Ryan Harvey

Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Wisconsin’s “Capitol City” Was Testing Ground for Participatory Democracy

In History on May 5, 2011 at 11:35 pm

Originally published April 29 at Truth-Out.

Newly elected Gov. Scott Walker kept a lid on his controversial, billionaire-backed “budget repair” bill until it was almost time to vote on it. Once details were made public, he thought he would have it passed by the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Legislature in under a week.

That was before the Wisconsin State Capitol building was occupied and several large wildcat strikes and student walkouts brought thousands into the streets. Soon, all fourteen Democratic senators would flee the state and the largest demonstrations in Wisconsin’s history would bring international attention to the antiunion agenda behind the bill.

I came to Madison and slept in the Capitol for five nights during the occupation. I wanted to get a clear understanding of the movement’s depth, capacity and commitment. I traveled back more recently to get the story of how the occupation came to be, how it was organized, how people have reflected on it since and the role it has played in the mass movement here.

The Occupation Happens

February 14, 2011, Valentine’s Day: “I Love UW – Don’t Break My Heart,” read the cards that 2,000 students lined up to deliver to Governor Walker, calling for the rights of students and educators to be respected in the recently published budget repair bill.

Though the protest at the Capitol had been planned weeks earlier, the massive turnout reflected the angry response to the bill’s details. “It was a starting point to show people in a very immediate way that people are reacting to [the bill],” said participant Sara Lam, a University of Wisconsin (UW) graduate student.

Organizers quickly realized that the next day’s demonstrations would be significant. Indeed, on February 15, according to the Associated Press, 13,000 people demonstrated against the bill. A few weeks later, the crowds would break 100,000.

Inside the Capitol, thousands lined up to give two-minute testimonies to a joint finance committee of the state government. UW student Tom Bird, originally from Oshkosh, was one of them. He had not been politically active before he and over 1,000 other UW students walked out on February 16.

Bird said the four hours he spent listening to others speak as he awaited his turn changed him. “From 3:00 until 7:00 was probably the most driving experience I’d ever had in my life to get involved,” he said. “The stuff I heard was just jaw-dropping.”

After Republicans walked out, Democrats announced they would keep the hearings, now unofficial, running twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. People began sleeping in the halls and rotunda to hold the space so the testimonies could continue.

The hearings were both transformational for individuals and instrumental in remaking the protests into a broader movement. “It started with the hearings,” said Erika Wolf, advocacy field organizer for the United Council of UW Students. “And thousands and thousands of people showed up.”

“It was never something we had anticipated, that a community was going to form and live in this space and be sort of the focal point of the resistance to the budget repair bill – and the beginnings of a social movement,” said Wolf.

“As far as I know, nobody had set out to say ‘We are going to occupy our State Capitol,'” said UW graduate student Charity Schmidt, who was there the first night. “That was the first night we stayed in the Capitol, simply to let our voice be heard in the public hearing.”

It was in this way that the occupation began: not as an accident, but not as a preplanned political mobilization. Though some experienced activists and organizers were present, there was nothing like the massive infrastructural planning that typically goes into a large demonstration.

“Capitol City” Takes Shape

As the confusing, spur-of-the-moment protests turned into a temporary community, dozens of individuals stepped up to meet others’ needs and figure out how this new community would function.

Early on, members of the Teacher Assistant Association (TAA) established a “command center” inside where organizers would coordinate press calls, update web sites and social media, and begin to gather resources for the long stay.

As local businesses like Lori Henn’s cafe, Michelangelo’s, and the Willy Street Co-op began donating food and coffee, food distribution became an issue.

“People were donating food to keep people energized in the Capitol.” UW graduate student John Zinda recalls being asked by one volunteer if he would figure out where to serve food inside. “That was how the food station started,” he said.

“The level of commitment was just astounding,” Zinda said. “We’d have two or three people volunteering at the food station and another person upstairs, and then somebody running in-between … pretty much around the clock.”

To keep people safe and healthy, a group of “street medics” organized a table with basic first-aid and disease prevention materials. Another group began a “marshaling team” to keep things peaceful.

Rek Kwawer, a state worker and member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union (AFSCME), worked with the medic station. “We had at least one person who was an acupuncturist, one person who was a firefighter,” said Kwawer. “It was a pretty mixed crowd.”

The medical table soon hosted cold-flu medicines, vitamin C, water, hand sanitizer, medical advice and more. Any medical concerns could be brought there. Medics treated symptoms on the spot or offered a hospital escort.

After noticing that many participants were confused due to a lack of centralized information, UW senior Harriet Rowan started the “Information Station”.

One task of the station was rumor control and information dispersal. “What people upstairs in the ‘Command Center’ didn’t understand was that people in the Capitol … didn’t know what was going on,” said Rowan. “A lot of people … didn’t know there was testimony going on, or when the assembly was meeting.”

“When something huge would happen, we would also make a huge sign and just walk around with it,” Rowan said.

“That was when you could feel that it had changed, from people just sleeping, to actually taking possession of the Capitol, when they started posting their own signs and setting up the info station,” said Karen Scott, a TAA member who coordinated the marshaling team.

“We went around and we changed all of the tape on the posters to blue painter’s tape,” said Trevor Young-Hyman, a graduate student at UW. “And people would sleep on different floors, for when the custodial service would come through.”

The blue tape was mentioned to me in several interviews. To some, the tape and the posters it held were two of the more visible symbols of the power shifts that occurred by the end of February.

Young-Hyman had been organizing trash cleanup efforts since the earlier days of the occupation. “We just started cleaning up trash,” he said. “We started organizing it, and it just sort of happened.”

The team came up with creative ways of handling the job. Young-Hyman described the “Trash Cleanup March”: “You would assemble about 20 people and you would basically march through the crowd chanting.”

Eventually, the team coordinated directly with the building supervisor and janitorial staff.

Not far from the Information Station was the childcare space, which, according to organizer Mary Jo, emerged when volunteers started getting meals for youth and putting up youth-made art and other flyers on the walls. Soon, the three mothers who participated in this effort officially organized the childcare area, which became known as the North Wing Family Center.

Though many brought their families to the Capitol, Mary Jo said many mothers stayed home with children while fathers continued more visible work on these issues. Thus, the family space was created to work toward collectively supporting children and parents, primarily mothers.

Below the childcare space in the Rotunda, an open-microphone session ran from morning to night. Anyone could speak, including opposition supporters. Bird mentioned one Walker supporter’s appearance. “We let the guy speak his mind,” he said. “He should be allowed to speak, too.”

In addition to helping run the open-mic, Bird joined the drum circle, a loosely organized group of people that stayed at the center of the Rotunda on the first floor from morning to night.

“There was no formal organization; there were just people there with drums,” Bird said. “It was very open and inclusive.”

Housed next to the open-mic, the drum circle would fall silent for each speaker. If the crowd wasn’t silent, or if one needed more quiet, a peace sign would be thrown in the air.

By the second week, the peace sign was an understood symbol, but it wasn’t always respected. A constant but light tension existed throughout the space as many different groups and individuals navigated how this community would function.

Collective Identity and Power

The internal dynamics between the people and organizations in what became “Capitol City” cannot be downplayed. However, they must be understood as power dynamics that existed in a specific time and space, where many factors were in play and much was at stake.

Tensions sometimes arose between established organizations and unorganized people or new, ad hoc groups. After the occupation ended, many of those who participated in the drum circle and the open-mic, for instance, formed the Autonomous Solidarity Organization (ASO).

“Virtually nobody knew anybody else in that group before we met at the Capitol,” said David Vines, a UW undergraduate student and member of the ASO. “It would be accurate to say that none of us really knew each other [before that].”

Some from the ASO and other groups saw the TAA as being too controlling. Others felt their role was essential but admitted there were shortcomings in communication and transparency.

“There was already somewhat of a hierarchy or an organizational structure [within the TAA],” Young-Hyman said. He believes that this dynamic led to some wrongful impressions that the TAA desired power. However, “it was definitely potentially problematic … other groups and individuals who were less organized, who were maybe more experienced activists, felt a little bit run over.”

“There was a lot of tension about how the TAA got so much credit for the occupation and not many other groups appeared to have,” said Scott. She is pushing for the TAA to publicly acknowledge all the other groups’ efforts.

Part of this tension was due to the different reasons individuals and groups stayed in the Capitol. “There is some level of ideological split about how these things work,” Wolf said. She pointed out that most people attempting to organize together inside had never met each other or worked together before.

“There were people who wanted to see the occupation continue to happen because they saw it as strategic, and some people who wanted to see it continue because they saw it as fun and exciting,” she continues. “And then within either of those groups, there were multiple perspectives on how, what and why. So that was a constant point of conflict.”

“I was always torn about whether to call it an ‘occupation,'” Rowan said. “For me, it was more about being there to be part of what was going on in the Capitol, as opposed to just ‘taking the space.’ At the same time, Capitol City was a real thing, a real idea and I think that was underestimated (by other groups).”

This tension produced the Capitol City Leadership Committee, an ad hoc formation that attempted to organize all groups doing infrastructural or strategic work inside the Capitol.

“I started inviting people, like those doing food, coordinating media and the drum circle,” Wolf said. “Some people doing food during the day didn’t know other people doing food at night, so there was a real need to coordinate.”

Throughout the occupation, different groups made a joint effort in discussions with the police, which some saw as needed and others saw as problematic. “Me and a couple other Capitol City community people started having daily meetings and briefings with the police,” said Shmidt.

“I’ve heard a lot of criticisms, and I agree with them and understand them, but this was such a unique moment in which the police took a political stand to come out against the budget repair bill … and basically supported what was happening in the Capitol.”

“They would come be like, ‘Someone is bringing stuff in through the windows,'” Rowan said, “and we would say, ‘Well, we can ask people not to, but you need to make sure food can get in other ways.'”

“There were definitely instances when the police went out of their way to help protestors out,” Lam said. “But at other times, their seemingly friendly demeanor could just as likely have been a tactic for maintaining peace rather than a show of solidarity, especially for certain units of the police who were not as sympathetic to the protest as others.” She said she heard people say that they experienced racial profiling in the Capitol as well.

“I think if the police unions hadn’t have stood with us, the feelings might have been different,” Scott points out. “But it was really part of the Capitol culture to keep things peaceful.”

The situation with the police was challenging for those with strong, justifiable preconceptions about the role of police in protests. “They couldn’t treat [us] like they normally would, because they weren’t being treated like they normally would,” Shmidt said. “And I think whenever you have a space like that, when people break down their normal social barriers, that you try to push it.”

In the end, Rowan said asking people to follow police suggestions may have made them more vulnerable to being slowly pushed out. “In a certain way, our relationship with the police did facilitate people moving when the police asked us to, which is what made us end up on the ground floor.”

Shmidt believes the easy eviction was more due to a lack of power, not police trickery. “I felt like that could have been a much more effective relationship if the bigger organizations, my own [TAA] including, were to have a more affirmative stance on making demands on the police ourselves,” she said.

Shmidt’s critique alludes to a larger tension between those inside the Capitol and those in union leadership positions and in the Democratic Party.

A New Power to Challenge the Old

“I was telling the unions and people from nonprofits and the Democrats, ‘You are not in charge,'” Wolf said, describing one tense meeting during the occupation. “‘The people inside are not there because you told them to come there; they are there because they need to be there for themselves.'”

“What we do need to do is make sure that what’s growing as a movement stays together, and that everyone has a place in it,” she told them.

Kwawer is careful to point out that while she is actively defending union rights, she is very critical of her own union’s leadership and organizing style.

“I do want to keep paying my dues, and I do want to keep being a union member,” she said. “But I would also like a union I can actually be involved in, rather than this union that’s starting to remind me of a political party.”

Her hope is that a new sense of unionism will grow out of these protests, one that draws workers into more democratic unions that can effectively fight outside of the Democratic Party. “Because unions have been so top-down, there’s not really any organizing capacity on the bottom,” she said.

To Scott, the TAA’s internal dynamics are a microcosm of a larger issue at play: unions are losing touch with communities. Some are struggling with egotistical, disconnected leadership, while others are struggling to balance political goals with the need to keep members empowered and involved. “I think anytime you lose community outreach, you isolate yourself,” she said.

Scott pointed out what many others said in interviews and articles: the Wisconsin movement is not just about the unions, and it never was.

“Kill the Bill” was a slogan often heard in chants from the crowd, signifying that despite some unions stating publicly that they were willing to compromise for their collective bargaining rights, those in the streets were united in total opposition to the bill.

“I know a lot of folks outside of the union movement were concerned,” she said. “People who were there because they care about Badger Care [Wisconsin’s state Medicaid program], people who were there because they care for the environment.”

“I see it as part of the larger class warfare,” said Scott.

Critics suggested that because unions were so tightly bound to the occupation, it was part of a Democratic Party plot. Far-right pundits at Fox News and some left radicals seemed to agree, but the occupation’s participants did not.

“Whether you are talking about unions or whether you are talking about the Democratic Party, this is where we saw that the people were out in front of the leaders,” Shmidt points out. “They were ahead of the leaders … the leaders were just catching up.”

There’s no way to construe it as being overseen by the Democrats,” Scott said. “Some people might have illusions about the Democrats, but I think that for a lot of people [supporting Wisconsin Democrats] is just very pragmatic and practical.”

“It wasn’t like we were following orders from the Democrats, not at all,” Young-Hyman adds. “We wanted to apply maximum political pressure to everyone. Obviously, we needed them to play a role, but our role was keeping the pressure on.”

“We’re not working for the Party,” Vines said of the ASO. “We’re working for the middle class, the working class, the working poor and students.”

Bird, who organizes now with the ASO, said he considers the Senate Democrats heroes for standing up to the bill and fleeing the state, but he emphasized that they played no greater role in the occupation than anyone else. “[They] were supporting [the occupation],” he said, “but in no way, shape or form were they running anything.”

Lam does not view the actions of the Democrats as being too radical. “The Republicans are doing these outrageous things and the Democrats don’t even have to say that they are trying to do something progressive,” she said. “All they have to do is say they are opposed to these absolutely crazy things, and then all the sudden they are heroes.”

While he is backing the recall efforts, UW graduate student Mario Bruzzone is nervous about how they will pan out as far as the social movement is concerned. “As always, the devil’s in the details,” he said, emphasizing that it’s less important what the movement is doing electorally as much as how they are doing it. “Whether that then gets mobilized outside of just electoral politics, that’s the million-dollar question right now,” he said.

With the Tea Party gaining power nationally as unions struggle to become relevant to their members and the Democratic Party loses support from its own base as a result of Obama’s two faces, it is an important time to assess the power of the Wisconsin movement and identify its successes and shortcomings.

For now, organizers say that the statewide recall efforts are going successfully, while yet-to-be-public plans to expand the capacity of the grassroots organizing efforts are in the works.

They are thinking of this as a long fight, one that started at the Capitol but that is now fanning out across the state.

Indeed, this is still a young movement.


Breaking Rank: A Brief History of Mutiny, Combat Refusal, and Desertion

In History on April 1, 2010 at 6:30 pm

A look at military-led movements in history, from Anceint Rome to Iraq and Afghanistan, against wars and for political and economic justice.

“There is no way I will deploy to Afghanistan. The occupation is immoral and unjust. It does not make the American people any safer. It has the opposite effect.” With this, Fort Hood, Texas-based Army Specialist Victor Agosto went to his 2009 trial, where he received 30 days in jail and a dishonorable discharge. Sergeant Travis Bishop, also based at Fort Hood, refused orders to Afghanistan at the same time and is still imprisoned at the Fort Lewis, WA stockade serving a one year sentence.

“I don’t want to be killing innocent people,” Cliff Cornell wrote as he refused orders to Iraq in 2005. He was deported from Canada last year to face charges in the U.S. and was imprisoned for almost a year at the Fort Stewart, Georgia stockade. Matt Lowell, a soldier in the U.S. Army who refused deployment to Iraq and is currently living in Canada, explains his desertion: “I can still look myself in the mirror. I didn’t have to shoot [an Iraqi] who’s doing exactly what I joined the military to do, to defend their country.”

These are just a few of the voices of war resisters, who stand among thousands who have silently or publicly broken rank in opposition to the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Though there are many ways that members of the Armed Forces speak and act in opposition to war, we find ourselves surprised and somewhat confused by their actions. Soldiers refusing to fight? Isn’t that an oxymoron? Aren’t soldiers supposed to fight? Doesn’t that go against the whole culture of the military?

Our responses are not accidental: they are the result of the history we learn and how that history is written. History shapes both identity and culture, and those who control and define history have a strong hand in controlling and defining cultural values. This is especially true of military history and military culture.

Conventional war history is full of decisive battles, stoic Generals, dead heroes, and great victory celebrations. When we look at these versions of history, we study where the guns were fired, who fired them, and which army “won” the battles. Rarely do we dig beneath the surface and find out anything more: Who were the soldiers? Why were they serving? What issues did they face? How did they feel about the war? What came of them afterward?

Wars are not just battles and flashes, they are the stories of millions of lives cut short. And they are full of soldiers who found themselves in a hell they didn’t wish to see, of young people who were forced to fight for something they often didn’t believe in, of people facing an enemy they didn’t believe was guilty of anything. When we open this hidden history, we find a whole complex world of politics, reaching into the far ends of the political spectrum.

Dating back to the Ancient Roman draft resistance-movement, we find draftees and soldiers in every war who stood up to illegal and immoral policies, who refused to serve in wars that violated their basic principles, who resisted from within the ranks of or deserted an unjust government’s army. We also find some who, like many of the 30,000 deserters from the Nazi army who joined the French resistance, switched sides and fought alongside their supposed enemies.

Not only have soldiers always resisted wars, but from the radical democratic debates of the “Leveller” soldiers in the 1640’s English Civil War to the Serbian soldiers who refused to fire on the crowds overthrowing Milosevic in 1999, they have also played pivotal roles in social movements around the world.

When the great railroad strike of 1877 broke out in the streets of Baltimore, half of the National Guardsmen deployed to repress strikers deserted and joined the crowds. This trend continued as the strike spread across the country, with major acts of military resistance occurring across Pennsylvania and Ohio. In some instances, Guardsmen turned their weapons over to strikers. Many had families and friends in the crowds, others just sympathized with their demands for better wages and living conditions.

It was largely poor Irish soldiers who led these rebellious National Guardsmen, perhaps in part because they had a history to live up to. Their grandfathers had led a group of hundreds of mostly-Irish soldiers drafted into the U.S. Army who deserted during the Mexican-American War and fought with the Mexicans against American aggression. Those who fought with the San Patricios, or St. Patrick’s Battalion, are still celebrated as heroes all over Mexico.

Not long after the war with Mexico, Indian soldiers serving under British rule in the Bengal Army set off a rebellion that grew to involve nearly 45 million people. What began as a dispute over the use of rifle cartridges that were greased with pig fat turned into a full-scale rebellion against British rule, with soldiers killing their officers, opening prisons, and seizing the arsenal at Delhi. “The Great Rebellion” soon spread across the country. Although it was one of the largest uprisings of the 19th century, brutal repression on the part of the British and disorganization among the rebels made it short-lived.

As The Great Rebellion’s leaders were being hung, the U.S. was beginning a countdown to civil war. We learn today that this war was a fight between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces. While most African American soldiers fought with the sole motivation of ending slavery, as did many white allies like my Underground Railroad organizer and soldier ancestor Elwood Harvey, this is only a part of the story.

In conventional military history, we usually look are why wars are fought from the perspective of the heads of state on either side, or what we perceive to be the general sentiment in society. This leads to a very simplified understanding of conflict and the phenomenon of war. But when we take a real close look at the personal, political, and economic motivations of the actual soldiers involved, we often find a third history, full of paradoxes and complexities. These stories are the important stories to look at if we want to seriously consider the factors involved in preventing or stopping wars.

And so the story of abolitionists enlisting to eradicate slavery is taught in most schools and is looked upon as the general story of the Civil War: anti-slavery northerners against pro-slavery southerners. But what is seldom taught is how little of the white south was comprised of slave owners. One third of Southern families (not individuals) owned-slaves, and class tensions ran high in the Southern armies against the slave-owning class. Northern soldiers were often poor draftees who saw the war as not a pro-slavery/anti-slavery fight, but a fight between two groups of elite men using poor soldiers to protect their property and investments.

