Review of Richard Pena and John Hagan’s Last Plane Out of Saigon, by Daniel C. Lavery, for VVAW’s “The Veteran”

Traveling Wall

Beginning at the Traveling Wall in Austin, Texas, a smaller replica of the National Vietnam Memorial, Richard Pena expresses a somber emotion for those who died in Vietnam seeing a woman's tears. He knew her pain would never cease. Pena was on the last plane out of Vietnam after spending a tour as a medic in Saigon. His photo was taken by a Viet Cong soldier when that final plane left. He recognized himself carrying his law school brief case upon returning with a delegation at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City in 2003. Pena's journal entries while serving from 1972 to 1973 as an Operating Room Specialist are aided by John Hagan, author of nine books and many articles as professor of Sociology and Law, Northwestern University, who comments on the context of Pena's story in history with references.

Last Plane Out of Saigon Pena      

Author Richard Pena pointing to himself entering the last plane out of Saigon

Pena's parents were proud of their Hispanic heritage and taught him by example. His father won a Silver Star for his service at Iwo Jima. Pena won best all-around high school athlete in San Antonio, Texas. He attended University of Texas at Austin when students burned their draft cards and protested the Vietnam conflict. The My Lai massacre struck raw nerves his senior year. Soon at Kent State National Guardsmen killed four students and wounded more wrenching America. His low lottery number made it certain he would be drafted. He tried to fail his physical but they were taking anyone who breathed then and entered the Army, June 14, 1971 as one of the last drafted.

3rd Field Hospital SaigonPena arrived at the 3rd Field Hospital in Saigon during the North Vietnamese siege of An Loc when they shot down four aircraft and killed nearly all the residents a few months before Nixon's presidential election during an opportunity for peace talks to resolve the conflict. His objections to pressing for peace were politically motivated as Humphrey would have gained substantial support as a peace candidate despite his role with LBJ. Nixon's voice on tape in the oval office showed he proposed nuclear weapons to succeed but Kissinger replied he thought it would be too much. Nixon said, "I don't give a damn" about civilians killed by U.S. bombing USA Today reported February 28, 2002. While peace was possible Nixon refused to press for it and made the South Vietnamese think if he were president they would get a better deal prolonging the war needlessly and causing more than 20,000 more American deaths.

Nixon against ProtestorsPena called Vietnamization a catastrophe demonstrated graphically as he arrived. Young ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) troops threw down their weapons and fled with villagers as the North Vietnamese launched an unprecedented invasion. They expected 200 or so casualties but 2000 marched toward a 100 bed hospital 60 miles away. However many were mortared by Communists on Highway 13 and others accidentally killed by our B-52s. The Air Force accidentally missed the Communists and hit a South Vietnamese village! Pena joined a group of fifteen who worked the Operating Room confronted by death who built a strong companionship.

Soon a C-130 aircraft crashed from mechanical failure causing them to expect many casualties. Burn patients were the worst, difficult to look at, tough to treat, and many died. The first soldier's face appeared plastered red, hair and eyebrows burned away, red burns ran the length of his young body. He had a wife and young child.They smeared Sulfamylon cream over him feeling helpless. His coworker said he would soon die. A sergeant arrived with a broken ankle and numerous lacerations. These professionals knew the risks but it is for the young whom Pena felt the most sorry. The lifers have some control but not the draftees. The sergeant wanted to know how many survived but Pena couldn't tell him only three made it. Pena wondered how many were on the plane and learned there were forty five. The government released only the number fourteen. Such lies insulted Pena and the others. It added brainwashing to misinformation. C 130 Crashed in Vietnam

An allied Cambodian arrived by air in desperate condition and needed a transfusion from someone with B positive blood. Pena readily provided it as the only one with that type. The doctors said he couldn't survive the operation, yet he wouldn't live without one! They amputated his left leg and blood splattered all over the floor. A nineteen year-old soldier was shot in the head and died from his wound. An American asked him for a cigarette but he didn't have one, so he shot him in the back of the head at point blank range with a .38 pistol. A clean-cut man named Holley had a wife he never cheated on but once. He was found the next morning in a lover's embrace as the girl had put ground-up glass in his food, the sixth American that girl killed. Soon we understand how Pena felt an impermanence sweep over him and all his previous concerns seemed small and unimportant. Richard Pena President of the Texas State Bar Much later Pena became President of the American Bar Foundation and State Bar of Texas. His practice started as a solo attorney for the common person, without an office using an old beat up car. He felt his experience in Vietnam gave him the courage, willpower and confidence to stand up against injustice and fight for his clients. "It was the road less traveled, but it was my road." Published 2014 by Story Merchant Books, 9601 Wilshire Blvd. # 1202, Beverly Hills, Ca 90210

