Karyn Pomerantz, 6-26-2022
Imperialist countries cannot wage war for global power without the tens of thousands of workers they recruit and arm to fight for their empires. To the ruling class and military brass, these workers are cannon fodder for their interests. WWI wasted millions of young men sent to carry out insane combat orders. The US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq relied on voluntary soldiers, some motivated by patriotism and more by the economy and difficulty finding jobs. Army recruiters prowled the halls of high schools and promised training and benefits. During the 1960s when the Vietnam War began, the Army instituted the draft, giving deferments and better positions to college students. This deferment ended as the Army required more soldiers.
Class divisions mirrored those in civilian life causing resentments and conflict. During the Vietnam War, most combat soldiers had working class backgrounds and a high school degree or less while the officers had high school and college degrees. Officers working in safety far from the fighting made the combat decisions and ordered the troops to implement them. As we will see, the draft of men who did not want to fight created a tinderbox of rebellion.
As earlier articles on this blog have explained, we, the working class of all nations, should not take sides in the war in Ukraine. Russia, the United States, and the EU are fighting for control of natural resources, minerals, oil, gas, grains, and pipelines. Russia has aggressively and inhumanely devastated cities in order to grab territory to assert power. The US is intent on weakening the power of Russia and boosting the number of NATO military bases around Russia. The US has intervened in Ukrainian politics since 2014 when it installed their new president. Russia has retaliated against these threats with horrendous attacks on civilians.
Capitalism kills, and war is the most extreme example. Capitalists send working class men and women into horrific situations and count success as the number of enemy troops killed and territory seized. These capitalists are willing to sacrifice our lives whether in Ukraine, Yemen, Syria, or Libya. As we see on the news, Biden is more than willing to shelter 100,000 Ukrainian refugees while deporting hundreds of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers who also face desperate situations in their home countries. He sends billions of dollars for military equipment to Ukraine, slashes funding for Covid relief, and maintains trade barriers on distributing vaccines to poorer countries with primarily black and brown people. This war is draining billions for arms (currently over $56 billion) from domestic social needs, such as healthcare, housing, and climate improvements.
On the “positive” side, soldiers have significant power by deserting, sabotaging equipment, and refusing orders. There are some reports of Russian soldiers deserting; over 30,000 have died! International Business News (June 22, 2022) reported that 200 Russian soldiers hid out in a village in Ukraine rather than fight. An officer shot himself in the leg to avoid combat, and another GI ran over an officer with his tank. The Russian Army released 100 national guardsmen who refused orders. Another soldier told a reporter that “none of us wanted this war.”
If soldiers on both sides refused to fight, they could end the war. WWI and WWII led to revolutions in Russia and China. The role of the armed forces was instrumental for their victories; soldiers mutinied against their ruling classes and refused to attack the revolutionaries. However, this is not inevitable. Successful revolutions require people’s commitment to egalitarianism and anti-racism, and the organization of workers, students, and soldiers into a party.
This article recounts the GI rebellions against the War in Vietnam. Later articles will cover other wars during the 20th Century. Soldiers from Ukraine and Russia must follow these heroic examples to end the war.
Historical Example of Soldier Rebellions
The Vietnam War, 1962-1973
Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon led the US war against the Vietnamese from 1962-1973. The US wanted control of Vietnam for its cheap labor costs, resources, and markets for US investment, US propaganda portrayed the war as a liberation movement and an important step against spreading communist influence in the region known as the domino theory. The US ruling class supported right wing leaders in South Vietnam. Over time, Americans rejected these arguments and developed sympathy for the Vietnamese in the North fighting for national liberation. In the end, they won, and the US was kicked out.
A massive anti-war movement developed in the US. Hundreds of thousands of people, including soldiers, marched in Washington, DC. Students organized and shut down campuses demanding an end to universities’ research and development (R&D) contracts with the Defense Department. On many campuses, students staged strikes and sit-ins in Administration and ROTC (Reserved Officers Training Center) buildings to demand an end to universities’ collusion in training students to become officers. Students at the University of Maryland, UC campuses, Columbia, Yale, and many others called for student strikes and often met with police violence.
