Free Expression

Isms are Wasisms
Excerpt: Abbie Hoffman, American Rebel
by Marty Jezer

Bob Kerrey's Vietnam--And Ours
by Marty Jezer

Brag or Gag: One Vet Opens Up On Kerrey

"The rock is where I drew the line":
Bodeen's Marine Bears Rereading

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Isms are Wasisms
Abbie Hoffman, American Rebel
by Marty Jezer

(Rutgers University Press, 1992)




The movement in the 1960s was confronted with a youth rebellion that Abbie Hoffman tried to channel in a political direction. It was a bold initiative. Everywhere, or so it seemed, people were shedding their past and declaring themselves to be new persons. Once, during the Yippie period, Abbie appeared on stage at the Fillmore East, New York's major venue for rock 'n roll concerts, dressed in a suit, white shirt, and tie, and with his long hair tied back and hidden beneath the collar of his jacket.

As he interwove verbal riffs about his earlier life as a pharmaceuticals salesman in Worcester and how he had dropped out of that career to become a full-time political activist, he began to disrobe, stripping off the cloaking of straight, middle-class respectability until he was down to the colorful and tattered clothes of a long-haired freak --a political striptease that had many in the audience wanting to strip off their own layers of conformity and fear. But that was Abbie as a showman, transforming rabble-rousing into performance art, mythologizing his life in order to give people the idea that change is easy --all too easy, it would seem in retrospect.

In the brilliance of Abbie's theater lay a personal dilemma--and the seeds of the sixties movement's spectacular failure. It was easy to play at becoming a new person, harder to be that person over the long haul. Abbie devoted his life to fomenting social, cultural and political change, yet he himself remained, throughout the nineteen seventies and eighties, identified (and in the end one might say trapped) by a public image created for the 1960s. Yet as Abbie himself so often insisted, he never wanted to break the mold of the fifties rebel that he so carefully crafted as a youth in Worcester and a student at Brandeis. If the avatar of change found change so difficult, what does it say about a politics that was premised on the necessity of almost instantaneous personal transformation?

In a pluralistic society, radical lifestyles don't necessarily lead to political change. Building a revolution around the demands of youth not only alienates older people, but when young people grow up, they become the older people. Abbie's Yippie experiment exemplified (indeed exacerbated!) a problem that has always plagued the American left: the politics of hedonism and transcendence have always grated against the less spectacular, even dull, coalition-building priorities of the programmatic left.


Marty Jezer is a freelance writer who lives in Vermont. His other books are: Stuttering: A Life Bound Up in Words (Basic Books, 1997) and The Dark Ages: Life in the USA, 1945-1960 (South End Press, 1982). He welcomes comments at, and invites visits to his website
Copyright © by Marty Jezer, 1992, 2001 (Reprinted with permission of the author and Rutgers University Press.)

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Bob Kerrey's Vietnam--And Ours
by Marty Jezer

By now everyone knows about Bob Kerrey, the former Senator from Nebraska, and his Vietnam War revelation. In February 1969, as a lieutenant in the Navy SEALS, Kerrey led his squad on a combat mission against Thanh Phong, a village in South Vietnam. Cadres of the National Liberation Front were supposedly having a meeting there, and Kerrey's order was to kill them all. When the killing was done, he discovered, to his horror, that he and his men had killed more than twenty civilians. Some were old men, the rest, women and children. In the military report of this action, Kerry and his squad were credited with killing more than twenty "Viet Cong," and Kerrey received the Bronze Star for his role in the "battle."

Kerrey's revelation was first published in the New York Times Sunday Magazine (4/29/01). Kerrey was then interviewed by Dan Rather on the CBS show, "Sixty Minutes II." I urge those who only saw the show to read the magazine article as well ( Rather's interview was a shameful assault on Kerrey's veracity. Rather deliberately ignored the larger questions about Vietnam in order to badger Kerrey into admitting "war crimes." [For what constitutes a war crime, see Legal Forum. Ed.]

