Soldiers against war

WITH OBAMA’s expansion of the war in Afghanistan and the reality of an endless occupation of Iraq, the need for a reinvigorated antiwar movement could not be more urgent. Two welcome additions to that project are Richard Stacewicz’s newly republished Winter Soldiers: An Oral History of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan, edited by Iraq Veterans Against the War and Aaron Glantz.

Both books tell the stories of working-class youth, disillusioned with the lies and propaganda of the military machine, who become warriors of a different kind, foot soldiers for peace. Throughout each, one is reminded of the raw and forceful capacity of returning veterans to articulate the heinous reality of warfare and the barbarism of occupation, stories that the mainstream media dare not tell.

Stacewicz’s Winter Soldiers is a compilation of oral histories documenting the growth and transformation of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) and is the definitive history of the organization. The method of oral history adds compelling nuance and complexity by highlighting the diversity of its membership and their views. This cuts against previous works that have pigeonholed the more radical years of the organization into the common “bad sixties” trope, popularized by Todd Gitlin.

The narratives bring to life the process of radicalization that transformed the “citizen-soldier,” a duty-bound patriotic public servant, into the “winter soldier,” a name coined from the words of the American revolutionary Thomas Paine. The “winter soldier” connotes their newfound service to country; it is a dedication to realizing fundamental social change.

When asked why they joined the military or went to Vietnam, VVAW members gave a near unanimous response—a sense of duty, proving one’s manhood, and fighting communism. Yet when the troops’ experiences began to contradict the official justifications for their presence in Vietnam, many began to question what they were being told. Many soldiers had grown up in multiracial neighborhoods and identified with the civil rights movement. These soldiers did not sympathize with the racism they were indoctrinated with during boot camp. Others began to question who the enemy really was and why we were fighting communists who were, in actuality, defenseless poor farmers.

Many soldiers began to see the contradictions in how the war was being fought—troops would capture National Liberation Front strongholds by day and then retreat at night only to have to recapture the same territory again, experiencing high casualties. Many become disillusioned by the corrupt practices of the South Vietnamese Army. VVAW founding member Jan Barry expressed how people who had already served in the field lifted the blinders from his eyes. As one Special Forces sergeant expressed to him, “When you go out there, these villagers’ only protection is the NLF [National Liberation Front] against this police state in Saigon. What we’re here for is the palace guard of a police state.”

The 1968 Tet Offensive would prove the turning point in the war and for soldiers’ disaffection with it. The work is full of anecdotes of soldiers’ many forms of dissent, erupting from both soldiers’ experiences with unnecessary “make-work” chores and Mickey Mouse orders in the rear and from the savage nature of how the war was prosecuted via search-and-destroy missions on the ground.

The interviews reveal creative forms of GI resistance, such as David Ewing who cut “FTA,” GI slang for fuck the army, into the lawn when he mowed the grass at his unit command. But it also included more organized acts of dissent, including “CYA” (cover your ass) missions where troops would avoid combat and seek shelter in a safe perimeter—and fraggings, the attempt or threat against the lives of upper enlisted men by the use of smoke or incendiary grenades.

One strength of the work is its ability to connect the growing resistance in Vietnam to the GI movement’s stateside organizational form in VVAW. As soon as many veterans returned from the war, they immersed themselves in building the movement, creating VVAW from a handful of members that coalesced from a small veterans’ contingent in a 1967 march in New York City. No one leader or tactic would guide the transition of the organization from a speakers’ bureau of a few dedicated individuals to a mass organization of thousands.

VVAW became the vanguard, the leading edge, of the antiwar movement by the early 1970s. At its peak during 1971–72, membership rosters numbered 50,000 members, including 2,000 in Vietnam alone, and chapters at bases around the globe. The organization brought the truth about war crimes to the fore, and members used creative guerrilla theater and street antics. They brought attention to the failing VA system and demanded attention to veterans’ health care, shedding light on what came to be known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the devastating effects of Agent Orange. VVAW re-energized a waning civilian antiwar movement and gave the Nixon administration fits because their service in Vietnam gave them credibility.

