Anti-war GIs: Two books unveil the anti-Vietnam War movement among US soldiers

January 24, 2020
Cover of Waging Peace in Vietnam

Waging Peace in Vietnam: US Soldiers & Veterans Who Opposed the War
Edited by Ron Carver, David Cortright & Barbara Doherty
New Village Press, 2019, 239 pp., $51.00

Winter Warrior: A Vietnam Vet’s anti-war odyssey
By Eve Gilbert (telling the story of Scott Camil)
Fantagraphics Books, 2019, 96 pp., $29

At the height of the US invasion of Vietnam, about 500,000 United States military personnel were involved in the conflict. Of those, more than 50,000 lost their lives — and the US lost the war.

Two new books illustrate the enormous breadth, depth and courage of the soldier (GI) movement against the war.

Waging Peace in Vietnam is an ideological hand grenade thrown at the war mongers. Winter Warrior, for its part, uses a graphic, comic-book style to show the terrible personal cost inflicted on at least one anti-war Vet.

One story that marks a watershed in the resistance is that of the Fort Hood Three: Dennis Mora, David Samas and James Johnson.

Johnson recalls that when he was first drafted in 1965, he had not formed an opinion about the war. However, from the first day of training he started to think.

“I understood that the treatment – or more correctly, abuse – of the GIs was designed not to train us to promptly obey orders as essential preparation for combat,” he says. “Instead, I was convinced that our mistreatment was more about crippling us intellectually, shutting down our reasoning so that we would be prepared to follow along blindly.”

All of the memories collected in Waging Peace hit on that same topic: the US military deliberately set out to break down recruits psychologically and then rebuild them into morally-blind killing machines. Moreover, they were trained as racist killing machines.

In Winter Warrior, Scott Camil vividly recalls the racism that was indoctrinated into recruits.  “Kill that gook! Fuck that dink up! Kill!” his Drill Instructor shouted.

Around the same time as the Fort Hood Three rebelled, Green Beret Donald Duncan, serving in Vietnam, refused a promotion and quit the Army.

He told his story to Ramparts magazine. He said that as a specialist commando, he had researched the support base of the National Liberation Front -- the Vietnamese resistance force also known as the Viet Cong (VC).

“One of the first axioms one learns about unconventional warfare is that no insurgent or guerrilla movement can endure without the support of the people,” he said. In his research he found that while the VC had originally operated in small teams, by the time he left the Army they were fielding entire divisions.

“Such growth is not only impossible without popular support: it actually requires an overwhelming mandate,” he said.

“The whole thing was a lie,” Duncan said. “We weren’t preserving freedom in South Vietnam. There was no freedom to preserve.”

A key element in the growth of the GI resistance was the explosion of underground newspapers produced by GIs, for GIs.

Waging Peace explains that these newspapers “expressed the voices of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and junior officers who spoke out against the war and against injustices and racism within the military”.

What was it like for GIs who had the misfortune to end up in Vietnam?

Scott Camil became effectively psychopathic after his first fire-fight in which some of his friends were killed.

The next day he murdered an old Vietnamese peasant he found in a field. He demanded that he tell him where the VC were. The old man couldn’t speak English; Camil slit his throat.

Camil estimates that 70% of the people his unit killed were women and children, totally unarmed. He also relates terrible stories of rape.

In Waging Peace, Dennis Stout recalls his first firefight in which he witnessed an experienced soldier yell in English for people to come out of a bomb shelter. When they failed to respond he threw in grenades.

Stout surveyed the bodies. “It was all mothers, small children and old people,” he says.

He recalls a time when members of his unit set up a road block in order to rob civilians. They detained a woman and held her in a pit. That night they started raping her, carrying her around the firing posts on the camp perimeter.

However, one soldier refused to participate, saying that it was wrong and immoral. The other soldiers beat him up, breaking his ribs and told him at gun point that if he ever said anything like that again they would kill him. Stout talked his way out of raping by explaining that he was near to getting out of the Army and he didn’t want to catch any diseases.

In the morning the captors tried to get the woman to run away, so they could shoot her while escaping, but she refused. So, they threw a grenade at her feet, blowing off one of her legs. Then they shot her dead.

Stout reported it to his sergeant major, his direct superior. He was told to keep quiet. So, he went to the chaplain, hoping he would report it to investigators. Within half an hour of that conversation the sergeant major dragged him into his office.

“The chaplain tells me you’re a troublemaker,” he said. “If I hear another word about this, you’re going to go out on the next operation and you’re not going to come back alive.”

Waging Peace documents many outright rebellions of GIs and sailors during the Vietnam War. Most were uprisings by Black personnel against systemic racism in the forces. Other rebellions took the form of deliberate sabotage of aircraft carriers, USS Ranger and USS Forrestal.

Another form was grenade attacks on officers in bases in Vietnam, known as fragging.

In desperation, in May 1971, the Army issued Circular 190-3 to stop the issuing of grenades to soldiers. The circular was an admission that GIs couldn’t be trusted with weapons because they would use them on their own officers.

During the Vietnam War about 420,000 US personnel deserted, compared to 40,000 during World War II.

Unlike desertions in previous wars, soldiers did not leave because of fear of the enemy, but because of disgust at what they were participating in.

GIs at bases in the continental US were helped to make it to Canada by the wide-spread GI coffee house movement that the civilian anti-war movement organised.

By 1971, there were 32 such coffeehouses across the USA. They often faced harassment – and worse – from redneck police and fascists. 

Camil was one of those who was violent towards anti-war activists after his return from Vietnam, being possessed by uncontrollable fury. It wasn’t until he accidentally heard Jane Fonda speak against the war that he began to think.

He travelled to the Winter Soldier investigation hearings in Detroit in 1971 -- though still supporting the war. However, while there he met some Vietnamese people -- and finally recognised that they were human beings.

Hearing other Vets tell their stories of murder and war crimes, Camil turned against the war and became a significant leader of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

However, the personal cost of that activity was high. The authorities repeatedly framed him for all manner of crimes, which he beat in court.

Ultimately, police operating as a death squad set him up for assassination. He fought his way out of that ambush and then successfully defeated charges they brought against him in court. But psychologically he couldn’t take the struggle anymore and he dropped out of activity.

It wasn’t until the US counter-revolutionary wars in Central America began in the 1980s that Camil became active again. In the 1990s, he returned to Vietnam, visiting a village where he had participated in a massacre.

“The amazing thing is,” he says of the villagers he met, “all those people knew I was one of the guys who murdered those people – and they were all nice to me.”

That is a recurring observation in Waging Peace as well. Many Vets have returned to Vietnam and participated in efforts to clear landmines and in other ways help repair the damage of the war. They all report how forgiving the Vietnamese people are.

A possible reason for the continuing Culture War about Vietnam and the anti-war movement is that the US rulers and their allies in the Australian ruling class cannot face up to the enormity of the war crimes they ordered in Vietnam.

Unable to admit their errors, they cannot conceive of forgiveness and it is the anti-war Vets who are reaching out and healing the wounds.

A longer version of this article is available at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.

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