Thursday, July 24, 2014

Mutiny on the Bounty

"Soldiers in Revolt – GI Resistance During the Vietnam War,” by David Cortright, 1975, intro by Howard Zinn

This is a true work of people’s history, written by a former GI activist in the U.S. military during Vietnam, who took years to document many acts of revolt - and to tie them together.  Most of these events were hidden from the general U.S. press, which rarely gave a real picture of what was going on in the Army, Marines, Navy & Air Force.  Even to this day, CNN in its ‘60’s’ coverage gives almost no space to the rebellion in the U.S. military against Vietnam, and by extension, imperialism.  The book is based on a close reading of 250 dissident military newspapers, anti-war materials and contacts among GI activists, as well as official documents and news stories. 

What clearly comes through from every fragging, act of sabotage; refusal to fight, board ship or fly; desertion, insubordination, military prison takeover, riot, GI organization, off-base coffee-house, GI newspaper, vigil, march, rally and published statement is that the U.S. military, from the Army to the Marines, from the Navy to the Air Force, broke down in Vietnam.  It was a chief reason why the U.S. gave up the fight.  At one point, 3 aircraft carriers were demobilized by sabotage or rebellions.  Soldiers in the field stopped obeying their officers.  Some army barracks were taken over by rebels for short periods of time.  This extended from Vietnam to Japan, Thailand, Guam and the Philippines, into nearly every camp in the U.S. and into Germany and the U.K.  It was worldwide, and involved hundreds of thousands of soldiers in various ways.  To accomplish this, the civilian anti-war movement and the soldier’s anti-war movement worked together frequently. 

The leaders in many of these fights were black soldiers.  The movement over common goals resulted in unity between black and whites, although there were also racial brawls between black radicals and the more conservative and racist white soldiers, or the even more racist white MPs.  The Black Panther Party was invited on to one base. Memorials for Malcolm X were held at another.  Black study groups sprang up everywhere.  Clearly the movement for black liberation in the U.S. intervened into the military. The movement started being against this particular war, then became against imperial intervention anywhere, and started to include the social demands of soldiers – better housing, the unjust military legal codes, racist military police and officers, discrimination in job assignments, mistreatment of various kinds, low pay and every other issue soldiers – similar to workers – have with their employer. 

In effect, the class war being waged by the Vietnamese extended into the ranks of the enemy army.  U.S. soldiers were the second line in this fight, and the third, the domestic anti-war and black radical movements.  The latter never extended far enough into the domestic labor movement, but if it had, that would have led to a more profound revolutionary crisis throughout U.S. society.  The labor movement, then and now, is harshly policed to forbid this kind of truly radical activity.

Cortright documents in painful detail every single rebellion, no matter how small.  I take great enjoyment in reading about every single one.  He lists the increasing AWOL rate – peaking in 1971 in the Army at 18% and the Marines in 1970 at 17.5%.  Or the desertion rate – 7% in 1971 for the Army and 6% in 1970 for the Marines.  In-service CO applications – the Army had 2,827 in 1971.  Discharges for misconduct and unfitness – 11% in 1970 for the Marines.  Marijuana usage?  42% of the Army used it in 1971.  In the 173rd Airborne, 68% had used weed.  Of course harder drugs were also being used.  Nearly 500,000 Vietnam-era soldiers were discharged with less than honorable separations. Confirmed fraggings in the first 11 months of 1971 were 215.  80% of victims were officers or NCOs.   All these are from official figures and Cortright documents that some of these figures are under-counts, especially the latter.  Cortright does not shy away from supporting fragging or desertion or almost any action by angry soldiers, which shows that he understand who the real killers are. 

