The name Vietnam is back in our vocabulary, as we seem to be developing an interest in history—or at least in the history of wars that just would not end. The problem is that when we ignore history, we’re condemned to repeat it.
The unfortunate reality is that people aren’t suddenly interested in Vietnam because, like Iraq, it’s a war we had no legitimate reason for entering. No. If that were the issue, Vietnam would have returned more strongly to the national zeitgeist back in 2002 as the Bush administration and the national media were beating the drums for war. The reality is that if the US had been able to pacify Iraq easily and grab whatever spoils the neo-con crowd lusted after, people wouldn’t be talking about Vietnam. Sadly, this isn’t a groundswell of moral indignation. It’s just that in Iraq, like in Vietnam, we seem to be losing.
We’re losing in Iraq on many counts: We control less and less of the country; the violence we are supposedly trying to quell is instead escalating; reconstruction has been largely a failure; and Iraqis, instead of enjoying freedom from tyranny, are living in a state of abject deprivation and terror.
Losing breeds discontent. It’s like Argentina’s 1982 invasion of Britain’s Falkland Islands colony. The Argentineans ousted their dictatorship after Argentina lost that war, not because the war was wrong but because they lost it. This is why revisionist American history texts never use the word “lost” in connection with the Vietnam war. It just sort of ended. And now the Vietnamese make Nikes.
Iraq is not Vietnam, however. We’re dealing with a different geopolitical situation—more a north-south global conflict then an east-west one. Vietnam’s significance, the hawks argued, was political. Iraq’s significance, of course, is oil.
What is the same is that we’re bogged down in a war with no achievable objective, right or wrong, no exit plan and no end in sight. Put the words “quagmire” and “Iraq” into a Lexis/Nexis news database search of major American newspapers and you’ll come up with 649 articles published in the last six months.
Current Vietnam myths don’t accurately address why and how that war ended. First there was the “peace with honor” line pushed by Richard Nixon. Then there was the blame game. We could have “won” if we weren’t wimps—with “winning,” I assume, meaning destroying Vietnam in its entirety and forcing the US-created South Vietnamese dictatorship on whatever poor souls survived a thermonuclear holocaust. (“Bomb Hanoi” was the pro-war battle cry.) Then there was the admission that the war was lost, but with the caveat that it was lost at home. The peaceniks ruined our will to “stay the course.” This theory gives the peace movement full blame or credit for finally ending the war, depending on how you look at it.
History, however, is far more complex. Ultimately the war ended because US armed forces just stopped fighting. A 1975 study published in The Journal of Social Issues documents how US troops, proportionally, opposed the war more than college students. In the end, some troops rioted, a few killed their commanding officers (fratricide emerged as the leading cause of death for lieutenants), up to 33,000 a year went AWOL and an overwhelming number of active-duty grunts refused orders and simply would not fight. The military was in shambles. It was impossible to continue the ground war, while the air war was politically untenable without the ground war to justify it.
The spitting myth
The war ended when the peace movement and the military became one and the same. In fact, returning soldiers played a pivotal role in building the peace movement. Veterans placed anti-war ads in newspapers as early as 1965. That’s the forbidden history we cannot know—because it’s the formula for ending wars. The revisionist history paints a picture of gung-ho patriotic soldiers being “spit upon” by “traitorous anti-American” peace activists. For the last 20 years, peace activists have had to contend with this image of self-righteous, violent, troop-hating hypocrisy.
For the pro-war crowd, the image of the hippie spitting on the returning soldier has become the iconic image of the Vietnam war. Oddly, however, this “image” exists despite the absence of any photographic evidence of a single spitting incident. Vietnam veteran and sociology professor Jerry Lembcke spent years chasing this myth, eventually writing a comprehensive historical study, The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam, published by NYU Press (1998).
Lembcke found an odd similarity to many of the spitting stories. The incident often happened to returning soldiers as they arrived at the San Francisco airport, with a young hippie woman doing the spitting. In doing his research, however, he found no news stories about soldiers being spit upon, even though the press was generally hostile to the anti-war movement. Likewise, he couldn’t find any reports documenting such incidents, though stories of pro-war demonstrators spitting on peace activists were plentiful. And even though the supposed incidents usually occurred in well policed airports, no one was arrested for spitting on a vet.
