On June 10, 2020, indigenous activist Mike Forcia toppled a statue of Christopher Columbus on the MN State Capitol grounds. That act has prompted a review of all statues and monuments on the grounds by the Capitol Area and Architectural Planning Board (CAAPB). Veterans For Peace Chapter 27 responded with the letter that is attached and printed below. It was passed by a 6-1 vote of the executive committee.
March 29, 2021
Dear Capitol Area and Architectural Planning Board,
Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the memorials and monuments on the Capitol grounds.
Chapter 27 is the Minneapolis/Saint Paul affiliate of Veterans For Peace. We frequently gather on the Capitol grounds to observe Memorial Day and Armistice Day (known to some as Veterans Day). We have gathered at the USS Ward Gun, but usually choose the Minnesota Vietnam Veterans Memorial for our ceremonies.
That is not to say that all of our members are comfortable with the memorials.
The MN Vietnam Veterans Memorial centers the American GI as victim of the war. In reality, it was the people of Vietnam who suffered the greatest losses. They were killed in far greater numbers. Their bodies were burned by napalm and women were raped. Villages were destroyed and families dislocated. Their land was poisoned by Agent Orange and is still littered with unexploded ordnance.
General William Westmoreland infamously said:
"The Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful, life is cheap in the Orient. The philosophy of the Orient expresses that life is not important."
A memorial that commemorates American casualties while excluding Vietnamese victims is a missed opportunity to repudiate the racist sentiments of the former commander of US forces.
Modification of the Minnesota Vietnam Veterans memorial to include Vietnamese victims of the war would be a meaningful nod to our common humanity. It might also assist those suffering guilt for their participation in a cruel and unjust war. It might even serve as a deterrent to the racist dehumanization of the enemy that will surely accompany the next war.
The inscription at the top of the wall – WE WERE YOUNG. WE HAVE DIED. REMEMBER US – is a euphemism. US military personnel did not simply die in Vietnam. They were cannon fodder sent by their own government to be killed in what history recognizes as a war of aggression.
We recommend the Minnesota Vietnam Veterans Memorial be modified to contain a literal or artistic renunciation of military aggression.
The memorial purports to offer healing to survivors, but healing cannot occur without resolution. We must face the criminal nature of the American War in Vietnam. The illegitimate purpose of the war was to prevent the democratic reunification of Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh and to extend colonial domination of the country.
We take issue with CAAPB board member Paul Mandel's characterization of soldiers returning from Vietnam. In a virtual tour of the memorial he says:
"They had a chip on their shoulder. They came back, they were either forgotten or they were spat on, mistreated, the benefits weren't coming forward, just all around the nation had abandoned them".
This stereotype is alien to many in Veterans For Peace. Some of our members witnessed atrocities committed in Vietnam, and we have all come to understand the illegitimate rationale for the war. We did not want ticker-tape parades. We did not want to be held as heroes. We did not want the sympathy of the nation. We knew we had done more harm than good. We wanted to stop the war and prevent the next one.
The words 'forgotten', 'spat upon', 'mistreated', and 'abandoned' suggest that returning soldiers held resentment toward the general public. This is a misdirection. Our grievance was with the civilian and military leaders who ran the war.
Upon returning, anti-war veterans joined with the burgeoning civilian peace movement. We recognized and appreciated their contributions toward ending the war. Without their efforts, who knows how much longer the war would have dragged on, and how much longer the list of names on the wall would have been.
Civilians who protested against the war did so at great personal risk. Those who defied the draft risked prison. Draft dodgers who fled that country lost their homes. Activists in the streets risked beatings and arrest. Students risked expulsion. War resisters who broke into Selective Service offices to destroy draft records risked imprisonment and the lifelong stigma associated with a felony conviction. Four student protesters were gunned down by National Guard troops at Kent State, and two were killed by police at Mississippi State.
When a nation commits military aggression, it is those who oppose the war who are most deserving of veneration. We urge you to consider a new memorial on the Capitol grounds that honors civilian peace activists.
Nationally, there were none who stood above Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.. In a recent essay author Viet Than Nguyen wrote:
King's prophecy connects the war in Vietnam with our forever wars today, spread across multiple countries and continents, waged without end from global military bases numbering around 800. Some of the strategy for our forever war comes directly from lessons that the American military learned in Vietnam: drone strikes instead of mass bombing; volunteer soldiers instead of draftees; censorship of gruesome images from the battlefronts; and encouraging the reverence of soldiers.
