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Joseph Brett: A Veteran's Views on Democracy and Policy, Arizona

As told by Joseph Brett
Phoenix, Arizona

Story Narrative:

A man with gray hair and blue, collared shirt sits in a room with yellow walls.

In early 2020 (just weeks before the pandemic), Smithsonian staff and their storytelling partners at the Peale, Baltimore, traveled to multiple states in the U.S. to ask residents of those states about voting experiences, the current state of American democracy, what issues brought them to the polls, how they made a difference in their communities, and what Americans' civic responsibilities were, among other complex questions.

Joseph Brett (00:00): I didn't know about Vietnam. It was a big question mark. So I got back from Vietnam and my questions... I went to Vietnam, I didn't have any questions, and I came back from Vietnam and I didn't have any answers. So I'm writing my book and I write now notes from the hero's journey. And so I have been on a quest. What happened to me in Vietnam? I had to kill people in Vietnam. That was my job. And so I think about that and I think about the losses to the Vietnamese people, 3 million. My brother got wounded. My mother shrieked when the taxi cab came with a telegram and she thought my brother had been killed and she collapsed on the floor. I had switched flights with a guy, and he got killed in my place, and I saw him zipped up in a body bag.

(00:44): So I was shattered when I came home. I thought I was all right, but I wasn't. And how could you be? And then how could you possibly embrace a government that lied to get you to go to war to make all this thing happen? So I was really discouraged about my government and then LBJ, and they lied about the Gulf of Tonkin incident. And then Nixon lied about peace. He was trying to sabotage the peace treaty that LBJ was trying to get. He sabotaged a very end of the war in 1968. So I was just crushed that they could do that.

(01:21): And so, I cleaned up my act and as I said, the beggar part of growth is enlightenment. How do you overcome the dark side? Well, you have to become enlightened. And so I went to Harvard to find out what people smarter than me, what they were all about. What was I missing? What was the big context here? It seemed like a moral disparity there. How should I think about this? So I went to the Kennedy School and that got me jobs working overseas. But I still have the question. And it's a question that humanity has to answer themselves all the time. We're on this quest. It's right versus wrong. It's good versus bad. It's evil versus a better life. So these things are human.

(02:04): And I'm still discouraged by the use of foreign policy to influence domestic elections. LBJ wanted a war because he had to show you he was tough on communism. Nixon needed a war to get elected because if the Democrats would've won the peace that he wouldn't have made the presidency. And so now you have another president, G.W Bush going to weapons of mass destruction to go to Iraq on a phony charge. Well, there's people dying. Veterans, they're very lives are at stake and to mismanage their lives in such a callous domestic policy manner. It just breaks your heart. And to see this particular president in power, it's just... Are we part of a country or are we part of a shakedown organization?

(02:55): I joked to someone the other day, the US military, we paint houses, right? Is that our motto? Do we have a standard about that, above criminal behavior? I don't know. I would like to see it, and that's why I'm passionate about why I believe what I believe. I'm doubtful, but I'm hopeful that we somehow can get it right more often than we can get it wrong. But this is a scary time for our democracy because if this constitution fails, we haven't got a Bible or a church or a God or anything to rely upon. It's us. We've created this democracy and we can tear it apart. And it seems like we're doing that.

Asset ID: 2022.34.13.e-f
Themes: Veterans, War, Vietnam, Democracy, Foreign Policy, President, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Morality, Politics, Enlightenment, Education, Disillusionment, History, Constitution
Date recorded: January 25, 2020
Length of recording: 0:03:32
Related traveling exhibition: Voices and Votes: Democracy in America
Sponsor or affiliated organization: Arizona Humanities
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