Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Danse Macabre High above San Francisco Bay -- Rise of GI Protest

It might be said that GI protest against the war in Vietnam first came to public attention in South Carolina at Fort Jackson. At least that was the locale of the first major indication that not all soldiers wanted to ‘get with the program’.

The war was well underway in the fall of ’66 when Captain Howard Levy, a physician, refused to train Special Forces because the Green Berets committed war crimes against civilians. America was again in a hot war, the first since Korea, and the Army was in a no-nonsense mood. Levy was brought before a court-martial and sentenced to three years in federal prison.

His martyrdom to conscience made him a cause celebre in the national media – it was not every day that a medical officer was sent to prison. But the unflagging US escalation continued, and the Levy case was soon swallowed up in a cascade of combat stories coming out of Vietnam. Was it then nothing more than a futile, isolated gesture?

Actually no, since Dr Levy had been preceded by other GIs breaking ranks.  In June ’65, just months after President Johnson’s initial dispatch of the first US combat units, a West Point graduate in Vietnam refused to board a plane for a distant outpost, stating that the war was not ‘worth a single American life’. He was court-martialed and dismissed from the service. Later in the year, another officer participated in a civilian peace demonstration stateside carrying an antiwar sign. He was given two years at hard labor.

Several months before Capt Levy spoke up, three privates at Fort Hood TX announced they would not participate in an immoral war. They too were imprisoned. Just days after Levy’s conviction in ‘67, two Black Marines were arrested for questioning the war and in short order sentenced to six and 10 years. In early ’68 an Army lieutenant was arrested for picketing the White House.

           Capt Levy being escorted to the courtroom, 1967

Other than the Levy case, these incidents made barely a ripple in the media – the public barely noticed. The juggernaut rolled on – by December ’65, 165,000 troops had been deployed, and by the end of ’67 the total had topped 485,000.  As Soviet leader Khrushchev aptly noted, America had staggered into a bog and was caught in a quagmire.

However, listening to US commander General Westmoreland (Westy), you wouldn’t have known it. By late ’67 he was speaking optimistically of our progress in the war, but only a month later the Viet Cong (VC) launched the Tet Offensive against every major city in South Vietnam. They were defeated militarily, but achieved a tactical political victory by piercing the illusion of Westy’s rhetoric.

The VC had penetrated the US Embassy compound in Saigon, and it was seen live on television back home. After three years of war the American public got its first sense that all was not going well. To put a fine point on it, the country’s most trusted broadcaster, Walter Cronkite, concluded a nightly newscast with the statement, “we are mired in stalemate.”*

By ’67 the public, still largely supportive of the war, had become aware of the burgeoning civilian antiwar movement – massive marches had been mounted in New York and Washington – but the notion of unrest over the war in the military had not registered, not even with civilian activists. No one reading a newspaper or watching television could have missed the fact that the nation had grown increasingly divided over the war, but the various isolated incidents of GI protest – mostly hidden away on military installations – had not resonated.

Then in ’68 amidst the swirl of dramatic political events, a series of incidents at the Army stockade, the military prison at the Presidio of San Francisco, at last called attention to rising GI opposition to the war. However, those events couldn’t have involved men less likely to have spiked interest in the emerging GI antiwar movement.

Presidio stockade, San Francisco

The prisoners in that stockade were not antiwar activists. Only a few of the 27 men involved were even conscious of or interested in the war issue. A couple of the prisoners had served in Vietnam and were proud of their service while the vast majority consisted simply of maladjusted young men at odds with the regimentation of military life.

It was the Army itself in the person of the commanding general of the Sixth Army who, through wild overreaction to their behavior and his own exceptionally poor judgment, managed to convert a gaggle of relatively apolitical prisoners into martyrs of GI protest.

The event became known by the misnomer, the ‘Presidio Mutiny’.  Originally an 18th century Spanish fortress, the Presidio of San Francisco sat on a cliff overlooking the Gold Gate Bridge. Within the complex was the stockade where soldiers violating military discipline in one way or another were confined to serve short sentences.

