Remember resistance to war

Scott Laderman

Consider this a plea for memory. Last week President George W. Bush exploited the occasion of Veterans Day to once again threaten an escalation of the American war against Iraq.

“This great nation Ö will not live at the mercy of any foreign plot or power,” he intoned. “The dictator of Iraq will fully disarm, or the United States will lead a coalition and disarm him.”

Yet cognizant of worldwide concerns about actual U.S. intentions in the region, the president felt compelled to insist that American troops will occupy Iraq not as “conquerors” but as “liberators.”

Bush delivered his remarks shortly after visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. His sojourn to the site begs for historical analysis. Americans would do well to remember comparable rhetoric employed by an earlier generation of political leaders whose choices culminated in the tens of thousands of names appearing on “The Wall,” not to mention the millions of Vietnamese whose names do not.

The concerted U.S. effort to inhibit Vietnamese self-determination was not an instance of imperialism, Lyndon Johnson maintained in 1961. On the contrary, the then vice president declared, “The United States is Ö conscious of its responsibility and duty, in its own self-interest as well as in the interest of other free peoples, to assist a brave country (i.e., the dictatorial Diem regime in Saigon) in the defense of its liberties against unprovoked subversion and Communist terror. It has no other motive than the defense of freedom,” Johnson claimed.

Hundreds of thousands of American soldiers from that era – as well as countless American civilians – would soon learn how seriously they should take Johnson’s moral pronouncements. If the current president is looking for a lesson from his trip to the memorial, perhaps the remarkable history of military dissent spawned by American aggression in Southeast Asia would be a good place to begin. This history, which is slowly being erased from collective American memory, must register as one of the great stories of the 20th century. Learning it is crucial if we hope to revive what has been designated by one historian as “the anti-war movement we are supposed to forget.”

It is possible to choose any of a number of years in which to begin. I’ll start with 1945. It was at that time, following World War II, that France committed to reconquering its former Indo-Chinese colony. Seeking to assist its European ally, the United States – which Vietnamese nationalists had viewed as a champion of freedom and anti-imperialism – used its ships to transport U.S.-armed French troops to recolonize Vietnam. The American crews of these ships – all members of the U.S. Merchant Marine – were appalled. Among other acts, they drafted a resolution in Saigon condemning their government for its help in “(subjugating) the native population.”

Over the following years of escalating warfare by France and the United States, military opposition assumed a variety of forms. Among these were petitions and letters, and the publication of pamphlets and newspapers.

There were anti-war meetings in off-base coffeehouses.

There were demonstrations, such as the one by more than 1,000 active-duty servicemen in England in 1971. That same year, a number of veterans staged “a limited incursion into the country of Congress” called Operation Dewey Canyon III. Their days-long protest concluded with approximately 800 men, who served in Vietnam, disgustedly tossing their medals – Purple Hearts, Bronze Stars, Silver Stars, et al. – at the Capitol.

There were fasts, as when soldiers in Pleiku refused to eat their Thanksgiving meal in 1969 to protest the war.

There were affronts to the military brass. When Gen. Creighton Abrams was introduced by Bob Hope to American troops during a Christmas performance at Long Binh base in 1968, he was greeted by 30,000 soldiers flashing him the “V” salute of the anti-war movement.

Among the most troubling acts of military dissent for American political leaders were mutinies and the many instances of soldiers disregarding orders. In one incident in 1967, dozens of men were reportedly killed or wounded and three helicopters destroyed when a group of soldiers was ordered to open fire on another unit of American troops who refused to participate in a search and destroy mission.

Resistance to the war came not only from those fighting in the Vietnamese countryside. On the high seas, naval ships were sabotaged by crew members in the Tonkin Gulf and the United States, preventing their participation in the American campaign.

In the air, pilots refused on moral grounds to fly bombing missions that they knew were decimating Vietnamese cities and villages. Some members of the Air Force Security Service were even said to have cheered when B-52s were shot down during the infamously destructive Christmas bombing of 1972.

At times military opposition became violent. It was not uncommon for soldiers to intentionally kill or wound commissioned and noncommissioned officers. The official Pentagon estimate by mid-1972 was 551 incidents of such “fragging,” although this figure accounts only for those targeted by explosive devices, not those officers shot by rifles or otherwise attacked.

Desertion by active-duty soldiers was an enormous problem for the military and civilian leadership – a phenomenon brilliantly fictionalized by Tim O’Brien in “Going After Cacciato.” From July 1966 through December 1973, the Department of Defense recorded 503,926 “incidents of desertion.” This is a staggering figure. In 1971 alone, deserters accounted for 142 of every 1,000 men on duty.

The cumulative effect of this record of military resistance can be surmised from a controversial 1971 article in the “Armed Forces Journal” by Col. Robert Heinl. He concluded, “By every conceivable indicator, our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and noncommissioned officers, drug-ridden, and dispirited where not near mutinous.”

In the years since the publication of Heinl’s analysis, American popular culture has been at the forefront in seeking to reverse collective consciousness of this historical reality. With certain notable exceptions, we have been treated to myth after myth since 1965 – from the Vietnamese government continuing to hold American prisoners of war to veterans being spat upon by hateful anti-war activists. So distorted has the actual record of the anti-war movement become – both military and civilian – that Vietnam veterans protesting Sylvester Stallone’s reception of a “Man of the Year” award at Harvard University in the 1980s were told by groups of teenagers to go “back where they came from.” Stallone as Rambo was the real vet, they insisted, not those individuals demonstrating outside.

President Bush wants us to forget this history of informed opposition. For the sake of our shared humanity, it is imperative that we do not.

Scott Laderman’s biweekly column appears alternate Tuesdays. He

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