Rebellion in the Ranks

The rebellion within the U.S. armed forces that contributed to the U.S. defeat in Vietnam has been largely erased from public memory.

It has been replaced with the “spat-on myth”–that the antiwar movement was preoccupied with spitting on returning veterans and denying them the glory of the ticker-tape parades that marked the end of the Second World War. This lie, widely circulated by media pundits and Hollywood films like Rambo, is turned on its head by David Cortright’s Soldiers In Revolt, newly republished with a postscript by Cortright and a new introduction by historian Howard Zinn.

Soldiers In Revolt provides ammunition for antiwar activists today by documenting the massive breadth of the Vietnam antiwar movement among active-duty personnel–and the necessary bond that developed between military service members and civilian activists. Cortright meticulously pieces together the story of what became known as the GI movement–the mass resistance and dissent within the armed forces that engulfed both stateside bases and U.S. military outposts around the world.

THE MOVEMENT involved actions at all levels, from boycotting lettuce on bases in solidarity with the United Farm Workers, to prison riots and sit-down strikes–such as the Presidio Mutiny in the San Francisco stockade, in which 27 Army inmates refused to work after the brutal murder of a fellow prisoner by guards in 1968. In Vietnam itself, there were 10 large mutinies, hundreds of individual combat refusals, and numerous incidents of the murder or threat assault on gung-ho officers (dubbed “fragging” by the GI movement).

In recounting these acts of revolt, both large and small, Cortright reveals the full impact of tens of thousands of soldiers who questioned the legitimacy and purpose of the war. Cortright estimates that as many as one-quarter of Army enlisted personnel participated in some form of rebellion against military authority during the later years of the Vietnam War.

In an official report, Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. armed forces during the war, confessed that rebellion within the military during the Vietnam period–including “underground activities, racial antagonism, resistance to authority, drug abuse, absenteeism, desertion, crime and battlefield misconduct”–was a greater threat to order and discipline than the civilian antiwar movement.

Westmoreland’s Army was thrown into crisis, and the rebellion by its members belies the myth that opposition to the war was primarily among privileged, white students. In truth, the GI movement was made up of working-class troops. Many of the most ardent fighters were African Americans, inspired by the increasing militancy of the civil rights struggle raging in the U.S.

Blacks were at the center of resistance actions–including prison rebellions at Da Nang and Long Binh, and refusals to take part in riot-control duty against ghetto uprisings at home. The Fort Hood 43, for example, refused orders to patrol Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention–declaring their opposition to racism in the Army and to the use of force against civilians.

Black troops also formed protest organizations such as GIs United Against the War and the Movement for a Democratic Military (MDM). Described in February 1970 by Marine Commandant Gen. Leonard Chapman as “a serious threat to the defense of this country,” MDM united white and Black sailors and Marines around an explicitly revolutionary program that took inspiration from the Black Panthers.

Often, troops went beyond simply opposing the war and began to draw anti-imperialist conclusions. “Many groups have developed a more thorough, radical opposition to all counterinsurgency operations abroad,” writes Cortright. “Nearly all the overseas GI groups, most Black organizations, the various chapters of MDM, and many other servicemen’s groups have called for the end of all foreign intrusion in the affairs of Third World peoples. For many GI radicals, withdrawal from Vietnam is only the first step toward the larger goal of self-determination for all underdeveloped societies and demilitarization in America…Never has such an overtly political movement developed within the ranks.”

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ALL THIS flies in the face of today’s common wisdom that antiwar activists should hide or “dumb down” their political views for fear of scaring people in the military away from the movement.

According to Cortright, there was an important connection between the radical left and the GI movement, which “in some cases…sparked substantial political activity among servicemen.” Socialists, for example, helped provide legal defense, organized civilian support and demonstrations for GI rights, and funded and aided the production of underground newspapers.

Cortright gleaned much of his information from the more than 300 underground newspapers circulated by troops, such as Vietnam GI, The Bond, FTA (which stood for “Fuck the Army” rather than the Army’s recruiting slogan “Fun, Travel and Adventure”) and Bragg Briefs.

“Don’t desert,” proclaimed one such underground newspaper on the West Coast. “Go to Vietnam and kill your commanding officer.” Civilian activists trying to reach out to the emerging GI movement started many of the papers. Others were printed by troops themselves–some on bases and even on ships.

The antiwar soldiers’ newspapers are estimated to have had a readership in the tens of thousands. Vietnam GI alone had a mailing list of 3,000 troops stationed in Vietnam. Underground papers were a means to expose the bankruptcy of military policy, provide alternative information from an enlisted person’s viewpoint, report on the spreading resistance movement, give practical legal advice regarding GI rights, and–most importantly–to organize.

Cortright also challenges the idea that only angry draftees resisted, showing that much of the rebellion was led by soldiers who had enlisted voluntarily. “Draftees expect shit, get shit, and aren’t even disappointed,” in the words of one soldier. “Volunteers expect something better, get the same shit, and have at least one more year to get mad about it.”

Also, the dissent by soldiers and Marines didn’t end with the withdrawal of U.S. ground troops from Vietnam in 1973, but rather evolved to include airmen and sailors who moved into the forefront as the air war began to escalate. These service members refused to participate in bombing missions, organized committees opposed to the war, and protested racism in the military.

Their actions gathered steam among the crews of many aircraft carriers, which were rocked by frequent acts of sabotage. The most significant rebellion in the Navy took place in November 1972, when more than 100 sailors aboard the U.S.S. Constellation took part in a defiant dockside strike–the largest mutiny in the U.S. Navy’s history.

Cortright also draws an important connection between resistance by troops and counter-recruitment activity during the Vietnam period. His chapter on “The Recruitment Racket” shows that military recruiters have been telling nearly identical lies for the last three decades to get youth to join the military–and preying on socio-economically disadvantaged segments of society, promising job skills and money for school that rarely materialize.

As counter-recruitment activism heats up at schools across the country, Soldiers In Revolt will aid activists fighting to turn the military into an “army of none.”

Most importantly, Cortright’s book drives home the elemental truth that generals and war planners call the shots from air-conditioned building and bunkers far from combat, but that wars must be fought on the ground by working-class troops who, when organized, can act on their own political principles rather than on those of their commanding officers.

With this new edition of Soldiers in Revolt, a new generation of activists, active-duty personnel and military families can find an inspiring tale of how, in Cortright’s words, “people need not be helpless before the power of illegitimate authority, that by getting together and acting upon their convictions people can change society and, in effect, make their own history.”

MARTIN SMITH writes for the Socialist Worker.