October 5, 2008
By Hal Brown
I wasn't a radical like Bill Ayers, but I knew young men and women
very much like him. While I disagreed with violent protests, what
we'd be justified in calling domestic terrorism today, I understood
their motivations very well. I was a student at Michigan State, one
of the primary campuses where the anti-war movement took shape
(link)*. I was an anti-war protester and leader of my graduate
department's student anti-war group. I knew several members of the
SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) and very possibly a
Weatherman or Black Panther, at least to say hello to. Did that make
me a pal of terrorists? Hardly.
There's no proof Barack Obama and Bill Ayers are or were anything but
associates in one or two endeavors, and neighbors.
Palin, and subsequently Republican pontificaters, are making a big
point about the New York Times article "Obama and '60s Bomber: A Look
Into Crossed Paths", studiously ignoring the last two words of the
headline and the text which explains that their association was minimal.
But that begs the issues. So what if they were now really close
buddies? Ayers by any accounts is as patriotic an American today as
any of us, McCain and Palin included.
To understand the fear and fervor that led to people like William
Ayers to engage in violent anti-war protests you'd either have to
have been there or be a pretty damn good historian of the era.
McCain wasn't there. He was being the good soldier, aviator in his
case, following the family tradition, no doubt believing in the
rightness of the cause. Of course he missed the anti-war movement
entirely having been a POW.
Palin, had she been old enough, would probably have been one of the
"America, Love it or Leave It" types who believed in the mantra "our
country right or wrong" pro-war zealots.
But in those days we were zealots on both sides.
Few people had no opinion.
I remember one pro-war man got so enraged at anti-war protesters that
he drove his car through a march of some 20,000 men, women and
children as it made its way from the university to the state capitol
building. He injured several people.
58,260 names are carved in polished black granite on the Vietnam
Memorial Wall thanks to American politicians, and there would likely
have been more if there was no public hue and cry to get the hell out.
I once got out of a movie and smelled tear gas wafting in the wind. I
looked up the street and saw crowds of police and students, I saw
rocks hurled and windows of stores being broken.
On another occasion I watched a group of students come into the
student union with their heads all bloody. They been at a small
protest where the police had beaten them with billy clubs because
they wouldn't disperse.
Undercover FBI and police agents not only infiltrated student groups
but tried to incite groups wanting to protest peacefully into
committing violent acts. Peaceful demonstrators were always being
photographed from rooftops, we now know, by members of what was
called the Michigan State Police Red Squad.
This was a time of us against them and the "them" was the United
State government. The "them" was drafting us and sending us to kill,
die or be maimed in a useless war.
As students we studied this, and in many cases we knew more than the
general public who were being fed propaganda.
I managed to stay out of the military as did most of my student
friends, but we watched others not lucky enough to get low lottery
numbers or deferments ship out, some never to return, and others to
come back as broken human beings.
In my own career as the director of a mental health center a decade
later I started one of the first PTSD treatment programs for Vietnam
veterans which wasn't part of the Veteran's Administration.
(Eventually I contracted with the VA to pay for a therapist. * see below)
The next worst thing to being there or having lost a loved one in the
war was having a vet with PTSD who you were close to. My staff and I
got to know many veterans very well. They brought the war home in the
form of severe PTSD and their struggles and suffering profoundly effected us.
Our evening therapy groups never ended on time and usually spilled
out into the parking lot where members stayed on to talk after I had
to lock up and go home myself. The police never minded since some of
our members were police officers themselves.
Our program helped a lot of vets but we also had a suicide, a
spouse's suicide, a suicide homicide, and a death from agent orange
caused cancer. And that was the worst. I got to know many vets who
despite the best therapy possible would live with indelible scars,
memories not only of the typical horrors of war but of things they
did that they could never forgive themselves for.
So, Sarah Palin, just shut up about Bill Ayers. You don't know anything.
* Michigan State anti-war protests
The book "Campus Wars: The Peace Movement at American State
Universities in the Vietnam Era." chronicles the anti-war protest
movement at Michigan State University and several other state
universities. Almost all the Michigan State professors and students
described in this book review I knew or knew of.
Michigan State University gained notoriety with a 1966 Ramparts
Magazine article. It was a cover story with a drawing of Vietnamese
first lady Madame Nhu as a MSU cheerleader, "The University on the
Make". This article is "a specific, if shocking, documentation of the
degree of corruption and abject immorality attending a university
which puts its academic respectability on lend-lease to American
foreign policy." The article exposed the cooperation between MSU and
the CIA that occurred during the 1960's.
**My experience with Vietnam vets a decade after the war.
In 1982, the Mason Mental Health Center was one of the first programs
to receive a grant from the Veterans Administration to operate a
program to treat Vietnam veterans suffering from delayed post
traumatic stress disorder. In fact, I believe we were one of only two
community mental health centers to receive such a grant. Eventually
the VA itself opened outreach programs themselves all over the
country, and programs like ours were phased out.
Our program began in November of 1981 without any involvement with
the VA. Not a veteran myself, I had been working with a few Vietnam
combat veterans in therapy. They were involved in a Vietnam veterans'
organization and were contacted by the local PBS television station,
WKAR in East Lansing, MI, to put together a group to take phone calls
at the station after they aired a special on post Vietnam stress syndrome.
They suggested that I be one of the resource people available, not to
take calls, but to assist those vets who were. The phone calls began
to pour in after the program and I decided on the spot to offer a
group at Mason Mental Health for any vets who wanted to attend. A few
nights later 25 showed up for the first of many vets groups, and
spin-off groups for spouses of vets.
That was how we did business in those days. If we saw a need, we
tried to met it. We weren't volunteers, one of "the thousand points
of light." We were paid for what we did, but we did it because it
needed to be done. The real heroes of the Vietnam veterans programs
were the clients themselves. They hung together and helped each other
through touch times as they dealt with inner demons.
One man in particular went on to be appointed to the Governor's Agent
Orange Commission where he distinguished himself, until he succumbed
to a cancer that was probably caused by agent orange. I am certain he
would give me permission to publish his name as he made no secret of
having been part of the Mason Mental Health program as a client. I
still have to maintain his confidentiality, but those who read this
will know who he is.
I would have liked to keep the program independent from the VA, but I
knew that I needed to hire a Vietnam veteran who was also a
professional psychotherapist, and there weren't many of them around.
So when VA funds became available I wrote the grant and we were able
to hire the first of several dedicated therapists.
Unfortunately, the VA took over much of the control of the program
and while it continued almost until Mason Mental Health closed, our
relationship with the VA was never very good. They insisted on
approving clients before we saw them, even for first time emergency
sessions that we were willing to do for free. We had to attend
regular meetings at a VA center 60 miles away, and our therapists
ended up having two supervisors. One hated bureaucracies and the
other seemed to thrive in one of the biggest bureaucracies in the
government. One knew his therapists could empathize with Vietnam
veterans far better than he could and the other... well, I'm sure you
get the idea.