Dr. Camillo Bica was a Marine Officer in Vietnam. Today, he’s an author, activist, and professor of philosophy at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Dr. Bica is a longtime activist for peace and the Coordinator of Veterans for Peace in Long Island.
“I didn’t do anything that should be remembered. I did things that I have to make restitution for and live with. And plus, their gratitude and their appreciation does not in any way help my healing. I don’t need people’s gratitude and appreciation to heal. I don’t need people’s forgiveness certainly to heal. I have to do that myself, and I have to do that with other veterans. I believe that in order to heal, we have to go to those places, those deep, dark, nasty recesses of our unconscious or our conscious and face these demons face-on, head-on, and together they can explore these issues in a safe environment. And that’s another important problem with mythology, I think, is that we would certainly rather think ourselves heroes rather than murderers or dupes.”
“I didn’t go to Vietnam with the understanding that I was going to be killing human beings. As naive as I was, I thought I was going there to exorcise demons. So I bought on to the official position. Ultimately, however, it was a disaster, a quagmire, an immoral, illegal and unnecessary and divisive war that few chose to fight.”
Photo of Dr. Bica speaking at rally by Matt Farrara
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This Courage to Resist podcast was produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace — “Towards an honest commemoration of the American war in Vietnam.” This year marks 50 years of GI resistance, in and out of uniform, for many of the courageous individuals featured. Interview and edit by Robert Raymond. Jeff Paterson, Executive Producer.
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Camillo Bica: I remember thinking in Vietnam that, “When I return home, I’m just merely going to pick up where I had left off.” All this horror was going to remain as a dream, a bad dream. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. When I returned home, I really felt a stranger in my own home.
Matthew Breems: This is the Courage to Resist podcast. My name is Matthew Breems. This Courage to Resist podcast is produced in collaboration with the Vietnam full-disclosure effort of Veterans for Peace. Vietnam veteran Dr. Camillo Bica is the guest today. He is an author, activist, and professor of philosophy at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Dr. Bica is a longtime activist for peace and the Coordinator of Veterans for Peace in Long Island. Well, good morning, Dr. Bica. Just to get us started, why don’t you give us a little bit of background on your growing up years, where you grew up and what life looked like for you leading into your military service.
Camillo Bica: I was born in Brooklyn—Brooklyn, New York, and my parents are immigrants. And like most immigrants at the time, I think they were very grateful to be living in what they regarded as this land of unlimited opportunity.
Camillo Bica: I was influenced by, I guess, Catholic school education and of course John Wayne movies. And John F. Kennedy as well, I guess, his admonishment that we should ask what we can do for our country. I really grew up stridently patriotic, I think, with a strong sense of duty to God and the country.
Camillo Bica: My father, though an immigrant then, not yet a citizen, served in the American army as an interpreter and fought through the villages of Sicily, the land of his his birth. I remember growing up probably as a teenager listening to his stories a few times when he was probably, after a couple of glasses of wine, when he was willing to talk about it, and how he then described in great detail how the American artillery bombed and devastated the village in which he was born. He spoke about how he was torn between strong feelings of patriotism for his adopted homeland and a deep sense of shame and guilt he felt for the deaths of innocent villagers, some of whom had been his neighbors. I guess, in my youth, I was fascinated by war, exhilarated by war, but because of what I learned from listening to my father, I was also as aware of the kinds of effects it will have, that could happen, does happen.
Camillo Bica: When I graduated college in 1968, America was at war, and communism was the menace du jour, and Vietnam was the focal point. As I come to understand, to the Vietnamese, however, it was a continuing struggle against another, in a seemingly endless series of colonial occupying powers. To us, it was portrayed as a grassroots struggle between North and South.
Camillo Bica: Well, when I went to Vietnam, I didn’t go to Vietnam with the understanding that I was going to be killing human beings. As naive as I was, I thought I was going there to exorcise demons. So I bought on to the official position. Ultimately, however, it was a disaster, a quagmire, an immoral, illegal and unnecessary and divisive war that few chose to fight. So men were conscripted.
