The task Gerald Nicosia set out for himself in writing Home to War was more complex than simply uncovering the history of a single movement. Vietnam veterans resisted bureaucratic structure, so their protests took many forms and defy easy categorization. Twelve years in the making, Home to War is an epic saga of courage under fire in a long, uphill campaign to gain public understanding and governmental acknowledgment of veterans’ needs. Unlike ancient Greek heroes, American soldiers got home from Vietnam with lightning speed and, furthermore, usually without proper preparation for conditions awaiting them. Often feeling like pariahs, the six hundred subjects examined by Nicosia were forced to fight a protracted struggle for their own health and sanity. Though many became prematurely old or permanently embittered (trying to get through life one day at a time, as the saying goes), they alerted anyone willing to listen to the immoral consequences of an unjust war. More tangibly, after many years they secured a measure of recognition for the existence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and Agent Orange herbicidal poisoning.
Nicosia recalls hearing, as a teenager, a priest in the Chicago suburb of Berwyn postulating that it was a good thing to kill Communists. The assertion, made while Lyndon Johnson was Americanizing the war, made him wonder why the United States was fighting people on the other side of the world. Many GIs had no such misgivings. Scott Camil, a future protest leader, believed “the best thing a person could do was give his life for his country.” By the time Nicosia graduated from college in 1971, a seismic mood swing had turned most draft-age young men into cynics. He was prepared to go to Canada to avoid the draft but just then the lottery was phased out. Over the next decade, Nicosia met a number of vets whose chip-on-the-shoulder attitude fascinated him. Shortly after completing Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac (1983) he had a chance encounter with former marine sergeant Bill Ehrhart, whose jaw and neck still bore scars from the 1968 battle for Hue. Ehrhart provided Nicosia with the insight “that the war was still going on for those who had actually fought it.” Later he became close to Ron Kovic, a courageous paraplegic with a genius for guerrilla theater, something antiwar activists had in common with feminists, Black Panthers, and other contemporary liberationists. Insistent on doing things his own way, Kovic spoke of his determination “never to let anyone use us again the way we had been used in that war.”
In April, 1967, the founders of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) envisioned their role as educational, and they eschewed military garb. The group went into hiatus as most members flocked to Eugene McCarthy’s quixotic presidential campaign. In the wake of the bloody 1968 Democratic convention they formed LINK (Serviceman’s Link to the Peace Movement). LINK was a visible presence during National GI Week (November 1-5, 1968), sponsored by the National Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam. By autumn of 1969, incoming President Richard M. Nixon’s failure to make good on his pledge to end the war caused VVAW’s ranks to swell. Inspired by revelations of the My Lai massacre of approximately five hundred Vietnamese civilians, which was initially covered up by officers of the Americal Division, VVAW leaders concocted Operation Raw (Rapid American Withdrawal). Dubbed a “search and destroy mission,” it commenced in Morristown, New Jersey, and ended at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania (George Washington’s winter quarters during the darkest days of the American Revolution). Nicosia writes:
There was a dazzling array of red armbands, signaling the vets with Purple Hearts. They all carried their canteens, ponchos, and sleeping rolls, as well as their dummy weapons. But their hair often flowed in tangles over their shoulders, there were many beards and moustaches, and their clothing had a decidedly ragtag quality—shirts were unbuttoned and hung out at the waist, pants were rumpled and tattered, and there wasn’t a spit-shined boot in the crowd.
Participants carried out consciousness-raising acts along the eighty-six-mile route, simulating war crimes against Vietnamese, to the disgust of some World War II vets who confronted them along the route. Press coverage was disappointing despite an appearance by actress Jane Fonda at the final Labor Day (1970) rally. Of greater impact was the Winter Soldier Investigation, held in Detroit for three days beginning January 31, 1971. Veterans described atrocities they committed or witnessed, often against civilians. My Lai, it became clear to anybody willing to listen, was the...
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