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This War is Not Our War!
An Analysis and Critique of Forms of Resistance amongst the American GIs during the Vietnam War
By Andy Walpole - Liverpool John Moores University
|The Vietnam War was a watershed in American history, exposing and increasing cracks in the social structure. The draft discriminated against the poor, the less educated and ethnic minorities. In this article, Andy Walpole demonstrates and how resistance to the war took a variety of forms, from drug abuse to fragging (the assassination of unpopular officers), as well as to more organised and politicised anti-war activity. He also shows how serving in the war helped to increase the political awareness of African-American GI's and helped to inform the Civil Rights movement.|
‘We, as GIs, are forced to suffer most of all in the Vietnam fiasco. Many of us were drafted into the Army against our will – nearly all of us are kept in its grasp against our will – all in order to carry out this illegal, immoral, and unjust war. We are forced to fight and die in a war we did not create and in which we don’t believe.
"Our voice is our weapon. United we will win."’1
GIs United Against the War in Vietnam: Statement of Aims.
The Vietnam War is perhaps the most harrowing event for American society since the Second World War. There was no official beginning, no glorious ending or celebrations in the streets, and there were no heroes. Instead there was guilt, confusion and shock. It was difficult for America to understand how they had lost when $174 billion had been invested in a war that at its height had 526,000 American personal stationed in Vietnam. The frostiness that the Veterans received on returning highlights the bewilderment of the public. The America collective ego, inflated after the success of World War II, was shattered by the seemingly impossible defeat at the hands of an insurgent army with little or no major hardware.
For those that fought, it was a revolutionary experience, and when they came home, it scarred their remaining lives. In battle, the American army was completely unable to contain or defeat the NLF and NLA. Only rarely did open warfare breakout, and when skirmishes erupted, they were mostly defensive actions by the American military. As for the South Vietnamese troops, the AVRN, they were unwillingly to engage in combat with their guerrilla counterparts and were more interested in surviving than winning.
For those that were fighting, the war – particularly from 1968 – seemed pointless. Douglas McCormac wrote to his friend in August 1968 concerning his pessimism towards events:
The situation that the GIs found themselves in was a demoralising routine of long periods of boredom, mixed with sharp periods of frustrating combat in which friends lost other friends or suffered casualties. Bob Muller’s anger spilled over when he lectured to a group of students in August 1971: "Perhaps you think I’m just a bitter person – and only because I got hit in Nam. I am bitter. You’re damn right I’m bitter!"3
Not only was defeating the enemy impossible, but they also had to deal with an antagonistic relationship with those they were supposed to be defending: "We saw the hate in the eyes of the local villagers who never welcomed us as ‘liberators’ bringing us bouquets of flowers as we had seen in World War II movies. The only Vietnamese who seemed to want us there wanted greenbacks in return for damages, booze or women, or all three."4
The willing stayed at home, while the unwilling – the poor, the blacks, the Latinos – were sent to the front. At home, the anti-war movement was huge, but amongst the GIs who fought in the jungles of Vietnam and who were stationed at bases around the rest of the world, there was resistance too. There was passive resistance in Vietnam in the form of drug abuse. That was originally just cannabis usage, but later widespread heroin abuse; and there was active resistance in the form of the murder of unpopular officers, the publication of anti-war journals, the formation of anti-war groups, and various spontaneous outbursts and confrontations with superior officers. These different forms of rebellion need to be examined in detail. The background to resistance needs to be established by using the personal accounts of the Veterans themselves, and then the strength of the link between passive and active resistance needs to be investigated. Sociologist John Helmer and psychoanalyst Dr. Norman E. Zinberg see a correlation between drug usage and political activity, and their claims will be dealt with in the conclusion.
