Photo: Wikimedia Commons
This article originally appeared at democracynow.org.
As a group of Vietnam War veterans and peace activists travel back to Vietnam to mark the 50th anniversary of the My Lai massacre, Amy Goodman and Juan González speak with three members of the delegation: Vietnam veteran Paul Cox, who later co-founded the Veterans for Peace chapter in San Francisco; Susan Schnall, former Navy nurse who was court-martialed for opposing the Vietnam War; and longtime activist Ron Carver, who has organized an exhibit honoring the GI antiwar movement at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Today marks the 50th anniversary of the My Lai massacre, when U.S. forces slaughtered more than 500 Vietnamese women, children and old men. A group of Vietnam War veterans and peace activists have traveled back to Vietnam to mark today’s anniversary. Democracy Now!’s Juan González and I recently spoke to three members of the delegation that are in Vietnam today: Vietnam veteran Paul Cox, who later co-founded the Veterans for Peace chapter in San Francisco; Susan Schnall, former Navy nurse who was court-martialed for opposing the Vietnam War; and longtime activist Ron Carver, who has organized an exhibit honoring the GI antiwar movement at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. I began by asking Ron Carver about what happened 50 years ago today in My Lai.
RON CARVER: Well, 504 civilians, noncombatants, were mowed down by soldiers. As you said, it was horrific, but it was not an isolated incident. It was part of the culture of the war that had been created and fostered and was largely a product of the Pentagon’s insistence on high body counts in order to justify their continued war effort and their continuing, escalating insistence that the U.S. Congress give them ever more money and ever more troops. This is what led to these kind of massacres. The significance to me, however, is of people like Hugh Thompson, who, at great risk, landed his helicopter, had his crew train their guns on the soldiers who were committing this massacre, and telling them that they had to stop or they would be shot themselves.
And that’s part of what has led to the development of this exhibit that will be held in Saigon—Ho Chi Minh City, today it’s called—on the 19th of March, three days after the anniversary of the My Lai massacre. It’s called “Waging Peace: The U.S. Soldiers and Veterans Who Opposed America’s War in Vietnam.” And it is to give credit and honor the folks who took great risks to oppose the war. Some of them went to jail in this country, like Dr. Howard Levy, who refused to train Green Beret troops in medical techniques. There are people in this exhibit. Honored are those who refused to deploy to Vietnam, like JJ Johnson and the two others who made the Fort Hood Three; people who went to Vietnam, like Paul, but then, confronting the horror of what they were doing, stopped going out and engaging in combat; some of them, like Bill Short, ended up being charged with conspiracy to mutiny, because he refused to engage anymore in combat and was sent to the stockade in Vietnam; others who deserted. And so, a lot of these folks will be on the tour in March, from Hanoi to My Lai and then to Saigon. And the exhibit will have photographs of them, information that they said, and feature the underground papers that they produced, telling other soldiers about what was going on, exposing the horrors and the injustice of that war.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Paul Cox, you enlisted in the military during the Vietnam War. Can you talk about your personal experience, why you decided to enlist, what you—what the consciousness of the soldiers were?
PAUL COX: Yeah, I joined in 1968. I had gotten my draft notice for a 2-year draft enlistment in the Army, but I wound up—I had no consciousness about the war, that I—you know, against it or for it, but I thought I had a duty to my country, so I joined the Marine Corps for four years. Not a deep thinker, but that’s what I did.
I spent 18 months in Vietnam, a tour and a half. Most of that time, I was up on the DMZ in unpopulated areas fighting North Vietnamese regulars, but with no contact with the Vietnamese civilians. But the last six months of my tour, I was down in the rice paddies south and west of Da Nang and got a much, much different view of the war and saw how poorly, to put it mildly, we were treating our so-called allies, the South Vietnamese, whose hearts and minds we were supposed to be winning. And that’s not what we were doing at all. We were operating in free-fire zones. I was involved in a small massacre of about 15 people in May of—I’m sorry, April of 1970. And that changed my entire view of the war.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the massacre you said you were involved with?