Thus soldiers from the North and South found far more in common with each other than with their respective leaders. James Dinkins, a Confederate soldier from Northern Virginia, wrote that “the war could have been over in ten days if the question had been left to the soldiers.” Similarly, a Union soldier from Wisconsin wrote; “If the settlement of this war was left to the Enlisted men on both sides we would soon go home.” It was very common for soldiers from the opposing Army to visit each others camps in delegations to play cards, trade alcohol, or even go swimming on hot days in a creek or river, or for one line to yell to the other side to get down when they were about to fire on them. They didn’t want to kill friends.

The befriending of the “enemy” is always a weak point for Generals and Politicians, as it has the potential to turn soldiers against their often oppressive and demoralizing command structures. When the U.S. invaded the Philippines in 1898, many black soldiers, like the the San Patricios before them, deserted to join ranks with the indigenous guerrilla army of Emilio Aguinaldo.

During the early days of World War One, hundreds of soldiers from the French, Scottish, and German armies laid down their weapons to drink, play games, and celebrate Christmas together. The 1914 “Christmas Truce” lasted for days before the units were broken up and dispersed to other parts of the front. Similar truces happened up and down the front and are said to have been repeated on a smaller scale in 1915 and 1916.

In 1917, the war would change drastically, and it was not the generals but their mutinous soldiers who would force the change. Mass resistance to World War One by the sailors and soldiers of Russia drove the 1917 revolution, pushing the Czar out of power and the Russians out of the war. French sailors refusing to fight prevented the French from invading the new Socialist Russia. Mass resistance within the British military, including incidents of combat refusal, armed mutiny, and fraternization with the “enemy”, helped push the British out of further escalation with Russia. In 1919, sailors and soldiers in the German military led a revolution that overthrew the monarchy and ended Germany’s participation in the “Great War”. Thousands of miles away, British soldiers under April Lord Allenby were refusing to fight during a large rebellion in occupied Egypt challenging British rule.

In the summer of 1921, Indian soldiers drafted into the British Imperial Army were deserting and joining the ranks of the Non-Cooperation movement, led in part by Ghandi, who was calling for soldiers to refuse to fight. That same year, thousands of American World War One veterans, organized under the United Mine Workers, faced off with the coal barons at Blair Mountain in Mingo County, West Virginia in the most militant and bloody labor conflict in U.S. history. In 1932, thousands of angry “Great War” veterans erected a tent-city in Washington D.C. to demand back-pay that was never given to them by the U.S. government. The “Bonus Army,” as the movement was called, was addressed by a new hero of military-resistance, the highest-ranking Marine in U.S. history at the time, General Smedley Butler. His “War is a Racket,” published in 1935, stands as one of the most critical and authoritative documents against war and aggression written from within the ranks of a military.

Then we had “The Good War,” which has been couched in historical narratives that confuse the motives for war with the effects of war. These narratives lead us to assume that a war with good motives is a “good war”. Not only are the bodies usually hidden from view, but often the daily lives of the soldiers are as well. We don’t hear that when the Nazis were pushed from Paris, black soldiers in the Tirailleurs Senegalais, the West African portion of the French resistance to Hitler who made up 65 percent of the French forces, were not allowed to march in the “liberation” parade. Instead, Spanish soldiers and light-skinned soldiers from Morocco and Syria were picked to march to give an “all-white” appearance at the behest of the Americans and their French counterparts.

In the U.S., black soldiers fighting fascism from within a segregated Jim Crow army drove a movement for racial and economic justice that was very prevalent in the military culture during World War Two and often articulated itself through desertion, fights, and riots. The movement led to the largest single mutiny in U.S. history at Port Chicago, California. After hundreds of sailors, all black, were killed loading explosives onto ships destined for the war, hundreds of sailors refused to go back to work and many were court-martialed for it. The black experience in World War Two was a major cultural factor in why the Civil Rights movement exploded right as the war came to an end.

We don’t usually hear about the movement that erupted across the South Pacific, Hawaii, and in the United States at the end of the war, when tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers demanded to be taken home immediately, contrary to their government’s plan to leave them deployed across the globe to flex U.S. geopolitical strength.

Major unions threatened to strike until the troops came home: “[T]he Akron Industrial Union Council… gives support to the millions of workers in uniform who long for peace, for home, and for a return to a normal life… [we] are in full accord with the demonstrating soldiers who protest against being used to protect the wealth and foreign properties of such antilabor corporations as Standard Oil and General Motors.” In late 1945 and early 1946, 4,000 troops marched on-base in the Philippines, 1,000 booed down officers at Andrews Field (now Andrews Air Force Base) in Maryland, 5,000 marched on Frankfurt Germany, 15,000 at Hickman Field in Honolulu, and 5,000 in Calcutta, India. This successful movement led to the speedy return of much of the U.S. military from the South Pacific and Europe.

As U.S. soldiers marched through Calcutta demanding demobilization, Indian soldiers were joining the civilian movement in organizing for independence from Britain. And though there are many volumes written on Gandhi’s pacifism and the movement he helped lead, few give credit to the large-scale and somewhat violent mutiny by Indian sailors serving in the Royal Navy that consumed 22 ships in Bombay harbor in 1947 before spilling onto the land. It was this rebellion that would set off the chain of events that finally pushed the British out of India. The sailors organized under a Naval Central Strike Command, demanding among other things, a withdrawal of Indian troops from Indonesia, where Britain’s invasion was being hampered by Indian soldiers switching sides and fighting alongside the Indonesian guerillas.

As Britain, Portugal, and France’s imperial power was swept aside by the guerrilla armies of Southeast Asia and Africa, they called on the U.S. for support. It was in this context that the U.S. Military entered Vietnam in the early 1950s, as the French were being defeated by the guerrilla armies of Ho Chi Minh. By 1965, the U.S. was engulfed in one its worst nightmares.

Throughout the course of the Vietnam War (or the American War as the Vietnamese call it), military resistance steadily grew, with 10 percent of the U.S. military deserting or going AWOL and mass incidents of combat refusal, draft-resistance, refusals to deploy, and on-base protests and sit-ins occurring. Troops marched on bases throughout the U.S. and joined mass demonstrations in major cities. They printed over 300 anti-war newspapers on or near bases, wrote petitions, and opened coffeehouses outside of bases to mobilize anti-war sentiment among the troops. Organizations like the American Servicemen’s Union swelled to 20,000 members. Imprisoned war-resisters and rebellious GIs rioted and burned military-prisons in Vietnam, at Fort Dix, NJ, and at the Presidio Stockade in San Francisco.

On the ground in Vietnam, nearly 300 incidents of “fragging” – the killing of commanding officers – were reported over the course of the war, and probably many more occurred. In later years of the war, the U.S. could no longer rely on ground troops, leading them to increase their reliance on aerial bombings. In response, sailors demobilized three aircraft carriers through small acts of sabotage and soldiers in intelligence units purposely sent incorrect data to pilots to save lives on the ground.

When the veterans of Vietnam returned home, they organized under Vietnam Veterans Against the War, which had a membership of over 25,000 people, and continued their anti-war efforts. But they didn’t just organize for a withdrawal from Vietnam, they joined movements at home fighting for social and economic justice. Many leaders of the Black Panther Party, including former Sergeant Jeronimo Pratt, John Huggins, and Ed Poindexter, fought in Vietnam. Many of their allies in the American Indian Movement (AIM), such as Buddy LaMont, Roger Iron Cloud, and Marty Firerider, did as well. When AIM’s movement for Indian rights and justice culminated in the occupation of Wounded Knee, Vietnam Veterans played a key role in defending them and bringing supplies.

In his 1971 red alert, The Collapse of the Armed Forces, Colonel Robert D. Heinl Jr. wrote: “By every conceivable indicator, our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and non commissioned officers, drug-ridden, and dispirited where not near mutinous.” By the mid-70s, this GI movement defeated the draft and was a major force in bringing the Vietnam War to an end. It also radically altered the domestic and international reputation of the United States Military.

While the U.S. was trying to power-wash the stains of Vietnam away, the Imperial powers were violently confronting resistance to apartheid and colonialism in the southern tip of Africa. The Portuguese were losing the liberation war waged by the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique, and were facing a similar defeat in Angola by the guerrilla armies of The Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA).

But what would trouble Portugal more than their enemies turned out to be their own soldiers. By 1974, resistance to the Portuguese Colonial Wars and the fascist government in Lisbon was boiling within the Portuguese military. That year soldiers had held open meetings, handed out leaflets, published their own newspapers, held work-stoppages, refused to break civilian strikes, publicly refused to deploy to the African colonies, and sabotaged their own vehicles. In January 1975, the entire infantry battalion 4911 refused to go to Angola and called for support of the MPLA. A month later, soldiers from the Fifth Infantry Division sent their own agitators to the countryside to talk to people about overthrowing fascism. Soldiers also joined the ranks of underground urban guerrilla groups like the League of Union and Revolutionary Action and the Revolutionary Brigades, who carried out attacks on military bases and bombed ships.

When one of the most rebellious units, the RAL-1, was bombed by Right-wing elements of the army during an attempted coup on March 11th, 1975, civil-society rushed to their defense, and the paratroopers sent in to repress them mutinied. By the end of the day their “Carnation Revolution” brought down the fascist regime. By November, continued activity led to the withdrawal of all Portuguese soldiers from Southern Africa.

Before Portugal’s defeat, the British had been forced out of Angola by the MPLA but still fought against a powerful guerrilla army and an enormous and determined mass social-movement in South Africa. While this movement was mostly fought by and paid-for by black South Africans, white Afrikaner soldiers and allies had launched the Committee on South African War Resistance after the 1975 invasion of Angola to help soldiers who refused to enforce the policies of Apartheid. In 1983, Afrikaner conscientious objectors, deserters, military family members, and allies founded the End Conscription Campaign. Their organizing efforts, including mass marches and their newspaper Combat, helped mobilize soldiers and white civil society against the policies of Apartheid.

Meanwhile, miles across the Indian Ocean from the west coast of South Africa, Afghan guerrilla fighters were up against hundreds of thousands of invading Soviet soldiers in a 10 year occupation. The Afghan War (or “Russia’s Vietnam” as it was called by U.S. officials) cost Afghanistan the lives of millions of people, and the Russians 15,000 soldiers. This war destroyed much of Afghanistan, and destroyed the minds of many Russian soldiers who fought there.

In the lead up to the invasion, and in it’s early stages, the Afghan military saw many rebellions against Soviet rule. In July of 1980 the Kabul garrison attempted to overthrow the Soviet-backed Karmal government and were bombed heavily. Meanwhile, Afghan troops in Ghanzi seized their garrison and later 4,500 of the 5,000 troops stationed there desert to the Mujahidin. On July It is estimated that 80 percent of the Afghan military deserted during the first 2 years of the occupation, many joining ranks with the guerrilla Mujahedin fighters.

Other Afghan troops deserted the country. A July 14, 1981 report from the Saudi-based Arab News tells of Captain Jamaluddin and his brother seizing their own helicopter while on a partrol to track deserters, tying up their co-pilot, and flying to Pakistan to join their refugee family.

Soviet soldiers also deserted within Afghanistan or escaped to other countries, and many who were unaccounted for turned up later serving in guerrilla units, fighting alongside the Mujadedin. In February of 1988, Taras Derevlianty, a Soviet deserter living in the U.S., publicized an “Address to the Soviet Occupation Troops in Afghanistan,” calling on soldiers to refuse to serve.

Those soldiers who survived the war returned home to a collapsing Soviet Union. Andrei Sakharov was attached to a paratrooper brigade in Afghanistan; “We had no right to be there. We should have known what war meant from losing twenty-seven million people during World War Two. I realized that war only means killing and never makes things better, whether it’s in Vietnam of Korea, Afghanistan of Grenada.”

Competing themes about “socialism” often fueled the actions of Soviet soldiers,who saw themselves as standing for the ideals of liberation and justice but were being ordered to commit atrocities for an imperial army. Those who took seriously the political teachings of their government ended up standing against it. Soviet soldiers had taken a similar stance years earlier during the 1956 invasion of Hungary, when deserting Soviet soldiers helped lead the street-movement against the Soviet troops, joined by deserters from the Hungarian army and armed-demonstrators.

This was not a new phenomenon but an age-old story. In 1781, members of the Pennsylvania Militia, in a battle to define “democracy,” kidnapped wealthy Philadelphians who were profiting from the Revolutionary War while poor soldiers were starving and freezing to death. Their demands for a minimum and maximum wage were written out of the final State Constitution, but their actions serve as a timeless reminder about the dangers of teaching your population one set of ideals while demanding that they enact another.

This theme was playing out alongside the Afghan War during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 as well. Many soldiers thought a military invasion in the name of “securing” and “defending” Israel would have the opposite effect, inciting revenge, or they just outright opposed any military action on Lebanon in general. 3,000 Israeli reservists organized under Soldiers Against Silence and refused to serve. Many veterans of this war went on to become outspoken advocates for peace, participating in the movement against the occupation of Palestine. Yesh Gvul, founded during the war with Lebanon, still organizes to support hundreds of soldiers in the Israeli Defense Forces who refuse to serve in the Occupied-Territories. These “Refusniks” often spend time in jail and face other legal and social penalties for their courage.

After the 2009 invasion of Gaza, 25 mostly anonymous Israeli soldiers released a document called “Breaking the Silence,” exposing war crimes committed by the IDF in Gaza. These soldiers are still speaking out about the atrocities they witnessed, and Israeli soldiers are still standing up against the occupation of Palestine the same way Afrikaner soldiers stood up against Apartheid in South Africa. Breaking the Silence, among other things, gives tours led by former soldiers through areas they had previously occupied.

While Israeli soldiers poured into Lebanon, and Refuseniks and anti-war demonstrators poured into the streets of Israel, soldiers in Saddam Hussein’s military, angry and broken from the war with Iran, began pushing for mass change. Failed mutinies throughout the 1980s laid the seeds for the mass refusal to fight during the U.S. invasion in 1990.

As the war with Iran finally winded down, Saddam invaded Kuwait. When the U.S. Military intervened, his soldiers refused to fight, and U.S. troops faced no real opposition in their final push over the southern border into Iraq. Saddam’s non-existent army had deserted, but they were gathering forces in towns like Sulaimania, Najaf, Karbala, Kut and Basra, storming government offices and seizing weapons in preparation for a march on Baghdad to topple the dictator. At the same time, deserting soldiers and Kurdish radicals in the North were rallying around a similar plan. And all were expecting American support.

Instead of supporting these popular and largely secular movements, the U.S. backed-down from a push on Baghdad and allowed Saddam to violate the established “no-fly zones” to massacre deserters and their families on the highway between Basra and Baghdad. It was more convenient to leave Saddam in power than risk Iraq falling into the hands of powers that might not fit into the U.S. government’s global strategy. In the north, the U.S. had turned a blind-eye as Saddam’s forces dropped poison gas on Kurdish civilians and mutinous Iraqi troops in 1988, and did so again in 1991, as soldiers loyal to Saddam massacred military resisters.

U.S. officials had no problems with these horrific war-crimes until it became a convenient excuse to invade and occupy Iraq in 2003, to overthrow a dictator they had left in power 12 years earlier. This occupation, along with the occupation of Afghanistan, will soon be the longest war in U.S. history.

Today, many members of the U.S. Military see through the facades of U.S. foreign policy. Hundreds of deserters from the United States Military have fled to Canada, and many more live “underground” within the U.S., working under-the-table jobs or not working at all. Some live amongst activists and anti-war veterans, others live in and out of homeless shelters. As well as deserters, there are thousands of Conscientious Objectors who were able to legally break rank and resist deployments. Alongside them are dozens of troops who have publicly refused to fight, some serving over a year in prison for their actions.

And then there are the thousands of active-duty troops and veterans who speak out and organize daily against these occupations. These brave people are part of organizations like the nearly 2,000 strong Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), a national organization that includes anyone who has served in any branch of the U.S. Military since 9/11. IVAW has chapters all over the U.S., including on several military bases. Their 2007 Winter Soldier hearings in Washington D.C. brought hundreds of Afghanistan and Iraq veterans together for a week of testimonies about the realities on the ground in these occupations, and strengthened their capacity as a viable anti-war force. Their work helped turn the tide on public support for the occupations, and has helped catalyze a growing demand from within the Armed Forces for an immediate withdrawal from the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Many of those who publicly refuse to fight, most of whom are also IVAW members, work with Courage to Resist, an organization co-founded by Jeff Patterson, the first soldier to publicly refuse to deploy to Operation Desert Storm in 1990. Courage defends and supports troops who refuse to fight or those that raise their voices from within the ranks. Their defense campaign for Lt. Ehren Watada, the first U.S. officer to publicly refuse to serve in Iraq, made headlines in mid-2006. Since then, they have helped defend dozens of service-members who have refused to fight.

The work these organizations do is part of a long and vibrant history of military-resistance that has sought peace and justice during times of war. It is important for us to understand and relay this history because it affects the culture of the military and influences the actions of it’s members, as well as doing justice to those who have broken rank throughout history against injustice.

The history of soldiers speaking and acting out against war shows another side of militarism: the side of individual conscience and collective transformation amongst those being forced to carry out wars. Looking at this history reveals that soldiers in resistance are strategically positioned to transform society: by withholding their labor or redefining who their enemies are, they can literally bring wars and governments to a grinding halt, as well as directly supporting social movements for positive change.

It also reveals that there is more to human history than violence and war: resistance and personal transformation for peace and justice are also built into the human fabric. This is vitally important for how we understand social movements, as well as how we understand ourselves.

A Timeline of Combat Refusal, Desertion, and Military Resistance

In History on March 28, 2010 at 6:32 pm

500-300 AD. Roman Empire rocked by desertion and draft resistance. Those caught harboring deserters would be, if poor, forced to work in the mines, or if rich, had half of their property confiscated. Rich people were thought to harbor deserters to swell their won agricultural force. Horses were banned from some regions to thwart efforts to harbor deserters. Youths would amputate their thumbs to avoid military service, for which they could be burnt alive. Theodosius I banned this punishment and forced the youth to fight anyways. Draft resistance became such a force that one could get the death penalty for concealing a runaway recruit.

1640s – Deserters from the British military swell the ranks of rebel armies, eventually organized under the New Model Army, that temporarily brought down the monarchy. Shortly before being betrayed by Cromwell, soldiers organized the in Putney Debates to challenge military authority’s to the concepts of grassroots democracy.

1778 – The Philadelphia militia mutinies against George Washington. The rebellion is put down when some of the leaders were executed on the spot under Washington’s orders.

1781 – The Pennsylvania Militia mutinies against war profiteers and for food.  Soldiers march on Philadelphia looting shops and kidnapping wealthy merchant who were jacking prices. Soldiers re-sold the goods in front of the shops for reasonable prices. The militia then rushed into the Pennsylvania assembly demanding changes to the constitution, including a minimum AND maximum wage and the right to elect officers.

1857 – Mutinies and rebellions in the British-Occupied Indian Army, mainly coming out of the Bengal units, expand from religious/cultural dispute into into large wide-scale rebellion for Independence.

1870s -1890s – National Guard and local militias refuse to open fire on, and at times join, strikers fighting for justice in Northern factories/mills. The Great Railroad Strike of 1877, the Homestead Strike of 1892 and the Pullman Strike of 1894 are major examples, but many exist. Usually Guard unites had to be called in from different areas of the states to repress demonstrators.

1890s – Multiple stories emerge of Black GIs from the U.S. soldiers switching sides during the occupation of the Philippines (Spanish American War) and fighting with the indigenous people of the islands.

1903 – Irish-immigrant soldiers drafted into the U.S. Army switch sides during the Mexican-American War, forming the St. Patricio/St. Patrick’s Battalion and fighting alongside Mexican soldiers. Most are killed by the U.S. at the battle of Churobusco.

1914/1915 – Christmas Truce – Soldiers from multiple armies (French, German, Australian, British, many others) refused to fight during Christmas 1914, and to a lesser extent a year later. Known as the Christmas Truce, soldiers played sports, drank and fraternized with each other for a few days until officers forced them to continue fighting, though some officers joined in.

1915/1919 – Mutinies and rebellions rock the British Army across Europe.

1917 – Russian Revolution overthrows Czarist system after major portions of the armed forces, engaged in the war to the East, mutiny, hijack trains and vehicles, and return to the cities to join workers councils moving towards revolution.

1919 – British soldiers under April Lord Allenby refuse to fight during large rebellion in occupied-Egypt. U.S. soldiers sent to oppose Russian Revolution desert and rebel. French soldiers sent to oppose Russian Revolution stage large-scale mutinies in the Black Sea. British soldiers under April Lord Allenby refuse to fight during large rebellion in occupied-Egypt. Mutinies set off failed revolution in Germany.

