Podcast: “Within a few months nothing made sense” – Bill Ehrhart
Poet, author, and veteran Bill Ehrhart is my guest on this episode of Courage to Resist. His activism in the form of his prolific literary work has been featured in numerous articles, books, periodicals, and even Ken Burns’ documentary, The Vietnam War.
“Do I have an impact? I have no idea. It’s kind of like being a farmer. That’s this poem I have it’s called The Farmer. You know, you plant your seeds and then you never come back to the field again. I don’t know what kind of impact I have on these kids, but you never know. Maybe one of them will make a better decision somewhere down the road because of something I taught them. When I was in my 20s, and even into my 30s, I thought I could change the world. I am one very little man in a very big universe. I do what I do at this point in my life not because I think it makes any damn difference, I do it because it’s the right thing for me to do.”
“Do they think of me now in those strange Asian villages where nothing ever seemed quite human, but myself and my few grim friends moving through them hunched in lines. When they tell stories to their children of the evil that awaits misbehavior, is it me they conjure?”
Vietnam Full Disclosure
This Courage to Resist podcast was produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace — “Towards an honest commemoration of the American war in Vietnam.” This year marks 50 years of GI resistance, in and out of uniform, for many of the courageous individuals featured. Interview and edit by Matthew Breems. Jeff Paterson, Executive Producer.
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Bill Ehrhart: Do they think of me now in those strange Asian villages where nothing ever seemed quite human, but myself and my few grim friends moving through them hunched in lines. When they tell stories to their children of the evil that awaits misbehavior, is it me they conjure?
Matthew Breems: This is the Courage to Resist podcast. My name is Matthew Breems. This Courage to Resist podcast is produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace. Poet, author, and veteran Bill Ehrhart is my guest on this episode of Courage to Resist. His activism in the form of his prolific literary work has been featured in numerous articles, books, periodicals, and even Ken Burns’ documentary, The Vietnam War. Bill, welcome to the podcast. Could you just start by giving us a little description about yourself and your involvement in the Vietnam War and your activism?
Bill Ehrhart: Okay. I’m often described as an activist, I don’t really think of myself that way. I’m a writer and a poet. Let me go back to the beginning. I enlisted in the Marines when I was 17 years old. I never considered any other service. I was accepted at four colleges, but I was going to join the Marines for an assortment of reasons that had to do with both public and private. But I believed that I was doing the right thing and that my country was doing the right thing. We were defending the Vietnamese from the scourge of communism. You know, I grew up in the cold war. I woke up one morning to the Berlin Wall. I lived through the Cuban missile crisis, all this stuff. It turns out I had a very limited view of history, although it was the history that was taught to me by my school, my family, my community.
Bill Ehrhart: In any case, I went off to Vietnam thinking I was doing the right thing and within a few months nothing made sense by the lens through which I had been taught to see what I was doing, nothing made sense. And I did the best I could to stay alive for the rest of my time in Vietnam, get myself home, at which point I decided this is not my problem anymore. I don’t know what the hell is going on over there, but I’m out of it. Meanwhile, I’m engaged over the next several years in incredibly self destructive behavior; very depressed, very unhappy. But finally I did go to college and in the spring of my freshman year how National Guard murdered four kids at Kent State University, and that finally made me realize it is still my problem. Somehow I have brought the war home with me and at that point I began to want to understand what happened to me.
Matthew Breems: Can you describe a little bit the process that took place that brought you to the culmination of saying, “Hey, this is still my problem.”
Bill Ehrhart: It was actually the photograph, a very famous photograph of that young girl, between her and the camera is a body lying in the gutter with a pool of blood and the girl is looking up at the camera with a look of absolute shock and horror on her face. And I looked at that picture in the newspaper, all I could think was, “It’s not enough to send us halfway around the world to die. Now they’re killing us in the streets of our own country.” I had what I can only call a breakdown of sorts. I sat down on the curb where I happened to be, I just cried and cried and cried. And finally I stood up and I walked up onto campus and I went to the strike meeting that was going on at that point. And that’s when I got involved in the anti-war movement.
