My first stop on Veteran’s Day was Buckland Park in Brighton on Westfall Road for a 2pm ceremony honoring Veterans from World War Two to Iraq. From there my philosophical journey took me to the VA Health Care Rochester Outpatient Clinic also on Westfall in Brighton. And from there to a 6pm ceremony at the Vietnam’s Veterans Memorial in Highland Park where I met David Dornford who served in Vietnam from 1963 – 1971.At Buckland, Brighton Town Supervisor William Moehle gave an eloquent speech. Speaking less about the service of veterans during wartime, he discussed how veterans continue to serve well after their tours of duty are over.
As Moehle described, when asking Brightonians for help with town projects — whether creating the Veterans Memorial at Buckland Park from which he spoke or working in food pantries for the needy — frequently veterans are the first to volunteer.
State Assembly Majority Leader Joseph D. Morelle spoke of his father who served in Korea. While Morelle’s father is “a bit of a pacifist,” he would not trade back his time in the military for anything. He felt he was given an opportunity never to be taken for granted. To serve his country.
About eight members of the Rochester Veterans for Peace were also there. To honor veterans and to show it is often veterans themselves who work hardest for peace.veteransforpeace.org
The highlight was Moehle reading a Proclamation on behalf of the Town of Brighton, praising the good work done at the ROCHESTER VET CENTER on Winton Road, several of whose representative were there to receive the well-deserved honor.
Wanting to see a copy of the proclamation itself, I went to the VA Health Care Rochester Outpatient Clinic down the road. I should have known its doors were shuttered for Veteran’s Day. Alone in the parking lot with seven flags on an overcast Veteran’s Day: the American, the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Coast Guard, the Marines, and one for POWs/MIAs. I imagined the care provided inside on any other busy Wednesday afternoon. Never had my town made a better proclamation.
I arrived early at Highland. A few solitary men were wandering the Walk paying respects. One man, saying it was his job to tell the story of those who didn’t come back, gave me the Korean War flag that appears at the end. As the crowd began to gather, I met Paul Hamilton, the second oldest of six boys in his family. On March 24th, 1969, Paul’s 19 year old brother (older than Paul by a year) John D. Hamilton Jr. was killed in Vietnam. Because of the so-called “Sullivan Rule” limiting how many brothers can serve at a time, Paul’s upcoming tour of duty was cancelled.
I first spotted David Dornford wearing a Bernie Sanders button, alongside his “supporter”—as he called her, Eli Polzer. Kindred spirit, I sensed. I learned that after retiring as an A.P. Chemistry teacher in Geneva, NY, David now worked with trauma patients in the VA Outreach Center, praised by Superintendent Moehle and whose flags I saw.
An articulate and soft-spoken man, David speaks with a light Dutch accent, having been born in Dutch Curaçao in 1940. As a young boy, he remembers German U-boats bombarding—and failing—to destroy the Curaçao oil refineries that fueled what was left of the Dutch Empire.
Having moved to the United States for school at NYU, in 1963 David was caught up in the moment and enlisted in the Air Force. He wanted to fly. He would serve two tours of duty from ’63 – ’71.
Not in uniform, David stood out from most of the Veterans, clumped in groups reminiscing or preparing wreaths and rifles for the ceremony and salute. He had come to honor all the Veterans, specifically choosing this event rather than the one at Buckland attended by the other members of Veterans for Peace (to which he belonged). Unlike most of the other Veterans at Highland—who David came to honor—David viewed the event with “a different lens.” veteransforpeace.org
As his time in Vietnam progressed, a little slowly at first, then more rapidly, David felt “his soul darkening.” He didn’t elaborate, but I guessed much of it had to do with the nature of war itself.
He followed the news of the war closely. David was — and after reflection definitive on this — the only man in the 49th Tactical Squadron who read the New York Times every day. The paper arriving on base a mere four days after publication.
David compared what he read—“the lies of Maxwell, Taylor and Westmoreland”—with what he saw in front of him. To this day, he believes Kissinger should be brought to The Hague on war crimes charges for Cambodia alone.