1920 – Portions of the military join anarchist revolt (Bersaglieri Revolt) against Italian government June 30th. Thousands are repressed by loyalist soldiers at Ancona, Sinigalia, Chiaralie and Piomobino.

1921 – The Kronstadt Mutiny erupts in Northwestern U.S.S.R. critical of Lenin’s government and demanding a more egalitarian and just system.  Rebellion is put down by Lenin.

1921 – Gandi-led non-cooperation movement urges muslims not to fight in the military. When Moplah (muslims peasants) rise up against their landlords soldiers support them, forming guerilla units and raising an army of almost 10,000. Violence leads to splits in movement and it collapses soon after beginning.

1930 – Hindu soldiers in the Garwhal Rifles Unit refuse to open fire on Muslim demonstrators in Peshawar during the Gandi-led Quit India movement.

1932 – Bonus Army, thousands of veterans of World War One, march and camp-out in DC demanding back-pay from war. General Smedley Butler addresses troops with rousing speech of support. The Cavalry eventually repressed the veterans and ends the protests.

1940s – Multiple rebellions involving black GIs rock the armed forces and cause racial fighting on ships and on bases throughout the U.S. military.

1945-1946 – GIs organize “Bring Us Home” committees throughout Japan and the Philippines after getting word that they would be continuing occupations of Asia. Thousands march throughout the Philippines and make world headlines. On Christmas Day, 1945, 4,000 troops march, 1,000 boo down commanding officers at Andrews Field (now Andrews Air Force Base). January 9th 1946 5,000 GIs march on Frankfurt Germany, 5,000 march in Calcutta, India and 15,000 march on Hickman Field in Honolulu. On January 13th, 1946, 500 GIs release the “Enlisted Man’s Magna Carta” in Paris, demanding, among other things, the abolition of officers quarters and separated dining facilities, reform of the court-martial system to include enlisted men, and the opening of all officer’s clubs and posts to enlisted men. Soldiers build solid alliance with CIO unions in the U.S., one of which, in Akron Ohio, released this resolution: “Therefore be it resolved that the Akron Industrial Union Council joins in the soldiers’ protests against the slowdown in demobilization and gives support to the millions of workers in uniform who long for peace, for home, and for a return to a normal life. Be it further resolved that (we) are in full accord with the demonstrating soldiers who protest against being used to protect the wealth and foreign properties of such antilabor corporations as Standard Oil and General Motors.

– Large numbers of Indian soldiers switch sides and fight alongside Indonesians against British Invasion to reinstall Dutch rule. In early 1946, mutiny on the Royal Indian Navy ship Talwar spreads to 22 ships in Bombay Harbor. Sailors form a Naval Central Strike Command and draw up list of demands, including better food, equal pay with British seamen, the release of Independence prisoners and the withdrawal of Indian troops from Indonesia (where they were re-installing the Dutch). A General Strike is called in Bombay to support, involving up to 30,000 strikers. This movement finally achieves independence in India.

1951 – Mass demonstrations and strikes against British rule/presence in Egypt reach military. Mutineers reached into the thousands, hundreds were arrested. 6 months later the government fell, eventually bringing Egypt under the leadership of Nasser, a military man and now a legendary yet controversial leader.

1956 – Hungarian people rise up against Soviet invasion, led by a Russian Officer who switched sides. The rebellion is crushed.

1964-75 – Huge GI movement rocks United States Military, both in Vietnam and at bases at home and around the world. Over 300 GI anti-war newspapers are printed on base or near base, 10 perecent of the U.S. military deserts or goes AWOL, and major incidents of combat refusal, mass draft resistance, refusals to deploy, and on-base protests and sit-ins occur. Movement brings the draft to an end and is a major force in bringing the Vietnam War to an end. GIs sabotage ships and stories of GIs switching sides (the so-called White Cong and the “Salt & Pepper” duo of white and black GIs) and fighting alongside the Vietcong are numerous.

1975 – Portugese soldiers form back-bone of the Carnation Revolution, which overthrows fascism in Portugal without armed-struggle. Soldiers turn “intimidation missions” into organizing drives in the country side, and call demonstrations that mobilize workers and students nation-wide. Soldiers, opposed to the Protugese/British/Dutch Apartheid system in occupied southern Africa also resist deployments to Angola by blowing up their own ships and deserting.

1979 – Iranian soldiers, organized into a regiment specifically to repress rebellions against the Shah, refuse to open fire on student demonstrators, forcing the Shah to flee culminating in the Iranian Revolution.

1980s – 80 percent of the Afghan Army deserts over the course of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Also, many Russian troops switch sides and fight alongside the Mujahedeen and rebel groups.

1980s – The South African War Resistor Defense Fund is established to support soldiers refusing to employ the policies of Apartheid in South Africa.

1982 – Huge mutiny/soldier rebellions in Basra and Mosul/Kurdistan almost topple Saddam Hussein/Ba’ath government in Iraq. Mutiny is put down with the use of poison gas and brutal force.

1982 – Israeli troops organize Soldiers Against Silence, and other groups, to resist orders to occupy and fight in Lebanon. SAS signs up 3,000 reservists who refuse to fight, many are prosecuted.

1991 – AWOL and mutinous soldiers in Basra-area begin march towards Baghdad to topple Saddam Hussein. U.S. allows Saddam to violate no-fly zones and crush the soldiers with heavy bombings.

1999 – Soldiers and police join student and workers demonstrations that topple Milosevic in Yugoslavia. Movement wins when soldiers allow students to storm government buildings, some removing their helmets and switching sides in the streets.

2002-present – Israeli soldiers, organized as Refusniks and other affiliations, refuse to carry out policies of occupation and oppression in occupied-Palestine. Many go to jail for refusing the draft or refusing orders into the occupied-territories.

2004-present – Iraq Veterans Against the War forms to mobilize anti-war sentiment within the U.S. military serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. IVAW currently consists of over 1,700 members in 48 states and in countries across Europe and in Iraq and Afghanistan. Other groups like Courage to Resist and the Military Project, both veteran and civilian-led, form to support military resisters.

Many Different Enemies

In History, News on August 25, 2009 at 5:08 pm

Afghan Women Fight for Their Country

Written with Sergio España

As the government of Afghanistan, under the watchful eye of Washington, prepared for its second national election since the U.S. invasion of 2001, we sat down with Shazia, a Kabul resident and member of the powerful organization RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. We wanted to ask her about the current situation in her country, and the experiences of women under the regime of Hamid Karzai and his American backers.

From the moment of introduction it became clear that Shazia, a name she uses for protection, is an insightful and determined woman. She takes a daily risk in her activism, aiding her fellow citizens in a country that often has women literally surrounded by threats ranging from warlords, U.S. soldiers and contractors, to religious fundamentalists and drug cartels.

RAWA was formed in 1977 during the initial phases of the Soviet invasion. Their mission is the true liberation of not just Afghan women, but Afghanistan as a whole, and they have maintained this work throughout the nine years of Soviet occupation, the subsequent civil war, and 20+ years of hard-line religious rule. They have suffered serious repression, most notably the 1987 assassination of RAWA founder and leader Mina by KHAN (Afghan KGB) agents.

From the beginning, RAWA has demanded the withdrawal of foreign armies from their country while also challenging oppressive threats within Afghanistan. When the Soviets withdrew in 1989, different factions within the Mujahideen, a loose-coalition of Muslim resistance groups largely based in Pakistan and allied against the Soviets, vied for power. The dominant groups that emerged in the ensuing civil war, due in large part to the disproportionate amount of secret U.S. aid given to these smaller, far-extremist factions during the occupation, were the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. RAWA maintained a general opposition to both of these groups, as their interests were not in support of the freedom of the women of Afghanistan, but in the interests of their own political and business ventures.

The United States joins the Soviet Union, the Northern Alliance, and the Taliban on this list, of unpopular military forces producing hardship for the Afghan people. From 1979 through the 1990’s, covert operations (like one involving Osama Bin Laden’s Makhtab al Khadimat, which after the war would become Al Qaida) resulted in the Taliban’s rise to power. Today, after 8 years, the NATO-led American occupation continues bringing hardship, death, and corruption to their war-torn and desperately poor country.

RAWA’s work continues at present through a conjunction of political and social activities including literacy classes for women, educational craft centers, refugee relief aid, orphanages, and medical services. Their political activism ranges from helping organize mass rallies to speaking engagements for small gatherings, often in secret, in an effort to reach out to those most oppressed. Internationally, RAWA’s trips to share their experiences and understandings with allies all over the world have helped forge alliances where a media-wall often prevents the development of real knowledge and cooperation.

When the U.S. invaded, “people were hopeful” because people were fed up with the Taliban’s harsh rule. But when the U.S. “brought Karzai as their puppet” they “shunned the trust and demands of the Afghan people”, Shazia tells us. It quickly became obvious that the White House “relied on and shared power with those fundamentalist extremists who were in power before the Taliban”; with many of their key political and social stances sharing the same ideas.

Afghan MP Malalai Joya, who has survived three assassination attempts and was recently suspended from the Afghan parliament for speaking out publicly against other members of the government, states it directly: “Our country is being run by a mafia, and while it is in power there is no hope for freedom for the people of Afghanistan.”

“If democrats take power (in Afghanistan), then there’s no need for the U.S. to be in Afghanistan” Shazia added. “That’s why they never rely on democrats.”

Perhaps the occupation’s hypocrisy can be summed up best by the empty, rhetorical responses Western politicians offered in response to the Karzai administration’s passing of the Shi’a Personal Status Law. The law, introduced and supported by hard line Shi’a clerics and signed with no public announcement by Hamid Karzai earlier this month, allows Shi’a men to deprive their wives of food and basic necessities if they refuse to fulfill sexual demands. It goes on to require permission from one’s husband before applying for work, and effectively legalizes rape by requiring that “blood money” be paid to the victim’s family.

Though President Obama called the law “abhorrent”, he did nothing in his power to push Karzai to repeal it. France threatened to withdraw only its female troops, but nothing else has been done. Alone, as is so often the case, Afghan women took to the streets in protest, risking their lives to voice their opposition. “The government was not democratically elected, and it is now trying to use the country’s Islamic law as a tool with which to limit women’s rights”, Malalai Joya contends.

“In 2007 more women killed themselves in Afghanistan than ever before”, she continued. Shazia told us of a terrifying increase of self-immolations, with hundreds of women setting themselves on fire in the last few years. Malalai, Shazia, and millions of other women in Afghanistan live amongst this nightmare, struggling to make sense of the horrors of war while dealing with their immediate safety. “We have a lot of different enemies in Afghanistan”, Shazia explains.


While the West grapples to understand a fraction of what is happening in Afghanistan, its citizens are dying. Western media reports censor, mis-construe, or conceal facts, in large part due to the American media often reporting events after they have been carefully processed through a Pentagon filter, part of a Bush “War on Terror” program first developed in 2002 by the Office of Strategic Influence. The Pentagon’s efforts to undermine reality continue to this day, with reports on U.S. air raids and predator strikes always assuring us of ‘suspected militants’ or ‘Taliban fighters’ being killed, with the gross majority of civilian casualties hidden from view. Take a bombing incident in July, 2002 where after a U.S. plane bombed a wedding killing upwards of 40 civilians, U.S. Central Command released the following response: “Close air support from U.S. Air Force B-52 and AC-130 aircraft struck several ground targets, including anti-aircraft artillery sites that were engaging the aircraft.”

Since then, funding for these ‘strategic’ communications programs has grown at a staggering rate, with the Washington Post last month finding funding for such programs growing from $9 million in 2005 to nearly $1 billion dollars for fiscal year 2010. Quite frankly, it is passed the point where the existence of such programs should be considered shocking.

Meanwhile, atrocities continue. Shazia described a U.S. bombing earlier this year in Farah province, where over 150 people were killed. “They massacred more than 150 Afghans. I personally saw the lists of the people who were killed. 12 people were killed from one family. I saw the name of a child of one year, of two years who were killed. This is a massacre. This is a mockery of freedom and democracy in Afghanistan.”

After the invasion, the U.S. “almost removed the Taliban in one month”, she continues, “then they brought Karzai”. Since then, coalition deaths have increased every year except 2003, where they fell from 67 to 57, then back to 59 in 2004. Halfway through 2009, coalition deaths (overwhelmingly American and British) have almost surpassed last year’s record of 294, with July being the bloodiest month on record.

All the while, Taliban forces have steadily grown more powerful. “It shows that they don’t want to remove them from Afghanistan, because they need a justification to be in Afghanistan, to fulfill their demands and interests in Afghanistan” Shazia says. “Through Afghanistan they can easily control Pakistan, Iran and the Middle East countries.” Furthermore, “more than 92 percent of the world’s opium is cultivated in Afghanistan, and it’s a big drug business for the Westerners to control that.”

Last week, captured Afghan militants led British forces to a stash of “several tons” of raw opium on one of Ahmed Wali Karzai’s farms (United Press International, August 13, 2009). Ahmed, head of the provincial council of Kandahar, is President Hamid Karzai’s half-brother. Ahmed, of course, was not arrested. Shazia told us about Ahmed Wali Karzai’s drug activities right before this story broke.

Our conversation soon illuminates the America that Afghans know, the one so many here don’t want to recognize. Under the Taliban, opium production was banned and the export of opium dropped dramatically. Under Karzai, business is booming. “They encouraged farmers to grow. If Karzai encourages, the U.S. encourages.” Shazia also told us about the new Minister of Anti-Narcotics, General Khodaidad, “the biggest, biggest drug lord” in her country.

As we write this, thousands of U.S. Marines and British soldiers are knee-deep in an offensive in the opium-rich Helmand Province, supposedly to tackle this “Taliban stronghold” and fight the poppy industry. The role has seemed to shift lately towards more anti-narcotics operations, supposedly to take away the financial base of terrorists and Taliban militants. But one can’t help but wonder whose crops they will be destroying if they are following the lead of an anti-drug policy being written and directed by one of the countries largest drug-dealers. Thousands of villagers, as well as hundreds of U.S., British and Afghan soldiers and many Taliban-affiliated fighters have been killed in the Helmand in the last two months.

Aside from the opium-trade, this “surge” also came at a time when Hamid Karzai feared he would lose this election. Attempts to “weaken the Taliban” could well have been a tactic of scaring people into voting for the current government, or keeping Taliban-supporters scared of going to the polls. This form of political bullying grew even more explicit this week, with Karzai announcing a ban on reports of violence or “opposition” during the voting process, which has been quickly condemned by human rights groups and the UN. Perhaps Karzai took a tip from the Americans here, with Tom Ridge’s recent admission that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Attorney General John Ashcroft pushed him to raise terror alert levels during the 2004 elections.

The U.S. and Karzai insist that low-voter turnout is the result of Taliban-led attempts to disrupt the elections, which they did through bombings, an attempted bank robbery and multiple instance of murder. However, it’s more likely that low-voter turnout is the result of a general feeling of mistrust amongst the Afghan population. “Like millions of Afghans, I have no hope in the results of this week’s election”, Malalai Joya said in a recent online post. “In a country ruled by warlords, occupation forces, Taliban insurgency, drug money and guns, no one can expect a legitimate or fair vote.”

Shazia adds; “I don’t think that people will go to vote… Because these elections, these laws that are being passed, are just for show, to show to the world that the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and now Afghan women are free, and now they have democracy and they are living in peace, it’s just a show to the world.”

Last Thursday’s election has since been heralded as a beacon of democracy and freedom, despite low turn out reported in several, but not all, provinces (though hardly any turnout in the Helmand, Kandahar, and Logar provinces), and 26 Afghans dead, four of them children. Karzai sounded very obliged in the Washington Post, “We regret the loss of civilian lives, but we are grateful for the sacrifices people made. It went very, very well.”

And though the White House’s public justification for the surge and ongoing occupation has received little criticism from its constituents, Shazia, along with a large portion of her country and an increasing number of U.S. service-members, does not agree with the common American rhetoric that troops need to stay to prevent a civil war. “Now there is a civil war”, she says. “If the troops leave Afghanistan, of course for a few years there will be wars… Years and years of struggle is needed. After World War Two, the European and Western countries all struggled. Women and men, they, together, struggled to better their own countries. We will also do that. We will give sacrifices. But we will do that ourselves. Because history has shown that no country can grant peace and security to another country as a gift. This is the responsibility of that country, that people, to gain those values.… by their resistance and by their struggle.”


Tom Ridge:

Pentagon Propaganda Program:

“Pentagon’s Office of Strategic Influence is “developing plans to provide news items, possibly even false ones, to foreign media organizations” in an effort “to influence public sentiment and policy makers in both friendly and unfriendly countries.”
“According to the New York Times, “one of the military units assigned to carry out the policies of the Office of Strategic Influence” is the U.S. Army’s Psychological Operations Command (PSYOPS). The Times doesn’t mention, however, that PSYOPS has been accused of operating domestically as recently as the Kosovo war.”
“The government is barred by law from propagandizing within the U.S., but the OSI’s new plan will likely lead to disinformation planted in a foreign news report being picked up by U.S. news outlets.”

Empire’s Repeat History

In History, Thoughts & Analysis on April 22, 2009 at 4:10 pm

The Status of Forces Agreement, The British Mandate and the Future of Iraq

“Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerers or enemies, but as liberators.” Sound familiar? This was British general Stanley Maude speaking in as the British Army began its long occupation of Mesopotamia, which soon became Iraq.

The British swarmed into the Ottoman provinces of Baghdad, Basra and Mosul, as well as Palestine and Egypt, while France took what would become Syria and Lebanon. Britain’s occupation of what would be named Iraq, its borders drawn in British meeting rooms in a fashion the Americans and Soviets would later use in Korea, was resisted heavily. An insurgency rose up in 1920 across religious and geographic lines. In response, the British bombed civilian targets in one of the first uses of overhead bombs in history. Using drafted soldiers from their imperial conquest in India, the British fought the Iraqi people at the cost of thousands of Indian, and some British lives. By 1921, the resistance was crushed.

Iraq remained a British proxy until the 1950s, when for a very small window of time it experienced self-rule. Then came the Baath coup, and nearly 40 years of turbulent and bloody power politics mixed with cold-war paranoia which culminated after the 1979 Iranian revolution with the U.S. backed war with Iran. Viewed in the context of global politics, Iraq has never reached its full potential as a state-project due in majority to British and American manipulation, sanctions, war and economic occupation.

The resistance movement taught the British a strategic lesson: They realized a full military occupation of Iraq would not be sustainable. It was too costly, both in economic and political terms. They were becoming very unpopular in the region , which was exacerbated by its use of similar tactics in half the Middle East, Southeast Asia and large portions of Africa.

Two camps emerged within the British political system: One that wanted to bomb and shoot their way into full control of the country, and the other that wanted a “withdrawal” that left intact a client state that would serve the interests of “his Britannic Majesty”. Option two won. The British would “withdraw” from the region, leaving countless advisers, major military bases full of soldiers and binding economic arrangements firmly in place. This was Winston Churchill’s proposal and it would later become Paul Bremer’s proposal. It now continues as Barack Obama’s proposal.

The first step of the faux withdrawal of 1921 was to appoint a puppet government with a flexible, domestically strong yet internationally weak figure head. Their pick was King Faisal, who took the throne in 1921 after having never lived or even traveled to Iraq previously. Faisal’s first role as King was to sign into existence a “treaty of alliance” with Britain, ratified in 1924 and rewritten in 1930, which laid out the basis for British rule of Iraq for 25 years. The text of this “treaty” read almost identical to the 1921 British Mandate allowing the British to occupy Mesopotamia. Now the “sovereign” Iraqi government would set forward its vision, which was, of course, identical to Britain’s vision. Though as we will see, the British did not wait too long to use the first approach of bombs and guns to “edit” the agreement.

If this doesn’t sound familiar, consider the Bremer Laws and their comparison to the Hydrocarbon Law. The Bremer Laws, passed in 2004 by the then head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, privatized  almost everything but oil fired 500,000 public-sector workers including the entire Iraqi army, and laid-out what the U.S. wanted in Iraq. As Naomi Klein put it, Bremer pushed through “more wrenching changes in one sweltering summer than the International Monetary Fund has managed to enact over three decades in Latin America.” After “independence”, the “sovereign Iraqi government” was formed under U.S. supervised elections, and The Hydrocarbon Law and similar “agreements” were presented to the Iraqi Parliament, often with almost no PM’s being able to read them before voting. These laws pushed the exact same demands, restructuring and economic arrangements laid-out in the Bremer Laws.