Bill Ehrhart: I mean there was no process. It was just the war kept being there and being there and being there and it wouldn’t go away. And meanwhile I’m, as I said, I’m engaged in incredibly self destructive behavior, a great deal of drinking. When I got to college I added drugs to that. And it didn’t occur to me, I did not connect my behavior with what had happened to me in Vietnam. It was the killings at Kent State, the murders at Kent State which finally made me understand something is terribly wrong here and I need to do something. I need to put a stop to this. Now this is how naive I was because I figured, you know, nobody’s going to listen to a bunch of college kids who are afraid of getting drafted and stuff, but I’m the real deal, man. I’m a combat Marine Sergeant.
Bill Ehrhart: If I tell America this is bullshit, they’ll listen. Boy, was I in for a big surprise. I began to learn as much as I could. First I set out to learn about the history of the Vietnam War and I stumbled on the history of my own country. I spent a year after Kent State thinking, you know, somehow my country has made this terrible mistake. We really meant well, but somehow the train fell off the tracks and if we can just get the train back on the tracks we’ll be okay. It was another year and two months before the Pentagon Papers started being published, and it was when I finally read those that I realized this was not a mistake. The only mistake was it didn’t come out the way the United States wanted it to, but it was deliberate. It was fought for all the wrong reasons. We had no business being in Vietnam. And of course, as I said, from there I came to understand American Empire and the actual history of my country, so.
Matthew Breems: Well what did your activism look like early on for you?
Bill Ehrhart: When I spoke out at this student meeting at Swarthmore, immediately a number of students glommed on to me. I was the only Vietnam War veteran at Swarthmore College the entire time I was there. I was the token Vietnam veteran. And I remember there were a group of students and a couple of professors who, I went to a Swarthmore Rotary Club meeting with them. And you know, I’m going to talk to middle America, they’re going to listen to me. Well, these folks didn’t listen very well. They didn’t take me any more seriously than they did the kids I was with. And I remember I went to a General Electric, I think it was General Electric, maybe it was Westinghouse, somebody down near near Philadelphia that was making war stuff, and I handed out leaflets to the workers which most of them, you know, we were lucky to get out of there without getting beat up.
Bill Ehrhart: I went to a demonstration, a rally at Widener College over in Chester. It was a big crowd and there were some guys there with a banner saying Vietnam Veterans Against the War, now this is in May of 1970. And these guys, you know, I went over to them and they invited me back to their hangout, which was somebody’s garage. And they’re drinking beer and smoking dope and talking about, you know, America with a “K” and how that these murdering bastards and, you know, I’m thinking these guys are crazy and I never went back again. Now this is a year before the Pentagon Papers came out. Had I known what I learned from those, I wouldn’t have thought these guys were so crazy. But, as I said, at that point in the year after Kent State, I kept trying to tell myself this is some horrible mistake, America meant well.
Bill Ehrhart: And it really took Ellsberg to teach me that I was very naive and needed to know a lot more. From that point on I mean what I did was I wrote. I was writing about the war beginning in my freshman year in college and I was writing about a lot of other stuff too. The war has never been my only subject, but I was certainly beginning to grapple with it on paper, and for the most part that’s what I did. My contribution to Vietnam Veterans Against the War… Well, let me put it this way, I was invited to go down to Dewey Canyon III when they tossed their medals back, and I chose not to. I was not ready yet. That was in April of ’71. If I had had access to the Pentagon Papers, which it came out two months later, I would have probably gone down there. But I didn’t go, and when I saw them on TV throwing those medals back, I wished I had gone.
Bill Ehrhart: So I went down to Washington on May Day, which was about a week or so later. It was a huge mob. I don’t like big crowds. I went over to the Justice Department, I got caught in the middle of a police riot, almost got myself killed, and when I got out of there I swore I was never again going to put myself in that position. There’s only one thing that scares me more than a man with a gun, and that’s a man with a gun and a badge. So that was the end of my street activism. I did contribute poems to Winning Hearts and Minds, the anthology that was published under the aegis of VVAW, came out in 1972. A few years later, Jan Berry and I got together and did an anthology called Demilitarized Zones. So I was never active. I never went to Dewey Canyon. I didn’t do any of that stuff, but I continued to write about the experience, and largely what interested me was the ongoing consequences.