Even odder, there are no reports of any veteran retaliating physically against a spitter, as if after months or years of fighting, returning vets suddenly embraced pacifism in the face of humiliating abuse. And despite the supposed predictability surrounding the alleged incidents—you know, hippie women loitering around the San Francisco airport waiting for uniformed soldiers to arrive—no one was ever able to produce photo of a spitting incident.
Lembcke writes, “Not only is there no evidence that these acts of hostility against veterans ever occurred, there is no evidence that anyone at the time thought they were occurring.” In fact, he adds, “Ninety-nine percent of the veterans polled soon after returning described their reception by close friends and family as friendly, while 94 percent said the reception from people their own age who had not served in the armed forces was [also] friendly.” Lembcke’s study shows that “stories of veterans being abused by anti-war activists only surfaced years after the abuses were alleged to have happened.” Most of these stories emerged after the popular Rambo films and other movies strengthened this myth and created a collective conscious memory of events that do not seem to have transpired—or at least did not transpire on any significant level.
Myths of soldiers being abused by peace activists have long been mainstays in pro-war propaganda, with early examples coming from the Nazis, who compared their opponents to mythological peace activists who supposedly attacked and degraded returning veterans from World War I. This turned out to be a winning formula for marginalizing dissent and has been used around the world ever since.
Hanoi Jane and the GI uprising
Then there’s the Hanoi Jane myth: Like the other peace activists who hated our troops, Jane Fonda was a traitor.
It’s a little-known fact that Fonda went to Vietnam, like her pro-war nemesis Bob Hope, as an entertainer performing in front of as many as 60,000 soldiers at a single event—a number that would have turned Hope green with envy. Fonda toured with anti-war activists who appeared with her on stage. And the GI audience cheered wildly as they performed their Fuck the Army show. Pro-war soldiers—and there were plenty of those as well—hated her. It’s their voice that we hear almost exclusively today, building the myth of a schism between the peace movement and the grunts fighting the Vietnam war. With this media-enhanced stigma hanging over her head, Fonda refrained from speaking at anti-war rallies for 34 years—until this past Saturday. She feared her presence and the association with this persistent myth would hurt the peace movement. I don’t doubt that even today, the mention of her name in this column will generate hate mail.
Another lost piece of history is the story of the GI underground press. According to the Department of Defense, active-duty, Vietnam-era service personnel had published 245 anti-war newsletters and newspapers by 1972, with their editors, writers, distributors and even readers risking court-martial and jail. There was even a GI-run pirate anti-war radio station operating for a short time in Saigon. Government officals took the threat of the GI peace movment extremely seriously, going as far as to court-martial an officer in 1971 for distributing copies of the Declaration of Independence at McChord Air Force Base. The base’s underground newspaper reported the case.
That same year, 380 military and civilian police were called in to Travis Air Force Base to combat an anti-war rebellion that resulted in the burning of the Officer’s Club and the arrest of 135 GIs. Also in 1971, the Armed Forces Journal published a study entitled “The Collapse of the Armed Forces” documenting a virtual global uprising by US combat troops. Government studies produced at this time document that 32 percent of active-duty service personnel participated in some form of resistance ranging from going AWOL to attacking officers. A report issued by the Army documents 86 officers murdered by their troops in that one branch of the service. Attacks injured another 700.
In 1972 the House Armed Services Committee reported hundreds of cases of sabotage disabling Navy equipment, including major instances of arson on two ships. The vessel dispatched to replace one of these fire-damaged ships was delayed by an onboard riot. Another ship was disabled a few weeks later by a strike. Meanwhile court-martialed service personnel were rioting in military stockades around the world.
As 1972 rolled to a close, it became clear to the Nixon administration that “staying the course” in Vietnam was no longer an option. More and more, the war the military was fighting was not against the Vietnamese. We had met the enemy and he was us.
Iraq war soldiers want out
Fast-forward to Iraq. A Le Moyne College/Zogby poll conducted last February found that 72 percent of active duty military personnel wanted a complete pullout from Iraq by the end of 2006. Last Saturday a contingent of active-duty service personnel marched as participants in a massive anti-war rally in Washington, DC. Last week 1,171 active-duty service personnel signed an “Appeal for Redress” demanding that the US Congress support an immediate withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. Sixty percent of the signatories had fought in Iraq.
