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Waging peace in Vietnam

 

 

Waging Peace in Vietnam, US soldiers and veterans who opposed the war
Edited by Ron Carver, David Cortright and Barbara Doherty
New Village Press, 2019, 239 pp., $51.00

Winter Warrior, a Vietnam Vet’s anti-war odyssey
By Eve Gilbert (telling the story of Scott Camil)
Fantagraphics Books, 2019, 96 pp., $29

Reviewed by Barry Healy

January 14, 2020 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — At the height of the US invasion of Vietnam around 500,000 US military personnel were involved. Of those over 50,000 lost their lives - and the US lost the War. 

The US defeat was due to the mass base of support in Vietnam for the revolutionary National Liberation Front, the huge anti-war movement in the USA and also the wave of opposition that arose among the US forces themselves. 

The expression “the Vietnam Syndrome” was coined to describe that mass civilian and military opposition. 

For decades following the 1975 defeat US foreign policy was hamstrung by the fear of reigniting the “Syndrome”. National liberation forces all over Africa and Latin America benefited from the inability of the US to directly use its military power.

In order to again be able to bomb and invade at will an ideological battle had to be waged against the memory of the anti-Vietnam War people-power movement. The success of our rulers in that regard is measured in the death toll in Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries.

These two books are ideological hand grenades thrown back at the warmongers.

Waging Peace in Vietnam is a collection of short memoirs of active participants in all the facets of the GI anti-War rebellion. Winter Warrior, using graphic, comic-book style shows the terrible personal cost inflicted on at least one anti-war Vet.

Together they illustrate the enormous breadth, depth and courage of the GI movement.

In the opening pages of Waging Peace there is a two-page synopsis of the GI anti-war movement, which alone makes for astonishing reading. 

An illustrative example is the story of three who marked a watershed in the resistance, the Fort Hood Three: Dennis Mora, David Samas and James Johnson.

Johnson recalls that when he was first drafted in 1965, he had not formed an opinion about the War. However, from the first day of training he started to think.

“I understood that the treatment – or more correctly, abuse – of the GIs was designed not to train us to promptly obey orders as essential preparation for combat,” he says. “Instead, I was convinced that our mistreatment was more about crippling us intellectually, shutting down our reasoning so that we would be prepared to follow along blindly.”

All of the memories collected in this book hit on that same topic: the US military deliberately set out to break down recruits psychologically and then rebuild them into morally-blind killing machines. Moreover, they were trained as racist killing machines.

Scott Camil vividly recalls the racism that was indoctrinated into recruits.  “Kill that gook! Fuck that dink up! Kill!” his Drill Instructor shouted.

Johnson, Samas and Mora formed an unofficial Vietnam study group on their base and quickly came to see the injustice of US aggression.  They determined to refuse orders to go to Vietnam and to read a statement about that to an anti-war rally in New York.

Waging Peace records that they did not make it to the rally. The Fort Hood Three “were whisked away by police to McGuire Air Force Base.” They were court-martialed and thrown into Fort Leavenworth federal prison.

Even behind bars the struggle deepened. Johnson recounts that newsreels were shown at weekly movie screenings: “When news of US military setbacks in Vietnam were reported, Leavenworth prisoners jumped up and cheered. The newsreels were discontinued.”

Another indication of the growth in GI resistance was the fact that when the Fort Hood Three entered Leavenworth in 1966 the prison population was about 500.  When they left two years later there were 1,500 prisoners.

Around the same time as the Fort Hood Three rebelled Green Beret Donald Duncan, serving in Vietnam, refused a promotion and quit the Army. He was disgusted by the policy of using troops of the Saigon-based Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) to torture and murder captured liberation fighters.

He travelled across the USA, visiting GI anti-war coffee houses and helping to build the GI anti-war movement.

He told his story to Ramparts magazine. He said that as a specialist commando he had researched the support base of the National Liberation Front.

“One of the first axioms one learns about unconventional warfare is that no insurgent or guerrilla movement can endure without the support of the people,” he said. In his research he found that while the Viet Cong had originally operated in small teams by the time he left the Army they were fielding entire divisions.

