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Soldiers in Revolt

Soldiers in Revolt.
GI Resistance During the Vietnam War
by David Cortright

Reviewed by Rob Saute

There are many myths about the Vietnam War. One of the biggest is that the US could have won the war if only cowardly Washington politicians had not tied the military’s hands and prevented it from unleashing its awesome power against Vietnam. The myth goes: if only we had let the military do what it was capable of, the war could have ended with victory.

Unleashing the military was not the option that pro-war pundits imagined it to be. As David Cortright painstakingly explains in his book, Soldiers in Revolt: GI Resistance During the Vietnam War, recently reissued by Haymarket Books, a massive revolt of enlisted men emerged to oppose the War. Former Marine Colonel Robert Heinl lamented in his classic article, “The Death of the Army” in 1971: “the morale, discipline and battle-worthiness of the U.S. armed forces are, with a few salient exceptions, lower and worse than at any time in this century and possibly in the history of the United States.”

Personnel Shortages

Cortright argues that opposition to the war from within the rank and file forced the Pentagon to wind down the ground war. He makes a solid case. The problem began with personnel shortages. In the late 1960s the Pentagon faced widespread opposition to military service. Enlistment and retention rates hit all-time lows. College ROTC ranks, the main source of junior officers, dropped precipitously. Opposition to conscription pervaded every strata of society: 206,000 never reported for the draft. From 1970 to the end of 1972 – the draft ended in early 1973 – 145,000 successfully applied for Conscientious Objector status.

Soldiers who had enlisted or been drafted began deserting in increasing numbers after 1967. As the US involvement in the war grew, from 1966 to 1971, so did Army desertion rates. During this time, they increased from 14.9 to 73.5 per thousand. At its peak, this rate was three times higher than during the Korean War and even surpassed the level of 64 per thousand in 1944. Unlike these earlier wars, most desertions in Vietnam didn’t occur under fire-- soldiers deserted more out of disgust than fear. Away without leave, or “AWOL”, (unauthorized absences of fewer than 30 days) rates were even higher . In 1971, the Army reported almost 18 unauthorized absences for every 100 enlisted personnel.

Disciplinary problems further depleted the ranks. Administrative discharges for “unfitness, unsuitability, or misconduct” – inability to adapt to military life, drug use, or antiwar activity– grew steadily until they peaked in 1971 (the Air Force hit its high point in 1973 as the air war intensified). Drug use attracted the most publicity. In November 1970, CBS News broadcast a report from Fire Base Aires in Vietnam where members of the First Air Cavalry Division gathered for a marijuana “smoke-in.” The image of soldiers using the barrel of a shotgun to smoke pot was shocking enough, but it suggested a larger problem that was to plague the military for the remainder of the war. The strict discipline and respect for the chain of command that distinguished military from the civilian life was crumbling.

The GI Movement

Cortright divides GI opposition into the “GI Movement” and “GI Resistance.” The “GI Movement” refers to carefully planned opposition within the military and purposeful protest-- actions that were designed to exert pressure on politicians and the higher echelons of the military. GIs signed petitions, placed advertisements in newspapers, formed picket lines, and marched at the head of peace demonstrations. They built organizations, created media, set up networks and agitated. What we might think of as “normal” political activity was undertaken at considerable risk, though. Free speech was severely restricted. On post, public assembly, distribution of literature, or other displays of dissent were strictly forbidden. Off a base, attending a demonstration in uniform was illegal, as was attending any demonstration in a foreign country. Political dissent was met with extra-legal harassment and administrative punishments.
Almost all GI Movement organizing went on outside of Vietnam – as one soldier remarked to the New York Times, “I just work hard at surviving so I can go home and protest all the killing.” Organizing within the military first gained attention in 1966 when the “Fort Hood 3” became the first soldiers to refuse publicly to go to Vietnam. In late1967, Fred Gardner, a Vietnam vet, launched the GI coffee house movement with a coffeehouse outside Ft Jackson, S.C. using $10,000 of his own money and the idea that soldiers were unhappy with military life and needed a place where they could relax and talk about the war and military life. Within a short period, this project was attracting 600 visitors a week.

The coffee house concept soon spread to other large Army bases, such as Ft. Hood TX, Ft Leonard Wood, MO, Ft Bragg, NC and Ft Lewis, WA They tended to emphasize the changing cultural values of the young rather than the overt politics of the anti-war movement. Despite hostility from local residents and military officials that ranged from the petty enforcement of zoning laws, arbitrary arrests to a few attempted bombings they proved immensely popular and enabled the civilian anti-war movement to forge an effective alliance with many GIs.