PAUL COX: We were running what the generals called “pacification programs.” Essentially, we would go out from our base, and sometimes only for a few hours, and we would sweep into a village and round up everybody and put them on trucks or helicopters and evacuate them to the strategic hamlets. And we did that many times.
This particular incident, we had been out for four days in old, abandoned rice paddies that had been all overgrown in elephant grass. And we stomped down the elephant grass, created a company-size perimeter and just sat there for four days, running a cloverleaf of patrols to the—in each of the four directions, and the same patrol each day on the same route, which is not smart. Eventually, on the fourth day, the squad that was in charge—that was doing the northern loop, somebody sniped at them. Nobody got hit, but the squad, unwisely, decided to sort of pursue the sniper. They hadn’t gone far until they found a booby trap, located it. Somehow the thing went off, killed one man, wounded three others. And that was it. That was the only action we had in those four days.
The next day, we were going to pull up stakes, and we were going to hike to a bridge, Liberty Bridge, and be taken back to the base. But to get to Liberty Bridge, we had to go through a village. The rest of that afternoon, before we left, there was a Piper Cub flying over this village with loudspeakers, yelling at them in Vietnamese, presumably telling them they needed to evacuate, because this was, after all, a free-fire zone.
The company commander—this was in Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines—did an unusual thing: He told our lieutenant he wanted the squad that had lost the men the day before to walk point. And these guys were very angry, not just at the—they should have been angry at themselves for finding a booby trap and then being so silly as to set it off, but they were angry at the Vietnamese. So they walked point. And when they got into the village, they passed the word back past my squad, “Are there any friendlies in this area?” The company commander responded, up the line, “No, this is a free-fire zone.” Immediately afterwards, there was some firing.
As I got to the first hut, there was an old woman who had been—got shot, who was dying. The second hut we went to, there was a pile of six or eight people. These were children and women and an old man. In the third hut, there was another pile of people who had been shot dead. And then we just passed through the corner of the village. And when we got—everybody in the whole company walked past the same scene that I did. And when we got to the other side, the company commander asked for volunteers to go back in and search the rest of the village. None of the officers volunteered. I mean, there’s a chain of command. I mean, he should have said, “Lieutenant, take a squad,” or whatever. But he asked for volunteers. And so, a staff sergeant and some volunteers decided to go back in. There was a little bit more shooting. Most of us were kind of in shock. These people had been gunned down. This was not a battle. And none of us participated, in my squad, in that. So, the squad came back. We left. They called in airstrikes on the village, which is not the way you’re supposed to use tactical air.
A few days later, apparently, some of the survivors of this massacre had carried the body of a child and a woman to a nearby base and filed a formal complaint. There was an investigation. Nothing happened. Neither the guy—neither the men who pulled the triggers on those folks were relieved of duty. The company commander who set the whole thing up was not relieved of duty. And life just went on.
But that turned my head about the war. And I was not going to participate in that any longer. And I left Vietnam in August of ’70 very, very angry at myself, at the Marine Corps, at the American people, at the U.S. government, and really determined that I was going to do what I could to help end the war. I still had two years left to do in the Marine Corps, and so I was a bit of a latecomer to the antiwar movement and the GI movement, but I tried to make up for it by working very hard. We put out—I was stationed at Camp Lejeune for the last two years of my tour. And we put out an underground newspaper called Rage—was not an example of high journalism, but it was the best we could do, and we were really working hard to tell the truth about the Vietnam War and about militarism in this country.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what was the reaction of the base commanders and the authorities to your publication?
