Vietnam War Soldiers Helped End the Vietnam War

The anti–Vietnam War movement cut across the civilian-military divide, with active-duty soldiers abroad and stateside defying their commanders and refusing to fight. Those soldiers played a key role in bringing the brutal war to an end.

The Presidio Twenty-Seven “mutiny,” when soldiers jailed the Presidio stockade protested the murder of a fellow inmate and the Vietnam War, in October 1968. (US Army Phots / Wikimedia Commons)

The draft was one of the great atrocities of the modern era. If it isn’t remembered as such anymore, that’s only because it was a political crime in which every major power participated more or less equally — and that nearly every such power abandoned by the dawn of the twenty-first century in response to overwhelming popular dissent.

Although smaller than the mass conscriptions that delivered millions of soldiers to the world wars, it was the Vietnam-era draft that ultimately proved too horrific for the American public to long entertain. In part because the draft brought the terrible specter of military service into nearly every living room in the country, the anti-war movement of the 1960s and ’70s cut across what we would now call the civilian-military divide.

Today, the cultural chasm that separates military and civilian households is a topic of intense discussion, and in some quarters, serious worry. “The military has to remain embraced by the American people, whether you have a family member out there or not,” general James Mattis said to a gathering of military and defense department officials in 2018. And in 2019, the undersecretary of defense responsible for recruitment warned that “a widening military-civilian divide increasingly impacts our ability to effectively recruit and sustain the force.”

But in the Vietnam era, political elites and military planners were tortured by an opposite anxiety — that the military and civilian worlds weren’t divided enough. The draft was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it efficiently satisfied the Pentagon’s demand for human inputs; on the other, it integrated thousands of randomly selected people into the armed forces. As opposition to the Vietnam War became a kind of cultural common sense, this integration came to threaten not only the authority of the military command hierarchy, but also the sustainability of the war effort itself.

Veterans march in a protest against the Vietnam War in Washington, DC, on April 24, 1971. (Leena A. Krohn / Wikimedia Commons)

As the conflict wore on, large numbers of soldiers, both enlisted and conscripted, risked freedom and future to forcefully reject the Vietnam War and throw their lot in with the anti-war movement. In fact, what veteran-scholar David Cortright calls the “quasi-mutiny” — soldiers’ mass withdrawal of their willing participation in war-fighting efforts — was likely decisive not only for ending the draft, but for ending the US war in Vietnam entirely.

In the years after the war, however, the memory of soldiers’ participation in the anti-war movement was all but obliterated, as the historian Derek Seidman has recently pointed out. Instead, a popular mythology rooted in right-wing disinformation dominates our national memory. The tall tale of beleaguered GIs arriving back in the states after a tour of duty only to be spat upon by protesters at the airport is now, for millions, the iconic story of the era.

But it simply isn’t true. It has been repeatedly debunked by generations of historians, who can find no indication in newspapers or court records or even oral history testimonies that such a thing ever happened, much less was widespread. For one thing, soldiers returning from Vietnam didn’t even arrive in civilian airports — they landed on air bases, deliberately separated by their commanders not only from protesters, but from any civilians who might try to receive them.

Still, this myth has grown durable in the American popular imagination. And from it has flowed a new kind of common sense, which, as Seidman writes, “has helped prop up consent for militarism at home and abroad.”

Rebuilding a fighting anti-war movement is among the most urgent tasks confronting socialists and progressives in the United States. If we’re to subject the most fearsome war-fighting force in all of human history to democratic control — much less develop a winning strategy for defunding and ultimately eliminating its institutional bases, which is what history demands of us — we’ll need a movement similar to that which developed, in very different circumstances, during the Vietnam era.

Because the truth is protesters weren’t spitting on soldiers. In many cases, protesters and soldiers were actually one and the same.

The Quasi-Mutiny

In 1966, three infantrymen stationed at Fort Hood, Texas refused to deploy to Vietnam, instead deserting their posts and traveling to New York City, where they held a press conference condemning the war as “illegal, immoral, and unjust.”

The Fort Hood Three read prepared statements in which they described themselves as “a cross section of the Army and of America.” “Contrary to what the Pentagon believes, cannon fodder can talk,” said private Dennis Mora, a Puerto Rican conscript from the Bronx. “Just as the Negroes are fighting for absolute freedom and self-determination in the United States, so it is with the Vietnamese,” said private first class James Johnson, a black man. They were joined onstage by private David Samas, a white man from Bakersfield, California. “We want no part of a war of extermination,” their statement concluded. “We will not go to Vietnam.”

