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A Comparison of American GI Resistance to the Vietnam War and the Iraq War
Robert W. Norris
2008. In Fukuoka International University Bulletin, No. 20: 1-14
This paper makes a comparison of GI resistance to the Vietnam War and the Iraq War. The first section examines the makeup of the military in the two wars. The following sections divide resisters into two types (disobedients and dissidents) and examines the types of resistance they have engaged in.
Keywords: GI, military, resistance, revolt, disobedience, stockade, AWOL, desertion, mutiny, combat avoidance, conscientious objection, Vietnam War, Iraq War
Much has been written about the Vietnam War, the turbulent 1960s, and the antiwar movement that played a critical part in bringing the war to an end. More recently, comparisons between the current Iraq War and the Vietnam War are frequently made as the U.S. occupation of Iraq continues.
Less often researched and reported is the amount of opposition displayed by soldiers and military veterans to these wars. In American history, there has always been a certain amount of GI resistance to the many wars the U.S. has engaged in, but the Vietnam War produced resistance on a scale never seen before. GI resistance to the Iraq War, though still small in comparison, continues to grow and is increasingly a concern to military and political leaders.
This paper looks first at a major difference in the makeup of military forces in the two wars: a conscription military versus an all-volunteer military. Included in this section is an examination of shifting attitudes within the civilian population and the military of the two wars, as well as an examination of discriminatory policies. The following sections divide GI resisters from both wars into two groups and examine the types of resistance they have engaged in. One group is the "disobedients," who have engaged in more direct forms of resistance such as drug use, refusals of orders, mutinies, combat avoidance, absences without leave (AWOL), desertions, and conscientious objector (CO) applications. The other group is the "dissidents," who have participated in organized resistance such as publishing and contributing to underground GI newspapers and attending antiwar protests and demonstrations. The final part describes various forms of what can be called "extreme GI alienation" that don't fall into the above two categories. Examples include suicides, crime, and homelessness.
The Draft, the Volunteer Army, and the Composition of the Military
One of the biggest differences between the Vietnam War and the Iraq War is the manner in which the military has drawn its manpower. Of the 2.5 million soldiers who served in Vietnam during the war, there were three distinct groups of GIs: draftees, draft-motivated "volunteers," and "true" volunteers.1 The first group contained many middle-class men, but the second and third groups were mainly from working-class or poor families.
Although the percentage of middle-class GIs was relatively small, the Vietnam-era military contained a more representative cross section of society than the volunteer military today, which is made up almost entirely of working-class and poor. Many people refer to the volunteer system as an "economic draft."2 Young workers of many nationalities, including immigrants, are told that joining the military is an opportunity for job training and access to higher education. Young people from poor communities are lured in by free housing, health care benefits, and guarantees of three meals a day.
Today's military has changed in other ways as well. It's much smaller. The conscript military of the Vietnam War had more than 4 million soldiers, but now there are about 1.4 million. This means that many Reserve and National Guard members have had to be activated. As of 2006, about 35 percent of the GIs in Iraq were reservists. Another change is that female soldiers now comprise 15 percent of those serving in the military.3
Twenty-five years ago, most low-ranking GIs were single, but today the majority are married with one or more children. Upon finishing basic training, today's GIs earn twice what they would from a minimum wage job in the civilian sector.
Despite the economic advantages, the military is failing to meet its recruitment goals. For the first time in years, both the Army and Marines fell short in 2005. Since then they have begun offering cash bonuses of $15,000 to potential enlistees. The average re-enlistment bonus has increased to $20,000. GIs with specialized skills are receiving up to $35,000. Some Special Forces members, who have the most dangerous jobs, have been offered up to $150,000 to re-enlist.4
During the Vietnam War, soldiers were assigned one-year tours when ordered to fight. If they could survive that one year of combat, they knew they would come home. In contrast, the Pentagon has imposed "stop loss" orders (also commonly known as the "backdoor draft") on over 70,000 GIs during the Iraq War. These orders involuntarily extend their enlistment beyond the discharge dates of their contracts. As of January 2008, only 25 percent of the GIs in Iraq were there for their first tour; 50 percent were on their second tour; and the remaining 25 percent have been there three times or more.5
Shifting Attitudes within the Civilian Population and the Military
In the June 1971 issue of the Armed Forces Journal, former Marine Colonel Robert Heinl wrote an article titled "The Collapse of the Armed Forces" that shocked the military establishment. Heinl's opening sentence stated, "The morale, discipline, and battle-worthiness of the armed forces are, with a few salient exceptions, lower and worse than at any time in this century and possibly in the history of the United States."6
A year later, Morris Janowitz, the dean of military sociologists, made basically the same assessment in Foreign Affairs when he wrote, "The military establishment, and especially its ground forces, are experiencing a profound crisis in legitimacy due to the impact of Vietnam, internal racial tension, corruption, extensive drug abuse, loss of command and operational effectiveness, and wide-spread anti-military sentiment."7
From the mid-1960s to the late 1960s, reports from the media gave the impression that opposition to the war came mostly from middle-class intellectuals and students, but in reality Americans with lower income and education levels were much stronger for their support of withdrawal from the war. A Harvard poll in the spring of 1964, when the Vietnam War was still a minor issue, showed that 53 percent of college-educated people thought there was a need to send soldiers to Vietnam, but only 33 percent of grade-school educated people thought so. A survey by the University of Michigan showed that in June 1966 of people with a college education, 27 percent were for immediate withdrawal; of people with only a grade school education, 41 percent wanted immediate withdrawal. By September 1970, both groups were more antiwar: 47 percent of college-educated and 61 percent of grade school graduates were for withdrawal.8
Concerning the perception of the media, Howard Zinn (2001) writes, "It seems that the media, themselves controlled by higher-education, higher-income people who were more aggressive in foreign policy, tended to give the erroneous impression that working-class people were superpatriots for the war."9
The year 1968 was a turning point in the shifting attitudes toward the war, both within the military and the civilian population. The Tet offensive (in which over 100 cities in South Vietnam were attacked and thousands of U.S. soldiers were killed), the My Lai massacre (in which an estimated 450 women, children, and old men were killed by a company of U.S. soldiers and buried in mass graves), the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and the violent demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago all caused the media to question the justification of the war.
