A Conversation With Doug Rawlings, a Co-Founder of Veterans For Peace-Part One

Published on: November 29, 2015

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I was poking around the internet a little while ago, reading and exploring new sites, when I came across an essay written by Doug Rawlings entitled “Don’t Thank Me For My Service,” published on The Indypendent site on April 9th, 2015. I was moved by what he had to say in that essay, and as a co-founder of Veterans For Peace, I thought Mr. Rawlings might have some interesting things to say about encouraging more veterans to speak out against the wars. I thought he might have some interesting things to say about the increasing war mongering and corruption we are seeing in our government, and some ways we can put a stop to it. So I reached out to Mr. Rawlings, and I was right, he does have many interesting things to say. I am so grateful to Mr. Rawlings for taking the time to consider and answer my questions, and for allowing me to share them here.

SeekingRedress (SR): You were drafted into the Army and served in Vietnam. Since then, you co-founded Veterans For Peace (VFP), and I’m sure you have interacted with many veterans over the years. What encouraged you to speak out? What do you think is the most difficult thing about speaking out against our wars as someone who has served in them?

Doug Rawlings (DR): I should begin this process with a few disclaimers of sorts. First off, I have found that the task of crafting poems from my experiences has proven to be therapeutic for me. The key, though, is if a poem not only “works” for me but also works for the reader. And that’s the cutting edge where therapeutic scribblings become more than that, where they become a form of art, where they become poems. I tend to think of poetry as a valid means of communication on a regular basis, not merely some artifact to occupy a dusty corner of some bookshelf. I use poetry a lot. So to answer the question “what encouraged you to speak out,” let me offer this poem…

Bicentennial Poem: Autumn 1976

My daughter is two now
and can almost
speak in complete sentences
Why, if this were seven years ago
and she Vietnamese

She would almost
be old enough
to sell her mother

This captures for me some of the reasons why I chose to use my military experience as a tool, if you will, to educate all of us of the complexities of war. I “served” on a landing zone and a fire base in the central highlands of Vietnam with the 7/15th artillery, attached to the 173rd Airborne. Since the village of Bong Son was off limits, we were supposed to remain behind our concertina wire and sand bags unless we were setting out on convoys to other fire bases. Yet every day village children and mama sans would venture up to the wire to try and sell us stuff, or just out of curiosity. Although at the time, I was unmarried and not a father, something in me stirred when I looked at little kids who were scared of me and whose eyes seemed so sad. Then, when I had children of my own, a daughter and a son, I really became aware of the wonder and joy that we took away from those Vietnamese children years ago. So when I joined with four other veterans to form Veterans For Peace in 1985, I was really motivated by my concerns for children in Central America who were then suffering under the same abusive forces let loose when we engage in war. Here is what I wrote in 1985:

Fifteen years ago I survived that latest, crazy forgotten war of ours. And for a long time I was more or less satisfied with that. After all, survival was better than the other alternative I witnessed in Southeast Asia, that some of you witnessed on the six o’clock news, and that our children catch glimpses of in their distorted text books. But now I have children of my own. Beautiful, happy children. And I remember the faces of other so-called ‘survivors’: the five year old Vietnamese girls selling their mothers; the ten-year-old ‘dump boys’ who scrounged for our garbage by day and snaked through our barbed wire by night; and now the faces of Central American children surviving yet another onslaught of our mindless, blood-soaked technology. Survival may have been good enough for me fifteen years ago, but it is not enough for my children-or yours. It is not enough for the children of El Salvador, for the children of Nicaragua, for the children of Honduras, or for the children of Guatemala. It is not enough.
As a veteran, then, I feel a specific obligation to bring back old memories, to rekindle anguish and despair long buried, and to speak out against this military madness that has so grotesquely distorted our past, that is tearing apart our present, and that threatens to extinguish our future. We, as veterans, as survivors, should ask for…DEMAND…more than survival for the children of the world.
A group such as Veterans For Peace can offer us, veterans of war, a vehicle to bring our special message to the children of the world. Together we can work for a world where there will be no more war memorials. It is the least—and the most—we can do.

