And I couldn’t help but think, through the thunder rolling and stink,
That I was just a puppet in a play.
And through the roar and smoke, this string is finally broke,
And a cannon ball blew my eyes away.
“John Brown”, by Bob Dylan
The war just keeps getting closer. I found out from my dad over the weekend that the son of a kid I used to play Boys & Girls Club sports with was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq early in December. I never knew the dead young man, but his uncles and aunts attended the same schools and churches that I did when I was young. Unless the US troops get out sooner rather than later, this familiarity with death in war will become as familiar to US residents as it did in Vietnam and Korea (not to mention this country’s previous wars), and as familiar as it has become to Iraqis and Afghanis. Like my dad rhetorically asked after giving me this news: “What did he die for?”
For those of us who have been opposed to these wars since their inception, this is not that much of a question. For my dad, it is. A career officer during Vietnam, he sees the world from a perspective quite dissimilar to me. He knew Vietnam was pointless when he was there, but believed there might be a purpose to his mission. He has never seen such a possibility in Iraq and, once he got past his desire for revenge in the wake of 911, he began to question the conflict in Afghanistan, as well. My anti-imperialist self always suggests that he take a look at who profits from these wars to find out their true purpose, but his worldview won’t let his thought process go there. Instead, like many people, he blames individuals for these murderous escapades.
I mention my dad only because I just re-read a book published thirty years ago by Ramparts Press-the publishing house of the great leftist journal. The book, titled The Flower of the Dragon by Richard Boyle, was recently highlighted at a website titled “GI Special” which is maintained by Thomas Barton and is essentially a collection of news and opinion pieces about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The intended audience for the newsletter is GIs and other soldiers and the intention is to provoke this audience to question its role and, ultimately, refuse to participate. Like GI underground newspapers from the Vietnam era, GI Special reminds its readers that they have a right to read and carry the paper (if they print it out) and that their commanding officer or any other authority can’t take it from them. Barton intersperses news pieces about GI deaths and officer fuckups with commentary from antiwar writers in an attempt to provide military men and women with not only a different perspective from that which they hear all around them but one that also can provide antiwar soldiers with a sense that they are not alone.
Anyhow, back to Boyle’s book. At the time of its writing (1966-1971), Boyle freelanced as a reporter and photographer throughout southern Vietnam and Cambodia. He began his war correspondent career as a supporter of the war and the Special Forces men who were then the only US soldiers in combat. By 1971, he had changed his tune completely. Much of his work by that time was about the growing movement among GIs who opposed the war and tried their best not to fight. In addition, he exposed the dichotomy between what the military spokesmen and generals were telling the press in Saigon and what the GIs actually fighting the war were experiencing in the jungle. In short, it was the sentiment of Boyle and his GI contacts that the US was losing the war and should just get the hell out. Meanwhile, the press in Saigon was being told that US forces were making great progress not only in combat but in winning the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people. According to Boyle, his reporting made him very unpopular with the military brass, but helped his work amongst the enlisted men and younger officers who were doing much of the actual fighting.
In a section that seemed to me to be instructive for today’s wars, Boyle writes about a battle at a fire base in the jungle that took place in 1971. The chapter, which is named after the fire base, is titled Firebase Pace, and describes a pointless battle by a few hundred US soldiers, some southern Vietnamese troops (ARVN), and various mercenary forces against thousands of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regulars. Now, this battle took place after Nixon had supposedly removed all US forces in Vietnam from any type of combat role. Indeed, it was occurring a week after the generals in Saigon had told the media and the Pentagon that the battle was over and the ARVN had soundly defeated the NVA. Yet the GIs were taking casualties every day while the ARVN troops sat on the sidelines, unwilling to risk their lives in a war that they could care less about. Like many of today’s Iraqi forces, these Vietnamese were in the ARVN for the paycheck and saw no reason to risk their lives for either the Washington or the US puppet government “elected” in Saigon. As I read the conversations and details reported by Boyle in this chapter, I kept thinking about the recent “victories” in Fallujah and Samarra in Iraq and wondered how real those victories actually were. This wonder increased after hearing of more US air and ground combat in both cities as recently as December 29th, 2004-at least three weeks after US generals declared victory and told the world media that the Iraqi insurgency’s back was broken.
Boyle’s book is a good, conversational read and has more than a bit of relevance to today’s wars. Since most of the warmakers agree that the upcoming elections in Iraq will mean little in terms of ending the insurgency, the need for a movement against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan amongst the soldiers fighting them grows more essential with each passing day. Sure, they need good armor, but more importantly they need to get their butts home. Now! The casualties will only continue to get closer to home.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org