A life less ordinary

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Jim Skelly concludes the interview and I feel like I’ve spent the last couple of hours on a welcoming tour of his life’s memories, his experiences and anecdotes.

It’s late in the afternoon and the early autumn sunlight spills into the living room of Jim’s city centre apartment. Jim’s lived here for the last four years.

“The thing I love most about Derry is that you are able to put your wit in gear,” says Jim laughing. “In places like Los Angeles everyone is so busy watching what they say, they don’t want to offend anyone but here in Ireland people say it how it is and I really admire that.”

Jim is a visiting Professor of Peace Studies at University of Ulster, Magee and has been spending time in Derry for the last five years.

It’s ironic to think that Jim, who has dedicated his life to promoting and developing peace throughout the world, is a former Lieutenant in the US Navy.

After serving two years on board a naval oil tanker Jim was ordered to become a consultant for the South Vietnamese Army; he refused.

Jim spent the next few years campaigning against the war in South East Asia and helped to set-up the internationally known Concerned Officers’ Movement. Jim was honourably discharged in 1971.

Jim was born in New York in 1945 and was reared in the small Long Island town of Bayport.

“I was the third oldest. I have two older brothers, a younger brother and two younger twin sisters.

“My mother was your typical good Catholic woman - when she was 45 she gave birth to twin girls, almost died but then recovered to live another 35 years so that she could see her family grow up,” says Jim smiling.

“My father was called Francis and he was a bank manager for Chase Manhattan. We weren’t extremely well off but I suppose you could say that we were amongst the most fortunate working class and at the bottom of the middle classes.

“When I was younger my father always used to say to me: ‘Jim, you are three things in life; you’re Irish, a Catholic and a Democrat,” he recalls laughing.

Irish identity and culture was just as important as evening meals, prayers and education in the Skelly home. Jim’s mother’s family were originally from Longford and his father’s family emigrated to America from Galway.

Endeared by knowledge and books Jim was a high flyer at school and at the age of 17 he was offered two scholarships; one to study at St. John’s University, New York and other to study at the University of Minnesota and become an officer in the US Navy.

“If I am honest, the reason that I decided to go to Minnesota was because it meant that I got to live a thousand miles away from home - the option to move away came at a time in my life when I wanted to get away.”

Jim graduated when he was 22 and decided that he wanted to serve on board a US Navy oil tanker based in Norfolk, Virginia.

“The tanker fuelled other ships. I was third in command of about 225 men and we sailed to places like the Mediterranean, Northern Europe and the Caribbean.”

After two years on board the tanker the US Navy decided to decommission the ship; Jim was ordered to report to the South Vietnamese Army as a consultant. He refused on the grounds that he was a conscientious objector.

Jim took on and sued the American Secretary for Defence (Skelly v. Laird) and the outcome totally redefined the criteria for conscientious objection.

“I had a very clever lawyer,” explains Jim. “As soon the case started he filed a restraining order against the navy which meant that I couldn’t be ordered to do anything which contravened my personal beliefs. It meant that I was tasked with such jobs as making an itinerary of all of the television sets on the base and then after a while they moved me to the library - which was probably the worst possible place they could have put me because it meant that I got to meet and talk with other sailors who were experiencing the same problems and conflicts over war that I was.”

As his case was developing Jim became a founding member of a group set-up specifically for military officers who did not agree with such operations as the Vietnam War.

“We were pretty well known throughout America and around the world,” said Jim. “We were known as the Concerned Officers’ Movement and it was through the group that I realised that I wasn’t alone.

“One of our big moments came when we used Article 134 of the code for military justice to request that the Joint Chiefs of Staff be investigated for war crimes after American lawyer Taylor Telford argued that by the standards set at the Nuremburg Trials the US military was just as guilty of war crimes in Vietnam as the Nazis were during World War II - you can imagine the scandal.”

Jim lost his case in San Diego and when he took it to the US Court of Appeal the judges ruled in favour of the navy two to one.

Although still a naval officer Jim worked tirelessly with well known celebrities Jane Fonda and Donald and Shirley Sutherland in their actions against the war in south east Asia.

“We did all kinds of crazy things and organised some really powerful events. One such event was in a park in Los Angeles. Hundreds of military men turned up and we draped a coffin in the four flags of the four countries involved in the Vietnam War.

“We also organised an event called the FTA (Free the Army) Show but many suggest that the letter F had a different meaning,” he says suggestively.

“The FTA Show was in San Diego and it was so big that we had to have two performances - 1200 soldiers came on both nights. Jane Fonda performed as did Joe McDonald. It was a really powerful night because at the end of it we had 1200 soldiers chanting ‘F**K NIXON’ (Richard Nixon was President of the USA in 1971). I couldn’t believe it.”

Shortly after the FTA show Jim was given an honourable discharge.

“Usually if you were given an honourable discharge you got a certificate of appreciation from the President - needless to say, I didn’t get one.”

Jane Fonda set-up an organisation for G.I.s in Washington; it offered support and counselling as well as lobbying government on their behalf. Jane asked Jim if he would manage the organisation.

“I stayed there for about a year and a half. My first marriage had broken down at this stage and I was feeling very disillusioned with life in America. I decided to leave America for a while - my oldest brother Frank owned a bar in Ibiza so I went there.

“I spent a bit of time in Europe and I was sitting with a friend in a little village near Avignon in the south of France. I went into the bar to get a drink and spotted what would now be known as a lad’s mag. I flicked through it and couldn’t believe what I saw - my first wife had done a photo shoot. She was seductively dressed and the piece said that her name was Juliette, she was from Paris and the daughter of a diplomat. The reality was that her name was Anne, she was from Minnesota and the daughter of a plumber. The latter doesn’t have the same ring to it and I suppose the reason the French magazine changed the detail was so that it would appeal to their readership.”

Jim returned to the USA soon after and had several different jobs however he returned to graduate school at the University of California, San Diego in 1978 where he received an MA (1981) and a PhD (1984). During this period he worked with former Under Secretary of Defence, Adam Yarmolinsky on the revision of The Military Establishment, which looked at the structure and interaction of military and political institutions in the United States. In 1984, he was appointed to the faculty at UC San Diego where he worked with Ambassador Herbert York, one of the leading advocates of nuclear arms control, as Associate Director of the University of California’s new Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation.

It was through his work with Herbert York that Jim started to become an advocate of peace studies throughout the world and in 1989 he became an Associate Director of the Irish Peace Institute at the University of Limerick, where he developed the Programme in Peace and Culture Studies which ultimately became part of the graduate program in Peace and Conflict Studies of the European University Centre for Peace Studies (EPU) in Stadtschlaining, Austria.

Jim has lectured in countries all over the world including China, Russia, Japan, Austria and Hungary. He is also a former visiting scholar at the Institute of International Studies at the University of California, Berkeley but his first experience of Derry happened when he arrived here five years ago.

“Derry is an amazing place,” says Jim sincerely. “I can still see the scars of the past here and right across the North of Ireland. The course at Magee is going very well and we link up with other students from other universities right across the world. As I’ve got older I’ve developed a sense of my own mortality and I am so focused on continuing on with my peace studies work. I have a place in Hungary near the university where I do some of my Peace Studies work and would love to move there some day but for the moment I am enjoying my time in Derry.

“The human race needs to take education seriously. We have to stop looking at education as a means to how people get jobs. We have to encourage a passion for politics, economics, science and philosophy - we have to get smart.”

Jim has three children; two from his second marriage, a son Gabriel and a daughter Genevieve. He also has a teenage son Thomas from Denmark.