Originally posted on isthmus.com Go to the link to see more of David Giffey’s art. David is a member of the Clarence Kailin Chapter of Veterans For Peace and editor of Long Shadows: Veterans’ Paths to Peace which shares the stories of 19 members of the chapter and was published in 2006.
David Giffey has spent four decades creating a sprawling Byzantine masterpiece
Assumption Greek Orthodox Church looks like a typical orthodox church with a traditional, though rather subdued, cupola dome. Despite its unassuming shell, the blond brick church at the corner of East Washington Avenue and 7th Street houses one of the region’s most spectacular artistic achievements, a sprawling and breathtaking work of Byzantine iconography. Perhaps most impressive, it is the work of one artist.
David Giffey, a bearded 75-year-old journalist, veteran and peace activist, has been painting portions of Assumption for the last 39 years.
For Giffey, art and religion are intertwined. “Planning and painting icons for the Madison church has given me a way to bring life and work together,” he says. “I’m an artist, and I have a need for a spiritual life as well. So being commissioned to make icons has provided both physical and spiritual sustenance.”
Parish member Eleni Schirmer recalls Giffey teaching her childhood Sunday school classes. “He brought these saints to life,” Schirmer says. “Every day, there was a new saint’s story.”
Giffey’s stories are reflected in his art as well. The walls are lined with life-sized icons of saints in a procession leading to the rotunda. Two small wings, or transepts, are dominated by paintings of St. George and St. Demetrius, leading to scenes from the New Testament. All of this draws the eye forward to the apse behind the altar, where a 10-foot-tall figure of the Virgin Mary is curved into the back wall; the child Jesus sits in her lap.
Her figure draws the eye up the curved walls to the four pendentives that support the dome. On these vaulted corners are the authors of the Gospels. The drum of the dome is ringed by 12 prophets, and upon its ceiling is the Christ. Giffey explains this last part is tradition: “The ceiling of the church represents Heaven, so a picture of Jesus is always painted there.”
All of these figures wear robes of vibrant yet earthy colors, and are splashed with gold leaf halos. The whole piece is unified by a background of a deep Magritte blue that washes over the entire church, making these saints, prophets and scribes born over a span of thousands of years feel as though they are of one world. The separate pieces are woven together with patterned bands and lines of scripture written in both English and Greek.
Giffey began painting Assumption in 1979 and continues to this day. He has painted nearly 100 figures. In September 2017, he added the first piece to a new lobby expansion. He estimates that he has put in 8,000 hours since first installing the Pantocrator piece, the Christ found in the dome. That adds up to four years total. As a frame of reference, this is the same amount of time that Michelangelo took to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
To paint icons is to be a storyteller in static imagery. The tales that Giffey lays out are not just a reflection of scripture; they portray the world that Giffey has known as an activist, a journalist, a soldier and a Christian. “It’s so easy to put the pictures up on the wall and pretend ‘Oh, what a wonderful world this is.’ It’s not,” says Giffey. “It’s a very imperfect world and I think we’re struggling with that really now in this era.” The weary-eyed saints that line the walls of the church are examples to follow in these times, says Giffey: “They themselves were imperfect and yet they had a certain courage and will to pursue what they believe.”
It was a long road that brought Giffey the short distance from his parents’ dairy farm near Ripon, Wisconsin, to this church in Madison. After a brief stint at Oshkosh State (now UW-Oshkosh), he dropped out to travel the country. In 1964, he was drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam as a combat journalist. In 1966, he was discharged and found work as a reporter for the Appleton Post-Crescent.
Around this time, he befriended Jesus Salas, a local organizer for the migrant farmer labor unions. The two founded Voz Mexicana, a bilingual newspaper focusing on labor rights for migrant workers. They soon joined with the activist Cesar Chavez to organize grape boycott committees throughout Wisconsin to protest the unfair work practices of California grape growers. “We managed to reduce the amount of table grapes that were imported to Wisconsin by nearly 50 percent,” says Giffey. Later, he moved to the Rio Grande valley to recruit for Chavez’s United Farm Workers’ union in South Texas.
