Podcast: Mike Wong, “All of a sudden, this all became very real”
“When I was in medic training, the My Lai Massacre hit the front pages. … All of us, including me, were devastated by it. We were utterly horrified by it. It left no doubt what we should believe about the war. Then with my lawyer, I went and turned myself in to the Presidio stockade, and refused orders to Vietnam.”
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.
“They would get us in these classrooms and have these propaganda lectures on why you should go and fight in Vietnam, and it was basically, “You’re an American. You’re an American soldier. Be a man. Go over and kill innocent people.” It’s like, so being a man means that you have a moral obligation to murder babies? Is that what being a man means?”
“The goal was to refuse orders to Vietnam. …What happened was the military had 15 years worth of charges against me. They had three charges. They had refusing a direct order, refusing an overseas shipment, and refusing to serve in a combat zone. Each of those are a felony worth five years.”
“When I was in the situation it just felt huge and overwhelming, and it’s only looking back that I can see the bigger picture. … We realized all of us were doing well, despite some of the guys had spent years in prison for resisting the war.”
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Mike Wong: When I was in medic training, the My Lai Massacre hit the front pages. For the first time we saw all the things that the peace movement had been telling us about torture or massacring innocent civilians, killing prisoners was confirmed, and we saw the photographs. All of us, including me, were devastated by it. We were utterly horrified by it. It left no doubt what we should believe about the war. Then with my lawyer, I went and turned myself in to the Presidio stockade, and refused orders to Vietnam.
Interviewer: This is a Courage to Resist Podcast. The Courage to Resist Podcast is produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace. Today we welcome Mike Wong.
Mike Wong: I was born and raised in San Francisco. I have very mixed feelings about the war. I had been in junior ROTC in high school, and I graduated as a first lieutenant. I had come out of high school very gung ho, and then I got into city college. I met the first hippies, and I got exposed to the other side of the issue. After being at city college for a couple of years and reading more about the war and hearing more about it from the peace side, I was ambivalent. I was confused. I didn’t have a real clear picture of where I stood at that point in time.
A lot of us were just trying to stay in college for as long as possible. What we did was we would take a full load when we started the semester, and then in the middle of the semester we would drop a few units so that we wouldn’t complete a full year in the normal amount of time. It would take us longer. It would keep us in college longer, thus avoiding the draft. Then what happened was the draft board realized people were doing that, and so they started drafting people without warning that they had changed their policy.
The only way we found out was some people got drafted. I was one of those people. I got a draft notice. This was at a time when I still hadn’t made up my mind what I thought about the war. I figured, well, if I’m not sure whether I agree with the war or not, at least I don’t want to kill anybody, I’ll volunteer to join the medics, so that’s what I did. What I didn’t realize was that that’s not the same as a CO medic. If you volunteer to join the medics, you’re considered a regular medic. You’re not a conscientious objector medic, so that means you get the same training, you still have to carry a gun, and so on, and so forth.
I didn’t realize that until I was in the army. I got more of a close up view of what it really means to be in the army and to really practice killing people. There were some incidents in which people got angry at each other and were threatening each other with weapons, and that brought the reality of “this is for real” home in a way that when you’re in ROTC which is basically like glorified boy scouts, it’s more propaganda. It’s a recruiting tool basically for the army.
When I was in the military, then all of a sudden I saw more of the reality of what it was really like. Then when I was in advanced individual training and my medic training at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, and some of our sergeants were people who had just gotten back from Vietnam. Then later on I was at William Beaumont General Hospital which serves Fort Bliss, Texas, and it’s just outside El Paso, and we got exposed to more sergeants and officers who had just come back from Vietnam.
Then we were hearing real stories of what was going on in Vietnam, and we were hearing about torturing people, murdering innocent civilians, this kind of thing. Some of us had read the Pentagon Papers. I actually had a copy of it. I didn’t read the whole thing but I’d read bits and pieces enough to get the gist of it. At the same time when I was in medic training, the My Lai Massacre hit the front pages.
