David Pence contributed sporadic but notable commentaries to Star Tribune Opinion over many decades. He died unexpectedly June 4 at age 72, and I can think of no tribute that would please him more than giving readers another opportunity to be enlightened by his distinctive wisdom.
David was never stingy with his insights and understandings. Over the 20 or so years I knew him, he invariably arrived at our lunch or dinner rendezvous armed with an “agenda” scrawled on wrinkled paper, setting forth a formidable array of social, political, philosophical, religious and journalistic issues on which he had something to share.
The overall message almost always turned out to have something to do with my imperiled salvation and his crusade to help me at last fulfill the unrealized potential he saw in me as a voice of Truth. I shall dearly miss his tutorials and admonishments.
Pence was a friendly, funny man of faith and conviction, of curiosity, humility and fighting spirit. He took life seriously, and that made it fun for him.
In youth, he was a civil-rights and antiwar activist who served a year in federal prison for draft resistance and soon afterward had the still greater courage to decide that he had been wrong. He became a doctor (radiation oncology) and a teacher of geography, among other things. And, above all, he was always and everywhere a tireless voice for Truth as he understood it.
Pence’s fervent Catholic faith (and outrage over sexual abuse within his church), along with his special focus on the responsibilities of men in society, informed his insights into the role of religion, history and identity in world affairs. I heard few enough sophisticated students of politics predict Donald Trump’s victory three years ago — but Pence was one who saw it coming.
But enough. Here, from the Star Tribune archives, is a 2004 commentary about Pence’s antiwar activism and change of heart. At the time, John Kerry, a Vietnam War veteran and a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, was solidifying his support for the Democratic nomination for president.
Antiwar activists who got it wrong
Draft resister finally saw error of his ways; why can’t Kerry?
(Feb. 27, 2004)
In 1972, a few years after John Kerry was in Vietnam, I was in federal prison for draft resistance. Draft resisters were glad to have Kerry “on our side.” Most vets hated us. My dad, a World War II Marine, did not speak to me for seven years after I refused military service. He saw draft resisters as cowards and traitors.
One of his wartime buddies said, “Take your son to Chicago, strip him naked, and see if he comes back a pacifist.” Draft resisters cheered when Muhammad Ali refused induction. Certainly he was no coward. We cheered louder when Kerry testified against the war.
Certainly he was no traitor.
But even as an activist, I was shocked at Kerry’s characterization of American atrocities in Vietnam as commonplace.
The image of the American soldier as “babykiller” was being born.
In a foreign country our men were shot for the uniform they wore. In their own country they could not wear it for shame. For other men, flag-draped boxes sealed them from such insults. After Kerry’s testimony, he faced no such shame. To the McGovern Democrats, he became a hero. He was headed to elected office as the soldier who hated the war. He had a receptive audience in Massachusetts for his stories of atrocities by soldiers and criminality by the government.
Back in Minnesota I was headed for jail. There was no shame for me either. The judge was sympathetic and let me say good-byes at parties and rallies. I timed my entry to jail for noon on Good Friday. I had quit the church but in my own marijuana-enhanced brain the righteousness of our cause demanded the backdrop of Calvary. I went to prison as a local star at the antiwar rallies, a martyr to the growing pacifist movement in the Catholic Church and a good source to the friendly reporters who sympathized with our cause.
By 1972 if a man would go to jail or a returning soldier would repudiate the war, he was assured an influential community of support and adulation. For the men who returned from military duty, there was no such honor. Their shame came not from guilt about their actions as soldiers but from propaganda of the antiwar movement.
The war against the Soviet Union was the great moral struggle of the post-WWII generation. Leaving Vietnam did not end the fight against communism but changed the battlefield to Catholic Poland and Muslim Afghanistan. The left’s complaint was not about Vietnam as a particular battlefield but the Cold War as a worthy enterprise. Kerry described the Cold War as “the mystical war against communism” in his infamous Senate testimony (April 1971).
It turns out that communism was not so mystical — not in the killing fields of Cambodia or the captive nations of Eastern Europe or the Islamic southern rim of the Soviet Union.
I am ashamed of my role in those not-so-glorious ’60s. I honor John Kerry the soldier. But in this time of war, we must repudiate his disgraceful depiction of the American soldier in Vietnam, his mistaken understanding of the Cold War, and his equivocation in our present war.
For those tempted to use a soldier’s story to advance the worldview of the “peace movement,” take pause. We were wrong then; you don’t have to be wrong now.
• • •
The biographical tagline on that article read: “David Pence is a Minneapolis physician. He was sentenced to a year and a day in 1972 for draft resistance.”
Pence was born Nov. 11, 1946, in Crystal, and lived recently in Mankato. He is survived by his wife, Candice; sister, Frances (Rick) Myran; eight children and their spouses; seven grandchildren; and nieces and nephews.
For another example of his work, read a 2016 essay on the war on terror and what he saw as Americans’ misunderstanding of world affairs: tinyurl.com/pence-essay.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.