|Social bias of the draft||
"The poor of America have not the opportunity to earn their fair share of this nation’s abundance, but they can be given an opportunity to serve in their country’s defence and they can be given an opportunity to return to civilian life with skills and aptitudes which for them and their families will reverse the down-ward spiral of decay." 5
In mid-1966 the Secretary of Defence, McNamara, laid down his arguments behind Project 100,000. It would involve the admission of 40,000 "new standards" men for the American military and 100,000 every year thereafter. McNamara himself had an advanced degree, and those involved in the planning of the war were in the top tenth of the national income pyramid. The polarity between those who fought in the Vietnam war and those who planned it is stark. James W. Davis and Kenneth M. Dolbeare carried out research into the operations of the draft in Wisconsin in 1966. Their conclusions on the bias of the selection service against the poor are damning: ‘…men with the advantages of income and education do not experience service at the same rates as their less-advantaged contemporaries.’ 6 And once the GI’s were out fighting in the field, inequality of wealth and differences in social class would manifest itself in the fatality statistics. During the war, soldiers who had not graduated from High School had casualty rates three times higher than those who held a diploma, while young men whose families had incomes in the $4,000 – 7,000 range were three times more likely to die or be injured than those with incomes over $17,000. 7
|Disillusionment and drug abuse||
"I kept having to go to the field and wanted to stay in the village. There I was each day squeezing off a shot and watching the guy drop, then going back to the village. I really got along well with a girl there. I liked her so much that I didn’t want to ball her. She was a VC, she told me; she made booby traps and laid them at night – and I’d be out there stepping clear of them – but she and I were in love. That’s when I started on junk." 8
In the spring of 1971 the mass media in America carried news of widespread heroin addiction amongst American troops in Vietnam. This was not new information for the US Army: in 1968 they had become aware of widespread use of cannabis amongst the troops and had acted decisively against this. Within a week there had been a 1,000 arrests and the military issued press releases that the drug problem was under control. But as the availability of marijuana declined, the use of heroin increased. The military had merely help replace one drug for another harder substitute. New York Times correspondent, Gloria Emerson, sent a dispatch on September 12, 1971 from Camp Crescenz in South Vietnam. Until the new commander took over, the price of heroin had been at around the price of $2 or $3 for a vial (it was $120 at New York Street prices) but after raids that confiscated 409 vials and the building of new barbed-wire fences the base to keep smugglers out, the price had risen to $12.10 for a vial of 250 milligrams. 9 The military wrongly assumed that heroin addiction was due to low cost and ready availability.
The United States Department of Defence, although aware of the problems, were forced to act under the pressure of public scrutiny, and they sent Dr. Norman E. Zinberg on a fact-finding mission. His conclusions echoed that of the New York Times correspondent: the anti-drug policy was fatally flawed.
In Thailand, which he also visited, Dr Zinberg found that the supply there was ‘even more abundant and cheaper than in Vietnam’10, but there was relatively very little drug abuse amongst GI’s in Thailand. Obviously, those in one environment were less likely to pursue heroin than then those that found themselves in another.
As for the typical addict, Dr Zinberg commented that majority are ‘made up of men who are like everybody’s next-door neighbours. They come from small towns in the midwest or south; their personalities are not unusual; they have had slight previous experiences with drugs; they are in good physical condition; they represent all ethnic and educational groups equally.’11
The war itself ravaged men’s expectations. Most were naïve in their intentions, and they left Vietnam either radicalised or demoralised or both. But this was slow to set in, and it wasn’t until Nixon ordered the Vietnamizing of the war after he came to office in January 1969 that the realisation came of fighting a war with which the administration had no intention of winning, and demoralisation really set in.
The letters home portray this growing disillusionment over the years. Initially, there was talk that echoed the Truman Doctrine and Kennedy’s ‘Ask not what your country can do for you’ patriotism. Philip Caputo, author of A Rumour of War, describes his pre-war attitude: ‘I guess we believed … in all the myths created by the most articulate and elegant mythmaker, John Kennedy. If he was the King of Camelot, then we were his knights and Vietnam our crusade. There was nothing we could do because we were Americans, and for the same reason, whatever we did was right.’12
The soldiers’ letters echoed the confidence in America’s role in Vietnam. A Gallup poll taken in the summer of 1965 showed 61 percent support for America’s military role.
