‘YOU WERE NEVER MY ENEMY’:
The Story of Allen Nelson, Vietnam War Veteran and Peace Activist
By Brian Covert
TAKARAZUKA, Hyogo, Japan — It is a chilly February evening, and a crowd of local Japanese residents, young and old, men and women, have gathered in a community hall patterned after the city’s most famous landmark, the Takarazuka Revue theater, home to an all-female theatrical company. But unlike the lavish, Broadway-style musicals for which this city is internationally famous, the fare this evening is something far more serious: war, peace and the trashing of Japan’s Constitution.
Allen Nelson is warmly welcomed by the full house of more than 100 people. He goes through a routine that has become familiar to more and more people in Japan and the southern island of Okinawa in the last decade or so: He plays a song, such as “Amazing Grace,” on guitar and harmonica, reads his own account of his life story as published in a book in Japan, quizzes the Japanese audience on the correct way to kill somebody in war as taught by the United States Marine Corps (most audiences fail the quiz), and then afterward takes questions from the audience in which he pulls no punches about the U.S. regarding racism, poverty and war.
The crowd this evening seems especially emotional. Some schoolgirls are quietly crying and one man, in a very “un-Japanese” way, occasionally shouts out in agreement with Nelson as he speaks. Nelson talks about how the U.S. is wrong to wage war in Iraq today, just as it was in Vietnam, where he was sent as a young man more than four decades ago. He urges the members of the Japanese audience to stand up and make their voices heard for peace, especially in protecting the war-renouncing Article 9 clause of Japan’s Constitution, which the Japanese government has been pushing to amend so as to ostensibly allow Japan greater freedom in sending its troops abroad. After Nelson’s speech this night, as with most of his presentations, audience members come up to the front of the room and surround Nelson, shaking his hand and telling him how moved they were by his story.
What seems to move audiences most in Japan and Okinawa are not stories of patriotic bravery and personal sacrifice for one’s country — quite the opposite: It is Allen Nelson’s account of life amidst the death and destruction of war as he experienced it firsthand, a very human story that seems to resonate beyond cultural boundaries. While it is true that many young U.S. soldiers experience war, few of them in our time have experienced it the way Allen Nelson did in Vietnam.
As Nelson tells it, his first lessons in war and violence can be traced to his childhood days growing up in New York City and living the “American Dream” after the Second World War.
Living in America (I)
Allen Nelson: I was born and raised in the slums and ghettos of Brooklyn, New York in 1947, two years after the end of World War II. In these communities there was always lots of violence, unemployment, drug addiction and alcoholism. I was raised by a single parent, my mother, and I had three sisters, so my mother had to feed, clothe and find a shelter for four children by herself. But it was almost impossible.*
When he was six or seven years old, Allen remembers, he beat up the other small kids in his neighborhood if they dared to make racial epithets about his African-American mother’s Asian-looking features. He would come home with his shirt ripped and his head bleeding, and explain to his mother why he was fighting again. “It was very painful for my mom to be teased by these children,” Nelson says, looking back, but that was “a part of the dialogue of America.”
Young Allen was not without his heroes, most of whom were American cowboys: early 1950s characters like the Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers and the Cisco Kid. One day a fat boy in the neighborhood came up to Allen, snatched the cowboy hat off his head and slugged him in the stomach, sending Allen home crying. Allen ran upstairs for support from his grandmother, who was babysitting while his mother was out working. But Allen was instead given a stern warning: “Don’t you ever come in this house crying because some boy hit you.” His grandmother then handed him a baseball bat and gave instructions on how to use it: “Now, you take this bat downstairs and you hit him in the head and you get your hat back, and don’t come in here crying again.” Allen did as he was told, and in the ensuing fight the other boy fled at the sight of his own blood. “That’s sort of the violence, sort of the way that I was born and raised,” Nelson reflects, “and never doubted that there could be alternatives to that type of behavior.”
Allen was always small in stature for his age, but as time went on and he got into sports, he found himself getting good times in running track and field races. He learned how to handle bullies, and admits he later even became a bully himself to other kids.
Like many teenagers, Allen had no time or interest in politics back then; sports, friends and girls beckoned. Nelson remembers one day in the summer of 1963, when he was walking with a girl, a car full of his friends pulled over to the curb and invited him to join them for a road trip to the nation’s capital. He was more interested in taking the girl somewhere for some action, though, and passed up their invitation — and missed joining the historical “March on Washington” at which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. The day was 28 August 1963.