At the time we thought it was 300 old men, women and children that had been massacred in the village of My Lai. Since the war, it’s come out that it was actually 500. The pictures of the My Lai Massacre also came out at the same time, so for the first time we saw all the things that the peace movement had been telling us about torture or massacring innocent civilians, killing prisoners was confirmed. We saw the photographs. We saw the photographs of the soldiers pointing their weapons at the Vietnamese civilians.
We saw the photographs of their dead bodies lying in a pile afterwards. We saw their terrified expressions. All of a sudden, this all became very real. All of us including me were devastated by it. We were utterly horrified by it. It left no doubt what we should believe about the war. Before, it had been a debate. There was a few people in our platoon in training who had been in the peace movement before they got drafted. One of them was an SDS organizer who joined the military in order to organize from within.
Mike Wong: He was pretty gutsy and also pretty crazy. They were the ones that would argue with the officers in propaganda classes. They would get us in these classrooms and have these propaganda lectures on why you should go and fight in Vietnam, and it was basically, “You’re an American. You’re an American soldier. Be a man. Go over and kill innocent people.” It’s like, so being a man means that you have a moral obligation to murder babies? Is that what being a man means?
The officer had no credible answer for that. They’d say, “Well, you’re an American fighting man and this is what the army stands for.” People were very angry. Basically the South Vietnamese government was a puppet government set up by the United States. That all came out with the Pentagon Papers. This was 1969. I was in from January ’69 until December.
In December, I finally got orders for Vietnam, and this is after having been through basic, advanced individual training, and then assigned as a medic to a hospital, William Beaumont General Hospital. That serves Fort Bliss. It was outside El Paso, Texas. One of the things they had taught us was that the three most valuable men in a rifle platoon are the officer, the radio man, and the medic. They’re more valuable and they do more to help the war effort than even a rifleman, because the platoon cannot operate without them.
All of a sudden it’s like, okay, so I’m going to carry a rifle and I’m going to kill people, and I’m also making a greater contribution to the war than if I were an infantry man. At that point I had to decide. My mother, I talked to my mother about it. My mother was very much against the war. She said, “I’ll get you information on how to go to Canada.” I said, “No. I want to stay and fight this out here.” What I wanted to do was press what’s called a limited conscientious objector case.
A full conscientious objector is somebody who objects to all wars and is a complete pacifist according to the Gandhi definition of pacifism or the Martin Luther King definition of pacifism, which is that you would never use violence under any circumstances. If somebody attacks you, you would simply stand there and let them beat you up and appeal to their heart to try to convince them to stop. I did not fit in that category. I felt that there were circumstances in which it was justified both to defend yourself and to defend others, including defending the country if the country were under attack.
I did not feel that this particular war was either legally or morally justified. Basically my analogy that I make to explain my position is I feel that an individual has a right to defend themselves against a mugger, what they do not have the right to do is go out and mug other people. The same thing applies to a country. My position is that a country would have the right to defend itself from attack, but it does not have the right to go out and attack other countries. That was basically my position.
That’s called a limited conscientious objector case, and the military does not recognize that category. What I did was I got a leave to come home to San Francisco. I talked to the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors. I got a lawyer. I went AWOL for two weeks so that I overstayed my leave, which makes it a legal charge against me. Then with my lawyer I went and turned myself in to the Presidio stockade, and refused orders to Vietnam, and also pressed a limited conscientious objector case.
That case, since it’s not recognized by the military, would inevitably fail in a military court. The goal was to refuse orders to Vietnam, so that was just basically a device to keep me in jail. What happened was the military had 15 years worth of charges against me. They had three charges. They had refusing a direct order, refusing an overseas shipment, and refusing to serve in a combat zone. Each of those are a felony worth five years.
They had a total of 15 years. I’m in a holding area of the Presidio stockade. I was there for, I don’t know, 20 minutes, half an hour maybe. They pull me out of the lunch line and they bring me back to the office, and there’s a lieutenant saying, “We’re releasing you from the stockade. This is an order to report to Oakland Army Terminal for shipment to Vietnam. We need you to sign that you received this order.”