Most of the stockade inmates had gone AWOL – an acronym for ‘away without leave’, a common offense – and had been caught. The stockade – usually well over capacity – sometimes had to ration food when the prisoner count soared. Conditions were miserable – serious overcrowding, too few toilets that regularly backed up, and arbitrary punishments.

Add to that poor, if not incompetent, prison administration and grudging, surly guards – some cruel and sadistic – and the stockade became a potential tinderbox of unrest and unruly prisoner behavior. One prisoner thought the place resembled an 1850’s insane asylum.

Daily routine involved prisoners leaving the barracks under guard for work details on the grounds of the base – usually mowing lawns, washing cars, chopping firewood, and the like. Guards were armed with shotguns and had standing orders to shoot anyone trying to escape. There had been two shooting incidents in the summer of ’68.

The heavy caliber buckshot hit him in the back, 
blowing a hole the size of a grapefruit

That fall, a mentally unbalanced young GI asked another prisoner for advice on attempting suicide – a fairly common occurrence at the stockade.  He was told half-facetiously that, if all else failed, he could make a run for it and get shot by a guard. The next morning on a work detail after taunting the guard, the prisoner did just that – started to run and was fatally wounded by a shotgun blast.

Looking at the profiles of the victim and the shooter, there was almost a strange inevitability that their intersection that day would end in death. Private James Richard ‘Rusty’ Bunch was a frail, seriously disturbed boy of 19 who had been in trouble on and off since enlisting in the Army. Caught AWOL, he had arrived at the Presidio stockade just a few weeks earlier in the fall of ’68.

Even by the standard for eccentric behavior in the stockade, Rusty stood out as quite bizarre. He appeared to be living in a fantasy world complete with flying saucers and Martians. He told fellow prisoners he could walk through walls and often sat on his bunk conducting two-way conversations with himself and writing incoherent notes. Before his arrest, he had told his mother he had died twice and been reincarnated as a male witch.

The guard in charge of Bunch’s detail was a 22-year old Mexican-American who reportedly had served as a military policeman (MP) in Vietnam and was due for discharge in the next few months. He had little experience with the shotgun he carried. The guard was well aware there had been a recent rash of escape attempts and that a fellow guard was being court-martialed while two others were being charged for escapes occurring on their watch.

During a smoke break, Rusty Bunch speculated aloud to the other three prisoners in the work detail whether the guard would actually shoot anyone. Hearing this, the guard said that if he didn’t open fire on someone trying to get away, he himself would be punished. There were several versions of what Rusty then said to the guard:

  •     Will you promise to shoot me?
  •     I won’t run unless you promise to shoot me.
  •     Aim for my head.
  •    You’d better shoot to kill.
And If I run, will you shoot me? to which the guard replied, You’ll have to run to find out.

The guard thought he was kidding – often prisoners would taunt their minders – but then Rusty started to run. The guard chambered a round, shouldered the weapon, aimed, and pulled the trigger. Later he said he intended to shoot at the fleeing man’s buttocks, but the heavy caliber buckshot hit Bunch in the back, blowing a hole the size of a grapefruit. He died enroute to the hospital.

The brutal death of Rusty Bunch set off a rumble in the detention barracks – beds were tossed, windows broken, latrines trashed. That night the prisoners held a meeting about the killing. All agreed that the victim had been off his rocker. In a place where behavioral outbursts were not infrequent, Bunch’s strange pronouncements about supernatural powers and space ships had set him apart. Confirming his self-destructive intent, death notes were found in his bunk.

Nonetheless, the inmates were outraged and decided that a non-violent protest against the shooting and to air their grievances against stockade conditions was called for. The next day, following morning roll call, 27 of them stepped out of the ranks, walked to the lawn, and sat down in a circle. They were quickly surrounded by guards, and the stockade commandant was summoned.

When he arrived, a prisoner stood up and began reading the list of grievances they had drawn up, but the officer almost immediately interrupted him. Holding a copy of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), the commandant began reading aloud the article on mutiny. When the prisoners started singing to drown him out, he moved to a command car with a loudspeaker and continued.