Allen does remember taking up an invitation one day as a teenager to go listen to another religious minister preach in New York City — and was even more surprised when his protective mother actually allowed him to go there. The place was a curbside stage on 125th Street in front of the famous National Memorial African Bookstore in Harlem. There, the fiery minister scared the teenage Allen Nelson with his strong, straight talk about America’s racial sins. The speaker was Malcolm X.
Allen’s fast times in track caught the attention of local coaches, and by the time Allen entered high school he was already recruited to join the high school track team, where he continued to do well. But one day he pulled a hamstring in his leg; that meant the end of any possible track and field career. Gradually a feeling of being directionless, compounded by the daily pain of poverty in the heart of America’s richest city, left him vulnerable to the idea of pursuing other possibilities — any possibilities. So it was that in the summer of 1965, he passed a U.S. Marine Corps recruiting office in Manhattan, New York, and was lured inside with an offer of free coffee and donuts. There, the quick-talking recruiter showed him, among other things, a poster of a beautiful Asian girl serving a U.S. Marine a nice, cool drink on the golden sands of some island called Okinawa in the Far East, south of Japan. “Where do I sign up?!” was Allen’s reaction. It was not such a great leap for the young man to make, since, he says, “my family were patriots,” with several relatives having had some form of past experience in the U.S. military. In Allen’s family, he says, when your country needed you in a time of war, there was but one choice: “You served.”
In 1965, I dropped out of high school mainly because of poverty, and joined the United States Marine Corps. I was very happy and proud to be a Marine. I remember going home to tell my mother that I had joined the Marine Corps. I thought she would be happy and proud, plus it would be one less mouth that she would have to feed. But my mother was very angry, very disappointed, and she even sat down and started to cry. But to me, my mother just didn’t understand that I was tired of being poor and that the Marine Corps were offering me opportunities that she could not.
Allen, at age 18, enlisted for four years in the United States Marines, doing most of his basic training at Parris Island, South Carolina, and later some “advanced guerrilla warfare training” at Camp Pendleton near San Diego, California, before shipping off to the Far East.
There were forty young men in my platoon, all 18-year-olds or 19. My drill instructor would stand in front of us and he would say, “What do you want to do?” And we would yell, “Kill.” And he would say, “I can’t hear you!” And then we would yell louder, “Kill!” And then he would say, “I still can’t hear you.” And then we would all scream at the top of our voices, “Kill!” and then we would roar like lions. This is what is means to be a Marine. To be a Marine means that you are going to go into combat and you will kill, and maybe you will die.
Private Allen Nelson’s shooting targets had been bulls-eye targets back in the States, but in Okinawa the targets now were figures of human beings. He knew then, he said, that his chance to kill the enemy would not be far off.
I was stationed at Camp Hansen and during the daytime, we would go into the hills of Okinawa and practice war. The training was very intense. We used live ammunition every day. We worked with tanks and attack helicopters, and practiced how to surround villages without letting people escape.
During the daytime we would go into the hills of Okinawa to practice war. At night we would go back to Camp Hansen. We would take showers, and we would go into town. We would go into town to do three things: to drink, to fight and to look for women. Many times we would get drunk and take taxicabs back to the gate of the camp. We would get out of the cabs, and then refuse to pay the cab drivers. If the cab drivers insisted on being paid, they would be beaten; some were beaten unconscious. When we visited the women and after they delivered their services, many times we would refuse to pay them also. If the women insisted on being paid, they would get the same treatment as the cab drivers received; they would be beaten.
The day came in 1966 for Nelson to be sent to Vietnam with about 1,000 other young men from the U.S.A.
After my training was over in Okinawa, we finally shipped out to Vietnam. I was so excited about going to war that I could barely sleep at night. I was not afraid to go to war. As a boy I had seen many movies about war. And in the movies there was always a handsome hero, beautiful music playing in the background, and the handsome hero always killed his enemy with honor, face to face, and the handsome hero always saved women and children.
Nelson remembers the blast of tropical summer heat that first hit him and his fellow “replacement” soldiers as they filed out of the plane at the U.S. military base in the Vietnamese port city of Da Nang. As he walked across the tarmac, Nelson noticed rows upon rows of coffins draped with American flags, awaiting to be loaded onto the plane heading back. And he saw other Marines, obviously just coming in from battle and heading back home too, laughing at Nelson and his compatriots as they passed by. Nelson wondered what the joke was all about. He would soon find out.