“I came from war to war, in a sense, a kind of human rights war,” says Giffey. “There’s a series of little towns along the river on the U.S. side of the border, and they were notoriously racist, anti-union and hostile to everything we represented.” He was hassled by customs officials whenever he crossed the border from Mexico and was jailed briefly for taking photos of a picket line.
He moved to Austin and began looking for ways to help process the harsh realities he had witnessed both in Vietnam and in the labor struggles in the Southwest. One way was through painting. He began selling art on the street, brightly colored, strange landscapes. “People called them primitive fantasies,” says Giffey, who did not study art in college.
Around this same time, his spiritual path led him to an Orthodox church. “I felt a need to go on a spiritual pilgrimage,” says Giffey. “Eastern Christianity answered my need for private meditation combined with mysticism, ritual, music, art and tradition.” He was captivated by the iconography. In 1974, he returned to his home state; his parents were aging, and he missed the Midwest. “When I came back to Wisconsin I exhausted the UW library because it had all these books of iconography,” says Giffey.
Iconography, in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, is a style of art that goes back to the late Roman Empire when Byzantium — modern-day Istanbul — became a cultural and religious center. Easily identifiable by the flat, perspective-free style, this is not a photo-realistic art. The heavy lines, unnatural shadows and stylized facial features are not meant to be taken as literal interpretations; they are representations of saints and prophets. What makes them particularly haunting are their eyes: They stare straight out at the observer. That’s no accident, says Giffey: “[Icons] look out at us because they are trying to communicate with us. They are very direct. They are not smiling. The hope is to represent spiritual properties like strength, sobriety, courage and forthrightness. That is why they are looking out.”
In 1977, Giffey traveled to Greece, India, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. “I had no idea that I would work for years making icons for Assumption when I first went to Greece,” says Giffey. But he kept going back, to learn the iconography and seek out mentors. “The Greek artists were very generous,” says Giffey. “I visited monasteries in Mount Athos where this tradition has been preserved for centuries. I watched and I helped and I climbed around on their scaffolds and I spent a lot of time observing the use of icons.” When he returned, he began envisioning his masterpiece.
Although he is working in an ancient style, following centuries-old rules, Giffey has been granted artistic license in his work at Assumption and found ways to reflect his commitment to social justice and pacifism. “The work is within a tradition, but it is creative,” says Giffey. “My wife Nancy compares it to music: If you gave a song by Mahler to 10 sopranos and told them to rehearse it and come back to perform it a month later, they would all use the same notations, but their interpretations would vary.” Giffey brings a Western influence into his work. There are traces of Cubism in the background images. The influence of Midwestern regionalist artists such as Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton can also be found in his paintings’ gracefully curving lines.
John Barker, retired UW-Madison professor of Byzantine history and member of Assumption’s congregation (and Isthmus classical music critic), observes that Giffey’s training in Greece honed his skills, but did not rigidly define it. “David studied that style and technique, but made it his own, not through imitation but by knowing assimilation. He brought his artistic sensibilities to his church connections.”
Giffey has also made a point of bringing gender equity to the walls of the church, distinguishing him from other iconographers. Pointing to the drum of the dome, he lists the figures he has painted: “Esther, Rebecca, Ruth… This is the only church I’ve been in where the figures are an approximately equal between the genders. The other churches I’ve been to have shown the prophets to be all men. [In Madison], half the people who come to church here are women or girls. Visual aids and role models are important to both genders.”
Schirmer, Giffey’s former Sunday school student, says Giffey led workshops on iconography for parish members “He would always encourage us to do icons of women saints, and that felt special,” says Schirmer, describing Giffey’s “de-sensationalized” take on Mary Magdalene. “She was a pretty cool, independent woman who got a bad rap from traditional interpretations of the Bible because of some supposed prostitution suspicion. That re-framing had an impact on me.”
Giffey’s pacifism is also represented in his artistic works. A longtime member of Veterans For Peace, he resists bringing images of gore into the church. He points out his painting of St. Demetrius, a Roman soldier punished by being forced into the gladiator’s pit for converting to Christianity. In the painting, Demetrius stands above his opponent, spear in hand, appearing to be poised to strike. This is, in fact, the moment when Demetrius stayed his hand, refusing to kill. On the opposite wall, St. George fights the dragon. “I tried to make the dragon as sympathetic as possible,” says Giffey.
