Forgotten Heroes of the Vietnam War

  Category: 20th Century
By Paul

If the military of one country rounds up the citizens of another country, forces civilians into labour, uses punitive measures, intimidation of relatives and terrorism against those who resist, it is called a rogue state, a monstrous regime, but when the same state does it against it’s own civilians, it’s called conscription.

For any human being the desire to live one's life without taking the life of another would seem not only to be an admirable desire but a basic human right. Between the 1965-75 the government of the United States tried to take this right away from many of its citizens. However totally unexpectedly in one of the great civil disobediences, organised at grass roots level, in the barrack rooms, boot camps, stockades, military towns, West Point itself and even on the battlefields of the Vietnam. GI’s fought back and won, this is their story…

From modern movies anyone with even the most basic knowledge of the Vietnam War will know that there was some dissent amongst the ranks of the masses of conscripted GI’s. In these movies the anti-war ranks of the army are usually portrayed as hippies, peaceniks, druggies and drop-outs, drafted reluctantly into the army while clean cut volunteers from good families get on with the job.

In reality it is from neither of these places that the GI revolt began but somewhere even more unlikely, the most elitist of all US military units, the Green Berets.

For both the left and the right this has strong political ends. The right being able to distinguish between the professional military and a few hippy conscript troublemakers and the left wishing to see the rebellion of the people not the elite forces who were lackeys of the oppressive the state they oppose.

But contrary to the political agendas of both, the GI Revolt began long before any conscripts had been deployed in Vietnam and surprisingly amongst the ranks of the Green Berets. In 1964 these professional oppressors were deployed in Vietnam to perform a duel purpose, of enacting a Hearts an Minds policy and advising the South Vietnamese Military.

However for many Green Berets the hypocrisy of the policy began to become apparent. Green Berets were given basic medical training and deployed in villages giving crude medical treatment, while there the USAF was carpet bombing the villages. The deployed Green Berets equipped to treat minor fungal infections in a few children instead were being given the shattered bodies of dozens from bombing raids.

Meanwhile other Green Berets deployed as advisors with the South Vietnamese Army were encountering different problems. Decorated Green Beret Donald Duncan who later sat on a War Crime Tribunal described many incidents when American lead patrols arrested people who may or may not have been VC sympathisers who were routinely handed over the South Vietnamese interrogators who used extreme and brutal methods of torture on them. Duncan who initially supported the war explains how this contravened everything he was brought up to believe in. In 1966 he quit the Green Berets to become one of the most outspoken opponent of the war.

Howard Levy a Green Beret doctor also took a stand, refusing to train any more people because he considered what he was doing immoral. The Levy case demonstrated how widespread and early the revolt began in the professional army. In 1967 he was court marshalled and spent 3 years in prison. What was remarkable about his case was each day he attended the court marshal he was cheered by hundreds of GI’s on the base who regarded him a hero.

The stand of the Green Berets hadn’t gone unnoticed and it was as early as 1966 when the first mass refusals by soldiers to go to war occurred. The first such case to come to public attention was the Fort Hood 3 who publicly refused to go. The Fort Hood 3 chose to publicise their case nationally, whereas many other chose a different method, the Underground Railway. This was movement set up the smuggle deserting GI’s and draft dodgers overseas, mostly Canada and Sweden.

The US military’s reaction to these early signs of revolt was to try and stamp it out by ever increasingly draconian sentencing. The Fort Hood 3 were court marshalled and received 5 year gaol sentences. A Lieutenant Henry Hal received a 2 year sentence for merely carrying placard at a demo and 2 Marines received 6-10 year sentence for organising a meeting to discuss whether it was right for black people to fight in Vietnam.

Government figure estimate 560,000 people committed draft law offences during the Vietnam War. And a total number of 1,500,000 GI’s went AWOL. Over a 100,000 people went into exile to avoid the draft.

In 1968 the Vietnamese launched the TET offensive, for many of the half a million US soldier deployed in Vietnam this came as an awakening. The ease in which the Vietcong and NVA moved across the country and the widespread support they found in the south, brought home the total failure of the Hearts and Minds policy and the lies of their own leaders that they were there to protect the south Vietnamese who clearly saw them as an occupying enemy.

Most deserters headed for the sanctuary of Canada, but a few moved to the hippie communities of California. The Nine for Peace were a small group who called the press and publicised their resistance. They sought sanctuary in a church and chained themselves to the ministers.

Many deserters were sent to the military’s stockades, however this was becoming a major problem for the military as they quickly became overcrowded, some having as many as 3 times their capacity staying there.