These changes in attitude reflected the general change in the entire population of the U.S. In August 1965, 61 percent of the people thought sending soldiers to Vietnam was not wrong, but by May 1971, the number was reversed: 61 percent thought it was wrong.10
Prior to 1968, GI resistance was mainly confined to isolated and individual acts of conscience. For the remainder of the war, however, unrest, rebellion against authority, and a morale crisis within the military manifested itself in several areas. These included (1) a huge decline in the re-enlistment rate; (2) increases in AWOL cases and absenteeism, as well as in the number of GIs seeking conscientious objector status; (3) higher rates of punitive and administrative discharge rates for misconduct, unfitness, and unsuitability; and (4) a growing drug problem among GIs. Political activism and the more extreme manifestations of rebellion seen in disobedience of orders, mutinies, violence, and suicides increased to the point that the military itself was in serious trouble. Details of these acts of rebellion will be taken up in a later section.
As with the early stages of the Vietnam War, a similar pattern of early media support for the Iraq War that has weakened in the wake of several scandals can be seen. Immediately after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack, there was strong support for fighting a war. Enlistments in the military increased. But as the war has dragged on, the numbers of soldiers killed and wounded have grown, and scandals such as the exposure of the torturing of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison have appeared, support for the war has dwindled and GI resistance is beginning to become apparent.
During the Vietnam War, racism within the military became such a concern that civilian, military, and political investigations were conducted into the problems of discrimination and unequal opportunities for minority soldiers. The most thorough of the investigations was the Department of Defense’s (DOD) Report of the Task Force on the Administration of Military Justice, published in November 1972.
In examining documents from these investigations, Cortright (2005) found evidence of military discrimination in four main areas: (1) unequal job placement, (2) unequal promotion rates, (3) oppressively harsh punishment rates, and (4) a disproportionate rate of less-than-honorable discharges.11
Concerning unequal job placement, Cortright (2005) writes:
Black servicemen are disproportionately assigned to so-called ‘soft core,’ or low-skill occupations. Although constituting 12.1 percent of all enlisted people, black servicemen in 1971 represented 16.3 percent of those in combat specialties and 19.6 percent of those in service and supply positions. Within frontline combat units, black participation is even higher. Many infantry units in Vietnam were more than twenty percent black, with paratroop units in some cases approaching 50 percent.12
In the area of promotions, Cortright (2005) reports that figures for March 1972 showed that blacks are disproportionately assigned to the lowest pay grades. The NAACP’s (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) 1971 study of the Seventh Army in Germany, "The Search for Military Justice," showed that 30 percent of the blacks were at pay grade E-3 or lower, while only 14 percent of the white servicemen were at this low position. In the same group, fewer than 20 percent of the blacks were at grade E-5 or higher, compared to 27 percent of the whites. The low percentages of blacks within the officer ranks are striking. As of July 1974, the percentage of black officers in the various services was as follows: 4.2 percent in the Army, 1.1 percent in the Navy, 2.0 percent in the Maine Corps, and 2.0 percent in the Air Force.13
In terms of military punishment, the DOD’s Task Force report disclosed that "a greater number of black enlisted men receive non-judicial punishment (25.5%) than their proportionate number at installations participating in this study." The Task Force also reported that of the 1,471 servicemen tried by court martial during its investigation, 34.3 percent were black, more than double their proportion of the total enlisted population.14
Blacks also comprised a disproportionate number of the prisoners at military prisons during the Vietnam War. Cortright (2005) explains:
According to 1971 Justice Department figures supplied to the House Armed Services Committee, blacks comprise 30 percent of those in Army stockades and 53 percent of those in Air Force prisons. In 1972, blacks represented 47 percent of the prisoners at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and 43 percent of the men in the 3320th Retraining Group at Lowry AFB, Colorado. Not only are blacks confined far in excess of their numbers, but, according to the DOD Task Force study at Fort Leavenworth, they receive significantly more severe punishments than whites. On the average, blacks are confined at hard labor a year longer than whites (2.9 years to 1.9 years) and are considerably more likely to be sentenced to total forfeiture of pay and dishonorable discharge.15
Blacks also suffered higher rates of less-than-honorable discharges. The NAACP report claimed that in Europe blacks received 45 percent of all such discharges. Figures provided to the Congressional Black Caucus in 1970 showed that although blacks comprised only 11.7 percent of the Air Force, they received 28.9 percent of its less-than-honorable discharges. Although it did not include specific numbers, the DOD Task Force confirmed the discriminatory pattern of administrative discharges:
In all services, blacks receive a lower proportion of honorable discharges and a high proportion of general and undesirable discharges than whites with similar educational levels and aptitude. Thus the disparity cannot be explained by aptitude or lack of education.16
In recent years, there has been a drop-off in the number of blacks enlisting in the armed services. As a result, military recruiters have focused more on the Latino population as the minority of choice. As with blacks during the Vietnam War, a disproportionate number of Hispanics are now engaged in low skill occupations. In November 2004, Political Affairs Magazine reported that although Latinos comprise only 13.5 percent of the general U.S. population, according to 2001 Department of Defense statistics, they made up 17.7 percent of the positions directly related to combat in all the service branches. Of those Latinos and Latinas in the Army, 24.7 percent occupy such jobs and in the Marine Corps, 19.7 percent.17
The Political Affairs Magazine article also reported that very few Latinos make it into the officers’ ranks. Among all Latinos in the Marine Corps, only 3 percent are officers, while over 80 percent of the officer corps (in all branches of the service) is white.18
Recruiters are also targeting immigrants, who are mainly limited to low-level occupations and positions directly related to combat. The Mennonite Central Committee explains that "while legal permanent residents may enlist in the military, they are largely barred from officer positions or positions that require sensitive security clearances. Nonetheless, nearly 8,000 non-citizens will enlist in the military this year (2008), and the Defense Manpower Data Center estimates that there are currently 35,000 non-citizens on active duty in the U.S. military."19
The Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) also reports that a fast-track citizenship policy initiated by the government in 2002 has created misunderstanding. After an announcement that non-citizens serving in the U.S. military could apply for citizenship immediately, a rumor circulated in the Latino community that citizenship was automatic. What was officially announced as a reward for military service quickly became understood as an inducement, or a reason to enlist. For those already in the military, citizenship applications jumped from 300 a month before the fast-track policy announcement to 1,300 a month. In 2004, 7,500 military personnel gained their U.S. citizenship through the military. On the other hand, immigrant soldier deaths increased after the fast-track policy announcement. The MCC writes that as of March 2005, 142 non-citizen troops had died in Iraq and Afghanistan. These non-citizen casualties represented 8 percent of the total, while non-citizens made up less than 3 percent of active duty military personnel.20
Characteristics of Dissidence and Disobedience
The military was concerned enough about the GI resistance problem that it commissioned two major studies in 1970 and 1971 by the Research Analysis Corporation: Determination for the Potential of Dissidence in the U.S. Army21 and Future Impact of Dissident Elements Within the Army.22 These two studies provided data on the scale of GI resistance during the Vietnam War as well as the socioeconomic characteristics of those involved.
