Interviewing a Veteran for Peace: Bernie Friel on War

I first met Veteran for Peace Bernie Friel on the corner of the Chester County Courthouse in West Chester, Pennsylvania seven years ago when we were both at a demonstration for peace and protesting American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. In this interview Friel not only discusses his experiences as a combat vet in World War II and the Korean War, but more particularly his experience in combat on the streets as a peace activist.

Dan Falcone for Truthout: Tell me about Veterans for Peace.

Bernard Friel: Veterans for Peace is an organization for combat veterans; it is headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri. There is a chapter I belong to – Chapter 31 in Philadelphia – and they are combat veterans. A lot of what they do is show up and protest. Now that is where you met me.

Can you tell me any stories about visiting schools that were adverse to your anti-war message?

It’s mixed, but generally a conservative audience. We have been well received and invited back to some, and not invited back – and have been told never to come back by others. Now I will say it is the women that are most receptive and accepting, I don’t know why this is, don’t know why I mention it, but it is the way it is. There was one time when we spoke where a guy was very out of sorts and sat in the corner and mumbled; a teacher no less.

What do you think people should know about military recruiters, especially those who visit our American schools?

That they lie – that they lie and that they have a system of recruiting that stinks, because it is quota based. And that’s why they have to lie to these children. And I resent it. And I think it is despicable and it is Un-American. I didn’t say they shouldn’t recruit. I said that they shouldn’t lie. They lie to these kids, children, and the public. But we are an uninvolved nation. How many of us have been down to a Walter Reed amputee ward? Not many.

But the military today – I have no confidence in. I’ve seen too many cases where they are killing people out of boredom. And I’ve seen and investigated 86 war crimes out of a batch of 246, I know that suicides are up and General court-martials are up. So I think if the American public were being told the truth, they would be scared to death of what the military has become.

The Vietnam War almost destroyed the army; with dope and delinquency in Vietnam. I was there and I can prove it. There were good men in Vietnam, but not many. Vietnam changed the military philosophy.

The legacy is widespread, particularly in Iraq. The 86 cases I saw were mostly Afghanistan and Iraq. The recruiters, by the way, have lowered the requirements. My grandson, if he were to go in; they could dump him next to a wife beater; a guy trying to crawl off drugs, a guy with an alcohol problem; but why are they putting on a uniform?

There is a statute that came out of this nonsense in Vietnam, under title 18, Section 32-61. Our Congress, had to enact it because of the horrors. The recruiter still may not be able to tell if some kid has a psychological problem. You can be convicted of a felony and the recruiter can waive you. If he needs one more body that month, you are going in. Now if you’re a wife beater or worse yet, you have a propensity to be psychologically unfit, you will have a propensity or a tendency to want to kill somebody. Might make a good soldier, but when the fire fight’s over, you go and rape girls, kill their families. They shouldn’t been in a uniform.

Under 36-21 there was a guy named John D. Greene. It was first case tried under this section. He’s got life without parole. He raped a 13 year old Iraqi girl, threw gasoline on her and burned her to death, went into the other room, killed the whole family; grandmothers, mothers, the whole works. Under 36-21, the recruiter was interviewed and he couldn’t say, “don’t bother me I can’t talk to you”. Under 36-21, he is reachable. He better talk to you or the FBI is going to come around. In Vietnam that was not in existence.

Now does the average recruiter lie? They tell lies when they need to tell lies to fill a quota. There are two lies generally, lies about getting money for college and the second lie is where you will go after boot, after basic training. They often leave out in the Enlistment contract sheet, Section H, which has the words that gives the service the right to apply its assets to service where needed.

I am surprised to learn that you think very little of the ROTC program. Why is that?

It could be a good program, but there should be more psychological testing and training. I don’t think you can take an American kid, and tear him apart; make him into something that will be foreign to him, unbeknownst to him the rest of his life. I don’t think it’s American. Our military’s job is to kill. And that’s what we got to remember. Like why for instance is today’s suicide rate up?