Matthew Breems: And what was your role in that conflict? What branch of the armed services did you serve in?
Camillo Bica: Yeah. I was in the Marine Corps and I was an officer in Marines. The way I looked at my job was that I had one purpose and that was to keep alive the people who I was responsible for. It was, as you can imagine, being an officer, at least I took it that way. It was an awesome responsibility for people’s lives, and that became my focal point. That became my focus, responsible for some 30-some Marines, average age around 20. Keeping them alive inevitably was through the deaths of other human beings who happened not to be Americans. So it wasn’t all that fun.
Matthew Breems: And after your time in Vietnam, what was the next leg in your journey?
Camillo Bica: I came home, and I had to deal with the issues of service and there were— Anyone who is touched by war is tainted. I remember thinking in Vietnam that when I returned home, I’m just merely going to pick up where I had left off. And all this horror was going to remain as a dream, a bad dream. I was going to go on with my life. I thought that was the way it was—that’s the way it would be. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. When I returned home, I really felt a stranger in my own home. I was disoriented and kind of adrift between the world that I did recognize as my place of origin, although now it was quite alien, and the world of killing and destruction of which I had become part. So things were different, and I remember, I was engaged to be married, but unfortunately that didn’t work out all that well as of itself.
Camillo Bica: I guess that’s a result of my service. I remember what was supposed to be my mother— the person that was supposed to be my mother-in-law, telling me how different I had become, and I really didn’t understand that. I just thought things were different. They change, you change—that’s all. It took me a while to figure out that maybe it was that maybe I changed. And as much as I had come to hate the war, there at least I felt I belonged. Back home, I was a misfit, an aberration, isolated and alone. So I think Vietnam had become the defining experience in my life. Physical wounds heal, but I think emotional, psychological, and moral injuries linger, and unfortunately they fester.
Camillo Bica: Sadly I think Vietnam forever is part— pervades my existence. And I feel like, for them to continually relive and question what I did and who I became— It wasn’t what I thought I was going to become—that’s for certain. But I think those are inevitable concerns of those who participated in war that are required to take life and cause others to die. Inevitable blame, we are told and urged by well-meaning friends and loved ones that, “Well, put it behind you” and, “Go on with your life.” No, again, the war is over, but I don’t think that’s possible. No one truly recovers from war, and I guess that’s the best that we can hope for … But choose some sort of benign acceptance of who we are. Did that end? I strive to forgive myself and absolve myself of guilt.
Matthew Breems: Can you share with us the process of how your experiences in the Vietnam War began to lead you to become an activist against war? What did that process look like for you?
Camillo Bica: Well, at the time when I— It was clear from the get-go, I think, that this was not what I was told I was going to be doing. I felt rather early on that I was misled, and that there’s insanity in this. And it fails to accomplish anything other than death and destruction, making us into killers and having to deal with that.
Camillo Bica: Unfortunately, I— Unlike others, I lacked the courage to just walk away. So I persevered and continued on. I wasn’t quite so enthusiastic. I wasn’t quite so, I guess, good a Marine. When I returned from Vietnam, I was still in the military, and for whatever the reason, I was invited to the, Camp Lejeune Base Theater with a number of other returning officers to meet with the commandant of the Marine Corps. He wanted to talk with us. There must have been about 15 or 20 Marine officers there. Actually, he didn’t want to talk WITH us; he wanted to talk TO us and tell us how wonderful things were going in Vietnam. And we were amazed and sort of looked at each other with disbelief that he was an individual who was in such a position of authority, yet knew very little about the reality of what was going on in a war that he was responsible for.