Bio: VVAW member Daniel C. Lavery graduated Annapolis, navigated a Navy jet, and a ship, turned peace activist and became a civil rights lawyer for Cesar Chavez's UFW. His memoir, All the Difference, describes his experiences:

http://www.amazon.com/All-Difference-Daniel-C-Lavery/dp/1482676532/ website: www.danielclavery.com.

  Last Plane Out of Saigon by Richard Pena

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Review of Greta Marsh’s Frankie and Jonny and Mommy too, by Daniel C. Lavery,

Govap Orphanage VietnamReview of Greta Marsh’s Frankie and Jonny and Mommy too, by Daniel C. Lavery, Written for VVAW’s “The Veteran”

One kind woman’s determination to adopt a Vietnamese War orphan, make this truly an inspirational story. Written in heartfelt verse, Marsh dramatically presents the struggle of one woman to adopt a Vietnamese orphan surviving at the Govap Orphanage. She hopes to save him from the ravages of the Vietnam conflict, where his parents were victims of the outrageous My Lai Massacre. Greta, a Jewish single parent, with three girls in college, wanted to find an orphan that her thirteen year-old son, Jonny, could help grow up in Long Island N.Y. with a loving family. Frankie was the name Jonny chose for the orphan in honor of his recently deceased grandfather.

Her first obstacle was an unexpected confrontation with discrimination despite her responsible job as a probation officer in Family Court where she worked with troubled children and single parents. The adoption agency sent her a letter stating she was unqualified to adopt because “Every child deserves two parents.” They would, however, permit her to adopt a physically or emotionally disabled child. Outraged, she wrote them: “Who is in greater need of 2 parents, a physically and/or emotionally disabled child or a relatively healthy child? You should be ashamed.” They did not respond.

Religious bigotry struck next when a local friendly Vietnamese Priest told her a child was waiting for her in Vietnam, but the agency told her twice: “We do home studies for Christian families.” She informed the Priest of the prejudice. He paused and then said he could not help. She wrote: “Dear Father, Jesus was a Jew who never left his religion and I do not think he is smiling kindly upon you.”

After many years of struggle Greta’s dream of adoption was fulfilled when she, her grandmother, Aunt, and thirteen year-old son, Jonny, arrived by plane in Vietnam. She finally adopted a five year-old boy baptized “David” who became “David Frank”. The family welcomed him with love. Soon Jonny felt sad for him because he looked scared but Greta ensured that Frankie would be a part of a compassionate family. They dressed him in an adorable suit and found a mixed breed Dachshund Frankie named Suzi for him. He learned soon to ice skate, draw, play piano, and liked to build sand castles on the beach.

Marsh adds a summary of the My Lai Massacre, military problems of rape, sexual harassment, suicide, civilian casualty statistics, Agent Orange, and the extension of the Vietnam War to Laos and Cambodia. The author says she intends the money earned from her book will be used to help wounded vets and their families. Greta Marsh’s wonderful story of how she succeeded in saving the life of a Vietnamese orphan who became integrated into a loving American family shines with the finest sparks of humanity. She reminds us at the end of her inspirational story the Talmud says: “To Save One Life is as if you have Saved the Entire World.”

Published by 1stWorld Publishing, P. O. Box 2211, Fairfield, Iowa 52556 ISBN: 978-1-4218-8663-3 Soft Cover ISBN: 978-1-4218-8664-0 Hard Cover

Bio: VVAW member Daniel C. Lavery graduated Annapolis, navigated a Navy jet, and a ship, turned peace activist and became a civil rights lawyer for Cesar Chavez's UFW. His memoir, All the Difference, describes his experiences: http://www.amazon.com/All-Difference-Daniel-C-Lavery/dp/1482676532/ website: www.danielclavery.com.  