My lawyer said, “Just sign it. I’ll explain later.” I did what my lawyer said, I signed it, and then my lawyer said, “I’ll drive you out.” I get in his car, and he’s driving me out the main gate of the Presidio, and they just inform me that they dropped all the charges and they’re releasing me, and they order me to report to Oakland Army Terminal for shipment to Vietnam.
We’re driving out the main gate of the Presidio, and I said to my lawyer, “Well, wait a minute, they have three charges against me. They’re three felonies. I’m guilty. I’m pleading guilty. All the evidence proves that I’m guilty. How can they just release me and put me back on Vietnam orders?” My lawyer says, “Mike, the Constitution guarantees you the right to be found innocent if you’re innocent, but it says nothing about having a right to be found guilty if you’re guilty.”
Interviewer: Oh my God. It’s ridiculous.
Mike Wong: We get back to his office, and he says, “Well, you’ve been ordered to report to Oakland Army Terminal, but if you want to leave, I can’t physically stop you.” I finally got the hint and I left, and I hid out underground with a friend of mine, at a friend of mine’s house for, I don’t know, several days, about a week maybe. I was just going around and around in circles in my mind trying to decide what to do. It’s like my head was just spinning trying to decide what to do.
Finally I said, “I need to stop thinking about this for a little while.” I decided I’ll go see a movie. What I did was I went to Chinatown and went to a Chinese movie theater, and I didn’t even look to see what was showing. I just paid and went in. It was a movie about World War II, and it showed Chinese guerrillas fighting Japanese soldiers. What was astounding was all the tactics that we had been taught to use against the Viet Cong, the Japanese soldiers were using exactly the same tactics down to details.
All the same tactics that we were taught to expect from the Viet Cong, Chinese guerrillas were using it against the Japanese. I walked out of that movie and I realized, “Well, I tried pressing a conscientious objector case. I tried refusing orders and going to jail.” I would have done the 15 years. I was prepared to do the 15 years. I wasn’t alone. The reason they released me was because so many soldiers were saying, “You’re giving me a choice between jail and Vietnam. I’ll pick jail.”
That’s why they were releasing soldiers including me, and trying to get us to go to Vietnam rather than going to jail, because so many soldiers were doing it they didn’t want to just fill up their jails. They were trying to force people to go to Vietnam. I realized my only two choices at this point were either I go to Vietnam or I desert to Canada. It was a difficult choice, but I chose to desert to Canada.
I went to Canada with the help of the underground railroad and organizations in Canada. I managed to get landed immigrant status. I was lucky, I had a couple of years of college, and that helped me in my application for landed immigrant status, which is the Canada equivalent of a green card. I was in Canada for five years. I joined the hippy movement there. I lived in this counterculture community called Rochdale College in Toronto, which was a big 18-story apartment building that had been taken over by the hippies. It was kind of like the Haight-Ashbury of Canada.
I completed my college education there, got a bachelor’s degree in social science. From my platoon of about 40 men, at least three of us deserted to Canada, and, of course, if there were more and we just didn’t happen to run into them, we’d never know. Then at the end of the war in 1975, Carter had the amnesty, but a lot of people were not taking the amnesty, especially people like me who had been in the military. I’d already done a year in the military.
If you take the amnesty, you get an amnesty discharge, it’s the same thing as getting a dishonorable discharge. Then you have to do two years of alternative service. I’d already done a year in the army. There was another deal that was under the radar, but the movement knew about it, which is that if you turn yourself into Fort Dix and you plead guilty to long-term AWOL and you accepted a summary court martial, which just means they get a group of officers together and make a decision, they would give you an undesirable discharge and let it go at that.
That’s what I did. I flew to Fort Dix, New Jersey. When I arrived at the airport which was the border when you’re flying, I announced who I was and they held us for several days, maybe a week or so, processed us out and I got an undesirable discharge. At the time, the discharges were honorable, general, undesirable, bad conduct, and dishonorable. Undesirable was the middle discharge. It basically meant that it’s not quite as bad as a dishonorable or bad conduct, but you don’t get any veteran’s benefits.
Interviewer: I see.
