's in Canada applying for refugee status.

Iraq war deserters

In several workshops at Our Way Home, lawyers and activists wrestled with the difference in Canadian immigration policy between the Vietnam era and today. Some Vietnam draft resisters told stories of the ease of getting into Canada, in some cases actually being welcomed by border officials. But it wasn't always that simple: one man said that shortly after he arrived in Canada in 1969, someone drove by his mother's house in Alabama and shot out all the windows of the mother of a traitor.

There is no welcome in this country today for Americans who don't want to fight in Iraq. For one thing, there is no draft to dodge, other than the economic draft. That's a term often used to describe poor and working class men joining the military because of promises of otherwise scarce jobs and otherwise unattainable educational opportunities. The economic draft was a common topic of conversation at Our Way Home.

There are thought to be several dozen Iraq War deserters in Canada. Some of them are underground, and others are going the legal route by applying for refugee status. The most well known of those is Jeremy Hinzman, who was refused refugee status this year and is appealing to the Federal Court. Hinzman's lawyer, Jeffrey House, who himself came to Canada rather than go to Vietnam, was one of the panellists at the Castlegar event struggling with the legal and political complexities facing Americans who ask for refugee status in Canada on the grounds that they are escaping an illegal war and will be put in prison if they return.

God and war

One of the most arresting speakers at the conference was Rabbi Michael Lerner. "There is a spiritual crisis in America, and the left just doesn't get it," he says. "The fact that leftists and progressives are so oblivious to this spiritual yearning means the control of the country is being handed over to the religious right."

Lerner is a long-time American peace activist, the author of The Left Hand of God: Taking Back our Country from the Religious Right and the founder in 2005 of the Network of Spiritual Progressives.

Lerner said there are many church-going voters in the U.S. who agree with the left on such things as environmental issues and human rights, but they vote Republican anyway, because in the company of liberals they feel put down. He said the message from the left is, "If you are into God, you are probably on a lower intellectual or self-development level than the rest of us. 'We need your votes but leave your spiritual values at the door.' They get sick of that, they feel demeaned because a central part of their identity is unacceptable. Many people vote for the people they feel understand them."

Rabbi Lerner said just as liberals in the U.S. are working on getting over sexism and homophobia, they now have to start working on "religiophobia." The next day, Kim Phuc, who was the young naked girl running from soldiers in the famous Vietnam War photo, told us her life story. Phuc, now a Canadian citizen, described forming a foundation for helping children of war and finding the ability to forgive through the love of God.

Back in the Two Roads Taken workshop, an American man tells us how he cut off his friend's finger with a machete to make him ineligible for the Vietnam War. "I was a country boy, my Dad was a hunter and I had a gun and knives and a machete before I was 12." They researched carefully just how much of the finger would have to go to qualify. On the first swing he missed and cut his friend's hand badly. They bound it up and decided they'd better try again before they lost their nerve. On the second try, they got the finger. The man told us he has never told the story publicly before.

Bill Metcalfe is a writer in Nelson.

Related Tyee stories: Metcalfe reported on the draft resister monument controversy in Nelson; Rebecca Craigie profiled Iraq war deserter Joshua Key; and Ross Crockford wrote about Jeremy Hinzman, also a U.S. military deserter seeking refugee status in Canada.  [Tyee]

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