There is controversy as to what happened in Thanh Phong. One member of Kerrey's squad says that Kerrey knew his victims were civilians and that they were killed in cold blood. His testimony is corroborated by a Vietnamese witness. Other squad members support Kerrey's recollection that he and his men did not know whom they were firing at. Memory is subjective and distorted by trauma. We'll never know what truly happened, and so be it. What's important, for me at least, is that Kerrey came home from Vietnam and, like many Vietnam vets, spoke out against the war. He learned from his experience. As one of a few Senators to vote against the Gulf War, he explained, "I hope you understand what we've done here today. This is not just some play on the geopolitical chessboard. We are sending boys and girls off to risk their lives and to kill people in the name of our country. You make sure that the American people understand that." Of his actions in Vietnam, he says, "Others have justified it militarily to me. I haven't been able to justify it either militarily or morally."

Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, another Vietnam vet who spoke out against the war, has said, "The faults of Vietnam were those of the war, not the warriors." As a public advocate of draft resistance and a participant in nonviolent civil disobedience against the war, I agree with John Kerry and have no judgment to make on what Bob Kerrey and his SEAL squadron did in Thanh Phong.

From start to finish, the war in Vietnam was a lie. The Vietnamese Communists were our allies in the war against Japan and, at war's end, pled for our support to gain their independence from the French. We not only turned them down but supported France in its war against Vietnam. [See Martha Hess's thumbnail history in Articles. Ed.]

In 1954, when the Vietnamese defeated the French, we refused to sign the Geneva Accords because they called for free elections which we knew the Communist leader, Ho Chi Minh, would win. We then installed a series of ineffectual puppet governments in South Vietnam. When they tried to suppress the Communist-backed liberation movement, civil war broke out. The North Vietnamese came to the aid of their comrades in the South. Americans crossed the ocean and intervened. We justified our intervention with a series of lies, the most notorious being the 1964 Tonkin Incident in which we accused North Vietnamese patrol boats of attacking a navy destroyer. The attack never happened and American leaders, including President Johnson, knew it.

From the beginning, Washington policy-makers knew the fight was hopeless. President Johnson escalated the war because, as he himself acknowledged, he lacked the courage to admit defeat and end it. Peace negotiations in 1968 were sabotaged by Presidential candidate Richard Nixon (with the help of Henry Kissinger who was working publicly for the Democrats while advising candidate Nixon). Had Nixon not undermined the peace effort, Hubert Humphrey would have become President and there might have been a cease-fire and no need for Kerrey's SEALS to attack that Vietnamese village. This is speculation, but Nixon's subversive activities are not.

Thanh Phong was within what Americans defined as a "free fire zone." Vietnamese residents were ordered to abandon their homes, farms, and villages to live in government-created strategic hamlets. Those who refused to leave were considered Viet Cong. As such, they could be strafed, bombed, napalmed, shot or otherwise killed close-up. This was a politicized version of "ethnic cleansing." Serbian leaders who were responsible for ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo are under indictment for their crimes. The architects of the Vietnam War have never had to stand trial.

In Vietnam, we revived the idea of strategic or carpet bombing, used in World War II to bring the horror of war home to Japan and Germany. In Vietnam it was really strategic terrorism. The idea was to bomb Vietnamese civilians in order to persuade the Vietnamese government to throw in the towel. Since we claimed that North Vietnam was a Communist dictatorship, it made no sense to bomb civilians who, in our view, had no power to influence their government. Nevertheless, B52s bombed a lot of jungle, as well as cities, villages, homes, hospitals, and even Catholic churches. Where we didn't bomb, we poisoned. Indiscriminate spraying of the toxic herbicide Agent Orange was an act of chemical warfare that caused leukemia, cancers, birth defects and skin diseases among those exposed to it and their children. The American manufacturers of Agent Orange settled a lawsuit brought by Vietnam veterans for $180 million. Vietnamese victims, however, have never been offered restitution.

