Telling kids to say 'no' to war
PHILADELPHIA — John Grant and Frank Corcoran have both been restless this summer, eagerly awaiting the reopening of school.
Yet the two men are not teachers and they are not students. Nor are they parents of school-age children.
Rather, they are Vietnam vets with a message they long to bring into schools and share with a younger generation.
The essence of that message: Don't be sucked into believing in notions of war as glorious and patriotic. War is an evil to be avoided at all costs.
Military recruiters and government advertising often dominate access to schools and tell teens the opposite, Mr. Grant says. That's why servicemen who have fought need to tell them the truth.
"In ads, you see out-of-work actors on helicopters," he says, shaking his head. "But that's not what it's really like. We've got to go out there and tell them that."
Grant and Mr. Corcoran are both members of the St. Louis-based Veterans For Peace. The group was founded in the mid-1980s by two veterans, one who had fought in World War II, and the other a Vietnam vet. It sees its purpose as debunking false notions of war as glorious, and alerting the world - particularly those who have never fought - to what they see as the stark and horrible reality of combat.
Part of its credo reads: "We find it sad that war seems so delightful, so often, to those that have no knowledge of it. We will proudly and patriotically continue to denounce war despite whatever misguided sense of euphoria supports it."
Governments want young people to believe that war is necessary, the group believes, but that is rarely - if ever - true. Some members of VFP are pacifists, while others believe war may be necessary to counter aggression. But most agree that the US government has - at least at times - waged war unnecessarily.
And they would like young people, particularly the potential enlistees, to examine the reasons for war much more critically than they are encouraged to.
Schools aren't the only channel of outreach of VFP, but they are an important one, says David Cline, president of the group. "It's one of our mainstay activities, especially for the Vietnam vets," he says. "We're trying to pass our experience on to our children and the younger generation."
But the group's forays into schools are limited partly by its small size (they have only 3,500 members nationwide), and partly by resistance from schools.
"There are teachers who want their students to hear another point of view," Mr. Cline says. But many are uncomfortable with bringing into the classroom a message that may seem not only antiwar but possibly even antigovernment.
Grant and Corcoran, who both live in the Philadelphia area, like to work together, and over the past several years have carried their antiwar message into middle schools, high schools, and both community and four-year colleges.
But since the US invasion of Iraq, they have felt an additional sense of urgency about getting into schools. Their main concern: Military recruiters have become more active in schools and may be filling students' heads with false notions of war as a patriotic duty.
They say they know how vulnerable teens may be to such a message because they themselves were once seduced by it.
Grant grew up in a family that expected all males to serve in the military. He enlisted in the Army in the 1960s right after high school graduation and was sent to Vietnam. He was in radio intelligence and served his tour of duty without questioning his core conviction that he was doing something noble.
Later in life, however, he began to read about that era of US history and "the scales fell from my eyes," he says today. "The idea that we were liberating people, that it was about democracy ... it was never really that."
He came to believe that the Vietnam War had really been fought to achieve political dominance, something he felt could not justify the killing that he had witnessed.
Corcoran's experience was even harsher.
He enlisted in the Marines at age 18, at the height of the Vietnam war. What he saw when he arrived overseas to begin his service he can only characterize now as "slaughter."
His notions of patriotism and glory faded almost instantly, he says. "All that stuff is gone in six weeks. All you're thinking about is survival."
Corcoran hadn't served long before he was caught in a prolonged gun battle during which his two best friends were killed. Both were shot after they crawled to a dangerous spot in an effort to save his life when he was shot in the stomach.
Corcoran says it was 20 years before he could talk about the incident, but now that he has started he wants to tell the story as often as he can.
"Every time I tell it I make Michael and Danny's deaths less senseless," he says.
Although Grant and Corcoran find that it is often hard to get permission to go into schools, once they get there, the greeting is usually a warm one.
Most students - and many teachers - thank them profusely after their talk. "Many students say, 'I had no idea. Thank you for telling us the truth,' " Corcoran says.
And at least one teacher thanked him for arousing more compassion in his students. He says their first response to events in Iraq had been to chant "Nuke them, nuke them," but after listening to Corcoran and Grant explain firsthand how war felt, they were both saddened and subdued.
One reason VFP members hope students will take them seriously is that it is hard to challenge their heroism.
Cline, for instance, served as an infantryman in Vietnam, was wounded three times, and received both a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. He is today disabled as a result of the war wounds.
Cline, in fact, feels so strongly about the need to educate people about the realities of military service that he also supports veterans who want to go into schools and urge students to enlist.
"The whole idea of vets coming in and sharing their experiences with young people is always important, even when it's the rah-rah stuff," he says.
But the purpose of VFP, he adds, is that "we have a responsibility to make sure young people hear both sides of the story."