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Ninety years of a life to end wars

Originally published: The Progressive Magazine on May 31, 2024 by Arvind Dilawar (more by The Progressive Magazine)  | (Posted Jun 06, 2024)

In late April, I emailed Howard Bruce Franklin, professor emeritus of English and American studies at Rutgers University, to request an interview. I wanted to talk to him about the movement against the ongoing Israeli genocide in Gaza, which has killed at least 35,800 Palestinians, including 15,000 children, at the time of this writing. I had interviewed Franklin for Pacific Standard back in 2018, shortly before the publication of his memoir, Crash Course: From the Good War to the Forever War, which recalls his extensive involvement in the anti-war movement of the 1960s and 1970s against the Vietnam War. I had found him to be both generous with his time and intimidating in his intellect, and was hoping that he could bring new insight into this latest episode in U.S. militarism, in conjunction with the paperback release of Crash Course last March. He asked me to call, which I unfortunately put off.

When I finally followed up, I received no response. On Sunday, May 19, Franklin died peacefully in his home surrounded by family, according to an announcement on his Facebook page. While I was unable to ask him directly what he thought of the current anti-war movement, anyone could glean from both his experiences and his writings that he would have been doggedly in solidarity with the demonstrations and encampments.

Franklin was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1934. After stints in a sweatshop and on a tugboat, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, an experience that began to dispel his conservative patriotism as he witnessed firsthand how fellow service members were misled by officers and politicians about the true purposes of U.S. military operations. After being discharged, Franklin studied English and American Literature at Amherst College, then at Stanford University, where he began teaching in 1961.

During his time at Stanford, Franklin, along with his wife Jane, became involved in the growing movement against the war in Vietnam. The United States had been working against Vietnamese independence since 1945, but the increasingly direct involvement of U.S. troops, and especially the use of napalm to indiscriminately firebomb Vietnamese villages, was motivating greater anti-war organizing in this country.

In 1966, the Franklins and other activists began a campaign against the United Technology Center (UTC), whose headquarters was ten miles south of Stanford and which was developing a new “improved” form of napalm. The campaign escalated from appeals to UTC management, workers, and local public authorities to non-violent vigils, marches, and rallies, ultimately ballooning into a nationwide movement against Dow Chemical, which subcontracted with UTC.

Later in 1966, while teaching at Stanford-in-France, Franklin met members of the Viet Cong, who were fighting against U.S. forces and South Vietnamese troops. In Crash Course, he writes that, after being introduced as “an American who has been very active in the movement against the war”:

I was deeply embarrassed. Besides the guilt and shame I felt for being an American, I now felt like a fraud. What had I done to stop this genocidal war, except inconvenience myself a bit from time to time? And would these Vietnamese respond politely to a U.S. citizen? They didn’t. They threw their arms around me, hugged me, kissed my cheeks. Tears streamed down the faces of all four. Tears started trickling out of my own eyes.

Franklin would go on to become even more involved in the anti-war movement and in revolutionary Marxist politics. In 1972, according to The Los Angeles Times, he became the first tenured professor to ever be fired from Stanford due to his support for students who occupied a campus computer lab in protest of the U.S. invasion of Laos, Vietnam’s neighbor. He also co-founded Revolutionary Union, a precursor to today’s Revolutionary Communist Party, and became a member of Venceremos, a militant leftwing organization that advocated urban guerrilla warfare. Additionally, Franklin wrote extensively about politics with a particular penchant for deconstructing U.S. propaganda related to the Vietnam War, such as in M.I.A. or Mythmaking in America: How and Why Belief in Live POWs has Possessed a Nation, concerning the myth of U.S. prisoners of war being held by Vietnamese forces following the United States’s defeat in 1975.

Franklin does not address the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestine directly in Crash Course, but he harbored no illusions about the United States’s role in the Middle East. Recalling a briefing on the U.S. invasion of Lebanon during his time in the Air Force, Franklin picks apart his captain’s claim that Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had outlawed the Communist Party in Egypt, was a “Communist dictator” intent on conquering Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, thus necessitating U.S. intervention. On the contrary, Franklin connects the U.S. invasion to economic interests, such as the Trans-Arabian Pipeline, which brought oil from Saudi Arabia to Lebanon for shipping to the United States and Europe and was owned by U.S. oil companies including Exxon, Mobil, Texaco, and Chevron. Franklin stresses that such profit motives, not the specter of terrorism or weapons of mass destruction, continue to motivate the United States’s “Forever War” doctrine in places like Afghanistan and Iraq:

Looking backward from today’s Forever War to what we now know about the events of the 1950s, we can clearly see a continuum of U.S. Middle East policy, remarkably consistent in its hidden and masked real purposes.

Similarly, it isn’t difficult to see through the U.S. government’s stated position on the current Israeli genocide in Gaza (“Israel has the right to defend itself”) to the deep economic ties between the United States and Israel going back decades.

But if the legacy of U.S. militarism continues to cast a long shadow over the wars of today, so too does the light of the anti-war movement continue to shine. In terms of opposition to the United States’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Franklin acknowledged the obvious shortcoming of activists having been unable to prevent those wars, but also highlighted their ability to constrain the war efforts. In a segment cut from our 2018 interview for Pacific Standard, Franklin points to the U.S. government’s unwillingness to reinstate a draft, which he attributes to the movement against the Vietnam War:

Our rulers sure did learn one lesson from Vietnam: Don’t use a conscript army to fight an imperial war. Resistance within the conscript Army forced Washington to withdraw most of those troops from the ground war. Conscripts within the Navy led the massive rebellions and revolutionary organizing that forced the Pentagon, in the fall of 1972, to withdraw five major aircraft carriers and their attendant fleets from the Gulf of Tonkin and order them to San Diego, where I met some of their crewmen who were organizing a fleetwide revolutionary movement. Just as veterans of the Vietnam War played and continue to play an important role in anti-war activism, veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, even though not conscripts, are today working to build anti-war consciousness in America.

If the movement against the Vietnam War spelled the end of the draft, then the movement against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq could potentially portend the end of U.S. invasions and occupations even with volunteer recruits. And so too might the present movement against the ongoing Israeli genocide in Gaza lead to the end of U.S. financial and diplomatic support for wars overseas. As Franklin told me during our interview for Pacific Standard, the key is to persevere:

Many folks succumb to gloom and doom and defeatism about anti-war activism. This is a huge mistake. People need to recognize that the stupendous movement against the Vietnam War has never gone away . . . . We are now locked in a gigantic tug-of-war, and we need to recognize that, sometimes, in a tug-of-war, you have to pull as hard as you can just to hold your ground.

Arvind Dilawar is an independent journalist. His articles, interviews, and essays have appeared in Newsweek, The Guardian, Vice, and elsewhere.

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