Fred Phelps and the anti-Vietnam War movement

Today I was reading that the Supreme Court upheld Fred Phelps’ right to picket and harass military funerals, part of their KKK-esque anti-gay crusade.  I don’t have a firm opinion about what the Supreme Court should have done, partly because I don’t have J.D. after my name and I understand my limits of understanding, partly because I don’t have any respect for the SC to begin with, and partly because I have zero faith in law and the rule of law anyway.  But having seen Team Fred in action from 40′ away myself, and being nearer fifty years old than forty, it did bring to mind one thing.

In our time, the military is openly, publicly and loudly glorified and adored; even a hint of anti-military scorn would get one a lot of angry reactions.  If you are young today, you never knew a time when the military was unfashionable.  I assure you that there was such a time:  my own youth.  Numerous reliable sources relate experiencing verbal abuse and degradation just for being in uniform, and especially for getting off the plane from Vietnam.  Evidently it was so common it came to be expected, coped with by service people, and socially accepted to a degree.  Which is not to say that the soldiers suffering it were unhurt by it; oh, no.  It did at least tip them off to the kind of reaction society had in store for them.  I was too young to have a view on this, but old enough to know of the social current.  It lasted into the early 1980s, when I did put on a uniform a few times and get some small tastes of it myself.  Imagine a ROTC unit that tended to de-emphasize uniformed presence on campus just to avoid stirring stuff up? I was in one.

Now, I am not sure that anti-Vietnam protesters ever picketed or disrupted an actual military funeral.  We have general consensus that disrupting anyone’s funeral is disgusting, at any time for any reason.  A lot of people found ways to oppose the Vietnam War without insulting Special Forces guys as “baby killer” in airports; fair enough.  (Some people are uncomfortable with homosexuality, too, yet don’t approve of Phelps on any level.)  But how different were the two extremes, really? How different were the fanatics in the airports, heaping scorn on some poor sod who got drafted and sent to the 1st Cav, survived and graduated, and then wanted to come home and get back to normal, from the Phelpsites I saw in a vacant lot in Pasco holding up signs advocating more military casualties? Fred Phelps and the airport harassers had more in common than I’ve heard anyone attest.  Motivated by pure hate, both asserted the right to pour verbal abuse on targets who could not effectively fight back.  The only difference today is that it’s no longer fashionable to abuse the military.  Sadly, if Phelps had stuck to just disrupting funerals of AIDS deceased, there would be nowhere near the backlash against him, even though his conduct would be just as contemptible.

I sit, and I watch, and I marvel how social currents change people’s ethical compasses without most people noticing.

© 2011, J.K. Kelley

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4 thoughts on “Fred Phelps and the anti-Vietnam War movement”

  1. Having been born in 1945, I’ve seen the cycle turn twice. In my childhood, soldiers were lionized as the heroes of WWII, and that lasted until the mid-’60s. Then they became baby-killers. And after 1990, they went back to being heroes.

    They are neither, of course. They are literally the visible foot-soldiers carrying out orders from the invisibles on Mt. Olympus, and therefore a handy target for our hatreds and adulations. Both are grossly exaggerated.

    As for the SC decision, I hate it but I agree with it. Someone will probably put Phelps out of our misery before long, and he won’t be missed. But until then, those who loudly claim to revere and protect the Constitution can therefore do nothing but cheer at this decision. I’m a little closer to the fulcrum on the reverence scale, but as long as that’s what purports to guide us, I don’t see how anyone can deny the correctness of this awful decision.

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    1. It’s been interesting, hasn’t it? And in the intervening decades, Margaret, I don’t think the morality has changed. It shows me how, more than anything, social peer pressure causes the national concept of morality to oscillate back and forth.

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  2. My father was a Vietnam Vet….and told stories of commentary by non-military folks…..well…all I can say is having grown up a “army brat”, I have and always will respect the soldiers and what they do. Fred Phelps is a tool of the highest level and you, JK are the most brilliant of writers.

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