Since the start of the Bush era, soldiers and veterans have been a core part of resisting America’s wars for empire.
In 2004, Veterans for Peace sponsored Iraq Veterans Against the War, which began with seven members. IVAW is now an independent organization with hundreds of veterans and active duty members, chapters in all 50 states and overseas, and continues gaining members all the time. Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are marching in peace demonstrations, speaking out at public events, giving media interviews, organizing active duty soldiers on military bases, and actively helping GI resisters. Anti-war Iraq veterans were featured in a documentary movie, The Ground Truth, and in several other movies about the war. During the Iraq war, over 2,000 active duty troops signed the “Appeal for Redress” calling on Congress to end the war. At the height of the war, the GI Rights Hotline received up to 3,000 calls a month from GIs wanting out of the wars and the military, and an estimated 200-plus soldiers went AWOL in Canada. Courage to Resist helped many service members publicly refuse military orders, including 1st Lt. Ehren Watada, who never served a single day in jail. Now a young PFC, Bradley Manning, stands accused of telling the truth by leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents. All of this combined with the civilian peace movement turned the tide of American public opinion against the Iraq war, and eventually led to bringing the bulk of regular troops home. Thousands of mercenaries remain.
What will happen to the young GIs who refused orders to war or directly resisted the military in other ways? In particular, what will life be like for them afterward? What will their lives be like long after these wars are over, and the country and the world moves on? The experience of the Viet Nam era GI resisters may be very relevant here.
Forty one years ago, I was a soldier in the U. S. Army. I had received orders to Viet Nam, and after much agonized soul searching had decided I wasn’t going to go. I went AWOL for two weeks. I then reported to the Presidio stockade with my lawyer, turned myself in, refused orders, and submitted a limited conscientious objector application (objection to a particular war, not to military service in general or to legitimate military defense of the nation). The Army first pressed three charges against me, for a total of 15 years in prison if convicted. I was prepared to plead guilty to those charges. But the Army instead dropped all the charges, released me from the stockade, and ordered me to report to Oakland Army terminal for shipment to Viet Nam. I escaped and deserted to Canada.
In making this decision, I was haunted by deep fear of all the things the Army, the government, and society said would happen to those who dared to openly defy them. They said people like me would be branded cowards, traitors, that we’d be disgraced and spat upon all our lives. They said we’d be losers, never respected, never trusted, never able to hold down a job, hated by everybody, loved by nobody. They said that without the all powerful Honorable Discharge, we would be held in contempt by all who laid eyes on us, and we would live out our miserable lives in the gutter, on the margins of society, hiding our terrible secret and unable to face anyone with what we had done.
Did this propaganda scare me? Of course it did. But stronger than my fear of disgrace and rejection by society was my refusal to kill and be killed for politician’s lies, the profits of the rich, war crimes repeatedly committed against unarmed civilians, and the invasion, conquest, and exploitation of a small foreign country that never threatened or attacked us. Like thousands of my contemporaries and hundreds of the Iraq and Afghanistan generation, I refused orders to war.
After the Viet Nam war ended, I returned to the U.S., turned myself in to the army again, and got an Undesirable Discharge.
Eventually, I was featured in a very small part in a documentary film about the Viet Nam era GI resistance movement, “Sir! No Sir!” The movie interviewed and told the stories of GIs who had resisted the Viet Nam war in various ways, as well as the role that Jane Fonda played in supporting the GI resistance movement. This led to a personal epiphany about GI resistance.
The premiere of the film took place on June 19, 2005 at the Los Angeles Film Festival. A fairly large group of vets who were in the film flew down to attend the premiere. This is an email I sent at the time:
“It was amazing to see just how deep and broad the GI anti-war movement really was. Even having been in the middle of the movement, I hadn’t realized just how vast it actually was, I only knew my little corner of it. But contrary to current mainstream propaganda, the GI resistance movement was in fact so widespread that the military was actually close to collapse, according to high ranking military sources of the time. Nixon went to Vietnamization and a US air war because American ground troops had become unreliable. In Chicago during the Democratic convention when Mayor Daley’s cops were attacking and beating the demonstrators, Army troops were sent to Chicago but never used – because their commanders weren’t sure which side the troops would be on. You would have to see the movie to fully appreciate the scope of all this. But you can get a sense of it by checking out the Sir! No Sir! website.