You can draw a line from the mantras of "thank you for your service" and "support our troops" to American civilian regret about not having supported American troops during the war in Vietnam. This sentimental hero worship actually serves civilians as much as the military. If our soldiers can be absolved of any unjust taint, then the public who support them is absolved too. Standing in solidarity with our multicultural, diverse military prevents us from seeing what they might be doing to other people overseas and insulates us from the most dangerous part about King's speech: a sense of moral outrage that was not limited by the borders of nation, class or race but sought to transcend them.
Locally, there are many individuals and organizations deserving of remembrance:
- Barry Bondhus (1945-2018) – Also known as the Big Lake One, he is credited with the first action targeting a draft board. On February 24, 1966, he destroyed draft records by pouring his own excrement, and that of his ten brothers, over files in Elk River, MN.
- James L. Mengel III – On October 27, 1967, along with three others, Rev. Mengel entered a Baltimore, MD selective service office to disrupt involuntary conscription into the military. While a mixture of their blood was poured over draft files, Mengel distributed copies of the New Testament to staff and arriving police. They became known as the Baltimore Four. Mengel currently resides in White Bear Lake, MN. At age 91, he maintains a weekly peace vigil there.
- George Mische – On May 17, 1968, the Catonsville Nine entered a draft office in Catonsville, MD. Mische was among the Catholic activists who removed draft files and burned them with homemade napalm in the parking lot. All remained at the scene and submitted peacefully to arrest. Mische was tried, convicted and sentenced to three years in prison. Mische also counts his life partner, Helene, as an indispensable partner to the action and the larger anti-Vietnam War Catholic peace movement. They currently reside in the Twin Cities area.
- Polly Mann – Mann co-founded Women Against Military Madness (WAMM) in 1982. Her anti-war sentiments date back to WWII when she worked at an Army camp in Arkansas and witnessed the anguish of families seeing their loved ones off to war. She marched against the Vietnam War and, as an employee at Southwest State University in Marshall, MN, counseled younger student activists in difficult times. At age 101, Mann is still a columnist for the Southside Pride newspaper where her writing spans issues from racism to nuclear disarmament.
- Marianne Hamilton (1920-2017) – Hamilton is another co-founder WAMM. She was an active opponent of the Vietnam War. She helped many draft dodgers reach Canada, hiding them in her home despite being watched by the FBI. She traveled to Paris in 1970 to meet with the Vietnamese delegation to the peace accords, and made two trips to Hanoi to bring home three American prisoners of war.
- Marv Davidov (1931-2012) – Founder and leader of the Honeywell Project which protested the manufacture of anti-personnel and cluster munitions. Davidoff was arrested more than 50 times during his life for committing acts of civil disobedience in the pursuit of peace.
- Philip and Daniel Berrigan – Born in Two Harbors and Virginia, MN respectively, the brothers were Catholic priests and lifelong peace activists. They participated in numerous draft board raids and served time in prison for their civil disobedience. They co-founded Catholic Peace Fellowship and the Plowshares Movement. Philip died in 2002, Daniel in 2016.
- The McDonald Sisters – The four sisters, Rita, Kate, Brigid, and Jane, were raised in Carver County and each would eventually join the order of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. Lifelong advocates for peace and social justice, they have been arrested many times while protesting weapons manufacturers Honeywell and Alliant Tech in the Twin Cities, and the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, GA. Younger sisters Brigid and Jane are still attendees at the weekly Lake Street Bridge peace vigil that has carried on for over twenty years.
- The Minnesota Eight – On July 10, 1970, simultaneous actions were planned against draft offices in Little Falls, Alexandria, Winona, and Wabasha. All were foiled except Wabasha. Eight men were apprehended, and seven were tried, convicted, and sentenced to five years in prison: Chuck Turchick, Mike Therriault, Brad Beneke, Don Olson, Pete Simmons, Bill Tilton, and Frank Kroncke.
- Eugene McCarthy (1916-2005) – A poet and a politician, McCarthy was Minnesota's Fourth District Congressman from 1949-1959 and US Senator from 1959-1971. He ran for President in 1968 on an anti-war platform.
At Veterans For Peace, we believe the best way to honor the fallen is to work to expose the true costs of war, identify those who profit from war, and hold those who instigate war to account. A good way to prevent new wars is to elevate the status of advocates for peace. We urge you to consider a new monument dedicated to the honorable men and women who struggled to end the American War in Vietnam.