I Refuse to Kill by Francesco Da Vinci

Francesco Da Vinci’s I Refuse to Kill: My Path to Nonviolent Action in the 1960s (Sunbury Press, 294 pp. $34.95, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle) is an interesting, informative look at one man’s lengthy battle with his Virginia draft board in the sixties. Da Vinci is an L.A.-based journalist and speaker. Over the years his photographs have appeared in publications such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Time.

In telling the story of his efforts to be accepted by the Selective Service System as a Conscientious Objector Da Vinci relies on journals he wrote in between 1960 and 1971. He writes that he remembers when he was 15 hearing President Kennedy’s call “for my generation to become active citizens and make the country better.” Inspired by JFK, he became interested in politics.

Da Vinci says his family would appear outwardly to be an all-American one, yet he can’t remember either of his alcoholic parents ever hugging or kissing him. A third-generation pacifist, he writes that he believes war is “never justified, no matter how glorified and propagandized.”

A politically precocious teenager, Da Vinci wanted to take part in the 1963 March on Washington, but his parents didn’t allow him to go. He dutifully registered for the draft at eighteen, a time when he was becoming interested in the Civil Rights movement and the protest music of the time “with its messages of social justice and peace through nonviolence.”  

As he prepared to begin college, he showed up at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, and soon began studying the Vietnam War in depth. In college he began thinking about giving up his student deferment and officially becoming a Conscientious Objector because of his moral beliefs about war. He realized that if his request was not approved it would mean he likely would go to prison.

Sickened by the war’s “relentless violence shown on TV,” he applied for C.O. status guided, he writes, “by a non-religious but spiritual philosophy.” After he graduated from college Da Vinci’s draft board rejected his claim. He felt very strongly that he was not dodging the draft, but was facing it in his own way. He went on to fight with the draft board over his classification for the next three years.

Da Vinci

Francesco Da Vinci seems to be almost a Forrest Gump-like character as he meets or comes close to raft of celebrities, including Neil Armstrong, Joan Baez, Bob Hope, John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy, Paul Newman, and Rosa Parks. He includes an amazing collection of “you are there” photos in the book, mostly ones he took.

In his book, he also sets out the history of the concept of declaring oneself a Conscientious Objector. He uses his own experiences to try to explain why some people are willing to place their freedom in jeopardy in order to live a life based strictly on what their conscience tells them is right. This is an important story, and one that should be neither ridiculed nor ignored.

The author’s website is irefusetokill.com

–Bill McCloud

The Vietnam War 1956-75 by Andrew Wiest

Andrew Wiest’s The Vietnam War, 1956-1975 (Osprey, 144 pp. $20, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a great book. I recommend it to anyone seeking an overview of the Vietnam War and the era during which it took place. This concise very readable book was first published in 2002 and has been updated by the author. Reading it reminds the reader that the era was a trying time domestically in the United States as the struggle for social change reached a critical moment.  

Vietnam War veterans will be pleased to find that this book is an honest and accurate account of their war. However, we Vietnam veterans are a clear minority in today’s America, and the war is half a century behind us. Consequently, the desired readership should be the generations who have come after us and have no memories of the war.  

For them in particular I believe that Andrew Wiest—a history professor and the founding director of the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at the University of Southern Mississippi—captures all the important factors of a complicated conflict and its impact throughout the world. Beyond the often brutal battles and the high number of casualties, the reader learns how costly, in the long term, the war was for Vietnam’s environment, its economy, and its people. The same factors also have had a crippling impact on Cambodia and Laos.   

Wiest is the author of two Vietnam War books, Vietnam’s Forgotten Army and The Boys of ’67. The Vietnam War includes a section on how returning American veterans suffered in many ways in a society indifferent—if not hostile—to their service, which further exacerbated problems once known as the Vietnam Syndrome. Interestingly, as the book mentions, this was also true for Australian Vietnam War veterans when they returned to their country where the war was very unpopular. 

