PRESENTATION FOR 4TH TRIENNIAL VIETNAM SYMPOSIUM
Protest & Activism Panel
© APRIL 13, 2002
I want to begin by thanking Jim Reckner, Diane Oliver, and the Conference Staff here for giving me the opportunity to address you. Our topic “Protest and Activism” is a provocative one for many vets and yet, it seems to me, that if we look throughout history we find that it is something that many military organizations have had to deal with at one time or another. For example, the armed forces of each of our major allies in World War II experienced major rebellions during their long histories. There was a full-scale mutiny of the British fleet during the Napoleonic War. During the last year of World War I more than fifty French infantry divisions refused orders to advance. The uprising of the Kronstadt sailors in the Czarist navy was a pivotal incident during the Russian Revolution.
What causes these events? Did anything similar happen to US forces during the Vietnam War? Are the American armed services vulnerable to such occurrences? What consequences do these rebellions have for society at large? It is worth taking a look.
This is an unfamiliar environment for me, speaking at a symposium primarily of military personnel, active or retired, including many officers. I am more accustomed to speaking to groups of twelve to fourteen people who have to listen to what I say, can't talk back, can't ask questions, and can't walk out on me. We call them jurors. You, of course, are free to do all of those things and probably more. I hope you hang in there though and decide to toss me tough questions rather than organic material. My intention is to cast some light on issues and actions that took place during the Vietnam War that have been pretty much ignored or distorted. Many of you, I'm sure, are wise enough to see that ultimately addressing these matters head on will benefit the services that you want to improve.
I wrote a book entitled “Bring the War Home!” It is about what was known as the “GI Movement,” something that I know about first hand. Since I am a lawyer by profession, I have a tendency to want background about who is doing the speaking so that I can assess their biases. So before I discuss the substance of the topic, I think it is only fair to give you some ammunition.
I grew up in a working class town, Malden Massachusetts. My father was the only college graduate in our neighborhood, and he was an outsider. I also grew up in the age of the draft and therefore with the expectation that I would probably be drafted after college. My family was neither military nor pacifist. I had a cousin who fought in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. My grandfather was a master sergeant in the Russian artillery during the Russo-Japanese War. My uncle was a tech sergeant in the Army Air Corps. I have a cousin who was a lieutenant colonel in the Army. My father, who had polio as a child, engineered bombsights for Western Electric during World War II.
I attended Columbia Law School. When I arrived in 1966, there was a growing student antiwar movement, with active organizations such as SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) that held regular demonstrations and teach-ins. Still, I remained inactive during most of my first year there and devoted my political efforts to working for the Law Students Civil Rights Research Council. We mainly did research for lawyers who were engaged in civil rights work in the South.
I became active against the war in the spring of 1967 when I attended my first demonstrations. I joined SDS at that time. In July-August 1967 I was a coordinator for Vietnam Summer in northeastern Massachusetts. When I returned to law school in the fall of 1967 all hell had started to break loose on the campuses.
The title of my book, “Bring the War Home!” actually comes from a chant that was first used by student antiwar demonstrators around the time of the fall 1967 march on Washington D.C. The crowd marched to the Pentagon, urging the soldiers guarding the building to “bring the war home,” having in mind a desire that they create some sort of revolt.
I remember reaching the front line of the soldiers at the Pentagon and finding them to be very young and very scared. There were two ranks of them and the officers stood behind. They were exceedingly nervous and some were even in tears because they had apparently been told that we were going to attack them, and they would have to shoot us. I remember girls putting flowers in their guns. I started talking to some of them, telling them that we weren't against them and wanted to stop them from being sent to Vietnam and dying for nothing. It struck me then just how much misinformation their officers were feeding them about us and how ironic it was that I was in front of them trying to calm them down while their officers stood in the rear making them nervous.
“Bring the war home” seemed to me to be an ironic chant. It was obvious that many of these young men wanted nothing but peace, yet they were already suffering from the trauma of war, right on the lawn in front of the Pentagon.
In the summer of 1968, while still a law student, I worked for the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee. At that time, they were defending several GIs who were involved in antiwar activities at Ft. Dix and were being court-martialed. This was my first inkling that antiwar activity was not only taking place on a significant scale in the armed forces but also that it might actually be more significant in altering the outcome of the war than the student protests.
