The U.S. Anti-War Movement, the Troops, and Some Lessons from Vietnam

by Mark Vorpahl, New York City Independent Media Editorialist
[Septenber 2007]

Life inside the U.S. military reflects the conflicting class
interests in this country, often in its deadliest forms. While
technically a "volunteer" military, the great bulk of its recruits
come from working class families and are largely joining because of a
lack of job and educational opportunities. For them, signing up is a
chance to acquire the skills they need to get a decent job once they
become civilians, though, in reality, military service has little to
offer in this regard.

On the other hand, the majority of the military's professional
officers and policy makers come from more privileged layers of the
population. For them, the military is a career where they can take
their "rightful place" lording over the grunts and climb the ladder
as they would if they were working for a corporation or financial institution.

Because of this divide in opportunity and expectations, which is
rooted in class inequality, the great majority of soldiers are
subject to the arrogance, lies, and disregard for their personal
well-being at the hands of their superiors, as are workers are to the
capitalists in civilian life.

Potential working class military recruits are promised money for
college, a brighter job future, and sometimes even that they will be
able to avoid combat, though few soldiers ever see any of these
promises fulfilled. Once in the war zone, they are frequently given
missions that unnecessarily put their lives in danger in order that
some officer can get a promotion for having had his unit draw out and
engage the "enemy".

Rank and file soldiers are exposed to depleted uranium, the
anti-malarial drug Lariam, and infectious diseases, not to mention
insufficient body and vehicle armour, much of which could be avoided
if it wasn't for the criminal disregard of the military's higher ups.

In Iraq, many troops have been deployed multiple times in tours of
duty averaging eleven months each. 50 percent are on their second
tour and 25 percent have toured three or more times. This is creating
a tremendous strain on the soldiers' families and their own mental
health. Army studies have found that up to 30 percent of soldiers
coming home from Iraq suffer from depression, anxiety, or Post
Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

The Army's suicide rate is the highest it has been in 23 years: 17.3
per 100,000. When the soldiers make it back home, they find that the
VA is strained at the seams because of corruption and insufficient
funding, and their attempts to get help with PTSD are frequently
denied. For some, this lack of support leads to homelessness.

The U.S. Department of Veteran's Affairs has so far had some 1,200
cases in which Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are dealing with
homelessness, and this is likely only a fraction of their actual numbers.

While the Republican and Democratic politicians pontificate on the
heroism of the troops, in practice they disregard their needs. The
recent $100 Billion bi-partisan vote to continue the war would have
likely been enough to ensure that all returning veterans' needs were
met. Instead, the war continues and the troops are left hanging out
to dry. The cost and effects of this criminal policy will grow
exponentially as more soldiers return and their health requirements increase.

It is therefore in the interest of the majority of soldiers to oppose
the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. They have a key role to play in ending
them. The anti-war movement must find effective ways of supporting
the growing discontent in the armed forces by linking the soldiers'
material needs to the anti-war movement's aim of bringing all the
troops home. This includes not only supporting conscientious
objectors (CO's) and AWOL soldiers in their legal and living
challenges, but, even more importantly, engaging with and helping
rank and file soldiers actively oppose the wars.

Pacifist appeals to individual soldiers' consciousness alone will not
effectively utilize the discontent in the military. These isolated
incidents of resistance, while symptomatic and symbolic, cannot end
the war. In fact, this is precisely what the military would want in
order to weed out and isolate the "bad apples" from the rest of the soldiers.

The anti-war movement must do all it can to encourage and support the
mass education, organization, and action of active duty soldiers, in
order to bring the war to a grinding halt.

The experience of the anti-Vietnam War movement is rich with examples
of what can be done to build unity between the anti-war movement and
the troops. The popular image of anti-Vietnam War protesters spitting
on troops has more to do with right-wing demagogy and urban legend
than the actual attitude of peace activists toward the soldiers. In
reality, the efforts of many of these activists to build solidarity
with the troops, including going into the military when drafted in
order to do anti-war work, helped to create one of the most powerful
social movements in U.S. history. While the military during Vietnam
was made up of draftees and today there is a volunteer army (more
accurately described as a "poverty draft" army) many of the same
approaches and tactics can and are being used today.

The first and foremost important aspect of the anti-Vietnam War
movement was that it was broad-based and built through mass actions.
The massive demonstrations proved to be the most effective tool for
displaying the strength of anti-war sentiment, bringing more people
in as organizers, and encouraging more people to take a stand against
the war – including the troops. Without this approach the soldiers in
Vietnam who questioned the war would have been left isolated and powerless.

