Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Stealth Protest - GIs Oppose the Vietnam War

GIs against the Vietnam War? For sure. Many actively opposed the war, although for a long time their protest was eclipsed by the vast literature on the civilian antiwar movement. That changed in 2005 with the film Sir! No Sir!, the first definitive documentary on the GI antiwar movement. Widely screened here and abroad – appearing twice on the Sundance Channel – the film garnered many awards and changed the conversation. Awareness of extensive GI protest against the war moved front and center.

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.

Masthead, Vietnam GI, Inaugural issue

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
                    the war….
                    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."

Headline, Nashville Tennessean, June 7, 1968

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.”           

I see the bad moon rising
I see trouble on the way.††
Meanwhile, a Pfc at Fort Gordon GA wrote to VGI:
                   Dear Jeff:
                  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
                  conclusion also.
                  Newspapers like Vietnam GI are very helpful in
                  making guys feel they are not alone….

Military Formation, Fort Gordon GA
As tens of thousands of GIs completed their Vietnam tours, returning to stateside camps to finish out their enlistments, many of them – with the added authority of having been in combat – added their voices to emerging GI antiwar protest.  A returning GI interviewed by Jeff for VGI had been a ‘tunnel rat’ in Nam – a soldier usually small in stature, but agile and wiry who had the dangerous job of exploring Viet Cong underground tunnels armed with just a pistol and flashlight.
At the end, Jeff asked him what he thought of the civilian antiwar movement in the States, to which the GI replied:
                   It used to put me uptight to hear about guys
                   running around pulling peace marches, because
                   I was caught up in it, and kind of fell prey to this
                   killing thing.…
                   Back in the States I realized that I don’t really
                   disagree with all the peaceniks. As a matter of fact,
                   I’m kind of hoping that there’ll be more of it so we
                   can stop having all those good men killed over there.
Another combat vet interviewed in the same issue of VGI, echoed the  sentiment. Asked where he saw the war heading, he said, “It’s not moving our way, that’s for sure. We’re just going to end up getting a lot more guys killed.”
Yes, and how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they’re forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.††
Later in summer ’68, Jeff and fellow editors began hearing from stateside GIs inspired by VGI’s example who were launching underground GI antiwar papers on their bases, although not without harassment from the brass. A typical report arrived from Fort Bragg, home of the 82nd Airborne in North Carolina:
                    Beginning in June, myself and a few other
                    guys began printing a small paper called
                    StrikeBack which put a lot of the local lifers*
                    uptight around here. They started their anti-
                    StrikeBack campaign by increasing inspections,
                    holding longer formations, making everyone
                    shave off their moustaches, and generally
                    increasing the harassment.
Insignia of 82nd Airborne
based at Fort Bragg NC 
The writer continued that the FBI was called in and, along with Bragg military intel people, began interrogating troopers to find out who was behind the ‘subversive’ paper. The editor was found out and warned he would face serious charges should StrikeBack appear again on the grounds of the fort. Undeterred, the editor went on to explain to VGI readers how a GI underground paper can successfully circumvent the authorities and get the word out to local GIs. He signed his letter, “Yours in opposition.”
By fall of ’68 in another editorial entitled ‘Where it’s at!’, Jeff took stock of bourgeoning GI dissent against the war, “Every month the Brass see more and more GIs fighting for their rights and thinking for themselves.” He continued, “GIs aren’t going to end the war themselves, but what they do is especially important. We’ve got to force the Government to end the war….”
Jeff concluded:
                   On almost every major base in this country
                   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
                   riot duty.  

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.
*A ‘lifer’ in military argot was a career non-commissioned officer who invariably would have been intolerant of protest in the ranks against the mission.
†Links to previous posts about GI dissent in Vietnam:
††Links to music videos:









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