This sensibility carries over to work he did at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Spring Green, the only non-Orthodox church he has worked in. He was commissioned to paint the 14 Stations of the Cross, the story of Jesus’s procession from trial to death. The paintings themselves are simple and straightforward, except for one. The 11th Station shows the moment of Crucifixion, when the nails are being driven in. “That was one I spent special attention on. I struggle with certain traditional images, particularly in the Western churches [in which] Jesus looks so dead and tortured.”
Giffey’s 11th Station shows a centurion with hammer and nail ready, standing in the palm of a giant hand. This choice replaces the horror of the moment with the wonder of the miracle to come.
Giffey also departs from his Greek forbears by painting in acrylic on canvas, rather than directly onto plaster walls. Giffey paints the backgrounds directly on the wall, but then attaches icons over them, using plaster to cover the edges. He did not originate this technique, but he finds it ideal for the space he is working in. It avoids cluttering up the space with ladders and scaffolds for months on end, and there is an architectural reason as well. “Buildings in this hemisphere are built of sheet rock and two-by-fours. If I spent nine months painting the ceiling of the dome onto the plaster and the roof leaked it would destroy the painting,” says Giffey. “This way, if necessary, we could … chip the plaster back and peel the canvas off and it wouldn’t damage it.”
Destruction nearly came one night in 2001. A candle was accidentally left burning in the church’s narthex. It tipped over and caused a carpet fire that smoldered through the night. The church was spared the flame, but it suffered from the smoke. By the time the fire department arrived, the entire interior was, in Giffey’s words, “blackened.” For six months, services were held in the basement while Giffey and a crew of art conservators worked to bring the art back to life. “Inch by inch [we] cleaned every single icon.” Due to his technique and the paints used — water-based acrylics — he says, “I didn’t have to retouch a thing.”
“I really prefer painting to cleaning,” he adds.
Father Michael Vanderhoef has been here through it all. The priest at Assumption for 10 years, he has worshipped there since childhood. He calls Giffey “a family member.” Other churches, he says, “have someone else come in and do all the iconography and they’re gone. He didn’t just put up the icons and disappear.”
The church has changed over the years. “This is an incredibly diverse church,” says Giffey. “We have people who come from all over. North Africa, Syria, the Middle East, because for years this was the only Orthodox church in town.”
“I’ve seen it expand from just a little rectangular church to its building out and the dome being put up and David putting his icons up through the years,” adds Vanderhoef. For Midwestern Christians used to modest facilities, entering Assumption can be an eye-opening experience. “Some people come in and say ‘Oh my gosh.’ It’s sensory overload,” says Vanderhoef. “More are overwhelmed in a very positive way, but I have a very dear friend of mine who’s Lutheran who doesn’t come around much because he literally leaves with a headache. He says, ‘I’m a simple white wall, red carpet, wood pew person, and to come in here is, like, whoa!’ It is a different tradition.”
But Vanderhoef and the congregation appreciate the continuity that Giffey brings — and his stories. “This is a story not only of our holy traditions and our Bible, but our church. He continues to add to the story.”
Above the exit of the church, Giffey has painted four buildings; one is easily recognized as Assumption. The other three are plain Midwestern houses. As you step outside you see that the painted buildings are representations of the houses of 7th Street. This is Giffey’s playful way of showing that the church’s little corner of Madison is its own part of the larger story of the Greek Orthodox faith.
Likewise, the larger story of Giffey’s life can be seen in his paintings, both secular and religious. Long Shadow, his series based on his memories of Vietnam, was displayed in 2016 at Madison College, and then in Neillsville, Wisconsin. He created four murals for the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County, where he and his wife worked for years as teachers. These murals show a brief history of labor unions, the cause to which he devoted so much of his youth. His love for playing and watching basketball is represented in his quirkiest work, The Colleagues, 14 life-sized Byzantine-style portraits of the 1988 Milwaukee Bucks that get pulled out of storage for exhibition every few years.
A mural showing the history of Black Earth at the State Bank of Cross Plains at Black Earth is personal in its own way. It is the bank that loaned him and his wife Nancy money for a house. In the kitchen, 35 years after that loan went through, he still speaks in appreciation that they would do such a thing: “Artists are rewarded in many ways, but not financially.” He states this as a fact he is resolved to live with, not as a complaint. “I also am convinced that it’s necessary to choose a lifestyle that doesn’t require an overabundance of material things,” he adds.