The studies classified GI protest into two categories: "dissidence" and "disobedience." The dissidence category was comprised of verbal and articulate forms of opposition, was usually within the context of military law, and was aimed at higher levels of authority within the military. The disobedience category included more direct and physical forms of opposition, was often in defiance of military law, and was aimed at more immediate and lower levels of authority.
The results of the studies showed that nearly 25 percent of enlisted soldiers engaged in dissident activities, while nearly the same percent engaged in acts of disobedience. If frequent drug use is added, the total percentage of GIs who were involved in dissidence, disobedience, or drug use came to 55 percent. The results also showed that GI resistance was more concentrated among volunteers than among draftees. The studies' analysis of the social origins of the GI resisters showed there were differences. The dissidents tended to come from suburban, middle-class families and were well-educated, while the disobedients came from lower-income and less-educated backgrounds.
Disobedient Resistance in the Vietnam War
One manifestation of the decline in morale within the military during the Vietnam War can be seen in the amount of drug use the soldiers engaged in. The 1971 Department of Defense Survey of Drug Use, conducted by the Human Resources Research Organization (HumRRO) was the first scientific attempt to determine drug-use levels throughout the military. The report showed that of the 36,500 enlisted men surveyed, 29.9 percent had used marijuana, 18.8 percent had used psychedelics (including hashish), and 12.2 percent had used narcotics (including heroin and opium).23
Cortright (2005) claims that while the HumRRO report gives a good gauge of the drug problem as it existed in 1971, it does not give a comparison with previous years and fails to show the sharp rate of increase in drug use as the Vietnam War progressed. Cortright (2005) says that a better indication of this can be found in Pentagon statistics of criminal investigations for possible drug violations.24
In 1967, 3,626 soldiers were investigated for drug use; by 1970, the number of inquiries had jumped to 22,791. In the armed forces as a whole, the rate of investigation for marijuana use more than doubled from 1968 to 1970. Similarly, administrative discharges for reasons of drug abuse climbed from 3,766 in 1969 to 8,818 in 1971.25
According to Cortright (2005), several other in-service surveys indicated that drug use was more heavily concentrated among those soldiers directly engaged in combat than in those soldiers in rear-echelon areas. Cortright (2005) states that although it’s likely that marijuana use may have had an impact on soldiers’ actual combat performance, the larger concern is that of soldiers using hard drugs: "No Army can function properly with 10 percent of its troops using hard narcotics on a regular basis…. The plague of drug abuse signaled an Army demoralized to the point of collapse."26
Another sign of discontent and malaise within the military can be seen in the statistics for drops in re-enlistment and for increases in desertions and AWOLs. First-term re-enlistment rates declined steadily during the Vietnam War and hit 12 percent in 1970, the lowest figure on record. During the peak years from 1966 to 1971, the Army desertion rate jumped almost 400 percent from 14.9 incidents per thousand GIs in 1966 to 73.5 per thousand in 1971. During the same period, the rate for the armed forces as a whole increased threefold, from 8.4 to 33.9 per thousand. An important fact to keep in mind is that most of these desertions did not occur on the battlefield, which seems to indicate that the deserters took off more from disillusionment and disgust than from danger. Army desertion and AWOL rates in 1971 were the highest in recorded history: 73.5 desertions and 176.9 AWOLs for every 1,000 GIs.27
To understand these soldiers' motivations, it is important to examine their social backgrounds. A study by HumRRO in 1972 concluded that most of the deserters and AWOLs were from disadvantaged social backgrounds and with the least amount of education. The HumRRO report also concluded that volunteer soldiers were more prone to go AWOL than draftees. Cortright (2005) explains:
In most cases, deserters and AWOLs are lower-class people who have joined the military believing the job-benefit claims of recruiters, only to discover through rude experience the far different realities of military life and imperial war. Reflecting their lower-class backgrounds, they have expressed their bitterness at being deceived by the recruitment racket through unsophisticated means; as Bob Musil has aptly remarked; "Like so many refugees, they have voted with their feet."28
Similar statistics during the peak years of the Vietnam War can be seen in the numbers of in-service applications for conscientious objector status. From 1967 to 1971, the time of the maximum number of ground forces in Vietnam, rates rose nearly 200 percent in the Marines (from 56 to 157 applicants) to about 400 percent in the Army (from 594 to 2,827). The Air Force (from 74 to 536) and Navy (from 105 to 861) had even higher rates that continued into 1972 (Air Force, 506; Navy, 789), indicating that the pattern of resistance was related to their roles in the war effort.29 After ground troops were withdrawn in 1973, the war continued another two years, mainly by aerial bombardment.