Within a month of my graduation from law school in 1969, I was called for my pre-induction physical. By that point I was solidly against the war but was among a small group of activists who believed that the best way to end the war was to go into the Army and work from the inside to end it. We did not think of GIs as the enemy but as potential allies. However, I got into a genuine dispute with the doctor about how to perform a hernia examination, and, to my complete surprise, got thrown out of the physical. I give a pretty accurate account of that incident in my book.
I know that many of you discount the credibility of people who were not in combat or Vietnam or in the military, in that order. I want to be perfectly candid with you. I was never concerned about going into combat, unless I wanted to. I was an attorney, and if I got drafted I had the option of taking a direct commission as a JAG captain. Most JAG officers never even got to Vietnam, much less came close to combat. I wasn't ever in a position where I felt I had to avoid a risk to my life. I was, frankly, privileged. But that did not mean I wasn't committed.
Although it was probably best for both the Army and me that we parted company early on, I had pretty mixed feelings about it. It seemed to me that this was where the action was, both literally and figuratively. So when I got the chance (a grant from an outfit called the Civil Liberties Legal Defense Fund) to work full-time as a civilian defense counsel at the Marine Corps Base at Camp Pendleton, it was a no-brainer.
As I said, I was at that base for just over one year. After that we moved to San Francisco where I continued to defend GIs (mostly sailors and airmen) from Alameda Naval Air Station, Treasure Island, Hamilton Air Force Base, and Travis Air Force Base until the war wound down. I did this work full-time for two and a half years and then part-time for two more.
In many ways the work I did was much like the work performed by JAG officers except that I earned about half their pay, didn't get a month of leave every year, no PX or Commissary, or health care, but I did get to know my clients and to provide the kinds of defenses they wanted. I had a kind of credibility with my clients that JAG officers could rarely achieve because I was not in the chain of command. I was not part of the government. And I could and did fraternize.
“Bring the War Home!” is based on my experiences at Camp Pendleton from July 1970 to August 1971. (Coincidental with Marine tours of duty in Vietnam, it was thirteen months long.) It took me about six years to write it. I have a day job that I didn't give up. I decided that I wanted to write this book because there was not very much available about the GI Movement during the Vietnam War and what was being written or produced about GIs by the mass media since 1980 did not include an accurate representation of this significant aspect of the war-time experience. It was being deliberately ignored, glossed over, or conveniently forgotten for political reasons.
“Bring the War Home!” is actually part autobiographical, part memoir, and part fiction. I wrote it as a novel for several reasons. First, some of the material in it is based upon information obtained in confidence during attorney-client privileged conversations. It has been altered and therefore the book is not verbatim true. Second, I do not want to invade the privacy of a number of GIs who, I believe, have earned their privacy. Third, I did not want to get into academic debates about arcane or petty details. I wanted to write a story that accurately reflected the spirit of the times, the zeitgeist, and to force people to deal with that, rather than to rehash old and unproductive debates. I also wanted to express my thanks to the GIs I met during this experience -- not only the ones who saw things the way I did, but all of them. I learned so much from my time among them that I have never forgotten. Regardless of their political persuasion, I found myself liking many of them.
What I am going to relate to you is my analysis of why there was a GI movement. It is based upon anecdotal evidence obtained during my representation of active-duty enlisted members. I never represented anyone higher in rank than E-5. Some of you may think that this puts the cart before the horse as I have not demonstrated the existence of a movement yet. However, I think it would be handy to have these tools before we discuss the extent of dissident activity in the armed forces during the Vietnam War, so please bear with me.
Why was there a GI Movement?
Beginning in 1966-7, some active-duty soldiers (primarily) and some Marines began to speak out about the war. This was to escalate quickly and violently over the next few years, as the statistics I will give you demonstrate. I think there are three reasons why it occurred:
1. The racial situation.
(I cannot help but call to your attention that we have been at this Symposium for three days now. I have only identified one possible African-American here. Not a single presentation that I have attended has mentioned race or discussed racial issues, even as it relates to the VC, NVA or ARVN, much less the population of Vietnam. That something as significant as race, something that was at the very core of basic training and that was in the minds of virtually all American forces on a daily basis can go unmentioned and unnoticed at this Symposium skews to inaccuracy virtually every point that has been made here.)
At the commencement of the build-up of American forces in Vietnam an epidemic of riots was sweeping our inner cities. Many of our combat GIs were being drawn from these areas and had first-hand experience with being on the other end of the gun.