Wiest explains why many Americans came to distrust their government as a consequence of the war when it became clear that from the beginning the American public had been misled and lied to. Additionally, Wiest shows how the conflict had a deeply negative impact on the U.S. military in the years after the war, particularly the U.S. Army. As many of us serving in the aftermath of the war experienced, the Army in the mid 1970s was broken and in need of significant repair.  

All of this and more is covered in this outstanding book; it is well worth reading and sharing with younger generations.

–John Cirafici

Like Boy Scouts with Guns by Roger S. Durham

Roger Durham’s memoir, Like Boy Scouts with Guns: Memoir of a Counterculture Warrior in Vietnam, (McFarland, 302 pp. $35, paper; $21.99, Kindle) is a change of pace for him. While his previous books deal with the Civil War and other military history topics, this one focuses on his 1970-71 tour of duty in the Vietnam War.

In his revealing Introduction, Durham sets out his views of the ‘60s and ‘70s counterculture and highlights people’s attitudes, motivations, and stereotypes. He explains that his book is about “the men who fought the war while opposing it.” However, throughout the book, there is little mention of opposition to the Vietnam War. He spends much more time describing recreational drug uses, including accounts of him and his buddies getting high just about every day.

In the late sixties Durham attended college as a way, he says, of avoiding the draft. But he flunked out and was soon drafted into the Army. He spent 16 months in Vietnam attached first to the 18th Engineer Brigade at Dong Ba Thin, then with the 35th Engineer Group at Cam Ranh. He writes about his three R&Rs to Sydney where he found his way to a counterculture commune, made a few friends, and continued his drug use.

Throughout his enlistment, Durham was singled out for his ability to type, which landed him in safe, rear-echelon jobs. His father had persuaded him to take a typing class in high school and Durham thanks him for guiding him away from danger.

After returning to The World, Roger Durham went back to college and earned a degree in history. Upon graduation, he put that degree to good use. Ironically, even though he opposed the Vietnam War and flouted Army regulations, he went to work for several state and federal agencies, and wound up spending 24 years operating U.S. Army base museums.

I recommend this book for anyone interested in learning about recreational drug use among the troops in the Vietnam War in the early seventies.

–Bob Wartman

Jacobo’s Rainbow by David Hirshberg

Can the mystical Jewish demon, the Golem, save the lives of two Army medics in the jungle during the Vietnam War? Did you know that there were Jews living in India for many centuries? Or about people known as “Conversos” who, since the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal, have lived outwardly as Catholics but secretly observe Jewish rituals in private, including in communities in the Southwestern United States?

If you read David Hirshberg’s novel, Jacobo’s Rainbow (Fig Tree Books, 352 pp. $15.49, hardcover; $1.99, Kindle), you will find the answers to all of these questions.

In the book the pseudonymous Hirshberg tells how the Jewish people have had to be resilient in resisting anti-Semitism for millennia. The novel is set in Vietnam during the war and at fictional university in New Mexico where a student free speech movement and antiwar protests converge.

The anti-Semitism of a student leader affects some Jewish students who are part of the movement. One thing leads to another and then one of the young Jews is arrested and a judge gives him a choice of going to jail or getting drafted. He chooses the latter and is sent to Vietnam where he undergoes heavy combat. I served in the rear in that war, so I can’t address the accuracy of the book’s combat scenes, but they seem a bit out of sync with the real deal.

In addition to the in-country action, a lot happens on campus as students face off with the college administrators and the police. Plus, we get tepid romances between some of the characters. Ultimately, there is an answer to the question of whether justice will prevail among the book’s characters. 

As someone who is Jewish, who served in the Army in Vietnam, and also was involved in the antiwar movement, I found the depictions of both to be interesting, but not riveting. It is likely that this book will appeal to some Jewish readers. Whether it will be attractive to a broader audience remains to be seen.

— Bruce I. Waxman

Conscientious Objector by Wayne R. Ferren, Jr.

The words “conscientious objector” are at once are a label, a category, a frame of mind, a belief—and a designation that can well cause a wounded war veteran to stiffen his spine. Conscientious objector status, classified 1-O by the Selective Service System during the Vietnam War, was granted to tens of thousands of  American men during the war. Nearly 55 percent of them completed alternative civilian service.

