RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Still Need to Organize for Peace

Ever since Ken Burns’ series on the Vietnam War aired on PBS, veterans have been coming out of the woodwork to share their stories. One friend stopped me on the sidewalk for a half hour, and I feel like I know more about him than his wife. Where he was when he learned his lottery number (37), how he enlisted, where he served, what he did, and how he handled the assignment. “There were My Lai’s all over,” he said, and, “those numbers of Vietcong dead were always inflated. We’d report them, they’d go to headquarters, and then we’d read in the papers they were twice as high.” I remember those numbers, reported on the evening news like football game scores.

One pal told me about his PTSD, and another about his guilt at being 4-F, the designation for someone who was physically unable to serve. My female friends, also, are stopping each other and recounting where they were, who they missed when he shipped out, who they lost, and how hard it was to re-set relationships when the guys came home.

One thing nobody says too much about is the “why” of the war. Why were we there? Was it to help France rescue its Empire? Or to suppress the Commies? Or was it just a bad habit the presidents couldn’t shake? Was it part of an economic incentive plan pushed by weapons manufacturers? Or to help potential allies win their civil war? Or was it, as has oft been whispered, about oil? Burns tiptoed around most of the potential reasons, and spent the most time on the commies and the Domino Theory.

So much information and no happy stories. I guess I should be grateful to Burns for opening the floodgates, but, really, these stories bore me.

Because they’re all the same. And they’re the same we’ve heard from guys that served in Korea, and Afghanistan, and Iraq. It goes like this: Eager young guy, finished with school, casting about for something to do, hears about an enemy, and for that part the Domino Theory makes the most sense. Nobody would fight to save oil fields for Shell.

But, to continue, the young and clueless meets a slick recruiter (or sees a slick recruit poster), signs up, trains for a few weeks, builds friendships with similarly confused youngsters, ships off to somewhere strange and maybe exciting, becomes part of a team pushed around the territory by old guys in shiny boots and pressed uniforms, gets scared with a fear they’ll never forget, survive.

Those old men in the shiny shoes are, by the way, moral and intellectual descendants of the same old guys in the statues that are now being pulled down. Part of history, as their defenders proclaim, since history includes the really unpleasant and unnecessary as well as the pleasant and necessary. Maybe some of the pedestals that remain will be filled with images of women and children orphaned, or soldiers wounded or dead.

Ken Burns tells the Vietnam story including the reveal of the Pentagon papers which should have stopped the war immediately. But when it comes to the peace movement, he, like most war tellers, doesn’t say much. While he shows marchers and soldiers returning their medals by heaving them over the White House fence, and he includes part of a wise speech by John Kerry, Burns misses most of the peace movement.

It is a sad omission, especially at a time when we need peaceful models. Just as American wars leak from one to another, almost seamlessly, the American peace movement has been active since the Revolution. Handed down through the ages from Quaker peace activists with instinctive righteousness to folksy orators to the well-trained freedom riders to the careful facilitators of the Occupied Movement and the current defiant of environmental bandits, the story of peace advocacy is less-known and more interesting than the predictable coming-of-age stories of all the misled veterans of all the misguided wars.

During the Vietnam War, college activists were trained by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in how to march, how to decide when to stop, how to behave if arrested. Encouraged to choose ahead of time whether to participate in civil disobedience or violence, marches became a proving ground for our own coming-of-age stories and not simply a random hodgepodge of confrontations as is usually portrayed.

More serious than the leaders in War Rooms, pushing their markers around maps and deciding to use young lives and taxpayer dollars to take Hamburger Hill — then abandon it — the peace leaders of the 1960s taught a generation how to become citizens. Today, the old geezers have a new responsibility, and that’s teaching the kiddos how to meet their challenges. No reason to identify the challenges here, you know what they are, but if we’re going to save the planet, it’s time to organize.

Margot Ford McMillen farms near Fulton, Mo., and co-hosts “Farm and Fiddle” on sustainable ag issues on KOPN 89.5 FM in Columbia, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2017

Blog | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2017 The Progressive Populist

PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652