A Brief History of GI Resistance During the Vietnam War

TRANSCRIPT:

ANTON WORONCZUK, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Anton Woronzcuk in Baltimore.

A major political controversy is at hand over the prison swap deal involving U.S. military servicemember Bowe Bergdahl and five Guantanamo Bay prisoners, though as we go to broadcast it remains uncertain under what conditions and for what reasons he left. In the meantime, plenty of pundits, politicians, and military servicemembers have expressed outrage over the deal involving his release or have condemned Bergdahl, labeling him a deserter, or called him an unpatriotic servicemember.

But what is the history of resistance by servicemembers to U.S. wars? While there is some, though very little, mentioning of individual conscientious objectors to recent wars, like in Iraq, no mention has been made of the history of organized GI resistance to U.S. wars.

Here to bring this history to the conversation over Bergdahl and conscientious objectors is David Cortright. David Cortright is the director of policy studies at the Kroc Institute and chair of the board of the Fourth Freedom Forum. He’s also the author or editor of 17 books, including Soldiers in Revolt: GI Resistance During the Vietnam War, and his most recent is Ending Obama’s War.

So, David, let’s start off the conversation by talking about your book Soldiers in Revolt. Give us your own background and what motivated you to write this history.

DAVID CORTRIGHT, DIRECTOR OF POLICY STUDIES, KROC INSTITUTE: Well, that book comes directly out of my experience during the Vietnam War. I was drafted in the summer of 1968. As I entered the Army and went through basic training, I really didn’t have any political views, came from a pretty conservative working-class family.

But as soon as I began to encounter the veterans returning from Vietnam—I was stationed at Fort Hamilton in New York. It’s a big center for troops coming back, processing back to their homes in New York. As I talked to the troops, I was shocked to find them angry, embittered. Many of them were pretty much out of uniform in terms of how they dressed. And it was a complete shock and totally contrary to what we had been told in basic training about the nature of the war. And so it really created a cognitive dissonance in my thinking, and I began to ask questions.

And then I did something that can be subversive for a soldier, and it seems that Bergdahl did the same thing: I began to read books and I tried to learn about the history of Vietnam. And the more I read, the more I realized that what we were being told was incorrect, that this was an injust war, immoral war that we should have not been involved in in the first place. So my doubts deepened.

And I finally came to a point where I felt that I could not accept this war, I could not go on with business as usual. And I could have deserted or walked away sort of the way Bergdahl did, but I really decided that instead I would simply speak out against the war, even though I was an active-duty soldier. And so I became something—I became part of something that was called the GI peace movement, which was growing very rapidly in the military in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

WORONCZUK: Well, before we get too much into that history, share with our viewers some of the things that returning soldiers said that made you turn against the Vietnam War.

CORTRIGHT: Well, just about the destruction of villages, the fact that instead of trying to help the Vietnamese and save the country, they were ending up bombing villages or killing innocent people. And just the insanity of the war, the fact that there was no progress, that there was no real sense of logic and no sense of pride in the mission. Just it seemed that everyone was embittered by the experience and couldn’t wait to get out of there and were sort of making fun of those of us who were potentially on our way over there.

WORONCZUK: And how were some of those soldiers treated by their fellow soldiers back home, as well as by the public?

CORTRIGHT: Well, the army tried to keep them separate from all of the rest of us, all the newbies like myself. And so they kept saying, don’t go over to the coffee shop during the day. So, of course, we did anyway, and then we’d meet the guys who were coming back who were hanging out, the returning Vietnam vets. And when they got back into civilian society, they were not well accepted either. It didn’t fit with the conventional narrative that we were getting in the press.

And, indeed, some of the soldiers had a real problem trying to process what they had experienced. There was heavy drug use in the military at that time. There was a lot of racial tension between blacks and whites in the military. So there were—it was difficult for the vets to fit back into civilian society. Many civilians didn’t understand their role. Sometimes there was a thinking that, well, these soldiers are baby killers or—you know. But no one recognized, really, that the soldiers were being given orders to carry out these attacks against villages, and not duties that they wanted to perform, but that’s what the military commanders were telling us to do.

WORONCZUK: Yeah, some could actually say that some of these conditions in some ways haven’t really changed for soldiers, like, for example, the high rates of prescription drug abuse among U.S. vets.

CORTRIGHT: Right. And nowadays, for many of the vets that are coming back, these high rates of suicide. So it tells you that there’s a tremendous amount of stress and this kind of cognitive dissonance that the soldiers today are experiencing as well.

WORONCZUK: Well, let’s go back to the history of this organized GI resistance against the war. What were some of the things that you participated in?

CORTRIGHT: Well, once I had made the decision to speak out against the war, I began to talk with other soldiers, and I found that there were many others in the barracks who felt the same way I did. And not many were willing to speak out publicly, but some were. And we decided to organize a petition against the war. And we connected with soldiers and sailors and marines from other units around the world. And eventually we ended up with a petition that was signed by 1,300 active-duty servicemembers saying, we are members of the military, we want the war to end, we call for an immediate end to the war in Vietnam, bring us home now. And we worked with some civilian groups that were able to put this ad in The New York Times.