PAUL COX: Well, we were underground as best we could be for a very long time. I don’t even have a photograph of that period, because we were afraid to take photographs as evidence. But the—I mean, I do have copies of the newspaper we put out. We used to distribute the newspaper in the middle of the night. We’d get 3,000 copies made, and bring them onto base in a couple of cars. And we would go through the barracks. This is a—Camp Lejeune is an infantry base. And we would just walk through the barracks at 3 a.m. in the morning and drop off these papers on people’s racks. And after three or four or five of these, suddenly we’d see MPs swarming towards where we had been earlier, and we decided, “OK, that’s enough for tonight,” and we would leave. It freaked them out. It was not something that they were willing to tolerate. But we never got caught on base.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to bring Susan Schnall into the conversation. Talk about your situation as a nurse and as a lieutenant in the Navy. What happened with you? You were court-martialed?
SUSAN SCHNALL: Yes. I went into the Navy to take care of the wounded, to help them heal and to get back to their families and to their communities. As a part of the Navy, I saw what was going on, and I heard stories from the guys who came back. I was stationed in Oak Knoll Naval Hospital in Oakland, California, and took care of the casualties and heard their stories. I didn’t hear them in quite the same detail that Paul has related, because at that time, I think, the war was too fresh, and they didn’t want to talk explicitly about what they had seen. But I heard their nightmares in the middle of the night. I heard them yelling and screaming and yelling out to their buddies. I saw some of the guys who had open wounds, having their arms and their legs held up by butcher-like contraptions, with infection coming out. And as I said, I heard them in the middle of the night and heard some of the stories that way.
I went in as a healer, and I felt at one point—and it was after about a year in the military—that I had become a part of the United States military, and I had helped perpetuate the war in Vietnam. And I just thought I had to live with myself and speak out against the war. I had heard about the United States dropping flyers on Vietnam, on the Vietnamese, urging them to go to protective hamlets to get away from the spraying, which we now know was Agent Orange, and to get out of harm’s way. And I thought—again, we were going—we were organizing a GI and Veterans March for Peace in the San Francisco Bay Area, and we had difficulty getting publicity out. We posted flyers. We handed—we put posters up, and they were torn down on the base. So, I thought, “If the United States can drop these flyers on the people of another country, why couldn’t we drop flyers on military bases publicizing the GI and Veterans March for Peace in the San Francisco Bay Area?”
I had a friend who was a pilot, and we rented a single-engine plane and loaded it with flyers announcing the demonstration. We dropped them on Oak Knoll Naval Hospital, where I was working; on Treasure Island; on Yerba Buena Island; on the Presidio, the Army base. And then we flew in to the Alameda Naval Air Station, because the USS Ranger was docked there, and we dropped the flyers on the deck of the aircraft carrier. I wore my uniform, and I had a press conference afterwards.
AMY GOODMAN: You were a Navy lieutenant.
SUSAN SCHNALL: I was lieutenant junior grade. Yes, I was.
AMY GOODMAN: Were you afraid?
SUSAN SCHNALL: It was all—yes, yes. I was concerned about what the military would do to me. But I looked at that in proportion to what was going on with what we were doing with young American soldiers and how we were sending them in harm’s way to hurt and to kill and destroy people from another country thousands of miles away, and I thought about the terrible destruction and damage being done to Vietnam. And for me, it was an issue, as I said, of living with myself and just saying, “I’m in the military. I stand against the war. And there are many, many thousands of other soldiers, sailors and marines who will stand with me.”
So we dropped the flyers and had the press conference. I was issued this order to not wear my uniform in a public demonstration, expressing my partisan views publicly. And I thought, “You know, General Westmoreland goes in front of Congress asking for more men and more armaments and more money to fight this war. Why can’t I wear my uniform as a member of the military and stand up for peace?” So I wore my uniform in the antiwar demonstration and spoke out against the war.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you were court-martialed. And what happened?
SUSAN SCHNALL: That was six months later. I actually worked full-time in the military, had an Article 15, the captain’s mast, went on to a full general court-martial, was tried for two charges. One was intent to destroy the morale of the United States troops, and the other was disobeying a general Navy regulation and conduct unbecoming an officer. I was given a sentence, six months’ forfeiture of all pay and allowances, to be confined. The trial counsel wanted five years’ confinement and hard labor, and the court-martial board gave me six months’ confinement and dismissal from service.
