Sergeant and Troops

The Anti-War Movement, the Troops, & Some Lessons from Vietnam

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Life inside the U.S. military reflects the conflicting class interests in this country, often in its deadliest forms. While technically a “volunteer” military, the great bulk of its recruits come from working class families and are largely joining because of a lack of job and educational opportunities. For them, signing up is a chance to acquire the skills they need to get a decent job once they become civilians, though, in reality, military service has little to offer in this regard. On the other hand, the majority of the military’s professional officers and policy makers come from more privileged layers of the population. For them, the military is a career where they can take their “rightful place” lording over the grunts and climb the ladder as they would if they were working for a corporation or financial institution. Because of this divide in opportunity and expectations, which is rooted in class inequality, the great majority of soldiers are subject to the arrogance, lies, and disregard for their personal well-being at the hands of their superiors,  as are workers are to the capitalists in civilian life.

Recruitment StationPotential working class military recruits are promised money for college, a brighter job future, and sometimes even that they will be able to avoid combat, though few soldiers ever see any of these promises fulfilled. Once in the war zone, they are frequently given missions that unnecessarily put their lives in danger in order that some officer can get a promotion for having had his unit draw out and engage the “enemy”. Rank and file soldiers are exposed to depleted uranium, the anti-malarial drug Lariam, and infectious diseases, not to mention insufficient body and vehicle armor, much of which could be avoided if it wasn’t for the criminal disregard of the military’s higher ups. In Iraq, many troops have been deployed multiple times in tours of duty averaging eleven months each. 50 percent are on their second tour and 25 percent have toured three or more times. This is creating a tremendous strain on the soldiers’ families and their own mental health. Army studies have found that up to 30 percent of soldiers coming home from Iraq suffer from depression, anxiety, or post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The Army’s suicide rate is the highest it has been in 23 years: 17.3 per 100,000. When the soldiers make it back home, they find that the VA is strained at the seams because of corruption and insufficient funding, and their attempts to get help with PTSD are frequently denied. For some, this lack of support leads to homelessness. The Department of Veteran’s Affairs has so far had some 1,200 cases in which Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are dealing with homelessness, and this is likely only a fraction of their actual numbers.

While the Republican and Democratic politicians pontificate on the heroism of the troops, in practice they disregard their needs. The recent $100 billion bi-partisan vote to continue the war would have likely been enough to ensure that all returning veterans’ needs were met. Instead, the war continues and the troops are left hanging out to dry. The cost and effects of this criminal policy will grow exponentially as more soldiers return and their health requirements increase.

It is therefore in the interest of the majority of soldiers to oppose the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. They have a key role to play in ending them. The anti-war movement must find effective ways of supporting the growing discontent in the armed forces by linking the soldiers’ material needs to the anti-war movement’s aim of bringing all the troops home. This includes not only supporting conscientious objectors (CO’s) and AWOL soldiers in their legal and living challenges, but, even more importantly, engaging with and helping rank and file soldiers actively oppose the wars. Pacifist appeals to individual soldiers’ consciousness alone will not effectively utilize the discontent in the military. These isolated incidents of resistance, while symptomatic and symbolic, cannot end the war.  In fact, this is precisely what the military would want in order to weed out and isolate the “bad apples” from the rest of the soldiers. The anti-war movement must do all it can to encourage and support the mass education, organization, and action of active duty soldiers, in order to bring the war to a grinding halt. 

The experience of the anti-Vietnam War movement is rich with examples of what can be done to build unity between the anti-war movement and the troops. The popular image of anti-Vietnam War protesters spitting on troops has more to do with right-wing demagogy and urban legend than the actual attitude of peace activists toward the soldiers. In reality, the efforts of many of these activists to build solidarity with the troops, including going into the military when drafted in order to do anti-war work, helped to create one of the most powerful social movements in U.S. history. While the military during Vietnam was made up of draftees and today there is a volunteer army (more accurately described as a “poverty draft” army) many of the same approaches and tactics can and are being used today.

Massive Vietnam Anti-War ProtestThe first and foremost important aspect of the anti-Vietnam War movement was that it was broad-based and built through mass actions. The massive demonstrations proved to be the most effective tool for displaying the strength of anti-war sentiment, bringing more people in as organizers, and encouraging more people to take a stand against the war – including the troops. Without this approach the soldiers in Vietnam who questioned the war would have been left isolated and powerless.

Anti-Vietnam War activists recognized the need to develop ways to encourage troops to resist the war. Initially this started with publicizing and defending COs, AWOL soldiers, and those who refused deployment. The case of Lieutenant Henry Howe Jr. and the Fort Hood Three were some well-known examples of this work at the time. But it was quickly recognized that these efforts by themselves would not be enough. The anti-war movement needed to reach the active duty troops.