Wayne R. Ferren, Jr., the author of the memoir, Conscientious Objector: A Journey of Peace, Justice, Culture, and Environment (Archway, 538 pp. $44.95, hardcover; $33.99, paper; $8.99, Kindle), is a self-described hippie. Ferren writes that he has “a firmly professed primal faith, neo-pagan, and new-age bases for my beliefs, as well leanings toward Buddhism and Transcendentalism,” although he was raised as a Methodist.

His book contains more than 425 pages of text, along with 60 pages of endnotes. It follows Ferren from his 1948 birth to the present, and seems at times to be a peripatetic ramble through his life. An early interest in geology propelled him to study the interconnectedness of the earth and its systems. He takes us through his school years, where he began to form his anti-conflict beliefs, and his future involvement in the anti-Vietnam War movement in the late 60s and early 70s.

Throughout the book Ferren regales the reader with his thought processes and how he went about securing his much-sought-after CO designation from the Selective Service. He even includes copies of copy of the paperwork involved, intertwining those passages with the story of his life and times as a “hippie activist.” There are a few factual errors, but the writing and editing of this book are well done.

As a Vietnam War veteran, I found myself reacting to Ferren’s story with a much kinder eye than would have been possible for me to do 50 or so years ago as the ensuing years have both blunted and sharpened my perceptions of the antiwar movement and those who took part in it.

Which is why I recommend this book as maybe it’s time to see the other side of the coin.

–Tom Werzyn

I Ain’t Marching Anymore by Chris Lombardi

On their course through life, most people devote themselves to causes. Some are good; some not so good. Journalist Chris Lombardi discovered her cause in sixth grade after reading U.S. Army Dr. Howard Levy’s Going to Jail and learning to her disappointment that America incarcerated prisoners of conscience.

While a college junior in 1982, Lombardi wrote a play about Vietnam War draft resisters called Too Many Martyrs, the title of a Phil Ochs protest song. She also worked with the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors and met many Vietnam War veterans. Those relationships led her to write I Ain’t Marching Anymore: Dissenters, Deserters & Objectors to America’s Wars (The New Press, 320 pp.; $27.99, hardcover; $12.51, Kindle), again using an Ochs title.

Lombardi’s work has appeared in The Nation, Guernica, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and ABS Journal. In I Ain’t Marching Anymore, her first book, Lombardi investigates American military dissenters, including conscientious objectors, from before the Revolutionary War to 2020 in a dozen chapters. I first read the chapters “1965 to 1980” and “1980 to 1991” to determine what Lombardi had to say about the U.S. military during and after the draft. In the Vietnam War chapter she provides a dramatic picture of the accumulation of tensions, in and out of the service, during the conflict.

She also writes about antiwar activities that were new to me. For example, in 1969, with information from like-minded Reservists, a few Vietnam vets captured two of three tanks in the middle of Philadelphia’s Broad Street, delaying their transit from an armory to a shipyard. She has nothing but good things to say about Vietnam Veterans Against War, Jane Fonda, and John Kerry.

On the opposite side, she shows the near impossibility of becoming a conscientious objector while on active duty. Most who tried did not even get to the stage of filling out the form, she says. “I had six COs: two are in jail and four are back on the line,” a battalion commander boasted. Lombardi reminds us that Gen. William Westmoreland originally labeled the My Lai killers as just a couple of bad apples.

She sees the design of the post-conscription military as an armed Peace Corps with new opportunities for women. Military recruiters sold enlistment by emphasizing job skills, cash bonuses, and escape from bad neighborhoods. Those enticements, she says, were designed to lessen the internal dissent that took place in the last years of the Vietnam War. During the 1980-1991 period, Americans fought in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Panama during which there were brutal actions against civilians. In other words, little changed—and then along came the first Persian Gulf War, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Lombardi’s chapters covering recent decades make captivating reading. I found myself agreeing, disagreeing, and questioning her analyses. Her portrayals of Chelsea Manning, Leigh Winner, and other 21st-century war objectors would make good television documentaries. She praises Iraqi Veterans Against War. She seems to be saying that current antiwar activities reflect a strong political appeal, lessening the impact of morality. All of her writing is interesting.