Nelson was standing and talking to a fellow Marine one day in Vietnam when suddenly there was a loud explosion. Nelson, falling to the ground, wiped what he thought was mud from his face. But it was not mud. It was the blown-out brains of the fellow soldier he had been talking to just seconds before.
We would attack the villages early in the morning or very late at night while the people where still asleep. We would set the villages on fire; we would shoot and kill anyone who was on the run. When we attacked the villages in Vietnam, the Vietnamese would grab their guns to fight us. The women would gather all the children and run into the jungles to hide. After we killed the Vietnamese men, we had to go into the jungles to find where the women and children were hiding.
It was always easy to find their hiding places. After three or four days of no water and no rice, the children would be screaming and crying because of the hunger pain. …We would go into the jungle, and stand and listen. Soon we would hear the crying of the children. This would definitely lead us to their hiding place. And the old people, they were too old to run away from machine-gun bullets and attack helicopters. Many of the old people couldn’t even run to keep up with the women and children. So we would find many of the old people in the jungle dead alone or dying alone.
Nelson found that contrary to what he had been led to believe about war in movies and on TV, there was little glory or honor or dignity to be found in the middle of war — especially when it came to innocent victims.
After we attacked the villages, we had to clean up the battlefield, which means we had to gather all the dead people together and count them. The reason why we count the dead people is that we know how many people live in the village, so by counting the dead people, we know how many people have escaped. We would bring the dead people to the middle of the village, and then we would separate them. We put all the men in one pile, all the women in one pile, and all the children in one pile. And of the dead bodies with missing parts like heads, arms or legs, we had to find these parts and put them with the dead bodies that are missing them.
There are two ways of finding the dead people. The first way is to go into the jungle, stand still and listen for flies. If you listen very carefully, you will hear the flies. If you follow the sound, it will lead you to the dead bodies. The second way of finding the dead people is to go into the jungle, and start smelling with your nose. The smell of the rotten bodies is so powerful that it will make your food jump from your stomach to your throat. It will make your eyes water, your nose run, and your whole body weak.
[Killing someone] is a terrible feeling. It’s a sick feeling: your food will not stay down inside of your stomach. In the movies soldiers kill each other and walk away. But in real war you have to go to the people you have killed and touch their body and reach into their pockets for a map or some document. Some Marines would cry and fall to the ground when they saw the bodies they had killed. The military would tell you it was normal when you first killed your enemy but that you would get used to it after you killed more people. But you never get used to killing. Every time you kill someone, you feel deep down inside of you that something important is dying.
[G]oing to the toilet is the most horrifying part of your war experience, because when you go to the toilet in war, you have to separate yourself from your friends, find an isolated place, pull down your pants, and put your weapon down. It is the most horrifying moment.
After we found the women and the children, we would bring them back into the village. They would walk into the village and see the piles of dead bodies. I would see little children run over to the piles of dead women, grabbing on their arms and legs, screaming and crying. And I’d see some of the women run to the children and try to pull them from the bodies. But the children would hold tight to their mothers even though they were dead. And the old people, they would go from pile to pile, identifying their family members. Many of the old people would fall to the ground crying, realizing that there was no one left in their family.
In the total chaos of the U.S. war on the southeast nation of Vietnam, Private Allen Nelson experienced, as he tells it, a moment that would forever change his life.
My Marine company was going through a village, when we were attacked by some Vietnamese soldiers. Many Marines were killed and many were wounded. The rest of us just ran around, trying to find a place of safety. I ran behind a Vietnamese house and ran down into their family bunker.
Once I got down inside of this bunker, I realized that there was someone there with me. I turned and looked. It was a young Vietnamese girl, maybe 15 or 16 years old. When she looked into my face, she was terrified. She looked at me like I was a monster. She was very afraid of me, but for some reason she would not get up and run away. She was breathing very hard, and she was in great pain. So I crawled over to her and realized that she was naked from the waist down. I could not understand what was wrong with her. She kept breathing hard, and she kept making pushing sounds. I looked between her legs, and I saw the little head of a baby.
I didn’t know what was happening to this girl or how to help her, because in the Marine Corps they never taught me how to help bring life into this world. In the Marines they only taught me how to kill.
The girl started to push very hard, and I took my hands and put them between her legs. And to my shock and surprise, a baby came out of her body into my hands. The baby was covered with afterbirth and steam was rising from its body. The girl snatched the baby from my hands. She bit the umbilical cord with her teeth. She wrapped her baby in black rags, and crawled out of the bunker and ran away into the jungle.