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union, a radical union with a rich history of anti-war and antiracist actions refused to unload or load any war materials. The American Service Union (ASU) based in the US organized GIs to fight for better economic conditions and published a newspaper, The Bond, that GIs read states-side and in Vietnam. Anti-war papers like The Bond were extremely popular and informed readers about GI organizing and actions. The ASU also provided legal services, and supported antiracist rebellions led by black servicemen. By 1969 it recruited 6,000 GIs. The Veterans of Foreign Wars estimate that 125,000 Americans moved to Canada to avoid the war although other estimates range from 20,000 to 60,000.
During the war years of the 60s and 70s, the antiracist movement grew. Cities blew up when Martin Luther King, Jr. died by an assassin’s bullet after linking US foreign policy to domestic racism. He vehemently spoke out against the war which the ruling class could not tolerate. His murder sparked the rebellions, but it was decades of racism that caused black workers to torch businesses and fight the police. Thousands took to the streets demanding jobs, health care, and housing, and an end to poverty, police brutality, and discrimination. In response to the intense police brutality in Oakland, California and beyond, black activists organized the militant Black Panther Party to offer armed self-defense and community services. Chapters developed in 68 cities and grew to 5,000 members, two-thirds of whom were women. Each chapter also maintained a medical clinic to offer healthcare to residents. In a similar vein, black veterans in the South formed the armed Deacons for Defense and Justice to repel Klan attacks on civil rights workers. While civil rights participants pledged non-violence, the Deacons patrolled the streets around them.
Workers from LA to DC, Chicago to New York threatened business as usual, eventually forcing President Johnson to create the “War on Poverty,” that established anti-poverty programs staffed by black residents. The Watts Hospital Center in LA opened in 1965 in response to the Watts Rebellion. In 1965, Johnson’s Administration instituted Medicare and Medicaid, a direct result of militant antiracist struggles.
These uprisings and a growing civil rights movement influenced the anti-war movement in the Armed Forces. Anti-racists rejected labeling the Vietnamese as “gooks.” As one GI said in a famous quote, “No Vietnamese ever called me (the n word).” GIs of many ranks and branches of the Armed Forces adopted this sentiment as the war continued. In the military, black soldiers led militant actions in Vietnam and on US bases. They organized in military jails, coffee houses, and in the field of combat, refusing orders and “working it out in the field,” i.e., negotiating with the officers about a course of action. When the brass of Ft. Hood, Texas ordered GIs to suppress any “riots” that could break out in black neighborhoods in Chicago during the Democratic Convention, the GIs convened a meeting of 100 and planned to resist these orders. The brass court martialed 43 but gave out short sentences to avoid further mutinies.
Twenty-seven soldiers went “on strike” to protest the murder of a black GI on the Presidio base. At Ft. Dix, New Jersey, soldiers burned down a part of the stockade to protest the brutality of the guards, unacceptable food, and the racist treatment of black and Puerto Rican prisoners. Women organized and led 10,000 people who marched to the base. They bravely confronted rows of soldiers armed with guns and bayonets. Women were key anti-war organizers. While most were not in the armed services, they helped conduct political education with the GIs, wrote leaflets and articles for newspapers, and planned the large marches around the country.
Overall, the crackdown on these rebels was fierce. The courts sent people to jail for months to life for speaking out, refusing orders, or going AWOL. Conditions in these stockades were oppressive; black prisoners faced racist abuses. As seen in Ft. Dix, soldiers also organized inside the prisons.
Sailors also revolted on the aircraft carriers that housed the planes equipped with bombs, napalm, and Agent Orange to unleash on Vietnamese people. Rebellions occurred on ships docked in US ports and stationed off the coast of Vietnam. Stop Our Ships (SOS) was the call to action. Sailors sabotaged equipment by throwing tools into engines, disabling the ships, and causing millions of dollars in repairs. A wrench in the engine of one aircraft carrier delayed the ship for more than three months. On the U.S.S. Forrestal based in Norfolk sailors set the Admiral’s room and a radar room on fire that cost $7 million to fix and months of delay. They also damaged some of the planes and boldly refused to service the bombers launched off the huge carriers. The Armed Forces reported 488 acts of sabotage in 1971.