“Such growth is not only impossible without popular support: it actually requires an overwhelming mandate,” he said.

He said the Viet Cong believed in their cause and were fighting for national independence.  The Viet Cong soldiers had faith in the leaders because their “officers live in the same huts and eat the same food.”

ARVN soldiers knew that their leaders were “in their positions because of family, money or reward for political favours.” ARVN captains and majors would eat in French restaurants, paying as much for a meal as ARVN soldiers got paid in a week.

“The whole thing was a lie,” Duncan said. “We weren’t preserving freedom in South Vietnam. There was no freedom to preserve.”

A key element in the growth of the GI resistance was the explosion of underground newspapers produced by GIs, for GIs. More than 300 clandestine, anti-war newspapers were published throughout the world – even at a base in Iceland!

Anti-war newspapers were produced throughout the US Army, the Marines, on board ship and at air force bases. They often had irreverent names like A Four Year Bummer, Kill for Peace and Green Machine.

Waging Peace explains that these newspapers “expressed the voices of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and junior officers who spoke out against the war and against injustices and racism within the military.”

Producing and distributing these underground resources was perilous. Soldiers could get six months in the stockade if discovered, yet the newspaper phenomenon continued for as long as the war did, with a few lingering on for years afterwards.

There are hundreds of letters written by serving personnel to these newspapers that are windows into the world of dissent that festered in the US armed forces.

What was it like for GIs who had the misfortune to end up in Vietnam?

Scott Camil became effectively psychopathic after his first fire-fight in which some of his friends were killed. He recalls swearing: “I’m gonna kill every man, woman or child, every gook mutherfucker that I can kill.”

The next day he murdered an old Vietnamese peasant he found in a field. He demanded that he tell him where the V.C. were. The old man couldn’t speak English; Camil slit his throat.

On another occasion while driving an Army Jeep he deliberately ran a bus full of civilians off the road and over a cliff. He was reported to Army authorities for that – and lost his licence.

Camil estimates that 70% of the people his unit killed were women and children, totally unarmed. He also relates terrible stories of rape.

In Waging Peace, Dennis Stout recalls his first firefight in which he witnessed an experienced soldier yell in English for people to come out of a bomb shelter. When they failed to respond he threw in grenades. 

Stout surveyed the bodies. “It was all mothers, small children and old people,” he says.

He decided to learn Vietnamese, so he could better warn people to get out of the way of fire fights. He only mastered about 200 words, but he became an interrogator of prisoners because of it. He witnessed civilian captives being murdered wantonly.

He recalls a time when members of his unit set up a road block in order to rob civilians. They detained a woman and held her in a pit. That night they started raping her, carrying her around the firing posts on the camp perimeter.

However, one soldier refused to participate, saying that it was wrong and immoral.  The other soldiers beat him up, breaking his ribs and told him at gunpoint that if he ever said anything like that again they would kill him. Stout talked his way out of raping by explaining that he was near to getting out of the Army and he didn’t want to catch any diseases.

In the morning the captors tried to get the woman to run away, so they could shoot her while escaping, but she refused. So, they threw a grenade at her feet, blowing off one of her legs. Then they shot her dead.

Stout reported it to his sergeant major, his direct superior. He was told to keep quiet. So, he went to the chaplain, hoping he would report it to investigators.  Within half an hour of that conversation the sergeant major dragged him into his office.

“The chaplain tells me you’re a troublemaker,” he said. “If I hear another word about this, you’re going to go out on the next operation and you’re not going to come back alive.”

After getting out of the military Stout went public about eight war crimes that he could document.  He spoke with a reporter and some stories were run. Military investigators came to see him and collected all his evidence, which he says “they immediately made disappear.”

Waging Peace documents many outright rebellions of GIs and sailors during the Vietnam War. Most were uprisings by Black personnel against systemic racism in the forces. Other rebellions took the form of deliberate sabotage of the aircraft carriers USS Ranger and USS Forrestal

Another form was grenade attacks on officers in bases in Vietnam, known as fragging. Official figures indicate there were at least 551 instances in the Army and up to another 150 in the Marines. 

Non-official researchers say 600 to 850 or possibly more such attacks took place.

