Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Winter Soldier

Oh Camil, tell me how do you feel? You fought for your country, for God and for war, now your heart tells you that can't be real. So you tell me your story from beginning to end, all the blood and the guts and the gore. Will you tell all the people 'bout the people you killed, not for God, but for country and war? -- Graham Nash, Oh, Camil (The Winter Soldier)

I met the overwhelming force of unveiled truth that is Scott Camil while volunteering on the Congressional campaign for David Harris in the mid-1970s. Harris had served hard time in a Texas penitentiary for refusing induction to go to Vietnam. Now he was running against a Republican in liberal's clothing in Palo Alto, and Harris (former husband to Joan Baez) called in the leaders of the more potent anti-war movement groups of the previous decade to work the streets.

Camil was a tall, muscular man in his thirties with a black pony tail and beard who had been twice wounded in Vietnam and once shot in the back by a federal DEA agent who left him bleeding to death in a Gainesville street just a year before I met him. The agent, working through Camil's girlfriend, grabbed Scott from behind as they were driving along, and the shot from the .380 Llama pistol blew Camil from the car with such force that his tennis shoes remained in the vehicle. The bullet damaged his kidneys, lungs, and liver. In the months before I met him, he had been acquitted by a Florida courts (which made no attempt to prosecute the agent for attempted murder), and had healed sufficiently to come work for Harris in the Bay Area.

Harris' staff put Camil and I together to canvas tough black and Hispanic neighborhoods in the otherwise shi-shi Palo Alto, and we drove in the van Scott brought from Florida, handing out leaflets and campaign walking papers. We ran errands for Harris, working late into the night sometimes buoyed by stimulants, sometimes accompanied by Scott's dog K-Bar, named after the Marine Corps killing knife he used in Vietnam. We both had been born in Brooklyn of Jewish ancestry, shared political views, but I had none of Scott's nightmares.

You didn't trade idle chit-chat with Scott. Having survived death times over, and living with PTSD and fully justifiable paranoia of authorities, Camil talked straight and blunt, and had utter disgust of political bullshit.

Justifiable. During two tours of duty in Vietnam, Sergeant Camil was awarded two Purple Hearts, nominated for a Bronze Star, earned the Vietnam Presidential Unit Citation, Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Silver Star, and was considered an ideal soldier. "I made the decision that I was going to kill every Vietnamese that I came in contact with," he said. "That way, even if I killed a hundred innocent, good Vietnamese, and got one guilty one, it would be worth it."

There were atrocities that would haunt him on homecoming. He still had two years' of duty, so he became a lecturer for the corps, but his honest recollections troubled college students and he was assigned elsewhere. He went back to college himself after honorable discharge and once he heard Jane Fonda speak on campus, he took to heart her words that the government wasn't telling the truth about the war, so it was up to the veterans. He began protesting, spending time in jail, where professors brought assignments to his cell.

A founder of the infamous Gainesville Eight, Camil was arrested for plans to disrupt the 1972 Republican Convention by staging Vietnam-style guerrilla raids on Miami neighborhoods, power stations, and area shops to show what the war was like for people at home. He reportedly was part of a radical arm of the Vietnam Vets against the war that planned assassination squads to take-out pro-war Senators in their offices on Capital Hill. "I was serious," Camil later said. "I felt that I spent two years killing women and children in their own fucking homes. These are the guys that fucking made the policy, and these were the guys that were responsible for it, and these were the guys that were voting to continue the fucking war when the public was against it. I felt that if we really believed in what we were doing, and if we were willing to put our lives on the line for the country over there, we should be willing to put our lives on the line for the country over here."

FBI records show they considered Camil a "dangerous and most volatile person," and teletype to the Jacksonville office instructed them "to completely neutralize subject without delay."

But the more time I spent with Scott, the more I understood what it's like to devote yourself blindly to an idea--one which involved slaughtering the innocent--in the name of some abstract notion of moral supremacy, and in watching him, as he ground away on yet another set of false teeth, his unvarying courage to carry misery in a warrior's body while fighting for a just cause. I hadn't gone to his war, yet Scott and I were friends. And he was a powerful ally if you were on the right side.

In 1971, Camil participated in the Winter Soldier hearings in Detroit, where Camil got honest about what he saw while in Charlie Company, 1/1, 1st Marine Division. The actual term "Winter Solder" was coined by revolutionary Thomas Paine, referring to troops who served past their enlistments and fought through a long winter to help win the Revolution and build our nation.

At the end of the Harris Campaign--he lost to the Republican--I drove back to Gainesville with Scott. We made it from San Diego to Florida in record time, stopping only for a steak dinner and a dip in a Texas motel pool. Scott drove fast, had a radar detector, a Bearcat police scanner, and a firearm in the glove compartment. At his home in sprawling acreage in the woods outside of town, he answered the front gate at night with a flashlight and a shotgun.

I recently saw a photograph of Scott sitting beside a young soldier who had been wounded in Iraq. They had recently returned from the latest incarnation of the Winter Soldier hearings where the young man had testified. Our troops were killing Iraqi farmers who dared to work their crops at night--at night because that was the only time there was sufficient electricity in the country to power irrigation and other implements and, in so doing, became violators of the curfew. Many were shot dead with shovels in their hands.

Gray now, but still sporting his trademark pony tail, Scott looked damn good. Both men were smiling. Both warriors. Winter soldiers. Brothers all.


tangobaby said...

These reminisces are riveting and important glimpses into our recent history. I really hope you can get these published for a wider audience. I feel spoiled reading them here for free... I'd rather see you on the NYT bestseller list and wait in a long line to have you sign my copy.

Bill Stankus said...

God damn, I miss/don't miss those years.

A Cuban In London said...

What a dynamic and free-flowing writing style you have! I read your article in seconds and then gave it a second read more thoroughly. Many thanks for these little vignettes.

Greetings from London.

Gabby said...

It's so nice that people can relate. Sometimes I feel like I'm the only one like me out here.

dutchbaby said...

I agree with tangobaby; these stories should be published.