At the doorway of a Salt Lake City courtroom, spectators and judicial officials watch as a grizzled, leathery defense attorney embraces a young parole officer just back from military service in Iraq.
“I don’t know what people were thinking,” says attorney Manny Garcia, “but we had quite a hug. I had been worried about him and was so happy to find he was safely back.”
Garcia met the parole officer at a parole revocation hearing at the Utah State Prison in late 2004, shortly before he was shipped to Iraq for a harrowing year in a unit charged with protecting high-level military officers from roadside explosives and suicide bombers.
Anyone who knows anything about the fiercely antiwar Garcia, whose award-winning confessional of his own participation in the brutalities of the Vietnam conflict, An Accidental Soldier: Memoirs of a Mestizo in Vietnam (University of New Mexico Press), stirred up a hornet’s nest when it was published in 2003, might have found the scene puzzling.
Why was a professed pacifist hugging a returning soldier? Perhaps because he saw something of himself in the young vet.
“I know the ramifications of violence, and I shy away from them,” Garcia says. But somehow he can’t help projecting his own Vietnam experience onto Iraq’s deepening crisis.
As President George W. Bush’s approval ratings slide, and as casualty figures in Iraq mount along with allegations of torture and abuse, Garcia can’t seem to keep his mouth shut, even though he’s built an accomplished career far removed from the jungles of Southeast Asia.
Yet most loyal Utah supporters of President Bush probably wish Garcia would just let well enough alone. Isn’t it sufficient that the son of a mixed-race day laborer from Colorado got out of Vietnam alive to tackle law school and make a life for himself and his British wife as a Salt Lake City public defender and successful criminal attorney?
A more tactful individual might please expectations that decorated veterans remain silent and grateful for their esteemed lot and forget the horrors of military combat. In this country, that’s what’s expected of good soldiers.
Instead, he wrote a book, Accidental Soldier, raking up all the old doubts and controversy of a war many Americans would prefer remain buried. Four decades after Vietnam, patriotism remains widely defined as unquestioned support for another insoluble conflict.
Ironically, his decision to remain quiet regarding certain aspects of his service in the war brought renewed controversy. When Garcia eliminated information about some ethically questionable secret operations in Vietnam he admits he was involved in, the edit raised red flags about the entire manuscript for one Salt Lake City journalist. Garcia says he attempted to write around the controversy, and in the process, changed and blurred some facts to avoid explaining the situation. For reporter Patty Henetz, that move muddied not just the accuracy and credibility of his work but that of Garcia’s military record as well.
It was April 17, 2004, the very day that Accidental Soldier was named Utah’s best 2003 nonfiction volume by the Utah Center for the Book, that Henetz, then a reporter for The Associated Press, now a staff writer at The Salt Lake Tribune, broke the story.
Problem is that Garcia'the 58-year-old mestizo of Native American, Hispanic and European ancestry'is an anomaly. Always has been. Independent, bullheaded'however you perceive him'he doesn’t ask advice on how to live or portray his life. He’s not interested in the perks of male power or machismo. And that represents a 180-degree swing away from his alleged shadowy involvement in Vietnam with a commando unit similar to the infamous Tiger Force, an air-assault division accused of committing various war crimes in 1967.
Serving in Vietnam was the defining moment of his life. But as confessional in spirit as Garcia’s book is, there are still some events in Vietnam that he will not talk about. His silence regarding these events gives critics like Henetz a foothold to criticize his story, but the only sins Garcia will admit to in his book are those of omission. More than one year after the AP story broke, however, Garcia and Henetz still maintain divergent points of view.
For Garcia, the uniqueness of the United States of America resides in its principles, its diversity and its tradition of an open society'not in armed bravado or military superiority. After his return, he used his American freedoms to question his acquiescence to war, enter a career in law, build a rewarding family life and finally, tell his story.
That story would forfeit credibility with many conservative critics, if for no other reason than he dumped his military medals'including a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star and a Silver Star'over a White House fence, as did Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.
Garcia’s gutful of war has given him a Gandhian perspective. His hard-won pacifism, however, has not made him personally passive. He won’t bite his tongue about the defining event of his life and his generation. And if anybody asks, he’s disgusted by the Bush administration’s unwillingness to own up to the continuing consequences of its preemptive war in Iraq.
