The New Left and the Army: Let’s Bridge the Gap! (1968)

 

Archival Introduction

Dur­ing the U.S. war on Viet­nam, an extra­or­di­nary phe­nom­e­non arose with­in the military’s ranks: the wide­spread pro­duc­tion, cir­cu­la­tion, and read­er­ship of an under­ground anti­war press for, and often by, rank-and-file GIs. These papers were a key expres­sion of a wider wave of sol­dier dis­sent and dis­sat­is­fac­tion towards the war, racism, class hier­ar­chy, and mil­i­tary author­i­ty.1 Their pages con­tained sto­ries, let­ters, and car­toons that spoke the hard-edged, acer­bic lan­guage of the dis­il­lu­sioned sol­dier. Dozens, even hun­dreds, of these pub­li­ca­tions exist­ed, often bear­ing titles that mocked the mil­i­tary – A Four Year Bum­mer, Left Face, or Harass the Brass, for exam­ple. They also offered help for GIs, such as legal infor­ma­tion on their rights, or lawyers and coun­sel­ing cen­ters they could con­tact.

The GI press stretched deep into the mil­i­tary as a plat­form for the anti­war move­ment, defy­ing the tired nar­ra­tive – most­ly con­struct­ed after the war for polit­i­cal rea­sons – which pit­ted pro­test­ers against sol­diers. The larg­er project of the sol­dier anti­war press, as with the GI move­ment as whole, rep­re­sent­ed a meet­ing point for the New Left and enlist­ed ser­vice mem­bers, a node of com­mon activ­i­ty with­in a civil­ian-sol­dier alliance that could be vibrant or fraught, depend­ing on local­i­ty or the polit­i­cal ori­en­ta­tion of those involved. Cru­cial com­po­nents of this civil­ian-sol­dier anti­war alliance were the GI anti­war cof­fee­hous­es that sprung up out­side mil­i­tary bases across the Unit­ed States and beyond. These were spaces infused with coun­ter­cul­tur­al and rad­i­cal sym­bols, staffed by con­tacts polit­i­cal­ly active in New Left cir­cles, and stocked with racks of copies of the GI anti­war press.

Most impor­tant­ly, these papers were vehi­cles through which GIs could engage with the anti­war move­ment, build capac­i­ty for dis­sent, sharp­en cri­tiques, and con­nect with oth­er troops.2 The hun­dreds of let­ters that GIs wrote to them, and inter­views like the one from Viet­nam GI below, help us to make sense of how anti­war sol­diers con­struct­ed a dynam­ic, decen­tral­ized infra­struc­ture for cir­cu­la­tion of thou­sands of copies of these papers across oceans and con­ti­nents, and even into Viet­nam itself. These sources also reveal how sol­diers inter­act­ed with the GI press – send­ing in protest report-backs or cathar­tic gripes for pub­li­ca­tion, pen­ning columns and car­toons, excit­ed­ly sec­ond­ing the cri­tiques they read – to express their anger toward the war and mil­i­tary author­i­ty.

The papers allowed space for the artic­u­la­tion of a left GI pol­i­tics that con­nect­ed togeth­er cri­tiques of the army’s class hier­ar­chy, racism and impe­ri­al­ism, U.S. domes­tic pol­i­tics, and, often direct­ly or implic­it­ly, the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem. Spread through­out the world, the GI press offered its read­ers a com­mon resis­tance nar­ra­tive and the feel­ing that they were con­nect­ed to a broad­er cul­ture of protest, in the armed ser­vices and beyond. These papers gave voice to thou­sands of low­er-rank­ing troops who exist­ed with­in an insti­tu­tion where they had lit­tle free­dom of expres­sion. Like the wider GI move­ment, the GI press is also a tes­ta­ment to the fact that thou­sands of active-duty ser­vice mem­bers need to be writ­ten into our his­tor­i­cal accounts of the rad­i­cal move­ments and work­ing class mil­i­tan­cy of the 1960s and 1970s, and that the mil­i­tary should be seen as a pri­ma­ry site of con­tes­ta­tion with­in that peri­od.

