There seems to be a misunderstanding in the Heartland, as John Kerry learned to his sorrow when the Swift Boat Veterans for Peace torpedoed his image as brave warrior by smearing him for turning war critic.
Somehow the prevailing impression has rooted itself that dissent against the Vietnam War came from a fringe movement of traitors and creeps, and that nervous politicians who paid way too much attention to them tied the military’s hands, disgracing the nation by denying it the victory it might otherwise have achieved.
However, it seems that version of history — which includes numerous apocryphal anecdotes of returning GIs from Vietnam being spat upon by war protesters (generally hippie women) as they disembarked at the San Francisco airport — is false, the subsequent revisionist spin of politicians and pundits seeking to regain control of a social system that had reeled dangerously close to (shudder!) popular democracy.
Now, as the U.S. fights off the demons of failure in another unpopular imperialist war, it’s enlightening to refresh — if not correct — the memory of what really happened, especially within the U.S. military, in the late 1960s and early ‘70s.
And in what amounts to an extension of this year’s Memorial Day observance, Veterans for Peace and the Norfolk chapter of Amnesty International, in collaboration with Norfolk’s Naro Expanded Cinema, are offering the opportunity to do just that.
At the Naro, 1507 Colley Ave., on Tues., May 30, the recently released Sir! No, Sir! will be shown. Even for those like myself whose lives were shaped by resistance to the Vietnam War and the politics and policies which informed it, this 84-minute documentary is an eye-opener. The one-time only screening begins at 7:30 p.m.
The consciousness-raising continues on Friday, June 2, at 7 p.m. at the Norfolk YWCA, 5215 Colley Ave., when author, educator, and peace activist David Cortright will speak on the GI Anti-war Movement, Then and Now. Cortright, who today teaches international peace studies at Notre Dame University in Indiana, is the author of the 1975 classic Soldiers in Revolt: GI Resistance During the Vietnam War, which Haymarket Books republished last year.
Soldiers in Revolt was a principal source for writer/director/producer David Zeigler’s Sir! No, Sir! with Cortright, in fact, serving as an advisor on the film. Himself a veteran of the
Vietnam era, enlisted from 1968-71 as a horn player in the U.S. Army Band, Cortright became disillusioned with the war and began speaking out from his stateside base assignments at Fort Hamilton, NY, and, later, at Fort Bliss, TX. He suspects that’s one reason he was never sent overseas.
"Those speaking out were considered ‘troublemakers,’" he says. "They tended not to send us to Vietnam because they already had more trouble (there) than they could possibly handle."
He’s talking about an unprecedented rebellion against authority within the ranks. It’s hard to imagine today the scope of it, which is what Soldiers in Revolt and Sir! No Sir! reconstruct. Zeigler, in fact, filmed interviews with many of the veterans who participated in the more visible acts of resistance, their mature selves today contrasted with film clips of their youthful acts 35 and 40 years ago as they marched and demonstrated, spoke out, sat in, and went to their own court martials to face long prison terms for refusing, in one way or another, to obey orders to kill.
There’s the Green Beret David Duncan, whose picture in uniform on the cover of Ramparts Magazine with the caption "I Quit!" woke up a nation to beginning of the GI resistance.
There’s Dr. Howard Levy, the bespectacled Army dermatologist who served three years in prison for refusing to train medics destined for the battlefield.
There’s Susan Schnall, the Navy nurse arrested for dropping leaflets from a rented airplane over San Francisco Bay Area bases announcing the first GI anti-war demonstrations.
There’s Billy Dean Smith, the African-American falsely charged with "fragging" an officer —murder by grenade, an increasingly common occurrence as the war dragged on — and acquitted by a military court after 22 months in solitary confinement, from which he never recovered mentally or emotionally.
There’s Jane Fonda, the lightning rod herself, shown in Sir! No Sir! mugging, singing, and rallying the resistance in the FTA (Fuck The Army) tours she so named and headlined counter-weights to Bob Hope’s officially sanctioned road shows. And there are the off-base coffee houses where GIs gathered to commiserate in support of their disaffection, the more than 200 proscribed underground newspapers run off on mimeograph machines and clandestinely distributed, the ubiquitous illegal drugs and new music of rebellion, the sit-down refusals to fight, the negative briefings those returning from the war gave to those about to be sent — all these factors and more, widespread throughout all branches of the military to a degree little understood today, contributed to an unprecedented situation where the military could no longer be counted on to carry out the policies of the American ruling class.
And that is why, Cortright and Zeigler both attest, Nixon switched strategies in Vietnam from a ground to an air war and ultimately abolished conscription, transforming the military into an all-volunteer service. Now, says Cortright, "the troops need that service, they need to stay in. About half are married, they’ve got a family to support. They need those benefits." And though in Iraq, as in Vietnam, "troops are stuck in an unjust and illegal war — 70 percent (according to a recent Zogby poll) think the troops should get out"—a revolt similar to that of the Vietnam years is not likely to materialize today.
If anything will stop the Iraq war, Cortright believes, it will be political pressure slowly coming to bear on leaders, especially from a military-family movement that is much stronger and more influential than in the days of Vietnam. The U.S., he says, cannot sustain the annual cost of $80 billion, 800 to 1,000 killed, and 3,000 to 4,000 maimed, with no prospect the situation can change, as he predicts, for the next 30 to 50 years. •