So the week before the big Moratorium antiwar rally in Washington in November 1969, there was a full-page ad on the back page of the weekend review in The New York Times signed by 1,300 active-duty GIs. It was a sensational ad, and it was really widely talked about at the time and really, I think, had a significant impact in helping to communicate to the American people that many of the soldiers and vets themselves, those of us who were in the war, those who were serving in the military, were speaking out against the war. We did not want this war to continue. We wanted to end the war and have us brought home.

WORONCZUK: And so when you’re writing and your research into your book Soldiers in Revolt, what are some other interesting anecdotes or other interesting ways in which soldiers organized to help change the course of the war?

CORTRIGHT: Well, some of the things that I did—. We faced a lot of punishment from the commanders because we were speaking out publicly. And so they imposed various duty assignments on us. Then they tried to do a transfer of several of us out of our duty to some other bases to try to get rid of the so-called troublemakers like myself. So we came up with the crazy idea that we would sue the army because of their suppression of our First Amendment rights. And we actually entered into the civilian courts in New York, Eastern District of New York, federal court, and managed to find a judge who would take the case. So I actually spent about a year and a half suing the army in the federal courts in the United States. And it was kind of scary, but it was also great fun. And we ended up winning at the federal district court level. Then the army appealed and went to the circuit court and we lost. And then we appealed to the Supreme Court and lost.

But all along the way, it provided an opportunity for a tremendous amount of publicity. Many other GIs rallied to our support. And it became a great tool for communicating to the public that those of us who were in the military opposed this war and wanted to have the right to speak out against it.

WORONCZUK: And how did the military establishment and high-ranking officials respond to these acts of resistance? Like, do you think that anything has changed since then that would change the ability or affect the ability for U.S. servicemembers to be able to voice their political opposition and to protest the ways that you did back in the ’60s?

CORTRIGHT: Well, what’s similar is that immediately they would begin to question our patriotism and call us traitors, and, you know, people would say, “Go back to Moscow” or whatever. And you see this now in the incident with Bergdahl.

But what was significant was that our numbers were sufficient that we were able to command a lot of respect, most importantly from our fellow soldiers and from the veterans who were coming back. So this propaganda push to kind of question our patriotism never really stuck.

What’s very different today, however, is that most of the people who are entering the military, they are all volunteers. Many are married or have children. They’ve come into the military because they don’t really have good job prospects, so they need the veterans educational benefits to get higher education. And so, many really need to stay in the military, much as they may disagree about the war. But the military’s a job, it’s a ticket to get educational benefits. And so the threat of being thrown out of the military, especially with a less than fully honorable discharge, is a significant tool that the military can use to try to prevent soldiers from speaking out.

Back in our day, I mean, many of us were drafted or were draft-induced volunteers, so we didn’t care if we left. Many of us were hoping to get out quickly. But it’s a different scene today.

And the other thing that’s different is there are now much more restrictive laws, some of which were passed as a result of the dissent during the Vietnam days, which make it, for example, completely illegal to create any kind of union or association or committee of fellow soldiers. Back in our day, there were literally hundreds of soldier committees all over the military. At several of the bases where I was stationed and aboard ships, even in Vietnam in some of the front-line units, there were committees of soldiers who would meet, circulate petitions, in some cases produce underground newspapers or bulletins that they would spread among the other troops. Nowadays that’s prohibited by federal law. If you’re caught forming some kind of committee or producing a petition as we did, a collective petition, you can be thrown in jail and be charged in federal court.

So it’s a much more repressive and restrictive environment that our soldiers, servicemembers face today.

WORONCZUK: It sounds, then, that if you’re a soldier in the U.S. military, then they—sounds like today, then, that they have less, almost, First Amendment rights to protest the war.

CORTRIGHT: Absolutely. It’s very hard. There are very few examples in the Iraq-Afghanistan era because of that.

But there have been a few. And one that I was associated with—I was approached by a number of Iraq-era veterans and marines and sailors down in Norfolk, and they said, well, we want to protest the war. We read about your petition that you guys did in 1969. We’d like to do something similar. And, of course, we looked at the laws and realized they’d all be thrown in jail, so that wasn’t an option.

But what they came up with is the idea of a simultaneous appeal to members of Congress. So they all came up with a similar message saying, we are active duty servicemembers, we oppose the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and we want the U.S. troops to come home immediately. And they circulated it on an email to other soldiers all around the world, and they ended up with 2,000 active-duty and mobilized reservists, servicemembers, who sent this appeal to members of Congress all at the same time. I believe it was in the fall of 2006. It made quite a stir. It was all over the newspapers. And it helped to communicate, again, as we did back in the ’60s, that even the members of the military who are serving have a right to speak out against these wars. And because many have seen the war up front and know it only too well and know the deceptions that our political leaders use to try to convince us to go into these wars, they have a right, and indeed an obligation, to speak out.

And we as citizens should have the wisdom to listen to those who have been closest to the war, and when they speak out, especially, to recognize that these wars need to come to an end.

WORONCZUK: Okay. David Cortright, author of Soldiers in Revolt, thank you so much for joining us.

CORTRIGHT: Thank you.

WORONCZUK: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.