Written Out of History: The GI Movement Against the Vietnam War

Source: Google Images

In September 2020, President Donald Trump attacked “left-wing indoctrination in our schools” and proposed to counter it with a commission to restore “patriotic education” or in other words, to promote and reinforce the more traditional indoctrination that is already prevalent in American schools and universities. Former war correspondent, journalist and author, Chris Hedges, describes how it works during an August 23rd interview with Professor James W. Loewen on his RT Network show, On Contact (worth watching in its entirety).

The teaching of history in our schools is not an impartial or neutral discipline. It is at its core about justifying the power of the ruling elites in the present by deifying the ruling elites in the past. This means that history, as it is taught in our schools, is distorted and at times fabricated to achieve these ends, racism, injustices, lies, and crimes of the ruling elites are minimalized or ignored. Problematic historical figures, such as the overt, racist, and imperialist Woodrow Wilson are transformed into mythical social archetypes whose darker actions, including the decision to re-segregate the federal government, are whitewashed or ignored. In America, in the America of history textbooks, equal opportunity exists for all. America exemplifies the trajectory of human progress, constantly improving and perfecting itself, the great leaders of the past, almost always white men are courageous and wise, bringing enlightenment and civilization to the lesser breeds of the earth, the lives of figure such as George Washington, one of the architects of the slaughter of Native Americans and a slaveholder are held up as heroic models for imitation. The dark lust for conquest and wealth which lay behind the enslavement of Africans and the genocide of Native Americans that was carried out by the Euro Americans and Americans is papered over. Those who are poor and oppressed are taught, often subtly, that they deserve their low status and those who resisted often at the cost of their own lives for equality and justice, are erased from historical memory or trivialized.

With regard to Hedge’s concluding observation above, I’m relatively certain that Trump and even some to his left politically wouldn’t want students to be taught the full history of the extensive and militant movement against the Vietnam War from within the ranks of the U.S. military. It’s been virtually written out of American history by the “Marxists” who allegedly control grade-school and college curricula. The job of burying this story has been so well done, the average American, largely clueless about their own country’s history to begin with, has little idea such a movement ever even existed.

I’ve studied the Vietnam War for years and wasn’t fully aware of the GI Movement against the war myself until I watched an episode of The RNL [Revolution Nothing Less] Show, put out on YouTube weekly by the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA. Episode 18 , which premiered on July 23rd featured a discussion about Spike Lee’s recently released film, Da 5 Bloods, juxtaposed with a fuller and more accurate depiction of the experience of black soldiers in the Vietnam War. Participants included film director David Zeiger, who co-produced and directed, Sir! No Sir!, a 2005 documentary about the GI anti-war movement and Carl Dix, a Vietnam era veteran, founding member and representative of the RCP, USA. The war is one of the things that radicalized Dix. Drafted into the army in 1968, he tells us that when he got his orders to go to Vietnam, he, “had to figure out is this a war I should be part of fighting?” To make his decision, Dix spoke to soldiers who had already been “in Country,” especially black GIs. He was told that if he went to Vietnam, he would have to treat all Vietnamese as his enemies, man, woman and child and that he would have to kill them indiscriminately. Some black GIs also told Dix that the war was, “not for them” and how they had developed, “some solidarity with the Vietnamese people from their experience over there.” Dix was told they “got their first black history lesson in Vietnam, learning from these Vietnamese people that they were fighting to free their country and getting challenged by them, including being challenged by VC fighters who spared their lives.”

Scene inside GI Coffee House circa 1970- Source: Google Images
Scene inside GI Coffee House circa 1970- Source: Google Images
Scene inside GI Coffee House circa 1970- Source: Google Images

Based on these conversations, Dix became one of the “Fort Lewis Six,” who refused orders to go to Vietnam in June 1970 and faced courts-martial as a result. he was subsequently imprisoned at Leavenworth for two years. One of the first things Dix experienced when he got there was a beating by prison guards.

