are we waiting for?
to popular myth, antiwar sentiment within the U.S. military
was rampant during the Vietnam War — and history is repeating
Michael I. Niman
name Vietnam is back in our vocabulary, as we seem to be developing
an interest in history—or at least in the history of wars
that just would not end. The problem is that when we ignore
history, we’re condemned to repeat it.
The unfortunate reality is that people aren’t suddenly interested
in Vietnam because, like Iraq, it’s a war we had no legitimate
reason for entering. No. If that were the issue, Vietnam would
have returned more strongly to the national zeitgeist back
in 2002 as the Bush administration and the national media
were beating the drums for war. The reality is that if the
United States had been able to pacify Iraq easily and grab
whatever spoils the neocon crowd lusted after, people wouldn’t
be talking about Vietnam. Sadly, this isn’t a groundswell
of moral indignation. It’s just that in Iraq, like in Vietnam,
we seem to be losing.
We’re losing in Iraq on many counts: We control less and less
of the country; the violence we are supposedly trying to quell
is instead escalating; reconstruction has been largely a failure;
and Iraqis, instead of enjoying freedom from tyranny, are
living in a state of abject deprivation and terror.
Losing breeds discontent. It’s like Argentina’s 1982 invasion
of Britain’s Falkland Islands colony. The Argentineans ousted
their dictatorship after Argentina lost that war, not because
the war was wrong but because they lost it. This is why revisionist
American history texts never use the word “lost” in connection
with the Vietnam war. It just sort of ended. And now the Vietnamese
Iraq is not Vietnam, however. We’re dealing with a different
geopolitical situation—more a North-South global conflict
then an East-West one. Vietnam’s significance, the hawks argued,
was political. Iraq’s significance, of course, is oil.
What is the same is that we’re bogged down in a war with no
achievable objective, right or wrong, no exit plan and no
end in sight. Put the words “quagmire” and “Iraq” into a Lexis/Nexis
news database search of major American newspapers and you’ll
come up with 649 articles published in the last six months.
Current Vietnam myths don’t accurately address why and how
that war ended. First there was the “peace with honor” line
pushed by Richard Nixon. Then there was the blame game. We
could have “won” if we weren’t wimps—with “winning,” I assume,
meaning destroying Vietnam in its entirety and forcing the
United States-created South Vietnamese dictatorship on whatever
poor souls survived a thermonuclear holocaust. (“Bomb Hanoi”
was the pro-war battle cry.) Then there was the admission
that the war was lost, but with the caveat that it was lost
at home. The peaceniks ruined our will to “stay the course.”
This theory gives the peace movement full blame or credit
for finally ending the war, depending on how you look at it.
History, however, is far more complex. Ultimately the war
ended because U.S. armed forces just stopped fighting. A 1975
study published in The Journal of Social Issues documents
how U.S. troops, proportionally, opposed the war more than
college students did. In the end, some troops rioted, a few
killed their commanding officers (fratricide emerged as the
leading cause of death for lieutenants), up to 33,000 a year
went AWOL, and an overwhelming number of active-duty grunts
refused orders and simply would not fight. The military was
in shambles. It was impossible to continue the ground war,
while the air war was politically untenable without the ground
war to justify it.
The war ended when the peace movement and the military became
one and the same. In fact, returning soldiers played a pivotal
role in building the peace movement. Veterans placed antiwar
ads in newspapers as early as 1965. That’s the forbidden history
we cannot know—because it’s the formula for ending wars. The
revisionist history paints a picture of gung-ho patriotic
soldiers being “spit upon” by “traitorous anti-American” peace
activists. For the last 20 years, peace activists have had
to contend with this image of self-righteous, violent, troop-hating
For the pro-war crowd, the image of the hippie spitting on
the returning soldier has become the iconic image of the Vietnam
war. Oddly, however, this “image” exists despite the absence
of any photographic evidence of a single spitting incident.
Vietnam veteran and sociology professor Jerry Lembcke spent
years chasing this myth, eventually writing a comprehensive
historical study, The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and
the Legacy of Vietnam.
Lembcke found an odd similarity to many of the spitting stories.
The incident often happened to returning soldiers as they
arrived at the San Francisco airport, with a young hippie
woman doing the spitting. In doing his research, however,
he found no news stories about soldiers being spit upon, even
though the press was generally hostile to the antiwar movement.
Likewise, he couldn’t find any reports documenting such incidents,
though stories of pro-war demonstrators spitting on peace
activists were plentiful. And even though the supposed incidents
usually occurred in well-policed airports, no one was arrested
for spitting on a vet.