Bill Ehrhart: I hoped that this country would learn something of value from that experience. Once again, I was naive, but over the years what I have done is to write and speak what I know. VVAW kind of resurrected itself… a couple of chapters, New York, Chicago and Texas in particular… during the Reagan Wars in Central America. In the early 1980s VVAW became a very small organization but became more active. They still put out a newspaper twice a year called The Veteran. So many people I think associate me with VVAW and activism because I have been at it for so long. Once I finally got vocal, you haven’t been able to shut me up, but I still do a great deal of speaking. I’m a life member of VVAW. I’m also was one of the founding members of Veterans for Peace in the summer of 1985. I’ve been active in both organizations. I’m actually an editor at large for the Veterans for Peace national newsletter, which largely is literary. I do stuff with poetry, you know. I’m kind of dull when it comes to activism.
Matthew Breems: Well sometimes our definition of activism is maybe too narrow. I think being a writer and a poet is an extremely valid way of being an activist.
Bill Ehrhart: As I said they haven’t been able to shut me up. Now I’ve actually, for the last 18 years, I have been teaching high school. When I got the opportunity for my last, oh 10 or 11 years, I taught a course on the US in Vietnam. And I called it that, I didn’t call it the Vietnam War because we start with the history of Vietnam going back to the second century BC and learn the whole history of that relationship between China and Vietnam, which is essential to understanding the war. Anyway, so I mean I don’t know, is that activism? I don’t know. There’s a bunch of kids who certainly got a look at the Vietnam War that from a perspective they never would have gotten from anybody but me. And I’m still out there yapping away. Susan and I did this panel thing up at UMass Amherst.
Bill Ehrhart: I’m not sure if you’re aware of a book that just came out called Waging Peace in Vietnam, and I think the subtitle is Soldiers and Veterans Against the War. This book, called Waging Peace in Vietnam, is a compilation of GI resistance to the war in Vietnam. And again, I did not, I wasn’t involved in GI resistance. I was out of the Corps for more than a year before I even became in any way active, but I have a poem in that book so they asked me to come up and do a thing with Susan. You know, I spoke to… we spoke to a couple hundred students at Amherst, UMass Amherst. We got to fill their ears with stuff they weren’t likely to hear from too many other people.
Matthew Breems: Well Bill, you’ve been a prolific writer and poet. Can you just give us an overview of some of your writings, some of the ones that you felt were more important?
Bill Ehrhart: Well, poetry never has a big impact on anything. I have poems that I like. I have poems that, you know, I guess some people read them and and get something out of them, which is good. I have struck up a friendship with an Iraq war Marine veteran. We ended up having a very interesting correspondence and obviously my writing helped that young man make sense of his experience in the Iraq war. His name is Clint van Winkle and he published a memoir called Soft Spots. If you open that book the first thing you see is the last stanza of one of my poems. Obviously my writing made a difference to that young man’s life and that’s cool. There may have been, you know, and I hope there’s others out there, but in terms of a poem that had a big impact, it doesn’t work that way. Not what I do.
Bill Ehrhart: When I started college, I began to write with some seriousness of purpose, but as I’m trying make sense of the war, I’m also trying to learn how to write, how to be a poet. And by the time I began to develop the skills as a poet, I no longer cared about the combat experience. What I cared about was the ongoing consequences of the war. And most of my writing about the war deals with that. But I’m looking at a book right now. I just published in February my collected poems. It’s called Thank You for Your Service, Collected Poems. It’s published by McFarland and Company, and it is 55 years of my writing life.
Bill Ehrhart: The first poem in this book was written when I was 14 years old. The Vietnam War did not make me a writer. It gave me stuff to write about, but as I look at this book, 308 poems, fewer than 20% of them deal with war in any way, shape or form. I write about, well, when I was younger, I wrote broken-hearted love poems. I got a raft of those. Didn’t get married until I was 32. I have poems about geese in the autumn. I write poems about my wife, about my daughter, about my friends. You know? I write about my life, and my life is much bigger than the Vietnam War. I’m not a Vietnam War writer. I’m a writer who went to Vietnam.
Matthew Breems: So obviously the impact of your writing, the 20% that does deal with war in some way has been impactful. It catched the notice of the producers of the Ken Burns series, The Vietnam war.
Bill Ehrhart: I used to be irritated by the fact that I was so identified with my poems about the Vietnam War back in my 30s and 40s. You know, I never get invited to the Bread Loaf Writers Conference or the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. I’d get invited to things like Tet Plus 20 or Vietnam in America From War to Peace. But it finally dawned on me that if I weren’t connected to the Vietnam War, I wouldn’t be getting invited to anything. But yes, I’m stuck with what other people characterize me as and if that gives me some recognition I shouldn’t complain.
