Book Review: ‘Crash Course: From the Good War to the Forever War’ by H. Bruce Franklin

The new memoir of the famous peace protester...

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In some circles, H. Bruce Franklin is best known as the only tenured faculty member of Stanford University who has ever been fired — in January 1972 for his anti-war organizing.

As described in his 2018 autobiographical book, Crash Course, he was then blacklisted from academic employment for three years, until Rutgers’ Newark campus put him on their faculty in 1975.  He has taught there ever since, while writing numerous superb books about Vietnam and other subjects. His catholic expertise ranges from Melville and science fiction scholarship to prison literature to the crucial significance of menhaden fish in supporting ocean ecosystems. His scholarship and “meticulous research” have been widely praised across these many disciplines.

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Crash Course is similarly eclectic in describing Franklin’s eight decades, as a bright-eyed 11 year-old cheering the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan that he believed at the time had ended WWII, to his experiences working the docks and tugboats in the mid-50s, to serving as an intelligence officer and navigator in the Air Force in the late 50s, to his many decades as an anti-war activist and scholar.

His Vietnam-related books are of particular note: Vietnam and Other American Fantasies (2001) and M.I.A., or Mythmaking in America (1992) should be required reading for every American, in much the same way that Germans are required to learn about their country’s shameful history of genocide and monstrous war-mongering during the Third Reich. (Instead, as Franklin describes, we get movies like Rambo and Forrest Gump that turn history on its head and paint the US war-machine as heroic and anti-war activists as villains.)

M.I.A.”, his devastating debunking of the cynical manipulation of naïve patriotism by those who have perpetuated the myth of American POWs still allegedly held in Vietnamese prison camps – whose beards must be very long and gray by now – should be handed out at every American Legion hall, police station, Capitol Mall veterans’ hut, and Rolling Thunder motorcycle demonstration flying the ludicrous “POW / MIA You Are Not Forgotten” flag.*

Crash Course is especially compelling in describing Franklin’s Ellsbergian evolution from gung-ho young soldier of the Cold War to sober and committed anti-war activist whose experiences awakened him to the reality that America’s role as a victor of WWII – the Good War – instead of ushering in an era of peaceful benevolence, instead followed a path of fascistic militarism and bloody Empire-building that continues to this day.

Franklin and his like-minded anti-war cohort of the era were not armchair activists. His description of the blockade of the Oakland military Induction Center in October 1966 – which he played a key role in organizing — is riveting. Franklin was among 3,000 demonstrators intent on shutting down the Induction Center. Before the demonstration, the organizers had internal arguments about nonviolence versus self-defense if attacked.

Arriving at the scene, they were at first puzzled at the apparent lack of police presence, until it became apparent they were the targets of an organized law enforcement ambush:

At 7 A.M., several hundred officers from the Oakland Police Department, California Highway Patrol, and Alameda County Sheriff’s Office emerged from the parking garage and marched in formation into the crowd, swinging three-foot riot batons at people’s heads. Most of us retreated out of their way. But about a hundred people intent on practicing nonviolence either sat down or lay down. Then came a sickening horror show. I can still hear the sounds, like baseball bats hitting watermelons, of the batons smashing skulls. Those of us who had moved aside kept yelling, “Don’t sit down! Get up! Run!” Some of these nonviolent targets of the police blood lust did get up and escape. Several people in later years told me that these few minutes made them lifelong converts from nonviolence.

Another passage conveys how quickly the anti-war movement changed from politesse to angry defiance as protestors realized what they were up against. Describing the October 1966 demonstrations at the Pentagon, Franklin writes:

Saturday, October 21, one hundred thousand people assembled in Washington for the March on the Pentagon… In the two years since sixteen thousand people, most neatly and respectfully attired in suits or dresses, had staged the first demonstration in Washington against the Vietnam War, the war had rudely shoved the antiwar movement and American society out of the culture of the 1950s and into a cultural maelstrom … The Pentagon was defended by five thousand National Guard soldiers, federal and DC police, MPs, and U.S. marshals, and six thousand paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division, fresh from their deployment to put down the Detroit insurrection. Massed demonstrators faced lines of soldiers, eye to eye, often inches apart … The iconic photo of the siege showed a young woman with a flower confronting a line of soldiers with fixed bayonets on leveled rifles. Other soldiers’ rifle butts smashed faces, especially of women. A mass burning of draft cards twinkled like little stars on Saturday night. Later that night, long after the buses and most people were long gone and when there were no longer photographers clicking away, U.S. marshals and soldiers savagely tore into the lingerers peacefully and legally camped on the plaza, inflicting brutal injuries, again particularly on young women, some of whom were beaten in what appeared to be an orgiastic frenzy. During the siege, tear gas was fired, 683 people were arrested, and there were countless injuries, many serious. When the antiwar movement returned to Washington in November 1969, it would not be with only one hundred thousand people but with a force of over half a million.

Franklin does not devote a great deal of space to addressing how America’s right wing, (we will not include here the role of the neo-liberal alleged “center”) has evolved into modern-day Trumpism, with its 24/7/365 braying bullhorn of Fox News / Limbaugh / Hannity / Coulter et al. ad nauseam that would make Goebbels beam with pride at the American Right’s finely-honed propaganda apparatus. But though he is in his eighth decade perhaps he will essay, from his distinctive perspective, another scholarly effort addressing that particular modern scourge, and somehow come up with a hopeful strategy for countering it. He has spent his adult life tilting at windmills, and our current situation suggests not much has come of his efforts, and those of millions of others. But, along with his wife Jane, whom he praises generously as his partner in activism and for her inspiration to him, he is persistent, and courageous, and has been around the block fighting the forces of brutality and militarism. We should hope to see more of his excellent scholarship and lucid writing in future years.

* As Franklin notes, “The POW/MIA flag hangs over the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange. It is sewn onto the right sleeve of the official Ku Klux Klan white robe and adorns millions of bumper stickers, buttons, home windows, motorcycle jackets, watches, post cards, coffee mugs, T-shirts, and Christmas-tree ornaments. Much of my speaking in the last few years has been at the local headquarters of the VFW, Elks, American Legion, and Knights of Columbus, and over each of these buildings flies the POW/MIA flag.”

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