In desperation, in May 1971, the Army issued Circular 190-3 to stop the issuing of grenades to soldiers. The circular was an admission that GIs couldn’t be trusted with weapons because they would use them on their own officers.

Facing the horrors of the Vietnam War little wonder that thousands of US personnel decided to desert.  Waging Peace reports that by 1971, the rate of unauthorised absence in the military, including desertion, reached 17 percent, the highest rate in modern US military history.

During the Vietnam War some 420,000 US personnel deserted, compared to 40,00 during World War II.

It is estimated that desertion and absenteeism cost the military about one million person-years of service. It reduced military capabilities and contributed to the aura of chaos that characterised the US military.

Unlike desertions in previous wars, soldiers did not leave because of fear of the enemy, but because of disgust at what they were participating in.

GIs at bases in the continental United States were helped to make it to Canada by the wide-spread GI coffee house movement that the civilian anti-war movement organised.

Civilian activists would move to towns where bases were located and establish coffee houses as anti-war organising centres.  Off-duty GIs would attend, discuss the War and become radicalised.

By 1971, there were 32 such coffeehouses across the USA. They often faced harassment – and worse – from redneck police and fascists.  The Fort Dix coffee house was bombed, another near an air force base in Idaho was burned to the ground and the Oceanside, California GI organising centre was sprayed with machine gun fire.

One of those who was violent towards anti-war activists was Scott Camil, after his return from Vietnam and possessed by uncontrollable fury. It wasn’t until he accidentally heard Jane Fonda speak against the War that he began to think.

He travelled to the Winter Soldier investigation hearings in Detroit in 1971 - though still supporting the War. However, while there he met some Vietnamese people - and finally recognised that they were human beings.

Hearing other Vets tell their stories of murder and war crimes, Camil turned against the War and became a significant leader of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

However, the personal cost of that activity was high.  The authorities repeatedly framed him for all manner of crimes, which he beat in court. 

Ultimately, police operating as a death squad set him up for assassination. He fought his way out of that ambush and then successfully defeated charges they brought against him in court. But psychologically he couldn’t take the struggle anymore and he dropped out of activity.

It wasn’t until the US counter-revolutionary wars in Central America began in the 1980s that Camil became active again.  In the 1990s he returned to Vietnam, visiting a village where he had participated in a massacre.

There was a village memorial to the 272 people murdered in the atrocity.  Camil spent the day setting incense burning on every grave stone. “The amazing thing is,” he says of the villages he met, “all those people knew I was one of the guys who murdered those people – and they were all nice to me.”

That is a recurring observation in Waging Peace as well. Many Vets have returned to Vietnam and participated in efforts to clear landmines and help repair the damage of the War in other ways. They all report how forgiving the Vietnamese people are.

A possible reason for the continuing Culture War about Vietnam and the anti-war movement is that the US rulers and their allies in the Australian ruling class cannot face up to the enormity of the war crimes they ordered in Vietnam. 

Unable to admit their errors, they cannot conceive of forgiveness and it is the anti-war Vets who are reaching out and healing the wounds.

A Time Line of the Vietnam-Era GI Antiwar Movement

1964

August. False claims of North Vietnamese attacks in the Gulf of Tonkin lead to U.S. air strikes and an escalating air war over the coming years that becomes the heaviest bombing campaign in the history of warfare, with more than seven million tons of bombs and ordnance used against Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.

1965

Major escalation of U.S. ground troops begins.

January. Lt. Richard Steinke becomes the first U.S. serviceman to refuse to fight after arriving in Vietnam. In November of that year, Lt. Henry Howe of Fort Bliss, Texas, attends antiwar protest in El Paso and is sentenced to two years of hard labor.

1966

June. Pfc. James Johnson and Pvts. Dennis Mora and David Samas—the Fort Hood Three—publicly refuse orders to deploy to Vietnam.

October. Capt. Howard Levy, MD, refuses orders to train Green Beret combatants at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.

1967

December. Andy Stapp and others at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, form the American Servicemen’s Union and organize chapters at dozens of military installations and ships.

Late 1967. Vietnam GI, one of the first known GI antiwar newspapers, begins publication. Hundreds of other GI papers appear throughout the military over the next five years.