The treaty of alliance with Britain was passed in 1924 and ratified again in 1930 after much social unrest and pressure on King Faisal and his predecessor Nuri al Said to make changes. As is all too often the case, the treaty was one-sided: Though it promised Iraq independence upon its membership with the League of Nations, this was dependent on their ability to self-rule, which would be determined by Britain. Plus it allowed them to maintain their air bases and troop presence “on the understanding that these forces shall not constitute in any manner an occupation and will in no way prejudice the sovereign rights of Iraq”. This should sound familiar too: The current Status of Forces Agreement, presented as a “plan for withdrawal”, says that U.S. troops will withdrawal from Iraq by 2011 under the same “ability to self-rule as determined by the occupier” conditions.

A decade later in 1941, the popular and anti-British Prime Minister Rashid Ali got the full understanding of what the British meant when they wrote up the part about “maintaining troop presence”. After a British-organized operation led to the resigning of several members of the Iraqi cabinet and the Prime Minister, Rashid Ali legally assumed the presidency.  When British soldiers landed en mass at Basra to fight Rashid Ali’s “coup”, he sent soldiers to stand up for Iraq’s national boundaries. The British responded with a ferocious assault, bombing many cities and killing thousands of Iraqis. Residents of Fallujah were “scattered around the neighboring tribes, many of them being destitute… Even the Turks who had a reputation for brutality had never shelled or bombed a town full of women and children as the British had done in Fallujah”. Known as the Thirty-Day War, the assault ended with the ousting of Rashid Ali, and the return of Nuri al Said, who was flown in on a British jet.

The League of Nations mandate allowing the British to launch their occupation was in the name of “delivering” these countries to “democracy”. That this “democratization” was not welcomed in any of the aforementioned conflicts is best summed up in the words of Iraqi nationalist colonel Salah al Din al Sabbagh in 1939: “I do not believe in the democracy of the English nor the Nazism of the Germans nor in the Bolshevism of the Russians. I am an Arab Muslim”.


“All U.S. combat forces are to withdraw from Iraqi cities, villages, and towns not later than 30 June 2009.” June 30th came and the U.S. began the “town and city withdrawal” , which so far includes re-drawing the map of Baghdad so that Camp Victory and other U.S. bases are no longer technically within city-limits.

“All U.S. forces are to withdraw from all Iraqi territory, water and airspace no later than the 31st of December of 2011.” This is the big sentence of the Status of Forces Agreement. It is what so many have wanted for so long, a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. The question is, how serious is the American side of this agreement?

This “withdrawal” leaves 50,000 “non-combat” troops in Iraq for another 2 ½ years. According to Chantelle Bateman, a Marine Reservist who served in Baghdad as a “non-combat troop”, these troops are “totally trained and equipment” to perform combat. “I had a weapon and ammunition and I always had ammunition in my weapon.” If she was fired upon and returned fire, she would be considered a “non-combat troop” in a “combat situation”.

A lot of what goes on day-to-day in the Iraq occupation is considered “non-combat”, including policing operations, house searches, detainments, patrols, guard duty at bases, and supply missions. Any of these operations are likely to turn into “combat situations” on any given day. Can 50,000 “non-combat” troops constitute a withdrawal? There are currently over 50,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, several of whom are dying everyday, along with the much larger number of casualties amongst Afghans.

Is the U.S. withdrawing, or simply re-organizing occupation forces to meet the demands of the public and, increasingly, of their own soldiers?

“The United States has the primary right to exercise jurisdiction over members of the U.S. forces and members of the civilian element regarding matters that take place inside the installation and areas agreed upon and during duty outside the installations and areas agreed upon…” This is Article 12 of the original SOFA, giving the U.S. jurisdiction of its soldiers and contractors if they, say, shoot unarmed Iraqis from helicopters like Blackwater. This is a violation of Iraq’s sovereignty.

This article was a key hold-out in the passing of the SOFA. The Iraqis had to fight hard, with some political leaders refusing to recognize the SOFA, to get the right to detain and arrest soldiers and contractors who violate Iraqi law while they are off-duty. But they still can’t prosecute them if they commit crimes on-duty.

Article 13 mandates that “Members of the U.S. forces and the civilian element have the right to possess and carry weapons that belong to the U.S. during their presence in Iraq” and that U.S. soldiers must wear their uniforms while on duty. It mysteriously leaves private mercenaries and contractors out of the uniform code.

Article 15 allows U.S. forces to avoid all tariffs and taxes while importing and exporting things from Iraq; “U.S. forces and contractors with the U.S. forces may import into Iraq and export from it materials that have been bought inside Iraq, and they have the right to re-export and transport and use in Iraq any equipment, supplies, materials and technology…” These materials are not subject to licensing or any other restrictions or taxing or customs or any other charges imposed in Iraq…” In the origial U.S. draft of the SOFA, importing or exporting such materials would not expose them to any searches. This was removed upon further Iraqi opposition.

Article 16 continues that U.S. forces don’t have to pay any taxes during their long stay. This sounds disturbingly similar to the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty of 1930; “The immunities and privileges in jurisdictional and fiscal matters, including freedom from taxation, enjoyed by the British forces in ‘Iraq will continue to extend to the forces referred to in Clause 1 above and to such of His Britannic Majesty’s forces of all arms as may be in Iraq in pursuance of the present Treaty…”

Article 21 basically gives the U.S. the go-ahead to continue killing large groups of people with relative impunity; “Except for claims that stem from contracts, both parties forgo their right to demand the other party to compensate for any damages, loss or destruction of properties of the armed forces or the civilian element of either party or to demand compensation for injuries or deaths that may happen to members of the armed forces or the of civilian element that are a result of carrying out their official duty in Iraq.”

There are different interpretations of the SOFA process, depending on which country you are from. A senior U.S. commander who spoke to the Christian Science Monitor anonymously said of the SOFA “We consider the security agreement a living document” in a May 19th interview, while  Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said Baghdad is “committed to the SOFA and that the June 30 deadline would not be extended” on May 4th. Slightly different perspectives?

The American and Iraqi people aren’t the only ones arguing about the U.S. presence, so are American commanders. General Odierno seems to be saying different things than Brig. Gen. Mike Murray, and Gen. George Casey, the Army chief of staff seems to have a drastically different idea about the future of Iraq than Defense Secretary Robert Gates. While gates told a group of Marines in February “Under the Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government, I intend to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011”, Casey recently said “we’re going to have 10 Army and Marine units deployed for a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan” because “Global trends are pushing in the wrong direction”. Another way to phrase that is “American power-holders aren’t getting exactly what they want”. The British Empire had a similar attitude.

The SOFA’s last section, Article 30, exposes the great weakness of the treaty. “This agreement is valid for three years unless it is terminated by one of the parties before that period ends in accordance with item (3) of this article…“. It doesn’t mention any sort of repercussions for breaking the agreement.

In 3 years, will the U.S. walk around this agreement and continue with their geopolitical adventure in the Middle East, or will a strong Iraqi state follow the will of its people and keep them off?

Brainwashed, Or Just Ignored?

In History, Thoughts & Analysis on November 23, 2008 at 5:37 pm

Class Stereotypes and the Soldier Anti-War Movement

There are over 25 million veterans in the United States, over 12 percent of the adult population.

While that’s a pretty sizable chuck of the population, and a pretty important chunk to effect change in, there’s a tendency among the radical left to write them off. While I think there’s a lot of us who would want to get more involved with the Veteran/GI movement but are afraid -for multiple, mostly illegitimate reasons- there seems to be at least an equal number who say that U.S. soldiers are our enemy. They carry out the imperial and repressive plans of the government. They kill and torture. They steal from people. Thus, they cannot be allies.

This may all be true. They do carry out imperial plans, and many soldiers have testified in their own writings to torturing and killing civilians, or stealing from the homes of Iraqis during house raids. So there is a trace amount of truth in such a naive stance. But there are multiple layers involved in the story of a soldier; family histories, social and class conditions, and specific experiences that lead to military service. There are also psychological conditions involved in war that non-veterans cannot understand that lead to terrifying acts of cruelty.

When soldiers are sent into combat in hostile areas, especially with increasingly less combat training, they are put in a position that many people will never experience; Kill or be killed. This is no small thing. It is a psychological space where morality is trumped by fear, where thoughts and theories are worth nothing. Each action is part of a struggle to survive another day, to get home to the family, to wake up again. The training and conditioning of boot camps kicks in hard. Politics and all that crap can wait, you gotta get out alive. This is the experience of the soldier at war.

This fear can lead to atrocities; The killing of civilians who “could have been” armed; The destruction of whole towns or villages that “could have housed the enemy”; Revenge murders of civilians in retaliation for sniper fire, roadside bombs, or landmines; The killing of people whose cars “could have been bombs”, etc.

There is also the very intentional killings and abuse that derive from the dehumanization of the enemy, or the entire population, usually aided by a strong institutionalized racism. Greg Payton, a black GI during Vietnam, later stated in an interview; “I remember one day the first sergeant was talking about Gooks. To show you how naive I was, I didn’t know that Gook was a racial slur. I didn’t really understand that. And I remember one day he was talking about Gooks and a light went off in my head and I said Wow, a Gook is the same thing as a Nigger.” The sergeant responded; “you’re a smart nigger.”

Under these conditions, feelings of rage and fear can combine on the battlefield into fierce oppression. In his book Memphis-Nam-Sweden, Terry Witmore, a black GI who deserted after getting injured in Vietnam, explains that some of the worst behavior came from the soldiers who were most against the war. The explanation for such a suggestion is hard to understand, unless you’ve been in a combat zone. Some see it this way; I kill them, I get to go home. Simple. That can be all it takes to unleash aggression.

And there are always those soldiers who just get off on killing, who hold racist views deep inside and tow the old manifest destiny line today. While this would all stem from its own places, linked to family, culture and the media, there’s certainly a difference between a soldier stuck in a battle they don’t agree with, a soldier whose mind starts changing once they start shooting, and a soldier who wants to be there and voluntarily commit crimes against humanity. Every army and police force in the world has a combination of all these various characters.

But we must always remember that it is politicians and generals who send soldiers into these scenarios, who design wars, decide strategies (such as the “search and destroy” missions in Vietnam), and enforce the Uniform Code of Military Conduct to ensure that each soldier obeys each order to its fulfillment.

It is only through a GI movement that the political and social space opens for soldiers to refuse orders en masse. So without a movement focused on the military, wars can only continue at their current pace, and soldiers will generally, with few exceptions, follow orders.


Within the context of anti-war organizing, we all-too-often generalize the soldier into a basic apolitical or Right-Wing statistic, a faceless servant of the empire. This is, ironically, the same way the Pentagon views their inventory. So let’s explore that generalization.

On a labor level, we don’t write off the person who delivers the mail for the price of the stamps or the increasing fear of our mail being read by some Homeland Security goons. Nor do we blame the shelf stocker at the grocery store for the price of milk. That just doesn’t make sense. So it doesn’t really make sense either to hold the soldier accountable for the decisions of the Commander in Chief or the big shots. In fact, they have far less say in such matters as the shelf stocker and the mailman.

On a moral level, one might argue that soldiers who have committed crimes against humanity, like killing unarmed civilians or looting houses during raids, are guilty and need to be held accountable. This is often true, and many of these veterans will testify to it, and many will carry the strongest guilt on their shoulders for the rest of their lives. But thankfully, people can change.

Joshua Key, a soldier who served 6 ½ months in Iraq before deserting to Canada, explains his path to change, and the guilt and responsibility he holds, in The Deserter’s Tale:

There is no excuse for the things I did in Iraq… If you have beaten or killed an innocent person, and if there remains a shred of conscience in your heart, you will not likely avoid anguish by saying that you were just following orders… When we prosecute an unjust war, or commit immoral acts in any war at all, the first victims are the people who were unfortunate enough to fall into our hands. The second are ourselves….

To argue that these people constitute a group that is “unreachable” or even worse, unable to change, puts us at an organizational level similar to the prison system. When we look at a radical approach to “criminal justice”, we emphasize the conditions of poverty that tend to breed “crime”. Take a drug-related violent crime; We look towards the person’s history, what drug(s) they were involved with, what societal conditions led them to crime and drugs, where racism most likely played out in their young life, what the unemployment rate is, where their parents were at, etc. The soldier’s history, on the other hand, the conditioning by his or her abusive father, their class disposition to military service, the number of predatory military recruiters prowling the halls of their high school or the cultural surroundings that bred them to appreciate war, all seem to be ignored when radicals generalize the soldier.

Joshua Key came from a very abusive and racist family. His escape from his abusive stepfather growing was to learn how to short guns. He grew up poor in Guthrie, Oklahoma and was duped by a recruiter who convinced he could join the Army as an engineer and build bridges in the U.S., no combat. Upon entering he was immediately sent to Iraq.

Joshua also describes his recruitment:

As poor and desperate as my young family was when I drove to the Armed Forces recruiting center in Oklahoma in March 2002, I would never have signed up if I knew that I would be blasting into Iraqi’s houses, terrorizing women and children and detaining every man we could find – and all that, for $1,200 a month… I would never have gone to war for my country, if I had known what my country was doing at war in Iraq.

We need to take a serious look at this tendency among the young left to not examine the deeper context behind the soldier and identify where it comes from, why it exists, and how we can go about changing it.


Ward Churchill, the infamous leftist author and American Indian Movement member, sat in on a panel discussion on the future of radical organizing in 2006. When someone in the crowd asked the panel something to the extent of “How should we interact with Iraq veterans, they are serving the empire and they shouldn’t have joined up anyways…”, Churchill angrily responded “You’re looking at a veteran.” Churchill, along with many comrades in the American Indian Movement, was drafted and sent to Vietnam for a 10-month tour.

Churchill’s comment, and my own organizing work with Iraq Veterans Against the War and other GI/veteran anti-war organizations, made me think a lot about how radicals treat soldiers, our ignorance towards the situations that lead to military service, and the class divide between military families and the too-often middle class activists.

I come from a mostly non-military family, though my half-brother was a Marine and my uncle and grandfather were both soldiers. I also lost a close friend from childhood in Iraq, killed by a an improvised bomb at Camp Victory. He came from a middle class family, but also came from a long line of soldiers, an alcoholic father, and a divided family. Then there’s a couple of guys I knew in high school who went off to Afghanistan and Iraq. My personal connection to these soldiers and the pain I felt when my buddy died has given me an understanding of what it means to be a soldier and what it means to be from a military family.

Before we get into the thick of it though, I thought I’d list a lot of famous -or infamous- leftist and radical activists who we may be inspired by -perhaps we’ve read their books- who are military veterans. Then, next time you come across a soldier or a veteran, maybe you can try to view them through a different lens, one that isn’t clouded by ignorant and typically classist stereotypes and generalizations.

Howard Zinn, the author of A People’s History of the United States, and a noted radical thinker and activist of our time, served in the Air Force as a bomber-pilot during the 2nd World War. He participated in the fire bombing of Dreseden, where over 100,000 civilians were killed.

Geronimo ji-Jaga Pratt, former political prisoner and Black Panther, was a Sergeant in the Army and a decorated Vietnam Veteran. He got several medals after being wounded during his second tour of duty; during a helicopter crash, Geronimo rushed in and saved 5 soldiers from the flames. John Huggins, a high-ranking member of the L.A. Black Panther Party, served in Vietnam with the Navy. Ed Poindexter, a Black Panther who, along with co-defendant Mondo we Langa is the longest-serving political prisoner in the United States, is a Vietnam veteran. Parky Grace, founder of New Bedford, Connecticut’s Black Panther Party, was a Vietnam veteran. After returning from combat and leaving the Army, he founded a free-breakfast program and an after-school tutoring program through the BPP. Bobby White, a Black Panther lieutenant of information in Seattle, was a Vietnam veteran. Gary Lawton, a black radical, political prisoner and co-founder of the Black Congress, was a Marine.

When the American Indian Movement took Wounded Knee in 1973, 7 white members of Vietnam Veteran Against the War were welcomed as dual citizens of the Oglala Nation and participated in the action. Buddy LaMont, an Oglala warrior and Vietnam veteran, was the second person killed during the shootout. Roger Iron Cloud, an Indian who served in the bunker security force at Wounded Knee, was also a Vietnam veteran. Marty Firerider, an Anishnaabe member of the American Indian Movement and host of the “American Indian Movement Today” radio show out of southern California, is a Vietnam veteran. When the AIM warriors ran out of food during the siege, it was 3 white Vietnam veterans who flew a rented plane overhead and dropped packages of food and clothes to them.

Philip Berrigan, a Christian anarchist, was one of four activists arrested for pouring blood on Selective Service records in Baltimore. While on bail, he was part of the Catonsville 9, who broke into a draft office in the Baltimore suburbs and burned hundreds of draft cards with homemade napalm. Their statement included: “We destroy these draft records not only because they exploit our young men but because they represent misplaced power concentrated in the ruling class of America.” Perhaps Berrigan’s thinking was influenced by his participation in World War Two. A draftee, he served in an artillery unit during the Battle of the Bulge and later became a Second Lieutenant in the infantry. Phillip and his brother Daniel, along with 6 others, helped kick off the Plowshares Movement in 1980 when they destroyed nuclear missile components at a GE plant in Pennsylvania.

Utah Philps, the well-known I.W.W. folk singer and story teller, served in Korea with the Army in the mid-1950s. Witnessing the destruction in Korea, he came back to the states and became active in the Catholic Worker Movement, the Christian, anarchist, pacifist network that the Berrigan brothers were involved in. Roy Bourgeois, a pacifist activist and the founder of School of the Americas Watch, served in Vietnam with the Navy.

Many I.W.W. members and militant labor organizers throughout history were also veterans. Wesley Everest, an IWW organizer who was tortured and murdered in 1919 by jail guards in Centralia, Washington, was an Army veteran. Hundreds and perhaps thousands of the participants in the 1921 uprising at Blair Mountain, considered the largest labor rebellion in U.S. history, were veterans of World War One or the Spanish-American War. The miners, many wearing their helmets and uniforms from their military service, were fighting the coal bosses in West Virginia’s Mingo County on behalf of the United Mine Workers. The Bonus Army, a group of over 17,000 World War One veterans and their families, occupied Washington D.C. during the spring and summer of 1932 demanding back pay from their time in the military. Their protests were some of the earliest, and at the time the longest mass protests in Washington D.C., and signified a radical step in the movement against poverty during the Great Depression.

Even Harriet Tubman served with the Army. During the Civil War, though it’s clear that the Union government had its own agenda, she and 186,000 other African Americans fought for the freedom of Black people from slavery.

The list goes on.

It should be noted that while many notable and less-notable members of the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement served in Vietnam, no members of the Weather Underground served, nor did many members of SDS. This is a clear display of the class and race divide among enlisted/drafted people and the privileged class. It is also worth noting that the draft was ended largely to keep the children of the rich out of the military; Not because the draft was unfair, but because it was too fair.

There are also those veterans who have gone on to fulfill the leftist stereotype of the “crazed” veteran. John Muhammed (“The Beltway Sniper”), Timothy McVeigh, Jeffrey Dahmer and David Berkowitzs (“The Son of Sam”), were all veterans. There are also people like John McCain, John Kerry, and George Bush Sr. who are all veterans and have gone on to join the elite decision makers of the planet.

The point is that veterans do all sorts of things, just like everyone else. The leftist stereotype of veterans as right-wing, brainwashed killing-machines is worth about as much in reality as saying that all Muslims support terrorism or all Christians support imperialism. It’s the same ideology at work and it’s just as wrong and harmful to the anti-war movement.


Both sides of the war debate now talk about “the troops”. One side says “Support the Troops” and they want the war to continue until we “finish the job”. The other says “Support the Troops” and they want all the troops home, assuming the troops all want out.

What is problematic about this is that “the troops” exists as an identity, meaning, soldiers identify with each other and find affinity in their roles as “the troops”. However, due among other things to the illegality of organization and expressing individual political thought within the military, “the troops” does not exist in any capacity as a political formation or interest group. There is no official majority opinion from within the military of what “the troops” want. There’s a bunch of troops who wanna stay in Iraq, kick ass, and then move on to the next Muslim country, and there’s a bunch that wanna get the hell out, bring down the Bush government, and leave the military forever.

So there’s a lot of disagreement among the troops. They probably all want full health benefits when they return however, so one could say fairly accurately that supporting the troops means full health coverage. The Right and Left might even agree on this!