Punitive and administrative discharges also give a good indication of the level of resistance and morale problems within the military. These discharges are normally given for the reasons of unsuitability, unfitness, and misconduct. Cortright (2005) defines these terms as follows.
Unsuitability discharges are usually given to recruits and others new to the service for chronic inaptitude or repeated short-term AWOL; unfitness releases result from frequent disciplinary problems or drug abuse; and misconduct separations are issued to those facing criminal charges.
Again, during the peak years of the war, these rates climbed dramatically. The total for all services was 11.6 per thousand in 1967 and reached a peak of 33.7 per thousand in 1972.30
Refusing orders to fight and staging "quasi-mutinies" were two types of resistance that, although difficult to document, were seemingly wide-spread. They took various forms such as "search and avoid" missions (patrols that, in order to avoid confrontations with the enemy, set up camps not far from their bases and reported in as if really on patrol), threats against officers, ignoring dress and haircut rules, and obstructing military missions through inefficiency on the job and sometimes even sabotage.
The first reported incident of mass mutiny occurred on August 26, 1969 when the New York Daily News reported that the 60 remaining GIs of a battalion that had suffered great losses in five days of heavy fighting refused their captain's order to proceed to a dangerous location. In November 1969, twenty-one GIs near the end of their year-long tour refused an order to advance into enemy territory near Cambodia. The Cleveland Press writer reported that the "rebellion was not without precedence in these late days of the Vietnam War."31 No fewer than ten incidents of mutiny were reported in the latter stages of the war.
Violent resistance was not uncommon. The term "fragging," which meant using hand grenades ("fragmentation devices" in military jargon) to murder another soldier, usually a higher-ranking officer, was born in Vietnam. Fragging incidents happened so frequently that the Army began keeping records in 1969. By July 1972, the total number of recorded fraggings had reached 551, with 86 soldiers dead and over 700 injured.32 These numbers include only explosive devices and do not include shootings with guns. Cortright (2005) estimates that attacks against soldiers in positions of authority probably reached into the thousands. For every actual attack that was reported, there were many instances of intimidation and threats. Colonel Robert D. Heinl, in his June 1971 Armed Forces Journal article wrote, "The Army was at war not with the enemy, but with itself."33
Stockade revolts were another form of violent resistance. Led by black soldiers, two of the most notorious occurred in Vietnam in August 1968, one at Da Nang and the other at Long Binh. At Da Nang, prisoners staged a demonstration on August 16, protesting overcrowded cells, cold food, being made to stand at attention for long periods, and the insulting attitude of the guards. The prisoners took control of the central area of the brig and held out against armed guards for 20 hours. Seven prisoners and a guard were injured.34
At Long Binh Jail, prisoners rioted against overcrowded cells, no plumbing, and inexperienced guards. Hundreds of inmates fought against armed guards for several hours. Many of the buildings were burned. Fifty-eight prisoners and five military police were injured. One Private was killed. In response, over 200 black prisoners organized a no-work strike and a small group barricaded a part of the prison for over a month. When the incident ended, six of the black prisoners were charged with murder.35
Disobedient Resistance in the Iraq War
Signs of discontent and expressions of antiwar sentiment began to appear within the military shortly after the fall of Baghdad in the summer of 2003. The first reports of disobedient resistance came in October 2003 when 30 GIs who had been home on leave in Baltimore, Maryland missed their return flight to Iraq.36 The 101st Airborne Division in Fort Bragg, North Carolina saw the number of AWOLs rise from 107 in the year preceding September 2002 to 235 in the 12-month period ending in September 2003.37 The Army tried to reactivate 4,000 former soldiers in the individual ready reserves in 2004, but nearly half of that number either requested exemption or failed to report on the call-up date.38
Exact numbers of AWOLs since the Iraq War began are difficult to determine, but in the spring of 2007 the GI Rights Hotline -- a consortium of more than 20 non-governmental, non-profit organizations that provides free and confidential information on U.S. military regulations and practices to soldiers, veterans, potential recruits, and their families -- reported official Pentagon numbers that showed about 8,000 GIs had gone AWOL since March 2003.39 Democracy Now, an independent news program, broadcast in a November 23, 2007 interview that there were over 10,000 deserters.40 NOW, a Public Broadcasting System program, reported in an August 2007 program that there were over 20,000 deserters.41 There are about 300 deserters living underground existences in Canada.42 In September 2007 the GI Rights Hotline reported an average of 3,000 calls a month by new recruits and active duty soldiers who had decided they wanted to abandon the military.43
Compared to the Vietnam War, the Iraq War has produced few conscientious objector applications. A congressional report (the Government Accountability Office report) released in October 2007 showed that from 2002 to 2006 the active and reserve components of all the military had processed 425 CO applications.44 The actual numbers of COs, however, are probably underreported due to the difficult application process and because peer pressure within the military discourages GIs from applying. For example, the Center For Conscience and War, a GI rights group, claimed the GAO report didn't reflect the true numbers because (1) it didn't take into account the hundreds of service members who were prevented from filing as objectors by overriding "stop-loss" orders and (2) it didn't include those who went to jail for outright refusing to go war.45
The Iraq War is not without its own examples of GIs refusing orders to fight and staging "quasi-mutinies." Among incidents that have been reported by the media, there are two cases of en-masse rejection of orders. On October 13, 2004, nineteen members the 343rd Quartermaster Company, an Army reserve platoon, refused an order to make a supply run through a dangerous section of Iraq because they deemed the mission too dangerous.46 On July 18, 2007, members of another platoon collectively refused to obey an order to go out on patrol in the Adhamiya region of Iraq because they were too traumatized and could "no longer function professionally."47
Although there have been rumors of fraggings in Iraq, only two cases has been confirmed. On March 23, 2003, an Army sergeant killed two officers and wounded 14 other soldiers in a hand grenade and shooting attack. On June 7, 2005 another Army sergeant allegedly killed two of his superior officers with three grenades.