Activists passed out leaflets to GIs at bus stops and outside of military bases, engaged them in conversations where ever they gathered, and helped to set up GI coffee houses where the troops and anti-war activists could discuss and make plans. They also publicized and defended the right of soldiers to organize and speak out against the war, as was the case with the Fort Jackson Eight. All this work planted the seeds for active duty soldiers’ opposition to take on a massive character as the war wore on and moral plummeted.

Anti-War Teach InSoldiers began to play a more active and prominent role in the movement. Numerous marches were led by active -duty soldiers such as the October 12, 1968 “GIs and Vets March for Peace” in San Francisco. There were many teach-ins and conferences focused on defending soldiers’ freedom of speech. Opposition to the war among active duty soldiers was beginning to swell.

Hundreds of anti-war papers such as “Vietnam GI” and “Stars and Stripes for Peace” began to circulate within the military’s ranks, with a combined total circulation in the tens of thousands. This was all the more remarkable since the editorial boards of these papers were subject to harassment and frequently broken up by arbitrary transfers.

The linking of the anti-war movement and the “grunt” soldiers’ interests began to translate into action on the battlefield. Whereas the troops had previously been considered mindless and disposable killing machines, they now began to assert their collective power. The “Search and Destroy” missions that officers sent their units on in order to increase the body count and earn the officer a promotion, became known as “Search and Evade” missions. Mutinies or soldier strikes began to spread to a degree never before seen  in U.S. history. The military officially recognized 10 major occurrences of such actions, with hundreds of smaller mutinies during the course of the war.

“Fragging”, or the killing of a commanding officer by his own troops, became common during Vietnam. This practice, or even the threat of a fragging, proved to be an effective way for the soldiers to assert their control over battle plans and defend themselves from gung ho officers. Eventually, the soldiers’ rebellion became so widespread that the top-down command practices of the military were often replaced with a form of collective bargaining called “working it out.” No longer could a commander expect his troops to blindly obey. He had to negotiate with them. Since most of the troops no longer saw the point of fighting and dying in Vietnam, the officer corps lost their ability to conduct the war.

Anti-War SoldiersThis history demonstrates a number of important lessons relevant to today’s anti-war movement. It shows the effectiveness of broad-based mass mobilizations. From these organizing efforts, activists were able to come together and effectively pursue different areas of anti-war work such as outreach to the GIs. These demonstrations also helped to reinforce a mood of wide opposition to the war that gave confidence to the troops to speak out and organize. It also shows how the initially modest and awkward attempts to build solidarity between the civilian anti-war movement and the troops helped to lay the foundation for a massive, united movement against the war. As the war wore on, the conflicting interests of the grunts on one side, and their commanders, the policy makers, and the war-profiteers on the other, became intolerable.

Most importantly, the experience of the anti-Vietnam War movement shows how the collective action of the youth and working class, both in and out of uniform, was able to help bring the world’s largest imperialist power to its knees, when previously it appeared unstoppable. Unfortunately, the anti-Vietnam War movement did not develop into a catalyst for the socialist transformation of U.S. society. However, the struggle against the war showed that even in times when capitalism was expanding, it was possible to strike a debilitating blow against imperialism to the benefit of the international working class and the oppressed in general.

The Iraq War is taking place in a different historical period. The U.S. is by far the largest imperialist power, but its economic and political foundation are more unstable then was the case during the Vietnam War. Furthermore, it is now more clear to tens of millions of Americans that the Iraq War is being accompanied by a war on workers’ historic gains, living standards, and democratic rights here at home. The situation today is potentially far more combustible then it was even at the height of the Vietnam War.

To take full advantage of this we must first have a united anti-war movement building the largest demonstrations possible to end the war now. We must link up opposition to the war with defending active duty soldiers’ democratic rights, including advocating, when possible, that they have the right to elect and recall their own officers, the right to trade union representation, freedom of speech, etc. We need to link the troops’ needs with those of the entire working class by fighting for quality jobs and universal health care for all. The anti-war movement can highlight the role soldiers have to play in our demonstrations, teach-ins and conferences. The anti-war movement must approach the rank and file soldiers as workers in uniform since the working class as a whole has nothing to gain from imperialist war but more misery.

With such an approach, the anti-war movement can and will help to end the occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. But in the final analysis, the problem of imperialist war cannot be solved under capitalism. To win a peace that is more then just an interim between further wars, we must fight for socialism based on workers’ democracy.

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