Frankly, it appeared to me that the military was inexperienced in handling the large numbers of poor, urban black youths who were being pressed into service. This was the first war where the military was really integrated. (And as an aside, many units at this time remained segregated upon one pretext or another. I have a friend who was in 3rd recon in 1965-66, when it was an all white unit, who maintains to this day it was because “blacks can't swim.”)
This situation was exacerbated by the fact that many of the senior NCOs, men who had been in the military for over ten years, were from the South. Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision to desegregate our schools, had only been decided in 1954 and, as we know, that was just the first step in a very long and uneven process of integration. Thus many NCOs who had direct supervisory control, and indeed the power of life and death over individual grunts, came from a completely segregated educational experience. In fact, it wasn't until ten years later, in 1964, that the Civil Rights Act ended segregation in public accommodations such as hotels and restaurants, Therefore, the military was experiencing within its ranks, at the worst possible time, a time of war, the ripple effects of a racial conflict of unprecedented proportions that was occurring in the civilian arena.
The upshot was that our armed forces included large numbers of senior NCOs with plantation mentalities who were engaged in the critical command of young black men fresh from the streets of our inner cities. They had neither the training, temperament, nor the cultural experience to make them well-suited to the task. The upper echelons of officers either failed to recognize this as a problem or ignored it. To make matters worse, all of them were armed and well-trained.
2. Cultural warfare.
The “60s” means a lot of different things to different people but among them are the big four: sex, drugs, rock n' roll, and revolution. For some this is the source of all of America's current problems. For others, it represents the impetus for an intellectual and political renaissance after the brain-dead decade of the 50s. There is no need to debate this here. It is enough to accept that change, like shit, happens. The military did not accept that the times were indeed changing. What happened in the military was that you had officers and senior NCOs living in the 50s, with their short hair, rockabilly music, and malt liquor, and you had a younger generation that wanted to wear their hair long, smoke pot, and listen to Jimmy Hendrix with their own foxy lady. Cultural warfare broke out. The two sides were speaking different languages. In fact, I can say without a doubt that for many of the white GIs, things like hair length -- little things -- meant a whole lot.
Think about 17-19 year old kids, joining the Marines to “be a man,” which really is a kind of shorthand for impressing the ladies, a confirmation of masculinity. Meanwhile the girls they want to impress are going in for long hair and rock stars. I don't want to belittle the political issues, because they are very real, but the cultural-generational disconnect formed a context in which role models have to be appraised. Senior NCOs (lifers) simply were not attractive role models during these years.
3. Training disconnect.
This was not a volunteer army like the one we have today. It derived from the political context of a nation questioning the purpose of the war but still, for the most part trusting of the government and very anti-communist. It trained the recruits to fight battles against traditionally organized military forces not only of another race but also representing a totalitarian oppressor. I can remember, and I am sure that most of you do too, the standard admonition given to trainees that “Asians don't value life the way we do.”
So our guys got to Vietnam and discovered (or came to believe) that the ARVN were not as motivated as were the VC and NVA. They found themselves fighting what General Giap called a “people's war and a peoples' army.” What did that mean? In practical terms, it meant that any old woman or child could be carrying a bomb and was a threat to his life. It is thus very easy to understand how it came to be that for the soldier actively engaged in preserving his own life and the lives of his buddies, every peasant in every hamlet in a free-fire zone was fair game. (And incidentally it puts into focus a major explanation for the chasm between the Vietnam veteran and the civilian population of our country. The veteran knows the truths about nature of the war we were fighting. Our political leaders and mass media simply do not want the population at large to confront those truths.)
Every soldier knows that belief in the justice of the cause is essential to the fighter. Realizing that the VC could launch coordinated strikes across the country and that the people wouldn't give them up was hard to reconcile with concepts of a people being coerced into fighting for their totalitarian oppressors. The VC clearly were motivated by concepts of justice. This then wasn't the war the GIs were told they were going to fight. It wasn't the war they were psychologically prepared to fight. Engaging in the conduct that it took to preserve one's self in this “people's war” just didn't sit well with many of our citizen-soldiers. And more and more of them began to feel that they had been lied to, that the VC weren't invaders, and the people weren't behind the ARVN. What the hell reason then was there to die for this? So by 1970, when the officers told them to attack, many just stopped doing it. Search and destroy became search and avoid. And when they were threatened by the officers, they fought back.
I don't by any means mean to apply this analysis to all of the GIs, or even the majority, but as you probably know, in a combat unit, having only the majority of the men working as a team is not good enough. You need 100%. 70-80% is a disaster.
