Philip Weiss of Mondoweiss was curious how Todd Pierce, a military man from Minnesota, became a critic of what looks increasingly like America’s permanent warfare, so Weiss interviewed Pierce in a two-part in-depth interview.
Philip Weiss: Tell me about your background.
Todd Pierce: I was born in Princeton, Minnesota, in 1951. My mother had grown up on a farm and her family background was Swedish immigrant and Scottish immigrant. My father was from Iowa. One uncle of his had been the minister to China during the Boxer rebellion, Edwin Conger. His wife kept all her correspondence, and it became a source book for the Boxer rebellion.
Something that shaped my thinking was my father was in the Bataan death march. He got released in 1945, by U.S. Army Rangers and Filipino guerrillas. They were rescued from the Japanese in a heroic raid. I knew of this through his mother my grandmother. He didn’t talk about it. So after 3 years he got released from that prisoner of war camp under conditions every bit as hard as a concentration camp, and five years later he had come to Princeton and he married my mother. And he became certified as a highway engineer for the state of Minnesota.
PW: How did the Bataan death march affect him?
TP: He had been through these atrocities. He did have PTSD as we call it now after the war. As one of his letters points out, he had been in the place where 30,000 Filipinos had been killed and 15,000 Americans. Then in the next letter to my aunt, he said, “Please forgive me for mentioning that, I was in a down mood that day.” He never mentioned those kinds of things again. He’d seen the worst you could see, and 3 years later he was living a normal life.
He married my mother. Then my mother came down with rheumatic fever three years later. She was in deteriorating condition thereafter till she died in 1958. My brother, my sister and I lived with my two different grandmothers for a couple of years, and then my father remarried, and we lived in St Paul all five of us. But I had been living with my grandparents on the farm. I preferred to go back to Princeton and the farm. One reason, I was given much more freedom there, which wasn’t to my benefit. And I had a very unremarkable education career.
My grandfather was a very independent guy, he stood up for things. He was your typical Scots-Irish guy, and I got a lot of things good from him in that way. But that side of the family didn’t place any emphasis on education. So remarkably I was able to get through high school without doing any work and missing a lot of schools and graduated.
PW: Your teachers must have told you were smart.
TP: It was registered. I’m not saying that to flatter myself. They would remind me, you could do more, you could go to college. Growing up on that side of the family, it wasn’t that I didn’t have ambition, but I thought what could I do without going to college—perhaps be an electrician. That was the extent of my ambition at that time. If it had seemed a realistic choice when I was in high school, I would have wanted to get a Ph.D. in political science. That was always my interest. But by that time, it was already, “Yeah, there are no jobs for this.”
I got out of high school, came down and got a job in a factory in Minneapolis. Lamar, it was a hairspray factory and worked there for about 6 months. So I had a pretty unimpressive career. First in that hairspray factory, then working for General Tire, putting tires on cars in Minneapolis
PW: When did you go into the military?
TP: I had enlisted in the Marines in high school in 1969 with the intent of going into the infantry. I look back and shudder at my poor judgment. But I failed my physical because I hurt my back that winter before going in. So I put that aside. But it was like I had unfinished business, I wanted to get into the Marines, to finish what I had started. The Vietnam War was going on, and I had turned against it at that time. But my uncle and my dad had been in World War II and been willing to step forward to defend the country, and I had that embedded in me coming from where I was. I ended up going to the Marine reserve, then going to work as a plasterer when I came back. I didn’t like working in factories.
So I went to Marine Corps boot camp, but I quickly tired of going to drill once a month and getting my hair short. I thought of going active duty but the Marine first division officially came back from Vietnam and so there were a lot of excess people on the base at Camp Pendleton, painting rocks.
I ended up going into the National Guard reserves and going back to Princeton, and for ten years I did farming and construction. I did plastering and cement work. And I was pretty good at reading blueprints. Not everyone in construction can do that. And from that time till I was 30, I was always involved in farming.
PW: Do you know how to milk a cow.
TP: Yes. I milked cows. I was a milk hauler, I picked up livestock to take to the stockyards. Did fieldwork, plowing, disking, combining, hay baling. And I’d say that farming does imprint a view of the world. It’s not a forgiving lifestyle. It’s black and white, a life of absolutes. If you don’t do something, something bad will generally follow. If you don’t get out and milk your cows, your cows will get sick.
PW: Did the ’70s affect you?
TP: The counterculture was always there. My friends were hippies. And beginning in the late 60s, I was a reader of Ramparts magazine and Hunter Thompson. I was part of the counterculture. My friends who were hippies– we always were interested but were relatively uneducated and just searching. But later I was working in New Mexico and I hung out with grad students—reading books and philosophy and discussing things. That was my first real experience amongst a more intellectual atmosphere.
PW: Did you have any awareness of Israel?
TP: Virtually none. Though let me say my stepsister who I wasn’t close to had married an Iraqi student from the Colorado School of Mines. She lived in Denver. He was studying petroleum engineering. And honestly, our family was entirely Israeli-oriented. Because when the 1967 war broke out, he was buying a car, and the salesman said something anti-Arab, and he got mad about it. And our family was—you know, he was an Arab, but our sympathies were with Israel.
PW: Did you have sympathy for him?
TP: Sympathy for him, yes. But not putting ourselves in his place and thinking about it. We were very typical Americans. We had Israeli-centric eyes.
PW: But you were against the Vietnam War?
TP: In ‘67, I was 16 years old, and I was pro-Vietnam War at that point. I was reading a lot of books like The Green Berets . I was looking at it from an American perspective, this is part of the counter insurgency. And with the ‘67 war, I thought that Israel is our ally and the Arabs are aligned with the Soviet Union. And that was a deciding factor in how I looked at things.
I always was anti-totalitarian from the youngest age. That goes to my dad’s experience. And that interest in World War II also extended to Germany, and one of the first books I read when I started reading more history was Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich– the kid’s version of the Third Reich. And it was the time of the Cold War, so I came across things like the Hungarian Revolution and East Germany and the Berlin wall. So I was anti-totalitarian from the youngest age.