Podcast: “That’s me — I AM the enemy” – Howard Morland

April 23, 2020

Howard Morland joined the air force in the hopes of furthering his career as a pilot. With his exposure to the atrocities in Vietnam and extreme military training, Howard decided he needed to resign from the military. He was soon to learn how difficult that could be.

“I realized that the propaganda was not about socialism. The propaganda was all about the American anti-war movement that I was a part of, and I thought, “Okay, the US government doesn’t really see the North Vietnamese as the enemy; they see the American anti-war movement as the enemy.”

“Every aspect of this war was just a chance for us to wage war for the hell of it and make sure everybody got a chance to, you know, punch their combat ticket.”

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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Transcript

Howard Morland:
I realized that the propaganda was not about socialism. The propaganda was all about the American anti-war movement that I was a part of, and I thought, “Okay, the US government doesn’t really see the North Vietnamese as the enemy; they see the American anti-war movement as the enemy.”

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. Today’s podcast features former air force pilot Howard Morland. Howard joined the air force in the hopes of furthering his career as a pilot. With his exposure to the atrocities in Vietnam and extreme military training, Howard decided he needed to resign from the military. He was soon to learn how difficult that could be. Hello, Howard. Looking forward to hearing your story today. Like all of our guests, let’s just start off with a little bit of background information about you. What did your growing up years look like?

Howard Morland:
Well, I was born in 1942. I don’t remember my father until he came back from World War II. Two of my uncles had also been in World War II, one the army and one in the navy, and my father was in the Red Cross. So I kind of grew up with a military tradition in the family, and I had a pretty normal childhood. Boy Scouts, I went all the way to Eagle Scout. I was always active in outdoors stuff: camping, hiking, canoeing.

Matthew Breems:
Let’s fast forward a little bit to the Vietnam conflict ramping up. Where did you find yourself? What was your life situation as you neared the time that you were going to enter military service?

Howard Morland:
I was graduating from Emory University and I think it’s significant. I started off majoring in physics partly because of the influence of growing up near Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Nuclear physics was considered a pretty neat thing. I ended up majoring in economics at the end—I tried a lot of different majors. And at the end of my career I was a civil rights activist, in Emory University—it’s in Atlanta. The school was never integrated while I was there. But we used to meet with students from across town, the African-American colleges: Spellman, Morehouse, Atlanta University, Clark, so forth. So I was part of the civil rights movement in 1965, but when I finished college, I decided what I wanted to do was be an astronaut. The only way to be an astronaut in those days was to be a fighter pilot. And I did not want to go to war in Vietnam, but I watched the 1964 election fairly closely, and it seemed to be a referendum on whether we go to Vietnam or not.

Howard Morland:
And Lyndon Johnson won in a landslide posing as the peace candidate. So I thought, “Okay, I can be in the peacetime air force, be a fighter pilot for a while, and then try to get into test pilot school and be an astronaut.” I now think that was a stupid idea. But then when you’re young, you’re not as smart as you are when you’re older. So I stuck with my plan, joined the air force and went to pilot school. And I kept noticing that Lyndon Johnson, the peace candidate, was acting like the war candidate. And I was noticing that with a great deal of distress. And I was thinking, “Well, Lyndon Johnson is said to be smart. He looks and sounds like he’s really stupid, but everybody says he’s smart. And if he’s smart, he’s going to end the war in Vietnam before he has to stand for reelection. And so if I graduate high enough in my flight-training class to get my pick for my first assignment, I can pick transports and avoid Vietnam, and then the war would be over by the time they give me a new assignment.”

Howard Morland:
So I was in flight school, I was recommended for fighter-pilot school. But by this time I decided that fighter pilots are all going straight to Vietnam. So I figured, well, I’ll just change my career plan, fly transports and try to be an airline pilot. Forget the astronaut business. I was lucky enough to be able to make that choice. I think I graduated at the top of my class in the academics, pretty close to the top in flying skills. So that’s how I wound up flying transports. We went back and forth to Vietnam, but I never actually stayed there.

Matthew Breems:
So your duties were bringing materiel from the air bases here in the U.S. and bringing it over to Southeast Asia?

