Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Banish Oblivion - Vietnam GIs Against the War

GI protest against the Vietnam War began gradually in the mid-‘60s like a slow burning fuse, gained momentum, and reached dramatic, even explosive, levels by the early ‘70s. By ‘GI’, I mean troops of all branches who opposed the war in one way or another. GI resistance was never akin to the huge antiwar demos in Washington, New York, and elsewhere – that would have been foolhardy given the draconic military justice system – but it eventually took myriad forms, open as well as covert.

It was called the ‘GI movement’, although it never formally took on the trappings of a real movement. Instead, it was a diverse cumulative force that ultimately contributed enormously to bringing an end to America’s war in Vietnam, the final withdrawal of US combat troops in early ’73. One doesn’t need to read Trotsky on the role of the disgruntled Tsarist soldiers in the Russian Revolution to grasp that Washington could no longer wage war without warriors willing to continue to put their lives on the line.

Even as the war continued during the first half of the ‘70s, ex-GIs and writers had begun chronicling the story of GI resistance – in Vietnam itself, at stateside camps, and on US bases worldwide in Europe and Asia. Although he didn’t live to see the end of the war, ex-Vietnam GI Jeff Sharlet (1942-1969) had played a significant role in raising GI antiwar consciousness through his underground paper, Vietnam GI (VGI).† Several of the early chroniclers of GI opposition gave him his due:

In ’74, Matthew Rinaldi, a civilian antiwar activist, wrote about the founding of VGI:
The paper was created by Jeff Sharlet, a vet who had served in Vietnam during the early years of the war. He came back to the States fairly disillusioned …. In early 196[8] he set out to create some form of communication and agitation within the military.That vehicle was Vietnam GI, which was very effective at this time. … The paper was widely circulated and well received. …[It] represented a significant breakthrough when it first appeared, and helped play a catalytic role throughout the service.

Vietnam GI masthead

A year later in ’75, ex-GI David Cortright brought out the first comprehensive book on the GI movement and noted, “Vietnam GI, the most influential early paper … [was] distributed to tens of thousands of GIs, many in Vietnam.”** But even before those critical works appeared, Colonel Heinl, a Marine historian – and certainly no friend of outfits like VGI – writing in an influential military journal in ’71, conceded that:
The Morale, Discipline and battleworthiness of the USArmed Forces are, with a few salient exceptions, lowerand worse than at any time in this century and possiblyin the history of the United States.
By every conceivable indicator, our army that nowremains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse,with individual units avoiding or having refused combat,murdering their officers and non-commissioned officers,drug-ridden, and dispirited where not near mutinous.***
After the US forces pulled out, the South Vietnamese army fought on a few more years until North Vietnam prevailed in ’75 and the war ravaged country was unified under communist rule. The conflict in which American combat units had first taken part in ’65 was finally over, and millions of GIs who had served – other than the 58,000+ who didn’t make it – had long returned home although not to a grateful nation with parades, but to an unwelcoming country weary of the war. We had ‘lost’ the war, and the public just wanted to forget the long national nightmare.

Absent a raison d’etre, GI protest, along with its civilian counterpart, withered and died out. Vietnam Veterans against the War (VVAW), co-founded by Jan Barry in ’67, reached its zenith in ’71 with the Winter Soldier Investigation (a  media event in which dissident ex-GIs revealed shocking atrocities by US forces),  gradually lost membership, and folded. With the war over, the hundreds of GI underground papers inspired by VGI’s example eventually faded away as their editors mustered out of the forces. And, one by one, the many stateside and overseas GI coffee houses that had survived continuous harassment from hostile authorities finally closed their doors.

The Vietnam War soon slipped down the memory hole and with it any awareness of the important part that disaffected GIs had played in bringing America’s benighted Southeast Asian crusade to an end. After a fashion, the majority of ex-Vietnam servicemen readjusted to civilian life, but several hundreds of thousands fell by the wayside. Problems with drugs and alcohol, so easily available in Saigon, Danang, and elsewhere, plagued more than half the Vietnam-era vets after the war.

Among those troopers who had been married while serving in Vietnam, the divorce rate was 90 percent. Over the years, approximately half a million Vietnam vets have run afoul of the law, and even now 100,000 remain incarcerated. By far the most shocking fallout from the war however, is that 150,000 veterans of Vietnam have committed suicide since 1975, nearly three times the number who died in the war.

Indeed, when Ronald Reagan came to power in ’81, Vietnam GIs finally got their parade followed later by a stunning war memorial on the Mall in Washington, but that was largely it. The country had moved on and had more pressing concerns – in the early ‘80s the Cold War briefly flared again into dangerous crisis and then, just a few years later, began its final, unexpected decline, culminating in the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union in ’91. Thereafter, public attention, if at all interested in international affairs, focused on Russia’s rough ‘n tumble transition from communism.

Insofar as the Vietnam War and opposition to it were remembered at all, it was primarily through the memoirs of major civilian antiwar leaders, first among whom to publish were Tom Hayden and Todd Gitlin, both former national officers of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the largest group marching against the war. Hayden and Gitlin mainly celebrated the civilian movement’s part in protesting the war and either ignored or marginalized GI resistance, not to mention the tens of thousands of disaffected troops Colonel Heinl had in mind when he describing US forces in Vietnam in a state of near collapse.