Lance Corporal J.S. Swender wrote to his aunt in 1965: ‘The way I see the situation, I would rather fight to stop communism in South Vietnam than in Kincaid, Humbolt, Blue Mound, or Kansas City, and this is just about what it would end up being.’ 13
On January 31, 1968, Vietcong commandos stormed the American Embassy in Saigon and killed five American’s before being forced back. The battle, known as the Tet offensive, raged throughout the city where they also attacked the presidential palace and temporarily took the major radio station. This daring attack at the heart of the South Vietnamese capital shocked American TV viewers, and when the chief of the South Vietnamese police proudly shot a Vietcong captive as a display to the waiting media, the American public became aware of the vicious nature of the southern regime. The Wall Street Journal – a magazine not known for its radicalism – pessimistically informed its readers that, ‘The American people should be getting ready to accept … the prospect that the whole Vietnam effort may be doomed.’14
The Joint Chiefs, under advice from the military command in Vietnam, requested a further two hundred thousand more men. In November 1968, the same Gallup poll that had previously shown a majority in favour of US policy had now declined to 40 percent15
The soldiers’ letters from the front line mirror the disillusionment felt at home. John Riggan was assigned to the 1st Infantry Division: ‘The longer I am here, the more my hatred of war grows….This tragedy is the price that I see reclaimed daily, and my only hope is that someday it can be justified.’ 16Pfc Brown was equally despondent when he wrote to his newly-wed sister in the same month: ‘My spirit is with you and Nick, hoping that your children will not have to see, or do, some of the ugly and terrible things in the world today. I probably have seen the majority of it. Children being slaughtered like cattle. Women being mutilated and raped. The people, who want the best for their family and friends, being strung up and brutally murdered…’ 17
It’s no wonder that after being subjected to such horrific experiences the Pentagon admitted in 1973 that about one-third of American troops were using heroin and that about 20 percent were addicted at any one time. ‘In the development of revolt, heroin use – like marijuana use – is a precursor to political mobilisation,’18 claims sociologist John Helmer. This statement was written in reference to drug abuse amongst GIs, but it seems a flamboyant assertion. Drug abuse, although often done in groups, was a personal issue. The step between drug usage and political mobilisation is a large one. As will be shown below, organised active resistance was more common outside of Vietnam and away from the drug scene. The correlation between passive resistance and active resistance is far from clear.
|Black GI's and the war||
"I didn’t want to go to Vietnam. I didn’t think I had anything to fight for. I don’t think anyone knew why I was over there … I often wondered what they would have told my parents if I had been killed. That I died for my country?"19
For Black GIs, their consciousness was awakened by events both in the war and at home. The demand for equal rights in a hostile racist society had brought near hysterical reaction through the Fifties and Sixties, and whereas once the demands were non-violent, by the Sixties the older generation of Black activists were being surpassed by new militant leaders who openly called for revolutionary action in order to gain equality.