Howard Morland:
Right. I actually wrote an article about this for Newsweek magazine, and noticed some member of Congress thought highly enough of it, they put it in the congressional record. My experience of going over there and coming back. The airplanes … We carried about 40,000 pounds of cargo easily, and we had to refuel several times, and the plane carried 150,000 pounds of gasoline—or jet fuel. And I noticed quite early that we were burning 600,000 gallons of jet fuel in order to deliver 40,000 pounds of cargo to Vietnam. And in fact we had to refuel in Vietnam, and we usually took on at least 40,000 pounds of fuel in Vietnam in order to make it back out to the next stop in our route. I just thought that was a perfect example of how this … the war over there was for the purpose of exercising the military.

Howard Morland:
There was no reason to airlift anything over to Vietnam other than people, and that was done by commercial airlines, who had been chartered to take the soldiers over and back. The cargo could have been carried by ship the same way as the fuel that was waiting for us over there when we dropped off our cargo. But every aspect of this war was just a chance for us to wage war for the hell of it and make sure everybody got a chance to, you know, punch their combat ticket. The thing that really got my attention was our job was to bring back the bodies of dead soldiers. The plane would be coming back empty except for a dozen or more caskets of dead soldiers, and we would also carry up to 10 passengers, which is what we were allowed to carry without outfitting the thing as an airliner. So we would have like a dozen dead soldiers and up to 10 live soldiers coming back with us.

Howard Morland:
The airplane was a C-141, a four-engine jet transport about the size of a Boeing 707. And I would sit up in the cockpit, and we would invite soldiers to come up and sit between the pilot seats and tell us war stories as we were coming back. And I wrote about that from my Newsweek article magazine. One story that a guy told me was how he had captured some Vietcong, and one of them had had a hand grenade pinned to the flesh under his arm. So when he raised his hand, it pulled the pin out, and the hand grenade exploded and killed him and some other people. And as a result, all the rest of the prisoners, they grabbed them and pinned their arms to the side and chopped their heads off, and then they posed with the heads of their…you know, dead soldiers.

Howard Morland:
He said that he had a picture, but… He’d show me the picture, but it was back in his luggage or something. And that was the kind of stories I used to tell … I used to hear. Well I heard somebody telling the story about how they would throw people out of helicopters, and I think this was fairly well documented. It may … A few years later it made news. But they would take somebody up in a helicopter and start interrogating him. And if they didn’t like the answers, they would throw one person out of the helicopter to his death and then start interrogating the other people. And I said— You know, when I heard this story, I said, “Well, I guess the other side abuses prisoners also.” And I was really surprised that the answer I heard when I said that was that no they don’t. The other side doesn’t do that. He said, “They’ll walk you to death, but if you can keep up with them, they’ll keep you alive and fed.” But a lot of people can’t keep up with them because they’re in better shape than we are.

Howard Morland:
I thought, “Well, that’s interesting.” He told this story about how we commit war crimes and then said the enemy does not do that. I accumulated these war stories. I started hearing things in the news. The first thing I noticed was that the news accounts about the war in Vietnam did not sound anything like the war stories I was hearing when I was bringing soldiers back. After about a year, that started to change a little bit, and I thought the reason is that we’re letting people come home and leave the service after a year in Vietnam, unlike World War II. Once you get a bunch of returned veterans home and they look at the news and they say, “This is bullshit; that’s not what’s happening over there,” they had to start changing their news coverage. And so the news coverage started kind of going against the war about the same time veterans started coming home and telling what was really going on over there.

Matthew Breems:
I know eventually you came to a place where you decided that you were done with the service, you were done with the air force, you were going to leave. What led up to that decision to take that drastic step?

Howard Morland:
Well, it was a change of assignment. At the end of a year and a half of flying transports, I was reassigned, and I was reassigned to fly small transports in country. I was thinking, “Okay, done this much. Maybe I should just do the other thing.” I was trying various ways to try to figure out, “How am I going to do … How am I going to participate in a war when from day one I have supported the other side?” So I was trying to figure out, “How do I do this? I’ve already given up my fighter pilot/astronaut career. Flying small cargo planes inside the country is not going to help me with an airline career. And I’m against the war.” And I was thinking, “Well, maybe I could be like driving an ambulance during the Spanish-American War or something.” But I wasn’t really keen on the idea. And then, before I had a chance to actually do that, they reassigned me again, to helicopters.