"Search and avoid" missions are also not uncommon in Iraq. Dahr Jamail, a reporter for IPS News, wrote on October 26, 2007, "Morale among US soldiers in [Iraq] is so poor, many are simply parking their Humvees and pretending to be on patrol."48
Concerning whether the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have produced a drug-use problem, the U.S. military maintains the percentage of soldiers abusing drugs is extremely small and has not increased as a result of wars. Veterans' advocacy groups, however, claim that the problem of drug abuse is much greater than the Army wants to publicly acknowledge and is growing. In November 2007, ABC News reported that, according to the Veterans Health Administration, 3,057 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were potentially diagnosed with a drug dependency from fiscal year 2005 through March 2007. From 2002 through 2004, a total of only 277 veterans were diagnosed with drug dependency. In the same ABC News story, Paul Sullivan, director of Veterans for Common Sense, said, "I've met with veterans from coast to coast, and I will tell you that there is a catastrophe on the horizon."49
Dissident Resistance in the Vietnam War
The organization of a GI coffeehouse and support movement started in late 1967. The first coffeehouse was started by civilian peace activists near Fort Jackson in South Carolina. Within the first few weeks, hundreds of GIs were visiting in their free time. Over the next year, about 20 coffeehouses were set up near military bases around the U.S. These coffeehouses were staffed by civilian activists and active duty GIs. In addition to being safe places where GIs could get away from their bases and talk about their opposition to the war, they also provided entertainment, legal counseling, and bookstores. Many also published antiwar newspapers and newsletters. One of the first coffeehouse-published underground GI newspapers was The Vietnam GI, which was mailed to over 3,000 GIs in Vietnam.50
All told, an estimated 300 GI newspapers helped GIs express opposition to the war.51 Many published only a few issues, but others continued for as long as four years. These coffeehouses and GI newspapers were influential in setting the stage for GI activism.
The first major act of political defiance by GIs happened at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas in August 1968. Thousands of troops throughout the country were being prepared for possible use against civilian demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. On August 23, over 100 black GIs gathered at Fort Hood to discuss racism and the use of GIs against civilians. Forty-three of them were arrested.52
On April 27, 1968 a group of 40 GIs marched at the front of an antiwar demonstration in San Francisco, the first time GIs had led a civilian peace rally. On October 12, about 200 active duty soldiers and 100 reservists marched at the head of another antiwar rally in downtown San Francisco. On February 16, 1969, over 200 GIs led a crowd of several thousand protesters in Seattle, Washington.53
As the number of protests, the formation of GI unions making legal demands and signing petitions, and civilian support and legal aid increased, the GI movement became more confident. Initially, the military counteracted by harassment, intimidation, arrests, and transfers of key GI dissidents, but the numbers and civilian media coverage became overwhelming. On November 9, 1969, the New York Times Sunday edition published an open appeal that called for an end to the war and support for the Vietnam Memorial march on November 15. A statement supporting the moratorium had been signed by 1,366 GIs, including 189 who were in Vietnam. Over 250,000 people attended the moratorium, which was led by more than 200 GIs.54
Veterans who had returned from the war created a group called Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). In December 1970 hundreds of VVAW members gathered in Detroit, Michigan to testify about "war crimes" they had seen or participated in. This was called the "Winter Soldier" investigations. In April 1971 over 1,000 of them demonstrated in Washington D.C. by throwing away the medals they had earned in Vietnam and making statements against the war. Membership in the VVAW reached 20,000 by the summer, including 2,000 in Vietnam.55
Black solidarity was another phenomenon connected to dissident resistance. In the mid-1960s the urban uprisings and revolutionary feeling that was spreading among blacks stateside found its way into the military. Some black soldiers strongly identified with Malcolm X and his support for the Vietnamese revolution. Black Power fists and peace signs started to appear on helmets. Black soldiers began growing afro hair cuts and many started greeting each other with the “Dap” (i.e., the power handshake). "No Viet Cong ever called me nigger" became a popular slogan among black soldiers.56
The 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King led to revolts, protests and "racial incidents" on many military bases. The Black Panther Party issued calls to black GIs: "Either quit the Army now or start destroying it from the inside." One poll reported that 76 percent of black soldiers supported Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver and were seriously dealing with the question of the armed overthrow of the U.S. government. Clandestine chapters of the Black Panther Party formed in Vietnam.57
Examples of black organizing in the military included the Black Liberation Front of the Armed Services, the Black Brothers Union, and the Unsatisfied Black Soldiers. The first group was led by a Black Panther Party supporter who, along with 40 other members, demonstrated at Long Binh in the spring of 1971 to commemorate Martin Luther King’s birthday. The Black Brothers Union was active at Cam Ranh, Vietnam in 1971 and worked to eliminate discrimination in on-base activities. In January 1971 the group presented a report to the base inspector general complaining about discriminatory practices at the enlisted men’s club. When the report and a follow-up request were ignored, the group organized a boycott of the club. Racial tensions increased, which resulted in a fragging of the club. Thirty-one people were injured.58
The Unsatisfied Black Soldiers were based in Heidelberg, Germany. They published an underground newspaper called About Face and were the main sponsors of one of the biggest events of the GI movement. In the spring of 1970, they issued a "call for justice," calling on soldiers throughout Germany to assemble at the University of Heidelberg on July 4 for a meeting to discuss enlisted soldiers’ grievances. About 1,000 soldiers, mostly black, showed up. Among the demands made were calls for immediate withdrawal of troops from Southeast Asia and for withdrawal of all U.S. interests from African countries.59
As the GI movement continued to spread throughout all the services and around the world, the military was forced to take drastic measures or risk losing control of its own troops. In December 1971, the Army announced that returning veterans and GIs with fewer than six months of active service could opt for an immediate discharge. Thousands of soldiers took advantage of this program.60 In 1973, the Army began to withdraw most of the ground troops in Vietnam and instituted an all-volunteer Army. Although the "early out" program, the withdrawal of ground forces from Vietnam, and the all-volunteer military held back resistance within the Army, there was still active resistance within the Navy and Air Force until the war was officially over in 1975.