About 41 minutes into the discussion, host Andy Zee turned the focus to the fact that there was a “revolutionary-minded section of the GIs “that is not shown or mentioned in Lee’s film. Zeiger agreed that although Da 5 Bloods is purported to be, “a fairly definitive picture of the experience of black GIs,” Lee left out a lot that was historically significant, “along with every film that’s ever been made about Vietnam.” For example, Zieger suggests Lee might have included a character that “fragged” his officer. Fragging, for those unaware, was the deliberate killing or attempted killing of one soldier by another, usually a superior officer, by use of a fragmentation grenade. Zieger tells us, “the army has 200 documented cases of officers being killed by their own men, for the crime of sending them out to fight the Vietnamese.” George Lepre, author of Fragging: Why U.S. Soldiers Assaulted Their Officers in Vietnam (Texas Tech University Press, 2011) puts the number of reported cases at 900 with 99 deaths. Zieger tells us Lee could have included a character who deserted, claiming there were “tens of thousands of GIs” who did so, including many black GIs. He makes the additional point of saying that deserters were not cowards, they, “just didn’t want to be part of this war.” A source I found says the Department of Defense put the figure at 503,926 between 7/1/1966 and 12/31/1973. Zieger tells us about a place called “Soul Alley” in Saigon that was run by black deserters. There is actually a recent (2018) documentary on the subject made by Houston-based filmmaker, Ted Irving, available on Amazon Prime Video. A 2018 article on Irving’s film, Soul Alley: Children of the Dust. Streets of Ebony, describes Soul Alley as, “a string of bars, clubs, shops and eateries that thrived in US-occupied Saigon,” where some black GIs, “abandoned the war to live and run establishments with Vietnamese partners.” They even taught the Saigon locals to make cornbread. Zieger makes a point of telling us, “the US military couldn’t get anywhere near” Soul Alley. Despite the fact that Irving’s film is available, how many Americans have ever heard of Soul Alley and how many American-made Vietnam movies have ever included it as part of the story?

Zieger continues by telling us about some of the many resistance organizations formed by US servicemen and women, among them, the American Servicemen’s Union, the Movement for a Democratic Military, the Black Liberation Front of the Armed Forces, the Black Brothers Union, the Concerned Officers Movement and GIs United Against the War. Anti-war GIs also put out over 500 underground newspapers including Vietnam GI, The Last Harass, A Four-Year Bummer and Kill for Peace. There was also the phenomenon of GI anti-war coffeehouses. Civilian activists set these up near military bases to attract and politicize GIs and give them an alternative, countercultural space to gather.

Cover of June 1969 Issue of Vietnam GI Underground Antiwar Newspaper Source: Google Images
Cover of June 1969 Issue of Vietnam GI Underground Antiwar Newspaper Source: Google Images
Cover of June 1969 Issue of Vietnam GI Underground Antiwar Newspaper — Source: Google Images

As Derek Seidman notes in a 2016 article for the independent socialist magazine, Monthly Review :

“A burgeoning network of civilian support was also central to defending GIs against repression and expanding the GI movement. Campaigns like 1968’s “Summer of Support” and groups like the GI-Civilian Alliance for Peace and the United States Servicemen’s Fund (USSF) spread the word about GI resistance and provided valuable solidarity, from organizers on the ground to material aid. The USSF raised hundreds of thousands of dollars that it distributed to local projects. Organizations like the Pacific Counseling Center and the GI Civil Liberties Defense Committee provided top-notch movement lawyers to defend dozens of antiwar soldiers. All this contradicts the myth of an antiwar movement that hated the troops. In fact, by working together in solidarity, GIs and civilian allies made soldier organizing a key front for the antiwar movement by the end of 1968.”