The NLF were aware of this racial tension, and the leaflets that they distributed told Black GIs to fight for democracy in their own country rather than in suppressing it in Southeast Asia. Although the calls for defection went unheeded (at least officially), they did reinforce the disillusionment that haunted Black GIs. The NLF held a cautious policy towards engaging in combat with black soldiers. In the early years, they were reluctant to attack areas of Saigon that had a heavy concentration of Black soldiers, while in non-combat situations there was an ‘unwritten agreement’ between Black soldiers and individual NLF personnel. 20 Even in open warfare, NLF soldiers were known to fire over the heads of Black troopers. As for their resistance in Vietnam, much has gone unpublicised, but there are recurrent episodes of Black solders refusing to go out on patrols, and many would willingly chose imprisonment in South Vietnam’s infamous Long Binh Jail rather than to report for patrol duty. "The Black soldier is anti-establishment and anti-war," said the jail’s commanding officer. 21
There also sprung up Black anti-war groups in the army. General Michael S Davidson, the commander of the Seventh Army in Germany, acknowledged in 1970 that ‘Black dissident organisations could turn out 1500 soldiers for a demonstration.’ 22 There are estimates that two dozen organisations were spread over ten cities in Germany. They fraternised with German radical groups and could pull out large numbers for demonstrations, such as the rally at the University of Heidelberg on July 4, 1970, which attracted 1000 GIs. Even more alarming to the military hierarchy was the petition signed by several hundred Black soldiers addressed to the East German authorities asking for assistance in combating racism in West Berlin.
.Racism in the military, as in American society, was widespread. Blacks were not only more likely to be disproportionately enlisted than whites (30 percent to 18 percent), they were also more likely to be placed in army combat units which meant that by 1970, although blacks made up 11 percent of the troops in Vietnam, they took 22 percent of the casualties.
Although the above statistics show an obvious bias against Black soldiers, it has to be remembered that those from poorer backgrounds were at a disadvantage in Vietnam. And in the 1960s and 1970s the Blacks were on the bottom rung of the economic ladder. But nevertheless, race relations were tense and occasional outbreaks of violence occurred. Few Black veterans were willing to work with white veterans, and the Vietnam Veterans Against the War was almost exclusively white. In Helmer’s survey all the white respondents said that their attitudes towards Blacks had become more negative.
‘The people will stop it (the Vietnam War) this time. The American people have learned their lesson. They will take control from the brass. It’ll take violence for sure….’24
Organised opposition to the war amongst GIs was more widespread outside the theatre of war. In Vietnam, the officers would isolate ‘troublemakers’ and groups of rebellious soldiers were broken up and sent to different divisions. But in America and in the army bases in the rest of the world there was a small but dedicated core of anti-war GIs who not only published their own papers but were influenced by the Left. Black GI, Joe Miles, was a member of the Socialist Workers’ Party and was based at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. In early 1969 he organised the GIs United Against the War in Vietnam, and although it was initially a Blacks only group, it latter expanded to include whites, Puerto Ricans and Chicanos. The Statement of Aims was more than a calling for the cessation of the military adventure; it was a call for the redirection of money against ‘hunger and poverty’ and the ‘slums and illiteracy, and the misery they produce.’ The regimentation of army life and dehumanisation of the soldier in the hands of the military machine was also attacked in the statement: ‘We are citizens of America even if the Army would like to forget it, and these rights are guaranteed to us by the Constitution of the United States.’ 25 From January to May 1969 GIs United was able to hold meetings of fifty or more until the army arrested eight of the leaders of the group and placed them in the stockade.
There were estimated to be around 300 GI antiwar newspapers, and GI organisation was more likely to be local based and centred on the publication of an underground antiwar newsletter. They had names like Bragg Briefs (Ft. Bragg, NC), FTA (Ft. Knox, KY), Vietnam GI (Chicago), All Ready On The Left (Camp Pendleton, CA), Fed-Up (Ft. Lewis, WA), Semper Fi (Iwakuni, Japan) and The Next Step (Heidelberg, Germany). Cheaply produced, but numerous and widespread, they indicate the willingness of the soldiers to both organise and to try to influence the course of events.
