From a “Boy” Who Said No

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I received an email from the War Resisters League that made “The Boys Who Said No” (2021) available for viewing for a few days. I was ecstatic! The documentary was as superb as I had expected! When I watch fact-based documentaries and movies about war, and particularly about the Vietnam War, it brings me back in time to an era when people acted on their principles and the current brainwashing about war was not almost universal. I had just seen “The Movement and the Madman“ (PBS, American Experience, 2023), about the Vietnam moratorium marches in the fall of 1969 and Nixon’s reaction to antiwar protest, and “The Boys Who Said No,” is a significant companion to the former.

I disagree with some of the conclusions of “The Movement and the Madman.” I don’t know if Nixon was venting or really considered using nuclear weapons in Vietnam. He talks about the prospect of using those weapons with Henry Kissinger, but even Kissinger seems not to believe that Nixon’s over the top statement is real. I’m also not certain whether or not the two fall demonstrations constrained Nixon from further expanding the war. Mass murder continued in Vietnam under Nixon, and he may have been more shaken by the May Day Demonstration in 1971, where mass civil disobedience could have had some sobering effect on Nixon. So much for his 1968 secret plan for peace!

The antiwar protesters who are interviewed in “The Boys Who Said No,” were a good cross section of those who resisted the draft during the Vietnam War:

President Carter passed a general amnesty, including for those who had fled abroad in defiance of the draft, allowing them to return to the United States. Of 209,517 accused of draft offenses, less than 9,000 were convicted. Still fewer saw any prison time.

The title “The Boys Who Said No” is a takeoff on the often heard cliché from the Vietnam War era that “Girls [sic] say yes to boys [sic] who say no.” Since sexuality was fairly open during the antiwar movement and counterculture in general, a person did not have to be a war resister to have someone say yes to them. The latter, strangely, fanned the flames of culture wars with repercussions to the present.

It seemed to me as I watched “The Boys Who Said No” that celebrities within the antiwar movement took up much time in the documentary. I do not doubt the heroic response of those considered celebrities and the importance of what they offered to the antiwar movement during the Vietnam War. It was not celebrity, however, but the acts of resistance of ordinary men and women which helped to end the war.

It is difficult to find accurate figures for the number of men and women who left the US during the war as acts of resistance, but reliable figures are between 30,000 and 50,000 men and women. Thousands remained in Canada, where most resisters settled. The number of women who resisted in the military was small, however, but thousands of women and men accompanied partners into exile.

A good analysis of military resistance to the Vietnam War is David Cortright’s “Antiwar Resistance Within the Military During the Vietnam War” (October 17, 2017). The article breaks down the types of resistance in the military during the war and is an excellent primer about military resistance. The American Friends Service Committee published an excellent article over three decades ago about Vietnam War resistance and amnesty, but that article is impossible to find.

What bothered me as a military resister during the Vietnam War was the treatment in “The Boys Who Said No” toward military resisters. That resistance, always less “glamorous” than draft resistance because of the socio-economic makeup of those who resisted within the military, as opposed to those who resisted the draft, has been an issue that has never been resolved equitably within the literature of resistance to the Vietnam War.

There were between 500,000 and 1,500,000 cases of all kinds of so-called military infractions, such as going AWOL or desertion in the military during the Vietnam War. It is impossible to tell with any level of accuracy just how many of those men and women actively resisted the Vietnam War. Many who resisted never made it into official statistics of military resistance, such as those who balked at taking part in battles and other acts of opposition to the war. One of the most famous cases of resistance came during the massacre at My Lai where hundreds of unarmed children, women, and old people were murdered. Four Hours in My Lai (1993) is a good place to learn about this hideous massacre, one of hundreds in Vietnam, most officially undocumented.

A description of war resistance during the Vietnam War of those who left for Canada (other destinations for exile had much smaller numbers of resisters)  is illustrated at The Museum at Bethel Woods, site of the famous concert, Woodstock, in August 1969. The description of that part of the antiwar movement is grossly underestimated there. I wrote to the museum several years ago and never received a response to my inquiry about correcting their description of that part of the antiwar movement.

The two documentaries discussed above are significant to my life as I left for basic training in the army the day after the first Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam demonstration. I discuss both the demonstration on October 15, 1969, and my experiences in the military and resistance to the Vietnam War in my memoir. I was one of those hundreds of thousands of men and women who resisted the Vietnam War in and out of the military and who the documentary “The Boys Who Said No” seems to treat with less emphasis than draft resisters.

A friend of mine who traveled to Central America many times, beginning in the 1980s during the US-funded wars there, said that antiwar protest had lost its appeal as being sexy by that time. He was accurate in his assessment, although we brought considerable attention through protest about those wars in Central America. After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, antiwar actions dwindled to the point of almost being undetectable. Protests have largely disappeared during the Ukraine war. War has tragically, despite the threat of an enlarged war and nuclear war, become popularized. The mass media has little interest in critically covering wars the US fights or supports or funds.

Any discussion of the Ukraine war begs a review of the ban against preemptive war and the expansion of NATO following the fall of the former Soviet Union. There are all kinds of justifications on both sides of the argument about whether or not the Ukraine war was justified on the part of Russia. Just as there is no rational justification for the expansion of NATO far into Eastern European countries, so there is no making the Russian invasion of Ukraine into a just cause for war. The debate devolves into contending forces about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. The debate is a win-win agenda for weapons manufacturers.

The beginning of the end of mass antiwar actions came with the attacks of 2001. In 2009, despite the rebirth of antiwar protest around the 2003 Iraq war, the antiwar movement, or what was left of antiwar aspirations and actions, largely greatly diminished in response to Barack Obama’s troop surge in Afghanistan. Though war-making and the support for wars and war funding is the work of the political duopoly, many see Democrats as being more amenable to peace. The latter is foolish to the extreme!

The newspaper of record has become a cheerleader for war. The government doesn’t need to provide false assessments of war as it did during the Vietnam War and falsely claim there was “light at the end of the tunnel.” There was none! What there was, was mass murder and the mass murder of innocent civilians. Follow the money to the top arms manufacturers and the force of money appears irresistible. Proxy wars multiply such as in Ukraine, Syria, and the former war in Afghanistan. The war in Ukraine has the potential for morphing into nuclear war by way of its proxy base.

In the face of the contemporary existential threat of nuclear war, protest in the streets is almost nonexistent. Despite the existential threat of environmental degradation, there are few in the streets protesting.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).