Their house is a work of art in itself: A beautifully converted barn built into a hillside southwest of Arena. “Ninety percent of the house is recycled,” says Nancy, an artist and educator. “Everything but the plumbing and the electricity. Stuff people threw away, because we didn’t have the money for anything else.” David and Nancy each have a studio. David’s is a large space two stories high, right off the living room and kitchen. The wall where he pins up his canvases has become the kind of accidental abstract painting found in artists’ studios made up of traces of colors from projects he has done over the years. There are remnants of the art that came before in the vibrant blues, reds and yellows found throughout the church.
Assumption recently built a large exo-narthex, giving Giffey a beautiful new blank canvas to work with. The first piece he added in September depicts two angels holding up a large disc upon which sits the Virgin Mary, a smaller version of the image found in the church behind the altar. On her lap, the child Jesus holds a scroll showing that he is a teacher. Upon closer examination, it becomes clear that the angels are not holding up the virgin and child. It only looks that way because of the traditional flat perspective of iconography. The angels are, in fact, holding up a picture of Mary and Jesus. It is an icon holding an icon.
“People ask me how much more do you want to do?” says Giffey. “I have to decide that. I feel capable now, but who knows if I have two years, one year, 10 years, 20 years? I don’t know. I would love to do this whole area with scenes from the life of Mary.”
Giffey is wasting no time. At his home studio, he has begun putting together the pieces of a painting that will greet worshipers as they enter the building depicting Mary’s early childhood. Showing multiple points in time in one image, it is complex without being confusing, and from the early sketches it should be a stunning visual introduction to the other images in the church.
“There’s a need on my part to make the icons as beautiful as possible,” says Giffey. “As long as they tell the story they need to tell.”
FOLKSINGER SI KAHN JOINS WITH OTHER MADISON VETERAN MUSICIANS FOR SPECIAL ARMISTICE DAY CONCERT TO BENEFIT THE PROGRESSIVE MAGAZINE
SATURDAY NOV. 11, 2017 at 7pm at the BARRYMORE THEATRE, 2090 Atwood Avenue in Madison, WI. $15 at the door ($10 for veterans and unemployed).
“When I was a boy…all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month. It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another…Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not.” – Kurt Vonnegut, World War II veteran and author.
“Armistice Day was a hallowed anniversary because it was supposed to protect future life from future wars. Veterans Day, instead, celebrates “heroes” and encourages others to dream of playing the hero themselves, covering themselves in valor.” – Rory Fanning, Iraq War veteran and conscientious objector.
“This year with a rise of hate and fear around the world it is as urgent as ever to ring the bells of peace. We in the U.S. must press our government to end reckless rhetoric and military interventions that endanger the entire world. Instead of celebrating militarism, we want to celebrate peace and all of humanity.” -Veterans for Peace 2017 action statement.
“This year with a rise of hate and fear around the world it is as urgent as ever to ring the bells of peace. We in the U.S. must press our government to end reckless rhetoric and military interventions that endanger the entire world. Instead of celebrating militarism, we want to celebrate peace and all of humanity.” -Veterans for Peace 2017 action statement.
Legendary folk musician and community organizer Si Kahn is returning to Madison this November for a special benefit concert on Armistice Day. Kahn will perform at the Barrymore Theatre on Saturday November 11th at 7pm along with Vietnam veteran musicians Jim Walktendonk and Will Williams, together with the Madison Gospelaires and Mad City Funk band. The show, co-sponsored by the Clarence Kailin Chapter 25 of Veterans For Peace and The Progressive magazine will be a benefit for The Progressive celebrating 108 years of publishing in Madison. David Giffey, artist and former combat journalist will emcee the show.
Si Kahn has been a musician and organizer for over 50 years, beginning as a volunteer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Arkansas during the Civil Rights movement. He has continued to live and work in the South, assisting in union struggles, working against the privatization of prisons, and most recently with “Musicians United,” a group working to protect the environment in Bristol Bay, Alaska. He has also written numerous theater works including “Joe Hill’s Last Will,” which was performed in Madison by John McCutcheon in 2015.
