On Sunday, Veterans for Peace, a large national organization made up of veterans of every war, from Korea to Vietnam and Iraq, led a protest in the streets of St. Paul against the Republican National Convention. Among the members of Vets for Peace, there is a sizable contingent of Vietnam War vets. So, too, is the man they are demonstrating against: the presumptive presidential nominee John McCain. Democracy Now! correspondent Jeremy Scahill files a report from the streets of the Twin Cities. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Despite the serious questions surrounding the uncertain fate of this week’s convention, protests are continuing. Today, Iraq Veterans Against the War march on the Xcel Center in an attempt to raise awareness about what they characterize as Senator John McCain’s anti-veteran voting record and his continued support for the occupation of Iraq and the war in Afghanistan.
On Sunday, there was another veteran-led protest, this one organized by Vets for Peace, a large national organization made up of veterans of every war, from Korea and Vietnam and Iraq. Vets for Peace held its national convention here in the Twin Cities over the weekend, drawing hundreds of veterans, and many of its members are staying on to participate in anti-RNC demonstrations. Among the members of Vets For Peace, there’s a sizeable contingent of Vietnam War vets. So, too, is the man they are demonstrating against: the presumptive presidential nominee John McCain.
Democracy Now! correspondent Jeremy Scahill filed this report from the streets of the Twin Cities.
BRUCE BERRY: My name is Bruce Berry, and I am from Minneapolis. I’m a member of Vets for Peace and a veteran of Vietnam, in 1968, [inaudible]. Here, we’re at the Vietnam Memorial here in Minnesota at the State Capitol. I was here for the dedication, and Westmoreland was here, and I believe it was in 1982. And there’s somewhere in the range of 1,200 that were killed in Vietnam from Minnesota. I come here two, three times a year to just pay homage to and respect for those that were killed, and it could have been me. And my heart kind of sinks sometimes when I am here. It depends on the day.
Bruce Berry has been joined in his hometown this week by 400 friends. They’re all veterans who have come to Minneapolis, St. Paul, to protest the Republican National Convention. Many of them are Vietnam War vets, just like John McCain.
INTERVIEWER: What is your rank?
JOHN McCAIN: Lieutenant commander in the Navy.
INTERVIEWER: And your official number?
JOHN McCAIN: 624787.
McCAIN AD NARRATOR: John McCain, the American president Americans have been waiting for.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: I’m John McCain. And I approve this message.
McCain has put his record as a fighter bomber in Vietnam front and center in this campaign, particularly his five years spent as a prisoner of war in Hanoi. On October 26, 1967, John McCain’s plane was shot down over Vietnam. McCain was captured and held for five years in a POW camp.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: I was on a flight over the city of Hanoi. And I was bombing.
In some ways, this is a story of two kinds of veterans: John McCain, who’s running on his record in Vietnam, calling for an escalation of US wars; those members of Vets for Peace who have gathered here in the Twin Cities are trying to use their experiences in Vietnam to prevent war.
WARD REILLY: My name is Ward Reilly. I’m with Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Veterans for Peace, and I’m also associated with Iraq Veterans Against the War. I’m here to try to save the Constitution.
And what exactly was the action today?
WARD REILLY: Well, we just want to peaceably assemble and try to draw attention to the fact that we’re still occupying two completely innocent nations and that we’re living in a police state.
While much of the focus of the anti-RNC protest centers around the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the McCain camp’s promotion of their candidate as a war hero has once again made the Vietnam War and McCain’s role in it an issue.
WARD REILLY: Well, I respect John McCain’s having served his country, but, by nature, dropping bombs on innocent villages in Vietnam does not make you a war hero. I appreciate that he was a prisoner of war, and I respect him for that. And he has post-traumatic stress, and I don’t think a man with post-traumatic stress is a good man to have his finger on the red button.
STEVE McEWEN: My name is Steve McEwen. I served in Vietnam from ’66 to ’67. If anything, he should be using his experience to try and prevent war, instead of trying to do the things that he’s doing right now to heat it up.
MIKE CASEY: My name is Mike Casey. I was a medic in Vietnam. I served in Vietnam from 1970, ’71. I was getting — I got there toward the end of the war, so I was seeing the homicides, the suicides, the rampant drug addiction, heroin addiction, shootouts. We had assault helicopters. We had Cobra gunships. We had APCs. We had dusters. We had 155-millimeter howitzers. We had 175-millimeter howitzers. And we were killing people.
John McCain, of course, is also a Vietnam vet and is running in part on his war record. Your response?
MIKE CASEY: You know, he had twenty-three combat missions over Hanoi. I know what those airplanes hit. I have many friends that have walked into villages that had been bombed by napalm, that have killed hundreds and thousands of innocent civilians. He bombed civilian targets, because civilian targets are military targets. You have to remember that. It’s the most important thing that you can remember. We kill innocent civilians on purpose. They are military targets. This Geneva Convention stuff is bull [blank]! And that’s what we’re doing in Iraq. That’s what we’re doing in Afghanistan. It’s what we did in Vietnam. It’s what we did in Laos, Cambodia, Panama. You name it.
Both the Republicans and the Democrats refer to John McCain as a war hero.
MIKE CASEY: Bull [blank].
MIKE CASEY: I got a Bronze Star in Vietnam. Am I a hero? No! I did — I made a difference in Vietnam, and I’m proud — to a large degree, I’m proud of my service, because I think it made the difference between helping a lot of people in Vietnam with their injuries, because, like I say, I saw injuries. I saw dead American soldiers taken off of helicopters. And, you know, gentleman, there is nothing worse than to see an American soldier take his last breath. And there’s nothing worse than seeing a dead Vietnamese civilian that was killed irresponsibly by an American GI.
I get so tired of this hero stuff. I was not a hero in Vietnam, end of story, Bronze Star or not, Combat Medical Badge or not. I did my duty in Vietnam. But John McCain riding on a hero status? Give me a break! You know, I get so tired of John McCain thinking he’s the only one that was damaged in Vietnam with his post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s funny that when he came back as a POW, they never interview the enlisted men that were in those camps. And I know some of those people that were in those camps.
HAL MUSKAT: My name is Hal Muskat. I am with Veterans for Peace, San Francisco Bay Area. I was in the US Army from 1965 to 1970.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Keep that faith. Keep your courage. Stick together. Stay strong. Do not yield. Stand up. We’re Americans. And we will never surrender.
HAL MUSKAT: I don’t trust him. I don’t like him. I don’t think he speaks for veterans. I think he speaks for a very small, very — too vocal minority of right-wing veterans that would just as soon McCain said, “Vietnam wasn’t fought right. We’re going back.”
Vietnam War vet Ward Reilly has a message for today’s generation of veterans.
WARD REILLY: I say they should be out here on the streets with me protecting the Bill of Rights, which is what we swore to uphold. We swore to defend the Constitution, not blind obedience to the commander-in-chief. And the oath we took was to defend this nation against all enemies, both foreign and domestic. And right now, the domestic enemy is in the White House.
For Democracy Now!, this is Jeremy Scahill, with Rick Rowley of Big Noise Films, in the Twin Cities.