GIs resist the war machine: From Vietnam to Iraq, redefining “courage under fire”

Share with your friends


“It is the basic line grunt that is the victim of the Bush regime’s drive for oil and profits,” said one anonymous soldier on leave from Iraq, interviewed by Jay Shaft of the Coalition for Free Thought in Media. “You won’t see one of the senators’ kids over there. You will not see one of the board members of the big contractors losing a son or daughter. All they are going to do is make money and send more troops to guard their convoys and assets.”

“I get sick when I think about how many Iraqi civilians I saw killed and terribly maimed,” another soldier told Shaft, “hundreds of kids missing body parts or dying from dysentery.”

A real desert storm is brewing in the military. Revulsion against the occupation is both personal and political, fueled by high casualty rates, contemptuous treatment of GIs by “their” government, and the belief that something is agonizingly wrong with the U.S. presence in Iraq.

And, in the opposition today, a beginning echo is found of the massive GI protests of the 1960s era — resistance that played a key role in ending the Vietnam War.

p>Soldiers and families voice protest. The October 25 antiwar demonstration last year in Washington, D.C. featured a contingent of 1,000 military men and women, their families, and veterans. On the global day of protest this March 20, a similar contingent will rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina, home of Fort Bragg.

Soldier Frank Mendez was one of those who demonstrated last year while on leave. He felt it was his duty to his buddies in Iraq. Drew Plummer, also while on leave, joined his father in a “bring the troops home” vigil in November, telling an Associated Press reporter, “I just don’t agree with what we’re doing right now.” He was charged with making “disloyal statements” and demoted.

Some soldiers have taken the step of applying for conscientious-objector status. One of them, gay Filipino American Marine Stephen Funk, was the first enlisted man to go public with his refusal to be part of the U.S. invasion, saying, “I will not obey an unjust war.” Despite receiving international support, he was sentenced to six months in the brig.

Organizing by the relatives of GIs has become an ongoing feature of the antiwar movement.

The group Military Families Speak Out, for example, sponsors an internet site and lobbies against the war. Two websites dedicated to bringing the troops home are sponsored by family members of specific units. And some relatives have visited Baghdad with the human rights organization Global Exchange.

Families help to make up part of a network of support for GI resisters that also includes many veterans’ groups, from Citizen Soldier and AWOL magazine to Vietnam Veterans Against the War Anti-Imperialist. The GI Rights Hotline, which counsels military personnel about discharges, conscientious objection, and their rights, has been receiving 2,000 calls per month.

While a small number of brave soldiers are now joining demonstrations, speaking out in the press, or publicly refusing to serve, tremendous numbers of others in Iraq are angry and desperate.

According to antiwar activist and retired Special Forces Master Sergeant Stan Goff, possibly 1,700 troops have deserted while on leave. Others are taking a more tragic way out; among many suspicious deaths, 24 are documented as suicides.

In a survey of soldiers in Iraq conducted in August 2003 by Stars and Stripes newspaper, almost half said their unit’s morale was low and they themselves were unlikely to reenlist. One third felt the war had little or no value.

These disillusioned soldiers are a mass protest movement waiting to happen.

Lessons of the Vietnam War. Like striking workers, soldiers have the direct power to stop the war machine. In Vietnam, the heroic military defeat of Uncle Sam was aided materially by massive GI resistance from within.

In 1971, a military analyst wrote in the Armed Forces Journal, “By every conceivable indicator, our army … is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and noncommissioned officers.”

There were some 40 soldier and sailor demonstrations and almost 30 riots in military brigs. Also in 1971, a study commissioned by the Pentagon found that “more than half of all soldiers became involved in some sort of resistance activity.” This was a military in revolt.

What gives soldiers the ability to mount this level of opposition? Support from outside by a massive civilian antiwar movement. This writer was on the staff of a coffeehouse for antiwar GIs, part of a national network near military bases that gave soldiers a place to organize, helped publish underground newspapers, and aided those under court martial.

1960s era vs. today. The Vietnam antiwar movement developed out of the civil rights struggle of the 1950s, which spread into a national Black freedom movement and transformed the U.S.

This was an optimistic, radical era, when people saw the power of organizing.

Blacks were leaders in the antiwar mobilization, as were Chicanos. African American Seattleite Ken Dean, an airman in Vietnam during 1971 and 1972, remembers how “a salute between brothers would always be followed with raised fists.” Many African American Vietnam vets joined the Black Panther Party after their return home.

Kevin Bishop, a Los Angeles activist, was a self-described white “cracker” before going to Vietnam, where his life was saved by a Black soldier. He saw racism in basic training and burned with outrage when a Black Medal of Honor winner was refused burial in a whites-only Alabama cemetery. His rejection of racism later turned him against the war and toward revolutionary politics.

Today is a different time. The “war on terrorism” means intense pressure against dissent and a new McCarthyism.

Nate Chappelle, an African American Vietnam veteran in Seattle, says, “The guys don’t want to be there, but feel they can’t speak up.” However, he adds, “Bush’s lies are unraveling fast. It’s like a thread in a sweater: you pull it, and suddenly it’s up to your elbow.”

Moreover, the government’s arrogance and anti-worker abuse of soldiers guarantees that opposition will grow. A long list of hostile acts includes cutting veteran benefits, holding personnel indefinitely past their original commitment, warehousing injured troops with little medical care, hiding the dead and injured from the press, deporting families of immigrant soldiers, and ignoring the health hazards of vaccines and uranium munitions.

And in the “new” military, sexism, including the high number of rapes being reported, is mobilizing women.

Now Congress is considering bills to reinstate the military draft, which would further raise the level of GI protest as conscripts, including women, replace enlistees.

From open eyes to raised fists.The antagonistic treatment of soldiers educates them as to the class nature of war, helping them to understand that they have more in common with the people of Iraq than with their imperialist “employers.” Mounting GI resistance is good news for the working class. It signals a sea change in U.S. politics.

GI resisters have a unique role to play in winning international liberation from the war profiteers and their blood-soaked system. For, when the military changes sides, “another world is possible” becomes much more than a slogan.

Share with your friends