AMY GOODMAN: And where were you confined to, and what did you have to do there?
SUSAN SCHNALL: I actually was sent back to full duty, because at that time the military also had a regulation that said if a woman received a sentence of under a year, she didn’t necessarily have to serve it. And since I received a sentence of six months, which I think was deliberate—we had a lot of publicity about the case—I was sent back to the hospital to full duty and reported and was then assigned to the women’s units and the children’s unit. And we put out an underground newspaper, but handed it out from person to person on the base.
AMY GOODMAN: Susan Schnall, former Navy nurse who was court-martialed for dropping antiwar pamphlets from a plane over U.S. military bases around San Francisco Bay. We’ll return to our conversation with her, Paul Cox and Ron Carver, all three now in Vietnam to mark the 50th anniversary of the My Lai massacre. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” by Country Joe and the Fish, here on Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. As we continue to mark the 50th anniversary of the My Lai massacre, we return to our conversation with three longtime peace activists who went back to Vietnam to mark the anniversary: Vietnam War veterans Paul Cox and Susan Schnall and longtime organizer Ron Carver. I asked Ron to talk about the GI coffeehouses, which became a hotbed of GI resistance during the Vietnam War.
RON CARVER: Civilians who were supportive of the soldiers, in the effort to bring them home alive, came up with the idea. Started with Fred Gardner, who lives in Alameda, California, who opened up the first coffeehouse, called the UFO, in Columbia, South Carolina, outside of Fort Jackson. And his vision was to have a place in these Army towns that were filled with exploitative businesses trying to just fleece the soldiers—you know, sleazy bars, jewelry stores, whorehouses.
And he had the idea of setting up nonprofit coffeehouses where GIs could come, listen to rock ‘n’ roll, watch movies about Vietnam and talk with each other, where particularly soldiers back from Vietnam, who were feeling bitter and betrayed that the war wasn’t what they had been told it was going to be, and were resentful, they could come, they could talk to the recruits who were not yet—had not yet been sent to Vietnam. But also, they could write their stories and create these underground newspapers, that we civilians would then take to have printed, bring back to the coffeehouses thousands of copies of these, which the soldiers would then smuggle back onto the base, at great risk to themselves, and therefore spread the word.
In many ways, those coffee—those underground papers were the equivalent of the social media today. They were a method where the soldiers who knew the truth about the war in Vietnam could pass that along in pretty close to real time. They would also talk about the burgeoning protests by soldiers at other bases, leading peace marches, deserting, involved in acts of sabotage and other efforts to end the war.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I want to turn to a clip from the 2005 documentary Sir! No Sir!
WALTER CRONKITE: A new phenomenon has cropped up at several Army bases these days: a so-called underground GI press, which consists largely of antiwar newspapers. Military authorities are clamping down hard on the papers.
MONTAGE: Fort Knox, Kentucky, Fun, Travel and Adventure; Fort Gordon, Georgia, The Last Harass; Fort Lewis, Washington, Fed Up!; Fort Benning, Georgia, Rap!; Chanute Air Force Base, Four-Year Bummer; Fort Dix, New Jersey, Shakedown; Fort Hood, Texas, Fatigue Press is published by a group of radical soldiers stationed at this Army base.
DAVID CLINE: And we used to distribute it clandestinely on base. We’d go around and leave bunches of them in barracks, as we’d go through barracks at night, and leave them in foot lockers. If you were caught distributing literature on base, that was a court-martial offense.
NARRATOR: Despite the military’s best efforts, the underground press became the lifeblood of the GI movement, as the Army’s own recruiting slogan, “Fun, Travel and Adventure,” turned into the popular GI expression, “F— the Army.”
SOLDIER: There must have been close to 300 antiwar newspapers written, produced and published on bases all throughout the world. It was wherever there were GIs, American GIs in the world.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was a clip from the 2005 documentary Sir! No Sir!