Demonstration at the Presidio stockade, 1968

The group was ordered to disperse and return to the barracks. Most complied, but some remained sitting and were carried away by the MPs who had arrived. The 27 were confined to the barracks while the stockade commander conferred up the chain of command. In an over-reaction to a peaceful protest, the politically conservative commanding general of the Sixth Army confirmed the decision to press mutiny charges against the 27.

A preliminary inquiry was held before a military judge – the equivalent of a civilian arraignment – to determine if charges were justified and, if so, under which article of the UCMJ to proceed in a general court-martial. Army defense counsel for the 27 argued cogently for a lesser offense than mutiny – willful disobedience – but the prosecutor, echoing the command line, insisted on going forward with the extreme charge of mutiny.

A mutiny conviction in the event of violence carried a maximum penalty of death by hanging – in other instances life imprisonment. The lesser offense of willful disobedience entailed a max of three years confinement and a dishonorable discharge. Obviously, having gotten the word from on high, the presiding judge came down for mutiny.

Normally, soldiers charged under the most serious articles of the military code are court-martialed individually before a military tribunal, but the 27 were broken up into several groups for a series of collective trials, a procedure which effectively made defense more difficult.

The first batch tried – the alleged three ringleaders – were defended by both military and civilian counsel. Prominent among the latter were Terence Hallinan and Howard DeNike of the San Francisco bar. Defense counselors did their best on behalf of their clients in the face of command bias in a system aptly described as ‘military justice is to justice as military music is to music’. At the heart of the proceeding were differing perceptions of what had happened to Pvt Bunch, whose death was the catalyst for the alleged mutiny.

Attorney Terence Hallinan, San Francisco, 2003

There was a Rashomon-like quality to the conflicting versions of prosecution and defense. To an outside observer in retrospect, the victim had clearly set out and managed to achieve so-called ‘suicide by cop’ or in this instance by armed guard. The competing versions of Rusty Bunch’s death, however, were irreconcilable – justifiable homicide vs murder.

Argument then turned to motive for the ensuing protest, at the core of which was whether it was simply a peaceful demonstration (the defense), or a mutinous assembly, an ‘unlawful concert’ in the language of military jurisprudence (the prosecution).

From the defense table, motive was described as a reaction to a fellow prisoner’s death, but the prosecution held a radically different view. For the Army, the intent of the unlawful concert was antiwar, anti-military, and in opposition to the Johnson administration.

Was the motive simply a peaceful protest or a mutinous assembly?

The latter assertion of intent prevailed despite defendant testimony that at the barracks planning meeting the night before there had been absolutely no discussion of US policy in Vietnam. In fact, the list of grievances drawn up had entirely concerned local stockade conditions and the guards’ inhumane behavior.

The first trial concluded predictably with a verdict of guilty of mutiny by the panel of officers. Taking note that no violence had occurred, the court abjured the maximum penalty but handed down extremely stiff sentences of 14 to 16 years imprisonment. The defendants were stunned. The San Francisco press promptly ran news of the heavy sentences, and public outrage in the Bay Area – a hotbed of antiwar sentiment – was immediately ignited.

The news and reaction to it soon went national and reached the halls of Congress. Several members took to the floor in protest, and the phones began ringing at the executive suites of the Pentagon. It was felt in Washington – both in  senior political and military circles – that the Presidio 27 had been over-charged under the UCMJ and that the sentences were wildly excessive for what had transpired.

The Secretary of the Army felt the heat and reacted swiftly. The Sixth Army commandant was contacted and urged to tone things down in subsequent trials, but, given the Pentagon’s policy of not interfering in courts-martial within commands, the general ignored the signal and proceeded with mutiny prosecutions. But exercising command prerogative, he reduced the sentences to two to five years, which, however, did not quiet the negative public and political reaction to the case.

Having received thousands of letters protesting the sentence, the Secretary of the Army took action. The Army’s top jurist, who normally reviews all court-martial verdicts, with barely time to glance at the long trial record quickly reduced the five-year sentences to two years.