Viet­nam GI was one the ear­li­est and most pow­er­ful exam­ples of the GI press. It was start­ed by Jeff Sharlet at the turn of 1968. Sharlet had served in Viet­nam in 1963 and 1964. After com­ing back home, he stud­ied at Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty-Bloom­ing­ton, where he joined Stu­dents for a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Soci­ety. Viet­nam GI was an effort to reach sol­diers and vet­er­ans with an authen­tic, alter­na­tive, anti­war voice, and it imme­di­ate­ly res­onat­ed with its read­ers. Sol­diers wrote hun­dreds of let­ters to Viet­nam GI, many of which the paper print­ed. “What impress­es most of the guys is that Viet­nam GI is writ­ten to us – the first ter­m­ers and low­er rank enlist­ed men, not the lif­ers,” said one let­ter. Sad­ly, Sharlet died in 1969 after a bout with kid­ney can­cer.

This inter­view is a valu­able encap­su­la­tion of some of the most com­pelling trends of the GI move­ment, and it shows why Viet­nam GI was one of the best sol­dier anti­war papers – cer­tain­ly one of the papers most organ­i­cal­ly con­nect­ed to the feel­ings, frus­tra­tions, and self-activ­i­ty of Viet­nam-era GIs. Espe­cial­ly impor­tant are the interview’s empha­sis on the military’s class struc­ture and its place with­in the state appa­ra­tus, the under­stand­ing of GI anti­war pol­i­tics as part of a work­ing class pol­i­tics, the cov­er­age of and response to racial oppres­sion, and the insights into the dis­tri­b­u­tion of the GI press and the ways that sol­diers inter­act­ed with it.3

The reprint­ing of this doc­u­ment is an oppor­tu­ni­ty for orga­niz­ers today to study the Viet­nam-era GI move­ment: its strengths and weak­ness­es, its orga­niz­ing tac­tics, its rel­e­vance for today in the midst of the ongo­ing War on Ter­ror. Few insti­tu­tions touch the lives of the U.S. work­ing class today as wide­ly as the armed forces, and any future left must have a strate­gic ori­en­ta­tion towards this real­i­ty.

– Derek Sei­d­man


The move­ment often talks about tak­ing a step into Amer­i­ca. Too often, such talk is only talk, and it is only recent­ly that move­ment peo­ple have begun to con­sid­er and act seri­ous­ly on their rhetoric. One key area where this has begun is in and around the armed forces, among the large sec­tion of work­ing-class peo­ple who enlist or are draft­ed into the ser­vice of the mas­ters of war. Cof­fee­hous­es have been set up for sol­diers at bases around the coun­try, var­i­ous efforts have gone on inside the mil­i­tary. One impor­tant con­tri­bu­tion to this work has been the “Viet­nam GI,” a month­ly news­pa­per which is dis­trib­uted in the Army both at home and in Viet­nam. The Move­ment talked to Jeff Sharlet and Jim Wal­li­han, two mem­bers of the VGI staff. What they have to say about their work and the rela­tion of the move­ment to their work speaks direct­ly to sev­er­al impor­tant prob­lems fac­ing the move­ment, if it actu­al­ly is to take that step into Amer­i­ca:

The Move­ment: Tell us a lit­tle about “Viet­nam GI.”

Viet­nam GI: Last fall, a group of Viet­nam vet­er­ans and a cou­ple of move­ment peo­ple decid­ed that it was time to start deal­ing with the mil­i­tary. We knew from expe­ri­ence that con­di­tions in the armed forces – the crap that goes down every day – plus the war and the fact that the whole sys­tem is under attack added up to a lot of GIs who were begin­ning to think about get­ting togeth­er both on the inside and as vets. Guys begin to ask some seri­ous ques­tions when they find them­selves in life or death sit­u­a­tions they can’t jus­ti­fy to them­selves. We felt that the vehi­cle of a news­pa­per was the best way to begin, since it could reach a large audi­ence as well as pro­vide infor­ma­tion on events in the Army and estab­lish con­tact with and among GIs who were already polit­i­cal­ly active or who want­ed to get into things. In Jan­u­ary we ran 10,000 copies and since then we have increased the print­ing to 30,000 per month. We dis­trib­ute to guys who write in, through indi­vid­ual sub­scrip­tions to mil­i­tary address­es – appro­pri­ate­ly dis­guised, of course – and through GI dis­trib­u­tors, as well as through civil­ians who pass out the paper at bases, bus sta­tions, and air­ports. We also trav­el around to bases, rap­ping with guys, pick­ing up sto­ries, and help­ing in what­ev­er way we can with what they have going on the inside.

Reach Who?