Ron Carver, I wanted to ask you, because a lot of attention is devoted—has been devoted in studies and reminiscences of the antiwar movement in Vietnam, but not as much to the resistance within the military, of the soldiers themselves, and to what degree that affected the decision of the U.S. government that it could no longer continue to pursue the war in Vietnam. I’m wondering your thoughts on the impact of that GI resistance.
RON CARVER: Well, I mean, you can have my thoughts, but the Army’s own internal studies noted the breakdown in morale, the breakdown in discipline, the large number of front-line soldiers who were refusing to fight or would go out but found ways not to engage with the so-called enemy. By 1968, every major antiwar march, peace march, in the United States was led by active-duty soldiers and veterans. And by 1971, ’72, it became clear that the United States no longer had the capacity to continue the ground war. And that led to the Pentagon’s decision to move toward an air war that wasn’t dependent on ground troops. And then, soon after that, you began to see sailors on the destroyers, the—I’m sorry, the aircraft carriers, refusing to board or beginning to sabotage their own ships. And you saw Air Force, Navy pilots refusing to continue going on bombing missions, not enough to bring the war to a halt just yet—it continued to ’75.
But clearly, the GI movement of active-duty soldiers, backed up by veterans and then the general peace movement, was a key factor—along, of course, with the Vietnamese’ own incredible spirit and determination to fight for the liberation of their country. But I believe, and a lot of historians now are beginning to believe, that this movement was a key factor in ending the war. The problem is that today most people don’t even know that there was a GI antiwar movement. Surely, the Ken Burns and Novick film just glossed over this as, they thought, an insignificant part. But it was a major reason that the U.S. had to pull out.
AMY GOODMAN: Paul Cox, talk about how the GI resistance materialized for you in Vietnam while you were fighting. What were you seeing around you? How were you organizing?
PAUL COX: Well, I didn’t do a lot of organizing. Basically, we were trying to stay alive. We used to sandbag patrols. That was a term we called for when we were sent out on a patrol that might have 10 checkpoints, and we would go out to checkpoint one and sit there all day and then go to checkpoint 10, which was on the way back in, and then come back in at the end of the day, not having actually gone down the trails that we were supposed to patrol. A lot of people managed to get sick now and then, and not go out into the field. There were fraggings—not a lot of them, but there were some of them that I knew about. And in that last unit I was in, when we came in from the field, they took all our grenades away from us.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain why they would take the grenades away and the whole issue of what fragging is.
PAUL COX: There was a study done later by the Army, and they admitted to 1,600 fraggings—that is, attempts or actual murders of officers or senior enlisted men by the lower-ranking troops. And it’s called a fragging because a common tool of a murder of an officer would be to throw a grenade under his rack, and so—a fragmentation grenade. So, whether they would shoot the man in a—during a battle or shoot him in the middle of the night or frag him, that was all the same thing. And the Army admitted to 1,600 of those. There was—I was aware of two of them in my last period of time there. So, they would—they got paranoid. They didn’t trust the troops any longer, and so they took our grenades away from us, when we were in the rear.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: It’s reminiscent of what we hear in Afghanistan of the supposed soldiers allied with the U.S. troops turning on the U.S. troops, that are supposedly their allies. I want to turn to a clip of John Kerry speaking in 1971. At the time, Kerry was a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He was testifying before the Senate in 1971, when he discussed the atrocities unearthed in the Winter Soldier investigation, where over 150 veterans testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia.
JOHN KERRY: They told the stories of times that they had personally raped, cut off the ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam, in addition to the normal ravage of war and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was John Kerry speaking in 1971 to the United States Senate. Paul Cox, I’m just wondering—he was a member of the same GI resistance movement against the war that you were a part of.
PAUL COX: John Kerry?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes.
