Two weeks ago the Virginia State Senate switched hands from the Republicans to the Democrats, another step in the state’s leftward turn. One of the Democratic pick ups was in the 13th district, where incumbent State Senator Dick Black is retiring from public service. Black is a Vietnam veteran and former colonel in the US army, a former delegate in the Virginia House, and he has served in the state senate since 2012.
Senator Black, who has been a vocal opponent of the United States’ overseas wars, spoke to Antiwar.com for an exclusive interview covering his military career, candid rejection of the Washington foreign policy consensus, and his activism against regime change in Syria.
Military Service and the Vietnam War
Black was born in northern Virginia in 1944, and spent his young formative years being raised in Miami, Florida. After attending the University of Miami for one year, Black was compelled to leave due to financial distress. He enlisted in the Marine Corps and began a "miserable existence" (due to motion sickness) in the aviation cadet program.
"From there I remember at one time during flight training we were in the cadet recreation room and guys were playing pool and throwing darts and there was a television screen, and they were playing The Man from U.N.C.L.E., an old spy show," recalls Black. "And all of a sudden, they interrupted, they said, ‘We have an important bulletin.’ They said that there were PT boats that had attacked an American destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin and there’d be more information to come. And every pilot in the rec room immediately knew we were going to war. It was a very sobering moment."
"At the time we had a lot of faith in our government. We thought whatever they told us was reasonable."
In 1965 Dick Black was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant and was one of the first two marine helicopter pilots to be sent to Vietnam. During his first six months in country Black flew 269 combat missions, four of those which came under direct enemy fire, puncturing his helicopter. "Then I volunteered to fight with the 1st Marine Regiment on the ground as a full air controller. And during that time we took tremendous casualties along the way," Black describes in detail. At a ridge line named Nui Loc Son, he participated in a fight against an entrenched battalion of heavy North Vietnamese troops. Out of 190 American GIs, 34 were killed and around 75 were wounded. As one of only two officers left alive, Black helped reorganize the company.
"But we held the ground. They could never overrun us even though they attempted to," he says. This was one of 70 combat patrols he participated in on the ground.
Black says he was preparing to return stateside along with his chief radio operator, Corporal Henry Smith, affectionately nicknamed Smitty. "Then one night they started firing an artillery mission way off in the distance, there were parachute flares glowing, and there was sort of a yellow glow over the horizon. Even though Smitty and I were both getting ready to go back to the states (we were just waiting for a plane out), we both decided that we weren’t going to let Fox Company go off on the mission without us. So we both went out."
Fighting their way across a river in rubber boats and under enemy fire, Black and his men landed on the other side. He walked first, with his two radio men immediately behind him. "Smitty stepped on a bouncing betty landmine, and it exploded, killed both of my radiomen. I was wounded," Black remembers. He was awarded the Purple Heart.
"It turns out the great mistake we made in Vietnam was to assassinate President Ngo Diem, who was the legitimate president of the country. Ngo Diem was most opposed to the United States getting in the war," explains Black, who singles out the CIA for facilitating the assassination. "And the principle reason was there was a very strong anti-colonialist philosophy both in North and South Vietnam. They had come out of Japanese rule, they had come out from under French rule, and the idea they would somehow be under American domination was a problem."
"Now the difference we had in South Vietnam was that the people, by and large, supported the government. You certainly had ones who did not, and were willing to use violent means to overthrow the Republic of Vietnam, but at least we had an ally in South Vietnam, which was much different that the wars we’re fighting the Mideast where basically we’re just an invader, and we go in and tear the country to shreds and declare that we’re going to write a constitution for them and everything will be fine," Black says, contrasting the war he fought in versus the wars he’s opposed while in office.
After returning from Southeast Asia, Dick Black worked as a flight instructor, teaching other pilots who would in turn be sent to Vietnam. Around this time he married and left the marines in 1970. He went back to school, earned his law degree, and returned to active duty in 1976 as a prosecutor in the US Army JAG Corps. Black began his legal career as the lead trial counsel at Ford Hood, Texas, and managed law offices at Ford Leonard Wood, Ford Ord, and Fort Lewis.
During the 1980s Black was stationed in Europe, leading five legal offices in Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium, and as a "side job" he was responsible for all military justice matters in North Africa and the Middle East. He ended his career as the Chief of the Army’s Criminal Law Division at the Pentagon, where he helped prepare executive orders for the president’s signature, and "sort of oversaw the whole system." Dick Black retired in 1994 as a full colonel after 32 years in the military.