SR: What do you think is the most difficult thing about speaking out against our wars as someone who has served in them?

DR: As you well know, this is a complex issue. Trust me, Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day are two very difficult times for those of us in VFP who are determined to use our military experience to counter militarism and war itself. The dilemma is this for me: in some sense I do want to be acknowledged for having had a period of my life wrested away from me and having been put into harm’s way. On the other hand, I am not proud for having contributed to the suffering of the Vietnamese people. But I do have an obligation not to shrink from self-analysis, from looking into the mirror, no matter how dark it gets. That process has led me to the conclusion that the most difficult self-revelatory hurdle to leap involves coming to terms with betrayal. No matter if you joined the military out of some genuine patriotic fervor or if you were led into it because you lacked the moral fiber to resist induction, you have to admit that you were duped. You were susceptible to what the poet, Robert Bly, refers to as ‘…Americans’ fantastic capacity for aggression and self-delusion…’ And, unfortunately, not only do you pay the price for such self-delusion, but those who came before your weaponry and your instinct to survive at all costs, pay in spades. So here are another two poems about Veteran’s Day that I have written over the past two years:

November Comes

November comes on to me like a C-130
slinking into Dover Air Force base
laden with tin caskets
draped in red, white, and blue

I know. I know
I should just
let it be

Okay.
I can still do this:
push my shopping cart down
the local IGA’s aisles
pick up cheese and wine and crackers
while avoiding aluminum cans
like the plague
pay the cashier
smile at the bagger
push the cart out into the parking lot
neatly place everything I just bought

into the dumpster out back

light up a smoke
relax

Sure, sure
you want me to join in
on your celebrations
bless our bounty
accept your thanks
for my service
as if I were some Pilgrim
come home to receive your grace

It is November, you say, and we set aside
a day just for you to wrap up war
with a dissonance of fife and drum
and bagpipes blaring down main street

as if we can all finally dance
to the same tune

Sorry about that

My dancing days are long gone
I’d rather skate across the pond alone

I have more faith in ice

and

Veteran’s Day 2015

What strange creatures we are
setting traps for our own young
using words as spoor to mark the trails
leading them to their excruciating fate–
call it the war to end all wars
call it the good war
call it a war of liberation
desert storm desert shield

and knowing that we lack the power
of regeneration
we use our clever little minds
to design plastic limbs from
the remains of extinct forebears
to hide their pain from our sight

And then each cycle of twelve full moons
we choose the interim
from one dawn
to one twilight
to trot them out
yet one more time
in quaint uniforms
to make them shuffle before us
to grovel for our gracious thanks
to disappear back into the deep forest
of our collective forgetting

so much dust
so much ashes

SR: How do you encourage veterans to speak out, and what do you think we who haven’t served can do to encourage more veterans to speak out?

DR: First off, a veteran has to be prepared for some serious blowback, because he or she is challening the core of many veterans’ beliefs that their ‘service’ was noble in some sense. To say to them that they were ‘duped’ into serving something other than the Constitution of the United States or the ‘homeland’ is to suggest that their service and their buddies’ sacrifices were for naught. But once they have reached that conclusion, then they are encouraged to speak from their heart of their experiences, to avoid self-righteousness for having ‘found the truth,’ and to weave their messages into narrative form. Most people will resist being preached to, so rather than lecture, we tell narratives of who we are and how we got to this place in hopes that others will follow suit. You who are not military veterans can help us out by, first off, listening non-judgmentally, by resisting the urge to talk over the narrative with your own experiences, and then, then, sharing your own experiences as someone who is on the receiving end of the narrative. It is important for us veterans to hear what our loved ones are going through as they engage our pain, our angst, because their lives matter too. Here’s a relevant poem:

PTSD Remedies
For Tarak

First off, drop the ‘P’
There’s nothing ‘post’
about a mirror that threatens
to slit your wrist

But keep the ‘D’
I’ll take ‘disorder’-sweet chaos–
any time over this close order drill
that haunts my early morning hours

Then let the healing begin:

(1) Ask yourself: “Who am I?”
(2) Ask your lover: “Who are you?
(3) Remain still. Wait for he or she
to whisper: “Who are we?”