The three were promptly incarcerated by the military and stood trial for political offenses under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. But their case was widely discussed in the media and celebrated in the pages of underground newspapers distributed by dissident soldiers on bases across the world.

The next year, army dermatologist Howard Levy faced court-martial after refusing to provide rudimentary medical training to groups of Green Berets, saying he would not help the special forces to “‘win hearts and minds’ in Vietnamese villages, while still burning them to the ground in search-and-destroy missions.” At trial, Levy’s lawyer raised what’s known as the “Nuremberg defense,” arguing that the US military was actively committing war crimes in Vietnam, and so service members could lawfully refuse to participate in the war effort.

Again the bases were abuzz. And the next year, in 1968, the unrest spilled spectacularly into the open.

The Presidio stockade — a military jail located at Fort Scott, near San Francisco — became a hotbed of war resistance for the simple reason that it was where large numbers of dissident soldiers ended up. As servicemembers began to routinely defy military standards, especially by going AWOL or by participating in civilian protests while in uniform, the stockade filled with soldiers awaiting courts-martial.

Conditions inside the stockade were dehumanizing, with guards routinely subjecting incarcerated soldiers to public humiliation and physical abuse. (Several reports mention the use of urine-filled water pistols to discipline insubordinate detainees.) These tensions reached a breaking point in October 1968, when guards shot and killed Richard “Rusty” Bunch, a nineteen-year-old enlistee from Ohio who had gone AWOL after suffering a psychological breakdown, during an alleged escape attempt. Three years before the shooting of black revolutionary George Jackson spurred a wave of civil disobedience in California’s civilian prisons, the killing of Rusty Bunch prompted a similarly dramatic showdown in the Presidio stockade.

The Presidio Twenty-Seven protest. Private Walter Pawlowski reads the demands of the protesting soldiers. (US Army Photos / Wikimedia Commons)

Twenty-seven prisoners responded by gathering in an open area of the stockade, where they chanted slogans, sang protest songs, and repeatedly refused to respond to guards’ commands. As the action escalated, military police gathered with tactical gear and chemical armaments, and a commander announced through a loudspeaker that any protesters arrested would be charged with mutiny — the most severe offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and one that carried a possible death sentence. As protester Randy Rowland recalls in the exhaustive 2005 documentary about the GI movement Sir! No Sir!, “I was facing a death sentence for singing ‘We Shall Overcome.’”

Military police rushed the protest, brutalizing and rearresting more than two dozen protesters. The Presidio Twenty-Seven, as they came to be known, became a rallying point for dissident GIs and civilian anti-war organizers alike. Three of the twenty-seven, including protest leader Keith Mather, escaped the stockade before they could face court-martial. (Mather was reapprehended in Canada in 1980 and remained in military prison until receiving clemency in 1985 — the “last prisoner of conscience” from the Vietnam War era.) Those who could not escape were found guilty and initially received sentences of fifteen years at hard labor. Their charges were reduced from mutiny to insubordination after public outcry, and president Gerald Ford ultimately pardoned them in 1975.

Much later, in explaining why the army initially sought the death penalty against the Presidio Twenty-Seven, commander Stanley Larsen said, “We thought the revolution was starting, and we were trying to crush it.” This kind of paranoia was widespread among the military brass at the time — and for good reason. The military’s “morale problem” — a euphemism for organized dissent — was not isolated to the Presidio stockade, but instead endemic to the armed forces.

Among black soldiers, opposition to the war was especially acute. “The strongest and most militant resisters were black GIs,” writes historian David Cortright, noting that they “faced greater oppression than whites,” and so “fought back with greater determination and anger.” The Black Power movement was an influential counterweight to elite discourses that posited military service as a strategy for assimilation and upward mobility.

As prominent black figures, including Muhammad Ali, publicly refused to fight in Vietnam, black enlistees and conscripts accomplished even bolder feats of defiance from within the ranks. In 1969, for example, scores of black infantrymen stationed stateside refused to deploy to US cities to quell urban uprisings there; their protests were violently repressed by military police.

As David Parsons demonstrates in his authoritative study of anti-war coffeehouses, Dangerous Grounds, it was by engaging the civilian world, usually in coalition with civilian organizers, that anti-war GIs were able to make their strongest stands and organize their most effective activities. Predictably, then, anti-war coffeehouses established by civilian radicals became key meeting places for anti-war soldiers in base towns across the country, allowing an underground GI press to flourish as well as providing off-base meeting places for in-person organizing.

