The public refusals here at Fort Lewis (Washington) of Army 1st Lt. Ehren Watada, Sgt. Kevin Benderman and Spc. Suzanne Swift to deploy to Iraq are the most recent chapter of a long and noble history of resistance within the U.S. armed forces. To understand this history, and where it might lead, it helps to see how resistance varies strongly according to rank, class and race, and how difficult it is for resisters to express their patriotic viewpoints alone, without support from the larger peace movement.
Dissent from soldiers during foreign interventions has been reported throughout U.S. history, such as in Mexico in the 1840s and the Philippines in the 1900s. Even during World War II, African American rebellions against internal racism shook the military, and eventually forced unit desegregation. After the war ended in 1945, soldiers and sailors demanded a postwar demobilization and tickets home. Starting in Manila, they formed a huge and successful movement that may have prevented a U.S. intervention against the Chinese Revolution later in the decade, though did not prevent the Korean War of the 1950s.
During the Vietnam War, the military ranks carried out mass resistance on bases and ships in Southeast Asia, the Pacific, U.S. and Europe. Military resistance was instrumental in ending the war by making the ranks politically unreliable. This history is well documented in Soldiers in Revolt by David Cortright and teh recent film “Sir! No Sir!.” Servicemen and women were heavily influenced by the antiwar and African American liberation movements back home, as well as by personal contact with Vietnamese civilians. But this resistance took years to develop after the initial deployments in 1960, not catching fire until after the 1968 Tet Offensive showed that the war was unwinnable.
Personnel in all service branches carried out explicitly political actions-signing antiwar petitions, wearing buttons and patches, disobeying illegal orders, avoiding battles, passing information to the peace movement, and carrying out strikes, sit-ins, and rebellions, and well as sabotage of equipment. The breakdown in discipline was evidenced by high levels of internal organizing, racial conflict, drug use, desertion, and being absent without leave (AWOL). The sources of the rebellions were as much tied to domestic racism as to overseas militarism.
At one time in 1972, three aircraft carriers on duty in the Western Pacific (off Vietnam) were simultaneously put out of commission-one by an African American uprising on board, and two by internal sabotage. The U.S. mining of North Vietnamese harbors later that year was frustrated by the defusing of many ship mines by Naval Magazine personnel at Subic Bay Naval Base in the Philippines. Some GIs refused to be deployed to Vietnam, including six at Fort Lewis in 1970. The “Fort Lewis Six” were beaten in the stockade, and sentenced to 1-2 years, creating a wave of local support for GI dissenters. (The support went both ways, when Native American soldiers organized to support and protect treaty rights activists on rivers next to the base.)
While some GIs publicly resisted as individuals, or applied for Conscientious Objector (CO) status, most carried out their resistance in a more collective or quiet manner, slowing down the war machine by delaying and undermining their own mission (as anyone who has worked at a crappy job knows how to do). Some GIs sent out on patrol in Vietnam, for example, would simply have a little party, and later return to base with lurid accounts of encounters with the rebels.
U.S. military resistance was not simply sparked by the period of the Vietnam War and the military draft. Cortright provides evidence that disobediance was in fact greatest not among draftees, but among enlistees, who had more of a working-class background, or enlisted out of patriotism and expected more out of the service. Selective Service was not an equal opportunity institution, since white and middle-class youth had social advantages to avoid the draft, just as they have had in the recruitment-based “poverty draft” since Vietnam.
Radicalism within the ranks led the Reagan-Bush Administration in the 1980s to turn increasingly toward air war strategies, proxy armies, and more capital-intensive, high-tech weapons systems which only smaller skilled units could operate. The Navy restricted sailors’ access to parts of the ship where it might be “threatened from withinespecially during times of great international tension.” Nevertheless, the unwillingness of the ranks to fight in another Vietnam contributed to the success of the antiwar movement in preventing a full-scale U.S. invasion of Nicaragua or El Salvador.