Then in the last years of the old and first years of the new century a small symbolic candle was lit when two very good books on VVAW appeared, although neither garnered a broad readership. The GIs’ part in bringing the war to an end was essentially still languishing in oblivion when along came David Zeiger, a talented and successful documentary film maker. Zeiger took an interest in resuscitating the moribund history of GI opposition to the long ago war in Vietnam.

He had begun filming documentaries in the ‘90s with his first work about Mexican immigrants and Southeast Asian refugees trying to make their way in the New South. His film, Displaced in the New South (1994) made the rounds of ethnic-themed film festivals, was broadcast on PBS, the Public Broadcasting System, as well as Discovery Channel, and screened in Asia and Australia. Zeiger followed with a  number of well-received documentaries, most appearing at mainstream film festivals and broadcast nationally by PBS as well as internationally in Europe and elsewhere.

As a young civilian opposed to the war in the ‘60s, David Zeiger had helped facilitate the Vietnam GI antiwar movement. He had worked as a volunteer at one of the most successful of the national and international string of GI coffee houses, so called since they served as havens for off-duty GIs who questioned the US mission in Southeast Asia. Zeiger was on the staff of the ‘Oleo Strut’ outside the gates of Fort Hood in Killeen TX, one of the largest Army bases funneling troops to Vietnam. ††

Oleo Strut GI Coffee House, Killeen, Texas

The ‘Strut’, as it was called for short, was set up on a shoestring by civilian antiwar activists as a place of temporary refuge from military life for both trainees destined for ‘Nam and returning combat veterans alike. At the Strut they could listen to cool music, rap freely about their doubts, and read the growing underground GI press, including Vietnam GI, the first GI-edited paper addressed to GIs.

Drawing on his firsthand experience among those questioning GIs and his memories of how they had emerged as one of the strongest forces against the war, Zeiger set out to rescue their forgotten story from obscurity and give the antiwar GIs their place in the history of protest against the misbegotten Vietnam adventure. At the outset of his research for the film project, he contacted Tom Barton, a long-time opponent of America’s wars. Back in the ‘60s Barton had worked closely with Jeff Sharlet on VGI.

By the time David Zeiger got in touch, Tom Barton had begun putting out a nightly online newsletter in opposition to George Bush Jr’s Iraq War launched in 2003. Tom’s advice to David for a starting point on GI protest of the ‘60s was to sit down and read through Vietnam GI. Barton gave him a set of the full run of Jeff’s paper and Zeiger took his advice.

A few years later in spring of 2005 I received a phone call from David Zeiger. He told me his new film on the Vietnam GI resistance would soon be premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival and – added – it was dedicated to my brother Jeff, “for starting it all,” as David put it. At the time I was in the early stages of researching a memoir on my brother, and, needless to say, the news was exhilarating.

Sir! No Sir! 

DVD cover for Sir! No Sir!

Sir! No Sir! (SNS) (2005) is a rich, fast-paced, compelling, full length film that, as one reviewer put it, moves with “breathless momentum” telling, in the words of the New York Times, the “too often forgotten” story of the GI movement against the Vietnam War. The film incorporates television footage of combat and protest, period music, and, as its cynosure, a number of well-chosen, lively, and revealing interviews with prominent GI, Marine, Navy, and Air Force protestors of the Vietnam era.

SNS opens dramatically with images of a Phantom jet on a  low-flying bomb run, dropping incendiary napalm bombs and leaving behind a trail of grotesque black and orange explosions – as a young woman is heard on the soundtrack singing a wistful rendition of ‘Soldier, We Love You’. The interviews begin with MSgt Donald Duncan, a career Green Beret, softly speaking of his combat patrols in ’65 with prisoners taken and how he bore witness with moral revulsion as South Vietnamese soldiers tortured the captives. A consummate professional soldier, he added sadly, “I was doing it right, but I wasn’t doing right.” Duncan left the Army in ’66 in what he described as a ‘personal protest’.

MSgt Donald Duncan, Special Forces, Vietnam

Still on early GI protest, the camera turns to Dr Howard Levy, a physician detailed to teach Special Forces how to treat endemic tropical skin diseases. In footage from ’65, he refuses orders, is court-martialed, and sentenced to three years in federal prison. Fully aware of the consequences – Levy, like Duncan, saw himself carrying out a personal action against the war.

Soon, as the film shows, GI resistance became collective. A group of three soldiers refused deployment to Vietnam and were sentenced to five years in prison with less than honorable discharges. Two Marines called a meeting to discuss whether Blacks should fight in the war and received six to 10 year sentences for their trouble. At that point in the war, with the number of GI dissidents still small, the military cracked down hard.

