GIs continue the fight against those sending them to war
By Karin Fleming
In 1968, Bill Perry was in Vietnam searching through bomb craters for the dead bodies of Vietnamese men, women and children.
“You would look down in there and you’d see a woman’s torso and legs and then you’d see her upper body over here, and that would count as two bodies,” Perry recalls. “Then there’d be a mangled woman over there, the head of a baby, a leg of a baby, a torso of a baby over here.”
It was the height of the Tet Offensive, the military campaign launched by the North Vietnamese army that was conducted between January and September of that year. The operation stunned the American public, who were led to believe by military officials and the administration that the Vietcong were unable to launch such a substantial assault. At the time, one of the few ways of measuring “progress” during the Indochina war was to send soldiers on such body count missions.
“It’s disgusting when you see bomb crater after bomb crater,” says Perry who served with the 101st Airborne Division. “But when you go and look through a couple hundred of them, that’s a lot of dead bodies.”
Perry came home from Vietnam an anti-war activist. During his deployment he had been impressed by the Vietnamese people he had met. He mentions how unjust it had seemed to declare war on such a simplistic, agrarian society consisting of pious Buddhists who had such respect for one another.
“It was so unfair we were over there shitting all over these people,” he says.
Perry eventually joined the organization Vietnam Veterans Against the War, which boasted 20,000 members during the height of the GI resistance movement in 1971. His participation and the participation of thousands of other veterans in the GI movement is part of the forgotten — or intentionally overlooked — history of how and why the Vietnam War ended.
David Cortright, the author of Soldiers in Revolt: GI Resistance during the Vietnam War and himself an antiwar soldier who was drafted and stationed stateside in the late ’60s, says that one of the reasons the GI movement has been left out of history is partially due to the discomfort the general public has with the idea of soldiers speaking out.
“There’s a reluctance in the society, the quite militarized society in which we live, to acknowledge that resistance exists in the military,” says Cortright. “It seems so subversive and contradictory.”
Despite what contradictions society may link to the politically outspoken soldier, there’s no denying the expanse of the GI movement in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Between 1966 and 1971 desertion rates in the Army increased from about 15 to 74 percent. Over 200,000 soldiers never reported for the draft and from 1970 to the end of 1972, 145,000 successfully applied for conscientious objector status. Also, for every 100 enlisted personnel in 1971, the Army reported 18 were considered to be “AWOL” — which refers to unexcused absences for fewer than 30 days.
Robert Ward Reilly, a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, served from 1971 to 1974 in the infantry. He spent 32 months of his service in the south of Germany, where he says he and many other soldiers were “highly involved” in GI resistance. “It was all over the whole world,” he says, remembering how soldiers would disobey orders, from refusing to cut their hair to not showing up for formation, in an attempt to break down the discipline and structure of the military.
During his time in the service, Reilly went through two special court martial proceedings. One was for desertion, after he and three other soldiers moved to a different town in Germany for 45 days to make a political statement.
“I pled guilty in the hopes of getting thrown out,” Reilly says. Instead he was given a prison sentence, which was eventually waived, and demoted to an E1 — the lowest enlisted grade of private — before having to return to the infantry.
Not all antiwar soldiers at the time became politically active while still in the service. For many, the realization that what occurred in Vietnam was disconnected from what they were being told by the administration didn’t come until after their contracts ended. This was true for Jim Murphy, who served in Vietnam with the Air Force for three months in 1966 and again from 1967 to 1968.
Murphy “woke up” in January 1971 after the Winter Soldier investigations — the first national event organized by Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The event involved testimonies from over a hundred veterans of war crimes and atrocities they claimed to have witnessed or committed during their service in Vietnam.
Two months later, Murphy participated in VVAW’s Operation Dewey Canyon — named after two short invasions of Laos — which was a five-day antiwar demonstration in Washington D.C. that culminated in over 800 soldiers throwing their medals, ribbons and other mementos of their combat service onto the steps of the Capital.
“It was just incredible,” says Murphy. “The act of throwing your medals back, the whole thing just felt right. For once I was surrounded by people where I felt totally comfortable.” Forty years later, these weathered antiwar activists are responding to a new challenge: a growing antiwar movement among the recent veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Over five and a half years since the invasion of Iraq — and seven years since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan — veterans are once again uniting against wars they deem unjust. In 2004, when a small contingent of Iraq war veterans gathered at the annual Veterans for Peace conference, Vietnam vets were ready for them.
