Podcast (VN-E05): Patrick McCann, “I really realized the United States was a criminal enterprise”

April 2, 2019

Vietnam Series Podcast, Episode 5:

“… and they asked my friend and I did we want to go to Chicago the next day for a Black Panther rally. That was the night I became a revolutionary.”

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.

“Then I worked with a group called American Serviceman’s Union. So myself and some people from the college, a couple of them whom were veterans, although I was the only active duty GI, we would be out in front of the base on Saturdays selling, passing out, trying to make contacts. And then I was distributing them on the base, inside, surreptitiously, because that was not against … I mean, you could get busted for that, which I did not get caught. But I had the right outside of the base, out of uniform, off duty, I had the constitutional right to involve myself in this distribution of Up Against the Brass.”

“So they called me up to the lieutenant’s office. By this point I was already done, stick a fork in me, I ain’t thinking about you, I ain’t doing what you want. I walk in and he says, “Hit a brace,” which means stand at attention. I said, “I ain’t hitting no fucking brace.””

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Patrick McCann: … and they asked my friend and I did we want to go to Chicago the next day for a Black Panther rally. That was the night I became a revolutionary.

Matthew Breems: This is the Courage to Resist podcast. My name is Matthew Breems. The Courage to Resist podcast is produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure Effort of Veterans For Peace.

Today my guest is Patrick McCann. Patrick grew up in a military family with a father who was in the CIA and brother who served in the Vietnam War. Patrick initially volunteered to serve in the Vietnam War, but during that time met elements of the Black Panthers and had his views on war and America radically changed.

Patrick, why don’t you start off just telling me a little bit about your thoughts going into the military leading up to your military career? And what did you think about joining the Air Force?

Patrick McCann: The first time that I was involved with the military was as a dependent in Tokyo in 1966. I was 14. I went to a military dependents high school, it was called Chofu and it was on an Air Force housing annex called Kanto Mura, that was close to Fuchu Air Station. We lived on a base, it was a lot of Black folks, lot of Asians, a lot of white folks. Mostly white folks, but I mean it was a multicultural high school in the mid 60s. And everything was good. I was an athlete, I was into girls and sports. That’s what I did. I graduated from high school at the age of 16, and then was going to the University of Maryland Far East Division at Fuchu Air Station.

So my father gets orders to Vietnam. Headquarters MACV, Military Air Lift Command, he’s going to be supervising 650 people and he’s a GS-14 in the CIA counterinsurgency involved with the coup in Brazil in 1964. And his immediate supervisor is General Westmoreland who is the commander of troops in Vietnam at the time. So he says to me, he says, “Patrick, I’m going to Vietnam. Family’s going to a top security base in Camp Chinen, Okinawa, and you can’t come. You’re out of high school. You’ll need to do what you got to do. What’s it going to be? Army, Air Force, or Navy?”

So I said, “Okay,” I lived on an Air Force base, so that was natural. So I said, “Okay, Air Force.” And then I went in, took my oath four days before I turned 18 at Yokota Air Station, Japan, and I shipped out two weeks later to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. That was late July, 1970.

Matthew Breems: Were you pretty excited about joining the military? Was that something you had planned on growing up or was this just, “I don’t have anything better to do,” and it’s part of your culture with your dad and growing up on a military base? What was your motivation for volunteering like that?

Patrick McCann: I didn’t know how to think outside the box at that time, you know? And I didn’t even consider coming back and getting a job, living with my auntie in the DC area, going to a community college. I was so stupid I didn’t even consider that. It was like, “Okay, pops, you said I got to go into the military. I’m cool. Ain’t no biggie, I ain’t doing nothing, it’s all good.” And, of course, being a general loyal American, I volunteered for Vietnam. I was going to apply for the airman commissioning program so I could become an officer while I was in the military. And then after basic training at Lackland Air Force Base I was shipped out to direct duty assignment to Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, Illinois, halfway between Chicago and Saint Louis.

So this was ATC, Air Training Command, and I basically got put in charge of the supply room for those people who were being trained in weather forecasting, weather observer, stuff like that. I ran a warehouse. And the first year I was fine, I was living in the barracks. I was lonely, I was young. First time I called my mom in Japan it was $3.00 for a minute and I cried for three minutes and you know, then got off the phone. I lived in the barracks for the first year or so. I got a couple Airman of the Month awards, which usually meant a three day pass, and I would go to Olathe, Kansas, to visit some of the military dependent friends of mine that I had in high school.