Jim Walktendonk has lived and performed in the Madison area for decades. His songs, many influenced by his time in Vietnam and his exposure to Agent Orange defoliant, are personal and powerful. He was featured in the 1987 HBO special “Welcome Home Concert.”
Will Williams and his wife Dot bring beautiful gospel harmonies to the stage. Will is a regular participant in peace and justice events in Madison, and was profiled in the 2009 documentary film “The Good Soldier.”
The Clarence Kailin Chapter 25 of Veterans For Peace is named for the late Spanish Civil War vet whose life was a model for a generation of activists in a variety of movements for peace, justice, and equality. Members will be on hand to share information about their current projects. The Progressive magazine was founded by “Fighting Bob” La Follette in January 1909. It has continued since that day as a voice for peace, social justice, and the common good. The print edition of the magazine is published bi-monthly, with daily content appearing on the web at www.progressive.org.
This years benefit concert is built around the theme, voiced by Veterans for Peace nationally, that November 11th should return to its roots as a day for peace – calling for an end to all wars as it did 99 years ago.
Advance tickets only available on-line at www.barrymorelive.com and by phone at (608) 241-8633, with $2.00 credit card convenience charge.
For more information, contact the Barrymore at 608-241-8864 or The Progressive at 608-257-4626.
Will Williams wants you to know something right off the bat: Protesting injustice, immorality, or any circumstance where the United States is not living up to its creed is the most patriotic thing that you can do as an American and is critically important in elevating the voices of the most vulnerable in our nation.
“It angers me to see politicians use veterans as pawns in their arguments constantly. It’s not because they support and care for them, but because it fits the end that they are trying to meet,” Williams tells Madison365. “But, man, if you really want to be patriotic – take care of your veterans after they fight and lose limbs – and sometimes their minds – for you. Take care of the American people. Don’t let people fight and die in unnecessary wars. This poseur patriotism that has engulfed us will be the end of us.”
Seventy-four-year-old Williams is as feisty and outspoken as they come when the subject is supporting Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players as they quietly kneel during the national anthem to draw attention to racial justice and inequality. And that sometimes angers many veterans and wanna-be-veterans alike that he comes into contact with.
All too often, counter-arguments about protesting during the national anthem – especially numerous online arguments – will be less about facts and more about “You didn’t serve! I did. You can’t comment on this!”
Not so fast. Here, Williams has the trump card, no pun intended. Williams put his life on the line for his country with tours serving in Vietnam – twice. His good friend, Demarchi, whom he used to sing doo-wop together with, died in his arms while they were on patrol together. Williams has endured decades and decades of the nightmares and flashbacks that were part of his post-traumatic stress disorder. In short: he served.
Williams’ trump card is much larger than you think. Unlike his white military veteran counterparts, he put his life on the line for a country that up to that point in his life – growing up in nasty and racist Jim Crow Mississippi – fell dreadly short in providing him the freedoms they told him he was fighting for.
In fact, Williams was two years younger than 14-year-old Emmitt Till was at the time that he was brutally mutilated, disfigured, shot, and thrown into the river by a gang of white men for allegedly flirting with a white woman. Williams’s hometown of Crystal Springs was just a little over two hours south of Money, Mississippi, where Emmitt was murdered.
So, Williams has walked the walk and when he speaks about the military, patriotism, protests, Kaepernick and more, he’s not afraid to talk and when he does, he brings it. Hard.
“What you’re seeing right now is a game that the country has been playing on people for a long time. A lot of it has to do with the grip that the military-industrial complex has on people of all walks of life in this country where they are dependent on that complex for their daily bread,” Williams says. “People are caught in a catch-22 and they can’t speak out because their lives depend on it.
“The Pentagon is totally responsible for the growth of what I call ‘Poseur Patriotism’ in this nation. You get these kids started really early and you get them enlisted and they don’t really understand what’s going on. You make sure they don’t ask questions. Get them to be conformists. And it’s easy to pull them in to prove their patriotism,” he adds.
Poser patriotism is the charade of acting like a patriot, Williams says, but in reality, not having the love and devotion to your country or its veterans.