The Move­ment: Do you reach, or try to reach, every­body in the armed forces or just par­tic­u­lar sec­tions?

VGI: We talk almost exclu­sive­ly to enlist­ed men – the guys at the bot­tom, the guys who catch most of the crap that comes down from the top of the sys­tem. The EM are usu­al­ly at the mer­cy of the “lif­ers” (careerists), the offi­cers and NCOs. We’re main­ly reach­ing the aver­age GIs, as opposed to the few guys who are in the so-called elite units like intel­li­gence and the Green Bean­ies (Spe­cial Forces).

You see, the mil­i­tary is orga­nized like the class sys­tem in the civil­ian soci­ety. The offi­cers are the upper class and enlist­ed men make up the low­er class. In between are the NCOs – the lif­er sergeants. The NCOs tend to come from minor­i­ty and poor white back­grounds, and the mil­i­tary offers them more secu­ri­ty than they can get as civil­ians. It offers them a few ben­e­fits, a lit­tle sta­tus and some author­i­ty – the chance to give orders to some­body else. For the most part these guys have their heads turned around. Their role in the ser­vice is to han­dle a lot of the pet­ty admin­is­tra­tion and harass­ment that the offi­cers are too impor­tant to be both­ered with. Like fore­men in a fac­to­ry, their job is to keep the troops in line.

Cut­ting across the class thing, espe­cial­ly in Nam, is the gen­er­a­tional feel­ing. So some­times you see young lieu­tenants, espe­cial­ly the non-lif­ers, and the young NCOs relat­ing bet­ter to enlist­ed men than they do to their “own kind” in some cir­cum­stances. The obvi­ous exam­ple is when they smoke grass with EMs, as some­times hap­pens, espe­cial­ly in the field.

Response

The Move­ment: How has the response been to the paper been so far?

VGI: Real­ly strong. Since we began we’ve received sev­er­al thou­sand replies, many of which are sub­stan­tial let­ters. For a while we won­dered about the fact that we hadn’t received any hos­tile let­ters from enlist­ed men, although we got a few from the Army and from offi­cers. But in May we received our first hos­tile let­ter and since then we’ve received three or four more. The major­i­ty of the mail is from guys in Nam, most­ly line troops in the Army and Marine Corps. We’ve been sur­prised by the Marine response, but then they’re up front – they face it every day and know what we’re all about. The only dif­fi­cul­ty is that we can’t con­tact most of the guys in Nam per­son­al­ly until they return to the States.

What we think is the real acid test for the paper is the response from guys in state­side hos­pi­tals who have been wound­ed, often bad­ly. Ordi­nar­i­ly this tends to make men bit­ter, build­ing hos­til­i­ty to those opposed to the war because they’ve sac­ri­ficed an arm, a leg, a full life for it. The need to jus­ti­fy can be pret­ty strong. But we’ve got­ten a lot of let­ters from the hos­pi­tals, like one guy who wrote say­ing he dug the paper and that he “lost a leg, for noth­ing.”

The Move­ment: What do you feel is the polit­i­cal and orga­niz­ing impor­tance of work­ing in the mil­i­tary?

VGI: Well, first of all, it’s the mil­i­tary. And we all know the impor­tance of that for the peo­ple who run Amer­i­ca. And sec­ond­ly, because the war has begun to increase the polit­i­cal con­scious­ness of GIs and ex-GIs, and a lot of them are mov­ing towards the left, even with no attempt to reach them on our part. The third thing is that work­ing with GIs, most of whom are work­ing-class, can help bridge the gap between the expe­ri­ence of the move­ment and the expe­ri­ence of ordi­nary peo­ple in this soci­ety – the peo­ple we have to reach if the sys­tem is going to be changed.

Experience Gap

The Move­ment: Exact­ly what do you mean by bridg­ing the ”expe­ri­ence gap”?

VGI: Maybe it would be good idea to explain just what the gap is, first. As it stands now the move­ment is most­ly mid­dle-class, but the larg­er part of our gen­er­a­tion is not. For the most part, guys in the move­ment have spent their time around cam­pus­es. But one of the most impor­tant expe­ri­ences of the larg­er part of the gen­er­a­tion is in the mil­i­tary, usu­al­ly in Viet­nam. So that’s an impor­tant ele­ment in how peo­ple relate to each oth­er, one that most peo­ple in the move­ment don’t share. What’s more, a lot of peo­ple in the move­ment don’t even under­stand it, much less share it. So if the move­ment is seri­ous about tak­ing a step into Amer­i­ca, it should take that step into that part of the soci­ety where a large part of our gen­er­a­tion is. To do it, a lot of intran­si­gent atti­tudes and fan­tasies will have to be dropped.

