The death of Veterans for Peace leader David Cline on Sept. 15 in Jersey City, N.J., touched off an outpouring of tributes from his fellow veterans that continues to this day.
Cline was one of the antiwar movement’s clearest thinkers and certainly among its most inspirational mass leaders. The membership of VFP tripled while he was president.
He spoke often of the special role of veterans, military families and active-duty soldiers in countering President George W. Bush’s exploitation of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to justify “preventive war.”
A foot soldier with the 25th Infantry Division during the Vietnam War, Cline was wounded three times. He came to understand that the decade-long quagmire was a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.”
On his return to the U.S., Cline plunged into the GI antiwar movement at Fort Hood, Texas. He edited the underground “Fatigue Press” and co-founded the Oleo Strut Coffee House in Kileen, Texas, where GIs learned the truth about the war.
The refusal of three Fort Hood soldiers, Black, Latino and white, to go to Vietnam inspired a nationwide movement with the demand “Defend the Fort Hood Three” led by the Young Workers’ Liberation League.
Cline co-founded Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) with its “Dewey Canyon II” march, in which hundreds of war veterans threw their combat medals on the U.S. Capitol steps. The whole story is told in the remarkable film “Sir! No Sir!”
I first met Cline March 29, 2003, while covering VFP’s “Operation Dire Distress” just as the invasion of Iraq began. Veterans in combat fatigues marched near the White House, singing, “Hey, hey, Uncle Sam, we remember Vietnam. War will mean that soldiers die. War will mean that mothers cry … Bring our troops back to our soil. They shouldn’t die for Bush’s oil.”
Cline, a tall, thin, gravel-voiced man was singing out the lines. The vets sang them back. Those “karma cadences” became the voice of the entire antiwar movement. Cline was leading from the ranks.
I interviewed Cline many times after that.
When VFP and military families marched to Dover Air Force Base on March 20, 2004, I walked with Dave for 45 minutes. An interview turned into a conversation. “I read Sam Webb’s piece on socialism,” he said at one point, referring to a pamphlet by the chairman of the Communist Party USA. “I liked it a lot. There’s a lot in it I agree with.”
A few weeks later, after a VFP rally at Faneuil Hall in Boston, Cline spoke of the Democratic National Convention that was just opening. “We have to remove the neo-conservatives from the White House and Congress,” he told me. “We have to have a movement with longevity to push for progressive change in foreign and domestic policy.”
In Fayetteville, N.C., near Fort Bragg, on the second anniversary of the war, he told me, “Some upper-class people can ignore this war. Those fighting and dying, mostly people of color, can’t ignore it. All across the country, they are saying, ‘Support the troops in the only way that is real: bring them home alive now.’”
The VFP convened in Dallas a few months later. Cindy Sheehan got the idea of camping near Bush’s ranch outside Crawford, Texas, while addressing the convention. Cline assigned 40 vets to help her set up “Camp Casey,” named for her son who died in Iraq.
A few days later, the VFP bus was headed east when Hurricane Katrina struck. At Cline’s suggestion, the bus detoured to New Orleans where VFP helped establish the first emergency medical center to serve thousands of residents trapped in the flooded city.
A year later, Cline led “Walkin’ to New Orleans,” a march from Mobile to New Orleans to protest the squandering of tax dollars in Iraq while victims of Katrina along the Gulf were abandoned.
During the scandal at the Pentagon-run Walter Reed Hospital, I telephoned Dave for his comment. He was outraged at the treatment of these veterans. For years, he told me, he wouldn’t go to the Department of Veterans Affairs-run VA medical centers because he was so angry about how veterans were treated. Yet he led a struggle to keep open a VA clinic in lower Manhattan. We put his testimony on keeping that clinic open on our op-ed pages.
David telephoned in March 2006 to ask us to write a feature on a VFP delegation to Hanoi to form a joint U.S.-Vietnamese movement demanding treatment of Agent Orange victims. David led that delegation. He posted our article widely, including on the VFP web site.
A Vietnamese delegation made a return visit to the U.S. a few months later led by Nguyen Van Quy, a Vietnam War vet. Nguyen and Cline showed each other their wounds, joking about how long it was taking them to heal. The next day, during a meeting, Cline presented his Purple Heart to Nguyen, a man he now considered his friend and comrade-in-arms.
“It was a gesture that could only come from David,” wrote veteran Billy Kelly, who was there. Soon after returning to Vietnam, Nguyen died of complications from his Agent Orange exposure. “And now David,” Kelly concluded.
David Cline, presente!