Mike Wong: I figured, well, I don’t desire them. They don’t desire me. It’s fair enough. I was fine with that. In my career, whenever I went to apply for jobs I was always very upfront about my background. I’ve never had a problem with it. I chose to go into social work because I wanted to help people and try to make the world better, rather than being in the army and making it worse. Especially in social work, I actually had one employer say, “Well, actually we consider it an asset.”
Mike Wong: It never held me back. Then years later during the Iraq war, David Zeigler who’s a filmmaker came around and was interviewing people for the movie Sir! No Sir! and I was one of the people interviewed. I actually didn’t realize at the time how strong it was. It wasn’t until afterwards when David made the movie and put all the pieces together, and we started talking to each other after all these years that we realized how big a thing it was.
There were actually a Pentagon report that showed that not just the whole army but the whole military, all the branches had become so antiwar that the US military was no longer reliable. That was one of the important factors in causing us to pull out of the war. Actually, the Vietnamese now have told us that, that they were aware of that, that that was a significant factor.
Interviewer: That’s powerful.
Mike Wong: Yeah, and the Vietnamese have said, “We respect the American people, because when your government was attacking us you stood up. You, the American people, stood up, and that that made a difference.”
Interviewer: How do you feel that you were a part of that?
Mike Wong: It’s almost bigger than I can comprehend. It’s just incredible. When I was in the situation it just felt huge and overwhelming, and it’s only looking back that I can see the bigger picture. The interesting thing was talking to people, the other people who were in the movie in Sir! No Sir! We realized all of us were doing well, despite some of the guys had spent years in prison for resisting the war. Some guys were in exile longer than I was. People were wanted by the FBI, they were in prison. That’s how they started out their young life, and yet all these years later all of us were doing well.
Interviewer: What do you attribute that to?
Mike Wong: I think to resist the army took a certain amount of guts and determination, and a certain awareness, and willing to commit, and those were qualities that helped us in life, it turns out. We had to develop those qualities in ourselves by going through all of this. The other thing was that we were part of a movement, and in the movement people helped each other, people gave each other advice, people found out about things and helped each other. That help made a difference too throughout our lives.
What we all realized was we were much more concerned about our country and the direction our country was going on, and we were much more concerned about the future of our country than we were about ourselves. We were the people that our country had said, “You’ll get a dishonorable discharge. You’ll be scum for the rest of your life. You’ll never be able to get a job. Nobody will respect you. You’ll be a failure in life.” It turned out just the opposite, which we were the successes.
Our concern was that our country could be the failure, getting deeper and deeper into a downward spiral. We’re spending all this money on wars rather than saving the environment, rather than rebuilding our infrastructure, rather than investing in our economy, rather than investing in education for our future generations. It’s like our concern was that all these wars and all this militarism is destroying our country. Our country is at risk of being the failure, not us. It was just the opposite of what we had been told when we were young.
Interviewer: That’s amazing. That gave me chills.
Mike Wong: The other thing that I really want to talk about was last year, Veterans For Peace, we went on a tour of Vietnam on the 50th anniversary of the My Lai Massacre. We went to a whole bunch of cities in Vietnam, and we saw a lot of old battlefields from Hanoi to Khe Sanh, all the way down to My Lai and Ho Chi Minh City. We went to the 50th anniversary of My Lai and made a statement apologizing for the massacre. At a number of different stops on our tour, there were about 40 of us, we met with and talked with the Vietnamese veterans from both the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army.
Even when we met spontaneously, like we just happened to run into them somewhere it wasn’t planned and we started talking, they always embraced us with warmth and friendship. They wanted to hear about our experiences and they wanted to share their experiences. These were people that we napalmed, we tortured. We kicked prisoners out of helicopters in the air. We put people in cages. We raped people. We massacred children. When we got to Ho Chi Minh City, they had a display at the War Remnants Museum there of American GIs who had resisted the war in different ways. They had our picture and our story, including mine.
We took turns talking, and when I had a turn to talk this is what I said. I said after all that we did to you, if you had hated us forever you would have been justified. But instead when we come to Vietnam, you greet us with nothing but kindness and friendship and genuine warmth. To me this speaks of a much deeper level of humanity. It’s like a higher level of civilization, that after all the horrible things we did to you, you can still treat us with such kindness and compassion.
