Saunders: Army lawyer had front-row seat to history

December 24, 2012 

Zane and Rosemary Finkelstein


Talking to Mark Finkelstein, you realize that his father Zane is a modern-day Zelig, the Woody Allen movie character who kept popping up on the periphery of many historical events.

The main difference, of course, is that Zane Finkelstein was real. And he was seldom on the periphery. And he carried an M-16 rifle.

Within a 10-minute conversation with Mark, a Raleigh lawyer, you learn that his father, as an Army lawyer, was in the inner circle of people who knew about the U.S. bombing of Cambodia before it started in 1969, was a student who fought to integrate Knoxville, Tenn., and was in the midst of one of the pivotal events of American history – the 1965 civil rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.

Finkelstein died Aug. 15 at age 83, and his ashes will be buried with full military honors tomorrow at Arlington National Cemetery. An obituary ran in The News & Observer following his death. It was an obituary that dutifully listed many of his impressive accomplishments. It did not, however, portray the full measure of the soldier, husband and father.

That’s why I called his son.

Was there one memory that stood out above all the others for his father, I asked Mark Finkelstein.

“That would be the ‘Admiral McCain’ story,” he answered with no hesitation. “It’s the story of him as a lawyer that I enjoy the most, but it’s one he couldn’t tell for a long time.”

Admiral McCain, father of Arizona senior senator and former Presidential candidate John McCain, had been suddenly called to Washington from Hawaii to appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Finkelstein, the legal and legislative advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had breakfast with the trepidation-filled McCain at the Pentagon shortly before he was scheduled to appear.

“My dad asked (McCain), ‘What’s this about? Do you have any clue?’ He kind of looked at my dad out of the corner of his eye and said, ‘Menu.’ ”

Uh-oh. McCain and others feared that word had leaked out about Menu, the code name for President Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia in 1969, and that McCain was fixing to get grilled by angry senators who’d been left out of the loop. “The President had told the very, very few people in the world who knew about it that they couldn’t talk about it.”

What to do, what to do?

“My dad said he told him, ‘You can’t tell ’em because you’ve been ordered by the Commander-in-Chief not to, and you can’t lie to Congress.’ My dad said he told McCain, ‘Here’s what you do. If you get an inkling that this is about Menu, grab the left side of your chest and keel over. When we get to Walter Reed, we’ll figure out what to do.’ ”

Feigning illness and a trip to the military hospital didn’t become necessary: McCain had been called back to Washington merely so one of his home-state senators could have a photo-op with him for the folks back home.

Oy. Word of Operation Menu didn’t get out, and an undeterred Nixon commenced the bombing on Hanoi in 1972, 40 years ago this week. That became known as the Christmas bombings.

Finkelstein had earlier been recommended by Thurgood Marshall, the future Supreme Court Justice but then Solicitor General, to serve as liaison between the Department of Justice and the Department of Defense when thousands of marchers demanding the right to vote for African Americans tried again to march across the bridge in Alabama.

They’d been repelled by baton-swinging state troopers and dogs the previous Sunday. That event was later memorialized as “Bloody Sunday” and has been credited with bringing the true viciousness of Southern recalcitrance into the living rooms of all Americans.

As an undergrad at the University of Tennessee, Finkelstein said, his father and other students there met with students of the predominantly black Knox College to tackle civil rights issues. “There was never a problem when the white students went to Knox College to eat,” he said, but the black students weren’t allowed to eat at UT “until my dad and folks figured out that if they put turbans on they could just go right on through the line and get their food” and hold their meeting.

After those battles, Zane Finkelstein became the only Army lawyer to be decorated for valor in combat during the Vietnam War. “And it wasn’t because he was particularly brave,” Mark said.

Fred Borch III, historian and archivist, wrote in his 2001 book “Judge Advocates in Combat: Army Lawyers in Military Operations from Vietnam to Haiti,” that Finkelstein, a stenographer and an infantry platoon went to a Vietnamese village to check on claims that had been filed by villagers for huts, oxen and other property they’d lost in bombings.

According to Borch, they thought the village had been pacified – that’s military talk for “cleared out” – when Viet Cong opened fire on them.

Borch wrote that “a furious firefight erupted. Finkelstein stopped his legal work and, using both his .38-caliber revolver and M-16 rifle, joined the infantrymen in repelling the attack.”

Sorry, Mark, but that is particularly brave.

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