This means that peo­ple in the move­ment have to over­come their mid­dle-class back­grounds to a cer­tain extent. They have to over­come this not just through rhetoric, but in their heads and through expe­ri­ence. For exam­ple, there is still a lot of anti-work­ing class feel­ing in the movement…this is often man­i­fest­ed against the ordi­nary GI, or by shout­ing “fas­cist” at troops and Guards­men. Now that ain’t com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Also, the con­cepts and lan­guage used by the move­ment are often over-intel­lec­tu­al­ized and iso­lat­ed from real­i­ty. This gap not only makes for a lack of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, it pre­vents the growth and improve­ment of think­ing and orga­ni­za­tion that could take place if it was a move­ment that was real­ly open to every­body. Take a lot of demon­stra­tions, for instance. A lot of peo­ple who watch demon­stra­tions are just as rad­i­cal as the par­tic­i­pants but they don’t join because they come across like freak shows with abstract and irrel­e­vant demands. A demon­stra­tion should be the kind of thing that any sym­pa­thet­ic bystander can step off the side­walk and join, with­out hav­ing his mind blown.

Fantasies

The Move­ment: You men­tioned fan­tasies. Do you have any exam­ples?

VGI: Right. The oth­er prob­lem is that the move­ment tends to over-roman­ti­cize things, to main­tain a lot of fan­tasies. For instance, it’s tough to relate to most com­bat vets with a roman­ti­cized view of the NLF, when the guy has seen a cou­ple of bud­dies decap­i­tat­ed. In addi­tion, some peo­ple in the move­ment always seem to impose incred­i­ble and unrea­son­able demands upon GIs. Like ask­ing, “When you were over in Viet­nam, why didn’t you desert?” What can a sol­dier say to that, except, “Man, you don’t under­stand what it’s like over there.” The move­ment has to relate at the lev­el of actu­al expe­ri­ence and con­scious­ness, not on a pipe dream lev­el. Only then can it speak in rel­e­vant terms to GIs about our com­mon prob­lems.

Some­times this whole intran­si­gence toward sol­diers goes so far as to say, “Well, if they don’t under­stand this, or won’t do that…then screw ‘em.” The move­ment can get itself in a cor­ner and wind up in a squeeze play. Because it can’t make it with­out the peo­ple it might write-off in this way.

The Move­ment: What do you sug­gest, then?

VGI: That even if many peo­ple in the move­ment aren’t ready to take the step of rolling up their sleeves and work­ing among ordi­nary peo­ple, or of going into the Army, the least they can do is pub­li­cize and pre­pare the coun­try and the mil­i­tary for move­ment actions so that they are more com­pre­hen­si­ble to the ordi­nary GI. Peo­ple should talk real­is­ti­cal­ly to sol­diers, not shun them…pick up GI hitch­hik­ers, put up guys who come around in their homes when they’re off on pass­es. Help GIs in what­ev­er actions they orga­nize. Dis­trib­ute papers around air­ports, bus sta­tions, bases, and to GIs and vets they come in con­tact with.

Where Guys Are At

The Move­ment: Going back to con­di­tions with­in the armed forces, how would you sum­ma­rize where guys are at?

VGI: Guys are going through a lot of changes, espe­cial­ly after they get over to Nam. The con­tra­dic­tions fac­ing this coun­try are bla­tant­ly exposed in the Army and the oth­er branch­es. GIs don’t know why they’re fight­ing. At least the politi­cians and the brass can’t give them any con­vinc­ing rea­sons. Once they start to gen­er­al­ize about what they’ve been doing and why, then, if they can avoid flip­ping out, they’re ready to orga­nize. Real­ly ready, because their com­mit­ment has come out of intense and life-threat­en­ing expe­ri­ences.

The con­tin­u­al inten­si­fi­ca­tion of the war, the high casu­al­ty rates, guys com­ing back talk­ing to the guys about to go, all con­tribute. They hear talk about nego­ti­a­tions and all that jive, all the can­di­dates say­ing they’re for peace – but they’re still being told to fight. Those who face it learn quick­ly to dis­tin­guish false promis­es from their own expe­ri­ence.