Then come to find out I found some other military dependent friends of mine from high school. They’re on the base in Chanute Air Force Base. So I knew the family and so wound up getting a house off base with a couple of them, because they were now going to the community college. So then I kind of got hooked up with the civilian population outside of Chanute Air Force Base, which up until that time it was really segregated between people who were buzz cut GIs just straight out of basic and in their training before they get an assignment to somewhere else and the civilians in the town.

I left that place in 1972, on May 4, 1972, with an undesirable discharge and my immediate supervisors drove me [off] the base and said, “Do not come back on this base under penalty of six months in a federal prison and/or a thousand dollar fine. Have a good life.”

Matthew Breems: Take us through the series of events that led up to that climax there, that being undesirably discharged. Kind of just walk us through the story of what led up to being discharged that way.

Patrick McCann: Okay. I think it began with social isolation, right? So that whole segregation between civilians and military on a base, around the base, because GIs would walk down the street and I even got a job at this place called Crossan’s Jewelers and we’d wait outside the base. And the GIs with their buzz cuts straight out of basic come walking down the street and we’d be like, “Yo, GI, come on in here. You’re going to Vietnam? Oh, what if your girlfriend, what if you die in Vietnam, don’t you want to buy her a broach, or a ring, or blah, blah, blah?” Because everybody’s bald headed, you know what I mean? And they’d look like they had no individualism and so the kids in the town don’t want to deal with them.

So it was real segregated. So it was that social isolation. We used to go down to the University of Illinois, about 20 miles away, and we went down there, and we met some radicals. They were building support for a Black National struggle in Cairo, Illinois. It was an economic boycott called White Businessmen. I met some people and they were left wingers, Socialist revolutionaries, and they asked my friend and I, Clarence, who was an African-American teenager, did we want to go to Chicago the next day for a Black Panther rally? And we said, “Sure, we ain’t got nothing to do.”

The next day we drove two hours with these people to the South Side of Chicago to the second anniversary of the killings of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. Fred Hampton was a 19-years-old Black Panther party leader in Chicago. Mark Clark was from another city in Illinois. Fred was killed in his bed after being drugged by the Chicago police who then shot up the place, acting like there had been a gun battle. So I went into this Black Panther rally and I was awed. I was awed by the fact that there was awesome solidarity between Black and white people. My parents had been civil rights activists, but I had never seen this kind of rock hard solidarity, and that was impressive.

So they were also at their place where they were doing free sickle cell anemia testing, giving out free bags of groceries, and free pairs of shoes. So all of that was just like blew me away. That was the night I became a revolutionary, and that was the night that I really realized that the United States was a criminal enterprise. And so I went back and then they gave me orders to Vietnam which I refused, but they couldn’t do anything because my brother was already there. So I just had a copy of his assignment, so I got out of going to Vietnam because he was there. Although I wouldn’t have gone anyway, they would have put me in jail, but it was always nice to be able to take the easy route.

Then I worked with a group called American Serviceman’s Union. So myself and some people from the college, a couple of them whom were veterans, although I was the only active duty GI, we would be out in front of the base on Saturdays selling, passing out, trying to make contacts. And then I was distributing them on the base, inside, surreptitiously, because that was not against … I mean, you could get busted for that, which I did not get caught. But I had the right outside of the base, out of uniform, off duty, I had the constitutional right to involve myself in this distribution of Up Against the Brass.

Matthew Breems: So how did that work with your relationships? You know, you’re working on the base, but they also know you’re an activist. What was that relationship like still being in the military, but being opposed to the military?

Patrick McCann: Well, you know, I think one of the big things was the fact I was now living off base. So you’re just going in, and you’re just doing your eight hours a day, and then you don’t got to deal with them. You’re not on the base, you’re at your apartment off campus. So I put in for a psychiatric unadaptable to military service discharge. And there was an incident where I got called a half an hour before I was supposed to be at an appointment across base, which I didn’t have a car, and they’re just telling me. They’re supposed to be giving you 24 hours notice of an appointment. So they’re telling me a half an hour before. So I go outside and I wait for the base bus for an hour. It doesn’t come. I wait for an hour for the bus, you’re not in the right mood. Went back to work, NCO, first sergeant of the 3363rd calls me, starts cussing me out on the phone. And I said … and he said something, called me “Big boy,” and I’m like, “Dude, I ain’t trying to listen to you,” and I hung up the phone.

