The following article was a collaboration between Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and GI organizers, and members of the Seattle Worker committee. -ed.
For American working class youth during the Vietnam War, the US military was often their first real encounter with employment. The Vietnam War was a brutal, ugly, and dangerous conflict, with millions of Vietnamese civilians killed, over 60,000 GIs dead, and over 300,000 wounded. Totaled, the dead were equivalent to the population of the entire city of Los Angeles.
The mainstream media today focuses on this aspect of the war but misses out on the class struggle and the widespread angst and despair that led to rank-and-file revolt. But this factor was a visceral reality for soldiers organizing against this war. And at the time, the military brass were painfully aware of it.
“By every conceivable indicator, our Army that 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. Elsewhere than Vietnam the situation is nearly as serious.”
– Colonel Robert D Heinl, “The Collapse of the Armed Forces,” Armed Forces Journal, June 1971.
This organization was happening all over the country and in Vietnam. One very clear incident was connected to the cause of unionism. At Fort Lewis in the late summer of 1969, soldiers formed a chapter of the Americans Servicemen’s Union, publishing their own newspaper, “FED UP,” which they clandestinely distributed on post. The ASU was part of the GI organizing movement, and FED UP was one of many GI organizing papers. GIs told the story of the union’s first real skirmish on base, “The Battle of Cascadia,” in the November 1969 issue of FED UP:
“On Monday, October 20, the American Servicemens Union held a meeting at the Cascadian Service Club on post. There were 35 GIs and three civilians at the meeting, which had been underway for about 30 minutes when a platoon of MPs descended upon the service club. SSG Bostick, the sergeant in charge of the MPs, arrested five men he considered to be the leaders of the meeting and took them outside to awaiting squad cars. The meeting continued without their ‘leaders.’ It was decided by the rest of the men that the best action would be to return to their different units and start spreading the word about the gestapo tactics of the military police. As they began to leave the men were told that they too were under arrest.”
The military tried to break the organization of the American Servicemen’s Union by making the assumptions that it was hierarchical and that all they would have to do is address “the leaders.” But the GIs were decentralized and anti-hierarchical. They had no real “leaders” to speak of, and so they were able to continue the meeting regardless of the first arrests. As the military realized this, they came back to arrest everyone, taking them by truck to a temporary holding cell. During the ride, they sang the Wobbly song, “Hold the Fort,” indicating that they were by no means cowed.
“The next five hours was a really fantastic show of solidarity. We were all put in an 8 by 10 foot cell where we continued the meeting the MPs had tried to break up. We discussed the ASU—its purpose and goals; we made plans for this issue of FED UP; and we discussed plans for an action at Ft Lewis in connection with the nationwide moratorium. One additional matter was brought up: we decided to have further meetings on post. After the meeting was over we began cheering and shouting and singing and just generally making a lot of noise. Because of all the noise, the MPs couldn’t make phone calls or conduct any normal business.”
Another advantage of a decentralized movement is that the meeting can be held anytime workers—in this case, the GIs—are gathered. By continuing the meeting even in the jail cell, the soldiers demonstrated that their movement could not be contained. The singing and shouting defeated the efforts of the MPs overall. It was a denial of “normal operations” that union members everywhere have found to be an effective tactic. It can disrupt every aspect of capitalism: traditional employers, the system, and the war machine.
“SSG Bostick then began to interrogate the men. He would pick one man from the cell and the rest would yell ‘Article 31’ [ed: the military right to remain silent] and cheer. After about two minutes he would return to pick another man for questioning and the same thing would happen. After questioning about 15 of the men, all he had was 15 names, ranks, service numbers, and units and Article 31. No one was answering any questions. SSG Bostick talked with Major Miller, the officer in charge, and they decided that since they couldn’t break our solidarity and they had no reason to charge us with anything, they would have to release us. As groups of men were released to their units, the rest would cheer.”
When the working class stands together, we are unstoppable. The questioning by the military police was once again looking for people to blame or cut off the ‘leadership’ and outside support. If any soldier had caved, they might have been able to prosecute the rest. Common jail sentences for this kind of organizing started at 6 months. But because they stood together and showed solidarity, they didn’t face jail—a demonstration of the principle of “Nobody talks, everybody walks.”
“Since the meeting on post, the Army has steadily been backing down. Originally the brass said we were busted for having a ‘meeting of political nature’ on post. A few days later they said the MPs were called to the service club because ‘boisterous activities’ were reported. They just can’t find any reason to charge us.”
With collective action comes collective power. The Army initially wanted to charge the soldiers with the heaviest of charges—but faced with more than 35 GIs standing shoulder to shoulder in solidarity, they couldn’t move forward. And seeing the union in action helped lead to the legitimization of the GI movement for the soldiers of the post. It emboldened soldiers to get the paper, pass the paper out, talk more freely about their experiences and working conditions—and seeing everyone walk without charges helped create a sense that they could step forward and take the offensive.
It further emboldened them to put the army itself on trial, which we will discuss in Part Two: “The Trial of the Army.” This action and that trial helped create the conditions for the US withdrawal from Vietnam, and later also helped inspire soldiers of other wars—including the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who refused to fight. We will tell the story of that struggle in Part Three.
For more about the GI movement, visit https://depts.washington.edu/labpics/zenPhoto/antiwar/gipaper/