Camillo Bica: So we concluded from that that obviously he DIDN’T know what was going on. And thinking back, it’s probably understandable, because when you got back from some place, you would tell the powers that be what they wanted to hear. And I’m sure they would tell their superiors what they wanted to hear on up the chain. And when it got to the commandant, it bore no relation to what was actually going on. So as I realized the insanity of all of this, and how it was going nowhere, and there was nothing that was going to come of this positively, I thought the war was something that needed to be stopped. Now initially when I got out of the service, I didn’t feel ab— I just wanted to do that alone.
Camillo Bica: It was about that time that a friend of mine who I used to see periodically walking by, he said to me, “You know, you really need to get out of the house; you really need to come with me to the VA.” So finally, after a while, he talked me into it, and I went, and the first person that I saw there was a psychiatrist who was the of the— well, they didn’t have a PTSD department back then, but they had a psychiatry department, and she was the head psychiatrist, and she was also a colonel in the Reserves. And she had a bunch of papers on me in front of her, and she looked at my papers and said, “You were in the Marines?” I said I was. “You were an officer?” And I said I was. And she said— then she goes— she was shocked, and she said, “Wow,” she says, I can’t believe it!” I said, “What can’t you believe?” … She said, “Well, you must be one of the weak ones,” she tells me.
Camillo Bica: So you could imagine how that is. Whatever I thought I was, I didn’t think I was weak— I mean, after what I had just been through, I didn’t think. I mean, weakness was not how I would have described myself, I don’t think. A lot of other things but not weak. So I really needed to try and understand what— who I am now and what I have, and I’m trying to figure that out. And then it took me a long time to figure that out.
Camillo Bica: I knew the VVAW [Vietnam Veterans Against the War] people and Dave, Dave Kline and others, Dan Friedman. So while I didn’t really become active right away, I was more intent on, again, keeping people from dying as a result of the war, and so I spent a lot of time in the VA, organizing vets. We started a program, our own program, called the Hooch Program, in which we ran our own groups… And I’m also doing what I could with Dave … and my Mike Gold and others.
Camillo Bica: I learned a wonderful lesson, I think. The psychiatrist or psychologist who have no relation to war, when they leave at night, they leave it there, and that’s— that’s a wonderful ability to have. That you can talk about people’s problems and talk about people’s traumas and talk about people’s moral injuries, and then upon the completion of the day, you’re leave it all there, you go home.
Camillo Bica: Unfortunately I wasn’t able to do that. I wasn’t able to leave it there. I took it home with me. I carried it around with me, and at some point, when I couldn’t talk somebody off a bridge who jumped, I decided that I needed to leave this place, and that’s when I went over to the school of visual arts. I had a friend that was teaching there, and I would come to his class, talk on existentialism and whatever. And eventually they offered me a job. During this time I became more active in demonstrations and with VVAW. And then when they contacted me about organizing a Veterans for Peace — the Long Island chapter, I said, “Sure,” and myself and Thomas Brinson and others, we thought it was a great idea, and we started the Long Island chapter.
Camillo Bica: At least initially it was an active chapter, though it has slowed down somewhat, now. I think many of us have gotten old and have decided that maybe there are other ways in which we could be more helpful in thinking about things. I have certainly come to the conclusion that getting arrested and civil disobedience, while necessary, is not necessarily the cure for all this. Because I think civil disobedience requires a couple of things. It requires the ability to get the word out, and that’s difficult if not impossible to do when we don’t get the coverage that we really ought to get.
Camillo Bica: And I think the second thing that’s required, I think, is that the America that we appeal to must have a conscience and be affected by what they see. I’m not sure if America has a conscience of their own. I just think that we’ve become indifferent and apathetic, and the lessons that the powers that be learned from Vietnam, it was not to avoid unnecessary and futile war, but keep the people in the dark about it. And drafts, hence borrowing money to fund the war rather than war taxes, hence not being able to see the flag-draped coffins coming back from Afghanistan.