The Vietnamese consistently said, “If people come to make war on us, we’ll defend ourselves. If people come in peace, we’ll welcome anyone who comes in peace, even former enemies.” The Vietnamese can teach us that we have something to learn from them, something to gain from them. I hope that the Vietnamese example can be an example for people around the world, that if we want to end all the wars, American wars but also other wars, this is what it takes. This is the example of how to do it.
Interviewer: How did your actions inform who you are now currently?
Mike Wong: Well, they changed my whole life. I’m part of Veterans For Peace. I was very active in the anti-Iraq War movement, and actually I met Veterans For Peace during Gulf War one. That’s when I first met them and joined what later became the San Francisco chapter of Veterans For Peace. We protested at the Presidio. We protested at the Federal Building. We got arrested at the Federal Building, and then I was one of the leaders in the campaign to support First Lieutenant Ehren Watada during the Iraq war when he became the first army officer to publicly refuse orders to Iraq.
I’m also part of another group called the Comfort Women Justice Coalition. During World War II, the Japanese Imperial Army set up all these “comfort stations” which were brothels, and they either tricked or coerced or kidnapped women at gunpoint and forced them into these brothels and made them sex slaves. There were 400,000 of them at least throughout all of the 13 countries in Asia that the Japanese army occupied in whole or in part during the war.
80% to 90% of those women did not survive the war. Their death rate was higher than the casualty rates of Japanese soldiers in combat. They were raped. Some of them died of starvation. Some of them died of illnesses. Some of them committed suicide. Some of them were beaten to death. Some of them were shot. At the end of the war, a lot of them were taken out and executed to get rid of the evidence.
It wasn’t until decades later that the first Korean woman, Hak Sun Kim, broke the silence, because for decades the women who survived kept silent because of the shame, and because of the political pressure. Finally, when Hak Sun Kim broke the silence, then another came out, another came out, another came out, and finally it became an international movement. Because of that movement, laws were passed at the United Nations making rape and sexual slavery war crimes in times of war.
I’m very active. This is related to today, because right now we have the Republicans in the White House and in the Senate, and we have a right wing government in Japan too. Steve Bannon went to Japan last year, I think it was, and said that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan is “Trump before Trump.” Because his policies are so similar, very racist, very male chauvinist.
Yes, there are issues, but nuclear war isn’t the answer to the issues, and even a large conventional war is not the answer. Killing people’s not the answer to these issues. There’s nothing to gain by war. They have everything already. The majority of people in Japan like America are for peace, but the 1%, the big money and the right wing they’re in denial of climate change. They’re starting a new nuclear arms race. They’re talking about developing a new generation of nuclear weapons. They’re developing these missile defense shields which destabilize the whole mutual assured destruction doctrine.
It’s like we’re just running around doing crazy things. The right wing forces here and in Asia, in Europe and everywhere are allied with each other, and the peace forces here, in Asia, Europe, everywhere are allied with each other, and it’s this gigantic struggle between these two forces, basically the 99% and the 1%.
Interviewer: What are your feelings on the future?
Mike Wong: I don’t know, but I’m committed to the 99%. There’s this old Zen thing of doing the work and letting go of the results. I don’t know who’s going to win, but I know that our only chance is we have to stand up. Win or lose, there’s no other alternative.
Interviewer: I love it.
Mike Wong: We just have to stand up, and we have to do the best we can. If humanity destroys itself in a nuclear war, then at least I can say I tried.
Interviewer: That is beautiful.
Mike Wong: My principle is I will always stand up and fight. I will not just lie down.
Interviewer: That’s beautiful.
Mike Wong: Yeah.
Interviewer: Wonderful, wonderful interview. Oh my God, I feel so moved. Mike, we thank you for sharing your story with us. A Courage to Resist production in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace. This year marks 50 years of GI resistance, in and out of uniform, for many involved with this campaign to speak truth to power and keep alive the antiwar perspective on the US war in Vietnam. Visit vietnamfulldisclosure.org, and couragetoresist.org for more information and to offer your support. Thank you.