So they called me up to the lieutenant’s office. By this point I was already done, stick a fork in me, I ain’t thinking about you, I ain’t doing what you want. I walk in and he says, “Hit a brace,” which means stand at attention. I said, “I ain’t hitting no fucking brace.” So I wound up getting 30 days, lost two stripes, and I was getting ready to get my third stripe for sergeant, basic sergeant. So I got busted down to airman basic. 30 days in the stockade, but it was lower than minimum. It was called correctional custody, where you’re there, but they sign you out every day and you walk to work, and you do your job, and you come back. But I’d have people come pick me up at lunch and we’d go to my apartment off base.

Then, I got caught one time coming on base at lunch. So all of these things added up to the point where instead of getting an unadaptability to military service, I got an unsuitability to military service. Which dropped the discharge from a General Under Honorable Conditions to a Undesirable Under Other than Honorable Conditions, and what that meant was I never got the GI Bill, which was one of the main reasons why I applied in the first place.

Matthew Breems: Sure, so you come to this point where your military career is done now. You’ve been completely radicalized. Take us on the next step of your journey and what did you do from there as far as being an activist?

Patrick McCann: Okay, I was outside the gate on Saturdays, on a regular basis, and I was the only active duty GI out there with about a half dozen people. And I didn’t have anybody, not one person else on the entire base was a colleague of mine, a fellow resistor. Nobody. And I was so young I didn’t even think about that. I didn’t even know how to organize. I had never done that in my life. It was more of a moral thing. “This is how I feel and I don’t care what you can do.” I mean, you’re 19, you just got hip to what was wrong and how morally repugnant it was, and there was a lot of moral outrage.

Plus you grew up middle class white boy, you really don’t know how they can hurt you. I have taught kids in high school for like 20 some years and some of them did time that I never did when they were still a juvenile. I never had a problem in my life until I became an adult and I had the right to figure out, “Did I want to go for this?”

Matthew Breems: So you’ve been discharged from the military, you’re now a civilian, correct? What do you do with your activism? What do you do with this perspective change?

Patrick McCann: Well, when I got out I came back and I lived at home for a year. My parents had come back from Laos, they were all in Laos. So I came back to live with him and went to the University of Maryland. Then about a year into college I started getting in touch with the radicals at the University of Maryland. There was a vibrant radical student movement at the University of Maryland. We took over student government, we started a food co-op, we had a lot of demos on campus. And then spent a long time at the University of Maryland and as a member of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

Matthew Breems: You were an activist on the campus as a college student or did it continue after that as well?

Patrick McCann: I have had an unbroken of record of revolutionary activism going back to the time I became a revolutionary. Organizationally unbroken, I mean, I’ve been in Socialist organizations, I’ve been in VVAW, I’ve been in VFP, I’ve done abortion rights work, I did nine years in the Machinist Union. I worked for Singer Company, which was a military and nuclear contractor and I did nine years in the factory as a Jonah, belly of the beast organizing. I was known as an open Communist in the factory. Then I went back the University of Maryland and got a second degree and became a teacher and I taught English in the highs school in suburban Montgomery County and Prince George’s County in suburban DC. I taught for 22, 23 years in those counties. So I’ve been a lifelong freedom fighter unbroken, I have never stopped that. I have never stepped back from that. I have come to believe that the mantra in my life is and needs to be, “From those to whom much has been given, much is expected.”

Matthew Breems: How has your activism impacted some of your personal relationships? Especially your family relationships with people that are in the military, were lifers in the military?

Patrick McCann: My father and my older brother were the only people who ever become Republicans. It was a Democratic family out of Boston, liberals, and you know, the CIA recruited my daddy out of Brown University. He was one of those liberals, but he was a Cold War liberal. Everybody else I went over, everybody else down the line, I was the second oldest of nine. I was the one that when my younger brothers got their ass beat, I’d kick the person’s ass who beat their ass, and then somebody would come kick my ass. But I was the one in the family that everyone looked up to. I was the athlete, I was the one who was out there, very confident. My younger sister became the national leader of the Progressive Student Network when it was first formed in the ’80s.

Matthew Breems: For you, at least, there wasn’t a huge adverse effect with your family relationships or your close relationships.

