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Who is the real Nathan Phillips?

He isn’t a Vietnam veteran

January 22, 2019

1:13 PM

22 January 2019

1:13 PM

The Native American man with the drum who – now so infamously – approached a group of high schoolers from Covington, Ky., on Friday has been widely identified as a Vietnam veteran. But he isn’t one.

The man is called Nathan Phillips, and he identifies with the American Indian Movement, an extremist separatist organization tied to at least one murder. He was singing their song when he approached the kids. He told the Washington Post that he was ‘blocked’ by the students, though later video evidence suggests that that was an exaggeration, to put it mildly. Phillips remains adamant that the boys should be punished for what they did to him, and has refused to meet with them. But he might be a bit concerned that the media spotlight has stopped shining on the students he clashed with on Friday, and some journalists are now starting to ask questions about him.

It’s easy to see why the media seized on the ‘veteran’ detail, since it neatly captured the preferred narrative: ghastly young white Trump fans harassing noble minority war hero.

HuffPost made the claim in a headline, CNN used it in a chyron, though what he actually said was, ‘I’m a Vietnam times veteran. I know that mentality, of “there’s enough of us, we can do this,”’ referring to the schoolboys wanting to do violence to him. Phillips was perhaps making a comparison between the putatively savage abuse of these Catholic schoolboys and the My Lai massacre or something.


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But it’s hard to blame the reporters, since Phillips himself seems eager to associate himself with Vietnam – even though he didn’t serve there. The Post has now had to correct its report to say that, while he did serve in the US Marines from 1972 to 1976, he was never deployed to Vietnam.

He was quoted in a story in Vogue from 2018 saying, ‘You know, I’m from Vietnam times. I’m what they call a recon ranger.’ And in this interview from two days ago, ‘You know, when I was in Vietnam times and when I was in the Marine Corps times, that’s what I was. I was expendable. Expendable to corporate greed.’ So did reporters just get the wrong end of the stick about Philips, as they did more broadly with whole story over the weekend? Or does Philips say ‘Vietnam times’ in order to create the impression that he might have fought in the war without actually saying an untruth. Cockburn, alas, was not able to track Phillips down to discuss his military record. But he wonders, he wonders.

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