Stacewicz’s work clarifies the debates that shaped the development of a radical current in VVAW, which occurred in relation to the broader radicalization during and throughout the 1960s. But for members of VVAW, in particular, it was a response to the conditions of the war that they had served in, to the maltreatment by our government, to the neglect by the VA system, and to the complicity of both liberal Democrats and Republicans in continuing the war by brutal and barbaric means. 
And so in response to these conditions—but also to the outrage at events like Kent State and Jackson State, where the National Guard shot down student protesters in May 1970—activists began looking for deeper politics to make sense of the world around them. VVAW member Bill Branson explained:

A lot of us had really expanded our concept of what was going on.… We were really identifying with the Vietnamese, as not only people who were being oppressed, but they were the ones who were right. We started to get an understanding of imperialism. We became anti-imperialist. We started to see that there was a rich class that was behind this. We saw that it wasn’t just going on in Vietnam. It was going on in the United States.

More than thirty years later, new wars and a new veterans’ organization link the activism of the past to a new GI movement. Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan is a collection of testimonies from Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) members and allies. In March 2008 outside Washington D.C., veterans and activists gathered—under a virtual media blackout—to expose eyewitness accounts of the occupations, consciously drawing from and standing in the legacy of similar investigative hearings organized under the same name by VVAW in the early 1970s. The original hearings focused on exposing war crimes in Vietnam as part of official policy; likewise Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan included testimony about atrocities soldiers personally committed or were witness to, but also included topics like the crisis in veterans’ health care, the costs of the war at home, and gender and sexuality in the military.

The costs of the war on the human psyche are shown through the anguish and pain of harrowing testimony like that of Jon Michael Turner. He described barbaric acts like how the executive officer in his unit bragged about killing “half of the population of northern Ramadi” when he ordered the dropping of a “five-hundred-pound laser-guided missile,” and how soldiers used pieces of dead Iraqi bodies as war trophies. Turner’s description of his first kill is chilling. He spoke of shooting an innocent man twice as he screamed in agony and stared directly into Turner’s eyes, an act that brought praise from his commanding officer. His testimony reveals how war corrupts and haunts yet another generation of youth with nightmarish memories of war’s hell.

Joyce and Kevin Lucey tell the tragic consequences of an underfunded and ill-equipped VA system. Their son, Jeffrey Lucey, returned from Iraq physically intact but, as Joyce described, “his spirit died somewhere in Iraq.” Jeffrey was haunted by images of dead Iraqis and turned to alcoholism to self-medicate. But after the VA refused him care, telling the Luceys that he needed to hit rock bottom first to cure his drinking habit, Jeffrey took his own life. Kevin described the pain of taking his son’s body from the rafters, as he took the hose from around his neck. As Joyce described, “My son was let down first by the government, who sent him to fight their war of choice and destroyed his soul, and then by the VA.”

The winter soldier books should be read by every activist and shared with high school students considering enlistment. The two are best read in tandem. Both offer lessons that are needed not only for a reinvigorated antiwar movement but also for greater historical context in order to rebuild a dynamic GI resistance movement. The stories of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan offer common themes of innocence lost and betrayal; war crimes and government deception; and the stark dehumanizing aspects of war and occupation.

However, Vietnam is a reminder that imperial war can be stopped. The dynamism of VVAW’s shifting and fluid political development was a significant part of building a GI movement that saw itself connected to the broader antiwar movement and that inspired a generation of working-class youth with the desire to fundamentally change the very society that produced war.

Both winter soldier books reveal the courage of ordinary men and women who not only made history but who embody and now continue the legacy of the fight for social justice. As Camilo Mejía, one of the first Iraq War resisters and chair of IVAW’s board, explained during his closing remarks at Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan, “We know because our work to end the occupations is where we draw the energy to live every day, and because through that work we are able to rebuild ourselves and find new life. We are here. And we are not merely survivors. We are fighters. We are winter soldiers.”


Issue #76

March 2011

Revolt in the Middle East: Another world is possible

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