"In Laos and Vietnam the war is over; in the United States, it's not," Bob Kerrey says. That is wrong, for the effects of the war, both in physical destruction and in personal memories and losses, are still present in Vietnam. I don't think Bob Kerrey would argue with that. Like many Vietnam veterans, he grapples with the war. I respect him for that. But Kerrey's angst is a personal matter. What our country did in Vietnam is public; it's a festering wound that won't ever heal until the crimes we committed are openly acknowledged.

Copyright © 2001 by Marty Jezer

(Reprinted with the author's permission from The Brattleboro (VT) Reformer, May 4, 2001 issue.)

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Brag or Gag: One Vet Opens Up on Kerrey

"The dude smells, Man!" -- The Vet

In his preface to From Both Sides Now (Scribner Poetry, 1998), anthology editor Phillip Mahony recounts a memorable story. As a cop in Brooklyn, he was involved in shooting incidents, and says they left him shaken, though only a few shots were fired and no one was hurt. Afterwards, he asked a fellow detective, Joe, what it had been like to be in a battle in Vietnam. Joe is reluctant to talk about it, but after much coaxing, finally says that in his battles, he was "just shooting into the jungle, and out of the jungle someone was shooting back." In the lunchroom, the two meet a third detective, Ted, also a Vietnam vet, and at Joe's urging, Mahony asks him the same question. Ted balks; when pressed, he leaves. Joe explains: "Ted was a sniper. He saw what he killed."



"Dawn Patrol"

Gary Jacobson's online photo-poetic 'Nam Tour' prompts the viewer amid snapshots of the seemingly peaceful, if grassy-ragged, Vietnamese countryside out on a patrol with his squad (a walk "through the park") to beware the inevitable booby traps, the snipers in the trees, the death wafting between shadow and sunspot. A buddy gets hit. Soon after, Jacobson himself is wounded as well and is flown to hospital.


(Unidentified wounded trooper)

No bravado, Jacobson's tone throughout is a cheerful matter-of-fact. He wonders at the consistent physical beauty of all the inhabitants of a particular village. He captures the small wheel aturn in the larger.




Brag or gag. This issue's feature collection includes a poem by vet, Tom Catterson, which he wrote based on another's memory ("In the Blink of an Eye"). In his book, Stolen Valor, a vet exposes those who, in surprising numbers, misappropriated the memories of others, flat-out imposters who never served in Vietnam, recounted others' experiences as their own--and accepted the scorn, then the accolades that accrued to them. Why does someone perpetrate such a fraud? Vet contributor Marc Levy responds: "Because he wants to belong." (Burkett, B.G., Whitley, Glenna, Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of Its Heroes and Its History. See Sales have been enormous.)

We circulated among many Vietnam veterans a request for an essay (even with pseudonymous byline) on Bob Kerrey's arguably overdelayed revelation that he and his men killed twenty civilians in a small, dark village. In each case, our request was politely refused--or ignored. Marty Jezer actively protested the war, yet, while he condemns Kerrey's action, he spares Kerrey's person, as the carpenter merely executing the architects' design.

Others have justified it militarily to me.
I haven't been able to justify it either
militarily or morally. -- Senator Bob Kerrey

Others do blame him, directly and unqualifiedly. In his piece for Counterpunch, "Getting Away with Murder: Bob Kerrey, the Life and Times of a Throat-Slitter" (May 18), Richard Gibson cites Kerrey for clear war crimes and false valor used to advance his political career, then praises as the true heroes those who "refused to go on burn-all kill-all missions, those who shot their own officers and blew them up in their tents, creating a new word in the lexicon, fragging; those who returned to the US, [and] joined the Vietnam Veterans Against the War." [The account of a fragger: Marc Levy's "Civilian Issue." See Poetry. Ed.]


Business end down, the VVAW insignia
inverts the common marker for soldier deaths.

"The dude smells, Man! He shoulda lost a leg, and it shoulda been the one with the knee he planted on the old guy's chest while the other asshole slit his throat."

"But, what about 'Phoenix'?" I say. "What about the standing orders?"