“You don’t have money for the programs that are really needed to help our veterans who are hurt and are committing suicide? You don’t have money to take care of all of people in American who desperately need it?” Williams asks. “It really bothers me when they say that athletes are ‘disrespecting the flag’ and they are ‘dishonoring veterans who fought and died protecting our freedom.’ That’s crap. It’s bull. I don’t know when this country really fought for the freedom that we’re all supposed to have. You might have to go to the Revolutionary War.
“It’s all a game. To me, that flag stuff is all a ritual that’s trying to galvanize people to support militarism. And hopefully, not to think too much,” he adds. “I think people are brainwashed if they think that America fights to protect our freedoms. Not with these wars of choice we have been sending people to die in. They have not been able to put two and two together. They missed the boat a long ago.”
“Country was founded on protest”
Williams and I are sitting on one of the benches that go around the Wisconsin State Capitol Rotunda as we chat. We’ve got about an hour before he has to head to the VA Hospital to deal with an injury on his foot. We watch kids go by as they do tours and the occasional politician shuffling to a meeting.
The topic of Colin Kaepernick and NFL protests keep coming up.
“This country was founded on protest … protest and violence. Now, all of sudden, it’s not nice to protest? You are unpatriotic if you protest? That’s a problem,” he says.
“We need to get to the crux of what the problem is and what Colin Kaepernick has been talking about this whole time. He wasn’t protesting the flag or about the veterans,” Williams adds. “He was talking about what is happening to people of color since the very beginning of United States history. He wanted to raise the issue of it because he had a platform to do it.
“What you see on TV with this national anthem and standing and putting your hand over your heart … that’s not real patriotism,” he continues. “In a sense, it has been forced to be at the level where it is now because you didn’t see that crap before 2009.”
Before 2009, players weren’t on the field for the national anthem and instead generally remained in the locker room before the NFL received millions of taxpayer dollars from the Department of Defense and the National Guard for patriotic displays.
“The Pentagon spent millions of dollars for this. It was a great recruitment tool. It fostered and bolstered patriotism. It fostered militarism,” Williams says.
Williams is old school. At 74, it’s safe to say that he has seen it all. What you’re seeing with today’s athletes isn’t new, he says. “Kaepernick wasn’t even close to the first person to bring this conversation up. Jackie Robinson did. Muhammad Ali did many times. Muhammad Ali said, ‘Vietnamese never called him nigger.’ [1968 Olympic athletes] Tommie Smith and John Carlos … they did it. The guy for the Denver Nuggets [Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf] who refused to stand for the anthem,” Williams says. “This is nothing new. But people didn’t pay attention enough during that time.
“Martin Luther King talked about guys fighting and dying in the same foxholes but couldn’t eat in the same restaurants when they came back to America,” he adds. “He talked about it quite a bit.”
Very few white people, including his fellow freedom-loving Vietnam soldiers, questioned why Williams was being treated like less than a human in the deep south as he risked his life for his country. It’s not a comfortable to think about. Williams notes that America has never been comfortable about self-examination of its own blatant hypocrisy.
“The other night I was thinking about all of this stuff that was going on with this ‘disrespecting the flag’ and the thought came to me what would have happened if this country would have always honored the preamble to the Declaration of Independence – we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal,” Williams says. “If they would have truly used those words to form the union on, would we have had the annihilations and the massacres of the Native Americans in America? Would we even had slavery? I don’t think so.”
Williams knows that most of the people that go off to fight for the military-industrial complex are poor like he once was. They didn’t have many options in life and they didn’t know what they were getting into. Williams agrees that one of the toughest things for a military person to do is to think that you lost a dear friend, an arm, a leg, or, in too many cases, your sanity … for reasons that are less than noble. It’s heart-wrenching to think that 58,000 young, promising Americans lost their lives in Vietnam because the Gulf of Tonkin incident was fabricated and a war was fought under false pretenses.
So people will force themselves to not think about it all.
“Many feel bad because they feel duped that they fell for it. But they won’t say it. Many of them were really gung-ho and felt like they had to do this for the country,” Williams says. “That comes from the way that militarism works in this society that takes kids when they are very young and teaches them the pledge and portrays this country as this shining beacon of freedom on the hill … and they believe them. Men will carry that to their graves. So, if something happens, and it goes against the narrative they believe, they ignore it.