National Spring Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam, Manhattan, April 15,1967

The first half of the book, which covers the Revolutionary War to the war in Vietnam, offers arguments about both objections to war and about race relations. She presents these years more like a history lesson than an antiwar debate. The U.S. Army’s heartless subjugation of Native Americans during Westward expansion, Mexicans during our war with them in 1846-48, and Filipinos during the Spanish-American War have a familiarity that still persists.

In writing I Ain’t Marching Anymore, Chris Lombardi examines dissent in a manner that glorifies those who object to war as much as the public generally glorifies the nation’s most heroic warriors. I strongly recommend that high school and college students read her book as part of establishing a value system for life.

Maybe a few older people can also learn from her.

The book’s website is https://aintmarching.net

—Henry Zeybel         

Battle Green Vietnam by Elise Lemire

Elise Lemire’s Battle Green Vietnam: The 1971 March on Concord, Lexington, and Boston (University of Pennsylvania Press, 248 pp. $45, hardcover; $35.99, Kindle) is a detailed look at a relatively little-known antiwar protest held over Memorial Day weekend in 1971 by members of the New England Chapter of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Lemire, a Literature Professor at Purchase College at the State University of New York, conducted more than a hundred interviews with veterans and civilians who took part in the event or were opposed to it, and did a vast amount of research into archival materials. She has done a great job pulling all of that material together and tells a very interesting, readable story.

The protesting veterans considered the importance of place and performance for this demonstration to both focus, and magnify, what they were trying to say. They carried out their peaceful protest on Revolutionary War battlefields in Massachusetts enacting guerilla-theater war atrocities with toy rifles terrorizing innocent “civilians.”

The antiwar veterans believed that traditional ways of affecting change would not bring about the end of the war fast enough and so they needed to make a bold statement to try to make that happen. They walked almost a hundred miles to make the public more aware of their reasons for calling for an immediate end to the war.

Elise Lemire

The marchers wore jungle fatigues and carried toy M-16 rifles. They used battlefields where the Revolutionary War began: Concord, Lexington, and Bunker Hill. They chose to do Paul Revere’s famous ride, as mythologized by poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in reverse, marching from Concord to Boston.

The idea was to suggest that the U.S. needed to reverse its course in the Vietnam War. They saw this as a patriotic act to warn the American people about what their government was up to in Southeast Asia. Along the way the veterans drew crowds, made speeches, engaged in acts of civil disobedience—and were charged with trespassing,

Lemire also provided a good, concise history of VVAW, and also explains how the U.S. became involved in the Vietnam War, the role the New England colonies played in the Revolutionary War, and the meaning of using obelisks to represent war dead.

Lemire brings the story of this three-day-long demonstration to brilliant Technicolor life. It’s a story that well deserves that treatment.

The book’s website is battlegreenvietnam.com

–Bill McCloud

Floater by Martin Robert Grossman

Floater (Koehler Books, 246 pp. $26.95, hardcover; $17.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle) is former Green Beret Martin Robert Grossman’s third action-thriller featuring Jerry Andrews, a retired police detective who was a Special Forces sergeant in Vietnam during the war.

The idea driving this novel is conveyed in the dedication, which is to the men and women of our armed forces who fight and sometimes die to protect our freedom, “even in the face of protest.” The dedication goes on to say that antiwar demonstrations by hippies and other war protesters “crushed the morale of the American soldier!” And that “the idle rich and famous played the most demoralizing role.” So, in this story, which takes place 20 years after the communist takeover of South Vietnam, justice against what Grossman calls “turncoats and traitors” is “dispensed by those betrayed–REAL JUSTICE!”

Several characters feel they were betrayed while at war and again after returning home to an ungrateful nation, and they have not been able to terms with that. They “quickly found that civilian life for a Vietnam vet was a nightmare,” Grossman writes. The men—Claymore, Meat Cleaver, Short Arm, Super Mex, Terminator, and others—are drawn into a plan to take out a “who’s who of war protestors.”