Howard Morland:
Now, this was kind of a moral dilemma because the helicopter guys are … they’re kind of like the ambulance drivers. They’re just going to pick up fighter pilots who got shot down. And I was against the bombing of North Vietnam. So I was against … I mean, I was opposed to pilots going over there in the first place and getting shot down. And also I was aware that as far as I could tell, being the guy who picked up downed pilots was probably the most dangerous flying assignment in the whole war, because you would be flying a big helicopter that’s like the one the president uses on the South Lawn of the White House. You’d be hovering 300 feet in the air while a rescue guy went down on a cable and hooked up the downed pilot, and, you know, winched him up. And you’re sitting there as a sitting duck hovering 300 feet up off the ground while the enemy people have plenty of time to zero in their weapons and shoot you out of the sky.

Howard Morland:
So that sort of seemed like a suicide mission that didn’t really serve any purpose except to boost the morale of the fighter pilots who were dropping bombs on Vietnam. So I really didn’t like that idea. So then my options were starting to look like, “Well, what do I do? I mean, I can go to Canada, but if I go to Canada, I can never come home again. If I go to Vietnam, I don’t know what I’ll do over there, but I might end up just sort of going AWOL. They don’t really want me risking my life when I think we’re fighting on the wrong side of a civil war.” So it was a dilemma. The thing that probably made my mind up for me was, I was just sticking with the program, going like a zombie. I went to survival school at Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, Washington, which is part of what you did, and then I was supposed to go to helicopter school in Wichita Falls, Texas, after that.

Howard Morland:
Some psychologists who were part of designing this survival school training were the ones who taught the CIA how to torture people at Abu Ghraib many years later. I talked to people who went to the survival school, and they all seem to be kind of pissed off about it. And I thought, “I wonder why. Because all they’re doing is they’re telling you how to survive if you get shot down and what to do if you get captured, and it seems like that should be interesting, you know, useful information to have.” And I wasn’t sure what I was going to do yet. I kept in the back in my mind exactly how far it is to the Canadian border.

Howard Morland:
The thing lasted about three days, and we did a lot of classroom exercises. And one thing I learned there was, when the helicopter goes in to pick up a downed pilot, they assume that he’s surrounded by people who are going to be ready to shoot down the helicopter. So you’d be out there in the jungle, but you would kill anybody who was within rifle range of your helicopter before you went in. So the shoulder patch that these guys wore in the air rescue service was a big red shoulder patch and white letters, said, “That others may live.” Well, you kill a lot of people to make sure that you don’t kill … get killed trying to rescue the downed pilot. So that was new information for me. And the last day and a half was a mock capture and interrogation. They had us crawl under a barbed wire with live ammunition firing over our heads.

Howard Morland:
And then at the end we were captured and had to surrender, and immediately put a big bag over our heads, a big, heavy cloth bag that went down to your knees at least. And you really couldn’t see anything. And then they had us hold the shoulders of the person in front of us—you’d sort of reach out from under the bag and sort of hold the shoulders. And they walked us around for a bunch of time, and then put us in a cell that was a little bit less than six feet tall and maybe three feet in both directions. They put us in this, each one of us in a separate cell, and said, “Don’t take the bag off.” And then you went to something called … It was the box. It was our mock torture. And I’m claustrophobic, so for me it was genuine torture.

Howard Morland:
They take the bag off your head, and you bend over and you go into a box, which is the size of your body in fetal position, and then they bolt the door behind you. So you’re mashed against the box in every direction, your head’s in your feet and your arms. You can’t move [in] any direction at all. They don’t tell you how long you’re going to be in there. But I thought, “Well, if I can pretend that I’m not in a box, maybe I can get through this.” And the week before, I’d been skiing at Squaw Valley. I just put myself back on the ski slope, and I just skied down the slope over and over again in my head. I heard one of my fellow pilots in a box, two or three boxes over, freaking out, screaming, and they let him out of the box. So that let me know that if I really had a total panic attack and couldn’t take it anymore, I could start screaming and they would let me out of the box.

