How GI Resistance Altered the Course of History
By Paul Rockwell
In Motion Magazine
"Sir, No Sir," A timely film, premiers week of 4/3/2006.
"General, your tank is a mighty vehicle.
It shatters the forest and crushes a hundred men.
But it has one defect:
It needs drivers.
General, a man is quite expendable.
He can fly and he can kill.
But he has one defect:
He can think."
-- Bertolt Brecht
award-winning actors Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland organized an
anti-war review, touring US military bases and towns around the world, the
GI rebellion against the war in
was already in full force.
theatrical episode, evoking laughter and applause from thousands of
soldiers and Marines, Fonda played the part of an aide to President
"Richard," she exclaims. "There's a terrible demonstration going on
Nixon replies: "Oh, there's always a demonstration going on outside."
Fonda: "But Richard. This one is completely out of control. They're
storming the White House."
"Oh, I think I better call out the 3rd Marines." Nixon exclaims.
"You, can't, Richard," says Fonda.
"Why not?" says Nixon.
She answers: "Because they ARE the 3rd Marines!"
footage of the Fonda tour appears in David Zeiger's exciting new film,
"Sir, No Sir," which opens in select theatres throughout the US this
Sir," the untold story of the GI movement to end the war in Vietnam, is a
documentary. It's not a work of nostalgia. It's an activist film, and it
comes at a time when GI resistance to the current war is spreading
throughout the United States.
are more than 100 films - fiction and nonfiction - about the war in
Vietnam. Not one deals seriously with the most pivotal events of the time
- the anti-war actions of GIs within the military.
three-decade blackout of GI resistance is not due to any lack of evidence.
Information about the resistance has always been available. According to
the Pentagon, over 500,000 incidents of desertion took place between 1966
and 1977. Officers were fragged. Entire units refused to enter battle.
social movements create their own "committees of correspondence" -
communication systems beyond the control of power-holders and police
authority. Despite prison sentences, police spies, agent provocateurs,
vigilante bombing of their offices, coffeehouses and underground papers
sprung up in the dusty, often remote towns that surrounded US military
bases throughout the world. "Just about every base in the world had an
underground paper," Director Zeiger tells us in Mother Jones.
first coffeehouse opened in Columbia, South Carolina, near Fort Jackson,
an average of six hundred GIs visited each week. Moved by the courage and
audacity of soldiers for peace, civilians raised funds to help operate the
coffeehouses and to provide legal defense.
local proprietors, like Tyrell Jewelers near Fort Hood, fleeced GIs, GI
boycotts were common. At one point, the Department of Defense tripled its
purchase of non-union produce in order to break the United Farm Workers
boycott. American GIs, many from the fields and barrios of California,
immediately joined the Farm Worker pickets. Mocking signs appeared on
military bases saying "Officers Buy Lettuce." The GI movement was a
profoundly class-conscious movement.
counter-culture blossomed inside the military. Affinity groups, like "The
Buddies" and "The Freaks" were formed. Afros, rock and soul music,
bracelets and beads, the use of peace signs and clenched fists - a culture
antithetical to the totalitarian culture of military life - proliferated.
Prison riots in the stockades, from Fort Dix to the Marine brig in Da Nang,
were common by 1970.
response to a detested recruitment slogan - "Fun, Travel, Adventure" - GIs
named one periodical "FTA," which meant "Fuck The Army." When GIs ceased
to cooperate with superiors, the military lost control of culture and
attacks on GI rights - the right to hold meetings, to read papers, to
think for themselves, to resist illegal orders - did not subdue the
growing anti-military movement. Repression actually widened the
Kevin Benderman, Kelly Dougherty, Camilo Mejia - to name a few war
resisters of our time - the GI resisters of the 60s and 70s showed
incredible courage. Pvt. David Samas, one of the Fort Hood Three, who
refused to serve in Vietnam, said in one impassioned speech: "We have not
been scared. We have not been in the least shaken from our paths. Even if
physical violence is used against us, we will fight back ... the GI should
be reached somehow. He doesn't want to fight. He has no reason to risk his
life. And the peace movement is dedicated to his safety."
1970 forty combat officers sent a letter to the commander-in-chief. If the
war continues, they wrote, "young Americans in the military will simply
refuse en masse to cooperate." That's exactly what happened. Nothing is so
fearful to power-holders as non-cooperation. In 1971, even the Armed
Forces Journal published an article by a former Marine Colonel, entitled,
"The collapse of the Armed Forces."
was reached where the resistance became infectious, almost unstoppable. It
spread from barracks to aircraft carriers, from army stockades and navy
brigs into the conservative military towns where GIs were stationed. Even
elite colleges like West Point were affected by revolt. Thousands of
defiant soldiers went to prison. Thousands went into exile in Canada and
end the GI anti-war movement - enlisted youth, draftees, poor kids from
ghettos, farms and barrios - paralyzed the biggest death machine of modern
times. In short, people power altered the course of history. (The book
"Soldiers In Revolt," by David Cortright, makes an excellent companion to
"Sir, No Sir.")
Meeting the War Resisters
Sir" is organized around the testimony of prominent war resisters. Yes,
there are a lot of talking heads in "Sir, No Sir." But their revelations,
backed with images and footage of rebellion, are unforgettable. We meet
Donald Duncan, the decorated member of the Green Berets, who resigned in
defiance in 1963 after 15 months of service in Vietnam. His article in
Ramparts, "I Quit," generated great excitement in the student movement.
meet Howard Levy, the Green Beret medic who refused to use medical
practices as a political tactic in war. His court martial caused a huge
impact on GI and civilian consciousness. The troops supported him.
the court martial began on base," he tells us on film, "it was the most
remarkable thing when hundreds and hundreds would hang out of the windows
of the barracks and give me the V-sign, or give me the clenched fist.
Something had changed here, something very important was happening."
something was GI revolt.
Thousands of separate, individual acts of moral defiance eventually merged
into a collective movement with a specific goal: end the war.
Sir" is not a preachy film. Geiger does not lecture us; he tells a story.
Yet we cannot afford to miss the built-in lesson from the eventual triumph
of the GI resistance, a lesson that goes against media ideology and
conventional wisdom. In the words of George Lakey, "People power is simply
more powerful than military power. Nothing is more important for today's
activists to know than this: the foundation of political rule is the
compliance of the people, not violence. People power is more powerful than
violence. The sooner we act on that knowledge, the sooner the US Empire
can be brought down."
course times have changed. The '60s are over. And while every generation
determines its own destiny in its own way, while history itself is but "a
light on the stern" - it is still true that "The spirit of the people is
greater than man's technology."
Sir" is a work of hope.
is a columnist for In Motion Magazine. His latest essay on military
resistance appears in
Ten Excellent Reasons Not To
Join The Military, edited by Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg, just published
by New Press.
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