The original cast of The FTA Show, an anti-war road show that performed at GI coffeehouses across the country, in 1971. From left: Gary Goodrow, Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland, Peter Boyle, Dick Gregory, and Barbara Dane. (Wikimedia Commons)

Another example of the GI movement’s capacity for breaking down artificial civilian-military divisions was the Winter Soldier Investigation undertaken by Vietnam Veterans Against the War in 1971. In a series of widely publicized unofficial hearings, dozens of GIs testified about the war crimes they had witnessed and participated in overseas, greatly damaging the Pentagon’s legitimacy at a key moment in the war effort. And several years earlier, in 1969, thousands of soldiers in Vietnam and on military bases around the world had donned black armbands to express their support for the Moratorium to End the War — a powerful symbol of civilian-military solidarity at a moment when hundreds of thousands of Americans took to the streets in one of the largest anti-war marches in history.

David Cortright’s Soldiers in Revolt, originally published in 1975, offered the first detailed accounting of the anti-war movement that unspooled itself within the ranks during the Vietnam era. “Never before in modern history have the armed forces been so shaken by internal turmoil and disaffection,” wrote Cortright, who had served as an army infantryman during the height of the movement.

Cortright documented the uncontainable force of GIs’ organized resistance, which stretched from stateside barracks like Fort Bragg and Fort Hood all the way to staging bases in Indochina and even to frontline combat theaters in Vietnam itself. This “quasi-mutiny,” in Cortright’s memorable phrase, was decisive for the success of the domestic anti-war movement. As organized groups of dissident soldiers intentionally frustrated their commanders’ efforts at nearly every level of the sprawling military bureaucracy, political elites were forced into drawdown and eventual withdrawal from Vietnam.

“Many of us are convinced that [Richard] Nixon had to go to an air war because he couldn’t trust us on the ground,” said one Vietnam combat veteran featured in the documentary Sir! No Sir! “And for good reason — we were shooting our officers and refusing to fight.”

This wasn’t an exaggeration. The intentional killing of field officers by rank-and-file soldiers — a practice now known as “fragging,” in a reference to the Vietnam Era fragmentation grenade — is a phenomenon that has likely existed as long as war itself. But during the Vietnam era, it became an increasingly prominent feature of the overseas war effort, eliciting panic among the military brass, political elites, and an increasingly resentful pro-war segment of the public. The 2011 history Fragging: Why U.S. Soldiers Assaulted Their Officers in Vietnam unconvincingly argues that the practice was largely apolitical, but nonetheless documents more than 500 cases of successful or attempted fragging between 1968 and 1973.

The major triumph of the GI movement was also, of course, the triumph of the larger anti-war movement — the American war in Vietnam ended in resounding defeat and a unilateral end to the US military operations in the country. The movement also contributed to some positive changes inside the armed forces, as Cortright notes, especially the partial “civilianization” of the military criminal-legal system. In the years following Vietnam, federal courts took an increasing interest in cases that previously would have fallen entirely under the military’s Uniform Code of Military Justice, and repeated agitation in support of a “GI Bill of Rights” throughout the 1970s resulted in the slow adoption of enhanced, although still limited, legal protections for military defendants.

But the most lasting effect of the GI movement was the end of the draft. During Vietnam, military planners could not ignore the fact that conscription is, at root, a kind of dark democratization: It draws the military and civilian worlds together, destabilizing the dynamic of submission and acquiescence on which military planners depend. For the US security state, the major lesson of the Vietnam War was that, if American warmaking was to continue, the military would need to be disintegrated from the wider society that sustained it.

The army and its activities could not be part of the civilian social fabric — they would need to stand apart. That was the founding purpose of the all-volunteer force (AVF), which continues to deform our public institutions and undermine our democracy today.

Lay Down Your Sword and Shield

The military of the twenty-first century is profoundly different, in key respects, from the military of the 1960s and ’70s. And it is undeniable that the armed forces’ reorganization at the end of the twentieth century was, in large part, a response to the disastrous experience of conscription during the Vietnam era. None other than Donald Rumsfeld, who first served as defense secretary under Gerald Ford, confirmed as much in 2003, saying conscription only drew “people without choices . . . into the intake,” who “then went out [in Vietnam], adding no value, no advantage, really, to the United States.”