One of their main targets is the movie star Brandy Forester. She began as a child of privilege and wealth, becoming an acclaimed actress who always seemed to be in the shadow of her more famous father. She then began protesting the war and, in 1972 traveled to North Vietnam where she “sat for photographs with the enemy.” She’s described as having a “small chest,” in contrast to Army nurses with their “big racks.” The men don’t want to just kill her; they aim to send her straight to hell.

A rival group may be going after the same targets, including Sen. John Kershaw, who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and served in Vietnam on a brown-water Navy patrol boat. Grossman writes that after intentionally wounding himself in order to get a Purple Heart, Kershaw then denigrated American troops when he testified before a congressional committee. Grossman says “he became hated by all soldiers” who were fighting for their country and their lives.

The leader of the group of enraged vets lives on a large ranch in Arizona and feels increasingly isolated from a world he thinks has rejected him. His goal is to put together a new A-Team, drawing men from VA clinics. He thinks of them as his “band of merry men.” Meanwhile, former detective Jerry Andrews volunteers to help law-enforcement with the cases.

I suggest reading this novel about murdering prominent people who protested the war as a fantasy. If that sounds like your thing, the story is well written and moves fast.

–Bill McCloud 

Medal Winners by Raymond S. Greenberg

You can’t judge a book by its title.

A glance at the cover of Raymond S. Greenberg’s Medal Winners: How the Vietnam War Launched Nobel Careers (University of Texas Press, 440 pp., $29.95) might suggest that winners of the Nobel Prize in any one of six fields, including literature and peace, began their careers fighting in the Vietnam War. Silver and Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts come to mind.

But the medal in question is a Nobel Prize itself—in this case, in the field of medicine. The Vietnam War and the draft are only the foundation in Part One of three parts in the book, which takes a much broader account of the careers of four research scientists who long before winning the prize worked as Clinical Training Associates at the National Institute of Health in Washington, D.C., during the Vietnam War.

Nobel laureates Joseph Goldstein and Michael Brown (in photo, above) and Robert Leftkowitz and Harold Varmus are the subjects of Goldberg’s book. Today, for most Americans, their names are not be as familiar as another alumnus of the program from that era: Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of NIH’s National Institute of Allergies & Infectious Diseases and a leading member for the presidential task force battling the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Raymond Greenberg

Only two chapters out of five in Part One are particularly relevant to the war. They are important ones, however, because they provide a unique measurement of the war’s impact on American society.

One chapter, “The Yellow Berets,” explains the origin and structure of the “Doctor Draft,” which began with the Selective Service Act of 1948 at the beginning of the Cold War. In 1960 it was expanded to include “male physicians, dentists, veterinarians, pharmacists, and optometrists under the age of fifty-one.”

In the 1960s to avoid the possibility of the draft interrupting their early careers years, medical doctors could apply to become officers in one of seven the Uniformed Services, which included the Public Health Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The PHS were had several branches, including the Communicable Disease Center and NIH. “Only a small percentage” of those who applied to Public Health Services programs, Greenberg writes, were accepted.

The “Ballad of the Green Berets” was the number-one song of the year of 1966. A parody of the song, from which the title of the chapter is derived, proclaimed: “Fearless cowards of the USA/ Bravely here at home they stay/ They watched their friends get shipped away/ The draft dodgers of the Yellow Berets.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci at NIH in 1968

NIH associates did not see the song as applying to them. It was partly a joke, but Dr. Fauci recalls it was still “very much derogatory.”

Dr. Greenberg—a renowned cancer researcher—claims that “as emotions faded and many former Associates went on to distinguished careers, the term became a badge of honor.” One can’t help but suspect that that statement is contrived to help give the book an attention-getting chapter title.

There is a breeziness throughout the narrative that almost is offensive in which Greenberg largely gushes uncritically about the four Nobel laureates. The acclaim is deserved, but at times Greenberg seems to want to elevate them to sainthood.

Some young men who came of age during the war had choices. Although Goldstein, Brown, Leftkowitz and Varmus were among an elite group of men who avoided military service, they still served their country.

