As a Vietnam veteran and a former prisoner of war, Bob Chenoweth has had many people stop to thank him for his service to his country.
When they do, he asks for a moment of their time.
“I say, if you’re going to thank me for my service you can give me a minute of your time so I can tell you what my service was all about.”
On Feb. 8, 1968, Chenoweth was the crew chief on a helicopter flying near Quang Tri in north central Vietnam. He enlisted in the army in 1966, after graduating from high school in Portland. He’d been in Vietnam a year and had just started an extended six-month tour when the helicopter was shot down by local guerrillas. He and the other passengers and crew were taken captive and marched into the mountains. It was the beginning of five years in captivity, living and working in the Vietnamese countryside where his views about the United States’ and war changed forever.
“By the time I was released, I had become very active in my anti-war protest,” said Chenoweth, 71, of Moscow.
When people thank him for his service he tells them: “My service was in an unjust war that cost the lives of more than 3 million Indo-Chinese and nearly 60,000 Americans.”
Chenoweth is a contributor to the new anthology “Waging Peace in Vietnam: U.S. Soldiers and Veterans Who Opposed the War.” He will read from the book, answer questions and sign copies at 7 tonight at Bookpeople in Moscow.
The book, compiled by Ron Carver, David Cortright and Barbara Doherty, is a compilation of photos, posters, newspaper articles and writings about the seldom-discussed resistance to the war from within the armed forces.
There isn’t a single incident that changed Chenoweth’s mind about U.S. involvement in the war, rather it was a combination of things, he said.
“I don’t like to use the term brainwash, but we certainly grew up — I did anyway — with a very slanted view of what America was doing around the world,” Chenoweth said. “When I went, I was told, and believed, that we went to help the Vietnamese, that the north had invaded the south. That was the story we were told. What we were told, it didn’t make sense based on what we were seeing. Not only were we not helping the Vietnamese, we were creating a lot of problems for them.”
Living amongst the Vietnamese people, he saw that they were extremely well organized with an extensive support system. They were not ignorant nor primitive, as many Americans at the time assumed, he said. As he and the other prisoners talked to their guards, they learned about Vietnam’s history and its past involvement with the U.S. and other countries.
“I began to understand U.S. imperialism. They saw America’s presence in Vietnam as a new type of colonialism (aiming) to control their resources and the economy,” said Chenoweth. “They wanted to safeguard the independence of their country.”
During his captivity, Chenoweth began writing letters to his senator, his family and others expressing his opposition to the war and encouraging people at home to do what they could to end it. Other soldiers were doing the same. One way they shared their opinions was through anti-war G.I. newspapers written and published off-base. Some of these were delivered to Chenoweth and other prisoners by peace delegations.
“There were more than 300 of these publications that operated during the war,” said Chenoweth. “We found those newspapers to be very encouraging to us in our opposition to the war. We realized there were a lot of us.”
Chenoweth was set free in March 1973, after the Paris Peace Accords dictated the release of all prisoners on both sides. After returning to the U.S., he traveled with activists Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden as part of a peace campaign to bring awareness to U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
Chenoweth, who retired in 2017 as the museum curator at the Nez Perce National Historical Park at Spalding, sees his experiences in Vietnam, and the wars that have unfolded since, as a continuum.
“A lot of this has to do with money, with perpetuating a system where war has become big business,” he said.
When U.S. fighter jets fly over professional football games, when people wear military camouflage as fashion, when people say “thank a vet,” Chenoweth sees the militarization of American culture.
“It’s always, ‘Thank you for your service for America.’ Really? That’s what you have to ask yourself. Is this really a benefit to the American people? Not discounting the lives, if resources go toward that, these billion-dollar ships we have dozens of, it doesn’t go to health care, education, poverty. … We live in a myth that America is great, America is perfect, America only does good around the world, everybody loves America — this is mythology,” he said.
He shares his story about his service “just to have people think about what the experience was like and what the consequences were,” he said.
“I really want to promote the idea of resistance to war.”
IF YOU GO
WHO: Bob Chenoweth contributor to “Waging Peace in Vietnam.”
WHEN: 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 3.
WHERE: BookPeople of Moscow, 521 S. Main St., Moscow.