Williams is able to unleash a long list of disastrous “wars of choice of the United States” to me off the top of his head, but I can tell that the Iraq War is one of his biggest bugaboos of all the “wars of choice” that America has been involved in. WMD in Iraq turned out to be a lie. The “Al-Queada ties” turned out to be a lie.
“’Well, Saddam was a bad man’ turned out to be the rationale behind us going in there,” Williams says.
I respond back to Williams: But instead of killing millions and millions of innocent Iraqis, why not go after the people that aided and abetted this “bad man” during his worst atrocities towards mankind – dropping chemical weapons on the Kurds including women and children?
Oh, wait, that was the United States.
“I’ve seen and met many parents who buried their children who were killed in Iraq. They were proud that they died fighting for their country. But it’s a mirage,” Williams says. “For years and years, it’s been wars of choice that the United States has been involved in. It’s choices that we make for specific reasons. Unfortunately, it’s corporate interests. Unfortunately, the reasons for us having caused all of this death and destruction all over the world has absolutely nothing to do with freedom.”
The Good Soldier
Williams is a charter member of the Clarence Kailin Chapter #25 in Madison of Veterans for Peace, a national non-profit educational and humanitarian organization dedicated to the abolition of war. It was founded in 1985 by ex-service members committed to sharing the horrors they experienced in war. He travels throughout the state to warn people and to tell his story. He does meet resistance but also plenty of people who want to honor and praise him. Williams, after all, is a man with a purple heart and two bronze stars who had two friends die in front of him on the battlefield. Many people want to tell him that he is a hero, a patriot, and ‘thank you for your service.’
Williams would rather that you not.
“Even though people might mean it from their heart and really want to thank me, I would rather that they take a stand on what’s wrong with this country that is keeping it from being the perfect union that it could be,” Williams says.
“I don’t deserve ‘thank yous’ or ‘you’re my hero.’ If you doing something ignoble, you should get no gratification from it. No ‘thank yous.’ When I came back from ‘nam, I didn’t want anybody thanking me,” Williams adds. “And if I had wanted it, it would have been the government and the Congress that lied about the Tonkin Gulf. It would have been [former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert] McNamara. It would have been the people who had a direct effect on me being sent there.
“I’d also probably want some money from the corporations that profited off the bloodshed of the many that died and were mortally wounded,” he adds.
For decades and decades, Williams has had uncomfortable questions for the government that sent him off to war under false pretenses, and for those politicians and chickenhawks who cheerleaded it. Now he has uncomfortable questions for conservative military veterans who defend Trump as a “patriot” in his fight against NFL players. The same Trump who dodged the military, prefers soldiers and POWs that “don’t get captured,” who said he knew more than the generals, who called the U.S. military a disaster, who insulted the parents of a Gold Star captain. And so much more.
“It doesn’t make sense,” Williams says. “But, then again, throughout our history it’s never really made sense why this person is a patriot and that person is not.”
Williams was one of the stars of “The Good Soldier,” a 2009 documentary film directed and produced by American filmmakers Lexy Lovell and Michael Uys. The film is composed of candid interviews with five veterans from five different generations of American wars, who marched eagerly to defend their country in 1944, 1966, 1991, or 2003 only to return conflicted by the atrocities they saw and participated in, and questioning what true service to your country really means.
“It bothered me at the time if I didn’t get a chance to kill someone. It went beyond the call of duty and it turned into something else. The hate that I had growing up in the south had expanded because of what had happened in the Vietnam … because of losing people,” Williams said in “The Good Soldier” documentary. “I feel like I had become an animal.”
It’s still more than a half-century later, and Williams, like many other military veterans, still struggles with what he saw and what he did in Vietnam. Williams and I have a lengthy side discussion on all of the things that veterans like him are battling post-war. He doesn’t want anybody to ever have to go through what he’s going through again.
“I know a lot of vets who don’t believe as I do. I respect them and their opinion even though they don’t respect mine. If that’s what you believe, that’s what you believe,” Williams says. “I’ve moved beyond that area where I’m a conformist long ago … where you have to be politically correct. You have to speak your mind. You have to be real.”
People are too scared to speak up about the military, he says. Check that: people are often too afraid to speak up about anything, he adds.