Bill Ehrhart: My extended narratives, I’ve written three memoirs, but the second book in that sequence is the most important one to me. It’s called Passing Time, and that’s how I became the person that you’re talking to today. That’s who I was by the time I got done sorting out the Pentagon Papers and understanding that. There’s also a book about a trip I took back to Vietnam in 1985, when Americans traveling to Vietnam was very rare. And there’s a book I did about my bootcamp training platoon, and those are all in one way or another directly connected to the war in Vietnam.
Matthew Breems: So you were a teacher for a number of years and obviously in that role interacted with a lot of young people. When you were sharing your views on war and the wrongness of how America conducts itself abroad, what was your response from the students?
Bill Ehrhart: My guess is I didn’t have much impact at all. It’s worth knowing, I also taught a course, a senior history elective called Smedley Butler and the Rise of American Imperialism. Smedley Butler is a graduate of the school where I was teaching. He retired from the Marine Corps after 34 years as a major general. He won two medals of honor and lived to talk about it. And then in the 1930s he wrote a book called War is a Racket, and became an outspoken critic of what today we would call the military industrial complex. Back in the 30s they didn’t have a name for it. And he’s a graduate of this school where I was teaching, so I did this course called The Rise of American Imperialism in which we looked at Butler’s career in the Marine Corps and everywhere that he was sent. Why are the Marines being sent to China in 1900? Why are the Marines being sent to Columbia in 1903? Why are the Marines being said to Panama in 1908? And we went all the way through his career looking at what’s going on.
Bill Ehrhart: Do I have an impact? I have no idea. It’s kind of like being a farmer. That’s this poem I have it’s called The Farmer. You know, you plant your seeds and then you never come back to the field again. I don’t know what kind of impact I have on these kids, but you never know. Maybe one of them will make a better decision somewhere down the road because of something I taught them. When I was in my 20s, and even into my 30s, I thought I could change the world. I am one very little man in a very big universe. I do what I do at this point in my life not because I think it makes any damn difference, I do it because it’s the right thing for me to do. What happens out there is not… there’s nothing I can do about that. I do what I do and what’ll happen happens. That’s not in my control. So do I have an impact on these kids? I don’t know, probably not much. But it beats selling insurance. Beats selling missile parts.
Matthew Breems: So the American industrial complex rolls on. In your opinion, what do you think activism needs to look like right now to counteract them?
Bill Ehrhart: I think humanity is in serious trouble. I think things are going to get uglier and uglier and I don’t know where it’s going to end, but I don’t see a happy ending to the story of the human race, let alone the story of my country. But as I said, I do what I do not because I think it’s going to matter, but because it’s what I have to do. And I might be wrong. My prognosis for the future might be wrong. I hope it is. I’ve certainly spent 18 years teaching kids, who are at the beginning of their lives, on the assumption that I’m wrong, that things aren’t as bad as I think they are. What’s the solution? I do not picture enough people in this country realizing the danger we’re in before it’s too late. Now that’s not a very cheerful thing to say to your audience out there.
Bill Ehrhart: I mean again, I don’t know how to answer your question except that I do what I can do. I actually took out my recycled trash this morning and I dumped it into the recycle bin and I brought back the paper bag. How much difference is one lousy paper bag going to make? Probably nothing. I mean it’s nothing, but I do that because it’s something I can do and that’s one less bag going into the trash. Same thing with activism, with anti-war work, with political work, you do what you can do and that’s all you can do. Each individual has to do what he or she can do, what he or she thinks needs to be done and is within their power to do. And beyond that, that’s it. That’s all you can do.
Matthew Breems: Well before we wrap up our conversation here, would you please share one of your poems with us?
Bill Ehrhart: Well, I’ll leave you with one poem that I rather like. I wrote it many, many, many years ago and it’s very short. It’s called Making the Children Behave. “Do they think of me now in those strange Asian villages where nothing ever seemed quite human, but myself and my few grim friends moving through them hunched in lines. When they tell stories to their children of the evil that awaits misbehavior, is it me they conjure?”
Matthew Breems: This Courage to Resist podcast was produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace. This year marks 50 years of GI resistance to the US war in Vietnam, in and out of uniform, for many of the courageous individuals featured. This episode was recorded and edited by Matthew Breems. Special thanks to executive producer Jeff Paterson. Visit vietnamfulldisclosure.org and couragetoresist.org for past episodes, more information, and to offer your support.