Reportage

Playboy and the Vietnam War Veterans

The 1971 Anti-War protests in Washington…

PL-2“We are veterans of the Vietnam War. We have fought and bled from the swamps and hills of Vietnam to the plains of Cambodia. We have seen our buddies die there. And we can no longer remain silent” So began the full page advert in the February edition of Playboy Magazine in 1971. It was placed at the expense of Hugh Heffner by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War group as a means of reaching out to the American public prior to their march on the capitol.

Founded by a small group of veterans in 1967 its membership grew considerably year on year as the American public grew increasingly hostile to their involvement in what was becoming widely recognised as an unwinnable as well as unnecessary and extremely costly war. Before the advert was placed in Playboy the group’s membership stood at some eight and a half thousand but that rose significantly following the magazine’s participation and by the time of their week long protest in Washington in April of ’71 the group had established itself as the most important and largest group of its kind in the country.

Operation Dewey Canyon 111 was the name given to the peaceful demonstrations the group held from the 19th to the 23rd of April 1971. Named after two military invasions into Laos, the veterans marched on the hill telling all who would stop to listen about the reality of the situation in South East Asia including confessional style accounts of the killings and beatings they themselves had carried out in the name of the flag.

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The current (2015) Secretary of State, John Kerry represented the group in a two hour hearing by a Senate committee meeting whilst other veterans walked up to the steps of the Capitol and threw down their medals, discharge papers, letters of commendation, uniforms and mementos in a unified show of contempt for those who had presented them.

It is difficult to exaggerate the sense of real change the Vietnam War brought to the mind set of a nation until then so fiercely loyal to its government’s stance on military participation in other regions. Harder still to imagine former soldiers turn so hostile towards the military and political leaders who, until then had lied, denied and manipulated to the complete ignorance of the soldiers and their families. Clean cut, proud, all-American GI’s were replaced by long haired, heavy drinking, pot smoking veterans determined to make a change and the press were there to record it and heap further pressure on a much derided President Nixon.

John Pilger’s article from the 25th of April 1971 captured the mood: “The truth is out! Mickey Mouse is dead! The good guys are really the bad guys in disguise!” The speaker is William Wyman, from New York City. He is nineteen and has no legs. He sits in a wheelchair on the steps of the United States Congress, in the midst of a crowd of 300,000, the greatest demonstration America has ever seen. He has on green combat fatigues and the jacket is torn where he has ripped away the medals and ribbons he has been given in exchange for his legs, and along with hundreds of other veterans of the war in Vietnam, he has hurled them on the Capitol steps and described them as shit”

He describes how one veteran, Dale Grenada, a former Quartermaster told onlookers about his role in the war; “Listen to this friends…the whole village was burning but the spotter planes reported people fleeing across the open fields, so we switched to fragmented shells and began to chop the people up. Then we began firing phosphorus shells and watched them burn”

Masks of Nixon were in abundance that day and no more vividly on display than on the face of Jack Saul from California. Pilger writes; ‘And when someone asks Jack, jokingly, what he himself looks like, he takes it off and reveals a face that looks as though he has just finished pouring acid on it. “Peace” he says.

It was a remarkable period in American history, here was a country whose journalists, soldiers and general public found the freedom of expression to rise up and demand a change and Playboy, for those who never bothered to find out, was at the forefront of hard hitting interviews and articles exposing this and many, many other societal ills in America throughout the sixties and seventies.

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