Camillo Bica: So I think we have successfully separated war from the vast majority of citizens. I teach a course called Mythology of War, and one of the first things I do is, on the first day of class, they asked— I said, “Are we at war right now?” And I would say, the vast majority of the class say, No, they’re not aware of them. I work like hell to try and enlighten kids about war and try to get the word out, by buying books and buying articles, and talking with them every opportunity I get.
Camillo Bica: Look, if you understand what war is, you become aware of it. You critique it, you analyze it, you unpack it. And then, if you think that war is still necessary, well, okay, at least you’re informed, and then we can debate further, but when you don’t even— you’re not even AWARE that we are at war, and you don’t seem to see it as something that is of interest to you… And I can understand, college kids, they have 17, 18 credits, and they have jobs that they have to have in order to pay for these student loans and stuff. So I can understand how maybe low on their priority list is, you know, what America’s doing in the world.
Matthew Breems: I know one of the ways that your activism has been manifest is in your writings. Can you elaborate on some of the books and articles that you’ve written?
Camillo Bica: Well, I have three books out now and one coming out, well hopefully by the end of the year but probably not. But my first book was on “Worthy of Gratitude? Why Veterans May Not Want to be Thanked for Their Service.” My second book was more specific and more philosophical, I think. It was on moral injury, and the title is “Beyond PTSD: The Moral Causalities of War.” I’ve been writing on on moral injury for many, many years. I’m happy to see that it’s caught on some way—I mean, not because of me, but it’s— People are— Clinicians are now starting to see the importance of and relevance of transgressing one’s deeply held moral principles and the kind of impact that that inevitably has on people’s wellbeing. This whole notion of violating one’s moral code, I mean, that’s what happens in war: values that were imbued in us as children and teenagers, by our family, from our society maybe, and our teachers, or clergy members, that’s no longer valid.
Camillo Bica: We became warriors. And when you go through all of that and have that identity reinforced by the insanity of the horror of the battlefield, I mean, that becomes seriously part of who we are! I mean, the time in which you get these kids, this psychosocial moratorium, that’s such an important period of personality development, and the military has them in their clutches. And the impact that they make is so serious, and the techniques that they utilize, these conditioning techniques, and just Pavlovian conditioning. And I know, today we give a lot of lip service to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and readjustment difficulties. I think it’s just that— I think it’s just for the most part lip service. We ask people who are getting out of the military, “Are you okay?” “Okay.” And,of course they realize that if they say, “No,” they’re going to be stuck for who knows how long without getting out.
Camillo Bica: So just say, “Yeah, I’m okay; I’m fine,” just to get away. And when you are stuck between two worlds, when you’re stuck between two identities, the identity of your pre-warrior experience, and now you are your new identity, which is warrior, and you are— find yourself in an environment where that identity is not conducive to to a normalcy, normal life. And you feel—I spoke about before—this alienation. So when we come home and we try to readjust and we can’t reintegrate, we feel alienated separate and alone and lost, you can understand why some 20 or so veterans commit suicide. It’s bad, it’s a national disgrace, a national tragedy.
Matthew Breems: Can you elaborate from your book just to the typical layperson, why it is— “insulting” is maybe a strong word, but insulting to be thanked for your service? Can you elaborate on that?
Camillo Bica: I don’t— I’m not even sure what service I provide. What did I do that you’re thanking me for? Do you know, do you know what war is like? I mean, it’s strange. You don’t know what I did! A stranger comes up to me in the street ,doesn’t know— well, learned that I was a veteran somehow, and then with that, calling me a hero and thanking me for my service. Well maybe I raped kids and killed civilians! I mean, is that the service you’re thanking me for? I don’t understand what it is that you’re saying.
Camillo Bica: Plus I don’t look at what I did as a service! Service is defined as some GOOD that’s done for other people, for society, or for the world! I didn’t do any GOOD! So I didn’t do anything that I’m proud of, anything that I should be thanked for. I’m certainly not a hero!