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Why Did Israel Attack the USS Liberty?

Map of USS Liberty AttackU.S. Ship Torpedoed, Napalmed; Survivors Strafed

On June 8, 1967, an American naval vessel, the USS Liberty, was sailing in the Mediterranean, when Israel's military purposely attacked it.

The American flag aboard at the time was in plain sight when this dastardly attack by three unmarked Israeli planes occurred. Three torpedo boats joined the savagery starting with rockets and then napalmed our troops used in Vietnam that caused many to protest because of its effect on burning skin. As if this was not brutal enough, American soldiers aboard the Liberty were pelted with machine-guns while they attempted to put out the fires these attackers started and three torpedo attacks finished the assault for good measure! Moreover, the Israelis shot all of the life rafts on the American ship, which was a war crime for a ship in extreme distress.  Israeli jet attacking Liberty

President Lyndon Johnson thought these attacks must have come from Egyptians and prepared our forces nearby for retaliation, but called it off when informed our ally, Israel's forces, were the culprits. The American newscasters reported this deliberate attack as a mistake. An investigation under Admiral John S. McCain's direction stated it was a case of mistaken identity! McCain's shielding Israel's massacre of American sailors created a distinctive union with Israel and continued with his Arizona Senator son. All the sailors were sent to different locations and told to consider it an "accident."  One must believe the Israelis would blame the Arabs for this deliberate attack on our troops.

Headlines USS Liberty Attacked

Why would the Israelis want to destroy the Liberty? She was an intelligence gathering vessel, a spy ship, that knew Israel sought to accelerate the 1967 Six-Day War to increase territory by attacking Arab territories in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and possibly Syria as well. One report asserted a conspiracy existed between Israel and the CIA and theorized the attack on the Liberty would arouse suspicion against the Arabs and inflame a passion for revenge against them to Israel's delight.

USS Liberty dead

In 1983 a high level report called the claim a lie that this was a mistaken identity attack by the Israeli's. Moreover, the Israelis had asserted falsely that the Liberty traveled at a high speed near thirty knots when the truth was more like five and refused to reveal itself despite its conspicuous flag! The truth is that twenty five sailors were dead when Israel's forces first signaled to US forces and lied that no flag was flying to identify the Liberty after they shot down the flag to hide their infamy our sailors asserted. No one could have mistaken the Liberty's identity also because the name "Liberty" and its identifying numbers clearly were displayed next to its name. Even more damning is the fact that Israeli planes circled the ship thirteen times while sailors waved to our "Ally" according to eye-witness accounts shortly before they were slaughtered. Most disturbing is that one of the Israeli torpedo boats used in the attack is now in an Israeli museum as a trophy!

USS Liberty on fire

For documentation of this disastrous attack a DVD Documents 'Best Ally's' Treachery in Deliberate Attack on USS Liberty along with a video documentary, 'Loss of Liberty: Attack on the USS Liberty." It was premiered in Washington, D.C. at the Third International Barnes Review Conference on Authentic History and the First Amendment during June 14-16 that showed Israels' forces attacked the Liberty on June 8, 1967, and killed 34 American sailors and wounded 171 more. Tito Howard, a documentary film-maker, produced the video, and was the guest on a May 26 broadcast of Radio Free America, the weekly call-in talk forum sponsored by American Free Press with host Tom Valentine.

USS Liberty with dead numbered

The USS Liberty remains the most decorated ship in the history of the United States Navy.  A medal of honor went to Captain McGonagle, and two Navy crosses, 11 silver stars, 23 bronze stars-most of them with a "V" for valor-and a presidential unit citation for the remainder handed out by President Johnson.  The Israelis made a phony contention that Egyptian armor and infantry had crossed into the Negev, which is part of Israel and that they were responding to this assault when on June 5, 1967 they destroyed 80 percent of the Egyptian Air Force on the ground. And the next day they claimed they destroyed the air forces of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan because they wanted the Golan Heights and control over the West Bank and the Sinai. The USS Liberty was in the way of this plan.