Put all of this together and what you get is the “Perfect Storm” that can sink even the finest military in the world.
What was that storm?
The military cracked down hard but was eventually ineffective.
In the beginning, the punishments were very severe. In 1967 two black Marines at Camp Pendleton got six and ten years just for discussing the war. 1968, two privates got four years each for handing out antiwar leaflets. In 1969 a private was sentenced to two years for refusing to participate in riot training. In 1970, a Marine who deserted to Sweden got only one year. The military started to drop courts-martial and opt for administrative discharges in lieu of courts-martial by 1971. The estimates are that between 560,000 and 790,000 Vietnam era service personnel received less than honorable discharges. By 1972, the Navy initiated a wholesale purge of its ranks. The trend itself shows that the military, over time, gave up.
Let me give you a personal example. Not long after I got to Camp Pendleton, I spoke with a Marine who had returned from Vietnam and had less than three months to go in his enlistment. He told me that he couldn't take it any longer and that he wanted to split. I argued with him for several sessions and told him to hold on, that he had made it through Nam and that his discharge would become important to him in later life. One day I asked a friend of his where he was because I hadn't seen him. I thought I had pissed him off with my insistence that he hang in there. His friend told me that he had deserted to Canada. Here is a guy that served three years and nine months including a combat tour. He is among those bad discharge stats.
In my book, I discuss these types of personal traumas in the persona of two Marines -- one black and the other white. They are composites. As I read various literature on the subject, I continue to be fascinated to find that my composites were archetypes of those Vietnam era servicemen who were so profoundly angered or disillusioned by their experience that they were willing to get that less than honorable discharge. As one of my characters, Jumpin' Jack, puts it when he is offered an undesirable discharge, for him it was an honor.
I would be remiss if I didn't take a moment to discuss the law as it applied to this political activity.
At this point in history, the Uniform Code of Military Justice was between fifteen and twenty years old. We should remember that it came about as a result of the overwhelming demand for reform of the military justice system after World War II when there were two million courts-martial imposed in a total service population of sixteen million. Prior to the enactment of the UCMJ, commanders had virtually unfettered power to discipline troops. There was no right to a qualified lawyer, much less a lawyer of one's choice.
By any standard, the UCMJ was a remarkably radical change in military justice. Consider that twelve years before the Supreme Court ruled in Gideon v. Wainwright that all accused civilians had a right to an attorney, that was the law for GIs. And fifteen years before the Supreme Court enacted the Miranda rule that requires law enforcement officers to read a suspect their rights prior to questioning, that was the law in our armed services.
In 1968, the Supreme Court handed down a decision: O'Callahan v. Parker that held that a member of the armed forces had a constitutional right to free speech and assembly (to petition and demonstrate) as long as it was off base and the member was out of uniform.
You can see that everything I am describing here happened in an environment of expanding personal rights for the troops.
And we also have to consider, since all of this was relatively new, that most field grade commanders had cut their teeth under the old system. The size and shape of the legal envelope was new to everybody.
The consequence of the enactment of the UCMJ made it possible for civilians like myself to become “officers of the court” in courts-martial, if they were licensed attorneys. But the scope of the rights and duties of these civilians had not really been worked out. To give you an idea of what I mean, I want to read a little bit from my book about an incident that happened to me.
After we completed our first court-martial together, Jeffers invited Emma and me to dinner at his officer's housing on base. He said that his wife was looking forward to meeting us. She had heard a lot about us from him and was interested in learning more. He left a pass for us with the MPs at the main gate so we could join them for a home-cooked meal. And we were having a very nice time.
His wife was a charming woman. She was darker than he was and wore her hair close-cropped, in the Watusi style. Tall. Elegant. Educated. She had wrapped herself in flowing kente cloth accessorized with abundant jangly silver jewelry.
We had just gotten through the main course, a nice roasted chicken, when the MPs knocked. They had orders to escort us off the base right then and there, they claimed. There was to be no delay. Their orders were so firm that they refused us permission to finish the meal. Barely allowed us to put down our forks and wipe our lips on the napkins. Jeffers got on the phone to his CO and made a plea that the brass relent. Instead he got a direct order to tell us to leave. His wife was mortified.
Many play the blame game when it comes to Vietnam.
