Four years before I was brought to Fort Dix, New Jersey, shackled on a civilian bus that was filled with soldiers who had gone either AWOL or were wanted as deserters, a riot had taken place at the stockade on that base.* The riot was in response to brutality against prisoners in the brig. Thirty-eight men charged as rioters were starved, beaten, and caged. Tensions had been growing for months between the military brass and some of the MPs who guarded the soldiers in the brig. The population of the stockade had grown from over 200 to more than 700 as the Vietnam War became more and more unpopular among soldiers and the larger society. By the time the war was over in 1975 (direct U.S. military involvement ended in 1973), more than 500,000 men had either gone AWOL or deserted.
Originally named the Fort Dix Thirty-Eight, soldiers who were charged with rioting faced courts-martial, resulting in the sentencing of some men to three years in military prison. About the same time official representatives of the U.S. traveled to Vietnam to investigate the use of the infamous tiger cages used against the Vietnamese. In October 1969, just before the huge nationwide antiwar rally on October 15, thousands of demonstrators flooded the streets of Wrightstown, New Jersey where Fort Dix is located in support of the antiwar soldiers.
All of the detainees who exited the bus I traveled on were placed in several two-story white clapboard World War II-era barracks. The stockade was located just beyond these barracks, now a cinder-block building surrounded with barbed wire, replacing the clapboard buildings where prisoners had been housed when the 1969 riot took place.
When I arrived at Dix, I knew about the conditions at the stockade and the riots and courts-martial that had taken place. I was frightened by the prospect of being placed in this stockade. The conditions that led to the riot and the resulting trials had been publicized in antiwar literature. Similar to the present, however, trying to determine the truth about military issues was difficult to find in the mainstream press. Much information had either been self-censored by writers who dealt with the war, censored by editors, or reported through the filter of what the government wanted known. There was no such thing as “imbedded journalists” during Vietnam, in the sense of how reporters are used today, but self-censorship and censorship by media outlets was the same during the Vietnam War as it is today. Only a few brave writers challenged the status quo.
I was lucky. I was able to afford a lawyer who argued before the company commander to keep me out of the brig. I had appealed orders to report for active duty and was savvy about not speaking to military brass without my lawyer present. Many, however, who were not so fortunate were immediately sent to the prison.
In 1977 I applied to the Carter amnesty program, and my discharge was retroactively upgraded to 1973. I had balked at using the Ford clemency program of 1974, its guidelines punitive toward military resisters, clearly favoring draft resisters. Military resisters, under the Ford program, were given “bad” discharges that could later be upgraded to clemency discharges, discharges that offered no benefits. While the Carter program was seen as more “liberal” in its treatment of military resisters, only about 16,000 benefited from this amnesty out of about 430,000. Few veterans received a discharge “under honorable conditions,” and nearly all who received upgraded discharges were barred from receiving any benefits. The latter was seen as vindictive and reflected the nation’s and government’s disdain for those who had opposed the war from within the military. Technically, a soldier who received a so-called “bad” discharge, and did not oppose the war, could receive veterans’ benefits, but those who opposed the war from within the ranks of the military were barred by law from receiving any benefits. Many soldiers who resisted the Vietnam War were in dire need of benefits.
When cases of torture were reported at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp, opened in 2002 to house over 700 prisoners from the war in Afghanistan, I was not surprised. When detainees there were originally denied Constitutional rights and rights under the Geneva Conventions, I was not shocked, knowing just how far the government and military could go in inflicting punishment at bases in the U.S. and around the world. The military had inflicted abuse on its own soldiers during the Vietnam War, targeting those who did not fit the mold of military discipline.
In 2004, when reports of torture and abuse by the military at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were reported, once again I knew that none of this was new and had been practiced on U.S. soil.
The U.S. is supposed to be a beacon of democracy to the world. I was naïve enough to believe this ideal during the Vietnam War, and thought that the lessons of that war would humanize the society. Instead, the government has sought to extend its neo-liberal economic agenda around the globe and to project raw military power in preemptive wars. It has been a long, long time since the nation actually has had to defend itself against an enemy. With the outbreak of World War II, the nation had to act. Following the Cold War, intelligence agencies and the military were not able to stop the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. Instead they launched a war against the people of Afghanistan, stole rights from U.S. citizens in the name of security, and launched a war against Iraq, leaving that nation in ruins.
HOWARD LISNOFF is an educator and freelance writer. He can be reached through his Web site at www.notesofamilitaryresister.net.
*Crowell, Joan. Fort Dix Stockade Our Prison Camp Next Door. New York: Links Books, 1974.