Point being, “the troops” is a lever pulled by either side in their arguments, and it can be used in much the same manner that the Pentagon uses it; It’s a simple way to try to win an argument. But it’s such a complex term, loaded full of 1.38 million political and personal opinions, experiences, and desires.

But let’s get back to the Left’s inability to understand the soldier. In his book Full Spectrum Disorder, Army Special Forces veteran and socialist activist Stan Goff discusses the problem:

“Fact is, many of the left have refused to take the leap from the generalized moral judgments and theoretical pigeon-holing to study and criticism-alas, symptomatic of a larger malaise on the left that it has taken the rise of George Dubya Bush’s crazed clique to begin to overcome. People rely on impressions about ‘the military’, largely gained from secondhand polemics or the entertainment media. And we miss much. Shortcut thinking always misses much”.

Goff’s point about entertainment media is very important. Rambo is a good example that has bled into society, though films like Full Metal Jacket may paint a more realistic picture of a soldier in Vietnam. Either way, the media plays a major role in shaping the perception of what a soldier is and how one might think or act.


The left’s own media hardly discusses anything related to soldiers or tries to examine the complexity behind the war in Iraq. We have identified the different reasons why the big shots invaded Iraq, and we have identified the different reasons why the Iraqis and the anti-war movement oppose it. What we haven’t done is identified the many reasons why young people enlist and willingly go into it.

We tend to say “they were duped by recruiters” or “they did it because they were so poor and needed the money”. These stories are reoccurring, but they are not always –or usually- the case. I would argue that the majority of troops enlisted due to some form of patriotism or feeling of family or cultural responsibility, mixed with the above mentioned reasons.

I look at this through a “people’s history” lens. Looking back through U.S. history, we can see competing stories explaining the reasoning behind war. There is always the “official” story and the “alternative” story.

The “official” reasoning for the American Revolution is that George Washington and the Founding Fathers were revolutionaries who wanted true liberty and freedom for their country. The “alternative” history would say that Washington and the Founding Fathers were extremely wealthy slave owners who had an economic interest in fighting the British and no interest in or intention of creating any real freedom for the average American.

The “official” reasoning for the Civil War is that Abraham Lincoln wanted deeply to end slavery and entered the Union into the war with this intention. The “alternative” history says Lincoln only freed the slaves in South to drain their economy, that his intentions all along were to build up the industrial power in the north.

The “official” reasoning for World War Two, at least the reasoning repeated most, was fighting the fascists and liberating the concentration camps. The “alternative” history suggests that U.S. industrialists, like Henry Ford and Prescott Bush, were big supporters of the Nazis and helped them consolidate power, and the U.S. involvement in the war was based on geopolitical spheres of influence and colonial competition with the other major powers.

All of these war histories, whether true or false, leave out possibly the most important history; why the average soldier fought.

In the American Revolution, many soldiers had to be persuaded with big enlistment bonuses to fight. Many believed deeply in the revolutionary cause and fought out of a sense of patriotism. Many fought because their land was directly involved in the battles and it left them little choice but to be involved. Others fought because they were the apprentice of some rich man who could opt out of the war by sending him in his place. Many slaves fought alongside the British, who promised them freedom, but there were also slaves who fought alongside the Americans thinking all “freedom” talk could be for them too. And then there was a third of the population who were loyalists and another third, non-combatants, that didn’t fight at all. There’s were also the “Molly Pitchers”, women who dressed as men to participate in the battles against the British.

In the Civil War, regardless of what radical theories say about Northern industrialists’ intentions, many soldiers fought to end slavery. That’s why nearly 200,000 blacks fought. Many abolitionists enlisted or accepted the draft to end slavery. Members of the underground-railroad network enlisted to destroy slavery. There was also a draft and big enlistment bonuses.

In World War Two, regardless of the geopolitical intentions of the elite, many enlisted or gladly accepted the draft because they believed deeply in the cause against fascism. Groups like the U.S. Communist Party, with a long bitter and bloody history with the U.S. elite, joined up. Then of course, there were many who enlisted to fight the Japanese and carried a lot of racism with them. Interviews done with soldiers during World War 2 suggest far more respect for the Germans than the Japanese.

In Iraq today, many soldiers enlisted in late 2001 or early 2002 hoping to defeat those who attacked on September 11th. While many still joined for the enlistment bonuses, lack of good jobs at home, or the myths of adventure, September 11th is almost always up high on the list. A lot of soldiers in Iraq, or veterans of the war, enlisted before 9/11. These folks have plenty of reasons, though most involve economic opportunities mixed with feelings of patriotic, family or cultural responsibilities, adventure or a quest for masculinity,

So there’s a third history to be examined in the history of wars, the ground level history. It is usually the ground-level rhetoric that the government co-opts and uses to get more folks to enlist. So when the Bush people talked about “weapons of mass destruction”, while it’s clear now -and to some was very clear before- that such excuses are full of crap, we have to understand that many soldiers went to Iraq with these intentions. That’s why the Bush people repeat them, because it works. It’s not as much to fool the rest of the country as it is to fool the soldier.


It is interesting that many of the voices coming out of the middle and upper class radical movements leave soldiers and veterans out of their thinking. Few anarchists or anarchist groups today have thrown their weight into the emerging Veteran and GI movement. A number of socialist and communist groups have, because they have a history with military organizing, especially in Vietnam. These groups tend to focus of poor people’s issues, and thus focus on the military. Maybe the gigantic soldier’s revolt that finally toppled the Czar, bringing about the Russian Revolution, is a leading factor here. Soldier mutinies have also contributed greatly to notable regime changes and revolutions in Hungary and Yugoslavia, and almost in Iraq at the end of the Gulf War, had the U.S. military not teamed up with Saddam Hussein to crush them.

Harass the Brass explains this relationship between mutiny among the military and revolutionary change;

“The most effective “anti-war” movement in history was at the end of World War One, when proletarian revolutions broke out in Russia, Germany and throughout Central Europe in 1917 and 1918. A crucial factor in the revolutionary movement of that time was the collapse of the armies and navies of Russia and Germany in full-scale armed mutiny. After several years of war and millions of casualties the soldiers and sailors of opposing nations began to fraternize with each other, turned their guns against their commanding officers and went home to fight against the ruling classes that had sent them off to war.

The war ended with a global cycle of mutinies mirroring the social unrest spreading across the capitalist world; some of the most powerful regimes on Earth were quickly toppled and destroyed. Soldiers and sailors played a leading role in the revolutionary movement. The naval bases Kronstadt in Russia and Kiel and Wilhelmshaven in Germany became important centers of revolutionary self-organization and action, and the passing of vast numbers of armed soldiers and sailors to the side of the Soviets allowed the working class to briefly take power in Russia. The French invasion of Revolutionary Russia in 1919 and 1920 was crippled by the mutiny of the French fleet in the Black Sea, centered around the battleships France and the Jean Bart. Mutinies broke out among sailors in the British Navy and in the armies of the British empire in Asia, and even among American troops sent to aid the counter-revolutionary White Army in the Russian Civil War.“

It should be noted here that the Iraqis understand the soldier. That’s because there was a mandatory draft for all men under Saddam Hussein, who oversaw an eight-year war of aggression against Iran that came with massive casualties. They understand what a military family is, how many opinions a soldier may have, etc. Many Iraqi soldiers staged mass-mutinies, notably in the mid-80s and against during the first Gulf War, in attempts to overthrow him. Their latest mass-mutiny, in March of 2003, explains why little resistance met the U.S. upon the initial invasion. It wasn’t until it became clear that the U.S. had no intention of leaving that the insurgency really blossomed.

Class Struggle During the Gulf War, a publication available at http://www.prole.info, tells the story of the Iraqi military’s resistance:

“During the Iraq-Iran War tens of thousands of soldiers deserted the army. This swelled the mass working class opposition to the war. With the unreliability of the army it became increasingly difficult for the Iraqi state to put down such working class rebellions. It was for this reason that Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons on the town of Halabja in 1988.”

Following the invasion of Kuwait there were mass demonstrations against its continued occupation… Despite a 200% pay rise, desertion from the army became common. In the city of Sulaimania alone there were an estimated 30,000 deserters. In Kut there were 20,000. So overwhelming was the desertion that it became relatively easy for soldiers to bribe their way out of the army by giving money to their officers. But these working class conscripts didn’t just desert, they organized. In Kut thousands marched to the local police station and forced the police to concede an end to the harassment of deserters.

So a lot of working class Iraqis were in the military, and they deserted, went home, and organized. Saddam invaded Kuwait for the same reason the U.S. invaded Iraq; Oil. So why don’t we have a brewing movement of tens of thousands of deserters? Where are our deserter-support riots? You’d think if we built that movement, more people would desert, right?

I trace it back to our sources of inspiration and movement-knowledge. Today’s anarchists and young left emerge largely from the suburbs and the middle-class, as do many of the traditional anti-war left. They get a lot of their inspiration when it comes to anti-war organizing from stuff they read or see about the 60’s; the Weather Underground, SDS, the Days of Rage, the various militant groups in Europe at the time, etc. Only recently, especially with the release of David Zeiger’s film Sir, No Sir, have we started to really get hip to the GI movement.

It is important, especially for the young and mostly white left, to understand that many of these groups turned off non-white groups with their actions. Betita Martinez, in her recent essay Looking for Color in the Anti-War Movement, discusses Angela Davis’ stance towards the anti-war movement during Vietnam:

“…the black community did not join the anti-Vietnam War movement in great numbers (even though blacks had been largely anti-war). One reason, she said, was that it did not see white peace activists energetically defending the Black Panthers, who were fighting a war for survival at the time.”

She also points to a 1991 writing by Earl Ofari Hutchinson, in the wake of the L.A. Riots and the police-beating of Rodney King:

“How is it that thousands of white activists can wage passionate campaigns against oppression and human rights abuses in Chile, El Salvador, South Africa… but not in the ghettos and barrios of their own cities?”

I could also see some of us same radicals supporting soldier-led resistance in another country while failing to initiate our own campaigns within the U.S. Armed Forces. Maybe because we’re scared to open dialogue across class/experience lines, or maybe because we don’t understand –and thus are not motivated by- the GI movement during Vietnam.

While the radical young left praises the militant cadre organizations and credits them with stopping the Vietnam War, the more pacifist-oriented liberal anti-war crowd seems to think the big marches, like the Moratorium protests or the march on Washington, ended the war. This is a great victory for the Pentagon’s propaganda writers; they have convinced a sizable portion of the population that it only took big marches and a lot of waiting to bring the bad leaders to do good things. The radicals on the other hand think that bombings and militant street fights did it.

Some, like myself, are starting to understand that it had a lot to do with the GI movement. The Iraqi militants in Basra who revolted against Saddam Hussein would probably understand this pretty well too. Of course, the real factor in Vietnam, and now in Iraq, is the resistance on the ground, though the GI movement and the refusal by soldiers to fight, increased the on the ground victory for the resistance.

Here’s a brief excerpt from Harass the Brass, a pamphlet written by Kevin Keating about the GI movement during Vietnam:

In the Americal Division, plagued by poor morale, fraggings (the killing of gungho officers) during 1971 were estimated to be running around one a week… Sabotage was an extremely useful tactic. On May 26, 1970, the USS Anderson was preparing to steam from San Diego to Vietnam. But someone had dropped nuts, bolts and chains down the main gear shaft. A major breakdown occurred, resulting in thousands of dollars worth of damage and a delay of several weeks. Several sailors were charged, but because of a lack of evidence the case was dismissed… In July of 1972, within the space of three weeks, two of the Navy’s aircraft carriers were put out of commission by sabotage. On July 10, a massive fire swept through the admiral’s quarters and radar center of the USS Forestall, causing over $7 million in damage. This delayed the ship’s deployment for over two months. In late July, the USS Ranger was docked at Alameda, California. Just days before the ship’s scheduled departure for Vietnam, a paint-scraper and two 12-inch bolts were inserted into the number-four-engine reduction gears causing nearly $1 million in damage and forcing a three-and-a-half month delay in operations for extensive repairs. The sailor charged in the case was acquitted.

In his 1971 red alert, The Collapse of the Armed Forces, Col. Robert D. Heinl Jr. explains, to his own elite horror, how the GI movement was destroying the U.S. Government’s ability to dominate the world and continue fighting in Vietnam:

By every conceivable indicator, our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and non commissioned officers, drug-ridden, and dispirited where not near mutinous… Sedition – coupled with disaffection within the ranks, and externally fomented with an audacity and intensity previously inconceivable – infests the Armed Services… there appear to be some 144 underground newspapers published on or aimed at U.S. military bases in this country and overseas. Since 1970 the number of such sheets has increased 40% (up from 103 last fall). These journals are not mere gripe-sheets that poke soldier fun in the “Beetle Bailey” tradition, at the brass and the sergeants. “In Vietnam,” writes the Ft Lewis-McChord Free Press, “the Lifers, the Brass, are the true Enemy, not the enemy.” Another West Coast sheet advises readers: “Don’t desert. Go to Vietnam and kill your commanding officer.”

So we start to see that it wasn’t just hippies marching in the streets or sleeping in the park, there was a serious working class radical movement in the Armed Forces, engaging in highly illegal acts of sabotage and mutiny. But for the GI, even doing outreach was highly illegal and mutinous.

It is problematic that so many young folks on the left today praise such organizations as the Weather Underground -who held a pretty messed up view of the U.S. working class as unreachable and racist- without any real critique of their effectiveness or strategic impact, or of their macho stances. The blind worship of such militant groups, on the simple basis that they blew things up and must have thus been really radical, generally leads to a misunderstanding of historic changes, such as how the Vietnam War was ended. When one reads about the GI movement during Vietnam, or the strength of the Vietnamese forces and the political changes occurring across Laos, Cambodia and Thailand that influenced the region, it becomes clearer that the civilian protests had less to do with the war’s end than we would like to think.

This does not mean the protests were ineffective. In fact, had their not been a civilian movement, there probably would not have been a strong GI movement, for that is where GI’s turned for support and shelter.

Col. Henil recognizes this in The Collapse of the Armed Forces:

It is a truism that national armies closely reflect societies from which they have been raised. It would be strange indeed if the Armed Forces did not today mirror the agonizing divisions and social traumas of American society, and of course they do. For this very reason, our Armed Forces outside Vietnam not only reflect these conditions but disclose the depths of their troubles in an awful litany of sedition, disaffection, desertion, race, drugs, breakdowns of authority, abandonment of discipline, and, as a cumulative result, the lowest state of military morale in the history of the country.

Many civilians initiated GI movement projects, like coffeehouses and newspapers. Some even enlisted or accepted the draft to organize within the ranks. Some socialist groups encouraged this, because they wanted to organize the working class and the military was full of working class people.

Politics aside, there is a personal side to the “right-wing soldier generalizations” of the young left. The old Weathermen idea that the U.S. working class is inherently racist and apathetic has resurfaced today, though a little more disguised than before.

Many young people on the left, especially the anarchists, stick to their typical shelters; the university, the infoshop, the punk show, etc. They tend to avoid entering the big unions or working the crap service jobs and they tend to write off soldiers and many working people as “unreachable”. And the military is mostly made up of working class people. See where this is going?

An Iraq veteran and now Iraq Veterans Against the War organizer told me recently of a black bloc anarchist coming up to him at an anti-war rally as he held an “Iraq Veterans Against the War” banner; “Oh, the baby-killers are here” were the words spoken. The mostly fabricated and over emphasized tales of anti-war activists calling soldiers “baby-killers” during Vietnam have inspired this generation’s middle class “radicals” to emulate them. And they are emulating behaviors that were stereotypes and false characterizations made by the Right about the anti-war war left during Vietnam.

Someone whose brother, father, mother, cousin or neighbor is or was in the military, will generally understand a basic rule: The military is made of regular people who enter it for various reasons, usually unrelated to the reasons the government has for waging wars. You don’t go around calling people baby-killers or saying stupid things about soldiers, because you know you’re brother is a regular person, not a killing-robot.

The middle and upper class left is largely separated from military families, not because they sit on a moral high ground of good people who don’t join the military out of some political stance, but because they don’t have the military as a number one or two cultural option for employment, or an escape from conditions of poverty or broken families.

As with Vietnam, it has taken the emergence on the national scene of military families and veterans speaking out against the war to start bringing working class people into the movement. During the Vietnam War, students were not drafted until after they finished their studies. Late in Vietnam the military started choosing soldiers by taking those who scored lowest on their intelligence tests.

A working class firefighter who lost his son in Vietnam gave an interview in 1970:

“I’m bitter. You bet your goddamn dollar I’m bitter. It’s people like us who gave up our sons for the country. The business people, they run the country and make money from it. The college types, the professors, they go to Washington and tell the government what to do… But their sons, they don’t end up in the swamps over there, in Vietnam. No sir. They’re deferred, because they’re in school. Or they get sent to safe places. Or they get out with all those letters they have from their doctors. Ralph told me. He told me what went on at his physical. He said most of the kids were from average homes; and the few rich kids there were, they all had big-deal letters saying they weren’t eligible… Let’s face it: if you have a lot of money, or if you have the right connections, you don’t end up on a firing line in the jungle over there, not unless you want to. Ralph had no choice. He didn’t want to die. He wanted to live. They just took him.”

The same soldier’s mother chimed in:

“I told (my husband) I thought (the anti-war demonstrators) want the war to end, so no more Ralphs will die, but he says no, they never stop and think about Ralph and his kind of people, and I’m inclined to agree. They say they do, but I listen to them, I watch them; since Ralph died I listen and I watch as carefully as I can. Their hearts are with other people, not their own American people, the ordinary kind of person in this country… Those people, a lot of them are rich women from the suburbs, the rich suburbs. Those kids, they are in college… I’m against this war, too – the way a mother is, whose sons are in the army, who has lost a son fighting in it. The world hears those demonstrators making their noise. The world doesn’t hear me, and it doesn’t hear a single person I know.”

And it seems we still don’t hear their voices. The voices of working class people with real connections to the war, via their children and loved ones. As Eugene Debs said during the First World War, “The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles”. The activism of those directly affected usually takes a more personal flavor, whereas more typically middle and upper class activism usually takes an explicitly political or even theoretical flavor. It would be ignorant to say that there are no cross-overs, or that the working class anti-war stance does not involve political motivation, but there is a clear difference in experience that is hard to ignore… Unless of course, we cling to classist and ignorant stereotypes of the military and the working class… which we often do.


The personal fight against the war, the one that derives from the connection a veteran or military family member has, is deeply political. The personal is political right? So, fighting for the safe return of a loved one, against a societal demand for blind patriotism, is a radical act. It is when these voices are amplified and listened to that real changes will occur in the working class. The middle and upper class activists have a perfectly legitimate stance against the war, and their actions are important, but the sleeping giant is the working class. That’s where the potential to turn the world upside down resides.

The political motivations of the typical middle class anti-war activists, like those of the New Left in the 60’s and those of the young radical left now, are usually focused on supporting the resistance in the occupied country (Vietnam) or militant actions coming out of their own ranks. Since there is no mass movement in Iraq with a united front, like the Vietcong, it’s hard to support the resistance. So today’s young anti-war crowd tends to itself, trying to repeat the same messages, spectacles and demands as the New Left did, or they mimic the autonomist movements of the 70’s and 80’s across Europe, minus most of the infrastructure projects they worked to defend and their emphasis on building alternative structures, not just destroying the current ones (I’m mainly referencing the “fuck shit up” attitude that infects the U.S. anarchist scene).

But if not personal, there are political, strategic reasons to support and participate in organizing among the armed forces. The various revolutions mentioned earlier should speak for themselves, but Stan Goff also sums up this political responsibility:

“When the time comes for the deep transformation of this society -sooner than later, I believe- a significant portion of the Armed Forces will either support us or refuse to attack us. Otherwise it won’t happen… Every successful revolution requires either the neutralization or the active participation of military people. It’s really time to factor that into our thinking. It’s time we thought about organizing within the military. And organizing is not helping out a handful of conscientious objectors (though that is important) or dropping into Fayetteville with antiwar petitions for GIs to sign. Organizing is getting to know them, listening to them, building relationships with them, and standing alongside them when they confront their own institution.”

During the early years of the U.S. labor movement, mainly in the from 1877 to the early 1900’s, almost every sizable strike involved National Guard units refusing orders to attack strikers, who were often their neighbors and families. So the state would have to call militia and National Guard units from the other side of the state or from the federal government to crush the strikes. It is probable that many of these strikes would have been crushed much sooner, and thus would have far more unsuccessful, had these soldiers not broke rank. They broke rank because they were in close connection with those on the other ends of their bayonets, and because the movement they were being asked to repress was a working class movement in their interest. They weren’t just sympathetic, they were in support.

