Some of My Best Friends Are War Criminals….Really

This blog is from another speech I did. The point of that speech was…to get to the point! So here it is – courage can show itself in some of the most interesting of ways.

One of my favorite quotes is from the movie Valkyrie. Tom Cruise, the namesake character, and several others tried to kill Hitler and stop that war, but they got caught. As Tom/Valkyrie awaits his turn to be executed, he turns to a fellow convicted “war criminal” behind him, and says, “Look them in the eye. Let them remember you.”

The Viet Nam war was always inordinately haunting to me. I was only four when it started, and no one I knew from childhood fought in it. But I grew up to body counts on the nightly news, and that had a profound effect on me. My older sisters were hippies, and I remember the voices of Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary filling the house with thoughts of peace. Somehow I remember many words to the “Ballad of the Green Beret” and “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream.” Remember the famous picture of the little girl running down the street, naked, her skin burning from napalm? She was about my age, and that image was seared in my memory……I could’ve just as easily have been born there and been her.

In 1994 I went to Viet Nam with a group of vets and filmed them performing humanitarian work – we built a clinic for amputees. We also went to the vets’ AOs (areas of operation). The purpose of the trip was to give something back to Viet Nam as they hopefully healed their wounds of war.

Some of the stories these men shared with me were unbelievable – stories not just from the war, but also from when they returned home. One vet lost his brother, and his father said to him, “Should’ve been you.”

A few times the guys ran into people they had fought with or against. Buster was walking down the street in Can Tho near the Mekong Delta, and his former translator ran up to him crying, “You came back! I knew you’d come back.” In Northern Viet Nam, an entire village came out to meet us; two of the villagers had been fighting against Bob in 1967; in 1994 you couldn’t pull them apart.

The head of the group that arranged our trip, the Veterans Viet Nam Restoration Project, had been stationed in Saigon. Dave’s job was to calculate the coordinates for the pilots to bomb Laos. We weren’t supposed to be bombing Laos! Bombing neutral countries in a time of war is against the Geneva Convention and is a war crime, and back in the US, word was getting out that we were bombing both Laos and Cambodia.

The day before Nixon’s Congressional Contingent showed up in Saigon, my friend’s CO (commanding officer) lined them up and said, “These people” – our Congress – “don’t have the necessary security clearance or the need to know what we are doing.” “Need to know” was everything in intelligence. “If anyone takes it upon himself to tell them,” he continued, “it will be considered treason in a time of war.” The punishment would be execution.

The room Dave was in was divided into quadrants, and groups sat under signs that read North Viet Nam, South Viet Nam, Laos, and Cambodia. On the day of the visit, those last two were changed to North and South Viet Nam. The congressional contingent passed right by his desk and he almost told them, “This photograph is of Laos.” But his CO was watching carefully, so he didn’t.

What he did do was start giving the pilots the wrong coordinates. His CO yelled at him one day: “Your calculations are off! The American taxpayers do not want to be paying for a few dead trees in the middle of nowhere!”

“No sir,” he responded. “The American taxpayers would much rather be paying for dead people in the middle of nowhere!” He didn’t last much longer.

It haunted him for decades that he didn’t tell the contingent. But he did save thousands of people’s lives. Yes, technically he’s a war criminal. In my book, though, and to the thousands of families he touched although they might not even know it, he’s a hero.