Hidden history: underground GI newspapers during the Vietnam War

Reviewed by THOMAS F. BARTON*

Protest and survive; underground GI newspapers during the Vietnam War
James Lewes
Praeger Publishers, Westport, Ct., 2003
256 pages , charts, figures, tables
July 2003
ISBN: 0275978613
List Price: US$67.95

As discontent within the U.S. Armed Forces over the war in Iraq spreads, more interest is being taken in how a soldiers' rebellion during the Vietnam War brought the army to its knees. Since the Sixties, the media in Canada, however, has given a one-sided emphasis to the phenomenon of over 40,000 young Americans migrating to this country in opposition to conscription or the draft. Or, on the other hand, it has memorialized young Canadians who volunteered to fight in this war of aggression. The resistance within the US Armed Forces of those already conscripted -- from "fragging" up to "killing troublesome officers wholesale" in the field -- is rarely mentioned. Dissent within the Canadian Armed Forces is an equally taboo topic. -- Shunpiking Online

This book which draws from more than 120 newspapers, published between 1968 and 1970, is a valuable introduction to that story, with photos and cartoons reproduced from soldiers' anti-war newspapers extremely difficult to find elsewhere in print today.

The last 40 pages form a "Partial Chronology of Dissent, 1965-1970", calendaring important events in the development of the GI resistance movement. A second appendix brings together a list of GI Publications, by name, location, and dates of issue. I haven't seen a list like this currently available in book form elsewhere.

Of course there are glitches. Vietnam GI, the leading anti-war GI publication of the day, is located in Miami when in fact it came out of Chicago. Compared to the contribution made, that's small potatoes.

The opening two chapters are a bit heavy, "semiotics" and so forth, but once past the academic groundwork, a story begins to unfold that makes exciting reading in chapters like "Response and Repression," and "Envisioning Resistance." For example, the chapter "Envisioning Resistance" takes up a too-little known dimension of the soldiers' rebellion: troops not only refused en mass to keep fighting in Vietnam, they frequently refused orders to be used to control unrest at home. Incidents where troops home from Vietnam simply refused to be deployed to control urban rebellions by Afro-Americans were the government's ultimate nightmare come true.

Tables showing year by year "Reported Incidents of GI Dissent," "Military Antiwar Activists Arrested," and "Average Sentence per GI Activist," are fresh contributions, documenting what we felt at the time: the more the resistance grew, the weaker the Army became in trying to suppress it.

For instance, in 1966, the average sentence per GI Activist was +40 months at hard labour - more than three years. By 1969 it had fallen to less than five months at hard labour. Since by 1969 troops in Vietnam were killing troublesome officers wholesale, the simultaneous violent jump in reported incidents of dissent and drop in prison sentences fits the reality of a disintegrating army and order of discipline. As one paper, Broken Arrow, quoted by Lewes (p. 69), summed it up:

"Our minds have not become warped and closed by twenty years of blind obedience to a corrupt, blind institution bent on not building, but destroying everything for which our country has good these last two centuries. We as intelligent human beings are pressured to adopt these same standards with their moral and human wrongs.

"This we cannot, in all good conscience, do. As a result of this feeling, the GI Movement has become an important first step, one so unified and strong that for the last two years the brass have been faced with something they still don't fully understand. And it frightens them. They can no longer expect their impulsive moves to end our struggle. This has been proven many times in the past ... This has prevented much of the kangaroo court activity for which the military is infamous."

What does all this have to do with Iraq? The Bush crowd like to repeat a new mantra: "Iraq Is Not Vietnam." They're right. It certainly isn't. It took years for resistance to an Imperial war to grow in the army in Vietnam. It has taken only months in Iraq. There was no limitary families' movement during the Vietnam war, because most troops were single men who had no immediate families. Today husbands, wives, and even children of troops are organizing and beginning to raise hell right alongside their loved ones in Iraq and elsewhere in the service. The ironic joke is that the "professional, all-volunteer army" was supposed to be a cure for the kind of rebellion that broke out during Vietnam. Instead, the resistance now has a home base.

Books like this are so important because they show our hidden history of resistance to Imperial Dreams and hearten us all about what can be. It's not that what happened before could happen again. What happened before is happening again, right in front our eyes, at a higher level of awareness and organization. It's our job to lend a helping hand.

*Thomas F. Barton is a hospital worker and union member. In a previous life, he was East Coast Organizer for Vietnam GI. This review is reproduced from the website -- http://www.citizen-soldier.org/

Further reading:

Confronting the War Machine: Draft Resistance during the Vietnam War by Michael Foley

Winter Soldiers: An Oral History of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (Twayne's Oral History Series, 26) by Richard Stacewicz

The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam by Jerry Lembcke

Home to War : A History of the Vietnam Veterans Movement by Gerald Nicosia

Pilgrimage Through a Burning World: Spiritual Practice and Nonviolent Protest at the Nevada Test Site by Ken Butigan

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