The peaceful, tree-shaded cluster of small cottages of Salt Lake City’s Ambassador Plaza, where Garcia offices with an eclectic mix of other professionals, is a long way from the Vietnamese jungle trail where the singular, seismic event of his life took place. Garcia will never forget his first kill in combat. After firing upon what he thought was the threat of a carbine-armed guerilla, he rolled the body over to discover the corpse of an old woman.
Now wearing a blue baseball cap crowned with a curious composite of a Viking and a pig (among other emblems), and seated at his oak desk where morning light filters through a north window, Garcia is grieved but not shocked that atrocities have shown up in Iraq that are all too reminiscent of the inevitable upshot of an ill-conceived war that he saw and experienced in Vietnam.
“Nobody should be surprised,” Garcia says. “Americans are no better or worse than anybody else.” In the situations at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, “where guards were told to â€˜break these guys,’ soldiers are going to do whatever they think that means,” he says.
“That could include humiliation. If the prisoners are modest about their sexual functioning, then you exploit that. You hit them where it hurts the most. That all had to be planned'somebody came up with that. That was somebody’s idea'to do that to them to try to get information. What went wrong is that it got out.
So what, if anything, should Americans have learned from Vietnam that might have been profitably applied to avoid the predicament the country still faces: 135,000 U.S. troops still on the ground in Iraq, more than 2,100 killed and Iraqi casualties that, even by the president’s current admission, top at least 30,000?
“It should have taught us that we cannot just assume'as if we ever could'that the guys who are in charge always know what they are doing'or that we can assume they are doing the right thing,” Garcia says.
“With something as serious as war, it should come down to a referendum by the people. I don’t think the president should have the power to declare war as an executive function. Also, Congress rendered itself â€˜irrelevant’ (to use President Bush’s term) in this whole thing. They rolled over; they didn’t question anything.
In this atmosphere, the result was “executive power gone berserk without checks and balances,” Garcia believes.
“Deciding that the Geneva Convention doesn’t apply? What kind of crap is that? If you have a kid in the military who is captured, you might feel a little differently. The reason it makes sense to have somebody in office with some military experience is that such a person might be a little more thoughtful in making a decision about life and death. Such a president would have an idea what the human cost is.”
Accidental Soldier, Garcia’s personal account of his experiences as a self-described “cocky, alienated teenager” who became an Airborne Ranger and combat infantryman, is told in often profane, brutally direct terms which refuse to sugarcoat the realities of combat for those involved or his own clouded motivations and actions.
“I may have been an Eagle Scout with 22 merit badges, including Citizenship in the Nation, but I had no structure, no social conscience, no collective conscience, no defined identity, no enveloping, nurturing culture, no religion, no sense of brotherhood,” he writes in the book. “In a word, I was ambivalent. In a sense, I was nonexistent. In a way, I was a chameleon, employing whichever hue blended best with my surroundings.
“And I was heatedly attracted to shapely blondes, although I’d never slept with one. I’d never had any woman, regardless of hair color. I was a virgin, though I came close a couple of times.
“Growing up,” Garcia now recalls, “I had no sisters. I didn’t have any girl friends in the sense of females who were my friends. I never knew anything about them. I thought of them as some sort of different species. The only reason I started coming around them was a sexual interest. It wasn’t that I wanted to know who they were, what they were like or what they wanted. I knew nothing about them. And for a long time, that caused me a lot of trouble, because all I had were fantasies.
When he “as good as accidentally joined the Army, I was not thinking about any meaning or potential consequences of my actions,” he writes in the book. Garcia had “no global, national or communal perspective, and I’d already left home.
“I belonged to no movement. I felt no allegiance or loyalty to anything. I had no agenda, no opinion. I had nothing to prove. I had no good reasons to do it. I had no ethnic consciousness, no grudges. I had no sense of obligation or patriotism. I didn’t do it out of pride, or to seek glory for myself, my family, my name or the country. I was not angry. I was not gung ho.”
In a sense, Manny Garcia was a blank cultural slate on which the indelible mark of a long and tragically vile war would be inscribed.