tombstone of William McGonagle

It is the great hope of the makers of the film that people who see it will urge others to see the film, particularly friends and family and neighbors who have been in the military. The military people are the ones who have the experience and understand it best and they are the people who want to do more about it to right this wrong. The survivors and their supporters want a complete investigation into the attack.  Everyone concerned deserves to have a complete resolution of this tragedy even after all these years. Author of Body of Secrets, James Bamford, included in his book an extensive account in his chapter on the Liberty, and it is featured in this film.  Additional articles on the tragedy of the Liberty may be found below:

Assault on USS Liberty

http://www.ussliberty.org

http://www.washington-report.org/

   

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Refuse To Surrender To Fear

Billy Mitchell

(Billy Mitchell played "What a Wonderful World" at the Onion on piano)

Friends, anyone notice how dark internet communications have become as we face ISIS the scourge of humanity, whose cadaverous faces smile awaiting the next calamity they shall visit upon us while we twist in the wind discussing how to deal with ISIS. I sing in a Unitarian Choir that had a black activist, Billy Mitchell, turned jazz pianist from the 60’s speak to us awhile ago. He, with more reasons to be negative than most of us, said: “Rather than see the negative all around me in my community and our world, there are more people now than ever working for a better world,” Then he launched into this song Louis Armstrong sang when Blacks were suffering from segregation, beatings from southern sheriffs, and all seemed so very hopeless:

Louie Armstrong wonderful world

I see trees of green, red roses too

Red Rose

I see them bloom for me and you

And I think to myself what a wonderful world.

I see skies of blue and clouds of white

Hiroshima Do Your Peace

The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night

And I think to myself what a wonderful world.

The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky

colors of the rainbow

Are also on the faces of people going by

I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do

But what they’re really saying is I love you.

Hands together avatar for peace

I hear babies crying and watch them grow

They’ll learn much more than I’ll ever know

And I think to myself what a wonderful world.

Yes, I think to myself what a wonderful world.

Louie Armstrong and kids

Terrorism is just one of many dangers in the world, and shouldn’t be allowed to divert our attention from other issues. When President Obama describes climate change as the greatest threat we face, he’s exactly right. Terrorism can’t and won’t destroy our civilization, but global warming could and might. So how to respond to terrorism? Before the atrocities in Paris, the West’s general response involved a mix of policing, precaution, and military action. All involved difficult trade-offs: surveillance versus privacy, protection versus freedom of movement, denying terrorists safe havens versus the costs and dangers of waging war abroad.

Obama wonderful world

Sometimes a terrorist attack slipped through.Paris may have changed that calculus a bit, especially when it comes to Europe’s handling the agonizing issue of refugees. Do you remember all the pronouncements that 9/11 would change everything? Well, it didn’t — and neither will this atrocity. The goal of terrorists is to inspire terror, because that’s all they’re capable of. The most important thing our societies can do in response is to refuse to give in to fear and that is my point in using Louie Armstrong's wonderful song.

wonderful world

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Tourists of Empire

Afghanistan war cartoon By William Astore, retired Air Force Lieutenant, who discusses America’s peculiar brand of global imperialism. He mentions in Afghanistan and elsewhere the U.S. is suffering from Imperial Tourism Syndrome. Published: October 28, 2015 | Authors: William Astore | TomDispatch | Op-Ed

(Photos and cartoons have been inserted from media)

The United States is a peculiar sort of empire.  As a start, Americans have been in what might be called imperial denial since the Spanish-American War of 1898, if not before.  Empire — us?  We denied its existence even while our soldiers were administering “water cures” (aka waterboarding) to recalcitrant Filipinos more than a century ago.  Heck, we even told ourselves we were liberating those same Filipinos, which leads to a second point: the U.S. not only denies its imperial ambitions, but shrouds them in a curiously American brand of Christianized liberation theology.  In it, American troops are never seen as conquerors or oppressors, always as liberators and freedom-bringers, or at least helpers and trainers.  There’s just enough substance to this myth (World War II and the Marshall Plan, for example) to hide uglier imperial realities.

