Two Vietnam-era figures died recently, one prominent until recent years, one who died unnoticed. As the Vietnam War continues to affect our public discourse 41 years after it ended, both should be acknowledged.
The Reverend Daniel J. Berrigan, who passed in late April at the age of 94, was a Jesuit priest who interpreted the Scriptures as a call for political action. It was not the prevailing view of the Catholic Church in the late 1960s — although Pope Francis embraces it today — but Father Berrigan and his brother Philip, a Josephite priest, came to define the "new left" of the Catholic Church that battled racism, economic unfairness, and the militarism personified by the Vietnam War.
On May 17, 1968, 48 years ago Tuesday, six weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King and with the country increasingly sickened by the pointless carnage of Vietnam, the Berrigans and seven other Catholic activists invaded the offices of the draft board in Catonsville, Maryland, seized hundreds of draft records, and brought them to the parking lot where they burned them with homemade napalm. That event and the subsequent trial of the "Catonsville Nine" had a dramatic impact upon an unhappy, rebellious nation, leading to marches and the public burning of draft cards.
Many other acts of civil disobedience followed, including the Berrigan brothers' raid on a General Electric plant in Pennsylvania where they took hammers to missile warheads (security was more relaxed in an era that marked an end of innocence). Actions have consequences, as Daniel and Philip Berrigan knew, and they did jail time for their actions, but a nation was awakened to injustices at home and abroad. Their protests were reflected decades later in the Occupy Wall Street movement and others.
A teacher and prolific writer, Daniel Berrigan was also a harsh critic of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. On the day of his 80th birthday, The New York Times recalled, Father Berrigan proclaimed, "The day after I'm embalmed, that's when I'll give it up."
The story of Donald Duncan, a Green Beret turned prominent war critic, doesn't have the same uplifting quality as does the saga of Father Berrigan. In that sense, it is more in keeping with the story of the Vietnam War.
The New York Times reported on May 7 that Mr. Duncan had died in a nursing home in Madison, Indiana — seven years earlier. The Times did not explain how his death at the age of 79 came to the newspaper's attention, but it did note the irony that "in an age of seeming information ubiquity" it had escaped notice for seven years.
A militant anti-communist, Mr. Duncan was a proponent of the war when he enlisted but departed as a fierce opponent. Writing in the radical Roman Catholic journal Ramparts in 1966 (making it likely that he crossed paths with the Berrigans), the medal-winning Mr. Duncan told of witnessing murders of civilians, torture and other atrocities committed by U.S. forces. He said he refused an order to kill four prisoners whose hands were tied behind them. "The whole thing was a lie," he wrote. "We weren't preserving freedom in South Vietnam. There was no freedom to preserve."
Mr. Duncan joined author Norman Mailer, singer Joan Baez and comedian Dick Gregory at anti-war rallies where he spoke of his experiences. He wrote many articles about the war, as well as a memoir. When the Vietnam War ended badly, as he had predicted it would, he began to fade from public view. The Times reported that his obituary in the Madison Courier said he had worked for a local nonprofit that helped low-income people find jobs but made no mention of his former prominence as an anti-war activist.
Father Berrigan's death was well-noted. Mr. Duncan's life was little remembered. But both put themselves on the line when they saw and spoke out against injustice wrought by government. They set examples decades ago that are no less relevant today.