When President Franklin Roosevelt spoke at the dedication of NIH’s initial buildings in 1940 he noted that the institute’s mission would be to “save life and not destroy it. We cannot be a strong nation unless we are a healthy nation. We must recruit not only men and materials, but also knowledge and science.”

Doctors in military service sometimes resented those who had “cushy” NIH jobs, but there were ways to gain respect. Across the street from NIH was the National Naval Medical Center (now Walter Reed National Military Medical Center). Some NIH research physicians, including Fauci, volunteered to treat troops there—men who were “flown in with serious complications of wounds” because the military hospital didn’t have an infectious disease department.” 

The second notable chapter on the Vietnam War deals with NIH’s “Campus Life.” As in much of America at the time, there were currents of protest and paranoia at NIH. In 1969, a group of activists organized a Vietnam Moratorium Committee and invited the pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock, a fierce opponent of the war, to speak on October 15 in conjunction with the National Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam. The NIH director, accountable to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, denied a request to hold the event on campus, but was thwarted by an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit. Spock told a crowd of several thousand that the U.S. was the aggressor in the war, rather than “the good guys,” and the war was illegal and immoral.

Dr. Benjamin Spock in 1968

Most employees at the prestigious NIH were not politically active. Many believed that speaking out against the war would put their careers at risk. NIH security officers sometimes would take pictures of people who attended antiwar meetings and ask for lists of members.

In his epilogue, Greenberg describes many factors, beginning in the 1990s, that have contributed to a decline in physicians choosing to become research scientists and subsequently winning Noble Prizes. His overarching thesis, however, is that the Vietnam War and the influence of the draft were the forge in which a unique alchemy produced a Golden Era out of “Yellow Berets.”

 Historians should not overlook that structural force in assessing the war’s legacy.

–Bob Carolla

The Girl to His Left by Stephen P. Learned

The Girl To His Left (Bermondsey Books, 318 pp. $9.99, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is an entertaining novel about the military and the antiwar movement in the Sixties written by Stephen P. Learned, who says he didn’t serve in the military or take part in the protests against the Vietnam War. Learned is a retired U.S. Justice Department trial attorney who has been a long-time volunteer at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

We meet the title character, Shawn, on the first page as she takes a seat next to Paul Bondra at a pizza place. It’s the spring of 1966 in Pittsburgh and the two strike up a conversation. Paul is about to join the Marines and they bond over the next month, deciding to write each other while he’s gone in hopes they can maintain their relationship. They promise to be faithful to each other. “As long as you’re alive,” Shawn tells Paul, “I’m yours. But don’t come back a different person.”

After his first military haircut Paul says he looks “like one of those Mormon guys who knock on your door.” With Paul on active duty, Shawn transfers to the University of Wisconsin and becomes involved in the antiwar movement. She keeps it a secret from most people that she has a boyfriend in the Marine Corps.

In February of 1967 Paul’s plane lands at DaNang and he is quickly bused to Hill 327. While he is setting up security and night ambushes, Shawn is engaged in antiwar activities, including attending draft card burnings.

Soon Paul finds himself in the thick of things. He “felt the change in pressure caused by bullets snapping overhead,” Learned writes, coming from the “nasty clap of a Russian SKS semi-automatic carbine.” Paul notes that an after-action search of a hamlet bombed by Americans uncovered dead bodies. “Bad guys, good guys, who knew?”

As a platoon leader, Paul decides he “wasn’t going to kill anyone until his men killed first. Sure, he was a killer. But his job was to lead killers, not be one.”

Stephen Learned

Paul learns that he can get an early out if he extends his tour in Vietnam for six months. He considers it, but remembers that Shawn made him promise he would return as soon as he could.

He writes to her, spelling out his reasons for extending. She writes back saying she’s completely opposed to the idea. What’s more, she suggests that if he does extend his tour it would be a selfish act and she would end their relationship.

As you would expect of a good novel—and this is a very good one—bigger-picture historical moments are personalized through the eyes of the characters. This gives the reader a better understanding of exactly what those events meant to those who lived through them.

–Bill McCloud