"Oh, fuck his 'Phoenix'! Fuck his bird of paradise, standing, flying, or takin' a dump in the mud."

"But if he was just following--?"

"--Orders? Yeah, well it's the order of the day, isn't it Babe, the moment. You do what's being done or you get fucked. You say, 'No I don't think so...' and walk off into the woods? Yeah, you're the one catches the sniper fire. Accidentally, of course."

"Friendly fire?"

"That's what the report'll say. No, those guys knew. 'Trauma,' my ass. 'Dark,' my ass. How could they not have? They'd just been there, knew what to expect, knew what they were gonna do. After, those guys loved Kerrey. They weren't gonna rat on him after he saved their butts. Later, that is. Lost the leg that time. Call it delayed justice."

Kerrey waited thirty years to tell his story. Some have sympathized with his anguish in keeping silent all that time. Others have taken a "let by-gone's" attitude. Yet the statute of limitations on war crimes is notoriously limitless. If a Barbie could be unearthed and his trial retard the August exodus from Paris, if a national electorate (Austria's) could be sanctioned for choosing a president newly reaccused of the wrong WWII affiliations (Kurt Waldheim), in each case forcing the populace to look long and hard at the ugly done. Judge or jury on the Jeffrey Dahmer (cannibalism) case says: 'Oh, no, too distasteful. We can't deal. Besides, it was a long time ago.' Would non-judgmental have been acceptable? Who are we, the dinnertime DNA ciphers of Leader-of-the-Free-World lust seepage, to be squeamish about the forensics of our foreign blood adventures? Can we not halt the do-gooder Disney loop-tee-doo ride for the time it takes to at least record reality before reordering back it into illusion and Fx in the next summer movie blockbuster?

Pearl Harbor was no Gallipoli--and no wide-eyed surprise either. If it was Act II to the Act III of Korea and the Act IV of Vietnam, was Japan's revenge for thwarting its will in Southeast Asia and humiliating its emperor, then a long Act V is perhaps still in progress. The estimated body count lies strewn onstage for all to remark. The fatal character flaw, first foreshadowed, is now unmistakably exposed, its embedded lesson offered for weeping repentance, individual and collective, to the Lears, Hamlets and Richards manqués in the breathing-as-one silence of the darkened house suddenly broken: "The New York Lotto is now 24 million!"

No, not "cool."

-- MH

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"The rock is where I drew the line":
Bodeen's Marine Bears Rereading

The Marine on the Freeway
-- for Gary Higgins

The marine is in traffic.
He rolls up his windows and screams,
Get out of my way. Get out of my fucking way.

The marine runs on curbs, takes secondary roads,
tailgates when he has to. The marine makes this run daily,
47 miles in traffic, from work to home.
Some days it takes 5 minutes,
some days it takes 10, the marine says,
before he finds his anger,
but it's everyday, he finds it. This is traffic.
Yesterday people didn't get out of his way.

The marine has a beer in his hand before breakfast.
He's talking with his friends. Like the old days.
The marine says a marine hit a kid with a rock
walking through the ville. He remembers the screams.
He says, I'm not the man who threw the rock.
The marine says, I kept my humanity.

The rock is where I drew the line.

I knew things were fucked. I knew I did not throw the rock.
The marine says, Vietnam was the best year of my life.

It's Veteran's Day, 1995
The marine came home from Nam in '68,
got loaded every day for eighteen years.
He says he doesn't know how to be honest.
In Vietnam he could put a pistol against the head
of the sleeping guard and chamber a round.
The marine says, Wake up soldier.
The marine says life was that simple.

The marine didn't need a union to get things done in Vietnam.
The marine looks out the window.
He sees the mountain. He sees the lake.
The marine is in traffic.
Don't talk to him about the lake.
Don't talk to him about the mountain.
This is not easy for the marine.
He knows what people say about nature.
It's not that simple.

The marine is in traffic.
Traffic is dangerous.
He is passing on the inside lane.
He's between work and home.
He did not throw the rock.
His windows are rolled up.
He's screaming.
He's telling people to get out of his way.

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