However, as the numbers grew, the Pentagon found it increasingly harder to cope. One GI reported that a majority of troops in his stateside unit opposed the war, nine of whom chained themselves in a church, called a press conference, and publicly refused orders for ‘Nam. And those protesting were not only men. A Navy nurse, an officer, hired a private plane and ‘bombed’ aircraft carriers berthed in the San Francisco Bay Area with antiwar leaflets. Again, well aware of the choices she had made, Lt Susan Schnall was court-martialed and dismissed from service.

In an especially moving segment of the film, a hospital corpsman told how he turned against the war. Assigned to a ward at the Fort Lewis WA base hospital for the most severely wounded from Vietnam, he witnessed men so damaged they couldn’t move their limbs, even wiggle, or perform the simple act of turning a page. They’d call him to their bedside and in a low voice ask him to kill them. To a man, he reported, the shattered GIs said their sacrifice was worthless.

Former Lt Louis Font, the first Puerto Rican graduate of West Point, so impressive he was sent on to Harvard’s Kennedy School for a Master’s degree, announced his refusal to serve – the first West Pointer ever to do so. Then Dave Cline, a combat infantryman comes into view. Wounded for the third time in a muzzle to muzzle duel with a North Vietnamese soldier he managed to kill, Cline, looking at his dead adversary, a young man about his age, wondered, did he have a girlfriend, how would his mother feel. Suddenly the war appeared in a different light for Dave Cline, and he never turned back, later becoming a legend in the GI antiwar movement.

Combat infantryman Dave Cline, Vietnam

SNS briskly tells the story of the GI coffee houses – the first one, the ‘UFO’, launched by Fred Gardner near Fort Jackson SC; the ‘Oleo Strut’ outside Fort Hood; and others, all of which were hassled in various ways. In the worst cases, one coffee house staffer was arrested on trumped-up charges, a grenade was tossed into another, and a coffee house at an airbase in Idaho was firebombed. A brief TV clip shows Walter Cronkite of CBS reporting the new phenomenon of the GI underground press and the military authorities’ reaction, regarding the papers as ‘subversive’ material.

Director Zeiger devotes a section of the film to the intersection of the Black Power movement inside the military and GI protest, the most explosive result of which was the violent rebellion at LBJ, the notorious Long Binh Jail, a stockade where the majority of prisoners were Black. As another form of resistance, Terry Whitmore, a Black Marine combat veteran deserted to Stockholm, the center of the GI deserter movement. He had been a model, an unquestioning Marine – one shot even shows him being decorated for valor by visiting President Johnson as Whitmore lay wounded in the hospital at Cam Ranh Bay.†††

Terry Whitmore (3rd from rear) and fellow deserters arriving at Stockholm, 1968

Dave Cline talks about the growing numbers of GI protestors against the war. In Killeen TX on Armed Forces Day 1970, 1000 soldiers based at Fort Hood marched in public protest, calling it ‘Armed Farces Day’. The following year the ranks of antiwar GIs marching had swelled to nearly 4000. Scenes from the Jane Fonda-Donald Sutherland traveling antiwar tour of US bases show them performing their irreverent songs and skits before tens of thousands of wildly applauding GIs, many sporting peace symbols.

Air Force intelligence analysts describe how they withheld information necessary for bombing missions over North Vietnam, and naval officers tell how the crew of the carrier Constellation, being refitted in San Diego, ‘voted’ 6 to 1 against redeployment to Vietnam for off-shore air strikes. Although not mentioned in the film, in addition enlisted men sabotaged the carrier Kitty Hawk, delaying its departure to the South China Sea. On the ground in Vietnam, SNS covers the epidemic of ‘fragging’, disgruntled soldiers unwilling to risk their lives any longer, taking out overly zealous officers and sergeants by rolling live grenades into their hooches.

At this point in his film, Zeiger shrewdly has an actor read Colonel Heinl’s comments on the devastating impact of massive GI protest on the war effort – as well as putting up on the screen the text of the colonel’s remarks on the armed forces in Vietnam in a near state of collapse.

The superbly edited film closes with a clip of Rita Martinson’s tender salute to GIs

Soldier we love you
Yeah, soldier we love you

as the camera swings back to Terry Whitmore pronouncing a terse epitaph on the whole misguided war: “God damn! Did I do that? … Did the government push me into that shit?”

Rita Martinson singing ‘Soldier, We Love You’ before a GI audience

Though David Zeiger had told me he dedicated his documentary to brother Jeff, while watching the New England premier before the credits rolled, I was astonished and deeply moved to see not the standard one-liner dedication whiz by, but, slow-speed, a full-screen image of Jeff in ‘Nam, and below it in large white letters:

Dedicated to
Jeff Sharlet (1942-1969)
Founder of Vietnam GI
The first GI underground paper

Sir! No Sir!  received numerous glowing reviews, won a number of prizes, appeared in 80 theaters across the country as well many abroad, and was twice featured on the Sundance Channel. The story of the Vietnam GI movement against the war, rescued from oblivion by David Zeiger, is now part of the warp and woof of American antiwar history.

* M Rinaldi, “Olive Drab Rebels,” Radical America (1974)

** D Cortright, Soldiers in Revolt:  GI resistance during the Vietnam War, (1975) 324

*** R Heinl, “Collapse of the Armed Forces,” Armed Forces Journal (1971)


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