The theatre was said to hold about 600 people, and almost every seat was filled. After the movie was shown, the producer David Zeiger took the stage and called on all the people in the movie who were present to join him. There were about 16 of us, and we all stood up together and started to walk up to the stage. As we did, the audience rose and gave us an enthusiastic standing ovation, including loud applause and cheers. One man shouted, “Heroes!” as the applause accelerated.
We walked to the stage and stood in a line facing the audience. David made some introductory remarks and had us briefly introduce ourselves. There was a question and answer period in which audience members asked about the film and resistance, and different people answered different questions.
After the showing, different people came up to talk to us. Some activists with different projects came up and told us about their projects and exchanged information. One woman urged me and the others to continue speaking out. About 70 people from the movie and the audience went to a local restaurant afterwards for dinner and drinks. Many of the people there were our age, with a few somewhat younger people, perhaps in their thirties or forties. Near the end of the evening I started getting tired, and eventually we all called it a night and left.
A key realization of the night came to me when I was standing on the stage with the other military deserters/resistors. As I looked down the line, the thought that struck me was how well all of us had actually done in life, even in establishment terms. Looking down the line, I realized that all of us were financially secure. Virtually all of us had at least a bachelor’s degree, and about a third of us had a master’s degree. Virtually all of us had professional jobs. Most had homes, families, a middle class lifestyle. The few who didn’t had an alternative lifestyle that they chose, not one that was imposed on them. This from a group of people who had started out in life either as wanted criminals on the run from the FBI, or as convicted felons locked up in prison for years. We had overcome years of formidable personal and institutional hardships to achieve our successes, but there we were, all success stories by anybody’s definition. Beyond material success, all of us were still active trying to make a positive difference in society. We were politically active. We were personally continuing to grow and develop every day. We were all still dedicated to the same fundamental values that prompted our rebellion against the Viet Nam war in the first place. We were all still moving forward in our lives.
It struck me how, in the 60s, the government, the military and “mainstream” society all said that people like us were doomed to be failures, that our lives would be lives of disgrace and desperation, that we’d never be able to get a job, that people would look down on us, that we’d be the outcasts of society, that we’d never be able to look at ourselves in the mirror, and that we’d drown in our own shame. Looking down the line of resistors, I realized that just the opposite was true. The average American has no college degree. The average American is not a professional. The average American is not politically active, and not trying to change the world. We were in fact more, not less, accomplished than the norm. I can’t tell you how proud, and privileged, I felt to be able to stand with these people.
America today is locked in another quagmire like Viet Nam. Our middle class is being eroded by the Republicans’ economic war of the rich against all. Our international prestige is sinking. Our economy and environment are being driven into a tailspin. Yet for us ex-fugitives, our personal lives were going very well. We are actually doing better than the nation!
The next day, I talked about this with a few of the other deserters/resistors, and they all agreed. Our personal lives, despite the many dark times when we didn’t know if we were going to live or die, were now going better than the nation. All of us were more concerned about the fate of the nation than worried about our personal lives. We succeeded because of the very issues and struggles that we choose to face and deal with, that seemed so large and overwhelming at the time. We succeeded because we had to work hard to survive and follow our mandate to make a positive difference in the world. We succeeded because we had fiercely loyal friends who shared our dreams and ideals and we all stood by each other even in the worse of times.
The moral of the story: Don’t believe the nation’s leaders; all they tell you are lies. Believe your own eyes and your own heart, and follow where they lead. If you trust anybody, trust your friends and your loved ones.”
Did our group represent the experience of all GI resisters? There were over 90,000 military deserters during the Viet Nam war and an estimated 500,000 veterans with bad discharges, an unknown number due to various forms of war resistance.* Our group, of course, can’t represent them all. But in my experience in the army and the deserter community in Canada during the war, the people in our group were a fairly typical cross-section.
Since that time, I have met many Iraq war veterans and numerous GI resisters. We have talked, and sometimes they ask me and others of my generation what it was like for us. I look in their eyes and faces, and see reflections of myself and my generation so many decades ago. These are brave men and women, living with pain, fear, doubts, and wrestling with big questions of war and peace, life and death. When I visited Canada, current day military deserters shared their stories, and I felt so proud of them. They are very young, but they had the courage to do what they felt was right.
Today’s GI resisters have a tough road of struggle ahead of them. But if my generation’s experience is any example, they will prevail, they will become successful, and they will grow to become leaders in their time. The very qualities that led them to resist the wars will also lead them to success in life. And that is how it should be.
* Long Time Passing: Viet Nam and the Haunted Generation, by Myra MacPherson. Published by Signet, New American Library, New York, N.Y. 1984. Page 394.