At first I could not believe I had witnessed such a thing. But when I looked at my hands, I still had the afterbirth from the baby. When I came out of the bunker, I was a different person. When I joined my Marine friends who had survived the battle, they kept asking me what was wrong, but I never told them about this girl and her baby.
Instinctively, with no proper medical training, Nelson had literally delivered a baby amidst the destruction of a country whose people he knew little about, in a war he had been so eager to take part in. Nelson would go on to feel that that Vietnamese girl and her baby had somehow saved his soul, at a time when he felt he was losing a part of his soul every time he killed a Viet Cong resistance fighter or an innocent Vietnamese villager. Nelson, by his own account, was a changed young man, and soon began seeing the Vietnamese people not as quote-unquote “gooks” or “communists” as most other U.S. soldiers did — but as humans, real people, with families just like his own back home.
After seeing a baby born, I went out of my way to become friends with some Vietnamese people. I would visit their homes and play with their children. Whenever the Vietnamese mothers asked me for things like foods, medicines, blankets, I would steal these things from the military base and give them to the mothers looking after their children.
Nelson was later wounded during fighting and was sent to Japan for medical treatment, ending his 13 months in Vietnam. A combat veteran in 1967 at age 19, he was now left to make sense of all the things he had seen and done in that distant land when he returned to America.
‘YOU WERE NEVER MY ENEMY’:
The Story of Allen Nelson, Vietnam War Veteran and Peace Activist
Living in America (II)
Allen Nelson: When I returned home from war, my sisters were very happy to see me back alive. But my mother looked at me and said, “You are not my son.”
My mother was absolutely right. I was not the same young man who walked out of her home at the age of 18. The killing and violence I did in Vietnam had changed me forever. Before I went to the Vietnam War, I was a very outgoing young man; I like singing and dancing, playing basketball and playing with my sisters. But when I returned from Vietnam, I was very quiet and very depressed. I could find no happiness in being alive. Many times I wished I had been killed in Vietnam, and I tried to commit suicide.
I was suffering from a disease called “post-traumatic stress syndrome.” During the daytime I would sit in my room by myself looking out of the window. I could not talk about Vietnam, but I could not stop thinking about Vietnam. At night I could not sleep. I kept having nightmares about Vietnam; I kept seeing the bodies of dead people, hearing the screaming and yelling of the children, and even smelling the smell of the dead bodies.
I was a stranger to my family; I was a stranger even to myself. My mother and sisters became very afraid of me. After two weeks in the home, my mother asked me to leave the house. It was at this moment that I became a homeless person. I found an abandoned building in my community; I broke into this building and started to live there.
Finishing out his term in the U.S. Marines Corps, the 23-year-old Nelson had four rows of combat ribbons to show for his year in Vietnam, an accomplishment that he says usually took most Marines back then a decade in service to earn. Yet for all his military medals, he was now homeless and hopeless and living on the streets of New York City, unable to face the world. That is, until a voice from the past reached out to him.
One day I ran across a young woman who had gone to high school with me. While I was in the Marine Corps for four years, she went to university and now she was a teacher of a fourth-grade class. This young woman knew I had been to Vietnam. She asked me to come to her class to talk to her students about war. I told her “No!”, of course. I didn’t want to talk about war. War was something I wanted to forget.
But she got her students to write letters to me. She brought these letters to the abandoned building and gave them to me. When I read the letters from the children, I was so moved. The letters asked me to come to their class. Some of the children also drew beautiful pictures. I decided to go to their class and talk to them about war. But when I went to their class, I did not tell them what I did or what I saw in the jungles of Vietnam. I only talked about war in a generalized way.>/i>
But at the question-and-answer time a little girl raised her hand. She stood up and looked me right in the face, and she asked me this question: “Mr. Nelson, did you kill people?” I was very afraid of this question. I thought that if I told the little children that I had killed people, they would be afraid of me. They would think I was a monster or a bad person. When I looked into the children’s faces, I knew I needed to be honest with them. I remember just closing my eyes and answering, “Yes.” To my amazement, all the children got out of their seats, came up to me, and they started hugging me. This was a very emotional moment. I started crying, the children started crying and the teacher was crying, too.
At that moment I realized that I needed to get help with my PTSD, and I wanted to continue to talk to young people about the reality of war and violence. But it was not easy.
