Larry Orr was not born to speak for peace. One of his first, strongest memories is of being a 3-year-old playing in his back yard in Muscatine, Iowa when two P-38 fighters flew over at treetop level. Their deafening noise didn’t frighten the toddler. They made him want to be a pilot.
Nor was he raised to speak for peace. His favorite boyhood comic was Steve Canyon and he joined the Civil Air Patrol in high school, thrilled at the chance to fly a jet trainer at such a young age.
Finally, he wasn’t trained to speak for peace. He joined the Air Force before completing college, intending to train as a helicopter and small craft pilot. His military career instead took him to Russian language school and to work as a linguist and military analyst.
Yet here he was, representing Vietnam Veterans for Peace, educating my community group in January 2014 about the low-key but persistent American peace movement. He told us that he had come to a turning point when as a young Air Force trainee in 1965 he attended one of the earliest campus teach-ins about Vietnam.
As a student of political conversation, I wanted to know more about his path. What had he heard at that teach-in that changed his course, which had been set toward the military since he was barely out of diapers?
A few weeks later, I joined him over the noon hour on a downtown street corner to hand out pamphlets about America’s killer drones. Afterwards, we sat down for lunch at Madison’s Great Dane Brewery. Here’s a distillation of our conversation.
Karen: How did one teach-in change how you thought about war when you had been set from such an early age on a military career? What did they say? How did they say it?
Larry: First I should say that I went to the teach-in as a military man, but with no preconceptions. I was willing to hear what they had to say. They made me think for the first time about certain things, like injustice and moral issues. Like many in the mid-1960s, I had simply been assuming America would always do the right thing, and I’d been assuming I’d be helping to do it. The teach-in didn’t change my thoughts as much as it made me think.
Karen: Okay, then, what did they say that made you think about things you hadn’t thought about before?
Larry: The speakers were dispassionate, thoughtful. They made a logical presentation about something they wanted us to understand. They were university people, professors and grad students. They weren’t preachy. They didn’t get on a soap box. They just explained the facts about Vietnam clearly, like you would to a class of undergraduates. With undergraduates, you don’t go in with a ‘You should already know this” attitude. You don’t put people down that way. They respected our intelligence and our desire to learn. They presented facts that showed me there were bigger issues I wasn’t aware of, and they did it without embarrassing me.
Karen: That word—dispassionate—surprises me. I’ve always sensed that a certain amount of passion is necessary to give a message resonance and credibility.
Larry: Absolutely. But passion should be communicated through actions, not by talking about it. When someone tells me “I’m passionate about” something, it sets off warning bells. Like the guy who said, “I’m passionate about food co-ops” and then bought them and turned them into profit-greedy grocery stores. Don’t say you’re passionate; don’t get dramatic about it. Set an example.
Karen: When you spoke with my community group, you also mentioned hearing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speak, and remembering that as another event that helped turn your path to peace. Do you remember what he said or did that shifted your trajectory? It never hurts to learn from a master.
Larry: Not specifically. I do remember he gave all who were present that night the courage to speak up about what we believe. I think that was in 1963, when he spoke in Cedar Rapids. I was still in college in Iowa City, in a fraternity during a time when many fraternities discriminated on the basis of race. It bothered me, but I hadn’t talked about it before I heard Dr. King. He changed my willingness to talk to people about what I believe.
Karen: And talking about something often helps to clarify and strengthen our beliefs.
Larry: Yes, indeed, and it opens the way for new ideas.
Karen: You said that you went to the Vietnam teach-in as a military man, but with an open mind. Tell me more about that. “Military man” and “open mind” aren’t phrases that often go hand-in-hand.
Larry: I know exactly where that came from: My freshman rhetoric teacher. On the first day of class, the professor had us list the magazines and newspapers we read on a regular basis. I read standard stuff for early 1960s Iowa: National Geographic, Reader’s Digest, my hometown newspaper, and the Des Moines Register. He took the lists from us and the next day gave us each a list of other periodicals we might want to read. Commonweal, Saturday Review, The Nation, Daedalus, and many others I had never heard of. It was a two-page, mimeographed list, and I started reading right away, began to encounter new ideas. I was still tied up in the military perspective—the professor told me later that semester that I saw the world through Air-Force blue colored glasses. You know, like rose-colored glasses? But the discussions in that class changed my life, opened new horizons, made me want to associate with wise people.
Karen: The other thing I wanted to make sure I asked about was your experience with on-the-street conversations. You’ve spent dozens, maybe hundreds, of hours doing things like we just did, standing on a corner handing out peace literature. Surely, you’ve learned a thing or two about starting political conversations and keeping them civil and productive.
Larry: Actually, what we do on the street doesn’t create many conversation opportunities. You give flyers to the people who will take them, and hope they look at them when they get back to their desks. But it’s not disheartening. It’s like I said about passion—the important thing is that you embody it, demonstrate it. Be there, be present. The good conversations happen elsewhere.
Karen: I’m still thinking that you have more experience with political conversation than most people, even if it doesn’t happen on the street corner. You spoke with my community group, for example.
Larry: Like everyone else, most of my opportunities for political conversation come with people who already agree with me. But yes, I have enough conversations with people who want to challenge my beliefs.
Karen: What makes those conversations fail? What makes some succeed?
Larry: You need to try to find common ground, but you can’t tread too lightly. You need to speak up for what you believe. When you’ve been too agreeable, you come away knowing you have not shaped the other person’s thinking, while worrying that they left believing they convinced you they were right.
You have to question certain statements, but not in a bombastic way. You can’t try to “win” an argument; that produces resentment, not agreement. If I find I’m raising my voice in a political conversation, I know I’m losing out. Ears close up when conversation gets strident. Timing is important, too. If someone isn’t willing to listen, they won’t.
Karen: Well, thanks. It’s good to know the peace movement is still out there witnessing for nonviolence.
Larry: You remember Orr, the character in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22? The one who crashed his plane and rowed to Sweden? I like it that he and I have the same name. “Or” reminds people we have choices. We can keep fighting insane wars, or we can row to Sweden. We can tell ourselves we’ve always had war, or we can say, “Let’s quit.” It’s our choice.