Patrick McCann: Only the very strident battles we would have at the dinner table with my father. There’d be eight of us around the table and it’s me and Bernie, who was two years younger than me, and he was a radical at the university also. It was us two lined up against, on the other side, my parents with three kids on each side of the table and it was like hard core. It was all about Vietnam, because I had just come out of the military with my bad discharge. Daddy had signed death warrants on Vietnamese civilians with the full weight of the law behind him. And a battle at a Christmas party where 25 of our extended family was there, where my family’s calling … My daddy, and my uncle, and my brother calling me a murderer and all my brothers, because I support Mao Zedong. And all my brothers and sisters, when I’m calling my daddy a murderer when he said he signed death warrants on Vietnamese civilians. Oh, it was like we couldn’t talk in my family, we couldn’t talk politics for like 10 years.

Matthew Breems: More recently what has your activism looked like? Or what has the resistance movement look like here in 2019? I guess what is the latest form activism is taking in the United States?

Patrick McCann: We have a real struggle to make the American people understand what the US is doing in their name in 800 plus bases around the world, right? And the dirty tricks they do from Venezuela to Iraq/Iran, Syria, Palestine, Afghanistan, you know, let me stop. You know what I mean? We’ll never finish that list. So I think that’s big and one of the things we’ve done is Veterans For Peace in the last five years is we’ve developed a prism of looking at things and we call it, “Peace at Home and Peace Abroad.” So I think uncovering the connections that are already there between war at home and war abroad is the key to making that happen. But if we as a progressive people, and it’s not necessarily the task of Veterans For Peace, but as progressive people, if we cannot sink our roots into the struggles that the currently oppressed people in America see the need to wage, then we will never develop the ties that we need to convince them of the importance of anti-war organizing.

I mean, I think the big movements that we’ve seen recently is not the anti-war movement. We were having a half a million rallies, you know, of UFPJ and ANSWER and all of that when the Iraq War first started. But we’ll be lucky to get a thousand people at the anti-NATO protest this weekend. So I think the bigger movements that we need to work with are certainly the movements for immigration rights, and the women’s movement, and the anti-gun movement which is being led by youth. You know, we are working with Repairers of the Breach. So I think some united front work needs to be built and needs to be built outside the Democratic Party.

You have to always be building independent political activity and independent political organization. And I think people know what principled politics is and what isn’t, and you have to struggle for that. So like when a Democrat is so pro-Israel, and people are trying to get you to organize for them so because they are at least a sliver better than the Republican who is also pro-Israel or pro-war.

Matthew Breems: Being a high school teacher for many years, what did you say to your students? What did you say to folks that haven’t even thought about taking an anti-war stance? It’s not even entered their consciousness, it’s just a part of life.

Patrick McCann: You know, I loved it. I taught for 22 years in high school. Young people are so much more honest than adults, even when they’re lying. They haven’t made that historical compromise with capitalism and imperialism yet. Maybe because they’re not aware of it, but my experience in 22 years of teaching, and I was the favorite teacher of 90% of my students throughout my career. I used to have students tell me that I made them proud to be Black because of what I taught them. After 22 years in Maryland I taught one year down here in Florida and I had Advanced Placement and Gifted and Talented. I had more Black than anybody else, I had about 30% to 40% Black, had a lot of Spanish, whites were like the third stripe of the demographic in terms of numbers. And these kids were all going to college, because like I say, they were honor school or AP. I selected things like African novels, Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart, or Fahrenheit 451, them kinds of things that brought up radical ideas. And Alice Walker and Frederick Douglass, and oh, it was an awesome career.

When I was in college, when I was in the Revolutionary Student Brigade at the University of Maryland, we used to say, “Young people come into struggle around issues that affect them,” like college student tuition cuts or war, which are issues that don’t affect them directly, but the one thing that young people understand capitalism cannot have is life with a purpose. And the only life with a purpose is to actually fight imperialism and capitalism, and I have to say I have had no children in my life. It has been a conscious decision because I wanted to fight Babylon, and it has given me life with a purpose. I’m not going to have a tombstone because I’m going to be cremated, but I’m going to tell people, “Hey, you know what I mean, there’s going to be something above there about standing for what you believe in.” And that’s how you live on. That’s how Malcolm lives on, that’s how Martin lives on, you know what I mean? Because you stood for something and that’s your legacy.

Matthew Breems: Well, Patrick, I really enjoyed our conversation today. I love your enthusiasm and your passion for what you believe in and what you’re fighting for and your activism. It was great to hear about that, thank you so much.

Patrick McCann: You’re welcome.

Matthew Breems: This Courage to Resist podcast is 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. Visit vietnamfulldisclosure.org and couragetoresist.org for more information and to offer your support. Thank you.