PAUL COX: Well, at that point he was a veteran. He was out of the military. And so, I don’t know that he took actions while he was in the military, but the veterans’ movement was very important. And certainly, after I got out, I was active in the veterans’ movement and in support of the GI movement for a number of years after I got out, working on an additional paper called Up Against the Bulkhead that came out of the San Francisco Bay Area.
I’ve told you the story of my one horrific day. And John Kerry was relating the results of the Winter Soldier investigation to Congress of numerous GIs talking about what had happened to them at their time, this thing or that thing or the other thing. When you put them all together, it really formed a pattern of how shabbily we treated the Vietnamese who are our allies.
And he also made a very important point, which was the airpower, not considered a war crime such as cutting off an ear might be, but certainly did tremendous damage to the Vietnamese people and the countryside and the environment, along with Agent Orange, which continues to—as a legacy in Vietnam today, and the unexploded ordnance, which is a tremendous problem in Vietnam. And as Ron pointed out, Ken Burns just glossed over it and said, “Ah, the land in Vietnam has largely healed itself.” Well, it hasn’t healed itself. They’ll never get rid of the unexploded ordnance. They are very much plagued by the dioxin contamination from Agent Orange. So, these things continue to—it’s a gift that keeps on giving.
SUSAN SCHNALL: We talk about everything happening 50 years ago as though it’s the end. What Paul was just mentioning is the issue, continuing issue, of Agent Orange dioxin, that continues to contaminate the land and the people in Vietnam. We have both been on a couple of trips to visit the people and to see the children who are born with these terrible birth defects, who will never be able to lead any kind of normal lives. And the issue of that war 50 years ago is that that legacy continues and that death and that destruction continues today. Paul mentioned the continuing problem of unexploded ordnance. Children and farmers who are trying to till the land, if they come upon a scrap of metal, that can explode, it can kill them, it can maim them for life. So, that war, 50 years ago, continues to harm.
And I’ll mention also that we know that the children of American servicemen who were in Vietnam have also been born with very similar birth defects to those of the children in Vietnam. The worst part for the Vietnamese is, because the land is contaminated with dioxin, babies continue to be born and to be affected by this problem.
We want to commemorate and to respect the terrible, terrible massacre and the sacrifice that the Vietnamese suffered those years ago, and to come as servicepeople, as veterans, to say we’re sorry, we take responsibility, and we will continue to work for peace, and we will continue to work with you to try to heal some of these wounds of war.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Paul Cox, how—with the veterans that you’ve known after you came out of the military, how have many of the veterans of Vietnam dealt with these issues of their participation in what most of the rest of the world continues an unjust, imperial war, but is still regarded as a tragic mistake by many leaders in this country?
PAUL COX: Well, I think there’s a range of responses. My own response to witnessing such a thing was to turn against the war, and I’ve been an activist ever since. Other people haven’t probably talked about it at all. Some people have drank themselves to death, shot themselves, jumped off of bridges. Other people have just shut it down. And then the few probably are still proud of what they did in Vietnam.
The vast, vast majority of GIs that went to Vietnam neither witnessed nor participated in anything such as this, although, you know, you have to say that the pilots that ran those B-52s and the guy that pushed the button that opened the bomb bay doors and dropped B-52 bombs did far more damage than any individual who looked his victims in the eye while he shot them. So, the war itself is an indictment of our country, and should be seen as such. And the air war and the artillery and the naval fire should all be seen as equally as horrendous and as criminal and as inhumane as those men that pulled the triggers in My Lai or the ones that, in my unit, that pulled the trigger on those civilians.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Vietnam War veteran Paul Cox, Susan Schnall, former Navy nurse who was court-martialed for dropping antiwar pamphlets from a plane over U.S. military bases around San Francisco Bay, and longtime peace activist Ron Carver. All three are in Vietnam today to mark the 50th anniversary of the My Lai massacre.
That does it for today’s special. If you’d like to get a copy, go to our website at democracynow.org. Special thanks to Mike Burke, Sam Alcoff, Nat Needham, Brendan Allen and Chelsea Reil.