As rigorous as his intensive training had been with the First Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division'it could not have prepared him for the impact of that first face-to-face kill. The impact came soon after his baptism of fire, when he had taken a bullet in the boot that had left his right leg temporarily numb and had watched a 155-mm artillery shell slam into a foxhole next to his, propelling the occupant, a sergeant-friend, through the air to land on top of Garcia.
But after just two weeks in the field, at age 18, Garcia tasted death by his own hands'a traumatic introduction to the psychic cost of personal actions in wartime.
“I returned to the body and checked for booby traps. I noticed the guerilla’s small leathery feet. I rolled the body over and realized the corpse at my feet was an old woman. Her hair was pulled back and tied in a bun, like how my grandmother used to wear her hair â€¦
“I [had] killed a woman before I made love to one. I killed a woman before I was old enough to vote â€¦ I killed a woman and I was an Eagle Scout. I killed a woman while I was on probation to the juvenile court. I killed a woman before I knew she was a woman. I killed a woman while working for the U.S. Army in South Vietnam. I had killed before I had lived. The afternoon in the jungle was bright and hot. I stood there sweating, bewildered, dumbfounded and completely absorbed by the power.
The temptation of addictive use and abuse of power that infuses war’s consciousness is a theme that permeates Garcia’s book. It’s a concept that he still wrestles with.
Ironically, the Spanish word “machismo” once embodied “all the virtues,” Garcia says. “The member of the tribe designated as the most â€˜macho’ was the one who could get the most food for the tribe, make sure the tribe got to eat before he did,” Garcia says. “The word has done a complete 180'it now means something selfish and sexist.
A survivor of the cruelties of combat and the tragic results of male delusions of military grandeur, Garcia has a decidedly masculine mien. But something in his tough and weathered face softens as he considers what society seems to take for granted about power politics.
“The fact that men have always been in charge must have come from a physical advantage in the beginning,” he says. “We’ve always had the power. We learned how to use it, then abuse it and corrupt it. It’s the way of the world.”
For Garcia, war represents the full flower of corruptive male power.
“I had a friend who says he kind of wishes that women would take charge for a while and see how they would do'because we’ve done nothing but mess it up.
“It goes back to a very primitive idea,” he says. “If we can’t get along with you, we’ll just beat the hell out of you and teach you how it’s going to be. Even though we know better'we know there are better ways to do things'it ultimately comes down to that. It still seems to be the flaw in our nature after all this time. If we don’t agree with you, we’ll beat you. We still haven’t gotten past that.
Examining his own actions in wartime, Garcia concludes they had a lot to do with indoctrination. “A lot of it is what’s expected of you'that’s all part of the male mentality regarding power. I think we guard it jealously. As I wrote in the book, I don’t know why I jumped when they [his commanding officers] screamed, but I did'maybe trying to belong, or trying to be part of something. But the whole thing is a power play.
Garcia concedes that his book tells “a horrible story.” Yet, in a way, he believes it may leave “some people hopeful,” since it “shows I was able to go on and make a life for myself.”
Garcia believes it might have been a stretch for the young soldier to imagine becoming a lawyer.
“It would have been important for me to sense that I would go on to develop a conscience'to become very clear on where I stand on some things. The lesson would be'there is a future if you want one bad enough, and you’re willing to work for it and not give up on it.
“I would want to let myself know there is still hope'because humans are incredibly adept at surviving. That is our saving grace. We can survive. We can adjust. We can change. That’s the lesson I would have wanted my younger self to learn.”
Garcia was a public defender for the first seven years of his career and still serves on a panel of appointed attorneys in federal court. He often represents prison parolees charged with violation of parole. As a criminal defense attorney, he is a lifeline for people with little hope and all the cards stacked against them.
During a homicide case in which he successfully defended his client, a man who lived on the streets, the murder victim made a posthumous appearance in the courtroom.
“I held his skull in my hands like Shakespeare’s Hamlet and asked the jury, â€˜Who killed Tom Moore?’ As potential evidence, the prosecution had been looking for a red jacket the victim owned and couldn’t locate it. Then, during the trial, their chief witness showed up wearing that jacket.”
One of the street people who testified was asked to describe the victim. He said, “In the words of my mother, he was â€˜cheaply handsome,’” Garcia recalls.