Anti-Vietnam War activists recognized the need to develop ways to
encourage troops to resist the war. Initially this started with
publicizing and defending COs, AWOL soldiers, and those who refused
deployment. The case of Lieutenant Henry Howe Jr. and the Fort Hood
Three were some well-known examples of this work at the time. But it
was quickly recognized that these efforts by themselves would not be
enough. The anti-war movement needed to reach the active duty troops.

Activists passed out leaflets to GIs at bus stops and outside of
military bases, engaged them in conversations where ever they
gathered, and helped to set up GI coffee houses where the troops and
anti-war activists could discuss and make plans. They also publicized
and defended the right of soldiers to organize and speak out against
the war, as was the case with the Fort Jackson Eight. All this work
planted the seeds for active duty soldiers' opposition to take on a
massive character as the war wore on and moral plummeted.

Soldiers began to play a more active and prominent role in the
movement. Numerous marches were led by active -duty soldiers such as
the October 12, 1968 "GIs and Vets March for Peace" in San Francisco.
There were many teach-ins and conferences focused on defending
soldiers' freedom of speech. Opposition to the war among active duty
soldiers was beginning to swell.

Hundreds of anti-war papers such as "Vietnam GI" and "Stars and
Stripes for Peace" began to circulate within the military's ranks,
with a combined total circulation in the tens of thousands. This was
all the more remarkable since the editorial boards of these papers
were subject to harassment and frequently broken up by arbitrary transfers.

The linking of the anti-war movement and the "grunt" soldiers'
interests began to translate into action on the battlefield. Whereas
the troops had previously been considered mindless and disposable
killing machines, they now began to assert their collective power.
The "Search and Destroy" missions that officers sent their units on
in order to increase the body count and earn the officer a promotion,
became known as "Search and Evade" missions. Mutinies or soldier
strikes began to spread to a degree never before seen in U.S.
history. The military officially recognized 10 major occurrences of
such actions, with hundreds of smaller mutinies during the course of the war.

"Fragging", or the killing of a commanding officer by his own troops,
became common during Vietnam. This practice, or even the threat of a
fragging, proved to be an effective way for the soldiers to assert
their control over battle plans and defend themselves from gung ho
officers. Eventually, the soldiers' rebellion became so widespread
that the top-down command practices of the military were often
replaced with a form of collective bargaining called "working it
out." No longer could a commander expect his troops to blindly obey.
He had to negotiate with them. Since most of the troops no longer saw
the point of fighting and dying in Vietnam, the officer corps lost
their ability to conduct the war.

This history demonstrates a number of important lessons relevant to
today's anti-war movement. It shows the effectiveness of broad-based
mass mobilizations. From these organizing efforts, activists were
able to come together and effectively pursue different areas of
anti-war work such as outreach to the GIs.

These demonstrations also helped to reinforce a mood of wide
opposition to the war that gave confidence to the troops to speak out
and organize. It also shows how the initially modest and awkward
attempts to build solidarity between the civilian anti-war movement
and the troops helped to lay the foundation for a massive, united
movement against the war. As the war wore on, the conflicting
interests of the grunts on one side, and their commanders, the policy
makers, and the war-profiteers on the other, became intolerable.

Most importantly, the experience of the anti-Vietnam War movement
shows how the collective action of the youth and working class, both
in and out of uniform, was able to help bring the world's largest
imperialist power to its knees, when previously it appeared
unstoppable. Unfortunately, the anti-Vietnam War movement did not
develop into a catalyst for the socialist transformation of U.S.
society. However, the struggle against the war showed that even in
times when capitalism was expanding, it was possible to strike a
debilitating blow against imperialism to the benefit of the
international working class and the oppressed in general.

The Iraq War is taking place in a different historical period. The
U.S. is by far the largest imperialist power, but its economic and
political foundation are more unstable then was the case during the
Vietnam War. Furthermore, it is now more clear to tens of millions of
Americans that the Iraq War is being accompanied by a war on workers'
historic gains, living standards, and democratic rights here at home.
The situation today is potentially far more combustible then it was
even at the height of the Vietnam War.

To take full advantage of this we must first have a united anti-war
movement building the largest demonstrations possible to end the war
now. We must link up opposition to the war with defending active duty
soldiers' democratic rights, including advocating, when possible,
that they have the right to elect and recall their own officers, the
right to trade union representation, freedom of speech, and other
related areas.

We need to link the troops' needs with those of the entire working
class by fighting for quality jobs and universal health care for all.
The anti-war movement can highlight the role soldiers have to play in
our demonstrations, teach-ins and conferences. The anti-war movement
must approach the rank and file soldiers as workers in uniform since
the working class as a whole has nothing to gain from imperialist war
but more misery.

With such an approach, the anti-war movement can and will help to end
the occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. But in the final analysis,
the problem of imperialist war cannot be solved under capitalism. To
win a peace that is more then just an interim between further wars,
we must fight for a socialism based on workers' democracy.