Seidman also tells us that, like most American wars, Vietnam was, “a working-class war, and most of the soldiers who resisted were the rank-and-file troops who bore its greatest burdens.” Top commanders were mostly white, while black GIs fought and died in disproportionate numbers and suffered an excessive amount of Article 15s [non-judicial punishments like reprimands, reduction in rank, loss of pay etc.], courts-martial, and other punishments. This racism existed against a backdrop of rising black political radicalism, with figures like Malcolm X and the Black Panthers serving as inspiration for young troops.

But Seidman is also frank in pointing out the inherent weaknesses of the GI Movement:

“While many troops sympathized with the antiwar movement, most declined to actively participate. Speaking out was risky, with harassment and punishment, even a dishonorable discharge, awaiting dissidents. Moreover, involvement was unstable even for those that joined the GI movement. The military regularly transferred soldiers, and the grind of service could isolate and wear down individuals. Thousands of soldiers participated or sympathized with antiwar protest, but the finite nature of enlistment — the incentive to suck it up, wait it out, and get out — and the levers of military justice militated against many GIs acting on their beliefs.”

Seidman also notes that outright repression also hampered the GI movement. Local police and military intelligence closely monitored coffeehouses, and they were targeted with fines, arrests, and even paramilitary violence. He also blames “left sectarianism” for hurting the GI Movement. But most crucial was the winding down of the war itself in 1972 and 1973. Steady combat troop reduction and the end of the draft stemmed the channeling of social unrest into the ranks. GI organizing efforts continued into the late 1970s, but they were never able to achieve previous levels of success. When the ordeal of the Vietnam War ended, so did the conditions that bred the possibility of a large wave of GI dissent.

When you listen to Carl Dix or the Vietnam vets interviewed in Zieger’s film, you get a strong sense that these were principled young men and women with a moral compass, who were truly horrified by what they were being asked to do by their government and found the courage to resist it. You understand the absurdity — the obscenity — of movies like the Rambo and Missing in Action series that portray the war solely through the lens of the American soldier and veteran, as the victims of betrayal by “pinko” liberals and the antiwar movement(reminiscent of narrative used by the German right after World War I that their soldiers had been “stabbed in the back” by the Jews and Social Democrats), who allegedly spat upon them and called them , “baby killers,” though such incidents never took place. You also understand why it was so important, to the powers that be, to kick the so-called “Vietnam Syndrome,” which was actually a healthy response to the utter havoc the the U.S. wreaked in Southeast Asia.

And kick it we did. Not too long after a cautious test run on the 136 square mile Caribbean island of Grenada in 1983, the U.S, entered a period of more or less continuous warfare in Panama, the Persian Gulf, Somalia and other parts of Africa, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. According to one estimate 7,000 U.S. troops have been killed in war from 2001 through 2018 and 52,010 wounded. Civilian deaths, mostly non-U.S. of course, officially tally at around 500,000, though the actual figure is probably a lot higher due to uncounted deaths. The costs of these wars has also been enormous, reaching almost 6 trillion from 2001 through fiscal year 2019. And for a long time now, the very idea of a peace movement or organized resistance to endless war has been effectively neutered, along with even the suggestion that the U.S. make even minor cuts in “Defence” spending.

But the wages of foreign military adventure and empire is the loss of the opportunity to build a “Great Society” at home. Like so many empires of the past, the U.S. is clearly in decline with the process also made more acute by environmental breakdown, the Covid19 pandemic (and in all probability more zoonotic virus pandemics to come) and the inability of the country’s ossified, undemocratic, 18th century political institutions to deal effectively with any of this. Various forms of resistance (teacher’s and other strikes, the Black Lives Matter Movement, Antifa, environmental movements like Extinction Rebellion) have already arisen in response and there are likely to be others absent fundamental change that lets some of the steam out of the boiling pot of unresolved economic and social issues that plague the United States in the early 21st century. And this is precisely why resistance movements like that of the Vietnam era GIs need to be remembered and included as part of any full examination of American history.

Al Ronzoni is a writer, historian and political activist based in New York City

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