Dissident Resistance in the Iraq War
As in the Vietnam War, dissidence in the first three to four years of the Iraq War has been scattered and isolated, but organized resistance is growing as frustration and discontent within the military rises. In 2007 the first GI coffeehouse was set up in Watertown, New York near the Fort Drum Army base. Another one is being planned near Fort Lewis in Tacoma, Washington.
The Internet has replaced the underground press as a key source of GI organizing and sharing of antiwar information. Such groups as Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), Military Families Against the War, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and others have created their own websites and joined forces with the VVAW and other active veteran groups. There are many GI blogs reporting on what is really happening in Iraq, as well as online GI newspapers like Traveling Soldier Online, GI Special, and Citizen Soldier.
In 2006, GIs started the Appeal for Redress, a petition calling for the immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq. It had collected over 2,000 GI signatures as of September 2007.61 In 2007, a group of former conscientious objectors set up a website for GIs interested in how to apply for CO status. The site reportedly had 3,000 hits on its first day of operation in 2005.62
The IVAW, which has over 800 members, toured military bases around the U.S. in 2007 and espoused the message of bringing the troops home. At their annual meeting, they launched a campaign to encourage GIs to refuse to fight in Iraq. Throughout the year, they organized rallies against military recruiters in high schools, universities, and recruiting stations. In 2008, they organized a new round of Winter Soldier testimonies that took place from March 13 to March 16 in Washington, D.C. The event brought together veterans to testify about their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. Panels of scholars, veterans, journalists, and other specialists participated to give context to the testimonies.63
Resistance has come not only from the lower-ranking soldiers, but also from high-ranking officers. A 29-year Army colonel resigned in protest on the eve on the invasion of Iraq and since then has been an outspoken critic of the war.64 Another retired Air Force lieutenant colonel published an open letter on the Internet in late 2007 to encourage soldiers to refuse orders if the U.S. decides to attack Iran.65
Crime, Homelessness, and Suicides
As noted previously, the vast majority of GIs who have fought in these two wars have come from the lower-class and lower-educated, those more likely to engage in disobedient rather than dissident forms of resistance. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), mental health problems, disabling injuries, illnesses related to the exposure to Agent Orange and Depleted Uranium (DU), and difficulty in readjusting to life in society after their war experiences have led many to become disillusioned and alienated to such an extent that they succumb to what can be called "the extreme forms" of resistance: crime, homelessness, and suicides.
The U.S. government's 1981 study of the effects of the Vietnam War on veterans, "Legacies of Vietnam," surveyed over 1,000 GIs who experienced heavy combat and found that 24 percent were later arrested for criminal offenses.66 The study showed that these veterans suffered from "lingering trauma from combat, lack of interest in normal activities, explosive anger, confusion, loss of self-confidence, and nightmares about the war."67 In 1981, a reported 30,000 Vietnam veterans were in prison, and more than 100,000 had been jailed since the war started.68
According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans (NCHV), an estimated 56,500 Vietnam-era veterans were in U.S. prisons in 1998. The NCHV also reported that on any given night in the same year nearly 200,000 veterans were homeless, 47 percent of whom were Vietnam veterans.69
Mandated by Congress in 1983, the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study (NVVRS) revealed that 829,000 ex-GIs were suffering from some degree of PTSD, and that another 350,000 had PTSD symptoms that were not of a severe enough intensity for a complete diagnosis of PTSD. The NVVRS also showed that almost half of the men suffering from PTSD at the time of the survey had been arrested or in jail at least once, and 11.5 percent had been convicted of a felony.70
During the Vietnam War, the U.S. military used more than 80 million liters of Agent Orange, a dangerous chemical poison that contained dioxin, to spray forests, crops, and villages. An estimated 2 to 5 million people were directly exposed. Veterans and their children have suffered the same effects as the Vietnamese: cancers, birth defects, stillbirths, and mutations.71
A CBS story in 1978 reported that Vietnam veterans who had been exposed to Agent Orange were complaining of these problems.72 By 1980, more than 5,000 claims had been filed with the Veterans Administration.73 Only a few received benefits, mainly because no scientific studies had established a link between the chemical and the physical problems claimed by the veterans. As of 1998, over 92,000 claims had been made with the VA, but only about 5,900 had been approved.74
In 1984, veterans won a lawsuit against the companies that made Agent Orange. Today around 10,000 Vietnam veterans are receiving disability benefits.75
The actual number of Vietnam veteran suicides is difficult to determine. Estimates range from 20,000 to over 200,000. A study by Bullman and Yang (1995) stated that no more than 20,000 vets had committed suicide after they were discharged until 1993.76 In his book Nam Vet: Making Peace with Your Past, Chuck Dean (1987) claimed the number was over 150,000.77 If the latter is true, the number of suicides is by now more than three times the number who were killed in the war.
News reports in 2007 and 2008 show that Iraq War veterans are suffering from many of the same problems Vietnam vets have experienced. Thousands of GIs are returning from Afghanistan and Iraq wounded and psychologically traumatized. These reports show that some are committing violent crimes, while many are suffering homelessness, addiction, and mental illness in record numbers. The rates of suicides are also increasing.