Ballistics evidence and testimony of an anthropology professor, who found severe trauma to the bones of the victim that the prosecution’s experts had missed, cleared Garcia’s client. “The jury clearly believed our guy didn’t do it,” he said. “It was a strange and interesting case.”
Since publication two years ago of Accidental Soldier, admirers and detractors on the literary jury of his peers have delivered a mixed verdict.
When the Utah Center for the Book deemed it Utah’s best nonfiction work of 2003, Chip Ward, Center director and assistant director of the Salt Lake City Library, addressed directly the sudden controversy kicked up earlier in the day by Henetz’s AP story.
Regardless of last-minute questions of authenticity, Ward told the award-ceremony audience that judges regarded Accidental Soldier as “a strong and moving reading experience” of the highest quality. The Center, he said, would not second-guess the book and would stand behind the judges’ selection.
Ward said that after Henetz phoned earlier in the day, Center administrators had gone so far as to seek comment from at least one judge and a noted Utah historian whose work had been nominated for the nonfiction award the year before. Henetz had raised the question, “Why would he take 30 years to write this book?
The historian pointed out that since it often takes years for an ex-soldier to come to grips with war experiences, war memoirs often historically have been written long after the events they describe. It is not uncommon, the historian told Ward, for some war events and recollections to become skewed in the retelling.
Garcia left military service and the U.S. Army in anger and disillusionment in November 1968. It would take him years to adjust and deal with what he had been through, the choices he had made'often under the influence of drugs'and his struggle with and acquiescence to authority. On his final day of service, hungover from drinking, according to Garcia, he signed a stack of required forms and was handed a packet of his service records. “I threw them in the trash on my way out the door,” he says.
Henetz reported that Garcia acknowledged to her that he had been kicked out of Ranger School at Fort Benning, Ga., for drug use 10 days before his scheduled graduation.
Garcia admits that his account in the book indicates that he then returned to B Company of the 101st Airborne, an intentional cover story to avoid talking about what happened next. Instead, he says, he was given the choice of being thrown in the brig and court-martialed for breaking training rules and the law or being sent to Vietnam. “I made the wrong choice,” Garcia now says ruefully.
“In Vietnam, I talked to people at the Ranger School at Phan Rang, brigade headquarters, about what had happened to me at Fort Benning. They were training Vietnamese Rangers. One of the cadre said, â€˜That’s bulls't. Help us here for a few days and since you only have a couple of things left to do, maybe we can certify you.’ I stayed there and got involved with a special operation they were conducting with Vietnamese Rangers.” He says he ÃŸeventually was certified as a Ranger at Phan Rang.
His unit, the 502nd Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, conducted secret operations in affiliation with the same Airborne Division’s 327th Infantry Regiment, a notorious unit also known as Tiger Force. Garcia would not describe the Tiger Force unit in detail but bluntly characterized it as, “basically a death squad.”
“But we were all part of a death squad,” Garcia says. He makes a veiled reference to the unit on page 240 of his book but explores it no further than that.
Shortly before publication of Garcia’s book, in 2002, and after a six-year investigation, the Toledo Blade newspaper published a series of revealing articles on Tiger Force. Garcia’s book manuscript had originally included a brief foray into his knowledge of secret operations in Vietnam but fearing he might risk culpability for himself and others, “I just cut out the whole thing [including his completion of Ranger training],” before publication. He also briefly flirted with, but rejected, plans to write a second book exploring the topic in depth.
What, if anything, is Garcia trying to hide?
“There are things that I’m just not willing to reveal because they may pose a personal threat to me'I admit I am afraid,” Garcia says. “So I can’t say anything more.
He said that the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division, had investigated his role in secret operations and at one time had threatened him with a court-martial and obstructing justice because he wouldn’t inform on others involved.
After the Toledo Blade series ran, Garcia says Henetz asked if she could interview him about Tiger Force, since some details in the series matched a few details he had disclosed about his own experience. Garcia demurred, even to a request to discuss it off the record.
Disturbed by “red flags” in Garcia’s story, Henetz made a Freedom of Information Act request for his military records and says the material she received could not confirm that he had ever graduated from or even participated in Ranger training.