What are some of the experiences you had at protests, or what did you see from the counter demonstrators or Tea-Party members? Can you share the experiences of friends of yours like John Mensch?

I saw people with all kind of hate, coming from that other side of the street, waving the American flag. A woman got up in my face and called me a goddamn traitor and a communist. And I got my medals, my insignia, my ribbons – I said, “War is not the Answer.” And it isn’t the answer.

The Veterans for Peace is a very important organization and very much disliked by the motorcycle crowd. As for John Mensch, I was within 3′ of John when it happened, and if we had more money in the Veterans for Peace, the people of Chester County could have been sued for millions of dollars. The arrest of John Mensch was an unconstitutional arrest. The camera person basically harassed him and used the camera to prod John. Now John, there is a Vietnam veteran, a dignified West Chester resident with all kinds of decent credentials, and look what happened to him. Watch out for hate.

What was barrack life like in times of war? How do you remember that?

Very good question; they attempted to provide you with psychological equipment I suppose to survive in the crudity of the barracks. It’s crude. It’s ugly. It’s basic. It was brutal. I did okay, maybe, but I know hundreds of guys that it destroyed. You slept head to head, feet to feet; you showered with that guy; you ate with him – and you listened to the hate or racism he had. It was a miserable existence, and the American public ought to know it and find out what it is today and start correcting it because it is ugly. I better say, that in a way that I am forever grateful to the military, and I don’t hate the military; but I do hate bullies; I hate crudity – and I hate brutality. War is hell.

Do you remember homophobic sentiments being expressed in military life?

We are a homophobic and racist nation. In the military, there was one uniform view and if you were gay, God help you. And that is about as inhuman as one could get in a Christian nation. We are even worse today. Watch out for the loud mouths in war, they’ll let you down every time. There was a gay soldier I knew that went and took a 37-millimeter shell and went up into the jungle and hit the fuse until it exploded and blew him to death. Everybody went to dinner, ate chow and life went on. It was the result of total homophobia.

I know you told me that you received an interesting and unique education after serving in the military. What was it like being educated by Jesuits?
It was my introduction to intellectual growth. It was the most grateful things of my life because the Jesuits taught me how to think. In fact, you couldn’t get out of that university up there unless you had eighteen credits, in logic, in ethics and epistemology. In other words, I came out of there learning how to think. I’ve been one hell of an activist, merely because I’m a thinker and I attribute it to my Jesuit education. I was just out of the war under that wonderful thing called the G.I. Bill. And I had four free years at the university. And my life has been different ever since. And my economic earning capacity has been different, than it would. But those are my best memories. I was hungry for an education. When I went away to the military, when I went away to the war, I wanted to get away from high school, which teaches very little.

What are your thoughts on American films that seem to glorify war?

It’s a way of romanticizing war. Producers are better off sticking with the rare outfits, such as the 82nd Airborne where there volunteered to go. I admit for the record that generalizations are dangerous. The military is romanticized propaganda. If service was mandatory, it would be harder to get into these adventurous wars.

What are your thoughts on President Obama from a Veteran’s standpoint?

In some ways, it was important for him to win, but like most Americans, I was naïve. I am disappointed in Obama for continuing wars and for his policy in Guantanamo. I resent that profoundly. His position related to Israel and Palestine is awful; I knew it would be after his first thing in office was to speak to AIPAC.

What do you think people need to know about the Military Code of Justice?

The Military Code of Justice is a by-product of the awful acts in Vietnam. It tells a Marine how he or she must behave as a military person and what the charges against them are. Every soldier in Iraq should have been carrying it in their pocket. The Military Code of Justice allows for a procedure now in case something goes sideways. Under 32-61b, there is no statutory limitation for troops; so if a soldier acts unlawfully, the action is forever in play. Every soldier should also read the Geneva Convention, Articles 3 and 4.

Looking at your life overall how does the military propaganda change over time?

It is getting worse.