Now the guys who are in Viet­nam or those who have been through it are not nec­es­sar­i­ly polit­i­cal, in the sense the move­ment uses that word. But most of them are get­ting hip to where it’s NOT at – that’s impor­tant, even if they’re not cer­tain exact­ly where it IS at. They fig­ure out that the busi­ness­men, the politi­cians, the rightwingers, even a few par­ents who talk about sup­port­ing the boys are real­ly just using them, keep­ing them over there.

The Move­ment: A lot of these guys must be pret­ty angry then?

VGI: Right. Any many guys are guys begin­ning to direct their anger in new direc­tions. The talk about killing peace creeps when you get out, which was com­mon a cou­ple of years ago, is def­i­nite­ly declin­ing. GIs are antic­i­pat­ing their dis­charge and a few are talk­ing clear­ly about chan­nel­ing that ener­gy back home, at the peo­ple who run the coun­try; the ones who are respon­si­ble for get­ting them sent there. It’s the same thing Muham­mad Ali said for black peo­ple – “Our fight is at home.”

Dealing With It

The Move­ment: You said some­thing ear­li­er about guys flip­ping out.

VGI: Yeah, there are quite a few guys who have seen too much killing, too much crap, and aren’t able to deal with it. That’s been true in all wars to a cer­tain extent, but there are a lot of guys who are mov­ing into the drug scene. Most guys, when they get out, seem to just want to live again for a few months, then they start mov­ing into var­i­ous things.

The Move­ment: How are GIs deal­ing with their sit­u­a­tion inside the mil­i­tary?

VGI: They’re deal­ing with it in all sorts of ways. Lots of guys are just look­ing for an out, tak­ing indi­vid­ual actions like psych­ing out or get­ting drug or med­ical records, or work­ing it one way or anoth­er. But, more and more, GIs are look­ing for col­lec­tive solu­tions. They’re tak­ing group actions involv­ing sol­i­dar­i­ty, which are more like­ly to help out their bud­dies as well as them. There have been a few cas­es of troop revolts or of mass refusals, like six Viet­nam returnees at Ft. Leonard Wood refus­ing assign­ments as drill instruc­tors, or like the black GIs at Hood who refused riot duty in Chica­go.

The Move­ment: What are sol­diers who are in Nam doing?

VGI: First of all, it’s a ques­tion of sur­vival. As they say, CYA – cov­er your ass. Toward the end of their one year tours a lot of guys are espe­cial­ly reluc­tant to get shoved out into the field. But there’s no ques­tion that sol­diers both here and in Nam are begin­ning to move. In some cas­es it’s just lay­ing dead, in some it’s low lev­el sab­o­tage, in oth­ers it’s group stuff orga­nized qui­et­ly. Like this one Main­te­nance out­fit made sure that none of the vehi­cles they were respon­si­ble for could be used, all by using the Army’s reg­u­la­tions against it. And, there have been cas­es of offi­cers get­ting shot by the men, over dif­fer­ent griev­ances.

But the con­se­quences of an uncool move can be pret­ty final. It’s not unknown for “agi­ta­tors” to get shoved out of heli­copters. How­ev­er, the usu­al response is that when the Brass wants to get rid of some­body they just put him in an exposed posi­tion, like point man on patrol, radio oper­a­tor, or chop­per gun­ner.

State­side there’s a hell of a lot more lee­way than in Nam, although guys who haven’t been over usu­al­ly haven’t seen the con­tra­dic­tions so clear­ly, or thought about them as seri­ous­ly.

Program & Organizing

The Move­ment: How does the paper tie in to all of this? What kind of pro­gram are you orga­niz­ing around?

VGI: Well, we don’t push a rigid pro­gram, like one, two, three and so on – these are the demands of GIs. We don’t con­demn indi­vid­ual actions although there is a clear pref­er­ence for col­lec­tive actions. We run arti­cles about actions, often writ­ten by guys who are involved in them. Guys on oth­er bases can pick up on the ideas and tac­tics if they are rel­e­vant to their sit­u­a­tion. Polit­i­cal­ly, we run a lot of mate­r­i­al on the oppres­sive­ness of the mil­i­tary sys­tem for the GIs who are impressed into it. We run arti­cles on the war, who’s respon­si­ble for it, and who does and doesn’t ben­e­fit from it. On top of that we run a lot of stuff on what’s going on polit­i­cal­ly with­in the sys­tem. We also run a lot of let­ters, cov­er­ing a whole spec­trum of views. What we’re say­ing is that the war isn’t in the inter­ests of most Amer­i­cans, espe­cial­ly the GIs who fight it, but that it’s the respon­si­bil­i­ty of the cor­po­ra­tions, politi­cians, and mil­i­tary brass who run this coun­try. In oth­er words, instead of tear­ing up Viet­nam and its peo­ple, we ought to be set­tling accounts with the cats who run Amer­i­ca.