As a Virginia Delegate, Black opposed US intervention in Kosovo in 1999. "I thought when we went in, first of all it was in violation of international law. There was no legal basis, no foundation for us going in there. And we were using NATO in an aggressive capacity. It had been a defensive alliance up until then, and this was the beginning of breaking that mold and all of a sudden NATO was becoming a sort of predator alliance."
"[T]here was a major bridge in the center of one of the big cities. And in broad daylight we just deliberately bombed civilian traffic there, dropped the span of the bridge and people fell to their death in cars and that kind of thing…I was very, very disappointed with what we did in Kosovo."
Having closely followed the course of the Iran-Iraq War (including the West’s funneling of poison gas to Hussein’s government), Black couldn’t comprehend the Bush administration’s strategy in 2002. "I was so stunned that after all we had done to establish a balance of power in that particular area with Iran, Iraq – everything was settled. Whether the way we did it was right or not it was settled. And all of a sudden here we were doing the most insane thing imaginable, which was to destroy that calm balance of power that we had created. And I found it really difficult to believe that anyone could be so stupid as to do this."
While politicians on the national level cheered on the "Shock and Awe" of the 2003 invasion, Delegate Dick Black shook his head at the needless destruction. "[I]t was an unbridled application of force to every aspect of life and civilization in Iraq. We destroyed their water production, we knocked out their electrical grid, everything. The place was utterly, totally destroyed. And we were boasting…this was a small, weak country. It was not a militarily powerful country. And of course they had never taken any hostile action against the United States at all."
Black recollects hearing complaints immediately after the invasion from Iraqis that there was no electricity. This meant no air conditioning or other modern conveniences to beat the desert heat. Fast forward over sixteen years, and one of the causes of the protests wracking Iraqi cities is the lack of electricity, despite over $60 billion of US reconstruction investment. "[Y]ou know it is astounding the amount of money that we have flooded into that country, and I think that most of it has gone into Swiss bank accounts. Some of them our Swiss bank accounts, some of them Iraqi Swiss bank accounts, but very little has ever reached the people," avers Black.
"And the fact that we could never reconstruct the electric grid that we destroyed is just an example of the pathetic nature of American foreign policy in the Mideast."
Regarding the regime changes wars of the past decade, Black says his interest was first piqued during the NATO imposed no-fly zone over Libya and the subsequent overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. "I became curious because I knew that we had settled all outstanding disputes with Libya. I knew they were [a] very staunch anti-terrorist [government]. I knew that they were cooperating very closely with the United States. And I thought, ‘Why did we attack them?’"
"Now ostensibly we were doing it to prevent Gaddafi from killing all these people in Benghazi. But you know I’ve been around this business for a long time, and you know when something like this is just a fabrication. And so, I thought, ‘What’s driving this?’"
After eliminating oil as a primary motivation, Black concluded (and maintains) that the Libya intervention was a purposeful preparation for US involvement in the then-burgeoning Syrian Civil War. The Libyan government was toppled "in order to capture their large stores of weapons so we could then overthrow Syria."
Senator Black described his frustrations while watching the congressional investigations into the 2012 attack in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens, where no one was asking the obvious question of what the ambassador was doing.
"Well it turns out that what we had done under this no-fly zone as the terrorists advanced, [calling themselves] the Libyan Islamic Fighting group – but they were essentially Al Qaeda in Libya organized by the CIA – and what we did at a certain point was we turned over a captured air field to the Turks. The Turks were given control of it and then the Qataris – they have a pretty substantial fleet of modern aircraft – began flying aircraft into this airfield in Libya and then flying the weapons into Turkey and then they were crossing the border into Syria where we were organizing with the CIA under Project Timber Sycamore, we were preparing to overthrow the government of Syria."
Syrian Civil War
Dick Black describes Syria in 2011 as a stable country, more advanced socially than its neighbors. In his opinion, this required a more secretive approach than the attacks against Iraq and Libya. "And I think the decision was made in the Pentagon and at the State Department and CIA that if we’re going to overthrow this country, this isn’t going to be easy and we certainly can’t just go to the House Appropriations Committee and say, ‘Look, we want to overthrow the country with the greatest women’s rights, the greatest religious freedom of any of the Arab nations so give us a lot of money for weapons so we can kill everybody.’"