In Vietnam itself, less formal means were employed by the GIs with which to subvert the military machine. ‘Fragging’, the murder of officers viewed as dangerously incompetent, was widespread and common. Although it was less a political act and more of a day to day act of survival, it was still a deed of active resistance. The term fragging came from the favourite method of killing: the rolling of a fragmentation grenade into the tent that would leave no evidence. In his book, A Soldiers Report, General William Westmoreland concluded that fragging ‘….increases when a sense of unit purpose breaks down and esprit de corps fails and when explosives and weapons are loosely controlled.’26
During 1967-68 soldiers in the Mekong Delta pooled their money to pay the person who killed a marked officer, but there were not many fragging cases until 1969. In that year there were 96 documented assault cases; that number increased to 209 in 1970 and peaked in 1971 with 333 confirmed fragging incidences and 158 possible fraggings. By 1969, the war seemed hopeless, and units at the platoon and squad level were refusing orders when they perceived their lives to be at risk. Fragging victims were warned by the discreet leaving of a grenade pin by the entrance of his tent or by the throwing of a smoke grenade into his billet in the middle of the night. If the warning was not heeded, a fragmentation grenade would be used.
Fragging was difficult to detect and was often classified as due to hostile action, but in Helmer’s study he found almost 60 percent of the veterans he interviewed had personally known of a fragging incident in their unit. During the Winter Soldier Investigation 27two Marines, Gordon Stewart and Chris Soares, testified that their Platoon Sergeant had a $1,000 bounty placed on his head. His crimes were listed as making the men polish their boots, shave every day, and cut their hair, as well as taking more than his quota of the beer allocated to his men. Gordon Stewart confessed: "Bounties were quite common, undoubtedly. I think everyone would agree."28
The organisation that seemed to attract the most followers amongst GIs serving in Vietnam was the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. It began in New York in 1967 when six Vietnam veterans marching in an anti-war demonstration decided to band together on an anti-war platform. The organisation quickly grew to 600 members, but it wasn’t until late 1970 and early 1971 that they finally achieved the widespread publicity the leadership was counting on for the membership to take off. 29By mid-1971 there were 20,000 members with an estimated 2,000 on active duty in Vietnam itself. Although it was primarily an anti-war coalition, the final point of the Objectives of Vietnam Veterans Against the War calls for wider change in order to prevent future wars: ‘To affirm that the membership is not only concerned with ending this war, but changing the domestic, social, political, and economic institutions that have caused and permitted the continuance of war.’30
In his sociological study entitled Bringing the War Home, John Helmer extensively interviewed VVAW members concerning experiences and opinions before, during and after the war.
Before the war the section of respondents said that the majority of their fathers had served in the military and 57 percent held a positive attitude towards the military. As for drug use, only 30 percent regularly used marijuana and only a minority regularly drank, while only 13 percent said that the war was unjustified before service. During and after service attitudes changed dramatically. 60 percent became regular marijuana users and 60 percent began to use opiates (previously zero). More people claimed that they had more contact with prostitutes (67 percent) than with the AVRN (57 percent), and 77 percent were positive towards anti-war protests in the States. Anti-war attitudes changed from 13 percent before Vietnam, 77 percent in Vietnam, and 100 percent after Vietnam.
His results show that many came from conservative backgrounds before the war, and their radicalisation came after contact with the Vietnamese people rather than through combat. The correlation between drug use and increased anti-war sentiment is apparent in the study, while their anti-war sentiments became part of a heightened consciousness to wider political issues.