In the most audacious act so far, soldiers in San Fransisco began planning the first open GI anti-war demonstration. One of the problems facing them was how to publicise it without getting arrested. Susan Schnall a military nurse and came up with a solution. In Vietnam the USAF was dropping leaflets in North Vietnam encouraging the people to defect. She proposed hiring private plains and flying over military bases dropping similar leaflets on the GI’s. Her flight was successful and thousands of GI's learned of the protest, however the military were to get their revenge on her. She wore her uniform on the demo and was later court marshalled for making a political statement while in uniform.

In the wake of the arrests following the demo and the further overcrowding of the stockades tensions rose. At Presidio Stockade a prisoner was shot for refusing work detail. Quickly a protest over this started in the prison. Several GI’s organised a sit down protest at role call. They were read the riot act by the army and then put on trial for treason facing the death sentence. The military’s continued over reaction to the protests had further and further been isolating them from the public, but it was the Presidio 27, proved the final nail as the scandal went countrywide.

With the rising in popularity of the revolt across America a series of ant-war coffee houses began to appear. The coffee houses fulfilled a multiple roles. Acting as places free from the military where GI’s could unwind, chill out and avoid any talk of the military and war they also acted as nexuses for GI's opposed to the war to meet and exchange ideas without repression on there ideas by the military
One of the ideas to emerge from the increased organisation of the revolt was the underground newspapers than started to circulate at military bases. Baring names such as The Last Harass, Fun Travel and Adventure, Four Year Bummer and Fatigue Press. The newspapers mocked the officers and military establishment as well as told first hand stories of veterans real experiences in Vietnam.

The military as soon as it realised what was going on banned them but it was a futile effort and the phenomena exploded until almost every military base in and outside the country had one. Draconian methods were used to stamp them out. GI’s suspected of involvement had drugs planted on them and were arrested.
In 1968 in one of the most notorious events in the protest against the war occurred where police attacked demonstrators at the Democratic Party Conference in Chicago. Deployed in the area were soldiers from Fort Hood who were originally intended for the job. However days before the troops deployment a midnight protest had broken out amongst the soldiers who objected to being used against fellow soldiers at the demo. A battalion of MP’s had to be sent in to break up the protest and imprison the ringleaders. Even then the military chose to handpick the men they sent to Chicago leaving out suspected peaceniks. Despite this when hostilities broke out at the demo between protestors and police the troops were never sent in, the army were now unsure which side the GI’s were on.

In 1968 the soldiers of Charlie Co 11th Brigade cold bloodedly murdered 500 innocent villages mostly women and children in the village of My Lai. The US military managed to cover it up for a year before it was exposed by the press. When the army finally had to answer for it, they swept it under the carpet calling it an “isolated incident”.

In reaction a groups calling themselves Vietnam Veterans Against the War held a public enquiry into the conduct of the US army in Vietnam. The enquiry exposed that far from an isolated instance testimony after testimony by veterans showed that My Lai was just one of a multitude of similar event, but when much deeper as GI after GI confirm. The orders they had been given were the same ones as had created My Lai.

The next move of the GI Revolt was on the militaries most sacred day, Armed Forces Day. The GI’s organised an alternative parade, Armed Farces Day. Steadily each year the parade gained moment until by 70-71 it was attracting thousands.

Increasingly a new phenomena grew throughout the army known as ‘fragging’. Where soldiers in a unit would kill NCO’s or officers who they considered would get them killed. The most popular method was a fragmentation grenade. Effectively the most competent leaders the army were being killed and the most timid and incompetent left alive
Colonel Robert Heini made the statement “By every conceivable indicator, our army that now remains in Vietnam, is in a state approaching collapse. With individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and non-commissioned officers, drug ridden, dispirited, where they are not mutinous”.

In 1971 a company from the 1st Cavalry Division was deployed protecting two US artillery batteries on the border. Two North Vietnamese Regiments were moving in on the batteries. The commander of the Cavalry troops ordered them to venture out and organise a night ambush on the advancing NVA. The GI’s refused the order but went a stage further when they sent a petition to the press announcing they were refusing to fight. The petition stated they would rather face court martial than fight and in the event of mass prosecution their only defence would be public opinion
By now the heavy handed responses of the military was being replaced by a broad sweep under the carpet. The company was quickly redeployed from the front line and no further action taken. Instead another unit was ordered in to replace them. However the new unit hearing what had happened to their predecessors immediately refused to fight too, and within weeks the whole US army was refusing to fight.
Effectively the US army had ceased to exist as a fighting unit. Nixon’s hand was forced, he had to make the pledge American ground troops would no-longer engage in offensive actions. All American units were withdrawn from the frontline, fighting the war was left entirely in the hands of the South Vietnamese. The war was now simply a matter for the politicians to hide the state of the army and spin doctor the history books to play down the GI revolt.
The GI Revolt proved to be one of they great civil movement of American history, and demonstrated it impossible in an open society to conduct an unjust war with a conscripted army, a lesson well learnt in for Iraq.
References and Links

Sir, No, Sir: The GI Revolt - BBC