Bill Distler: A veteran of peace
Wednesday, June 7, 2017
Bill Distler was my friend, and it will never feel right to think of him in the past tense. He died much too soon this week, succumbing to glioblastoma in his sleep. It was the first time I had ever seen him at peace.
This 70-year-old peace vet entrapped me in his web of anti-war activism a dozen years ago. As alter egos, we shared the same guilt and moral injury, cringing when we were thanked for our service. After all, we didn’t serve, we were used. We were also two Vietnam vets that became great listeners. In one of our first conversations he relived the fear and confusion that shredded his point man Willie Earl Granger in the hedgerows near Cu Chi Base Camp, Vietnam. I didn’t deserve to hear that avowal but he needed a sounding board. It wouldn’t be the last time, for either of us.
We always admitted that we were stupid cowards for ending up in Vietnam. From the day he returned to the United States, he knew he had to do something about it. By the time he saw an anti-war demonstration in D.C., after returning stateside, the seeds of peace activism were sown.
There were Americans who recognized the futility of war and they were in the streets. He never looked back, on an odyssey to convince everyone that war was never the answer.
It was mostly about the children. Bill recently wrote, “Forty-seven years after returning from Vietnam, I became aware that there is always a film playing in the back of my mind… I see a line of children sitting on the ground, crying. Behind them, from the knees down, I see their parents standing there, helpless. They cannot comfort their children. They have nothing to comfort them with. Their countries are being destroyed by war. It is our job as adults to stop these wars.”
He was tenacious. During the Reagan and Bush years, Nicaragua and El Salvador were Bill’s righteous obsessions. He was justifiably concerned that region could become the next Vietnam, ravaged by U.S. militarism.
For more than a decade, he and other peace vets rode a wave of solidarity in support of revolutionaries through Central America, born through a prism of combat credibility. This breakneck pace—including arrests for nonviolent civil disobedience protesting U.S. interventionism—took a toll.
During the 1990s Bill deserved a respite, and took it. He often spoke about shifting his focus to nature and the great outdoors—volunteering at San Juan National Historical Park, marrying and starting a family, and trying not to think about war too much. But Bill had never left Cu Chi. And children were dying, again, by U.S. bombs.
As the War on Terror was trending, Bill described the national malady that drove his passion as a spiritual disorder—a syndrome that convinces Americans “that God doesn’t mind if we kill some children, as long as it is for a good cause.”
Angry, and new to the anti-war fray with a son in Iraq, I met Bill at a Veterans for Peace chapter meeting in 2004. By that time, this “spiritual disorder” was morphing into a global pandemic.
Bush I and Clinton had already facilitated its incubation; and Bush II was priming the metastasis of endless war. And Bill was still on the frontline of opposition, for the children’s sake.
Speaking, writing, running for Congress as a peace candidate in 2008, he knew he was planting shade trees for future generations but never lost hope.
In support of the VFP Vietnam Full Disclosure Campaign, Bill wrote a letter to the Wall. Last week it was placed beneath Willie Earl Granger’s etching on Panel 49W and read in part:
“Willie, I think about you and have thought about you every day since the mine went off that killed you. I think about your family and I hope they have peace.
“Even though we were arguing on the day you died, I think your family should know that you were so loved by everyone in our unit, that men were crying when the word came back to us that you had died in the field hospital.
“My purpose in writing this is not to stir up painful memories for your family, but to hope that these words will comfort them…Willie, every day for 44 years, as if you were an angel, I saw your face behind my left shoulder, watching over me in a helpful way. It seemed like you were always asking me: What are you going to do to make this right?
“Thank you, my friend. I hope you are satisfied with what I’ve tried to do.”
Historian Howard Zinn once said, “Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.” And Willie always watched as Bill did more than his share.
Gene Marx is an honored member of Veterans For Peace Chapter 111. A memorial fund has been set up to assist the family of Bill Distler, http://www.gofundme.com/distler-medical funeral-fund.