“We made a vow back than that never again would one veteran abandon the next generation,” says Reilly, remembering the alienation veterans from his generation felt from other vets when they returned home. “And we stuck to that. We were actually organized and waiting for them to form when they finally started appearing.”
Shortly after the conference, the organization Iraq Veterans Against the War was founded. IVAW has since grown to include 53 chapters around the United States and Canada—four of which are located on Army bases and whose membership consists of active-duty soldiers. There are approximately 1,200 veterans in the organization who are advocating for the complete withdrawal of troops from Iraq, full benefits for returning veterans and reparations to the Iraqi people. It is an affiliate of the larger, well-established group Veterans for Peace. “[Vietnam veterans] are our predecessors,” says Adam Kokesh, an Iraq war vet who is currently on the board of directors of IVAW. “They’re the models for our organization.” Kokesh, who served with the marines, volunteered to go to Iraq in 2003 with the 3rd Civil Affairs Group. He was deployed to Fallujah for eight months in 2004, shortly after the Blackwater contractors were killed in the city.
“I was against the war before the war,” says Kokesh. “But for a while, I guess, I supported the occupation because I thought we had a responsibility to clean up our mess.”
However, Kokesh says his experiences in Iraq changed the way he viewed the conflict. He says he was upset at the lack of priority civil affairs were given. As a soldier who volunteered to go to Iraq with the expectations to work at improving the infrastructure and reconstruction efforts, he became disillusioned when these expectations failed to be met.
“Not only were we lied into the war,” he says, “but it is lies that are keeping us there.” Cortright likens this experience to that of Vietnam-era soldiers.
“We were told back then that it was a noble struggle against communism,” says Cortright. “Today, our troops, our country was told it was to prevent weapons of mass destruction or to fight against Al Qaeda and the terrorists and all of that turned out to be a lie. So that sense of betrayal and of being lied to by your government is very similar.”
This commonality between the veterans has helped close the generational gap. Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans work together when organizing events, such as Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan that took place in March. This event was modeled after the Winter Soldier testimonies of 1971 and, while it primarily was organized by Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, Vietnam vets were the ones pulling security detail and giving advice based on their experiences with the event nearly four decades ago.
“We intentionally presented everyone in nice clothes,” says Reilly, noting the importance of image in the media and the task of combating the “hippie-syndrome” stereotype prevalent after the 1971 testimonies. “It’s one thing to get a bunch of scraggly, old Vietnam-era hippies together to bitch about the war. It’s another thing to get officers and marines dressed in their uniforms and just coming out and saying the same things we were saying 35 years ago.”
After this event, there was a sharp increase in the number of recent veterans joining the movement. While the numbers are still much lower than they were during Vietnam—which can be attributed to the fact far less troops are involved in the conflicts today, differences in the construct of the army, and differences in the political situation today versus during Vietnam—the numbers are still impressive to many.
“I’m stunned by how much involvement there is in the active-duty military considering the fact they’re all volunteers,” says Reilly.
Approximately three million soldiers served over the course of the Vietnam War, from 1959 until 1975. In comparison, less than 600,000 troops have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Adam Kokesh explains this as the military’s policy of isolating the war to a small community. Rather than having a draft — which was true during Vietnam — the Army instead is sending troops on third and fourth deployments that keep the Army at a perpetual breaking point. This, Kokesh says, has caused the general public to be less aware of the conflict, especially in relation to the animated political climate during the ’60s and ’70s.
The antiwar movement was exacerbated by the draft, which didn’t end until 1973, and caused the war to have an affect on a much broader populace than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan today, which are being fought by a military that has an overrepresentation of soldiers from the lower socio-economic classes. The termination of the draft also changed the construct of an individual’s relationship to the military. Rather than joining a specific unit and staying with the same soldiers for the duration of one’s service, as is typically the case today, it wasn’t uncommon for soldiers to rotate in and out of units. This resulted in a lack of unity among soldiers, since the people one served with constantly changed.
Today, soldiers remain in the same unit for a long period of time. Cortright says this could have an affect on the decision of a soldier to oppose the war.
“It may dampen the instinct to speak out or resist just because of the sense of wanting to be in solidarity and respect for your fellow soldiers,” says Cortright. Cortright adds that if this is the case, it probably only affects resistance minimally. Instead, a larger reason for a change in the mentality of dissent could be due to the fact that today people are more likely to join the military as a career option. Also, many of the young men and women in the military have spouses and families who may depend on them for support.