As the War escalated so did opposition within the ranks.. Individual acts of conscience escalated in the years before the Tet Offensive which then shattered the White House’s pretense that military victory was inevitable. The first large demonstration by GIs took place in February 1968 at Fort Jackson shortly after the opening of the coffee house there and a few days after the start of the Tet Offensive. By July a group of 200 mostly white soldiers at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas attended a “Love-In” where they listened to rock music and anti-war speeches. Six weeks later one hundred Black soldiers at Ft Hood announced their refusal to deploy to Chicago where they would be used to repress antiwar demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention. (Subsequently the Ft Hood 43 were eventually punished for disobeying orders, although most received light sentences.

The political activity of Black GIs often existed separately from the movement of white GIs, and military authorities repressed it more severely. Yet, white GIs and “coffee house” activists joined Black soldiers in mounting a campaign of legal defense and popular pressure. Most of the Fort Hood 43 received only light prison sentences.
As the anti-war movement grew in 1969 and 1970, more and more GIs took to participating in local and national demonstrations, and their protests were increasingly aimed at the higher levels of the chain of command. They gave a much-needed boost to the anti-war movement by showing that the movement was being heard. GI protesters, who could not easily be dismissed as unpatriotic, brought opposition to the war to the conservative heartland of America. In the wake of the killings at Kent and Jackson State, the “secret” bombing of Cambodia, and the upheaval that followed them, the first successful nation-wide mobilization of military personnel occurred on Armed Forces Day in 1970, forcing the military to cancel celebrations at twenty-eight bases. A year later, at the height of the anti-war movement, GI activists mounted “Armed Farces Day” with actions at nineteen bases.

A survey of soldiers at five bases in the US found that one in four enlisted men participated in legal protest activities. While GIs demonstrating in public did much to boost the morale of anti-war soldiers and civilians – and deflate the hubris of pro-war forces – much military organizing was out of the limelight due to nature and circumstance. Ever changing personnel and actual or threatened repression made creating permanent organizations virtually impossible. Yet, the GI Movement accomplished much. It published at least 259 newspapers, most popping up on one base or ship for an issue or two, but others, such as the Vietnam GI, appeared for several years with as many as three thousand subscribers in Vietnam. Most importantly, the GI Movement undermined the consensus that there was no political opposition within the military to the War and constituted a political and organizational infrastructure that fueled a more direct and radical challenge to the Pentagon’s ability to wage war.

The GI Resistance

If the GI Movement was the legal wing of soldiers in revolt, organized to make demands on the military hierarchy and civilian political actors, then the GI Resistance was its extra-legal counterpart, a rebellion from below. The GI Resistance was about disobedience. It manifested itself in day-to-day behavior that was symbolically rebellious such as wearing one’s hair too long or appearing on base in a disheveled uniform to “fragging” superiors (using fragmentation grenades) and acts of mutiny. In between was rampant drug use, frequent AWOLs, acts of desertion, sabotage, and prison riots.

While most of the acts of the GI Resistance were not overtly political or collectively planned, they made it more difficult to continue the war. The widespread nature of resistance had the aggregate effect of destabilizing the war machine. Desertion and AWOLs created personnel shortages. Drug use and other symbolic forms of protest undermined military discipline. Most cases of sabotage had little lasting effect, but at times it threatened high-tech weapon systems, most notably in July 1972 when a fire on the USS Forrestal caused $7,000,000 in damage, wrecked the ship’s radar center, and delayed the ship’s deployment for two months.

More serious were direct challenges to the military command structure. Deadly assaults against the officer corps gained the most notoriety. Between January 1969 and December 1971 the Pentagon recorded 520 intra-personnel attacks with explosive devices in Vietnam, one almost every other day. These “ fraggings” mostly involved attacks on officers and resulted in 85 deaths. So rattled were military commanders that some restricted the distribution of grenades and rifles to soldiers on guard duty and combat patrol.

Equally destructive to the war effort were those GIs who could not be trusted to use their arms. Cortright describes the twelve instances of downright rebellion that made it into the press. The first publicized act of mutiny occurred in August 1969 when after five grueling days and multiple casualties the 60 remaining men of an infantry company on patrol south of Da Nang refused to move out again. Relatively few combat troops participated in collective mutinies, but the military faced a dilemma. What to do with those who rebelled? Setting an example through punishment required publicizing the crime, which in turn risked embarrassing the military and further politicizing the conduct of the war. Doing nothing challenged the authority to wage war. Either possibility would lead to greater demoralization in the ranks. In the field, mutinous troops often negotiated their orders, “worked things out.” In fact, in April 1970, CBS Television treated viewers to live negotiations between the men of C Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry and their commanding officer when they refused orders to take a dangerous route apparently surrounded by Viet Cong forces.

Who Rebelled and Why?

