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.
SOLDIERS AND THE ANTI-WAR MOVEMENT
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.
VETERANS ON THE LEFT
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.
AND WHO ARE THE TROOPS?
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.
A GROUND-LEVEL HISTORY OF ENLISTMENTS
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.
THE CLASS DIVIDE AND THE GI MOVEMENT
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.
STRATEGY AND THE GI MOVEMENT
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.