In January 2008 the New York Times published a series of articles that examined 121 cases in which Iraq and Afghanistan vets were charged with murder. Three-quarters of the veterans were still in the military. A third of the victims were either girlfriends or family members. A quarter of the victims were other military members.78
In November 2007, CBS news reported that of the 90,000 vets who served in Iraq in 2005 and 2006 and later sought treatment at VA facilities, 28.3 percent experienced mental health problems.79 On August 12, 2007, the Boston Globe reported, "Army studies have found that up to 30 percent of soldiers coming home from Iraq suffer from depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder."80
USA Today reported on October 18, 2007 that mental health is the second largest area of illness for which Iraq and Afghanistan veterans seek treatment at VA clinics and hospitals.81 On January 17, 2008 Oneworld.net carried a story that claimed the VA had a backlog of over 600,000 PTSD claims by GIs returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.82 Decisions on these claims can reportedly take from several months to several years, in which time the danger of these veterans becoming homeless or even committing suicide increases.
Another factor that increases the danger of Iraq veterans becoming homeless or suicidal is that they are having a difficult time finding jobs. Many of the jobs they do find have a lower pay scale than for those who never served in the military. According to an AP story on February 7, 2008, the 2007 study by the consulting firm Abt Associates found that 18 percent of the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who sought jobs within one to three years of their discharges were unemployed, while one out of four who did find jobs earned less than $21,840 a year.83
As of November 2007, the VA had identified about 1,500 Iraq veterans as being homeless.84 The actual number is probably much higher. The pattern of becoming homeless is also changing. Peter Dougherty, director of homeless programs for the VA, said in an August 2007 Boston Globe interview that while the approximately 70,000 Vietnam veterans who became homeless usually spent between five and 10 years trying to readjust to civilian life before winding up on the streets, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who become homeless do so within 18 months after they return from the war.85
The Washington Post reported on January 31, 2008 that the number of attempted suicides or self-inflicted wounds had increased 600 percent in the Army since the Iraq War began.86 In 2007, about 2,100 soldiers injured themselves or attempted suicide, compared with about 350 in 2002. The article also stated that while, historically, suicide rates tend to decrease while soldiers are in conflicts overseas, that trend has reversed.
From a suicide rate of 9.8 per 100,000 active-duty soldiers in 2001 -- the lowest on record -- the Army reached an all-time high of 17.5 suicides per 100,000 active-duty soldiers in 2006. [In 2007] twice as many soldier suicides occurred in the United States than in Iraq and Afghanistan.87
In much the same way as Vietnam veterans had to deal with the effects of Agent Orange, today's veterans have to deal with the effects of Depleted Uranium (DU). According to a Global Research article published January 21, 2006, the U.S. military had used 300 tons of DU in the 1991 Gulf War and 1,700 tons in the Gulf War.88 The article cited a report by the World Health Organization (WHO) that states DU, because of its high density, is used in anti-tank and "bunker buster" missiles. Upon impact, the DU fragments burn at intense heat, and 10 to 35 percent of it becomes air-born. This DU dust is extremely harmful because it is easily inhaled. Wind and people walking through it disperse the dust easily. DU has a half life of billions of years.
After the Gulf War, nearly a third of the GIs who served there came down with "Gulf War Syndrome" and are receiving disability compensation from the VA.89 The symptoms of Gulf War Syndrome are similar to radiation or heavy-metal poisoning. These veterans' children have a higher proportion of birth defects and other genetic disorders than children of non-veterans. The U.S. military denies the harmful effects of DU, as well as its role in Gulf War Syndrome.
The Global Research article also reported that over half of Iraqi cancer patients are children under five years.90 Doctors in Iraq estimate that birth defects have increased two to six times; three to 12 times as many children have cancer and leukemia than before 1991.91 Dr. Doug Rokke, the former director of the Pentagon's DU clean-up after the Gulf War, is now infected with radiation and is an activist calling for the elimination of DU in all weaponry. In a widely published open letter in 2007, he wrote:
The delivery of at least 100 GBU 28 bunker busters bombs containing depleted uranium warheads by the United States and their use by Israel against Lebanese targets has resulted in additional radioactive and chemical toxic contamination with consequent adverse health and environmental effects throughout the middle east. Israeli tank gunners are also using depleted uranium tank rounds as photographs verify.
Today, U.S., British, and now Israeli military personnel are using illegal uranium munitions -- America's and England's own "dirty bombs" while U.S. Army, U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Department of Defense, and British Ministry of Defence officials deny that there are any adverse health and environmental effects as a consequence of the manufacture, testing, and/or use of uranium munitions to avoid liability for the willful and illegal dispersal of a radioactive toxic material -- depleted uranium. The use of uranium weapons is absolutely unacceptable, and a crime against humanity.92
Rokke and other scientists are warning that the "radioactive war" in Iraq will have devastating effects for a long time to come. For GIs coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, that means that possibly hundreds of thousands of them will come down with Gulf War Syndrome, and thousands will die from it. Thousands of their children will be born with genetic diseases, cancers, and birth defects.
Veterans are seeking help from various state legislators, some of whom have introduced bills requiring the testing of National Guard soldiers coming back from the war. Other veterans are trying to sue the government for injuries resulting from their service. In October 2006, a federal judge ruled that nine veterans who claimed they were injured by exposure to DU while in Iraq could sue the government, but only for poor medical treatment they allegedly received after their discharges.93
The judgment was only a partial victory. Another suit on behalf of the daughter of one of the soldiers was thrown out. The father claimed the girl was born with a severely deformed hand because of his DU exposure, but because the judge ruled he cannot sue for his own exposure, only for his misdiagnosis, his daughter' s case cannot move forward.94
What started in the early years of the Vietnam War as isolated and individual incidents of GI resistance eventually became a widespread rebellion that played a big role in bringing the war to an end. This resistance took on many forms: thousands of GIs going AWOL and deserting; large numbers of discharges for misconduct, unfitness, and unsuitability; high levels of drug use and serious crime; many acts of sabotage and obstruction; avoidance of combat; mutinies; threats and actual occurrences of fraggings; publication of antiwar newspapers; demonstrations; petitions; and conscientious objector applications.