An assumption of many in the anti-war movement was that draftees led the GI opposition to the war. After all, they had been forced into the war and were unlikely to share volunteers’ patriotic enthusiasm for America’s mission in Southeast Asia. In fact, the greatest dissent came from those who had volunteered, the vast majority of whom were from working-class backgrounds. Soldiers in Revolt cites a number of studies that found that the bulk of organized resisters in the military volunteered. Dissent and sabotage also occurred in the Navy and Air Force, neither of which used conscripts. Finally, the rejection of – and more than occasional rebellion against – the war effort among combat soldiers who were almost entirely working class and overwhelmingly enlistees confirms Cortright’s assessment.

Yet, too much can be made of this argument. Many enlistees, Cortright included, volunteered so that they could avoid being drafted. Other enlistees signed up because the military represented the possibility of social mobility. The presence of the draft heightened civilian opposition to the War. Why did GIs join the movement against the War? The same forces that affected the rest of American society – the counter-culture, the civil rights movement, the general loosening of authority – influenced servicemen. Many GIs were away from parental authority and/or the stultifying social norms of small-town America for the first time in their lives. Black soldiers, who led much of the opposition, were recruited in large numbers with the promise of upward mobility and hopeful that they would gain respect. They brought with them consciousness and political insights from the civil rights and Black power movements. Civilian anti-war activists provided moral support, counseling and other forms of legal and political aid.

Many enlistees felt betrayed. One summed up the dynamic when he said, “draftees expect shit, get shit, aren’t even disappointed. Volunteers expect something better, get the same shit, and have at least one more year to get mad about it.” Enlistees volunteered for a host of reasons but a near majority signed up to learn a skill or to become more self-reliant and mature. They expected the military would have civilian payoffs. What they found was that the least educated and most socio-economically disadvantaged were funneled into combat. The better educated and relatively more privileged supported those in combat but rarely received training that matched needed civilian job skills.

Enlistees encountered a caste-like system of officer privilege that included separate but hardly equal facilities; everything that officers had from latrines and social clubs to housing was markedly better. The military justice system was harsh and arbitrary. For much of the War administrative discharges occurred without due process and those facing summary courts martial had no guarantee of defense counsel. Nearly half a million Vietnam-era veterans received less than honorable separations, thus losing GI benefits and bearing a stigma similar to a criminal record.

Racism was rampant. Minority GIs disproportionately served in combat positions. They suffered discriminatory assignments, lacked avenues to advancement, and were subject to harsh treatment in the legal system. Prison inmates were disproportionately African American and experienced brutal conditions. During the War nearly every major Army stockade had an uprising. The daily indignities of minority life put Black servicemen in the vanguard of opposition to militarism, but those heightened racial tensions also erupted into violent confrontations between Black and white troops.Soldiers In Revolt brings to light a much forgotten aspect of the Vietnam War. It highlights the importance of politics in waging war. When troops challenged the basis of the War no amount of technical military superiority could substitute for their reluctance to fight. What is also abundantly clear is that opposition to the Vietnam War was not spontaneous. Organization was important. While there is no evidence that the mutinies or other direct actions undertaken by the GI Resistance were collectively planned in advance, they depended on a favorable political context, one that was greatly aided by the agitation of the GI Movement and civilian anti-war activists. Each of the components, the GI Movement and Resistance and the peace movement, aided and abetted the other, offering moral and material support that hastened the end of the War.

Cortright offers many insights for opponents of the US occupation of Iraq. A major point is that individuals and groups in the military can be organized to oppose the war. Today’s “all-volunteer” army rejects the Bush Administration’s policies. A first-ever survey of U.S. troops on the ground fighting a war overseas has found that an overwhelming majority – 72 percent – of American troops in Iraq think the U.S. should exit the country within the next year. Further, a new Le Moyne College/Zogby International survey shows that more than one in four (29%) thought the U.S. should pull its troops immediately (http://www.zogby.com/news/ReadNews.dbm?ID=1075). This opposition should hardly be surprising. Nearly one-third of the American ground forces in Iraq are members of the Army National Guard, a group that did not expect to be bogged down in an interminable occupation.

Conditions have changed since the Vietnam era. Some of the changes are encouraging. Soldiers are older and have families, and some families have been actively involved in opposing the war in Iraq. Civilian opposition to the war, while not as deep as during Vietnam, is more widespread. A sizeable majority of Americans think that sending troops to Iraq was a mistake and that Bush lacks a clear plan for handling the situation there.

Other differences make organizing more difficult. Politically, the country has moved to the right. There is no counter-culture, civil rights and civil liberties have been under constant attack since the 1970s, and living standards for the vast majority of Americans have been in decline for the last thirty years. There is no draft, and as a result the most privileged social groups face no threats to their well being from the war and have few obligations to fulfill – witness the tax cut fervor in a time of war. What remains of the liberal political establishment can opt out of opposing the president on Iraq because much of its constituency has little to lose in the conflict. The working class, which bears a disproportionate burden of the war, is increasingly disorganized as its institutional supports – unions, civil rights organizations, and the progressive wing of the Catholic Church, for example – are under attack.

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