Howard Morland:
But I kind of had enough pride to think, “I’m going to make a through this damn thing.” I got through it. They opened up the box,I got out, and I said, “I’m not going back in that box. Anybody who tries to put me in a box like that, they’re going to have to subdue me forcibly, and I will try to kill ’em.” You know, I would figure, “That’s my one time in a box like that. I ain’t going to to do it again.” After that, they took me straight into interrogation. They tried to get me to sign something. I was told, “Don’t sign anything because they will forge your signature onto a confession of war crimes.” So I played along. I looked around. There was a television camera up in the corner of the room, there was obviously a two-way mirror—or, you know, one-way mirror right in front of me.

Howard Morland:
There was this interrogator and there were me, and I was thinking, “Okay, I’m a captain in the air force. This guy’s an enlisted man. I’m supposed to be in charge of him, but because we’re playing this game, he’s my captor and I’m a POW, so I’m supposed to do what he says, or not do what he says or whatever.” So I gave my name, rank and serial number, and then he asked me to sign this Red Cross form saying that I’m alive and well and they can report me to the Red Cross. And I said, “Well, but I’m not going to sign anything.” And then he began to sort of badger me about signing it. And then he said, “You want to go back in the box?” And I looked at him and I said, “Okay, give me the thing—I’ll sign it.” And when I signed it, an instructor came in with a red badge saying, “Okay, we’re interrupting the training session. You were supposed to resist signing this.”

Howard Morland:
I sort of looked at the guy, I looked at my interrogator, and I said, “I don’t care what you guys do from now on; I’m out of here. This is not my air force anymore.” So they didn’t ask me to sign it again, and they sent me back. While I was standing in the cell with the bag over my head, they started playing propaganda, and I realized that the propaganda was not about socialism and the glories of communism and the evils of capitalism; the propaganda was all about the American anti-war movement. And so…that I was part of. And I thought, “Okay, the U.S. Government doesn’t really see the North Vietnam— the North Vietnamese as the enemy. They see the American anti-war movement as the enemy. And so…you know, that’s me—I AM the enemy.” And I thought, “Well, you know, this is a free country. People are allowed to protest the war.” After it was all over, I went up to one of the people and said, “Now, I’ve got a problem here. All this stuff about the Vietnam War, I agree with the protesters here. And I don’t think you… You probably don’t want me to be in your war with that attitude.”

Howard Morland:
And the person I talked to— now, I thought maybe this will be the end of my career there. He said, “We’re not equipped to handle this. Talk to your flight sergeant when you get to your next station.” I decided I’m not going to do it, but I haven’t figured out how to do it. I was sort of reluctant. By this time I had been in the program long enough. I had not quit flight training, which would have been an easy way out, and I had not done anything to blemish my record. I had outstanding officer reports and recommended for promotion ahead of my peers. I was already a captain, so I was sort of in the program, and it was hard to take the actual step. And then I thought, “Well, I’ll start off with the helicopter school, do that for a little bit.”

Howard Morland:
And it was sort of a selfish thing. I knew that I was going to get my only chance to fly a helicopter, and so I was in helicopter school for about two weeks. But the first thing I tried was, I decided I would try to get myself taken off flying status by activating the human reliability clause of our business. And the human reliability thing was, if you’re in charge of nuclear weapons and you decide you have a moral objection to nuclear weapons, you can take yourself off of flying status, and it won’t affect your career: you can have a non-flying career in the air force. So I went to the flight sergeant and I said, “I want to be taken off of flying status because of the human reliability program.” And he said, “That doesn’t apply to you because your duties do not involve nuclear weapons.”

Howard Morland:
And I said, “Okay. There’s another thing. I support the National Liberation Front in Vietnam.” And he said, “Okay, that’ll probably do it.” And so he took me off flying status, and he kept saying, “I’m just floored.” He said, “Well, I’m going to take you off flying status, and you’re going to have to talk to the head flight sergeant and he’s going to ream you a new asshole.” And I thought, “Okay, well, we’ll see what happens there.” The next thing I knew, I got a call from the head flight sergeant and he said, “I’m going to put you back on flying status, and we’ll have to talk about this.”

Howard Morland:
So I didn’t know what was going to happen then. I flew my next couple of helicopter things. And I came to my first check ride, and I thought I did pretty well on my first check ride. You have this routine: you sit down, the instructor has the sheet in front of him and he checks off the various things and gives you a grade on each one. And when I got into the briefing room after my check ride, there was a major in a dress uniform, not a flight suit, standing in the corner. And he said, “I want to talk to Captain Moreland.” And I looked over at him and I thought, “Okay, this check ride is my last check ride, and the doo-doo has hit the fan.”