Denying that we’re an empire while cloaking its ugly side in missionary-speak are two enduring aspects of the American brand of imperialism, and there’s a third as well, even if it’s seldom noted.  As the U.S. military garrisons the planet and its special operations forces alone visit more than 140 countries a year, American troops have effectively become the imperial equivalent of globetrotting tourists.  Overloaded with technical gear and gadgets (deadly weapons, intrusive sensors), largely ignorant of foreign cultures, they arrive eager to help and spoiling for action, but never (individually) staying long.  Think of them as the twenty-first-century version of the ugly American of Vietnam-era fame.

Cartoon Afghansistan

The ugliest of Americans these days may no longer be the meddling CIA operative of yesteryear; “he” may not even be human but a “made in America” drone. Think of such drones as especially unwelcome American tourists, cruising the exotic and picturesque backlands of the planet loaded with cameras and weaponry, ready to intervene in deadly ways in matters its operators, possibly thousands of miles away, don’t fully understand.  Like normal flesh-and-blood tourists, the drone “sees” the local terrain, “senses” local activity, “detects” patterns among the inhabitants that appear threatening, and then blasts away.  The drone and its operators, of course, don’t live in the land or grasp the nuances of local life, just as real tourists don’t.  They are literally above it all, detached from it all, and even as they kill, often wrongfully, they’re winging their way back home to safety.

Imperial Tourism Syndrome

Call it Imperial Tourist Syndrome, a bizarre American affliction that creates its own self-sustaining dynamic.  To a local, it might look something like this: U.S. forces come to your country, shoot some stuff up (liberation!), take some selfies, and then, if you’re lucky, leave (at least for a while).  If you’re unlucky, they overstay their “welcome,” surge around a bit and generate chaos until, sooner or later (in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, much, much later), they exit, not always gracefully (witness Saigon 1975 or Iraq 2011).

Drone death protest

And here’s the weirdest thing about this distinctly American version of the imperial: a persistent short-time mentality seems only to feed its opposite, wars that persist without end.  In those wars, many of the country’s heavily armed imperial tourists find themselves sent back again and again for one abbreviated tour of duty after another, until it seems less like an adventure and more like a jail sentence.

The paradox of short-timers prosecuting such long-term wars is irresolvable because, as has been repeatedly demonstrated in the twenty-first century, those wars can’t be won.  Military experts criticize the Obama administration for lacking an overall strategy, whether in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere.  They miss the point.  Imperial tourists don’t have a strategy: they have an itinerary.  If it’s Tuesday, this must be Yemen; if it’s Wednesday, Libya; if it’s Thursday, Iraq.

Drone deaths

In this way, America’s combat tourists keep cycling in and out of foreign hotspots, sometimes on yearly tours, often on much shorter ones.  They are well-armed, as you’d expect in active war zones like Iraq or Afghanistan.  Like regular tourists, however, they carry cameras as well as other sensors and remain alert for exotic photo-shoots to share with their friends or the folks back home.  (Look here, a naked human pyramid in Abu Ghraib Prison!)

As tourists, they’re also alert to the possibility that on this particular imperial safari some exotic people may need shooting.  There’s a quip that’s guaranteed to win knowing chuckles within military circles: “Join the Army, travel to exotic lands, meet interesting people — and kill them.”  Originally an anti-war slogan from the Vietnam era, it’s become somewhat of a joke in a post-9/11 militarized America, one that quickly pales when you consider the magnitude of foreign body counts in these years, made more real (for us, at least) when accompanied by discomforting trophy photos of U.S. troops urinating on enemy corpses or posing with enemy body parts.

Here’s the bedrock reality of Washington’s twenty-first-century conflicts, though: no matter what “strategy” is concocted to fight them, we’ll always remain short-time tourists in long-term wars.

Imperial Tourism: A Surefire Recipe for Defeat Drone shooting missile

It’s all so tragically predictable.  When it’s imperial tourists against foreign “terrorists,” guess who wins?  No knock on American troops.  They have no shortage of can-do spirit.  They fight to win.  But when their imperial vacations (military interventions/invasions) morph into neocolonial staycations (endless exercises in nation-building, troop training, security assistance, and the like), they have already lost, no matter how many “having a great time” letters — or rather glowing progress reports to Congress — are sent to the folks back home.