1968

U.S. troop strength in Vietnam exceeds 500,000. Over the next two years the intensity of combat and casualties among front-line ground units reach levels equivalent to the heaviest combat in U.S. military history.

January. The first GI antiwar coffeehouse, the UFO, opens near Fort Jackson.

Summer. Veterans and civilian activists launch the “Summer of Support” project to establish coffeehouses around other military bases. Over the next three years more than two dozen GI antiwar coffeehouses open at Army, Navy, and Marine Corps bases in the U.S. and overseas.

July. Major racial rebellion occurs at the Fort Bragg stockade in North Carolina.

August. Soldiers at the Army’s overcrowded Long Binh Jail in Vietnam rebel, burning parts of the prison and occupying a section for more than a month.

October. Navy nurse Lt. Susan Schnall leads GI antiwar march in San Francisco. In an incident described by military lawyers as “mutiny,” twenty-seven inmates at the Presidio stockade in San Francisco hold a sit-down strike and refuse to report for duty following the fatal shooting of an unarmed fellow prisoner.

1969

July. Nixon announces beginning of troop withdrawals. Major racial uprising occurs at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

August. A New York Daily News headline reads SIR, MY MEN REFUSE TO GO, describing an incident of mass mutiny by an Army unit of the 196th Infantry, one of many examples of combat refusal and avoidance in Vietnam.

October. Soldiers at military bases in the U.S. and in some units in Vietnam join millions of Americans in locally based Vietnam Moratorium protest events.

November. A full-page ad calling for an end to the war, signed by 1,365 active-duty service members, appears in The New York Times. Hundreds of active duty soldiers join hundreds of thousands of protesters in the massive November 15 antiwar march in Washington.

1970

Antiwar protest and resistance spread to the Navy as the tempo of naval air operations intensifies along with the scale of U.S. bombing in Southeast Asia.

May. The shooting deaths of two students at Jackson State University in Mississippi and of four students at Kent State University in Ohio touch off a massive wave of antiwar resistance across the country.

Soldiers rally for peace simultaneously at more than a dozen military bases in the first “Armed Farces Day” event.

July. Nearly one thousand mostly black soldiers gather in Heidelberg, Germany, for a “Call for Justice” rally protesting the war and racial oppression.

1971

Antiwar dissent increases in the Air Force as underground newspapers appear at dozens of air bases in the U.S., Europe, and Asia.

The official desertion rate of soldiers going on unauthorized leave for thirty days or more reaches 7 percent of the Army, the equivalent of seventy thousand men.

January. Nixon announces the beginning of the transition to an all-volunteer force.

April. Statements on the floor of the U.S. Senate express concern about fragging as reports multiply of violent soldier attacks against superiors in Vietnam.

May. The second annual “Armed Farces Day” is marked by antiwar protests at dozens of Army, Navy, and Air Force bases.

November. More than a thousand civilians gather at Alameda Naval Air Station to protest the sailing of the USS Coral Sea aircraft carrier, as thirty-five sailors stay behind.

1972

May. Racial clashes involving hundreds of airmen touch off the largest mass rebellion in Air Force history at Travis AFB in California.

July. Two aircraft carriers, the USS Ranger and the USS Forrestal, are put out of action by sabotage.

October. A large-scale racial rebellion erupts aboard the USS Kitty Hawk while on duty at Yankee Station off the coast of Vietnam.

November. Sailors aboard the USS Constellation protesting racial conditions are returned to shore and off-loaded at San Diego. A few days later more than a hundred sailors raise clenched fists at a dockside rally and refuse to board as the ship departs, an incident Time magazine calls a mass mutiny.

December. Nixon unleashes massive bombing attacks against Hanoi, Haiphong, and other cities in North Vietnam. Some B-52 pilots refuse to fly and join a lawsuit against the bombing filed by Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman (D-NY).

1973

January. Paris Peace Accord ending the war is signed.

March. POWs return and the last U.S. ground troops leave South Vietnam.

June. Congress cuts off funding for any further U.S. military action “in or over or off the shores” of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, which takes effect in August 1973.

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