The draft hasn’t been definitively defeated — all young men in the United States are still required to register for it, and Congress periodically threatens to include women in that requirement, too — but it has been displaced. We live in the era of professionalized soldiering.

Today, the US military reproduces itself through a carrot-and-stick approach. Military planners have figured out a strategy for populating the bloated ranks of the armed forces with new enlistees, not conscripts. They accomplish this by pairing predatory recruitment tactics, which overwhelmingly target high school students, with the dangling promise of comprehensive welfare benefits that are systematically denied to most US workers.

The civilian-military divide some officials now bemoan was no accident of history. The AVF was explicitly designed to manufacture an artificial distance between civilians and professional soldiers, the purpose of which was to insulate the military command hierarchy from the disruptive effects of unruly civilian politics. Predictably, then, the AVF has also driven a cultural and political wedge between society at large and the segment of the American working class drawn into military service — a division that repeatedly frustrates the formation of durable anti-war coalitions capable of exerting effective pressure on the US security state in the “war on terror” era.

The national experience of 9/11 provided the kind of social environment in which the all-volunteer force could flourish. A wave of resurgent nationalism, tethered tightly to a newfangled sense of shared victimhood, exerted a strong-arm social pressure on young Americans, encouraging and even coercing them to enlist. At the same time, the absence of a draft insulated military planners from the kind of popular scrutiny that had inhibited their actions in Vietnam, allowing authorities to consistently mislead the American public about the success and feasibility of the country’s war operations overseas. All this had the effect of placing the ongoing war effort beyond the bounds of democratic deliberation — which in turn further widened the gulf between professional enlisted soldiers and the wider citizenry from which they were drawn.

Twenty years into the only major US war fought entirely by volunteers, professional soldiers now issue grave warnings about the civilian-military divide with striking regularity. (In an unusually perceptive contribution to the genre, Elliot Ackerman recently proposed the reinstatement of the draft — but only for the wealthiest 1 percent, those “in a position to bundle political contributions among their friends, or have a call returned by a Senator.”) But rarely do those professionals evoke the recent historical experience of the GI movement, which rejected and repudiated that civilian-military divide more powerfully than any social movement in modern US history.

Unsurprisingly, then, one of the best-kept secrets of the war on terror is that soldiers resisted that conflict, too. But in the absence of a GI movement, soldiers who chose not to fight were left to face the unpredictable and sometimes fearsome repercussions of that decision more or less alone.

Most soldiers who refused participation in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq applied for conscientious objector (CO) status, which is supposed to be the right of every service member. By expressing and substantiating a principled opposition to the military’s war-fighting actions, professional soldiers are meant to be able to excuse themselves from service — that’s the law. Although originally implemented during the draft era, the rule of conscientious objection now sits at the center of the all-volunteer force’s social contract: Soldiers must endure immense moral risk to fight their country’s wars, but in every case they do so willingly, as free citizens.

But in the war on terror era — and especially in the early years of the Iraq War, as a millions-strong civilian anti-war movement demonstrated in cities worldwide — the armed forces retaliated against CO applicants with egregious and unrelenting force.

Army staff sergeant Kevin Benderman, to take one famous example, was so disgusted by his commanders’ cruelty during a 2003 tour of duty in Iraq that he applied for CO status upon returning stateside. He was charged with desertion in retaliation, despite having followed proper procedure, and ultimately served thirteen months in a military prison. Another example is Camilo Mejía, also an army staff sergeant, who applied for CO status in March 2004 after spending six months in Iraq. Mejía was also charged with desertion; he spent nine months in military prison.

Another service member who attempted to go through proper military channels was army paratrooper Jeremy Hinzman. His CO application was rejected after long procedural delays in 2002, and, between deployments to Afghanistan, he fled to Canada with his family. He still lives there, unable to return to the United States, as do about 200 other American war resisters who have expatriated since the early 2000s in defiance of their military obligations. (Their stories are featured in the documentary Peace Has No Borders from 2016.)

Since the 1970s, an undercurrent of radical conversation between soldiers and civilians has kept the memory of the anti-war GI movement alive, challenging the disinformation of mainstream nostalgia. In today’s era of professionalized soldiering, as in the era of the draft, bridging the civilian-military divide will require that soldiers lay down their arms and work alongside civilians for a world free of military violence. That’s the only way such a divide can be overcome — by defying the militarism that created it in the first place.