During the 1980s, anti-intervention and anti-nuclear activists who distributed peace literature to military personnel noticed widespread sympathy in the lower ranks. I helped produce the About Face newspaper for GIs, and worked with veterans to educate activists in Europe and the Philippines on reaching GIs. This was possible because the military allows personnel one copy of literature. Department of Defense Directive 1325.6 Sec 3.5 still today states that “the mere possession of unauthorized printed material may not be prohibited.The fact that a publication is critical of government policies or officials is not, in itself, a ground on which distribution may be prohibited.”
During 1983 women’s peace actions against the deployment of nuclear missiles from a New York army depot, women who dialogued with Military Police were told by an MP officer: “My men are scared and confused. They want to come down and kill all of you. But they also want to come down and join all of you.” His statement summed up the contradictory ‘dual consciousness’ within many soldiers, who may be open to dialogue with activists respectfully encouraging the positive part of their hearts and minds.
The 1991 Gulf War helped the Pentagon to overcome the ‘Vietnam Syndrome,’ by presenting a sanitized video-game image of war, focused on a dehumanized Arab enemy. Military dissent became very difficult to express under these circumstances (with the exception of brave individual refusers such as Jeff Paterson, and many others who were jailed after the military stopped approving CO discharges). As national associate director of the Committee Against Registration and the Draft, I was involved in a project to produce a cassette for GIs of veterans’ interviews, music and radio theater. The war too ended quickly for dissent to come out into the open, but the peace movement’s campaign for “sanctuary” for military resisters briefly made some headway. After the Gulf War, the Clinton Administration’s repeated bombings of Iraq, Serbia, and other countries created a public impression that warfare bore little if any cost for U.S. military forces.
This historic complacency ended with 9/11, the invasion of Afghanistan, and occupation of Iraq. Military enlistees began to realize again that signing up and re-upping had real-life consequences, and recruitment became more difficult. The Pentagon’s stop-loss policy forced Iraq War veterans and reservists back to the frontlines, angering even the most pro-war personnel and families. A major change since the Vietnam and Gulf wars is that personnel now have access through the Internet to alternative sources of information and resources. The Internet was an important factor in Lt. Watada’s self-education, and it can be used by the military community to dialogue about the war and conditions outside official channels (since military culture intimidates most internal critics into silence).
Opposition within the military is far higher after three years of the Iraq War than it was three years into the Vietnam War. More than 8,000 personnel have deserted since the war began (according to USA Today), about 400 of whom have gone to Canada. The military has been reluctant to punish refusers from the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR) beyond discharging them. The capture of Saddam and death of Zarqawi have ironically weakened Bush’s case that our troops need to stay to “protect” Iraqis against their will. With about a dozen refusals to deploy, and a recent Zogby poll that shows 72 percent of troops stationed in Iraq support a withdrawal within a year, the military resistance will only grow. But resisters need public support, particularly from their local communities. On June 16, days after Lt. Watada’s refusal, Tacoma’s United Methodist Church near Fort Lewis opened its doors as a “sanctuary” for military personnel.
Some media expressed surprise that Lt. Watada refused deployment so soon after the Port of Olympia protests against armored vehicle shipments from his 3rd Stryker Brigade. Yet soldiers and antiwar protesters have something very crucial in common: they both take the war seriously, and take risks because of it. At a June 2 ceremony marking the Stryker deployment, Fort Lewis Commander Lt. Gen. James Dubik observed that “Less than 1 percent of the nation is carrying 100 percent of the burden of this war.” As Lt. Watada agreed five days later, “Soldiers who come back from Iraq say they get the impression many people don’t know a war is going on; they say even friends and family seem more involved in popular culture and American Idol. People are not interested in the hundreds of Iraqis and the dozens of Americans dying each week.”
When soldiers see hundreds of people in the street protesting the war, they can realize (whether they agree with the message or not) that at least the protesters are interested and care that there’s a war on, and are sacrificing some comfort and daily routine because of the war. In this way, visible antiwar actions can spread the “burden” to a wider circle, and help build a bridge to military personnel and their families, but only if the protesters also open a respectful dialogue with them.
ZOLTAN GROSSMAN is a member of the faculty in Geography and Native Studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and a longtime justice and peace activist. A version of this article originally appeared in the London journal Race Today. Other writings are on his website at http://academic.evergreen.edu/g/grossmaz and e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org
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