Shocked by the outcome of the initial proceeding, defense counsel mobilized for the ensuing courts-martials. Studies were made of the backgrounds of the 27, and psychiatric expertise enlisted. The survey of the defendants presented a sad picture of young men from checkered personal situations who were almost uniformly unfit for military service and unable to adapt to Army life.

Undeterred, military justice ground on; 
all remaining defendants were convicted.

They were largely small town boys from unstable families where alcohol abuse was rife and children suffered violence. Some of them were runaways, truancy was not uncommon, and several had been abandoned by one or both parents. Many were school dropouts or had been expelled. The median education for the 27 was 10th grade. Some of the soldiers had exceptionally low IQs, well below the Army’s minimum.

Individual stories were horrific. One defendant’s mother had been involved with a dozen men before he was 15 while another never lived in one place longer than 18 months. Most had enlisted to escape from the family or to get out of trouble with the law. The deceased, Rusty Bunch, who, according to his mother, was a quiet, religious boy, had joined up when his best friend was drafted.

All of the 27 had been AWOL, some multiple times. One man went AWOL on his first day of Basic Training, another took off after just three days in the Army, while seven others never made it through the eight-week course.

Once in the stockade, suicide attempts were not infrequent – usually by cutting one’s wrists – one prisoner who did so was bandaged up and sent back, only to hang himself with his bandages –  or drinking toxic liquids. In some instances guys were trying to get a psychiatric discharge, a so-called Section 8, but others were seriously trying to kill themselves, one man five times.

The stockade authorities classified all suicide attempts as ‘suicide gestures’ merely designed to gain attention. Usually the man would be patched up and thrown in an isolation cell on reduced rations. No surprise then that an Army psychiatrist examining one of these individuals exclaimed, “My God, you’re insane – what are you doing in the Army?”**

Testifying for the defense at a follow-on trial, a prominent civilian psychiatrist told the court that at the time of the demonstration, all 27 “if given proper psychiatric testing by military authorities, would have been declared unfit for service.”***

Undeterred, military justice ground relentlessly on, and all remaining defendants were convicted. However, the public furor and Pentagon concern over adverse publicity for the Army had reached such a level that the heretofore obdurate General Larsen had abandoned his crusade. Sentences went from one extreme to the other – from the original 16 years to a few months. The rest of the 27 ended up with three to 15 months confinement time.

By the conclusion of the final court-martial in June ’69, Pvt Bunch had gone from a tragic figure to an unintended public martyr to the rise of GI protest against the Vietnam War. Given his heavy-handed reaction, General Larsen had nearly singlehandedly stimulated GI antiwar protest and the public’s awareness of it.

No longer isolated acts, by ’68 GI opposition had begun to come together into at least an inchoate movement spanning stateside bases, European and Far Eastern installations, and the military’s most vulnerable point – among the troops in Vietnam.

Early in the year, brother Jeff Sharlet, back from his Nam tour, had founded the first GI-edited antiwar paper addressed to the troops – Vietnam GI (VGI), which, along with The Bond and The Ally, formed the trio of papers that inspired the creation of dozens, eventually hundreds, of GI underground base and unit papers. As the Presidio trials proceeded, VGI and the local GI papers seized on the case as a rallying point.

In 1970 the Presidio Mutiny case gained an enduring place in the annals of the GI movement thanks to Fred Gardner’s still definitive book – The Unlawful Concert: An Account of the Presidio Mutiny Case – dedicated to “Jeff Sharlet, founder of Vietnam GI, dead at 27.”

No one put the impact of the case better than Hal Muskat, a major GI activist of the day, speaking years later,

                        The Presidio 27 was the best thing that ever
                        happened to the GI movement – it put us
                        on the front page. ****
*CBS television news, February 27, 1968.

**R Sherrill, Military Justice is to Justice as Military Music is to Music (1970), 31.

***Ibid, 21.

****G Nicosia, “The Presidio 27,” Vietnam Generation, vol 2, no 1 (1990), 77.

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