By definition, tourists, imperial or otherwise, always want to go home in the end.  The enemy, from the beginning, is generally already home.  And no clever tactics, no COIN (or counterinsurgency) handbook, no fancy, high-tech weapons or robotic man-hunters are ever going to change that fundamental reality.

It was a dynamic already obvious five decades ago in Vietnam: a ticket-punching mentality that involved the constant rotation of units and commanders; a process of needless reinvention of the most basic knowledge as units deployed, bugged out, and were then replaced by new units; and the use of all kinds of grim, newfangled weapons and sensors, everything from Agent Orange and napalm to the electronic battlefield and the latest fighter planes and bombers — all for naught.  Under such conditions, even the U.S. superpower lacked staying power, precisely because it never intended to stay.  The “staying” aspect of the Vietnam War was often referred to in the U.S. as a “quagmire.”  For the Vietnamese, of course, their country was no “big muddy” that sucked you down.  It was home.  They had little choice in the matter; they stayed — and fought.

Combine a military with a tourist-like itinerary and a mentality to match, a high command that in its own rotating responsibilities lacks all accountability for mistakes, and a byzantine, top-heavy bureaucracy, and you turn out to have a surefire recipe for defeat.  And once again, in the twenty-first century, whether among the rank and file or at the very top, there’s little continuity or accountability involved in America’s military presence in foreign lands.  Commanders are constantly rotated in and out of war zones.  There’s often a new one every year.  (I count 17 commanders for the International Security Assistance Force for Afghanistan, the U.S.-led military coalition, since December 2001.) U.S. troops may serve multiple overseas tours, yet they are rarely sent back to the same area.  Tours are sequential, not cumulative, and so the learning curve exhibited is flat.

There’s a scene at the beginning of season four of “Homeland” in which ex-CIA chief Saul Berenson is talking with some four-star generals.  He says: “If we’d known in 2001 we were staying in Afghanistan this long, we’d have made some very different choices.  Right?  Instead, our planning cycles rarely looked more than 12 months ahead.  So it hasn’t been a 14-year war we’ve been waging, but a one-year war waged 14 times.”

True enough.  In Afghanistan and Iraq as well, the U.S. has fought sequentially rather than cumulatively.  Not surprisingly, such sequential efforts, no matter how massive and costly, simply haven’t added up.  It’s just one damn tour after another.

But the fictional Saul’s tagline on Afghanistan is more suspect: “I think we’re walking away with the job half done.” For him, as well as for the Washington establishment of this moment, the U.S. needs to stay the course (at least until 2017, according to President Obama’s recent announcement), during which time assumedly we’ll at long last stumble upon the El-Dorado-like long-term strategy in which America actually prevails.

Of course, the option that’s never on Washington’s table is the obvious and logical one: simply to end imperial tourism.  With apologies to Elton John, “sorry” is only the second hardest word for U.S. officials.  The first is “farewell.” 

Bumper Sticker VVAW

A big defeat (Vietnam, 1975) might keep imperial tourism fever in check for a while.  But give us a decade or three and Americans are back at it, humping foreign hills again, hoping against hope that this year’s trip will be better than the previous year’s disaster.

In other words, a sustainable long-term strategy for Afghanistan is precisely what the U.S. government has failed to produce for 14 years!  Why should 2015 or 2017 or 2024 be any different than 2002 or 2009 or indeed any other year of American involvement?

Unarmed Vietnamese Hide from US My Lai Assault

Unarmed Vietnamese Hide from US My Lai Assault

At some level, the U.S. military knows it’s screwed.  That’s why its commanders tinker so much with weapons and training and technology and tactics.  It’s the stuff they can control, the stuff that seems real in a way that foreign peoples aren’t (at least to us).  Let’s face it: past as well as current events suggest that guns and how to use them are what Americans know best.

But foreign lands and peoples?  We can’t control them.  We don’t understand them.  We can’t count on them.  They’re just part of the landscape we’re eternally passing through — sometimes as people to help and places to rebuild, other times as people to kill and places to destroy.  What they aren’t is truly real.  They are the tourist attractions of American war making, sometimes exotic, sometimes deadly, but (for us) strangely lacking in substance.

And that is precisely why we fail.

Vets against Afghan and Iraq wars

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