Nelson was homeless for about a year and a half before getting back on his feet again. He later hooked up with a woman he had known since they were kids, and they were married. It was Nelson’s first marriage, with him mostly playing house-husband during that time and taking care of his wife’s son. But like many veterans of past U.S. wars before him, Nelson had brought the war in Vietnam back with him to his own country. The Vietnam war officially ended in April 1975, but that made no difference to him. “In the Vietnam War, during the daytime, you’re safe because you have artillery, you have air strikes, you can see. But at night, that’s when the Vietnamese would take over the landscape, man. They were in charge at night. So at night was always the most terrifying time,” Nelson says. “When I came home from Vietnam, whenever the sun started going down, I started getting anxious and I started getting nervous. And I start[ed] hearing things and seeing shadows and stuff.”
During one especially humid August night in New York in the mid-1970s, a storm broke out with heavy thunder and lightning. “I slipped right into Vietnam,” remembers Nelson. “The thunder is artillery, and when artillery is shot, you get the flash…the lightning and the boom! — I was back in Vietnam. I was on patrol, I was sitting against a tree, and I see this Viet Cong with his rifle and a bayonet coming at me. And so I jumped from the tree and I knock his rifle up, and I fall to the ground with him and I’m getting ready to bash him.” But it was not a Viet Cong fighter: “It’s my wife. And she’s yelling and screaming, and I look to my right, and there’s my boy, saying ‘Daddy, daddy! What are you doing?!’ I had the lamp off the lamp table, getting ready to crush my wife’s face. Well, she was terrified. Then she got up and beat me up — I was terrified! She said, ‘That’s it! We’re not living this way any more, we can’t walk around the house at night! You’re scaring us, you’ve gotta get help!’ And that’s really how I started. She took me to the VA [hospital] that morning to seek counseling. And so I met with a counselor and that’s when he gave me the first prescription of drugs.”
Nelson stayed on the medications for a couple of years or so. At that time, drugs were the way most doctors treated this anxiety disorder called “post-traumatic stress disorder” or PTSD. When Nelson was on the medication, he found he could cope with the world.
In 1977, when Nelson and his family moved to southern New Jersey, he was still under heavy medication. “[Doctors] gave me pills to sleep, gave me pills to wake, gave me pills to motivate me or whatever. And I just reached a point after maybe two or three years, I said, ‘I don’t want to take this stuff anymore. It’s just not working for me. What am I, a drug addict?’” He stopped taking the medication, but kept slipping back into the PTSD nightmares, with the surrounding natural environment of his community reminding him again of rural Vietnam.
In his 30s and with the Vietnam war still very much with him, Nelson was put in contact with a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania-based psychologist named Dr. Neal Daniels, a leading researcher and practitioner of treating PTSD in U.S. military veterans. “How many hours a night do you sleep?” was the first question Dr. Daniels asked him. “That’s when I knew I had found someone that could help me,” Nelson recalls. Instead of giving Nelson more drugs, Dr. Daniels gave him cassette tapes of nature sounds that he could listen to at night before going to sleep. Nelson began to calm down. He started therapy sessions with Dr. Daniels, and his life began to get back on track. Nelson himself later studied psychology at college.
In 1979, Nelson was able to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. for the first time. There he found on the wall the name of a fellow Marine who had died during combat with him back in Vietnam. “It was very hard, it was very painful,” Nelson says, remembering his buddy, an African-American athletic star at university who had been drafted into the Vietnam war. “He was such a good boy, such a good kid, to have lost his life.”
A few years later, Nelson was living what he describes as a typical middle-class life in New Jersey when he was faced with history repeating itself. One day in 1986, his teenage son came home from the local high school with recruitment materials from the U.S. Army in hand. His own son was considering the possibility of doing the very same thing Allen Nelson had done 20 years before: joining the U.S. military.
“I freaked out,” Nelson says. “I freaked out because I knew he was looking for an escape. This is what kids do when they’re having parental problems and they don’t know what their future is.” The next day, Nelson went to his son’s high school and talked with the principal about his concerns. The principal invited Nelson to the school the following Wednesday, the day the local Army recruiter, a Sergeant Johnson, was usually on campus. After the recruiter finished with his smooth talk to the teens on all the benefits of joining the military, it was Allen Nelson’s turn. He got up and told the students the cold truth about the U.S. military and war: “Do you believe him? Do you kids believe what this man has said to you? Do you really think it’s like that?” That marked the start of Nelson’s “counter-recruitment” activities that were focused on showing young American people, both locally and nationally, the many alternatives to military service that were available for their future. (Nelson’s son ended up going to university and getting a master’s degree in business.)