Even odder, there are no reports of any veteran retaliating
physically against a spitter, as if after months or years
of fighting, returning vets suddenly embraced pacifism in
the face of humiliating abuse. And despite the supposed predictability
surrounding the alleged incidents—you know, hippie women loitering
around the San Francisco airport waiting for uniformed soldiers
to arrive—no one was ever able to produce photo of a spitting
Lembcke writes, “Not only is there no evidence that these
acts of hostility against veterans ever occurred, there is
no evidence that anyone at the time thought they were occurring.”
In fact, he adds, “Ninety-nine percent of the veterans polled
soon after returning described their reception by close friends
and family as friendly, while 94 percent said the reception
from people their own age who had not served in the armed
forces was [also] friendly.” Lembcke’s study shows that “stories
of veterans being abused by anti-war activists only surfaced
years after the abuses were alleged to have happened.” Most
of these stories emerged after the popular Rambo films
and other movies strengthened this myth and created a collective
conscious memory of events that do not seem to have transpired—or
at least did not transpire on any significant level.
Myths of soldiers being abused by peace activists have long
been mainstays in pro-war propaganda, with early examples
coming from the Nazis, who compared their opponents to mythological
peace activists who supposedly attacked and degraded returning
veterans from World War I. This turned out to be a winning
formula for marginalizing dissent, and has been used around
the world ever since.
Then there’s the Hanoi Jane myth: Like the other peace activists
who hated our troops, Jane Fonda was a traitor.
It’s a little-known fact that Fonda went to Vietnam, like
her pro-war nemesis Bob Hope, as an entertainer performing
in front of as many as 60,000 soldiers at a single event—a
number that would have turned Hope green with envy. Fonda
toured with antiwar activists who appeared with her onstage.
And the GI audience cheered wildly as they performed their
“Fuck the Army” show. Pro-war soldiers—and there were plenty
of those as well—hated her. It’s their voice that we hear
almost exclusively today, building the myth of a schism between
the peace movement and the grunts fighting the Vietnam war.
With this media-enhanced stigma hanging over her head, Fonda
refrained from speaking at antiwar rallies for 34 years—until
Jan. 27 of this year. She feared her presence and the association
with this persistent myth would hurt the peace movement. I
don’t doubt that even today, the mention of her name in this
article will generate hate mail.
Another lost piece of history is the story of the GI underground
press. According to the Department of Defense, active-duty,
Vietnam-era service personnel had published 245 antiwar newsletters
and newspapers by 1972, with their editors, writers, distributors
and even readers risking court-martial and jail. There was
even a GI-run pirate antiwar radio station operating for a
short time in Saigon. Government officials took the threat
of the GI peace movement extremely seriously, going as far
as to court-martial an officer in 1971 for distributing copies
of the Declaration of Independence at McChord Air Force Base.
The base’s underground newspaper reported the case.
That same year, 380 military and civilian police were called
in to Travis Air Force Base to combat an antiwar rebellion
that resulted in the burning of the Officer’s Club and the
arrest of 135 GIs. Also in 1971, the Armed Forces Journal
published a study titled “The Collapse of the Armed Forces”
documenting a virtual global uprising by U.S. combat troops.
Government studies produced at this time document that 32
percent of active-duty service personnel participated in some
form of resistance ranging from going AWOL to attacking officers.
A report issued by the Army documents 86 officers murdered
by their troops in that one branch of the service. Attacks
injured another 700.
In 1972, the House Armed Services Committee reported hundreds
of cases of sabotage disabling Navy equipment, including major
instances of arson on two ships. The vessel dispatched to
replace one of these fire-damaged ships was delayed by an
onboard riot. Another ship was disabled a few weeks later
by a strike. Meanwhile, court-martialed service personnel
were rioting in military stockades around the world.
As 1972 rolled to a close, it became clear to the Nixon administration
that “staying the course” in Vietnam was no longer an option.
More and more, the war the military was fighting was not against
the Vietnamese. We had met the enemy and he was us.
Fast-forward to Iraq. A Le Moyne College/Zogby poll conducted
last February found that 72 percent of active duty military
personnel wanted a complete pullout from Iraq by the end of
2006. On Jan. 27, a contingent of active-duty service personnel
marched as participants in a massive antiwar rally in Washington,
DC. Last week 1,171 active-duty service personnel signed an
“Appeal for Redress” demanding that the U.S. Congress support
an immediate withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. Sixty percent
of the signatories had fought in Iraq.
When you join the military, you in effect waive your constitutional
rights as an American—including the right to free speech.