Now the ache
has permission to leave

and the sunrise
can ease you into
another day

If we can create a community, even if it is only a community of two, then all of us can build a meaningful life together. We veterans need you as much as you need us. Unfortunately, the current insidious phenomenon of framing each veteran’s ‘service’ as ‘heroic’ creates a barrier between the veteran and her or his loved ones. It challenges the veteran’s need to speak honestly, truthfully, of what he or she has witnessed and done—almost all of which, if not all of it, is hardly heroic.

SR: People seem to feel so obligated to thank veterans for their service. I wonder if some of that comes from a sense of guilt that we silently continue to allow war to be waged in our name. What do you think can be done to change that, to convince people that withdrawing our support for war, for the need for that service, doesn’t mean we have to withdraw our support for those who served?

DR: Excellent question that many of us in VFP grapple with all the time. First off, I think guilt is a debilitating, self-referential response that gets us nowhere. Yes, we should face up to our past actions and recognize where we have failed. But if we spend time wallowing in our guilt, we remove ourselves from meaningful action. But back to being thanked, here’s one answer in this poem I wrote after being in Washington D.C. last year for Veteran’s Day:

Walking The Wall: A Song
for Don

#Note: My time in Vietnam started in early July, 1969—Wall panel number W21—and ended in early August, 1970—panel W7, line 29—a walk of about 25 paces past the names of around 9800 dead. I call this ‘walking The Wall.’

Got to tell you that you’re making me nervous
Every time you thank me for me service
I know you’re trying to be nice and kind
But you are really, truly fucking with my mind

Trust me, it’s not that I really care what you think
You who have had too much of their kool-aid to drink
Trust me, you don’t know shit about what service really means
You just need to know that nothing really is as it seems

So take a walk with me down the Wall some late evening
Where we can all listen to the ghostly young soldiers keening
But don’t waste your time thanking them for their service
They just might tell you the truth—all your wars are worthless

Now, I realize this poem is somewhat harsh, but it did come out of the experience of people offering their gratuitous ‘thanks’ without knowing anything about my so-called ‘service.’ I think it’s better to ask, ‘how are you? Would you care to talk about your military experience?’ But, of course, that would take more time and might lead us down some uncomfortable pathways. A veteran friend of mine, an ex-Marine, says this: “I didn’t serve. I was used.”

Now, you also bring up a very real scenario that we in VFP have had to face over the years—we are often accused of ‘not supporting the troops.’ Even though we are veterans, troops ourselves in a previous life. If given the chance, I ask those people who accuse me of not supporting the current military forces how much time they actually devote to thinking about today’s soldiers. I know I think of these soldiers a great deal. Like many of my fellow Veterans For Peace, I have chosen to remain engaged with the very military that I have pledged to restrain as much as I can from dehumanizing the ‘other.’ I provide weekly writing sessions in our state’s VA psychiatric hospital; a fellow veteran, who was a nurse in Vietnam, works with homeless veterans; another was recognized as the national hospice volunteer of the year for working with homeless veterans; and on and on. We in VFP are actually disappointed in those who merely offer a fatuous ‘thank you’ to veterans and then continue on with their lives. We appreciate those among us who actively work to right the wrongs we have participated in during our so-called ‘service.’

SR: I worry it has become too easy to feel that merely thanking a veteran fulfills our sense of duty. It encourages me greatly to hear about actual outreach and activism that you at VFP do. It inspires me, and I hope it will inspire anyone reading this to reach out as well in any way we can.
Mr. Rawlings has so much of importance to say, that I am going to continue this conversation in a second post tomorrow.  We will talk about activism, solutions, and current projects.  Don’t miss it!!

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