In 1972, the House Armed Services Committee, chaired by Mendel Rivers, attempted to pin the blame for the dissent in the military on some left-wing conspiracy. Ultimately, he was unable to do this and began an effort to discredit the Vietnam vets who testified against the war. Let me say very clearly that from my experiences in the GI Movement, civilian left-wing organizations had very little impact on the antiwar GIs. These small groups were poor organizers and were frequently exhausting themselves in arcane, sectarian political squabbles with each other. They had little by way of resources. Their coffers were miniscule when compared with the power arrayed against them. Frankly, if these ineffectual organizations could have created the statistical chaos that I just recounted, the military would have imploded from its own internal weakness long before Tet. But that is not what happened. Events external to the military and these left-wing organizations created an unprecedented breakdown in discipline and combat effectiveness that money and training was unable to stem.
Yes, there are several.
Despite common myths and the self-serving breast beating of those seeking to place blame on the peace movement, America neither “won” nor “lost” the Vietnam War. While many vets think of the war as having been lost, and are prone to laying blame, few have bothered to ask the question: “what did “lose” mean in the context of America (as opposed to the several hundred thousand South Vietnamese who no longer have power in their homeland)?”
I have asked this question over the years and I can come up with only three things that would be different for America if the outcome had resulted in the perpetuation of the South Vietnamese government that we supported. First, we'd still be sending billions of dollars of foreign aid money to that country annually at the expense of other uses. Second, some US veterans would think differently of themselves. Third, we would probably still have a draft. Of these three differences, only the last has profound consequences to our personal liberties. The GI movement is responsible for the end of the draft, and that is a mixed bag.
Our founding fathers recognized that in a democracy a popular militia is a bulwark against tyranny. Such a military organization, by its very nature, reflects the diversity of political expression found in society at large. As such it would naturally resist military adventurism in general and foreign entanglements in particular. That is why Jeffersonian republicans opposed a large standing army. That is the philosophy behind the 2nd Amendment to our Constitution, which speaks of a well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state.
It should be remembered that prior to World War II, except during times of war, our country had a tiny standing army. That only changed with the post-World War II peacetime draft. That draft created a “citizen army.”
The GI Movement contributed not only to the outcome of the war but was a catalyst for the professionalization of our armed forces. While some view the end of the draft as a victory of personal freedom over involuntary servitude, it came at a cost. Because a citizen army is a natural brake upon foreign military entanglements and a hedge against tyranny at home, one constitutional check and balance upon a leadership's irresponsible resort to violence as a substitute for diplomacy is now gone. We now have a large professional army and, as a people, we have lost something. To get an inkling of what that that might be, we need only look to Latin America and the record of its professional armies in relation to democracy.
The effectiveness of the GI movement and the outcome of the Vietnam War gave our government the excuse to create the large professional military that our founding fathers warned us against. Our professional armed forces make it all the more easy for our government to commit troops to action not only overseas (which many find palatable) but at home as well.
As I write this, politicians are launching trial balloons urging the use of this standing army at home in a putative “war” against a handful of “terrorists.” It should not take much imagination to discern the very real threat to our personal liberties as a professional army encroaches, bit by bit, into the civilian sphere. If America lost something more than 54,000 of its men during the Vietnam War, it has been freedom from the potential tyranny of its own government. We have lost our right to a citizen army because of its very effectiveness as a weapon against waging an indefensible and unjust war.
It is with these thoughts that I would like to end this presentation with a reading from the end of my book:
One of the beefy guardians of our borders directed us past a battered '50s Ford pickup with its torn-out seat lying alongside as if it were the victim of South Bronx scavengers. Clothing was strewn around its perimeter like the petals of a wilted flower a week past prime. A pathetic bracero slouched against the front fender, resigned to detention beneath the watchful eye of La Migra. Nearby his co-conspirator, a forlorn, ageless woman, squat and waistless, clutched her squirming brown infant to exposed breasts. Her broad face, engraved with worry lines of oppression, impassive yet sad, followed the privileged travelers accelerating past to cruising speed in the fast lane of life. With a free hand she was picking up the pieces of a broken clay pot. Something of value to her that La Migra had delighted in smashing.
I felt a kinship. Like her meager possessions, the luggage of my feelings was strewn along the highway of recent experience, and I was helpless to do anything about it. And then it came to me that we had gotten our wish. The war had been brought home. As a consequence, it had broken the collective clay pot. The Donnies, Jacks, Luckys, Louises, Joanies, a whole generation, would be picking up the pieces for a long time to come.
Rubbernecking, I watched her until she faded into the obscurity of darkness.