Donald Duncan was a patriot who wanted nothing more than to
serve his country. He volunteered and spent two tours in Vietnam as
a Green Beret. But what he saw horrified him. In February 1966,
after he resigned from the service in disgust, Duncan penned an
article in Ramparts that revealed widespread torture of civilians
and indiscriminate bombing of Vietnamese targets, and exposed the
distortions of the Pentagon’s propaganda machine.
It was a courageous act that helped spawn a ‘GI movement’: In
spite of popular legend, the antiwar movement’s vanguard was not
college students or veterans, but active-duty soldiers like Duncan
who resisted the war.
They organized demonstrations and refused orders to fight. They
published underground newspapers and hung out at radical coffee
shops near military bases, where they provided support to comrades
returning from Vietnam or shipping out. A new documentary, Sir!
in March, tells their stories.
Filmmaker David Zeiger worked at one of those coffee shops and
wanted to document what he’d seen but feared that audiences were
tired of Vietnam movies. Then came the Iraq war. ‘George W. Bush’s
declaration of war on the world and the horrendously criminal
assault on Iraq made the film feel very necessary,’ he says, ‘and,
ironically, has created an audience for it.’
Most striking about the film is the sheer size of the GI
movement, which showed up for every major peace march from 1965 to
1972. The underground GI press swelled to more than 100 newspapers.
Thousands flocked to Jane Fonda’s FTA tour, an antiwar alternative
to Bob Hope’s USO fare. (FTA was code for ‘Fuck the Army,’ a spoof
of the Army slogan ‘Fun, Travel, and Adventure.’) According to
Pentagon records, there were 503,926 ‘incidents of desertion’
between 1966 and 1971.
Opponents of the Iraq war could learn from the creative actions
of the GI movement — like Armed Farces Day, an annual march that
drew thousands of soldiers into the streets to mock the Pentagon
brass. Another was the Stop Our Ship Referendum staged by sailors
on the U.S.S. Constellation, who invited citizens in the
carrier’s home port of San Diego to vote on whether the boat should
set sail for Vietnam (they overwhelmingly voted no). And in answer
to literature drops over Vietnam, Susan Schnall, a Navy nurse,
arranged a small plane to drop leaflets promoting an antiwar rally
onto Bay Area military bases.
The current situation differs from the Vietnam era in many
respects. Today’s all-volunteer soldiers, for instance, have a
harder time getting conscientious objector (CO) status. Many don’t
realize they have the right to change their minds on moral grounds.
During the Vietnam War, thousands of soldiers — draftees and
enlisted men — received CO discharge papers.
The tradition of conscientious objection dates back to before
the American Revolution, as journalist Peter Laufer details in his
forthcoming book Mission Rejected: U.S. Soldiers Who Say No
to Iraq (Chelsea Green, April 2006). ‘George Washington’s
call to arms,’ he writes, ‘included a critical exemption phrase
when he announced, ‘all young men of suitable age be drafted,
except those with conscientious scruples against war.” Even World
War II — the ‘good’ war — saw more than 40,000 Americans reject
military service on moral grounds.
While the complicit mainstream media ignore it, there is a
growing antiwar movement among today’s GIs. In late 2003,
eight-year Army veteran Camilo Mej?a came home after spending six
months running a prison camp in Iraq, then became the first U.S.
soldier to refuse to return to duty. He requested CO status but was
court-martialed and jailed for nine months. Thousands of soldiers
have filed for CO status or gone AWOL since the war began. The
Pentagon reported more than 5,500 desertions by the end of 2004.
There is also an underground soldier press, in the form of blogs
like Fight to Survive
And a cadre of organizations have formed to support these war
resisters, including Iraq Veterans Against War
(ivaw.net), Gold Star Families for
Peace (www.gsfp.org), War
Resisters Support Campaign
(resisters.ca), and the GI
It’s no surprise that soldiers have played a pivotal role in
antiwar movements. Combatants know the reality of war as civilian
protesters can’t, and their voices carry moral weight. As one
veteran of the U.S.S. Constellation said, ‘We truly
believed that what would stop that war was when the soldiers
stopped fighting it.’ It worked in Vietnam. Perhaps it will work in