A review of David Cortright’s Soldiers in Revolt (Haymarket 2005)
Of all the antiwar buttons I could wear, the only one I choose to pin on my coat or backpack is one that reads “I Support the Iraq Veterans Against the War.” Not only does this express my opposition to the war, it also serves to stifle most supporters of Washington’s latest imperial exercise, who like to pretend that their opponents wish the occupying troops harm. Actually, we just want them out of the combat zones for starters.
It’s not that war veterans have more legitimate reasons to oppose a war than civilians, although their understanding of war is obviously much more personal. But because they are veterans, they tend to get a hearing from individuals and groups that might otherwise dismiss antiwar sentiment out of hand. Two such audiences that come immediately to mind are other veterans and those men and women currently in uniform. Another is the youth around the country currently preyed on by those traders in human flesh we call recruiters. If one remembers the various campaigns of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) during the war in Vietnam and the effect those campaigns had on the conscience of America, the importance of vets in the antiwar campaign becomes quite obvious. As for the importance of active-duty soldiers, it can’t be overstated. After all, if the soldiers refuse to fight, there can be no war.
The recent republication of David Cortright’s 1975 classic Soldiers in Revolt is required reading for antiwarriors: a history of U.S. military resistance, a compilation of statistics from various studies done by and for the Department of Defense and its subsidiaries, and a stirring collection of anecdotes from GIs, airmen, sailors, and marines during the U.S. war on Vietnam. Current campaigns like those of Cindy Sheehan and Military Families Speak Out are reaching out to those who have seen their sons and daughters go to war, and veterans’ groups such as Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), VVAW, and Vets for Peace are beginning to mobilize Iraq war vets, but the movement against the war among those serving is still in its infancy. As Cortright’s book demonstrates, this segment of the movement needs to grow exponentially if it is to make a difference. Furthermore, once it does grow, it along with the counter-recruitment organizing is likely to make a greater difference than all of the rest of the movement has thus far.
Soldiers in Revolt reads like a combination organizing manual, history text, and underground newspaper. Cortright lists the details of mutinies, revolts, congressional actions, and armed attacks on commanding officers. The telling is never dry, despite its occasional dry content, and the history is about more than just the Vietnam period, although it is primarily concerned with that time. This latter fact limits its contemporary relevance a little after all, today’s youth culture is different from the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s but the oppressive realities of war and military culture have not changed in the interim.
As a teenager who opposed the war in Vietnam while living on military bases in Germany, I found this book a blast from the past. I remember when it first came out in 1975. A Vietnam vet friend of mine named Steve who was attending the University of Maryland and worked out of the VVAW office near Ft. Meade lent me his copy, and I read it in a weekend. The chapters titled “Armed Farces” and “Over There” listed at least two incidents in Germany in which I was involved, organizing support for the GIs charged in their wake. Cortright describes daily acts of resistance by GIs things like not saluting, wearing peace buttons, refusing haircuts that were part of the life I knew from hanging out with GIs in Europe. Not all of it was necessarily political, but it all contributed to the eventual failure of U.S. imperial designs in Southeast Asia.
If we are serious about getting the troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, two things must happen: the military must fail in its recruitment efforts, and the men and women currently serving must challenge the mission they have been assigned. If this doesn’t occur, then the antiwar movement is likely to be just a never-ending series of marches and other actions that become just another sideshow. It’s not that the civilian antiwar movement is irrelevant or unnecessary. Indeed, it is essential. All soldiers were civilians at one time, and most of them will be civilians again. Nor is it that the GI movement is able to stop the war on its own. As Cortright makes clear, each movement needs the other.
Currently, military recruiting is falling short of its needs. This has caused the military to continually lower its qualifications, but even that has failed to bring the numbers of recruits up to where the military feels secure in its objectives. Part of the reason for this is the growing success of the counter-recruitment efforts of groups like the Campus Antiwar Network and the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors. As for dissension in the ranks of those already enlisted, it seems to be growing, although it remains unorganized. Efforts like GI Special and Traveling Soldier provide soldier and civilian alike with an idea of GIs’ frustration and anger at their current lot, but the local or national organizations to channel this frustration into protest and resistance have yet to develop.
As Soldiers in Revolt makes quite clear, such organizations will appear. Buy a copy and send it to a GI or marine you know.