Meanwhile, Nelson continued his PTSD therapy sessions. For years Dr. Daniels would close the therapy sessions with the same casual question about Vietnam: “Allen, by the way, why did you kill people?” Nelson says he would deny that he killed anyone in Vietnam or would respond with some excuse or another, such as “They was trying to kill me!” About 10 years into the sessions, Dr. Daniels suddenly turned the tables on Nelson, cornering him with The Question at the beginning of therapy instead of at the end: “Allen, I want you to tell me why you killed the people.” Nelson could not escape this time. “I broke down and started crying, weeping, and I looked at him and I said, ‘Because I wanted to kill them’. It was like a key went into my brain and unlocked something — I felt free from that point.”
“Although I was in tears, part of that tears was freedom,” says Nelson. “I was happy that I could get those words out of my mouth and to be honest with myself. Because the reality is that no one makes you do anything. You do it because you want to do it. Why I wanted to kill the people — well, that’s another issue: That’s about growing up in America and seeing the war movies and the education and my social and family life. When you’re in combat, the captain is not standing over you, saying ‘Oh, shoot that person. Get that guy over there!’ You’re making these choices on your own. And no one can make you do what you don’t want to do, regardless if they kill you, put you in prison. You do what you want to do. That realization was so painful for me: that I was killing people because I wanted to do it. Not because America was making me do it, not because I was a Marine, not because I was in combat, not because it was a war, not because he was shooting at me — I wanted to do it. That was very hard for me to accept; that was very painful. But that was the freeing point for me. That freed me from the nightmarish stuff.”
In 1994, Nelson joined the Religious Society of Friends (better known as the Quakers), attracted to their adherence to social activism and nonviolence. He was making good progress in therapy and had mentally put nearly 30 years between himself and Vietnam. But it would take the rape of a schoolgirl overseas to bring Nelson physically back to the place where he first learned how to kill people before going off to war in Vietnam.
Back to Okinawa
The news headlines flashed throughout Japan in early September 1995: Two U.S. Marines and a Navy seaman stationed in Okinawa had rented a van and kidnapped a 12-year-old, sixth-grade Japanese girl, then proceeded to beat her, tape her eyes and mouth shut, bind her hands and rape her. The three were all based at Camp Hansen, the very same base in Okinawa where Nelson had trained before shipping out to Vietnam three decades earlier. Sexual violence against women in Japan and Okinawa at the hands of U.S. soldiers stationed there had been a common occurrence since U.S. troops first landed in Japan and began occupying the country in 1945 (about 50,000 U.S. soldiers remain based around Japan and Okinawa today). But the rape of the 12-year-old girl in 1995 rekindled the anger in Japanese society over U.S. military violence, and for the first time in a long time, there were renewed public calls among the Japanese and Okinawans for the closure of all U.S. bases in Japan. The U.S. and Japanese governments held urgent talks on the issue.
Meanwhile, back in the States, Nelson first got word of the Okinawa rape at the following Sunday’s Quaker service he was attending. The news, Nelson said, struck a raw nerve with him because he had a daughter who was then about the same age as the girl in Okinawa. But he was also caught by surprise: Hadn’t the U.S. bases in Japan and Okinawa been closed after the end of the Vietnam war? What were the U.S. bases still doing there in Japan after all these years?
Through two fellow Quakers who had grassroots contacts in Japan, Nelson received an invitation in May 1996 to speak on his Vietnam war experiences and take part in local anti-war activities. It had taken 18 years of therapy just for him to be able to talk openly about his experiences in Vietnam, but he felt he could now do it. He accepted the invitation. This would give him a chance to break his long silence and express his own personal sense of responsibility so many years on. “When I was Okinawa, I never raped women, I never beat women, I never beat cab drivers,” Nelson says. “But I was with men who did. And I did nothing. I didn’t try to save them. I didn’t say, ‘Yo, yo, man, leave her alone. Don’t punch her anymore’, or ‘Pay the cab drivers’. I didn’t do anything. So, silence is deadly. I’m just a part of that violence as if I did it. And so I have to take responsibility for that.”