“When Tony Robinson was killed, I watched some of the leaders out in the streets up at East High School telling the kids, ‘Don’t do this. Don’t do that. Don’t go out in the streets because your mother will get a fine and she can’t afford to pay that,’” Williams remembers. “I’m saying, ‘Wow. What are they teaching these young people?’ If people hadn’t taken a stand years ago, we wouldn’t be where we are today – woman, African-American, Latinos, so many groups. Everything that has happened that has had a huge effect on society was done by people rising up from the bottom. It wasn’t done by people on the top.
“Cuz the people at the top like where they are at,” adds Williams.
The change that needs to happen in the United States, Williams says, must come from the grassroots. That’s why Williams doesn’t like what he sees with the NFL owners and coaches that have co-opted the protest with the arms linked in unity.
“I wonder, if it was really in their hearts, many of them wouldn’t have blackballed Kaepernick in the first place. He should be there. These owners are simply doing this because it’s the business things to do. They can’t have protests and boycotts. That affects their money. These owners weren’t doing it out of heart,” Williams says. “I think if Vince Lombardi was here and he did it, it would have been from his heart because he proved where his heart was when he signed Willie Davis when he was in an interracial marriage and nobody else would touch him. When Lombardi pulled his team out of hotels that were segregated. To me, there are no more Vince Lombardi’s. It’s all business now without real care for the people who are making them so much money.”
So what would it take to really live in a United States where more people would want to salute the flag and sing its anthem? Where people would never even think about kneeling.
“When this country starts believing and acting and voicing the equality for all; the justice for all. Once that happens, I think people will. I think that’s the reason why I haven’t done it since I got out of the service. It’s because of that,” Williams says. “To me, it’s always been a false image of what this country is about. They talk about “The land of the free and the home of the brave.’ That’s not what it is. They say, ‘All people are created equal.’ They aren’t. I think when this country gets to a point where it can do that, it will be the end of the protests.
“I have faith in young people. I think it will happen. Young people now can get more material much easier than what I was getting back in the day. I think the tide is changing,” Williams adds. “I think these young people will take that stand that many stopped taking after Martin Luther King was assassinated. I think if people had kept their eye on the prize, perhaps we would be closer to that perfect union than now.”
Williams feels like more and more white Americans will join in the protest movement in the future – led by those young people. American economic inequality – the giant gap between the 1 percent of the 1 percent and the increasingly poorer rest of the population – continues to get worse and worse. White people, historically shielded from feeling this pain by inheritance, are feeling the pinch more and more and starting to wake up, he says. More and more are realizing that beyond the red, white, and blue jingoism they’ve been taught to salute, that the game is rigged.
“It’s always been rigged … but I don’t think it’s ever been this obvious,” Williams says. “It’s our kids that have always fought and died in these endless wars of choice; not theirs. They are profiting from it immensely; not you.”
Protest in the future, Williams says, will be very important.
“They have us divided right now, but someday it’s going to take every different group realizing that their oppression is coming from the same place. It’s one umbrella … and everything is coming from that,” Williams says. “I think people will realize it one day soon and all of these voices will come together. There will be change, but I don’t think it will be without a fight.
“We’re on a path right now to it, and it’s not as far away as it might seem,” he adds. “There will be a revolution in this country where you see people actually sacrifice because they have been driven to such a low point. And that will be everybody. This income divide that is only getting worse and worse and it affects everybody and devastating more and more people … of all races.”
Williams says that there is nothing more American than these NFL protests going on right now and that he still has faith that this country can become what it is supposed to be.
“The protests have caused some people to take a look at something they wouldn’t have ordinarily look at. It has opened many eyes. But many eyes remain closed,” Williams says. “But you can’t slow down right now. You can’t quit. It’s easier to push something while it’s rolling. You can’t fall off. We can’t stop. Hopefully, years later, these people that are being ridiculed and are being scorned right now … hopefully, we’ll realize just how patriotic they were being.
“Do you want to talk about patriotism? I feel like I’m a patriot,” Williams continues, his tone becoming very serious. “You don’t have to wear a lapel pin. You don’t have to wrap yourself in the flag to be patriotic.
“Everybody that stands against what is destroying this country is a patriot,” adds Williams.