The issue of ‘who’ opposed the war the most – enlistees or the draftees – is handled in this book, but not very thoroughly.  While Cortright believes, following other writers, that the men who enlisted were the most unhappy with the war, there is not much evidence of that in the book. Cortright does point out that the majority of organizers against the war within the military were working-class enlistees.  The theory is that they felt most betrayed when the promises of ‘training,’ ‘fighting for your country’, ‘discipline’ and ‘leadership’ fell far short. In other words, the difference between a 'full-time' worker enlistee versus a temp 'draftee.'  I propose a more subtle argument - that the leadership were working-class enlistees but the majority of their followers were draftees. 

Instead, when the military brass realized the extent of demoralization and opposition in the ranks in the early 1970s, enlistments were ended in a mass way – thousands were sent home.  The draft itself ended in 1971.  And this reduced the rebellion in the ground forces military almost overnight.  Cortright himself thinks that the draft would be re-established, and the ‘all volunteer’ army would become a failure.  That was his view in 1975.  Almost 40 years later we can say he was wrong.  The ‘high-tech’ mercenary army has enabled the U.S. to carry out many invasions since.  The ‘draft’ has not been seriously raised, except perhaps by people who view an army formed of economic refugees, right-wing patriots and macho personalities, reflecting a small slice of the population, to actually be anti-democratic.  The ‘citizens army’ is no more – perhaps because the citizens will no longer do what they are told.

Of particular interest is the issue of how the rebellion spread from the grunts in Vietnam to the Navy seamen, then to the air-craft carriers and bases, as the focus of the war changed over time from ground combat to air-bombing campaigns and big naval guns.  No part of the military was off-limits to protest – even groups of NCO’s, pilots and other officers came out in an organized way against the war. 

Another key point was the mistreatment of black soldiers.  One indicator was that they ended up in the military prisons in far higher numbers than their numbers in the military would indicate.  The prisons inside the army mirrored the prisons outside it.  Cortright makes an invaluable point that the U.S. Army was (and I think still is) heavily dominated by white Southerners in the leadership.  The South is also where most military bases are located.  In fact the largest employer in Texas is a federal base, Fort Hood in Killeen.  Their backward racist and classist ideas dominated the military at the time – sort of a Klan with bars and stars. 

The role of the left is not very visible in this book, except for a mention of the SWP’s Young Socialist Alliance.  He does mention the formation of a soldier’s union, which he asserts (in 1975 again) will continue to function due to the conditions in the forces. He documents how much the ‘volunteer army’ is costing the government, and how conditions were changing a bit to accommodate the ‘volunteers.’ Cortright exposes the lies told by recruiters to trick people into joining the armed forces.  He points out that without dealing with the racism in the military, no military can survive in the U.S.  I do not know if there are any organizations left in the ‘volunteer military,’ though a soldiers’ union is still needed.   

This book is essential to understanding how to stop a war.  Cortright includes a section on the history of resistance to militarism within the military in various American wars – especially the massive ‘Go Home” movement after fighting ended in World War II, which essentially forestalled another war from starting.  He discusses how to bring 'democracy' into an essentially authoritarian capitalist organization, much like trying to get a union into a top-down business.  Having such an organization, perhaps modeled after similar conditions in the German Army of 1975, or the People's Liberation Army ("PLA") of China in 1975, he feels will improve conditions for enlisted men.

Cortwright's points on fighting militarism are germane. It is not about large peace crawls alone.  Or pacifism.  Or appealing to Democrats or liberals – who only opposed this war because it was a losing proposition.  The 300 dead Vietnamese to every 1 American ratio didn’t bother them.  To stop war the fight must be extended into the military itself – just as the Bolsheviks did in 1917 and the German revolutionaries did after WWI.  Take as much of the army from the capitalists as can be taken.  It has been done.  
Prior reviews of books on Vietnam – use search blog box in upper left are:  Kill Anything That Moves,” “Matterhorn,” “People’s History of the Vietnam War,” “What It Is Like to Go To War,” “In the Cross-fire – Adventures of a Vietnamese Revolutionary,” and “Working-Class War.” 

And I bought it at Mayday Books
Red Frog
July 24, 2014

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