Nelson spent a week in Okinawa that first time speaking out against the presence of the U.S. bases there, with help from some apparently overzealous local peace activists. “The way that they sort of put this out to the news media is that an ex-Marine is returning to Okinawa to remove the bases. Now, I had sort of a problem with that [laughs], because I knew that when I left Okinawa, the bases were going to still be there.” Nelson did the lectures, visited the bases, then about a week later, got a phone call from a Japanese peace activist to invite him to mainland Japan to do another series of lectures. “That’s how it started. Each time I went home [to the States], I never thought I would come back. But I’d get a telephone call and they would say, ‘Can you come back? People want to hear you speak about this’.”
That marked the beginning of 12 years of lecture tours. He has received invitations several times a year to speak to audiences in Japan and Okinawa, ultimately spending a total of about six months of each year here, going from school to school, organization to organization, event to event, delivering his message of the truth about war and the need to work for peace to various kinds of audiences. His story has been translated into Japanese and published in several books, including in a manga comic book series that was later distributed in book form by one of Japan’s major publishing houses.
Attack at Home
The events of 11 September 2001 brought back strong memories of Vietnam for Nelson as well. He watched on TV that day the scenes of panic in New York City, where he lives, and instantly recognized the look of fear on people’s faces as they ran through the streets.
“I was watching the scene, they showed these people running through lower Manhattan,” says Nelson. “And I was looking at their faces and two things that hit me: No. 1, Vietnam had come home to America. No. 2, when I looked at the faces of the terrified Americans, it was the same faces of the Vietnamese people when we would go and burn down their villages — their villages that were a thousand years old. There’s no rebuilding a thousand-year-old village, man. Their ancestors’ ancestors’ ancestors’ bones are born here. And I just remembered, I flashed in my mind [on 9/11], how the women and the children would come and beg us on their hands and knees not to burn the village down, crying and screaming for us not to burn it down. And we would burn it down anyway.”
Nelson was among the many military veterans and peace activists in the United States who stood up and spoke out about the U.S. government’s actions after 9/11. On 19 March 2003, the day the U.S. began its invasion of Iraq, Nelson joined an anti-war rally at Bryant Park in New York City’s West Village. Suddenly, during his speech to the crowd, he says, he was hit from behind by a group of attackers and knocked to the ground. He was kicked and beaten, falling unconscious. When the attack was over, he had four broken teeth and a swollen face. Nelson and his fellow peace activists suspected the attackers were working with law enforcement.
“I don’t know how many there were, but they were police. They were in plainclothes,” Nelson said. “And the reason why we suspect that they were police is because the real police in uniforms did nothing to arrest them. And we’ve been having this type of harassment in New York constantly since 9/11. They’ve been trying to silence the critics of the war. But I have to tell you: I was so proud to be beaten. I was happy. I went home, I said, “I got beat!” [laughs] My wife said, ‘Oh my God, look at your face!’ …I felt that this was my confirmation that I was doing the right thing. Because if you’re not doing anything, if you’re ineffective, then they don’t care. But if you’re hitting that nerve, when you’re touching that point, then they’ve gotta react. …I was happy. So the next day, I went to the next rally, all swollen up….”
A couple of months later, when Nelson took up yet another invitation to come and speak in Japan, he was still missing four teeth and walking unsteadily. Collections of monetary support were taken up at Nelson’s speaking events, with one sympathetic Japanese dentist in an audience reportedly even coming up to Nelson and offering dental treatment. Nelson ended up getting his teeth fixed back in the States.
Return to Vietnam
In 2005, Nelson had a chance to take that final step that every killer of innocent people has to take before the cycle of violence can be considered closed: remorse and reconciliation.
It was that summer that Nelson was invited by the Japanese nonprofit organization “Peace Boat” to join its ocean cruise, held annually, to various countries to call attention to human rights issues and promote peace. During its three-month cruise that summer, the ocean liner would be making a two-day stopover in Da Nang, Vietnam on May 28 and 29. For Nelson, it would mark his first time back to Vietnam in almost 40 years.
Allen Nelson was not sure what to expect in Vietnam, but he says he knew he had a personal message that he wanted to deliver directly to the Vietnamese people: You were never my enemy.