Kevin Keating’s Harass the Brass continues:

Revolutionary unrest doesn’t happen every day, but when it does break out, it can overcome the most powerful states with a surprising and improbable speed, and the collapse of the repressive forces of the state is a key moment in the beginning of a new way of life. It’s an ugly fact that war and revolution were intimately linked in the most far-going social movements of the 20th century. With the U.S. governments’ self-appointed role as the cop for global capitalist law and order, it’s likely that the crisis that will cause an irreparable break between the rulers and the ruled in the United States will be the result of an unsuccessful war. That day may soon be upon us. At that point, widespread fraternization between anti-capitalist radicals and enlisted people will be crucial in expanding an anti-war movement into a larger opposition to the system…

The best way to effect change in an individual is through personal connection. When we write off soldiers in our political thinking and activism, we are not just inviting them to side against us when things get hot, we are also leaving out 12 percent of the population of this country. All because we hold these ignorant stereotypes about soldiers and a fear of reaching across the class boundary with open ears and a willingness to support movements we might not 100 percent agree with.

To put it plain, if we want to see soldiers speak out and act against the war, we’ve gotta talk to them, support their efforts, and allow them the space to determine what their actions will look like. You don’t just sit around and wait until soldiers start organizing in a way you think is morally or politically correct, you jump in their and build it with them. You suffer through the hard periods of movement building and you celebrate the victories of resistance, together.

All Our People Sing Together: The Music of Vietnam During the American War

In History, Music & Art on October 22, 2008 at 5:28 pm

from Even If Your Voice Shakes – Issue #2, Fall 2008

Vietnam, under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, declared liberation on September 2nd, 1945 from both the French and Japanese colonizers. The British, in classic imperial fashion, sent troops in to crush the movement and reinstall the French as the colonial rulers of what they called Indochina. The French assumed power in the South but the Viet Minh, under Ho Chi Minh, held power in the north and continued the fight for independence. The Vietnamese call this the French War. The French call it the First Indochina War.

In 1954, as the Viet Minh taught the French the same lesson the Americans would learn 2 decades later, a settlement was reached cutting Vietnam in half; The Viet Minh would control the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and Emperor Bao Dai would control the Republic of Vietnam in the south. They would fight again 5 years later, as Ngo Din Diem, a U.S.-backed Prime Minister/Monarch who had spent time in the U.S. hanging out with Joseph McCarthy, deposed Bao Dai and seized power, banning elections and locking up opposition.

The Americans began arriving in South Vietnam in 1961 as “advisers”. These soldiers multiplied rapidly and by 1965 there were hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers on the ground. American forces stayed in the South, but they unleashed a heavy bombing campaign in the North towards the end of the war. The Americans call this the Vietnam War. The Vietnamese call it the American War.

In the North, the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) massed and attacked South Vietnamese and American forces, and walked the Truong Son Road (what Americans named the “Ho Chi Minh Trail”) through Laos and Cambodia to help supply the Guerrillas in the South. The Guerrillas, organized under the National Liberation Front, or Vietcong, dominated the countryside and jungles, joining forces with the PAVN when possible.

By the time these forces had taught the Americans the same lessons they taught the French twenty year earlier, 58,000 Americans, 1 million Vietnamese soldiers and guerrillas, and over 2 million Vietnamese civilians would be dead, and millions injured. The war would also spread to Laos and Cambodia, where U.S. forces destroyed a vast majority of the rain forests and farmland of the region. The last Americans fled Saigon in 1975 as the communists marched in.

It was under these conditions that our story takes place, on both sides of the 17th parallel and, sometimes, on both sides of the lines.


In the Guerrilla areas of the South, musicians operated openly within hideouts and safe-areas protected by the NLF to encourage the guerrillas and bring happiness and hope to a determined people. This music, along with it’s counter-part in the North, was officially called “Nhac Truyen Thong Cach Mang” (“Classical Revolutionary Music”) or “Nhac Do” (“Red Music”) for short. Though there were differences in style between those in the North and South, the music of the liberation armies shared common themes and styles.

Red Musicians traveled with the National Liberation Front and the People’s Army to battle. They often performed in choral groups, not always as solo musicians or bands, and practiced a more collective form of music. Often a composer would write songs and arrangements for choral groups to perform and/or record.

One striking Guerrilla song was “The Unconquerable Van Troi”, written by Nguyen Tho about a Vietcong hero, Nguyen Can Troi:

We are millions, ready to follow your example.

Your death was like your life,

Heroic and glorious!

Oh, Nguyen Van Troi, beloved hero,

Your example shines above the whole nation!

Van Troi, a Vietcong urban-guerrilla, was 17-years old in 1963 when he was captured by South Vietnamese forces after trying to assassinate both U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. His execution was delayed shortly when FALN rebels in Venezuela kidnapped and threatened to kill U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Michael Smolen, but Smolen was released and Van Troi was killed. His legacy lived on however, in the hearts, minds and songs of the Vietcong guerrillas.

The Vietcong operated secretly in South Vietnam, using an elaborate system of underground tunnels and jungle hideouts to launch small but relentless attacks against both the South Vietnamese military and the United States. The tunnel systems weren’t just hideouts, they were living spaces, with medical facilities, food storage, sleeping space and meeting rooms for military planning.

The most infamous tunnels were at Cu Chi, but there were hundreds of miles of tunnels in the South, often connecting a community together, serving as roads between towns, and even going right under U.S. bases.

Musicians as well as other performance groups operated in these tunnels to encourage the resistance and raise morale. Dang Thi Linh was a dancer in one of these traveling performance groups. Having lost both her parents to American attacks, she sought to help raise morale among the guerrillas. Peasants would travel through the tunnels to catch performances, staying silent to conserve air and stay hidden. Above ground when it was safe they would sing along.

Pham Sang was a popular composer who wrote songs and plays for these traveling theater groups. Though he and his audience wanted to explore love and other personal stories in song, his superiors pushed him to write war songs like “Cu Chi, The Heroic Land”:

We are Cu Chi people who go forward to kill the enemy

We go through danger, bullets and fire to fight for our native land.

Our country is a fortress standing against the Americans,

Cu Chi is a heroic land

Let’s grow manioc plant all over the bomb craters and make them green

We kill the Americans with their own shells and bombs

We kill the enemy and increase our production

Those were our glorious victories.

Bowing to pressure from his superior Buy Lap, who suggested that “even love songs should be political”, he combined topics to satisfy both crowds:

I love you

I miss you and wait for you,

Liberation Fighter

Let’s fight the enemy together

Some officers were nervous about the numbers in the tunnels, and some felt that this music should only be for the soldiers, not anybody who wanted to hear it. In response to this, Pham Sang took crowds up top at night. Here they would find a B-52 bomb crater and convert it into an amphitheater and lay planks of wood down as a stage While the audience would sit in caves dugout of the sides of the crater. This was risky, but the need for entertainment and hope was such that the risk was worth it. If planes came overhead, the crowd would hear them in time and the tunnels would once again be occupied.

After the Tet Offensive of 1968, when the Vietcong and NLF launched a massive attack to try to seize Saigon and other major cities, many of the tunnels were exposed and became too dangerous to travel.

Outside of the tunnels, musicians and composers accompanied the soldiers through the thick of battle. And they didn’t just sing about the liberation war, many were there first hand to give support and some gave their lives. Tuong Vi, Tran Chat, Minh Nguyet and Kim Cuc, all singers, were present in Tri Thien (Central Highlands) with the PAVN and VC, and sometimes sang through telephone lines to guerrillas guarding command posts. Many composers, including Ngoc Minh and Chu Nghi died on the battlefields of South Vietnam.


In the safer areas of the North, though still threatened by U.S. bombing raids, Red Music was performed openly to urge citizens to resist the Americans and their puppet government in South, and to cherish the land of Vietnam.

Songs like Giai phong Mien Nam (Liberate the South) urged strong physical resistance:

Liberate the South,

We are heading to kill American Imperialism,

the invaders Blood and bones fell down,

the feud is high The country has been divided for many years

Cuulong and Truongson urge us to go to kill enemies

Stand up people, to rescue our country Our fate is coming,

Dawn is going and we will build our future

In “My Native Land, Quang Binh”, Hoang Van combines the call for resistance with a love for the land of Vietnam:

Oh militia girl who stands guard on the coast,

Oh army man whose vigil guards our skies,

Our native land will flourish more each day,

And the seeds of revolution sprout all green!

Quang Binh, my native land,

I will defend your earth and sky.

I will protect all that we love,

My native land.

Pham Tuen, born in Hanoi, was one of the more popular composers of Nhac Do. His songs rallied Vietnamese to join the liberation war and described the horrors inflicted on Vietnam by the French, American and South Vietnamese troops. He still performs too, continuing the tradition of topical song as well as writing many children’s songs.

According to Vietnam News, a provincial leader recently asked Tuen to write a particular song for a local famous singer to sing, but Tuen refused, telling him “I compose songs for the community so everyone can sing them.” It is this commitment to community that earned him the popular nickname “The Composer of the People”.

When North Vietnam first sent its troops to the South to fight the United States and unify the movements of the South, Tuen was writing songs in support, to rally soldiers to the cause of liberation. Other songs, like “The Boatwoman’s Song”, described and glorified the role regular folks played in the war for liberation:

Ohay! I pull my oars,

So my soldiers brothers may cross the river!

Here it’s very cold, and your way is very long.

For all of us, you endure such pain,

And such privation! Ohay! Ohay!

My boat breaks through the waves!

With the soldiers of the Liberation Army,

I am crossing the river,

So that they may get to the front!

The enemy has set our country ablaze,

With the raging fires of war;

But you are guarding the villages,

And building a future for us all,

So that everywhere our songs will rise.

Faster, Ohay! My sisters, faster!

And tomorrow we will welcome them home in triumph!

One of his most popular and darker songs was “Ha Noi – Dien Bien Phu”, which described 12 days and nights of air raids in Ha Noi in December 1972, in which American bombers destroyed much of the city where he was born, including parts of his house and piano. A PAVN veteran named Truong Van Dung, interviewed in 2004, said this song “encouraged soldiers across the nation, including those at the front” and “gave us strength to overcome our difficulties to sacrifice ourselves for national independence.”

Tuen met with Pete Seeger in 1973 after hearing him sing Ewan MacColl’s “Ballad of Ho Chi Minh” on a North Vietnamese newsreel. After meeting Seeger and being introduced to one of the foundations of American anti-war song-writing, Tuen composed “Gay Dan Len Hoi Nguoi Ban My” (Keep on Strumming, My American Friends). The song faded in popularity after the withdraw of U.S. troops but surfaced again more recently in a new context, calling Americans to address the effects of Agent Orange.

Speaking of American friends, it should be noted that not all liberation fighters were Vietnamese, and not all the songs glorifying them were Vietnamese. An underground folk song of the 60’s told the tale of one GI who joined the resistance. “Ballad of the Unknown Soldier” was written by Rod Shearman after reading a newspaper article in England about a GI found dead in Vietcong territory wearing sandals and “black pajamas”.

The song was sung by Rod Shearman, Peggy Seeger, Barbara Dane and Jack Warshaw, an American draft resister living in England, among others:

Come and Listen to a story I will tell

Of a young GI you will remember well.

He died in Vietnam in the Mekong Delta land,

He had sandals on his feet and a rifle in his hand.


I wonder what was his name?

I wonder from which town he came?

I wonder if his children understood the reason why

Of the way he had to fight and the way he had to die.

They say that December ’65

Was the last time he was ever seen alive.

It was U.S. Army lies that caused him to decide

To leave his old top sergeant and fight on the other side.

Was he lonesome for his homeland far away?

Fighting with his new companions night and day?

In the base and jungle camps they tell about a man

Sharing hardships with his comrades fighting on the other side.

It was in the month of April ’68,

In the Delta land he met a soldier’s fate.

He fought to his last breath and he died a hero’s death,

And he wore the black pajamas of the People’s NLF.

Well it’s now that poor soldier’s dead and gone.

His comrades and his friends are fighting on.

And when the people win, of their heroes they will sing,

And his name will be remembered with the name of Ho Chi Minh.

This story was not alone. Other articles emerged, both during and after the war, of the “White Cong” or “Yankee Cong”. One of the more infamous stories describes an American duo called “Salt and Pepper”, a black GI and a white GI who led Vietcong soldiers in an attack in Quang Ngai City in 1974, after the American Withdraw was nearly complete. Another, from the Can Tho Army Airfield in the Mekong Delta area, tells of a black NCO who canceled medevacs in support of the Vietcong. Another told the tale of a GI named Porkchop who fought alongside the Vietnamese.

Both the North Vietnamese and the NLF published leaflets directed towards black GIs urging them to join their ranks. Some, like the interrogators in prisons in the North, allegedly studied African American literature. Huey Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, offered in a 1970 letter to send Black Panthers to assist the NLF in battle. Soldiers have also reported that, especially following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Vietcong guerrillas would shoot only at white GIs.

The only U.S. soldier ever charged for alleged participation in the “Yankee Cong” was Bobby Garwood, a Marine captured in 1965 by communist forces, who was said to have collaborated with the Vietcong.


As the war dragged on, Red songs took a sometimes sad but optimistic tone. Composer Xuan Hong wrote “Spring Comes to the Liberated Areas”, imagining the future which so many guerrillas and North Vietnamese soldiers were fighting for:

The spring comes again to the forest.

The wild bird song is heard in the trees.

Springtime has come to our base camp,

And the wind shakes the rustling leaves

Spring of our victory!

The birds sing of joy!

Tomorrow the flowers present themselves

Smiling, to rejoice with the younger soldier

Who has one more year in his life,

One more year for brave exploits

Expected and awaited by our people.

Spring comes to the resistance base,

And the smoke smudges our roof,

And on this hut the only thing I have to give you

Is a song

Oh, the springtime in our forest camp

Makes me homesick for my village and friends.

My will hardens, we must drive out our enemy,

So that all our people can experience the spring.

And someday when the spring comes,

Flowers will bloom in all our houses

I will meet my brother soldiers,

And we will speak of old times,

Of the days when we fought with such courage.

The flowers will unfurl,

To welcome the spring with gladness

The old folks and the young,

All together we sing our songs.

In our country there are four seasons,

And all of them are spring!

Resolved to build our future,

All our people sing together.

At the announcement of the fall of Saigon, Tuen wrote a song that is still played today at Football matches and public meetings, “Nhu Co Bac Ho Trong Ngay Vui Dai Thang (“As if Uncle Ho Were Still With Us On the Day of Great Victory”). Luong Ngoc Thuan, also a PAVN veteran, describes this song: “It is as if the song helped show the sacred feelings of everybody in the country.”


The political song tradition that emerged from South Vietnam in the war years is called Nhac Phan Chien, or protest music. These songs were often banned but remained popular among students and educated folks.

Stemming from the broader tradition of “Nhac Vang”, Yellow Music, which defined most of the popular music of the South at the time, Nhac Phan Chien touched on issues relating to the government of Ngo Din Diem, the American invasion and the war with the North. The music was often close to the peace movement, which grew out of Buddhist reaction to Diem’s repressive laws and his emphasis on putting Catholics in position of authority over Buddhists (though religion was not the major source of tension). Large demonstrations by Buddhists in the South were a major factor in the toppling of Ngo Dinh Diem’s government in 1963.

The most popular song-writer to emerge from this movement was Trinh Cong Son, a mid-20s composer, painter and song-writer that Joan Baez called “The Bob Dylan of Vietnam”. This title matched his popularity, as he grew to be one of the most popular artists in South Vietnam and is generally considered one of the founders of modern Vietnamese music.

Khanh Ly, who became the first Vietnamese woman to headline her own shows, helped popularize Son’s songs in the earlier years and the two often performed together on university campuses. Their shows often lasted over 4 hours.

Though public performances, distribution, and radio and television broadcasts of his music were banned by the South Vietnamese government, Trinh Cong Son’s music maintained popularity, and he became more popular than of any South Vietnamese military or political figure. Students attended his concerts at universities and black market tapes of his songs flourished. These tapes found their way to soldiers on both sides of the war, even though his songs were criticized by the North Vietnamese government for being “defeatist” and not pro-armed struggle.

His grim and sad anti-war songs, like “Bai Ca Danh Cho Nhung Xac Nguoi”, or “Songs for the Corpes”, painted a dark picture of life:

The bodies of the dead lie floating in the river

They lie in the field,

On the rooftops of the city

And in the winding streets

The bodies of the dead lie lost

Under the eaves of the pagodas

In the churches of the city

At the doorsteps of the deserted houses

Oh Spring – the bodies of the dead bring a scent to the rice paddies

Oh Vietnam – the bodies of the dead add breath to tomorrow’s soil

The way there, though full of obstacles

Because around here – here were humans

The bodies of the dead lied all around here

In this cold rain

Near the bodies of the old and weak

Lie the bodies of the young and innocent

Which body is the body of my brother

In this cave

In those burnt out areas

Next to the maize and sweet potato field

Cold and dark songs like this illustrated the horrors of the war and touched the hearts of Vietnamese folks on both sides of the border. His darkest song was “Tinh Ca Nguoi Mat Tri” (“Love Song of a Madman”):

I had a lover who died at the Battle of Pleime

I had a lover in the Tactical Zone D

died at the Battle of Dongxoai

died out there in Hanoi

died in haste along the border

I had a lover who died at the Battle of Chu Bruang

I had a lover whose body was floating in the river

died in the paddy field

died in the thick jungle

died cold and lonely, his body charred

I want to love you, love Vietnam

On a windy day, I would go calling quietly

Calling your name, the name of Vietnam

Feeling closer in the voice of the yellow skin

I want to love you, love Vietnam

The day I have just grown, my ears are used to bullets and mines

My hands between my lips

As of today I have forgotten the languages of humans…

I had a lover who died at the Battle of Ashau

I had a lover who died curled in the fetal position

died in a ravine

died near the bridge pylon

died in an anguish with not a rag on his body

I had a lover who died at the battle of Baza

I had a lover who died last night

died all of a sudden

died without any warning / any appointment

No hatred, died peacefully as if in a dream

Along with these songs song are over 600 others, opposing the war, crying out for unification, cherishing the cultural legacies of Vietnam, singing of love and longing for a peaceful existence.

He also wrote angry protest songs like “Gia Tai Cua Me” (“Mother’s legacy”):

A thousand years of Chinese reign

A hundred years of French oppression.

Twenty years of brother fighting brother each day,

A mother’s fate – bones left to dry,

And graves that fill a mountain high.

Teach your children to speak their minds.

Don’t let them forget their kind–

Never forget their kind, from old Viet land.

Mother wait for your children to come home,

Childern who now so far away roam.

Children of one father, be reconciled.

To reconcile the misery and depression of living through war, he wrote songs like “Cho Nhin Que Huong Sang Choi” (“Wait to see the brilliant father land”) about the hopes and dreams of the regular people of South Vietnam:

Waiting for the bugle to sound to bring home all the boys

Waiting for hearts to no longer hold any hatred and grudges

Waiting for nights without curfews and mornings with comfort

Waiting for the aromatic rice to grow under the hands of our own people

Waiting for the hearts that love the country and are determined to build the peace

Waiting for the hearts that are happy throughout the villages

Waiting for the land to resound of songs of freedom

Waiting for trees to change leaves; waiting for flowers to blossom

Waiting for us to go around streets that are not strange

Waiting for a bright country and the mothers’ eyes are no longer blurred with tears

In “Toi Se Di Tham” (“I Will Visit”), Son describes himself in the future, in a unified and peaceful Vietnam:

When my country is in peace, I’ll go endlessly

From Saigon to Central, Hanoi to the South

I shall go amid the collective joy

And hope to forget my country’s story


Saigon fell in 1975, and the communist forces started re-organizing society and culture by force, creating what they considered a socialist society.

Although is seems there would be a mutual understanding among topical song-writers, there was tension and even bitterness between the musicians of the North and the South after unification.

By the late 70s “Yellow Music” was been targeted by the regime. The music was criticized by authorities who claimed it was non-political and sad, encouraging listeners to be apathetic. It was in this period that Son, who also supported Buddhists calls for the communists to respect religious rights and practices, was persecuted by the new government and sentenced to 4 years in a “retraining camp” (meaning ‘re-education’ and farm labor).