When you join the military you in effect waive your constitutional rights as an American—including the right to free speech. Active-duty military personnel can’t show “disrespect” for the president or their commanding officers. Nor can they make statements that “subvert the mission of the military” or wear their uniform when protesting. And the Department of Defense’s “Guidelines for Handling Dissent and Protest Among Members of the Armed Forces” prohibits activities such as petitioning Congress. Hence their statement was an “Appeal for Redress” and not a petition—a gray area that works when the petitioner is joined by 1,170 others. We call this a critical mass.
There are also a growing number of in-your-face deserters living both in Canada and underground in the US. One such war resister, Carl Webb, went as far as to maintain a Web site while he was on the run. The military ended this embarrassing situation not by finding and prosecuting him, but by discharging him, albeit dishonorably.
The all-“volunteer” armed forces
Speculation about a Vietnam-style GI uprising is often tempered by the argument that during the Vietnam war era, most soldiers were reluctant draftees. Today we have an all-volunteer military. The inference is that the military is now a career choice and that today’s fighters are gung ho to excel.
The counter argument is that we do in fact have a draft today. The skyrocketing cost of a college education coupled with cuts in student aid, and the disappearance of good entry-level jobs in the US economy, has, many argue, created an economic draft. As a result, the vast majority of Iraq and Afghanistan causalties come from poor and working-class backgrounds.
Former NBC News correspondent Peter Laufer, author of Mission Rejected: US Soldiers Who Say No to Iraq (Chelsea Green, 2006), interviews military resisters such as AWOL soldier Ryan Johnson, who says he joined because he was poor, describing himself as “a guy who made a wrong decision who wants a forklift job.” Another told Laufer that he couldn’t support his family on a McDonald’s salary. In effect, while we might not have an official military draft, the new Wal Mart economy has stepped up to the plate to keep the supply of cannon fodder coming.
Then there’s the “stopgap” draft. The military reserves the right to “call up,” or draft, military veterans who have served their time and earned honorable discharges, but technically remain in what the Pentagon calls the Independent Ready Reserves. These draftees, people who served and chose to leave military life only to be put back into the military against their will, make up the angriest and most vocal group of today’s military resisters. That’s because they, like their Vietnam predecessors, are clearly draftees.
People who feel that today’s volunteer military is less likely to engage in resistance and disobedience need to look back at another little-known fact about the Vietnam war. According to David Cortright, author of Soldiers in Revolt: GI Resistance During the Vietnam War (Haymarket Books, 2005), enlisted troops were more likely to resist fighting then were draftees. Many joined out of patriotism and were sorely disappointed with the reality on the ground in Vietnam. Others, like today’s volunteers, were victims of an economic draft.
Also, during the Vietnam war, once soldiers served on one tour of duty, they were done with Vietnam. In the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, however, almost one third of the 1.4 million service members who were deployed to the war zones were deployed at least twice—and many considered their second rounds more or less as a draft.
And finally, there’s the National Guard—the “weekend warriors,” many attracted by educational benefits, who signed up primarily to serve their communities during natural disasters. The National Guard was never a part of the Vietnam equation. It’s where George W. Bush hid out during the Vietnam war, before finally going AWOL himself.
Today National Guard troops from all 50 states and Puerto Rico are dying in Afghanistan and Iraq. Others are having their lives upended. They didn’t sign up for this. In effect, they, like the stopgap veterans, are draftees. And for the most part they don’t support this war or this president.
Our not-so-free press
Reporting on military resistance puts journalists in the middle of a minefield. The political and economic pressure to ignore this story and just go with the yellow ribbons has been enormous. Anti-war activity by active military personnel, in most cases, is illegal, even when it’s nonviolent and no property is threatened. Encouraging such activity is also illegal—and potentially dangerous in a country whose press freedoms are in a freefall. The US, once a beacon of free speech, is now ranked by the international journalism group Reporters Without Borders as 53rd in press freedom, tied with Botswana, Croatia and Tonga. It is legal to report, for example, on soldiers going AWOL, but is illegal to encourage, in print or otherwise, soldiers to go AWOL or to otherwise resist military duties.
What we can legally say is that resistance to war by active-duty military personnel, like fighting in war, is a brave act. Conscientious objection to war takes courage. Saying no is no more cowardly than saying yes to something you feel is wrong. Resisting the command to put your own life in peril when you don’t see a reason to do so is an expression of sanity. We have a right to support sanity over insanity.
This article was inspired by the award-winning documentary film Sir No Sir, which will be showing at Hallwalls on February 23 at 8pm and is available online at www.sirnosir.com. Michael I. Niman’s previous columns are archived at www.mediastudy.com.