What sort of resistance to business as usual can we find in the US Military? We know that a number of retired generals have lately spoken out against the war in Iraq, and a recent Zogby poll showed that 29 % of US troops in Iraq favor immediate withdrawal, while another survey shows 72 percent of them think the US should withdraw within the year. Soldiers like Kevin Benderman, Carl Webb, Pablo Paredes, and Kelly Dougherty have sought conscientious objector status, 400 have sought refuge in Canada, and some 9,000 have failed to report for duty since combat began in Iraq, while military recruiters have fallen notoriously short of their goals. In March, members of the group Iraq Veterans Against the War marked the third anniversary of the invasion by marching with Katrina survivors from Mobile, Alabama to New Orleans, Louisiana, calling on the government to “Abandon Iraq, not the Gulf Coast!” Iraq Veterans Against the War are also offering active-duty soldiers free DVDs of the recent film Sir, No Sir!: The Suppressed Story of the GI Movement to End the War in Vietnam, directed by David Zeiger. Along with the book Soldiers in Revolt: GI Resistance During the Vietnam War, written by David Cortright, and recently reissued with a new introduction by Howard Zinn, it provides an illuminating antidote to the right-wing’s revisionist history of the 60s and 70s.
One canard those works refute is the idea 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. Cortright argues that opposition to the war from within the rank and file forced the Pentagon to wind down the ground war. One problem was personnel shortages. By the Pentagon’s own figures, well over 500,000 “incidents of desertion” occurred between 1966 and 1971; by 1971 entire units were refusing to go into battle in unprecedented numbers. 206,000 never reported for the draft. From 1970 to the end of 1972 (shortly before the draft ended) 145,000 successfully applied for Conscientious Objector status. It wasn’t just the enlisted ranks affected, either: college ROTC ranks, the main source of junior officers, dropped precipitously. Disciplinary problems further depleted the ranks. Administrative discharges for “unfitness, unsuitability, or misconduct” – including antiwar activity– grew steadily through 1971. After resistance of the soldiers on the ground led the US government to shift to an air war, such discharges increased in the Air Force, peaking in 1973.
Cortright calls these extra-legal rebellions the “GI Resistance”; which includes the instances of “fragging” in which soldiers killed their commanding officers, often using fragmentation grenades, as well as mutiny and sabotage. The GI Resistance wasn’t always overtly political or collectively planned, but it reinforced the efforts of what Cortright calls the “GI Movement,” referring 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.
Another myth challenged by both Cortright’s book Soldiers in Revolt and Zeiger’s film Sir! No Sir! is that draftees led the GI opposition to the war. In fact, the greatest dissent came from those who had volunteered, the vast majority of whom were from working-class backgrounds. 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.” Soldiers in Revolt cites a number of studies that found that the bulk of organized resisters in the military had 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 overwhelmingly enlistees confirms Cortright’s assessment.
On the other hand, as Rob Saute points out in a review of Soldiers in Revolt in Citizen Soldier, many enlistees volunteered so that they could avoid being drafted, and the presence of the draft heightened civilian opposition to 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. Black soldiers, who led much of the opposition, brought with them consciousness and political insights from the civil rights and Black power movements. And far from spitting on returning vets (an urban legend that Sir! No Sir! takes pains to debunk) Civilian anti-war activists provided moral support, counseling, and other forms of legal and political aid.
In an essay in the May 8th issue of the Nation magazine, Christian Parenti argues that the military response to the Vietnam-era GI Movement and Resistance has shaped the current armed forces: Ending the draft, he writes, excised much of the disgruntled element from the ranks, and by professionalizing the services, it has helped create a deepening military-civilian divide. Within today's all-volunteer military, there is much more intense solidarity than during the Vietnam era. After Vietnam the military also improved its housing, wages, benefits, food and training; it reached out to the families of soldiers and modernized its disciplinary systems and promotions methods, all of which improved morale.
Another key difference between this war and Vietnam is the use of whole-unit rotations as opposed to individual rotations. In Vietnam a soldier was dropped into a unit for 365 days and then, if he survived, plucked out. In Iraq and Afghanistan, battalions of 500 to 800 soldiers train together, deploy together and come home together. During Vietnam the constant flow of men in and out of line companies fighting the war seriously undermined unit cohesion and camaraderie.
On the other hand, Parenti notes that activist vets all point out that unit cohesion can cut two ways: It works like Kryptonite to stop rebellion, but after a tipping point unit cohesion can serve to make rebellion even more intense.
If 1960s activism was fueled by disillusioned outrage, Parenti suggests, then today's activism is fettered by a type of world-weary cynicism. Iraq Veteran Against the War Fernando Braga says most of the guys in his unit assume the war is based on lies and that it's all about oil, but they won't get involved in peace activism because "They say, 'You can't change anything.' But if you read history you see that usually people already have changed things," he says. "Movements have made lots of things happen."