On the steps of the Memorial walkway are a hundred or so inscribed brick plaques describing important events of the war—in Vietnam and at home.
When I showed him the photos, David remembered, not quite verbatim, McGovern’s words, bringing back the days in the barracks with his paper and coffee. That was important, yes very important. And when Westmoreland resigned and LBJ announced he would not seek re-nomination, a pivotal moment in history. And the song sung at Woodstock during the Summer of Love he was missing, David knew it well.
Then, one day in 1970, after a few months of contemplation, David and five other members of the 49th Tactical Squadron—self-nicknamed the Dirty Half Dozen—said no. No, they would fly not again. Or at least not now.
The Dirty Half Dozen were court martialed. Without going into detail, David simply said, we prevailed. He would spend the rest of his tour at Griffith’s Air Force Base.
When I showed him the photo of the final brick, sadly he knew the numbers well (at end). Working with trauma patients, David sees the wounds of war.
At one point, speaking softly, I told him of a conversation I had early. Talking with a group of men preparing the rifles—looking a little like a platoon readying for battle—I asked if events like this made them feel at all like they were back in Saigon or thereabouts. No. Reunions like this only evoke good memories. The camaraderie. All the fun times, one pretending to toke on some kind of cigarette. Yes, they had a lot of fun.
David chuckled at the pot pantomime, but winced at the word “fun.” While he did judge the men, or hold it against them, he saw in them an element of denial. Eli softened the sentiment, suggesting their banter is a coping mechanism. David accepted the qualification. But I knew what he meant.
Later, we discussed the early twentieth century American philosopher and psychologist. William James’s famous 1910 essay, “The Moral Equivalent of War,” which David had read more than once. “The Moral Equivalent of War,” McClure’s Magazine, August, 1910
In the essay, James observes “there is something highly paradoxical in the modern man’s relation to war.” Although we wish to eliminate war, we value the virtues traditionally associated with military service. His solution to this paradox? We must create “a substitute for war’s disciplinary function,” something that will serve as the “moral equivalent of war.”
Earlier this week, Spanish-American War monuments in Rochester, I wrote that from my academic inquiry into that war—and the ones before and after, the Civil War and WWI, I learned “a profound and deep dislike for war. I am glad I never went to war. Never on a battlefield. For those who have been I am saddened.”
James was one of my influences. In that essay—and I agreed—he encapsulated the Spanish-American War: “In 1898, our people had read the word WAR in letters three inches high for three months in every newspaper. The pliant politician McKinley was swept away by their eagerness, and our squalid war with Spain became a necessity.”
But as David and I talked, we were both troubled by some of James’ formulations. We both agreed that any non-violent substitute for war is a good thing. At the same, even though James said he was more of a pacifist than not, he seems to exaggerate the virtues of war. James writes:
Modern war is so expensive that we feel trade to be a better avenue to plunder; but modern man inherits all the innate pugnacity and all the love of glory of his ancestors. Showing war’s irrationality and horror is of no effect upon him. The horrors make the fascination. War is the strong life; it is life in extremis; war taxes are the only ones men never hesitate to pay, as the budgets of all nations show us.
War breeds hardiness and manhood.
David does not believe there is some “innate pugnacity” in human nature. War happens because some men enforce their violence on others. Wars of necessity only become necessary when we make them so – as James said of the Spanish-American War. While we’ll never know—and while Hitler’s Nazi Germany had to be destroyed—David thinks those who should have stopped him could have, but didn’t.
Speaking softly and more generally—through that different lens shaped in Dutch Curaçao where German U-Boats fired upon oil refineries to two tours of duty Vietnam and to trauma patients at the VA Outreach Center—David said, there is no positive in war. There is no good in war.
As the men were readying the rifles for the salute and the bugles for their trumpeting, I drifted down the slope away from the crowd and the TV camera crews. I didn’t want to watch the rifles fire blanks—this time only blanks—heavenward. When I heard the twelve shots, I thought Williams James was wrong. David is right. There is no moral equivalent of war.