"So instead we captured this vast store of weapons and with those we armed and organized various jihadist groups. And many of the weapons made their way to Al Qaeda. The group has changed names several times, we’ve been very adept at making sure that there’s a swirl of names and organizations that no one can comprehend. But for the longest time they were called Al Nusra, and Al Nusra was Al Qaeda in Syria. They were the most powerful of the jihadist groups, and then you had ISIS which was sort of an offshoot of them," Black says, explaining that if ‘moderate rebels’ ever did exist, they were not an influential group.
When asked why he believes the US government chose to train, arm, and fund Islamist rebels against a secular dictatorship, Black says he can only speculate. But he is aware of the long-term planning that went into these wars.
"I know that in 2001 that there was a decision that we would overthrow seven Mideastern countries within five years. It was a plan. No the schedule did not work out, but we know this because General Wesley Clark, who was the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe previous to this, had met with the secretary of Defense and then he went down to the war room. He talked with one of his friends who was a general. Over the course of a couple of meetings this fellow disclosed to him that the secretary had sent down an order that they were to prepare plans to overthrow seven countries within the next five years. And they included Libya, they included Syria, they included Yemen. The last on the list was Iran, which is where we are headed, and we are preparing to go to war with Iran."
"So we knew that, that they made that decision early. Why did they make it? Who knows? There certainly are people who have this notion of a neocolonialist American empire that would control the oil wealth. There were Israeli interests involved, and this kind of thing. In any event, we know the decision was made to overthrow Syria," says Black, adding that there was a communiqué from the U.S. embassy in Damascus under the Charge d’affaires that detailed how to destabilize the government and incite religious infighting. "To this day we have never lost sight of the primary objective, which is to topple President Assad."
In 2014, after the Syrian Arab Army recaptured several Christian villages along the Lebanese-Syrian border, which included the rescuing of thirteen Catholic nuns, Senator Black decided to pen a letter to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to thank him. Referring to the Syrian leader as "heroic," Black requested that Assad "please convey my personal thanks to the Syrian Arab Army and the Air Force for protecting all patriotic Syrians, including the religious minorities who face death at the hands of the foreign jihadists."
Describing the letter as "carefully worded," Black says his primary motivation for writing it was to convey to Assad that "I cannot explain to you why the United States, which lost 3,000 people killed on 9/11, is now supporting al-Qaeda in Syria."
With Black’s permission, First Lady Asma al-Assad posted the letter to her public Facebook page. The letter’s publication lead to immediate backlash from the corporate press. "If the media had just ignored it, it would have been sort of a tree falling in the woods with nobody to hear. But what they decided they’d do is, here is this state senator who has stepped out of line and we will crush him so fully, we will destroy his life, we will destroy his family."
Black describes his senate office being inundated with phone calls and letters, some praising his actions, some scorning him. But overall, he believes he came out on the winning side of the media confrontation. "[I]t was a huge strategic blunder for the media to do that because in order to report about the letter they had to say something about its contents. And I think people read it, and they said ‘Okay, here’s this guy Black, and he’s complimenting Assad on rescuing Christians. Well that doesn’t sound too bad. And he’s saying he can’t explain why we’re supporting al-Qaeda.’ And people would kind of scratch their heads and say, ‘I don’t know. Are we supporting al-Qaeda? If so, why?’ So it really had a tremendous backlash on things."
In 2016, Dick Black traveled to Syria on a visit negotiated with the Syrian ambassador to the United Nations. He went to Palmyra, at the time recently recaptured from ISIS, Homs City, and Damascus. He spoke with Syrian soldiers, generals, and walked some of the ancient religious temples.
"I saw a number of Christian churches that had been destroyed. The U.S.-backed terrorists had destroyed churches, they had beheaded Christians, they had engaged in widespread rape and kidnapping and so forth," Black says. One that stood out is the Saint Mary Church of the Holy Belt, "because it holds a relic of a fragment of the belt worn by Mary, the mother of Jesus. And the Church is not a very big or ornate church, but it was built in 59 AD. So it was built 26 years after the death and resurrection of Christ. And so there may have been original apostles at the groundbreaking for the church."
Black described how when ISIS captured Homs City, they sent a special operations team to the church to destroy the belt. "And they came to the church and they ordered the priest to disclose the whereabouts, and he refused, and they beheaded him. I looked and I saw what they had done. There was an altar and there was sort of a platform, fairly simple, tiled. They had ripped it, desperately ripping through to find where this thing was hidden. Then they tore the walls down, to see if there was a hiding place. They never did find it. It’s safe, and it’s now back in the church."
