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John Lennon's Enduring Legacy

Decades after his untimely death at age 40, former Beatle John Lennon's simple message, "Give peace a chance," still resonates. Lennon, who would have turned 70 on Saturday, was more than just a musical icon, he was perhaps the world's most visible and outspoken anti-war activist.

Lennon, who opposed the Vietnam War, as did so many millions of people in America and around the world, organized such famous anti-war demonstrations as the "Give Peace A Chance" rally and bed peace, in which he and Yoko stayed in bed for days in a preposterous but effective publicity stunt calling for the end of the war.

John desperately wanted the Vietnam War to end. But I sometimes wonder how he would have reacted to 9/11. After all, he loved New York City. The man from Liverpool became a true New Yorker, and despite his reputation for being a peacenik, I have a strong suspicion that the horrific terrorist attack against his adopted city would have angered John to the point where he might have even supported retaliation. I can imagine John walking hand-in-hand with the families of those who were killed in the twin towers and with New York's firemen and policemen.


A lot of people were so shattered by Lennon's death that they believed activism and idealism died with him. But it didn't. His legacy lives on in people like Bill Rider, a Vietnam vet and anti-war activist who I think it's fair to say is San Diego's answer to John Lennon. Widely known as a rabble-rouser who always speaks his mind, he's had his share of impassioned run-ins with the Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration over their treatment of veterans. "Nobody wants to speak their mind any more and say what they really believe the way John did," says Rider. "He was fearless, a game-changer, a truth seeker. He was a warrior, too, he never backed down. He was also so irreverent and funny and admired. And of course his music truly mattered."

Rider, who was in Khesanh during the violent siege by the North Vietnamese - "It was a horrible place to be," he says - is co-founder with Mike Sloan of American Combat Veterans of War (ACVOW), an organization located on Camp Pendleton that was formed before 9/11 to assist Vietnam and other veterans. ACVOW now also helps Iraq and Afghanistan vets who've suffered with PTSD deal with the sometimes mind-numbing bureaucracy within the DoD and VA health care systems.

Rider, who returned from Vietnam with post-traumatic stress, though it wasn't labeled as such in those days, says one way he eased the psychological pain while in Vietnam was to get high and listen to the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper. "I was a huge fan of John's. I especially loved the song 'Imagine'," says Rider. "When John died, a part of our consciousness really did die with him."

Rider believes that in San Diego County, the activist movement is especially feeble: "I don't see many people here fighting for the things that really matter. And the veterans organizations, well, too many of them just want to make money, not to help veterans and their families."

Sounds like something Lennon would say, doesn't it? Actually, it's surprising how many members of the military I know, both active duty and veterans, who admire Lennon. My lifelong best friend is a gung-ho Marine and he loves the Beatles, especially John, who, as everyone knows, sang about love and peace but also had a dark side that really started to reveal itself in his solo work. John represented the duality of man, the dark and the light sides, perhaps better than any other artist.


Another of my closest friends was just weeks away from leaving for the Army and living with me while I attended college in Santa Barbara in 1980 when Lennon was killed. I'll never forget that surreal Monday night when, of all people, Howard Cosell broke the news on "Monday Night Football" that John had been killed. My buddy and I, who had been watching the football game, were shocked and heartbroken. I just remember us sitting there dazed and saddened, listening to John's music all night and thinking that the world would never be quite the same without him. We were right, to a degree. But thankfully, his legacy, the things he stood for, and of course his music, live on.