Camillo Bica: Well, that’s another reason why I don’t want to talk about the specific incidents. I didn’t do anything that— of note. I didn’t do anything that should be remembered. I did things that I have to make restitution for and live with. And plus, their gratitude and their appreciation does not in any way help my healing. I don’t need people’s gratitude and appreciation to heal. I don’t need people’s forgiveness certainly to heal. I have to do that myself, and I have to do that with other veterans. I believe that in order to heal, we have to go to those places, those deep, dark, nasty recesses of our unconscious or our conscious and face these demons face-on, head-on, and together they can explore these issues in a safe environment. And that’s another important problem with mythology, I think, is that we would certainly rather think ourselves heroes rather than murderers or dupes.
Camillo Bica: So it’s very tempting to embrace that persona of a hero. Yeah, that’s really good. So you can understand how some veterans get really pissed off at the article that I published in— on Truthout about “Don’t Thank Me For My Service.” I mean, I got death threats about some of that, I mean, from veterans! And one of the most comments on articles on Truthout. I mean, you really stirred up a hornet’s nest. I mean, a lot of veterans found it insulting that I wouldn’t, yeah. So it’s truly attractive to consider ourselves a hero. So we want to embrace that.
Camillo Bica: But what’s unfortunate is that you don’t heal from mythology! You don’t heal from illusion! In order to heal, you have to face the reality, face the reality, head on and deal with it. It can’t remain static. You can’t fester. You have to bring it up. And I know it gets— it seems like it gets worse before it gets better. But it’s got to be done. If we intend to make any headway to reintegrate, we have to deal with these issues, and we have to deal with them in an environment that’s safe and constructive. So pardon me when I say, don’t thank me— don’t thank me for our service. Pardon me when I say that at least I’m not a hero. And I made very clear in that article,that I was speaking for myself, not for anyone else. …
Matthew Breems: What do you think is one of the major ways your activism has had an impact?
Camillo Bica: Oh, boy, I wish like hell, I hope like hell it HAS had an impact. Although certainly the frustration is that we’ve been doing this for so long and so many years and so much effort , and are we just wasting our time? I mean, I think that that inevitably— we try to put that out of our minds, of course, because we know we have to continue. But it certainly makes one wonder.
Camillo Bica: This class that I’m teaching right now in the mythology of war seems to be really interested, and it seems to be asking intelligent questions—and that’s not always the case. So I’m happy about that and I’m hopeful about that, that that’s a sign of a new awareness, if you will, among young people. So I mean, I have to concentrate on what impact I can have on them. I mean, I should’ve retired years ago, but I just keep staying, because, I mean, I have to. I mean, this is how I— this is what I— this is where I think I can have an impact.
Camillo Bica: So, I hope that there is some impact. I get, I don’t want to say a lot, but I get a number of veterans. School of Visual Arts is what’s considered a veteran-friendly school. So we get a significant number of veterans, and I get a few that come to my classes. It’s interesting, their perspective on things. I had one student not too long ago who as a result, … of our discussions, they became part of— I think you guys changed the name, and it used to be Iraq Veterans Against the War. But anyway, he became part of that organization. And in fact, he just did a wonderful— He was really into drones, and he did a really wonderful demonstration at the U.N. last week, I think, in which they talked about drones … And I think that that’s where my contribution has to be now, in working with young people.
Matthew Breems: Dr Bica, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today and speaking on this, a really difficult topic of moral injury and PTSD and sharing your story of activism with us. Thank you so much.
Camillo Bica: Thank you, Matt, and thank you for inviting me, and thanks for the great work that you do.
Matthew Breems: This Courage to Resist podcast was produced in collaboration with the Vietnam full disclosure effort of Veterans for Peace. This year marks 50 years of GI resistance to the U.S. War in Vietnam, in and out of uniform, for many of the courageous individuals featured. This episode was recorded and edited by Matthew Breems. Special thanks to executive producer Jeff Patterson. Visit VietnamFullDisclosure.org and CourageToResist.org for past episodes, more information and to offer your support.