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It was a small office on an upper floor of an office building in the hundred-year-old downtown of Laurel, MD. Laurel was the closest town to the sprawling Fort Meade, an Army post opened during World War One and expanded ever since. By the time the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) had opened their Laurel office, the fort had played host to the National Security Agency (NSA) for more than ten years. As a child of a military man, I had spent many hours at Fort Meade, swimming in the pool, accompanying my parents while they shopped at the commissary and Post Exchange, camping in the woods there, and using the Post Library. I had even been in the audience at military ceremonies in the parking lot of the NSA complex.
In 1975, when I first became aware of the Laurel VVAW office, I no longer had a military dependent’s ID card. Therefore, I could no longer enter Fort Meade or any other military establishment unless my father was with me. This was fine, since the way I felt about the military by then was worse than just negative. Indeed, it was at an April 1975 protest against military recruitment on the University of Maryland’s College Park campus that I found out about the Laurel VVAW branch from an active duty GI at the protest.
I only visited that office a couple times before it closed a dozen or so months later. The closure was related to internal political struggles inside the organization and a lack of interest in the group after the final victory of the Vietnamese over the US and Saigon forces in May 1975. The internal struggles had been ongoing for at least three or four years. Marxist-Leninist elements among the group’s membership had grown to comprise a significant minority of the rank and file, while more liberal elements (represented best perhaps by John Kerry) were leaving the group as it became more radical. This turn toward the left can be seen in the slogan adopted by the national leadership: “We’ve carried the rich for 200 years; We won’t fight another rich man’s war.” It was also apparent in their newspaper and literature, which had taken a clear leftist anti-imperialist slant. The shift towards Marxist-Leninism in the VVAW meant a reduction in its membership. This scenario played out across the United States in other antiwar and antiracist organizations. In place of a broad-based popular movement, numerous smaller and often sectarian groups sprinkled the landscape.
I first met and worked with antiwar GIs in what was then called West Germany. After my father returned from his tour in Vietnam in early 1970 (I always thought calling those assignments “tours” was pushing it), he was sent to Frankfurt am Main. As his family we went with. Within two months of our arrival, the US invaded Cambodia and Germans joined the worldwide surge of protest against the invasion. I marched several blocks with a massive crowd of antiwar protesters as it made its way to the headquarters of the US Army’s V Corps. That building was the same one where my dad worked. Talk about bringing the war home.
The first time I actually conversed with antiwar GIs, though, was at a rock concert the following winter. A couple of them were waiting in the crowd for the gates to the Frankfurt Kongresshalle to open. While they waited, they passed out copies of a mimeographed newsletter called FTA-Heidelberg. Like any half-aware military dependent teen, I knew FTA meant Fuck the Army. The Heidelberg part of the title denoted the origin of the paper. After all, there were several such newsletters with the same name. These mimeographed broadsides were part of a much broader underground newspaper movement in the US military. This was in turn part of the even larger US underground press of the time. When the gates to the concert hall opened, I joined the GIs in the rush towards the door and we smoked some hashish once we were inside. I took a dozen or so copies of the FTA paper and went to find my friends. That was how I became a distributor for the GI underground press. Every time it was published, a GI involved with the paper would find me at the library on base or at the Post Exchange cafeteria and hand me a couple dozen copies. I would then leave single issues in various locations on base. Given that the military brass did not understand the GI resistance and therefore resented (and even feared) it, a more public means of distribution would have carried some kind of repercussion.
Like most other institutions of the US power structure, the military recovered from those heady days of resistance. Although there are occasional moments where the troops challenge their role as hit men (and women) for the US empire, a combination of the end of the draft, the ongoing economic crisis, and an expensive, insidious recruitment campaign that targets children and adults has pretty much diffused any organized GI resistance. Indeed, many polls taken of US residents maintain that the military is one of the few government institutions that is respected by a majority of those polled. While these results are certainly cheered by the Pentagon and the war machine it is part of, they also create a greater potential for military abuses by those in power, no matter what their political party. Furthermore, these results emphasize why the military should be challenged more than ever—both from within its ranks and from the population at large.