During the communist assault on Yellow Music, and the imprisonment of Son and many other composers and artists, Pham Tuen (the Red composer we discussed earlier) described this music as creating “within the listener a feeling of beauty, a carefree feeling not bound by any political ties; in substance it hypnotizes listeners and draws them from the orb of the national and class struggles.”

It is all the more ironic then, that when Radio Saigon was seized by communist forces during the final push, his music was played for days.

Pleng Phua Cheewit: The Story of Thailand’s Revolutionary Folk Music

In History, Music & Art on October 22, 2008 at 5:15 pm

from Even If Your Voice Shakes – Issue #2, Fall 2008

Last year, I had the privilege to meet two members of Thailand’s radical farmer movements, one named Ubon who was the Thai representative of the People’s Global Action network. PGA is a huge network of poor people’s movements from around the world, which put out the first calls for what became known as the “anti-globalization” or “global justice” movement. The event was hosted by ENGAGE, a U.S. group that works to promote solidarity between U.S. students and Thai farmers. I performed at the event and sang some of my songs. Afterwards, speaking with Ubon through an interpreter, he told me about their own protest folk music, which was created by students and activists fleeing a military dictatorship in the early 70’s and finding refuge among the farmers and guerillas in the north. Ever since that conversation I’ve been wanting to know, and especially hear, more about Pleng Phua Cheewit. I wrote this article based on web-sources to shine some light on this movement of music, but it is by no means an accurate or all encompassing account.

As China and Vietnam saw communist governments emerge in the late 1940’s, a nationalist right-wing military regime, strongly backed by the United States, took power in Thailand. Political activists and opponents of the regime were kidnapped and executed by the police, though opposition managed to organize several attempts to overthrow the government. With the final attempt, the regime abolished their own constitution, which was only two years old, and effectively eliminated all democratic institutions of government. This provoked strong opposition from the universities, which led to more repression of activists.

Phibun Songkhram, the dictator, attempted to restore the constitution in 1955 to retain power, but the military overthrew him and installed their new ally, General Thanom Kittikachorn as Prime Minister, who in turn gave his place to General Sarit, head of the military. When General Sarit died in 1963, Thanom took power again. Sarit and Thanom were supportive of a monarchy-style government, recognizing the role of the King in Thai tradition, and strict order. Their regimes were strongly backed by the U.S.; Sarit sent Thai soldiers to Vietnam and Laos to fight the Vietcong and associated guerilla movements along side the U.S. and opened Thailand’s east to the U.S. to build airbases for bombing their neighbors. To challenge this, the Vietcong supported Thailand’s own Communist Party and guerilla movements in the north, northeast and south of the country.

With U.S. military backing came U.S. culture, and Thai society was effectively westernized by the late 60’s, the family unit breaking down and an economic boom bringing many into the cities for work. The population of Bangkok, Thailand’s capitol, grew tenfold from 1945 to 1970. This westernization also opened Thailand’s universities to a revival of student activism, as more ideas poured in and opposition to the military regime took a solid shape.


During the military rule from 1945 up through 1960, the nobility was given free access to the north, where peasants were systematically deprived of their traditional land. By 1960, 30 percent of peasants in the north were landless. As the cities saw a rise in standards of living and a new middle class towards 1970, the rural poor saw nothing. Rural movements against the government grew quickly and the government sent soldiers to many villages to instill fear. This however, only intensified rural opposition to the government, and a peasant movement emerged. Students from the south helped the growing peasant movement with solidarity protests in the cities, mainly focused on land-loss, high rent and police repression of rural activists. Though the government held hearings and created a committee to hear peasant’s complaints, which saw over 50,000 petitions, little changed. The committee called many of the peasants’ demands unrealistic and the government continued to drive peasants further into poverty.

In 1968, in response to growing calls from student and business organizations, Thanom called for elections, and of course, his military-party won. The clear set-up caused many lawmakers and professionals to openly challenge the regime, which then, with Thanom’s command, dissolved Parliament and suspended the constitution once again, bringing about another era of absolute military rule.

Their regimes were strongly backed by the U.S.; Sarit sent Thai soldiers to Vietnam and Laos to fight the Vietcong and associated guerilla movements along side the U.S. and opened Thailand’s east to the U.S. to build airbases for bombing their neighbors. To challenge this, the Vietcong supported Thailand’s own Communist Party and guerrilla movements in the north, northeast and south of the country.

With U.S. military backing came U.S. culture, and Thai society was effectively westernized by the late 60’s, the family unit breaking down and an economic boom bringing many into the cities for work. The population of Bangkok, Thailand’s capitol, grew tenfold from 1945 to 1970. This westernization also opened Thailand’s universities to a revival of student activism, as more ideas poured in and opposition to the military regime took a solid shape.

Student protests grew to be a real force by the early 70’s. In June of 1973, nine students from the Ramkhamhaeng University in Bangkok were expelled for writing and publishing an article in a student newspaper that was critical of the military-regime. In response to this act of repression, thousands of students demonstrated at the ironically named Democracy Monument, established by Phibun after seizing power in 1932. The monument was highly unpopular due to such ironies, but now students would use it as their own symbol. The rally called for the nine students to be re-enrolled in school. The government backed down and allowed the students to be re-enrolled.


During the 1973 protests, two student organizers from Ramkamhaeng University, Nga Surachai Chanthimathon and Virasak Suntornsii, formed the band Caravan, and effectively created the genre “Pleng Phua Cheewit” (Songs for Life). This title, according to Nga, derived from Chit Phum Sak’s translation of a book by Mao Tse Tung’s on art and music. “From this book, he coined the phrase ‘For Life’. So if you wrote a radical play, it was called ‘Drama For Life’. If you wrote a song, it was ‘Song For Life’. Chit Phum Sak was killed in the jungle by government troops in 1965, but he started it all. He was our hero.”

This style of blending traditional Thai and Khmer folk music with American protest-folk was largely inspired by the arrival, via U.S. soldiers in the northeast, of Western anti-war songs from Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and the Beatles. “Remember this was the late 60’s. I grew my hair like Jimi Hendrix. I loved listening to this new music, smoking ganja, hanging out with artists, students and journalists. But I was a writer. My friends told me ‘Become a musician, you already look like a hippy.’ So I learned to play a little, a few chords, A minor, C, D… I was against the Vietnam War. I had fun with the GIs but I hated the war. In the nightclubs I heard American music and socialized with the soldiers. But I felt I had to ask questions about why the US were fighting in my area, my part of the world. We demonstrated much like young people did in the West at the time. This was the hippy generation –anti-war. And the Thai government in 1972 was fascist. At that time, the Army stopped us in the street to cut our hair. There and then, we had no choice. My country was really terrible then.”

In October 1973, 13 students were arrested and charged with conspiracy to overthrow the government. Students mobilized a support campaign that drew in large numbers of workers, businessmen, and other Thai citizens. Hundreds of thousands marched demanding the release of the students. Members of Caravan, including Nga and Virasak, helped organize at Thammasat, drawing maps for the protests. As the numbers grew, so did the demands, and soon they were calling for a new constitution and government. The government released the students soon afterwards, and a large rally was called off by organizers. However, as students tried to leave the monument area, police harassment and intimidation led to tear gas and gunfire. Students rioted and the military was called in, firing into the university from helicopters and bringing tanks to occupy the city. Students attempted to hijack buses and fire engines to stop the tanks but were unsuccessful. Dozens of students were killed. King Bhumibol ordered the gates of his palace opened to the students, a clear and significant act of protest against the military. Though Thanom called for a full military crackdown, Army commander Kris Sivara ordered the soldiers to withdrawal. With the Army withdrawn, the King issued an order that Thanom leave the country. Thanom resigned as Prime Minister that night and went into exile, to the United States, effectively ending the military dictatorship. A new constitution was formed and a democratic government and Parliament took power, the King appointing Sanya Dharmasakti, an employee of the Thammasat University and a sympathizer with the students, Prime Minister.

After the ousting of Thanom and the dictatorship, many students, including those from Caravan, traveled to the farm-regions in the North, to meet with and experience the culture of the peasants they had fought to defend. They experienced rural poverty and shared with the farmers their understandings of the Thai economy, how the dictatorship had led to the poverty of the North. Singing around campfires the students and farmers weaved together their stories into songs. These songs helped bridge the gaps between the students and peasants and, when brought back to the cities, helped mobilize student support for the peasant movements.

It is here that Caravan really found their niche. Their lyrics, set to traditional Thai instruments like the pin, a 3-stringed instrument on the Northeast, violins, and flutes, as well as western instruments like electric guitars, talked about the struggles of these farmers, as well as protest songs about the U.S. military presence and backing of the Thanom regime and support songs for the guerilla movements. Some lyrics were written by Jit Pumisak, a leftist historian, author, intellectual, teacher and poet who is considered the first historian to write a Marxist-based history of Thailand. After the 1957 coup, Jit was arrested for his writings and held until 1965. Upon release, he joined the armed struggle of guerillas in the Northeast and was killed one year later by government soldiers. He was a hero of the student movement and Caravan. Caravan’s most popular song, Man and Buffalo, talked about peasant guerillas working the land:

Man with man work the fields

In the way of man.

Man with buffalo work the fields

In the way of the buffalo.

Man working with buffalo

Is rooted deep in our history.

They’ve worked together for ages.

But it works out alright.

Come, let’s go now! Come, let’s go!

Carry our plows and guns to the fields!

Poverty and weariness endured too long!

Bitter tears held back too long!

Hardships and troubles so heavy,

But whatever the burden, we will not fear!

Here is the song of death,

The death of our humanity.

The rich eat our labor,

Set one against the other,

As we peasants sink deeper in debt.

And they call us savages!

We must destroy this system!

After a few years of playing shows nearly every day, traveling the country mobilizing students, farmers and workers, Caravan enjoyed some underground fame: “Channel 3, the government channel invited us to play on one of their shows. We played three times and they cut the show. They stopped the program. All our songs were banned immediately. That made us very famous.” With the economy slowing down and movements from the Right gaining power, Thailand again experienced a wave of military repression. Right-wing militant groups like the Village Scouts, tied to the Border Patrol Police, the Red Gaur, and the far-right Navapol grew strong. A wave of anti-communism swept Thailand over these years, aided by these right-wing militias.


While Caravan toured the country and the Right trained themselves with weapons, Thanom returned from exile and was secretly ordained a monk at Wat Bovornives, a Buddisht temple in Bangkok, guarded by Navapol soldiers. Major protests were organized in response, prompting Parliament to vote to again expel the former military dictator from the country.

On September 25th, 1976, police beat and hung protesters in the Nakhon Pathom province, noth of Bangkok. Labor and student groups held mass marches on September 30th and October 3rd in response. On October 4th, students at Thammasat University, where Nga Surachai Chanthimathon and other members of Caravan had helped plan the 1973 demonstrations, students staged a play about the hangings in Nakhon Pathom. A newspaper article about this play replaced one of the faces of hanged students to resemble the Crown Prince, causing a rumor that students were planning to assault the King’s palace and the Wat Bovornives temple. The Army encouraged right-wing militias to attack students via the radio and militias, the Army and the police mobilized outside the university.

By nighttime on October 5th, 4000 right-wing paramilitary troops were gathered at the gates of Thammasat University. In the morning, the militias started firing into the school, the police chief authorizing a “free fire”. Though students called for a ceasefire, the shooting continued as the paramilitaries entered the university. Students were beaten to death, shot, hung, set on fire, and raped by the soldiers. Fleeing students were shot trying to jump into the Chao Phraya River. The massacre continued until the various paramilitary, military, and police groups voluntarily withdrew. Immediately following the massacre another military government seized control of Thailand under the rule of Tanin Kraivixien.


On an online anarchist/socialist website, Ji Giles Ungpakom writes: “The successful 14th October 1973 mass uprising against the military dictatorship in Bangkok, shook the Thai ruling class to its foundations. It was the first time that the pu-noi (little people) had actually started a revolution from below. It was not planned and those that took part had only vague notions about the need for democracy, but the Thai ruling class could not shoot enough demonstrators to protect their regime. In fact the shooting just made people even angrier. It was not just a student uprising to demand a democratic constitution. It involved thousands of ordinary working class people and occurred on the crest of a rising wave of workers’ strikes. Success in over-throwing the military dictatorship bred increased confidence. Workers, peasants and students began to fight for more than just parliamentary democracy. They wanted social justice and an end to long-held privileges. Some wanted an end to exploitation and capitalism itself. In response, the Thai ruling class, together with most of the middle class, organized brutality of the utmost barbarity against workers, students and peasant activists. They installed a new dictatorship on the 6th October 1976 over the mutilated bodies of those struggling for freedom.”

Interviewed in 2001, Nga Caravan said “I was not in Bangkok on the 6th of October 1976, the darkest day in our history. Caravan played in Korat on the 4th, in Ubon on the 5th and on the 6th in Khong Kaen. Then we heard that the fascist Thai government was killing demonstrators in Bangkok. It was too dangerous to return to the capital. The revolution had come. We fled into the jungle. We became fugitives.” Many students fled for the Northern hills after the 6th of October, joining the Communist Party of Thailand and other guerilla movements, or seeking refuge with the peasant farmers long supported by the student movement. “The fascists came back and on 6th October 1976, many leaders of our movement died in Bangkok. From Kong Khaen, where we played our last gig that day, we disappeared into the jungle, some of which was under communist control. First we went to Loei, then Udon and Nong Khai. All these places were safe. Many students fled to communist Laos, which welcomed them with open arms.”

Caravan fled into the hills and joined the ranks of peasant farmers and insurgents: ”We joined disaffected farmers, we joined the comrades, we set up art centers in the jungle. Our job was to move, sing and dance. If one of our comrades died, I performed songs for him. Like a monk. The communist party was strong, for a while it was safe.“ Caravan members were wanted fugitives. “After a year I crossed the Mekong and went to Vientiane (the capital of Laos). I stayed over a year in the north of Laos, near Luang Nam Tha. I turned from Hippy to soldier. I cut my hair, I wore a uniform. I carried a gun and a guitar in Laos. I learned to shoot. But I was in safe areas most the time, though sometimes I had to fight, sometimes I almost died… One day, eight of us set off from Udon. At some point we split up. My group got to our rendezvous point, the other four never made it. I wrote a lot of songs for dead friends. From Laos I slipped back into Thailand in 1979 and hid in the forests around Nan. Sometimes my wife and child traveled with me, at other times she traveled for her own activist work. Caravan then worked for communist radio. We wrote songs for a radio channel in Kunming, China. After the Thai government made peace with China, the station closed. We lost our jobs.”


The genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia caused many on the Left in Thailand to put their weapons down. The government announced a general amnesty for communist rebels, activists and artists. Many accepted this and returned to a somewhat normal life in the cities. “I didn’t want to go back. I was having a great time. I was who lived in the mountains. One by one the other members of Caravan drifted back to the capital. The Thai army was closing in on us. We got into a skirmish with three hundred soldiers, just three of us and we ran and ran and escaped. It was all over. I came back to Bangkok for New Year 1982.”

Caravan reformed immediately and played a large UNICEF concert at Thamasat University. Their performance that night was immensely powerful: “We felt like heroes. Everyone in the audience was crying, because they were so happy to see us. We thought we were the losers crawling back from the jungle but in fact everyone wanted to hear our stories.” Nga reflects that not much had changed in returning. “I don’t know if things were really better. Everything was much more expensive. And we finally sold a lot of records. But I still didn’t like the government. We all had to register with the army. At the same time we did a live album for EMI, which sold well. We did a lot of TV and radio then. We toured in Japan and the Philippines many times and traveled to the USA, to play to Thai audiences there. In Canada we played a big folk festival. In Japan there are Caravan fan-clubs.”

Caravan played their last concert on their 15th anniversary in 1987. Phreng Phu Chiwit has now found a place in the pop-charts, with bands like Carabao, a former protest band, selling beer and energy drinks on national television. By the 1990s, Song For Life theme bars became a nation wide franchise. “Some of these bands do really good business. They do big deals with corporations. We are still half-musicians, half-activists. We don’t sell soft drinks. But Song For Life has been absorbed by Thai society.”


None of the right-wing militias involved in the October 6th massacre have even been tried. Many modern history books leave the October 6th massacre out, or mention it as a skirmish between rival forces. Those who were there remember it as a massacre by fascists on a popular, democratic movement of students, peasants and working people.

Though Caravan’s success after 1980 brought them some commercial fame, and the music they sacrificed so many friends and comrades to make has been fully incorporated into the mainstream capitalist market, their history and the story of Pleng Phua Cheewit remains as an example of the power and importance of musical traditions, culture, and art in political movements.

The Story of Victor Jara

In History, Music & Art on October 22, 2008 at 5:13 pm

from Even If Your Voice Shakes – Issue #2, Fall 2008

Throughout the late 1950s and 1960s the world was rocked by a wave of revolutionary movements, some successful, some successfully repressed. In Cuba, Vietnam, France, Thailand, Italy, Germany, Mexico, and even the United States, radical movements rose at historical levels. At the earliest stages of these movements, musicians played a key role in popularizing ideas, validating feelings among the people, and creating social and cultural space for popular protest. Chile was no exception, with an active population fighting off a fascist right-wing threat to bring in a socialist government under Salvador Allende.

One of the most recognizable figures on the cultural front of Chile’s revolutionary movements was Víctor Jara, a folk singer, playwrite, director, and activist born in the town of Chillán Viejo in the southern state of El Carmen. Moving to Santiago after his family left his abusive father, Víctor got involved in first the church, then the military, leaving both shortly after. Discovering the guitar with the help of a neighbor, Víctor became interested in Chile’s folk traditions and grew quickly with the guitar.

Travelling back to the south in the mid-1950s, Víctor studied the music of different areas and traditions, eventually coming across a theater and music group called Cuncumen playing in the Cafe Sau Paulo, where he soon joined Cuncumen. Cuncumen introduced Víctor to expressive movement and theater, and he rose quickly in the theater world to become a well-respected director. His plays soon started appearing in the main theaters of Santiago, and Víctor started becoming a figure in the art world.

Cuncumen eventually toured Europe, where Víctor’s songs and voice amazed both the other members of the group and the crowds they performed for. Other performers on the tour suggested he release a solo abum and Víctor followed the advice, releasing his self-titled album in 1966. Víctor’s first single, El Cigarrito, was the most popular songs of the year in Chile.

Nueva Canción Chilena

Víctor continued directing after returning to Santiago but became increasingly involved with the music scene. Taking a job at Violetta Parra’s Peña de los Parra, Víctor began organizing public music nights, bringing songwriters together at the peña from 10 PM until 2 AM 3 nights a week. The music coming out of the peña, by artists like Violetta Parra, Víctor Jara, Patricio Manns, Rolando Alarcon and others, became known as “Nueva Canción Chilena”, the Chilean New Song movement. New Song blended music and politics and created physical space, through its gatherings, for the exchange of information and networking among radicals. Victor believed in New Song because it was Chile’s own, far from the watered-down political pop music of the United States:

“The cultural invasion is like a leafy tree which prevents us from seeing our own sun, sky and stars. Therefore in order to be able to see the sky above our heads, our task is to cut this tree off at the roots. US imperialism understands very well the magic of communication through music and persists in filling our young people with all sorts of commercial tripe. With professional expertise they have taken certain measures: first, the commercialization of the so-called ‘protest music’; second, the creation of ‘idols’ of protest music who obey the same rules and suffer from the same constraints as the other idols of the consumer music industry – they last a little while and then disappear. Meanwhile they are useful in neutralizing the innate spirit of rebellion of young people. The term ‘protest song’ is no longer valid because it is ambiguous and has been misused. I prefer the term ‘revolutionary song’.”

The peña was an open-mic and performance space where artists could share their words. Víctor became well known through these events and helped manage Peña de los Parra for 8 years. By 1967, the peña movement had spread across Chile, helping grow the new radical culture of Chile beyond Santiago. Víctor went on to release 6 albums after his first, achieving a level of popularity comparable to Bob Dylan or Woody Guthrie.

Unidad Popular

Víctor was a major promoter of Salvador Allende and worked on his campaign, performing at free concerts and doing political work, as well as lending his voice to the theme song of Allene’s coalition, Unidad Popular, or Popular Unity. After Allende’s election in 1970, Víctor became a Cultural Diplomat, representing Chile’s new vision with his art, and began teaching at the Outeach Department of the Technical University. He also started composing music for Chile’s National TV station “Television Nacional”. Víctor’s involvement in the socialist movement and his outspoken critisim of right-wing forces in Chile earned him both massive support and admiration from the Left and harted from the Right.