Cortright (1999) summarizes the role of GI resistance as follows:
Never before in modern history had the American armed forces faced such widespread internal resistance and revolt. Often at great personal risk, hundreds of thousands of soldiers, marines, airmen, and sailors dissented and disobeyed military commanders, in order to speak out for justice and peace. Their struggle hastened American withdrawal from Indochina and played a major role in finally bring that tragic war to an end.95
Thus far, the level of GI resistance during the Iraq War is far from what it was during the Vietnam War, but there are signs that it is steadily growing. As the war in Iraq and Afghanistan continues, so will the spread of discontent and the drop in GI morale and support for the war. Whether a complete crisis among the military develops, as it did during the Vietnam War, remains to be seen. One thing, however, is certain. The Vietnam War experience shows that it is entirely possible.
(This paper is a revised and extended version of the paper I read at the March 22, 2008 conference of the Kyushu Chapter, Japan Association of Comparative Culture, held in Nagasaki)
1. Christian G. Appy. 1993. Working Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam. University of North Carolina Press: pp.28-30.
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6. Robert D. Heinl, Jr. June 7, 1971. "The Collapse of the Armed Forces." Armed Forces Journal. http://www.chss.montclair.edu/english/furr/Vietnam/heinl.html [accessed 3/13/08]
7. Morris Janowitz. April 1972. "Volunteer Armed Forces and Military Purpose." Foreign Affairs, p. 428
8. Howard Zinn. 2001. A People’s History of the United States. Perennial Classics: New York
9. ibid, p. 492.
10. ibid, p. 492
11. David Cortright. 2005. Soldiers in Revolt: GI Resistance During the Vietnam War. Chicago: Haymarket Books
12. ibid, pp. 203-204.
13. ibid, pp. 204-205.
14. ibid, pp. 204-205
15. ibid, pp. 207
16. ibid, pp. 208
17. Jorge Mariscal, 2004. "No Where Else to Go: Latino Youth and the Poverty Draft," Political Affairs Magazine.
19. Titus Peachey. 2008. "Military Recruitment, Communities of Color and Immigrants." Mennonite Central Committee. http://mcc.org/us/co/stories/militaryrecruitment.html [accessed 6/01/08]
21. Howard C. Olson and R. William Rae. March 1971. "Determination for the Potential of Dissidence in the U.S. Army." Technical Paper RAC-TP-410. McLean, VA: Research Analysis Corporation.
22. Howard C. Olson, Stephen B. Forman, and R. William Rae. Jan. 1972. "Future Impact of Dissident Elements Within the Army." Technical Paper RAC-TP-441. McLean, VA: Research Analysis Corporation.
23. Cortright. p. 20.
24. ibid. p. 21.
25. ibid. p. 21.
26. ibid. p. 32.
27. ibid, p. 11
28. ibid, p. 14
29. ibid, pp. 14-17
30. ibid, p. 18
31. Cu Chi. Nov. 22, 1969. Cleveland Press.
32. Cortright, p. 44
34. Cortright, pp. 40-41
35. ibid, pp. 40-41
36. Cortright, p. 278
37. ibid, p. 278
38. ibid. p. 278
39. Susan Galleymore. Spring 2007. "Resistance R Us -- Then ... and Now." Left Curve Journal, No. 31.
40. Democracy Now. August 23, 2007. "War Resister Camilo Mejia Elected to Chair Iraq Veterans Against the War, Group Encouraging War Resistance."
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47. Kelly Kennedy. Dec 17, 2007. "Not Us, We’re Not Going." Army Times.
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50. Cortright, p. 55
51. ibid, p. 55
52. ibid, p. 56
53. ibid, p. 57-58
54. ibid, p. 62
55. ibid, p. 260
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58. Cortright, p. 42
59. Cortright, pp. 94-95
60. Cortright, p. 91.
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63. Democracy Now. March 14, 2008. "Winter Soldier: Hundreds of Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan Gather to Testify in Echo of 1971 Vietnam Hearings."
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74. Pham Binh. 2007. "Disposable Heroes." International Socialist Review, Issue 55.
76. T. A. Bullman and H. K. Yang. 1995. "A Study of Suicide Among Vietnam Veterans." Federal Practitioner, 12(3), pp. 9-13.
77. Chuck Deans. 1990. Nam Vet. Portland: Multnomah Press.
78. Deborah Sontag and Lizette Alvarez. January 13, 2008. "Across America, Deadly Echoes of Foreign Battles." New York Times.
79. CBS News. Nov. 14, 2007. "VA Struggles With Vets' Mental Health."
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80. Anna Badkhen. August 7, 2007. "Shelters Take Many Vets of Iraq, Afghan Wars." The Boston Globe.
81. Gregg Zoroya. Oct. 18, 2007. "Veteran Stress Cases up Sharply." USA Today.
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84. Erik Eckholm. November 8, 2007. "Surge Seen in Number of Homeless Veterans." New York Times.
85. Anna Badkhen.
86. Dana Priest. Jan. 31, 2008. "Soldier Suicides Reach Record Level, Study Shows." The Washington Post.
88. Abel Bult-Ito. January 22, 2006. "Nothing Depleted About 'Depleted Uranium.'" Global Research.
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*Warning: There are many shocking pictures of deformed Iraqi babies on this site.
89. Shaheen Chughtai. Sept. 14, 2004. "DU: Weapons of Mass Destruction, Weapons of Self Destruction." Aljazeera News.
90. Abel Bult-Ito.
91. James Denver. April 29, 2005. "Horror Of US Depleted Uranium In Iraq Threatens World." Coastal Post.
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94. Dean Meminger. September 30, 2006. "Soldiers Earn Court Victory in Battle to Prove Exposure Disability." NY1 News. http://www.ny1.com/ny1/content/index.jsp?stid=6&aid=63050 [accessed 3/15/08]
95. David Cortright. 1999. "GI Resistance During the Vietnam War." In William D. Hoover and Melvin Small (eds.), Give Peace a Chance: Exploring the Vietnam Antiwar Movement. Syracuse University Press.
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