His 2016 trip concluded with a two-hour meeting with Bashar al-Assad. "He is exactly what he is when you watch him in videos…highly intelligent. He is very soft-spoken, almost to the point of being a little bit shy. He is very respectful, a very good listener. And then he called in his wife, Asma Assad, who is just a delightful, very charismatic, modest woman," he recalls. "Not at all as they are portrayed [in western media]."
In 2018 Dick Black returned to Syria, visiting many of the same places. "And one of the things that I noticed is that with all of the Christians churches that had been ravished and desecrated by the terrorists that we had been backing, they were all rebuilt or being rebuilt. I went to the Church of Mary’s Belt, and it was very nicely done. When I met with President Assad this time, I commented, ‘You know I’m really pleased to see the rebuilding going on.’ It was not only Christian churches, but he’s also rebuilding the mosques. And the Syrian government is footing the bill for the whole thing. And he made a comment when I touched on the Christian churches. He said, ‘I view the Christians as a leavening influence in a Muslim country.’ And I understand to mean that they’re a moderating influence. They add that to the culture, this notion of moderation and modernization."
When asked whether he believes the Assad government is responsible for using chemical weapons during the war, including attacks that garnered international attention in 2013, 2017, and 2018, Senator Black rejects this narrative. "I think the idea is totally absurd, the idea that Syria used poison gas. And I’ll tell you why. You know with all the hundreds and hundreds of press conferences that have been held on poison gas since this thing, not a single journalist has ever dared to ask the obvious question: If Syria was responsible for this, why didn’t they attack the enemy troops instead of civilians?"
"Think of that. If you’re going to incur the wrath of the world, why would you just kill a handful of civilians walking down the street when you’re faced with perhaps a dozen mechanized divisions of enemy forces? No one has ever said, ‘Well you know the Syrian army is killing troops on the battlefield with poison gas.’ No, it’s always, in the three major incidents, they have said, ‘They’re killing old men walking down the street, women pushing baby strollers,’ and this kind of thing."
Citing reporting from Pearson Sharp at One America News and other on-the-ground witnesses, Black believes that the accusations of a 2018 chemical attack in Douma (the Damascus suburb) are unfounded. "That particular one was sort of unique because the evidence suggests there was not really a gas attack. Now there is some other evidence that says the opposite, but I think on balance it’s likely that was a total hoax."
Senator Black was supportive of President Donald Trump’s announced withdrawal from northern Syria last month but can already see it being reversed. "I think that President Trump did a very good job initially of setting this thing up in such a way where we would be out of there and couldn’t go back in…But then the Deep State is very deep." Black sees the recent seizure of the oil fields around Deir ez-Zor as part of a purposeful plan to impoverish the Syrian people. "Basically, it’s just modern-day piracy. There’s no difference between what we are doing in Syria by seizing those oil fields and what the pirates did hundreds of years ago when they would get a letter of marque and that would give them authority to go out and capture ships of other nations and steal whatever they could. It’s simply thievery."
This author first met Senator Dick Black at the annual Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity conference in August. Black has also been a guest on the weekday airing Ron Paul Liberty Report. "I’ve known of him [Ron Paul] since the time he was in Congress. And I always appreciated what he was doing," Black says. "It’s pretty clear that we’re on a trajectory to bankrupt the United States. There’s no question that that’s going to happen. And a third of our national debt is related to wars in the Mideast. But no one can point to any significant benefit that has come from any of these wars. They’ve all been a failure."
Describing his other interactions with members on Capitol Hill, Black finds that most of them are ignorant of international relations, or anything that is occurring outside of their districts. "They just are clueless. That’s one category. The other category are people who know something, but they’re scared, and they know they better keep their mouths shut. And then you’ve got the key leaders, the hawks, who are determined that we’re going to be at war. And they don’t care about what’s right, what’s wrong, or anything. They just want us at war."
Between announcing his first electoral campaign in 1997 and his imminent retirement, Dick Black has not been afraid to criticize the warfare state and the destructive policies of his government. His passion for foreign affairs goes far beyond that of almost any person in Congress and might leave some wondering why a state politician would get so involved.
"It’s important to remember, whether you’re a state senator or not, we’re all still Americans. We have responsibilities to our nation that go beyond whatever political role that we fill," Black explains.
And the antiwar movement is grateful for it.