In her AP story, Henetz contended that “Garcia’s Army records don’t back some of his most significant claims: that he was an Airborne Ranger with the famed 101st Airborne Division’s Screaming Eagles and had received the Silver Star, the military’s third-highest combat honor. The records do affirm Garcia was a decorated combat veteran but not for the year he said he drew on for his book,” she reported.
Since Garcia no longer possessed his military records, having discarded them in a fit of pique on his exit from the Army, he applied'at Henetz’s request'for a copy through the Salt Lake office of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
There were discrepancies between some of the records Henetz received with her FOIA request and those Garcia obtained from the VA, the former being more complete than the latter. “There are many more records that I don’t have and wasn’t able to get,” Henetz says.
Garcia remembers that the U.S. Army could scarcely keep his medals and what they were awarded for straight, bringing into question whether or not records of his service reflected accurate events. Garcia says that when an Army captain presented him with the Silver Star and other medals during a field ceremony, the captain approached him with a manila envelope containing two medals in official boxes and three of them unboxed. “I informed him, â€˜I’ve already received these medals (referring to the unboxed items).’ He said, â€˜Well, here are some extras.’ He didn’t have any orders for them or anything. He had to ask me, â€˜Where were you? What unit were you with when you earned these and when was it?’
“It was all screwed up,” Garcia says. “You could tell something was incomplete. The first time I saw any of my records was when I requisitioned them for Patty Henetz so she could finish her story. There are all kinds of things that aren’t on there. For example, I was named the outstanding NCO (noncommissioned officer) recruit in the brigade, and there’s no mention of that on there.
“There is no record of anything I did at Brigade reflected on my record'none of it, not even the time period. I was actually in Vietnam longer than a year because of this extension. I didn’t get any credit for it.
Garcia said after he returned to the states, he was shipped by the Army to the military records center in St. Louis for a couple of days “to try to re-create my records.” He found only confusing bits and pieces, including a reference to him with the wrong first name, “Danny.”
At one point, Henetz had concluded that with so much records confusion, she would not do a story, and so informed Garcia. “I decided that if he wrote the second book (dealing with secret operations), I would proceed with a story at that time,” she said. “But when I found out his book was nominated for an award, and I checked on which books were his competition, I knew he would win. And that sort of pushed me to do the story.
In retrospect, does Henetz believe Garcia purposely inflated or falsified his record?
“I don’t think about it,” she said. “I acted in good faith, and I believe I gave him the benefit of a doubt. If I hadn’t bothered to check out his records, I wouldn’t have been doing my job. If I had submitted the story without checking, my editor would have asked me why.
For Garcia, the factual accuracy of his book isn’t nearly as important as its emotional veracity. “The central truth of the book isn’t so much what I did during the war, but what it did to me'what it did to lots of people,” he says. “I never pretended it was history. It wasn’t researched for accuracy. I wrote what I remembered and filled in the rest.”
Did the controversy hurt sales of the book? That’s difficult to determine. Accidental Soldier has sold about 1,000 copies from an initial press run of 2,500. It’s possible the brief storm of controversy may even have stirred some interest.
Garcia’s fling as an author has not tempted him to quit his day job. Despite the fact that his love of golf often gets short shrift, he takes satisfaction in providing legal help to those who can’t afford it.
That blue baseball cap he wears, adorned with multiple symbols'a Viking, a pig, a deer and a shock of grain'was given to him by Englishman Freddy Sturrock, his wife Anne Sturrock’s farmer cousin in Yorkshire, England, who plowed up part of his pig-and-grain farm to make way for a golf course.
“He doesn’t really care about golf, but now he drives a Mercedes,” Garcia laughs. “He made me his first international member of the club and gave me a free pass.”
When Manny and Ann visit the United Kingdom, they get in some golf, not only at Ann’s cousin’s course, but also at Garcia’s favorite course in the world, located in Ballybunion, Ireland.
Garcia finally knows what it’s like to have a romantic partner who is also his best friend. In October, he and Ann celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary. It’s taken a lifetime for Garcia to sculpt a reality to sooth his nightmares and replace the skewed sexual fantasies that haunted his formative years as a naÃ¯ve teenager.