“It means that when you are serving you have responsibility not simply for your own well-being, but that of your family,” says Cortright. “If you speak out and get a bad discharge, it affects not only you but your children or your spouse. So that’s a sobering responsibility that many of the young people have today that we did not have. Very few of us were married or had family responsibility in those days.”
Bill Perry also points out that during Vietnam they did not have the sophisticated means of tracking one’s military service as they do today.
“Most people our age, in the ’60s, we didn’t give a flying fuck if you had to get a conduct discharge,” says Perry, pointing out that even minor arrests were hard to track from state to state. “It didn’t mean shit. Just don’t tell your employer you got a bad discharge, they’ll never find out.”
Therefore, the soldiers speaking out today, especially if they are active-duty, have much more at risk than those protesting the Vietnam War.
“Today,” says Perry, “it’s a career-busting choice to put your neck on the line and get arrested to make a point.”
And yet, hundreds of veterans are doing just that.
Jonathan Hutto, an active duty soldier in the Navy, author of Antiwar Soldier: How to Dissent Within the Ranks of the Military and co-founder of the Appeal for Redress, a way for active-duty soldiers to voice to Congressional leaders their opposition to the war in Iraq, is one of many active-duty soldiers who have made the choice to speak out.
“The risk is putting yourself out there in such a way where who knows what can happen to you,” says Hutto. “This is the largest military industrial complex in the world, so certainly you take that into account. But then again, you don’t take it into account to repress yourself, you take it into account, at least for me, it was to prepare myself.”
And prepare they do. The Appeal for Redress is a way for active duty personnel to protest the war by following the Department of Defense directives regarding dissent within the military, which has already been taken advantage of by over 1,000 soldiers. The directive guarantees active duty soldiers the freedom of expression as long as it is off base, when they are off duty and when they are out of uniform.
Not all soldiers decide to follow these directives. Adam Kokesh was still a marine in the Individual Ready Reserve, meaning he no longer was active duty, when he wore parts of his marine uniform, with the insignia removed, during a street theater mock combat patrol in Washington D.C. in March 2007. Afterward he received a letter from the Marines that said he had violated the uniform code of military justice by wearing his uniform at the event. His response: “go fuck yourself.”
Eventually Kokesh had to attend a hearing to determine whether his honorable discharge would be changed to a dishonorable one. Armed with his attorney, Mike Lebowitz, they argued that because Kokesh was in the IRR, he technically was a civilian until recalled to active duty. Therefore, the UCMJ did not apply to him. The situation ended with Kokesh’s discharge being changed to general with honorable conditions, which is a step below his original honorable one.
Having the military go through with a hearing on a trivial case, such as a violation of the UCMJ, with the intent to retroactively change a discharge is unusual. In the past, a discharge would not be changed unless a crime was committed. This crackdown on dissent within the military shows how it has increased in the last few decades. Perry recognizes the differences saying that while he was protesting the Vietnam War he didn’t have the “fear of the machine, the establishment being able to crush us, like they can crush you today.”
Because of this, the fact that veterans and active-duty soldiers are, essentially, risking their futures to speak out against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is telling. “Every single guy that volunteered and went over [to Iraq] and came back could be in the ‘war hero’ status here in this country for the rest of their lives without saying anything,” Reilly points out. “For them to speak out when there’s no need for them to, it just makes them all the more justifiable and real.”
Regardless of any increase in pressure from the military, the dissent from veterans and active-duty soldiers persists and the GI resistance movement, containing GIs from many eras, continues to grow.
“[The actions of veterans] isn’t about closure,” says Jim Murphy, who now works with high school students on counter-recruiting efforts in New York City. “It’s about the fact that you, and this is what I tell the young vets, you went through an experience that changed you forever. But the other side of it is you can be extremely empowered by the experience as much as you can be taken down by it.”
This empowerment is not something that will fade once the war ends. It spawns decades and motivates veterans/activists to continue to fight for the issues they believe in. “Forty-three years ago I remember vividly what they put in our minds to make us killers,” says Perry, who now works with disabled veterans in Philadelphia. “Forty-one years ago I actually participated in the practice of being a cold-blooded killer. And for forty years I’ve felt repulsion for being a part of it.”
Karin Fleming is a senior journalism major. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.