The city of Da Nang that Nelson first stepped into in the mid-1960s as a teenager during the Vietnam war had been a “dark city,” as he recalls: dimly lit, under curfew and full of U.S. soldiers. But the Da Nang that Nelson returned to several decades afterward was now “a city of lights,” he says, rebuilt and bustling with the Vietnamese people — and no U.S. soldiers. During his emotional, often-tearful two-day visit there, he came face to face with Vietnamese mothers and children still affected by Agent Orange, one of several “rainbow herbicides” that the U.S. military used as a defoliant to kill off the vegetation and make it harder for Viet Cong resistance fighters to hide in the jungles. While there, Nelson marched in the streets with Vietnamese people in a demonstration against the lingering effects of Agent Orange and the U.S. government’s refusal to fully take responsibility for the poison’s crippling effects of generations of Vietnamese people long after the end of the Vietnam war in 1975.
I was able to speak to a crowd of two thousand Vietnamese people gathered in Danang and I did something that I had long wanted to do: to tell the Vietnamese people of my crimes against them and offer my deepest apology and sympathy. I apologized to them for burning their villages, killing their children and torturing elderly people.
Upon my return to Vietnam the Vietnamese people gave me the welcome that my country, the people of New York, didn’t give me. The mayor of Danang greeted me with open arms. The people of Danang welcomed me back. After leaving the city of Danang I felt relieved and very happy. I know now that when my day comes for me to leave this planet, which I hope will be a long time from now, I will be able to rest in peace.
A Message for Obama
Allen Nelson, now remarried, has two grown children of his own, a son and daughter of whom he is outwardly proud. At the time of this interview in February 2008 in Takarazuka, Japan, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were still raging and Nelson knew that peace activists like himself had their work cut out for them.
“The military is totally out of control right now,” he says. “I mean, [former U.S. president Dwight] Eisenhower said: ‘Beware of the military-industrial complex’. It has really dominated our society, and they want mo’ money, mo’ money, mo’ money. What George Bush is asking, what we’re spending in Iraq — I mean, when you think of the fact that I could go into a high school and the teachers have no chalk…no textbooks….”
Nelson was also busy at the time doing local volunteer work for the campaign of Barack Obama, the junior senator from the state of Illinois. “Can you believe it?” Nelson asks almost incredulously, when talking about the African-American candidate then running for the U.S. presidency. “I have a lot of hope in Obama…. I’m hoping that Obama can come in with his ideas, move our country in another direction so that we can be proud to be Americans. Right now, I’m really embarrassed, you know?”
Nelson himself had a message for Barack Obama, in a letter he says he wrote and sent to Obama during the campaign: “I reminded him that he said that he would remove the troops from Iraq. But I said ‘not only please remove the troops from Iraq, but remove the troops from everywhere’ — from Okinawa, from mainland Japan, from Germany, from England — from all the places that we have. Please bring these people back home to America. This is where they belong.”
One person who has had a tough time understanding his experiences in Vietnam and accepting why he needs to stand up publicly against war, according to Nelson, is his mother, now in her 80s. “My mom,” Nelson says, pausing a long moment, “…wants the boy who went to Vietnam. She wants him — not me. She knows him, she knew how he was: He was very obedient and very true to her, you know. He was her boy. She had three girls and only him. …And I couldn’t bring ‘him’ back. Couldn’t bring him back, man. I didn’t want to bring him back. He was a person who believed in violence. And it wasn’t so much his fault....”
A child raised on street violence, a teenage soldier delivering a baby in a war zone overseas, a husband and father dealing with war trauma back home, and now an elder finding some consolation in spreading the word about peace and nonviolence — this is Allen Nelson’s story.
While Nelson’s story brings into sharp focus the extremes of war, at the same time it also shows the possibilities of healing from war. If there is a lesson in it for young people today in Japan, the United States and elsewhere, it is perhaps that the resources and energies used in carrying on the cycles of violence would be better used instead to build strong, stable, peaceful societies — and that each person has a role to play in doing this. It is a message that still resonates with young people today through Nelson’s telling of his own life story, wherever in the world he happens to speak.
Allen Nelson: [W]hen I was your age, no one ever told me about the realities of war. Now you know, and you must make up your mind what kind of world you want to live in. You can have a world of peace and love, or you can have a world of continuing war, destruction and violence. But the choice is yours. Peace does not start in America or the United Nations. Peace starts right here in this hall, on your campus, in your homes, with each and every one of you. If you want to live in a peaceful world, you must take your first step now....
Brian Ohkubo Covert is an independent journalist based in Hyogo, Japan.
(*All passages in italics are excerpted from “To End the Misery of War Forever” by Allen Nelson, Kamogawa Shuppan Publishing Co. Ltd.; Kyoto, Japan; 2006)