The battle over American war stories began during the peak of the last revolution. Millions of Americans and tens of thousands of veterans and soldiers opposed the war in Vietnam. In the war’s moral outrages, crimes and betrayals, many saw the US empire for the first time. For the last 40 years, the ruling class has been running away from the problems revealed by the Vietnam War.
The war-makers have lots of money and weapons but their stories — and the politics behind them — no longer make sense. The empire is running out of maneuvering room as its war narratives grow weaker and less convincing.
The disruptions caused by the Vietnam Era anti-war movement are part of an unfinished revolution that still begs questions. How can a nation that does not practice democracy — or a government that attacks the Bill of Rights at home — convincingly claim it is “a force for good in the world?” How can a military that drives climate change and guarantees the global interests of bankers and oil companies claim to protect or defend anything at all? How can an empire, as large and militaristic as ours, co-exist with democratic rule at home?
American exceptionalism — the idea that we are a chosen people, inherently good, and outside of the normal constraints and contradictions of history — is one of the founding ideas of American culture. But, when the empire lurches from crisis to crisis even culture as deeply rooted as exceptionalism can be dragged into consciousness and challenged.
As long-time Vietnam Veterans Against the War leader and former Vets for Peace President Dave Cline once told me, “”Vietnam is where all that history changed.”
The Vietnam Legacy They Do Not Want You To Think About
US Involvement in South East Asia began as an effort to restore the French and British Empire in Asia. But neither imperial power could weather the storm of WWII or defeat the national liberation struggles that followed. Soon enough the empire was ours — all ours — and so were the wars. Anti-communism and the Cold War positioned the US as “leader of the free world” and insisted that the Vietnam War was the moral equivalent of WWII. The enchanting idea of “nation-building” cast the war effort as benign, high-minded and helpful. But the Vietnamese victory over US forces and the peace movement broke the spell and momentarily revealed the empire for what it truly was.
What cannot be honestly explained must be hidden. Because of its revolutionary implications — and its contradictory nature — the history of the soldier and veteran anti-war movements have been largely forgotten. It’s way past time to remember.
Since the Vietnam War the media has censored war news by listing it low on their agenda, omitting it altogether, or, today, marginalizing anti-war social media sites. The government stopped the formal draft and reduced their reliance on US troops to a mere .5% of the population making soldiers and veterans and war casualties less visible.
In order to keep the numbers down, the military brass cynically abused and wounded their own soldiers by forcing them into multiple tours with far too much exposure to combat. Those that endured the ordeal had some serious survival issues returning to “normal” life. Over twenty soldiers and veterans commit suicide each day. It’s hard to fudge that data.
The military had to attack its own soldiers to avoid the reemergence of a Vietnam era style anti-war movement. It was then that a massive peace movement — in the context of the civil rights/black power, student and women’s movement — became not just a movement against the war and — for millions of Americans at least– against empire itself.
By the early 1970s, the political heart of this wide-ranging peace movement was soldier and veteran dissent. Their power came from two sources. First was the fact that soldier resistance was a real material constraint on military operations and — second to the bloody sacrifices of the Vietnamese people themselves — was a major factor limiting the military’s ability to wage war.
Just as important, the soldiers and veterans had the cultural and political credibility to help working-class Americans question and challenge the war and, in some cases, the existing order itself.
“The most common charge leveled against the antiwar movement is that it was composed of cowards and draft dodgers. To have in it people who had served in the military…who were in fact patriots by the prowar folks own definition was a tremendous thing. VVAW (Vietnam Veterans Against the War) in 1970 and 1971 was unlike almost anything I’d seen in terms of its impact on the public…We took away more and more of the symbolic and rhetorical tools available to the prowar folks–just gradually squeezed them into a corner…we took away little by little the reasons people had not to listen to the antiwar movement.”
“We took away more and more of the symbolic and rhetorical tools available to the prowar folks.” This is the transformative dynamic at the heart of military resistance which made it both revolutionary, deeply contradictory and hard for people to understand. Ideals like the “citizen-solder” were claimed by the military because they motivated soldiers with high moral appeals. But under the conditions of the period, such ideals were transformed, refashioned and repurposed into a new service ideal that would wage — not war — but peace. They rocked the foundation of military culture not simply by criticizing it or repudiating it — that’s easy — but by transforming it — that’s the hardest thing in the world. Transformation is what revolutions are made of.
The Vietnam legacy reveals the importance of supporting anti-war soldiers and veterans because they have power far beyond their numbers. This argument is not idle speculation. Although I am not a veteran, I was nearly drafted into the Army in 1971-2. It made me rethink my life. Then I got involved as a young activist and organizer in the anti-war and radical movements of the period. Inspired by a few anti-war veterans I knew, I spent a decade researching the soldier and veteran anti-war movement and wrote New Winter Soldiers: GI and Veteran Dissent During the Vietnam Era.
Here is the shortest possible summary of a movement that came to speak for half of all soldiers and veterans of the time:
During the American War in Vietnam, soldiers refused to go into combat and resisted commands of all kinds. The lowly foot soldier demanded democracy inside their combat units by insisted on discussing actions rather than simply following orders. They marched in protest and sent tens of thousands of letters to Congress opposing the war. In desperation, they attacked reckless officers — their own officers. An international underground newspaper network spread the word. Thousands resisted the war effort in ways large and small.
Massive prison riots of US soldiers in American military jails in Vietnam — like the uprising at Long Binh Jail — disrupted military command. Over 600 cases of combat refusal rose to the level of a court-martial, some involving entire units. US soldiers violently attacked US officers over a thousand times. Urban rebellions at home and the assassination of Martin Luther King had a profound impact pushing black troops toward war resistance.
African American soldiers in Vietnam observe the birthday of late civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in 1971. (Bettmann via Getty Images)
The military brass lost their ability to enforce discipline and wage war. In 1971 Colonel Robert D. Heinl claimed:
“The morale, discipline, and battle-worthiness of the US 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.”
From the bottom up, US troops replaced “search and destroy” missions with “search and avoid” missions. In some areas of Vietnam “search and avoid” became a way of life. A US Army Colonel recalls:
“I had influence over an entire province. I put my men to work helping with the harvest…Once the NVA understood what I was doing they eased up. I am talking to you about a defacto truce you understand. The war stopped in most of the province. It’s the kind of history that doesn’t get recorded. Few people even know it happened and no one will ever admit that it happened.”
Anti-war soldiers were simultaneously on the front lines of war and the front lines of the anti-war movement.
When they came home veterans became the leading protestors. Black veterans joined civil rights groups or revolutionary organizations such as the Black Panthers that connected peace and internationalism with local community service. The Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) had at least 25,000 members — 80% were combat veterans –and the VVAW became leaders in the anti-war movement in the early 1970’s.
The VVAW kicked off some of the largest civil disobedience protests against the war. In one of the most stirring moments of the entire peace movement veterans returned their medals on the steps of the US capital.
This was the most important working-class peace movement in American history. Since those days there has been an unbroken tradition of opposition to war from service members, veterans and their families. Today the tradition is carried on by the Veterans For Peace, About Face: Veterans Against War, Military Families Speak Out. The VVAW remains the only peace group founded during the Vietnam resistance still in existence today.
Soldier and veteran resistance was a blow against the empire. Can it become one again?
2/ Ben Chitty is quoted in, New Winter Soldiers, p.130
3/ Moser, p. 132
4/ See a new collection of essays Waging Peace in Vietnam, Edited by Ron Carver, David Cortright and Barbara Doherty