The People's Bishop
Retired Episcopal Bishop George Packard was arrested in Vietnam Veterans Memorial Plaza in New York City last Tuesday night as he participated in the May 1 Occupy demonstrations. He and 15 other military veterans were taken into custody after they linked arms to hold the plaza against a police attempt to clear it. There were protesters behind them who, perhaps because of confusion, perhaps because of miscommunication or perhaps they were unwilling to risk arrest, melted into the urban landscape. But those in the thin line from Veterans for Peace, of which the bishop is a member, stood their ground. They were handcuffed, herded into a paddy wagon and taken to jail.
It was Packard’s second arrest as part of the Occupy protests. Last Dec. 17 he was arrested when he leapt over a fence in his flowing bishop’s robe to spearhead an attempt to occupy a vacant lot owned by Trinity Church in lower Manhattan. The December action by the Occupy movement was a response to the New York City Police Department’s storming and eradication of the encampment in Zuccotti Park. Packard will appear in court in June to face the trespassing charge that resulted. Now, because of this second arrest, he faces the possibility of three months in jail.
Packard’s moral and intellectual courage stands in stark contrast with the timidity of nearly all clergy and congregants in all of our major religious institutions. Religious leaders, in churches, synagogues and mosques, at best voice pious and empty platitudes about justice or carry out nominal acts of charity aimed at those bearing the weight of resistance in the streets. And Packard’s arrests serve as a reminder of the price that we — especially those who claim to be informed by the message of the Christian Gospel — must be willing to pay to defy the destruction visited on us all by the corporate state. He is one of the few clergy members who dare to bear a genuine Christian witness in an age that cries out in anguish for moral guidance.
”Arrests are not arrests anymore,” Packard said as we talked Friday in a restaurant overlooking Zuccotti Park in New York. ”They are badges of honor. They are, as you are taken away with your comrades, exhilarating. The spirit is calling us now into the streets, calling us to reject the old institutional orders. There is no going back. You can’t sit anymore in churches listening to stogy liturgies. They put you to sleep. Most of these churches are museums with floorshows. They are a caricature of what Jesus intended. Jesus would be turning over the money-changing tables in their vestibules. Those in the church may be good-hearted and even well-meaning, but they are ignoring the urgent, beckoning call to engage with the world. It is only outside the church that you will find the spirit of God and Christ. And with the rise of the Occupy movement it has become clear that the institutional church has failed. It mouths hollow statements. It publishes pale Lenten study tracts. It observes from a distance without getting its hands dirty. It makes itself feel good by doing marginal charitable works, like making cocoa for Occupy protesters or providing bathrooms from 9 to 5 at Trinity Church’s Charlotte’s Place. We don’t need these little acts of charity. We need the church to have a real presence on the Jericho Road. We need people in the church to leave their comfort zones, to turn away from the hierarchy, and this is still terrifying to a lot of people in the church and especially the church leadership.
”Occupy,” he went on, ”is a political movement. Let’s not be naive. But it also has a moral core. We are in the midst of a reawakening of a spiritual anthropology. All of the groups that have risen up, across the globe, have this reawakening. Those who took to the streets in the Middle East were not simply unsettled. They were called together because they had a connection with each other. Many, many people have reached a point where the only option left is to place their bodies, their beings, in a location where they can finally have some say and some control over their own lives. As Carne Ross points out in his book ‘The Leaderless Revolution,’ people have lost their agency; they have lost control of their lives. The only control many have left is the control of their physical being. They place themselves in locations where they can demonstrate that they no longer support current systems of power. If you don’t have any money in our political system you not only have no say, you don’t have any dignity. And the only way left to reclaim our dignity is to occupy, to reinhabit the environments that have been taken away from us.”
Packard had been to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Plaza before. In 1985, once the humiliation of the United States’ defeat in Vietnam no longer stigmatized Americans who had fought in the war, New York City organized a ticker-tape parade for Vietnam veterans. The parade began at the memorial. And Packard, wearing his old jungle fatigues, was at the site 27 years ago along with thousands of other veterans.In connecting events old and new, at times the bishop drew on language from his writings. “It was pretty much the same route, only in reverse from the route we marched on Tuesday night. It seems to me emblematic of the errant course taken by our nation. I stopped on Tuesday to rest at the same spot I had rested as a marcher in 1985. I’m probably at the end of God’s list of coincidental places from which to be arrested: church property on December 17th and now the memorial for my fallen brothers and sisters on May 1st. But it all makes sense to me. The memory of my comrades from one time meets with the insistent truth of new comrades. That clarity conveyed hospitality of space. I felt required to pass this continuity on, so I ignored the police instructions to leave the park.”
I first learned Packard’s wartime story when I interviewed him for The New York Times a decade ago. He had been raised in a middle-class home in Long Island. He graduated from Hobart College in upstate New York, married, went to law school for a year and then heard ”the hoofbeats of my draft board.” He enlisted in the Army during the Vietnam War and was sent, after basic training, to become an officer at Fort Benning, Ga.
”I was not reflective about it,” he said. ”I liked the outdoors, being part of a troop, being a body in a platoon. I liked that feeling of corporate identity. I figured I knew the lifestyle.”