Helmer, as quoted before, sees drug use as a precursor to political mobilisation. Dr. Zinberg shares this view: ‘One-third of heroin users are supposed to begin within the first month in Vietnam, and over 80 percent begin in the first four months. Once these men experience their disappointment with the Army, they seem to be more receptive to the peace movement. But it is the marijuana-using group, who do not use heroin who are clearly the most outspoken supporters of the peace movement and the most politically active.’31
The progression between the different stages of rebellion is fluid. Firstly, disillusionment of long-standing ideals and confidence. Secondly, passive rebellion in form of regular drug usage. Thirdly, active rebellion for initially survival reasons (fragging, disobeying of orders, desertion.) and then organised politics. But caution towards this thesis comes from psychologist D. Bruce Bell in his essay ‘Desertion and Antiwar Protest.’ 79% of draft evaders gave antiwar reasons for their actions. But an analysis of various surveys into GI desertions shows only a small minority claimed antiwar reasons for their actions. 32‘The widespread belief that desertion and antiwar protest are synonymous cannot be substantiated by the findings. Apparently, desertion is a means to an end, and, for most deserters, the end is not political.’ 33
The extent of drug use is not open to debate. A large minority of GIs in Vietnam were heroin users, while the majority were pot smokers. Roughly half, according to Helmer, came back with antiwar convictions. In Vietnam, some took part in the murder of unpopular officers, a small minority were members of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, while a larger proportion disobeyed orders at some time. Some of these acts of rebellion were for their own personal preservation, some were for the wider scope of general political change. Drug usage is not a political act, neither is fragging. One is a form of passive personal rebellion, the other is a form of active resistance. Those that were politically conscious could have taken part in either, but the progression to organised political action is not as clear as Zinberg and Helmer claim. Not every marijuana user developed a heightened political consciousness, while organised anti-war activity amongst GIs took place in countries where availability of drugs was much more restricted. For most, drug use was a personal means of coping with the horrors of war. In the American situation race may be an alternative precursor for militancy, but as noted before, the VVAW were predominantly white. Class may be a reason for political activity. But Helmer’s survey shows no real connection between class and those that rebelled and those that did not. Neither do different levels of education give a reason for this. Perhaps drug usage is an indication of alternative attitudes, but it is no more than an indication, and the development onto wider political activity is indistinct.
Antiwar activity amongst American soldiers during the Vietnam War was common. The forms of resistance were a myriad of activities that ranged from drug usage to collective efforts at undermining the war effort. Most of these activities were for surviving a losing war, and once out of military service few chose to continue their activities. Although desertion and AWOL rates were not particularly higher than World War II or the Korean War (apart, that is, from the Marines), the pressure of subordination in the ranks was a building source of anxiety as the campaign progressed. One can imagine the terror that fragging must have brought to the officers, as well as their trouble in justifying an obviously bankrupt campaign. For the GIs, the brutality of their experience aroused their conscience and consciousness, and through their acts of rebellion – passive or active – the common cry became, ‘This war is not our war!’
Mullen, R.W. Black’s in America’s Wars. (Pathfinder, New York, 1973)
Helmer,J. Bringing the War Home: The America Soldier in Vietnam and After. (The Free Press, London, 1974)
Eldelman, B.ed. Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam. (Pocket Books, London, 1985)
Bell, D.B. ‘Desertion and Antiwar Protest’. Armed Forces and Society, Vol. 3, No. 3, May 1977.
Gill, G. ‘Black Soldiers’ Perspectives on the War’ The Vietnam Reader. (Routledge, New York, 1984)
Brecher, E.M. ‘The Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs’ Consumer Reports Magazine, 1972. http://www.drugtext.org/reports/cu/CU20.html.
Romo, B. Zastro, P. A History of the War in Vietnam. (http://www.may4.org/vetnam/htm)
Ruppert, M.C. ‘The POWs, CIA and Drugs: Uglier Truths Behind the Sarin Gas Stories’ (http://copvcia.com/POW.htm)
Caputo, P. A Rumour of War. (Arrow Books, London, 1977)
McMahon, R.J. Ed. Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War. (D.C. Heath and Company, Lexington, 1990)
Blum, J.M. Years of Discord: American Politics and Society. (W.W. Norton, London, 1991)
i. Baky, J. White Cong and Black Clap: The Ambient Truth of Vietnam War Legendary.
ii. Young Lords Party: 13-Point Program and Platorm.
iii. Winter Soldier Investigation. Testimony given in Detroit, Michigan on January 31, 1971, February 1 and 2, 1971.
iv. Muller, B, A Veteran Speaks Against the War.
v. Black Panther Party: Platform and Program.
These texts above can be found on (http://lists.village.virginia.edu/sixties.)
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