Active-duty military personnel can’t show “disrespect” for
the president or their commanding officers. Nor can they make
statements that “subvert the mission of the military” or wear
their uniform when protesting. And the Department of Defense’s
“Guidelines for Handling Dissent and Protest Among Members
of the Armed Forces” prohibits activities such as petitioning
Congress. Hence their statement was an “Appeal for Redress”
and not a petition—a gray area that works when the petitioner
is joined by 1,170 others. We call this a critical mass.
There also are growing numbers of in-your-face deserters living
both in Canada and underground in the United States. One such
war resister, Carl Webb, went as far as to maintain a Web
site while he was on the run. The military ended this embarrassing
situation not by finding and prosecuting him, but by discharging
him, albeit dishonorably.
Speculation about a Vietnam-style GI uprising often is tempered
by the argument that during the Vietnam war era, most soldiers
were reluctant draftees. Today we have an all-volunteer military.
The inference is that the military is now a career choice
and that today’s fighters are gung ho to excel.
The counterargument is that we do in fact have a draft today.
The skyrocketing cost of a college education coupled with
cuts in student aid, and the disappearance of good entry-level
jobs in the U.S. economy, has, many argue, created an economic
draft. As a result, the vast majority of Iraq and Afghanistan
casualties come from poor and working-class backgrounds.
Former NBC News correspondent Peter Laufer, author of Mission
Rejected: U.S. Soldiers Who Say No to Iraq, interviews
military resisters such as AWOL soldier Ryan Johnson, who
says he joined because he was poor, describing himself as
“a guy who made a wrong decision who wants a forklift job.”
Another told Laufer that he couldn’t support his family on
a McDonald’s salary. In effect, while we might not have an
official military draft, the new Wal-Mart economy has stepped
up to the plate to keep the supply of cannon fodder coming.
Then there’s the “stopgap” draft. The military reserves the
right to “call up,” or draft, military veterans who have served
their time and earned honorable discharges, but technically
remain in what the Pentagon calls the Independent Ready Reserves.
These draftees, people who served and chose to leave military
life only to be put back into the military against their will,
make up the angriest and most vocal group of today’s military
resisters. That’s because they, like their Vietnam predecessors,
are clearly draftees.
People who feel that today’s volunteer military is less likely
to engage in resistance and disobedience need to look back
at another little-known fact about the Vietnam war. According
to David Cortright, author of Soldiers in Revolt: GI Resistance
During the Vietnam War, enlisted troops were more likely
to resist fighting than were draftees. Many joined out of
patriotism and were sorely disappointed with the reality on
the ground in Vietnam. Others, like today’s volunteers, were
victims of an economic draft.
Also, during the Vietnam war, once soldiers served on one
tour of duty, they were done with Vietnam. In the Iraq and
Afghanistan wars, however, almost one third of the 1.4 million
service members who were deployed to the war zones were deployed
at least twice—and many considered their second rounds more
or less as a draft.
Finally, there’s the National Guard—the “weekend warriors,”
many attracted by educational benefits, who signed up primarily
to serve their communities during natural disasters. The National
Guard was never a part of the Vietnam equation. It’s where
George W. Bush hid out during the Vietnam war, before finally
going AWOL himself.
Today, National Guard troops from all 50 states and Puerto
Rico are dying in Afghanistan and Iraq. Others are having
their lives upended. They didn’t sign up for this. In effect,
they, like the stopgap veterans, are draftees. And for the
most part they don’t support this war or this president.
Reporting on military resistance puts journalists in the middle
of a minefield. The political and economic pressure to ignore
this story and just go with the yellow ribbons has been enormous.
Antiwar activity by active military personnel, in most cases,
is illegal, even when it’s nonviolent and no property is threatened.
Encouraging such activity is also illegal—and potentially
dangerous in a country whose press freedoms are in a freefall.
The United States, once a beacon of free speech, is now ranked
by the international journalism group Reporters Without Borders
as 53rd in press freedom, tied with Botswana, Croatia and
Tonga. It is legal to report, for example, on soldiers going
AWOL, but is illegal to encourage, in print or otherwise,
soldiers to go AWOL or to otherwise resist military duties.
What we can legally say is that resistance to war by active-duty
military personnel, like fighting in war, is a brave act.
Conscientious objection to war takes courage. Saying no is
no more cowardly than saying yes to something you feel is
wrong. Resisting the command to put your own life in peril
when you don’t see a reason to do so is an expression of sanity.
We have a right to support sanity over insanity.
I. Niman lives in Buffalo and is a freelancer for the newsweekly
Artvoice, where this article first appeared.