Víctor campaigned for Popular Unity in 1973 in the working-class districts to the west of Santiago, where he had first picked up a guitar. Travelling in an old bus with fellow New Song band Inti-Illimani, he spent the summer campaigning for a woman candidate of the Communist Party, Eliana Arambar. They sang in factories and on building sites, in the street, schools and markets.

Actions by the Fascists

From 1970 onward, the Right made a concerted effort to take power, and by late summer 1973 The Washington Post was reporting publicy about CIA involvement in the effort. Attempts were made to impeach Allende but these efforts failed dramatically. In the streets, the letters SACO, System of Organized Civil Action, appeared as graffiti on the walls of Santiago, announcing a campaign of violence by the Patria y Libertad, who’s paramilitary units had tried sveral times to hurt or kill Víctor, each time producing a lucky escape. Another slogan rising from the right was ‘”Jakarta is coming”, referencing and alluding to the massacre of hundreds of thousands of communists in Indonesia in 1965. “We worked to a background of shouting in the street, the noise of breaking glass, the crunch of tear-gas grenades exploding, and their sickly, stifling fumes seeping up even to the seventh floor. Several times a week we would have to run the gauntlet of a street riot in order to get to work, taking refuge in shops or arcades until these too became so chronically full of tear-gas that the air never cleared.” (-Joan Jara)

In the winter the supervisors of El Teniente copper mine struck, under the guidance of the Christian Democrat Party, but many miners refused to recognize the strike and continued working. Students with technical skills boarded busses to the mines outside of Rancagua to assist in the efforts of the miners. In her biography of her husbands, “History is a Weapon”, Joan Jara recalls:

“Víctor went with them on more than one occasion. I remember driving him down to the Technical University early one morning to join the bus. As we waited for it to fill up with students, I got into conversation with two hippy-looking gringos with a guitar, who were sitting on the campus steps. They told me that they wanted to go to the mine to show their support for the miners and maybe sing a few songs to tell them that many Americans condemned the policies of the US government. Apparently the Chilean students didn’t trust them and hadn’t given them permission to get on the bus. As the conversation progressed, they introduced themselves as Phil Ochs and Jerry Rubin. I took them over to where Víctor was deep in conversation with the organisers of the expedition and he intervened to allow them to go with the group. They spent all day with Víctor, going into the mine with him. They heard him singing and talking to the miners and were impressed with his easy relationship with them and how much they appreciated his songs. Víctor gave them a chance to speak and to sing a few songs, translating for them, and then all together they sang Pete Seeger’s ‘If I had a hammer’. The three of them had such a good time together that in the evening, when they reached Santiago, Víctor took them to the Peña, where they were warmly received.”

Phil Ochs would later write one of his greatest songs, “When I’m Gone”, about his friend Víctor Jara.

“I Don’t Want My Country Divided”

On May 26th, Víctor’s friend and fellow artist Pablo Neruda appeared on the National Television calling on all artists and intellectuals, both in Chile and abroad, to join him in an attempt to alert the people to the dangers of fascism and to avert civil war. The cultural movement responded to Neruda’s call, organizing exhibitions and television programs and setting up the “cultural open-air I marathon” in the Plaza de la Constitución in Santiago, with hundreds of artists, poets, theatre and dance groups, musicians and song groups taking part and thousands of people coming out.

For his share, as well as singing, Víctor directed a series of programmes for the National Television Channel with a common theme: a warning, relating documentary material about Nazi Germany and the Spanish Civil War to the situation in Chile, to make people aware of the real dangers of the same things happening here and now. Víctor had put to music one of Neruda’s latest poems which had the refrain ‘I don’t want my country divided . . .’, and he sang it as the opening theme for each programme.

El Pueblo Unido

In the 1973 elections, despite the attempts by the right to destabalize the coalition, Popular Unity drew nearly 40 percent of the vote, bringing Allende the presidency through 1976. According to Joan, it was at this moment that forces on the right decided to overthrow Allende through a military coup: “Committees of defence were set up in factories, universities, schools, government buildings, to prevent sabotage or occupation by the opposition. Our Faculty had to be guarded twenty-four hours a day, with teachers, ballet dancers, students and all the staff taking turns to keep night-watch, sleeping on improvised camp beds in offices and studios.”

An attempted coup on June 29th, 1973 (called “Tancazo”) led by Colonel Roberto Souper, with the complicity and participation of Patria y Libertad, took 22 lives, but failed when elements of the military, most notably the Palace Guard, refused to turn on Allende. After Tancazo’s failure and the breakdown of attempted negotiations between the Popular Unity and the Christian Democrats, the Right put it’s full weight and attention on sympathetic officers in the military. Attacks began against members of the Popular Unity government and against union leaders and workers. The Right bombed electricity stations and cut power lines while their allies, the US Navy, brought warships to the coast near Valparaiso to run operations with the Chilean Navy.

On September 3rd, a march of over a million people gathered in downtown Santiago in support of Popular Unity and against the fascists. After a long march, Joan remembers, “we emerge, at last, into Plaza de la Constitución, it is already completely dark. Little by little we edge forward until it is our turn to pass the long platform where Allende is sitting with all the leaders of Popular Unity … they must have been here for hours already he looks tired … one by one we recognise and salute them, although we notice that the new Commanders-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Merino, Leigh and Pinochet, are not among them. Everyone is shouting ‘Allende, Allende, el pueblo te defiende!’ and ‘El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!’ We feel the great power of all that mass of people and think that it will be impossible to kill us all … more than a million of us saluted Allende that day… The great march of 3 September 1973 turned out to be the people’s farewell to Salvador Allende.”

The Final Coup

On the morning of September 11th, Santiago woke up to the sounds of Salvador Allende’s last speech, the rising smoke and explosions visible to those downtown. The Chilean military, under the rule of General Augusto Pinochet, with the collusion and financial assistance of the United States CIA, were bombing the Moneda Palace. President Allende was to be appearing at the Technical University that morning to open an exibition on the dangers of civil war and fascism, where Víctor was to sing. He was killed that morning.

Expecting the big attack to come, Víctor and many others heeded the call of CUT, the Chilean Trade Union, to keep on life as normal, to not allow the fascists to take the city over, and went to work as normal, staying tuned to the radio. As Víctor and nearly a thousand students and teachers gathered at the Technical University, the military attacked, shelling the walls and attempting to enter the courtyard. Shots entering the university from the street produced one of the first casualties of the coup, a young student hit in the courtyard by a rifle bullet. Víctor sang songs that night to his comrades to keep up morale and spent most of the night with several others hiding out in a room near the road, having to evacuate in the morning as soldiers broke in through the doors.

The soldiers rounded up everyone at the univeristy and forced them to march to Estadio Chile, the Chile Stadium. As his group entered the stadium, Víctor was recognized by an officer who beat him and singled him out from the group. He was subsequnetly taken downstairs and tortured, his hands shredded, his eye swollen shut, ribs broken, his body beaten and torn. Later that night, friends of Víctor saw him in the basement being beaten by the rifle butts of soldiers, lying in a hallway where he had often prepared to sing.

Amid an atmosphere of terror, with soldiers firing their rifles over the heads of prisoners, spotlights shining day and night to disorient them, ongoing torture, suicides and murders, Víctor was able to escape several times to sneak upstairs where he met back up with the folks he’d spent the 11th with at the Univeristy. According to some of these prisoners, Víctor kept up their hope and commitment, not letting the terror of the soldiers destroy them. His comrades cleaned the blood from his face and tried to comfort him. During one of these meet-ups, on his last day at the Chile Stadium, Víctor penned his last poem on a small scrap of paper:

There are five thousand of us here
in this small part of the city.
We are five thousand.
I wonder how many we are in all
in the cities and in the whole country?
Here alone
are ten thousand hands which plant seeds
and make the factories run.
How much humanity
exposed to hunger, cold, panic, pain,
moral pressure, terror and insanity?

Six of us were lost
as if into starry space.
One dead, another beaten as I could never have believed
a human being could be beaten.
The other four wanted to end their terror
one jumping into nothingness,
another beating his head against a wall,
but all with the fixed stare of death.

What horror the face of fascism creates!
They carry out their plans with knife-like precision.
Nothing matters to them.
To them, blood equals medals,
slaughter is an act of heroism.
Oh God, is this the world that you created,
for this your seven days of wonder and work? Within these four walls only a number exists
which does not progress,
which slowly will wish more and more for death.
But suddenly my conscience awakes
and I see that this tide has no heartbeat,
only the pulse of machines
and the military showing their midwives’ faces
full of sweetness.

Let Mexico, Cuba and the world
cry out against this atrocity!
We are ten thousand hands
which can produce nothing.
How many of us in the whole country?
The blood of our President, our compañero,
will strike with more strength than bombs and machine guns!
So will our fist strike again!

How hard it is to sing
when I must sing of horror.
Horror which I am living,
horror which I am dying.
To see myself among so much
and so many moments of infinity
in which silence and screams
are the end of my song.
What I see, I have never seen
What I have felt and what I feel
Will give birth to the moment…

The untitled poem, often called “Estadio Nacional”, was handed off to another prisoner to be smuggled out of the stadium, but it was discovered in his sock when the prisoner was strip-tortured at the National Stadium. Víctor’s comrades in the stadium tried to memorize it as well, to share it with the world. Somehow, the poem made it out and it found its way to Joan.

September 15th

By the 14th, hundreds of prisoners were being transferred to the National Stadium, where Víctor had sung his songs to large crowds in the past. As they were loaded onto over 200 busses, Víctor was separated from his comrades and tortured more. Joan tells us of a prisoner who witnessed one incident where Víctor was “publicly abused and beaten, the officer nicknamed the Prince shouting at him, on the verge of hysteria, losing control of himself, ‘Sing now, if you can, you bastard!’ and Víctor’s voice raised in the Stadium after those four days of suffering to sing a verse of the hymn of Popular Unity, ‘Venceremos’. Then he was beaten down and dragged away for the last phase of his agony.”

It was somewhere between here and the Metropolitan Cemetery that Víctor was killed. His thin body, littered with 34 machine-gun bullets, was discovered by a group of women on September 16th as they searched for identifiable dead.

On the morning of September 18th, a young communist came to Joan’s door to inform her of the news. Víctor’s body was lying at the morgue, along with the unidentifiable bodies hundreds of young people. Joan and the young man carefully made their way to the morgue to confirm Víctor’s death, where they realized the depth of the coup’s victims. Víctor was only one of over 3,000 registered dead, all murdered ruthlessly by the soldiers of General Pinochet. A small paragraph appeared in the newspaper several days later, saying the Víctor had died, not mentioning any of the circumstances, not mentioning that he had been killed by soldiers.


The Pinochet Coup ended Chile’s democracy and brought nearly two decades of U.S. directed dictatorship, complete with a new neoliberal economic system imposed by the International Monetary Fund. The IMF’s plan, which used Chile as a Guinea Pig for new aggressive economic policy overseen by Chicago University’s Milton Friedman, destroyed Chile’s economy and brought millions of Chilean’s into poverty.

In December 2004, Chilean judge Juan Carlos Urrutia prosecuted then retired Lieutenant-Colonel, Mario Manriquez Bravo, the highest commanding officer in charge at the National Stadium during 1973, for the murder of Víctor Jara. A year later a newsarticle appeared that traced Víctor’s murder specifically to Edwin Dimter Bianchi, the military officer known as “The Prince” mentioned earlier, a 1970 graduate of the U.S. School of the Americas, a trainnig ground run by the United States for Latin American officers, soldiers and death squads. then located in Panama, now at Ft. Benning in Columbus, Georgia. Dimter was eventually discharged but remained a military-government worker through the year 2000. He has never been charged for the murder of Víctor Jara or any of the other prisoners in the Chile Stadium.

Víctor’s Legacy

That Víctor’s music lives on is a strange and amazing story. Pinochet’s government ordered the destruction of Víctor’s records, along with the music and writings of many other artists. Soldiers raided the record label that housed Víctor’s masters and destroyed them. EMI Records followed Pinochet’s advice and destroyed their recordings of Víctor’s as well, and other record labels would not re-press his music.

But Joan Jara managed to preserve the records she had at her house, including some un-mastered originals that Víctor had been recording shorty before his death, and was able to smuggle them out of the country with the help of a Swedish TV crew. A month after the coup, Joan fled Chile in secret and headed to Europe, where she got Víctor’s records back. The group that stepped forward to preserve Víctor’s legacy and words was the Beatles, who made Joan new masters of the records she had at their studio in England.

Víctor’s story, his words, his voice and his contribution to the cultural and political Left are an inspiration across the world still today. He is reguarded as a hero in Chilean culture and a symbol of resistance against fascism. The Chile Stadium was renamed Estadio Víctor Jara, Víctor Jara Stadium, in September of 2003, 30 years after his death. We hold Victor’s memory close because he, like many others revolutionary musicians, participated directly in the movements he sang about and put his life on the line with other people in struggle.

Invisible Hand, Iron Fist: The IMF in Burma/Myanmar

In History, News, Thoughts & Analysis on August 28, 2007 at 5:43 pm

The image of hundreds of thousands of people in the streets of a military-regime always brings the people of the world a little closer together. The massive protests erupting across Burma/Myanmar recently even got statements out of the mouths of some of the world’s most feared leaders. When the iron fist finally came down on these people, and the rifles of the military-regime’s foot soldiers were fired in the crowds, one can only hope that somehow these people find the strength and fearlessness to hold their ground, with the fewest casualties possible.


The protests began on August 15th after the military-government cut fuel, food and energy subsidies, resulting in enormous price increases. This move, totally unannounced to the people of Burma/Myanmar, hit hard. Bus and taxi fares doubled immediately in Rangoon, Mandalay and Moulmein. Manual workers and day-laborers in these cities, who make less than 2,000 kyat, or $2.00, a day, will now pay more than half their wages on travel. Food prices in Rangoon have risen dramatically: Rice by 10%, meat by 15%, eggs by 50%, and noodles by almost 300%. Electricity costs rose by %200 and Gas prices by %500… overnight.

Student protests, eventually joined by activists from the democracy movement, risked their lives in small crowds calling for lower prices. It wasn’t until thousands of Monks, reacting to the effects of the subsidy-cuts on everyday people who they rely on for food, took to streets that the protests became a mass movement against the whole regime.

The world has watched for weeks now as the military has cracked down, killing hundreds and jailing thousands. Monks and others arrested are being hauled off to forced-labor prisons.

Some say the subsidy-cuts could be a plan by some within the junta to oust General Than Shwe by creating a political crisis. Others point out that the military-junta is spending too much on construction plans for its new reclusive capitol Naypyidaw, which will include an internet and communications-technology center much like California’s Silicon Valley, and are desperately cutting corners in other sectors. Other construction projects in Naypyidaw, like bridges, dams and a nuclear reactor, are consuming huge amounts of government money.

But how involved are other countries in this affair?


As with any economic/political crisis in an impoverished country with a corrupt government, the International Monetary Fund is involved. The IMF has long-advised the Burmese junta to open its economy to investment, privatize its energy sector, and cut subsidies for, you guessed it, fuel, energy and food.

In fact, The IMF and World Bank’s annual visit to Burma/Myanmar was one week away when the subsidy-cuts were initiated. The two groups have closed off all new loans to the regime since 1987, not because of their human rights abuses or lack of “democracy”, but because they failed to meet IMF standards for investment. Now it seems like the regime is trying to win over the IMF, perhaps to open its market to multinationals like General Pinochet did with his dictatorship in Chile.

The regime in Burma/Myanmar has a long history of keeping diesel prices artificially far below market value, and even after the subsidy cuts diesel remains cheaper in Burma/Myanmar than anywhere in the region. As diesel use has increased, so has the amount paid in subsidies. The IMF recommends a total privatization of Burma/Myanmar’s fuel distribution system, where diesel, oil and gas would be sold to a major corporation which would buy it wholesale from the government and then sell it back to the public.

But this would only be profitable to the corporation if subsidies are cut: The price for wholesale fuel barely falls below the retail price of subsidized fuel. So cutting these subsidies makes the energy market more desirable to private sector businesses and investors.

The military-regime has also been trying to reduce spending and increase revenue, as it has traditionally fought its economic problems by printing more money. In the early fall of last year the IMF warned the regime to reduce this deficit or economic development projects would suffer, blaming “weak economic policies and low investment”.

Burma/Myanmar’s economic tsar, General Maung Aye, initiated an intensified campaign of tax collection two years ago to conform to IMF standards. In response to this intensification, the IMF reported last year that Burma/Myanmar’s deficit had dropped to 4% of the GDP as their tax revenue collection increased. This was still not a significant enough change for many Burmese economists, who prefer the government cut its own spending. The regime is notorious for corruption, using taxes and other supposedly public funds to enrich elite Generals and their cohorts. And when financial crises hits, like most corrupt rulers, the Generals cut social services to the people and continue spending and pocketing huge amounts of money.


Behind every IMF economic suggestion is a line of corporations with interests in the region. These are always major players, eager for a country to open its markets to privatization so they can dominate the economy or reap huge profits through investment. The privatization of global energy markets is one of the main tenets of the IMF, and cutting subsidies for fuel brings Burma/Myanmar significantly closer to the IMF standard of a “liberalized” economy. It also means Burma/Myanmar is cooperating with the suggestions of the IMF and the energy corporations they advise for, possibly leading to future loans and project-funding from the World Bank.

In partnership with the Burmese military, Unocal and Total Oil of France oversaw the construction of a pipeline in the 90’s to carry gas from Burma/Myanmar to Thailand. During the construction of the Yadana pipeline, Unocal and Total hired Burmese soldiers to push villagers off their land, many suffering deporation, rape, torture, and murder in the process. Several of these villagers, who were forced to work as slave-laborers building the pipeline, took both Unocal and Total to court in 1995 for crimes against humanity. Unocal, now Chevron, is still one of Burma/Myanmar’s biggest investors, bringing millions of dollars annually to the regime. It is worth noting that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sat on the Board of Directors at Chevron throughout the construction of the Yadana pipeline. Chevon bought Unocal officially in 2005.

On behalf of several other Burmese citizens who were forced as slave-laborer to build the pipeline, Belgium pressed these same charges against Total. The case was closed in 2005 in an out-of-court settlement but was reopened as this new wave of repression hit. Total has also faced legal action in France for its use of slave-labor in Burma/Myanmar.

The China National Petroleum Corporation, China’s largest oil company, has also been highly involved in Burma/Myanmar’s oil and gas policies and even increased its investment in 2001. In 2004 it entered into production sharing contracts with the regime’s Ministry of Energy for offshore exploration of oil and gas. CNPC’s subsidiary PetroChina signed an agreement in 2005 with the regime for the supply of natural gas to China. Several Indian firms also have huge stakes in Burma/Myanmar’s oil.

Ivanhoe Mines, headquartered in Canada, is the largest foreign mining investor in Burma/Myanmar and operates the Monywa Copper mine in a joint venture with the military-regime. Rail and energy infrastructure for the Monywa Mine was built by slave-labor. Ivanhoe and the Japanese firm Marubeni were major funders of this project, which brings over $40 million a year straight to the Burmese military.

Another case to point out is Citibank, who owns a large stake in Swift, a financial services company run by some of the world’s largest banks. When the United States imposed official sanctions against the Burmese military-state in 2003, taking away their ability to trade in dollars, Swift responded, bringing four Burmese banks into its network and giving them economic access, via the Euro, to global trading and investment. This did not violate the sanctions officially but certainly constitutes doing business with a sanctioned-regime.


All the countries with major economic involvement in Burma/Myanmar, China, Russia the U.S., the EU and the countries of ASEAN, promote a public view of the slaughter of innocent people in the Burma/Myanmar, and the economic hardship they bare because of the military-regime, as an internal matter.

China and Russia argued that the issue shouldn’t event have a place at the recent UN security council’s agenda, while people like Condoleezza Rice, after years of business deals with the junta, make one-time public statements calling for “restraint from both sides”, as if there are two sides to these massacres.

By maintaining the myth of “internal problems”, these leaders are attempting to wash the blood, and responsibility, from their hands and encourage the rest of the world to not look in to the matter too deeply.

The IMF and a number of global businesses have a direct hand in all that has and will happen to the people of Burma/Myanmar. Fighting against these institutions and businesses in our own countries is a way we can help. If the governments of the world will not respond with anything meaningful then, as always, it is up to people to effect change from below, targeting both the violent regimes that repress people domestically and the economic institutions that create world-poverty globally.