Revolts also took the form of petitioning the military for racial justice, better living conditions, and an end to the war. Sailors bravely attended anti-war demonstrations and signed petitions knowing that would identify them as troublemakers. Over a thousand sailors signed one on board the USS Constellation, a site of anti-war activity. Twenty-seven GIs staged a sit-down demonstration at the naval stockade in San Francisco’s Presidio refusing to follow orders.
The rank-and-file GIs would sit down in the field and “negotiate” with their officers. Soldiers also found safe places to sit and refuse to “search and destroy” Vietnamese people. Drug use was rampant making soldiers totally unreliable; many GIs became addicted and returned home debilitated. In response to poor treatment and orders that placed soldiers in unnecessary danger, many GIs fragged their officers using their grenades to kill their officers. Estimates of incidents of fragging range from 100 to over 1000 officers killed. The Army awarded officers for the number of people killed which placed the GIs in dangerous and unnecessary combat situations. The My Lai massacre of 500 villagers in 1968 epitomized one of the most racist assaults on Vietnamese people. The corruption among the officers and their class benefits (six months vs one-year deployments) ignited fury against the brass and the government.
These mutinous actions ended the war. The Department of Defense estimates that 503,926 GIs deserted from 1966-1973. By 1973, the US could not maintain an armed force in Vietnam due to these mutinies AND the courageous, persistent, and guerilla style fighting of the Vietnamese people who successfully repelled the French in 1954 and the US in 1973. The Army and all the other branches could not rely on their troops to follow their orders. Revolts grew as the US expanded the war to Laos and Cambodia. Even some groups of officers developed sympathy for the Vietnamese. High ranking intelligence officers in the Air Force spied electronically on North Vietnamese fighters discussing their combat plans. Over time the intelligence officers developed emotional attachments with the Vietnamese, making it difficult to facilitate bombing raids on Vietnamese troops and villagers.
It was all over for the Nixon Administration when the pilots, the most elite group in the military, refused to bomb North Vietnam and Cambodia!! In 1973, the Vietnamese entered Saigon triumphantly as the US military exited.
While this is beyond the scope of this article, the Vietnamese did not abolish capitalism. Eventually, Vietnam became an area for investment and a tourist destination. However, the involvement of masses of people over years of fighting US imperialism combined with the militant anti-war movement among GIs and civilians in the US drove out these imperialists. It was a serious defeat for the US ruling class and a victory for the global working class.
Opposition to imperialist war must develop and grow among soldiers and civilians from the US, EU to Russia and Ukraine to end the war. As noted above, there are reports of Russian soldiers refusing to fight and Russian anti-war protests have been in the news. They can learn from the experiences of the anti-war GIs in Vietnam. Ukrainians must reject the nationalism of President Zelensky to defend Ukraine. The war will not benefit the Ukrainian working class. In 2014, the Ukraine government imposed severe austerity conditions, including cuts to education and health care, that increased poverty instead of charging their wealthy, corrupt politicians to pay back an IMF (International Monetary Fund) loan with stiff interest rates. The US didn’t rush any aid to the people then. In fact, the US intervened by installing a new president. So much for humanitarian aid. (SEE https://multiracialunity.org/2018/04/13/nationalism-a-tool-to-empower-the-elite/ about nationalism).
US residents can oppose the war with demonstrations at offices of representatives voting for war appropriations (all of them voted for it), teach-ins on campuses and marches to inform the public about the nature of this war.
In the end, the troops will end the war if they build anti-war actions that weaken the ability of the imperial powers to wage war.
For a Deeper Dive
Sir! No Sir!, a film depicting soldiers organizing against the Vietnam War using footage and interviews with the officers and GIs. Incredibly moving and heart wrenching. Netflix.
Catalinotto J. Turn the Guns Around: Mutinies, Soldier Revolts, and Revolutions. World View Forum, 2017.
Cortright, D. Soldiers in Revolt. Haymarket: 2005.
DuBois WEB. Color and Democracy.
Geier J. Vietnam: The Soldier’s Revolt. International Socialist Review, Issue 9, Fall 1999. https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/geier/1999/xx/vietnam.htm
STOP US War Funding In Ukraine! Protest At Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s Oakland Office