It was 20 days after he arrived in Vietnam in 1969 that he led his first ambush. As he stood over the enemy bodies he viewed them with a disquieting lack of emotion.
”In the war movies you see soldiers vomit after they kill for the first time,” he said. ”I looked at those I had killed and knew it should have been overwhelming, but I felt only that I had accomplished my task. The Army trains you well to make you do extraordinary things under fire. There is no bravery on a battlefield.”
The cries of the wounded North Vietnamese or Viet Cong soldiers after an ambush had to be swiftly silenced so he and his men could avoid detection. Compassion was a luxury they could not afford.
”I would throw area grenades at the wounded until they were dead,” he said. ”I remember in one firefight killing a man who crawled toward me with his legs blown off. It was not pretty.”
His first thought, once the shooting stopped — a thought he now finds strange — was how to tell others about the firefight. He began, in the minutes after an ambush ended, to give a coherency to the violence that took place around him, to make the chaos into a story, make it fit the movie running in his head.
He and his soldiers went through the pockets of the dead. Packard said he often found photographs, reminders that those he had killed had mothers, fathers, wives, children and lovers. The unit once discovered the picture of a young blond woman on a body, most likely taken from an American the North Vietnamese soldier had killed in an earlier firefight. Packard would collect the pictures he found on the bodies after each firefight and make a little pile on the ground.
”I burned the pictures I found, although no one in my platoon saw me do this, because I felt that I had in my possession tokens of the lives of those I had killed,” he said. ”I held in my hands something precious, something ultimate that I had taken away from another human being. I have often thought about trying to find the girlfriends or the parents of those I killed and write to say I was sorry.”
Packard was a tiny cog in the great wheel of industrial slaughter unleashed by the United States in Vietnam. Villages were put to flame. Water buffaloes were shot for sport. Civilians were machine-gunned from the air. Grenades were tossed down tunnels where often women and children huddled in fear. Second lieutenants called in airstrikes and artillery rounds that turned thatched-roofed villages into infernos. The American military held the power to give or take human life. And with this power Packard and those around him became sick and demented. The world was turned upside down. Life was reduced to a vortex of pain or fleeting ecstasy. Human life was cheap. The gratification of the moment was the overriding impulse. Killing. Dope. Bar girls. Lies. It was all the same package of deceit and manipulation.
Packard spent a year as an Army lieutenant leading platoons. He and his men killed in each encounter from 12 to 15 North Vietnamese, Viet Cong or perhaps Chinese mercenaries. They did it clinically. He said he stopped counting how many young men and boys he killed.
”But with about 30 ambushes and firefights you can do the math,” he said.
There was a part of him that liked to kill, that sought out the high of combat. War was at once revolting and deeply seductive.”I violated the commandment ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill,’ ” he said. ”Nothing will be gained by intellectualizing this. I killed other people. I took lives. It was exactly that. I became in Vietnam a professional killer. I was proud of what I could do. There are days when I meet with people, trying to do what is good for the church, for others, and think I am probably the only person here who has killed another human being.”
He received the Silver Star and two Bronze Stars for valor. He spent his last months in the Army teaching ambush tactics to Rangers. But he returned home shattered, ”hating the war.” He entered the seminary in 1971, not sure that he wanted to be a priest, ”to study the ethical and moral issues that confronted me in Vietnam.” And it was only then that he began to confront the war. He has repetitive nightmares.
In the dreams, he said, ”I had killed someone. No one knew about it. I was trying to hide my crime. I buried the body in a pile of leaves. I was terrified I would be caught.”
”Night is the worst,” he said slowly. ”Nearly all the ambushes I carried out in Vietnam were at night.”
”You get wrapped in cellophane so you can function in this world of war,” he said. ”Only much later, long after you come out, something pricks that cellophane and it all comes out. Then you pray. You pray, ‘Lord, forgive me for what I have done.’ And you pray to get out of this.”
Packard bears the weight of the war. His life is a form of atonement. He does not fear arrest or jail or defying police in the streets; he fears not doing what is right. He is determined to make amends.
”The important moments in my life came when I made basic connections,” he said. ”I made a connection with a platoon that was powerful. The relationships you develop in a combat zone, the need to support your buddy, are essential for survival. You don’t care about national policy. You only care about the people you are with. The Army takes advantage of this. It trains you to think like this. The Army counts on bravery being reinforced by the urge to take care of your buddy. When I visited those wounded in the Iraq War when I was in Germany I would find some missing a leg below the knee. One Marine said to me that all he wanted was to get back to the guys in his squad. He was not going anywhere except to Walter Reed [Hospital], but this was the only thing he could think of. I tried to communicate the connectedness I felt among my platoon when I applied to seminary. I might as well have been speaking Swahili. The professor had no idea. When I had cancer I would queue up in the radiation line. Some people were huddled down in their wheelchairs. Others made a point of hobbling from person to person to talk. The people who connected with others were the ones who brought fabric and meaning to their lives. They joined their suffering and uncertainty with the suffering and uncertainty of someone else. And now I arrive at Occupy. And I again find this connection. I like the people within Occupy. They have their humanity on their sleeves. And compare this with my visits to Trinity Church. When I go to Trinity Church I have to make an appointment in advance with the rector. I take an elevator up to the 14th floor. And I ask myself when I am there, ‘Where is the connection?’ ”