Back in the late ‘60s Jeff Sharlet, ex-Vietnam GI, played no small part in giving voice to the numerous GIs disaffected with the US mission in Southeast Asia, many of whom engaged in active protest – at some risk to themselves. Unlike the vast, highly visible, and at least loosely coordinated civilian movement, GI activism – usually below the radar – was an inchoate phenomenon occurring in relative isolation in a frontline unit here or a stateside base camp there. Either way, a military activist had to keep an eye peeled for the military cops – ‘justice’ in the military could be swift and draconic with only a nod to due process enjoyed by civilians.
Elsewhere we’ve written about GI activism in Vietnam,† so the focus here is on GI protest stateside based on selections from Jeff’s paper, Vietnam GI (VGI). Jeff launched the paper in January ’68, and by spring it was being widely read by troops in-country as well as those being readied for deployment at stateside bases. Letters were pouring in to the editorial office in Chicago from GIs, Marines, sailors, and airmen – all sharing their feelings on the war.
In an editorial in a spring issue of VGI, under the heading ‘FTA’, Jeff took note of the rising tide stateside to what the military regarded as good order and discipline. (FTA, an official Army acronym meaning ‘Fun, Travel and Adventure’, was co-opted by antiwar GIs as ‘F__k the Army’.) Jeff wrote:
In the past two months, there has been an
increasing amount of antiwar activity at
several stateside bases. We who have been
to the Nam already have a lot of respect for
GIs with the guts to rap and organize against
Just to stay with the program is tough enough
in the service, but to try to organize against the
War from the inside is hard as hell.… For the
guys in Nam, it’s another matter.… The Nam
isn’t the place to do anything but survive, be
cool, and think about how short you are.
One of the main purposes of Vietnam GI is to
give a guy publicity when he wants it. Sometimes,
but not always, it helps make the military a little
less eager to screw over a GI.
Martin Luther King had just been assassinated in Memphis TN, and riots had broken out in most big city ghettos. VGI reported the fury of Black Fort Campbell KY troops required to undergo riot control training for possible deployment against their own people. Under the heading Riot at Fort Campbell, VGI wrote “Black frustration exploded with violence right here in one of the nation’s riot control centers."
Two months later in June ’68, Senator Robert Kennedy was assassinated in California. At Fort Meade MD the 6th Cav went on alert for riot control duty in the capital and nearby Baltimore. A GI there wrote VGI that white troopers, especially southerners, were eager to deploy against rioters, but it was a very different story among Black GIs on post, one of whom said, “Fuck this noise. It’s one thing going to Nam for Whitey. But when it comes to drawin’ a bead on some brothers who’re making the only kind of protest that works – well, I just ain’t gonna do it.”
Thanks for the letter and especially the copies
of Vietnam GI.…We’ve been attempting to
organize against the war (Get Out Now – There's
There’s Nothing to Negotiate), and consequently
more and more GIs have to come to this
Newspapers like Vietnam GI are very helpful in
making guys feel they are not alone….
there are unnamed groups of GIs quietly doing
a damn gutsy job. They’re organizing servicemen
to fight the military. This activity takes many
forms – everything from passing around Vietnam
GI and rapping on the war to refusing to take
Subsequently, the Vietnam GI antiwar movement grew in such scope and intensity that decades later even erstwhile leaders of the civilian movement conceded that military opposition to the Vietnam War had perhaps made the most significant contribution in bringing America’s doomed mission to an end.