Howard Morland:
So I went there, the guy was telling me how well I did, getting the good grades and everything. And I’m looking at him and looking at this thing and I said, “Okay, this is a— an exercise in something that, you know— the instructor pilot doesn’t realize this, but he’s talking to a guy who’s never going to fly an air force plane again. And he’s giving me all good grades, but this is all over.” So the major escorted me over to the wing commanders, the brigadier general in charge of the entire air force base. He said, “From what I’ve been told by the flight sergeant…” It turns out, the first flight sergeant didn’t agree with what the head flight sergeant did, and so broke protocol and went directly to the wing commander.

Howard Morland:
So I was now in the wing commander’s office, and he said, “From what I’ve been told, you should be court-martialed for treason or disobeying orders, or… we don’t know what yet, but I will give you— read you your Miranda Rights: You have a right to remain silent. Anything you say can be used against you in a court;martial; you will be provided with a legal counsel,” and so forth. I did— He gave me a chance to say something, and I said, “The only thing I’m going to say was that I never thought my country would be fighting on the wrong side of a war.” He gave the name of a man that I was supposed to see, my legal counsel. And I got in touch with a draft counselor named Mike Wittles. I wish I would— wish I knew where he was. (Mike, if you’re listening to this, give me a call.)

Howard Morland:
Nobody seems to know where he is. He was working out of Philadelphia, the central committee for conscientious objections, part of the Quaker organization, the Friends Committee on… whatever. And he told me that there is basically an underground railroad for dissident air force pilots. All you have to do is be willing to accept the diagnosis of insanity, and you will get an honorable discharge. You’ll be able to stay in the country. You won’t have to go to Canada. It’s a well-worn path. Just let them know about your anxieties, and kind of give them something to work with. And I thought, “Nah, I’m not going to do that. I’m going to stay in court-martial protest against the war.” By about that time, the head flight sergeant got in touch with me and said, “Okay, I disagree with what the other flight sergeant did, but it’s out of our hands now. If you’re going to stand court-martial, we need to know what your stance is.”

Howard Morland:
Well, I realized that these guys were on my side; they were trying to help me out. And so I thought about what Mike Wittles said—he said, you know, the way to get out is to take the psychiatric discharge.” And so they set me out for a bunch of psychiatric tests, assuming that the psychiatrist was kind of working with me anyway. So with the advice from Mike Wittles, I decided, “Okay, I’ll do the psychiatric thing.” So I did that, and the guy looked at my … the results of my tests and everything, and he said, “Okay, I’m going to put you in the mental hospital, and you’re going to be getting out of the air force with an honorable discharge in six weeks.” And then it was all over! And I got out and had an honorable discharge and a pension that lasted a year and a half before that expired. So that was my beginning of civilian life again.

Matthew Breems:
Have you been able to remain active in being an anti-war supporter?

Howard Morland:
I started to do something which would have been really stupid, now that I think about it. I guess I’ve done some stupid things in my life. I decided that I wanted to go to the base that I would have been stationed at at Udon Thani, Thailand, and suggest to the wing commander that he should ground his planes in protest to the war. And I ended up in Thailand, and I went to this base, and I wrote a letter to the wing commander saying that I would like to talk to him about how we could stop [executing] this war crime. I sent the letter—and I can’t believe this. I’m sure this is in a file of mine somewhere.

Howard Morland:
I sent the letter, I didn’t get an answer, so I called up his base, and the secretary answered. She said, “Well, he’s out flying now.” Oh yeah, he’s out bombing North Vietnam, and somehow or other that made it sound really like real. And then she said that she supported the war. Even though her husband and her son were killed in this war, she still supports the war. And I thought, “These people are crazy. I don’t want to deal with these people.” And “What was I thinking, that I could persuade somebody to quit the war?”

Matthew Breems:
Well, very good. Howard, thank you so much for taking this time to share your story of activism during the Vietnam conflict. Really appreciate you sharing your unique story.

Howard Morland:
All right. Thanks a lot.

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 U.S. 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.