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Veterans Fast Against War, America Shrugs

<i> Lawrence Weschler, a staff writer at the New Yorker magazine, is the author of "The Passion of Poland" (Pantheon, 1984). </i>

One afternoon in December, 1967, while his company was pinned down in a fire fight with a large enemy force in Bien Hoa province of South Vietnam, a U.S. Army chaplain, Capt. Charley “Angelo” Liteky, strode upright through the open underbrush, utterly oblivious to the bullets and grenades spraying all about him, and personally rescued 20 of his wounded comrades. For this “magnificent display of courage and leadership,” he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. “Son,” President Lyndon B. Johnson told him at the award ceremony at the White House the following year, “I’d rather have one of these babies than be President.”

Last July 29, at a news conference in the Capitol, Liteky renounced his Medal of Honor to protest U.S. involvement in Nicaragua. After the news conference, the former Catholic priest went to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and put his medal by its wall. (The abandoned medal was subsequently retrieved by park rangers who deposited it in an archive they’ve been forming of the many remarkable objects that, over the years, people have taken to laying at the base of the memorial.)

For the record:

12:00 AM, Oct. 12, 1986 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 12, 1986 Home Edition Opinion Part 5 Page 5 Column 1 Op Ed Desk 2 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction
An article by Lawrence Weschler (Oct. 10, Editorial Pages), “Veterans Fast Against War, America Shrugs,” erroneously referred to the Medal of Honor as the Congressional Medal of Honor. The article also implied that members of Congress vote to grant the medal. Although the nation’s highest military honor was established by an act of Congress, it is the President who awards the medal.

Then, on Sept. 1, Liteky and a fellow Vietnam vet, George Mizo, announced that they were undertaking “a fast for life” as a further protest over Congress’ funding of the contra war in Nicaragua. They said that they would refuse any food until they witnessed a spiritual transformation in America--the emergence, that is, of an active, organized and mobilizing opposition to this war. On Sept. 15, they were joined by Brian Willson, another Vietnam vet, and Duncan Murphy, an ambulance driver from World War II.

Since the start of their fast, the four vets have subsisted on water and occasional supplements of vitamins and minerals, but no calories. They are beginning to weaken precipitously, and within days now they may well be starting to face mortal consequences.

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Still, the vets are continuing their vigil every afternoon on the east steps of the Capitol, gathering a small cluster of supporters and onlookers. Not too many members of Congress drop by. Apparently they have lost interest in the man whom they once voted to grant the nation’s highest military honor. Nor, with the exception of National Public Radio, has the fast been receiving much in the way of ongoing media attention.

The media’s lack of attention is ironic when one remembers that Liteky and Mizo began to fast only a couple of days after Nicholas Daniloff was arrested in Moscow. A hunger strike is also a hostage drama--the holding of one’s self hostage pending the recognition of certain demands. Lord knows the media found something new to say virtually every single day for the 31 days of the Daniloff affair. Yet the same media have remained virtually silent regarding this other drama, as oblivious to this particular story as Liteky was to the firestorm of bullets and grenades almost 20 years ago.

How many Congressional Medal of Honor winners are there? Only 233 out of the 8.7 million who served in the Vietnam War. Only five chaplain recipients ever. Surely the spectacle of such an honoree and his three veteran buddies putting their lives on the line like this over principle--whether or not one agrees with their stand or their tactic--is an intrinsically compelling story.

Meanwhile, the Nicaraguan war drags inexorably on--full-scale American involvement seeming to loom closer and closer. A plane flying support materials to the contras is shot down over Nicaragua. Two Americans are killed and another is captured (bringing to mind the shooting down of a CIA reconnaissance flight over Laos in March, 1961, which produced some of the first American casualties in Southeast Asia).

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The Reagan Administration has, of course, denied any official involvement in the shot-down plane’s mission (just as the Kennedy Administration did in 1961) and is trying to keep the focus on the Iceland summit. Another media vigil in the making. Another excuse not to cover the fasting vets.

One frequently repeated truism about Gandhian nonviolence is that it can only work if the surrounding society evinces a minimal level of public conscience (as the British did) that might be pricked by the nonviolent spectacle. Public conscience is to a certain degree shaped by, but it’s also reflected in, the concerns of the public media. Surely this susceptibility of the American conscience was one of the key factors in the success of the nonviolent civil-rights campaigns of the 1960s. But if that’s so, what does our currently persistent, almost obsessive obliviousness to the drama of these four fasting veterans say about the state of public conscience in America today?


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