The Move­ment: How does the paper han­dle the race ques­tion?

VGI: Head on. We run arti­cles on racism as it relates to the mil­i­tary scene and arti­cles on the racism that’s endem­ic to the sys­tem, often con­nect­ing it with mil­i­tary events and con­di­tions.

Racism

The Move­ment: Could you give a cou­ple of exam­ples?

VGI: Well, for instance we ran a sto­ry about a Mil­i­tary Police com­pa­ny. Eight white and three black enlist­ed men went to the Inspec­tor Gen­er­al (a sort of mil­i­tary ombuds­man) about the bla­tant racism of their offi­cers and sergeants. It was an exam­ple of black and white guys get­ting togeth­er to demon­strate their sol­i­dar­i­ty con­nect­ing their oppo­si­tion to racism and their com­mon antag­o­nism toward offi­cers.

We’ve run arti­cles on riot con­trol. Black GIs are the ones most con­cerned about it, as the August action at Ft. Hood demon­strat­ed, but lots of white guys are also uptight about it, espe­cial­ly since Chica­go. The 6th Infantry Divi­sion at Ft. Knox, a unit which was com­posed large­ly of Nam returnees, was train­ing for riot con­trol. One group of men would play riot­ers, the oth­ers con­trollers. Nobody, black or white, was enthu­si­as­tic about it…among the enlist­ed men. So the offi­cers had to push them hard, egg them on, and shove clubs in their backs to get “coop­er­a­tion.” There were inci­dents when the enlist­ed men turned around on the offi­cers or NCOs and took them on. This kind of thing can lead to severe pun­ish­ment – so it showed the depth of bit­ter­ness that exists in this area. A lot of guys who have been over to Nam have got their heads straight about it now.

Let’s make it clear – we’re not say­ing racism isn’t ram­pant in the mil­i­tary. It is. But the EM’s under­stand­ing of racism is clar­i­fied by many offi­cers and NCOs who are more bla­tant about their racism.

The Move­ment: Sounds good, and from what we’ve seen of the paper it sounds like you talk the lan­guage. Now for the big ques­tion – how do you see, out of your expe­ri­ence, the move­ment relat­ing to the army?

Bridge The Gap

VGI: The move­ment must first begin to bridge that gap in expe­ri­ence, under­stand­ing, and com­mu­ni­ca­tion that we talked about ear­li­er. This doesn’t mean every­one should run down to their near­est Army recruiter; but peo­ple should begin to deal with their fan­tasies, get out of the easy bag of fas­cist name call­ing and writ­ing-off work­ing-class peo­ple.

The move­ment must project that the fight is right here at home. It should real­ize that a lot of GIs define the ene­my as well or bet­ter than many peo­ple in the move­ment. It should ori­ent itself toward GIs and ordi­nary civil­ians in its actions. Sit­ting around talk­ing to our­selves doesn’t make it. If the move­ment wants to speak to most Amer­i­cans, then GIs should feel wel­come with­in the move­ment. We should take that step into Amer­i­ca, and not try to force GIs and every­body else to make the leap to wher­ev­er the cur­rent move­ment fan­ta­sy is at.

There are many sup­port activ­i­ties that can be begun for GIs, both in and out of the ser­vice. For exam­ple, pub­lic­i­ty and demon­stra­tions for GIs who orga­nize actions and are under fire from the brass as a result. GIs face a stiff sys­tem of penal­ties – and it’s tough for them to print their own leaflets. The move­ment can help in print­ing and dis­trib­ut­ing papers like ours. Peo­ple can leaflet air­ports, bus sta­tions, induc­tion sta­tions, and bases with papers. It can put up rad­i­cal GIs, help them orga­nize, espe­cial­ly by help­ing rad­i­cal GIs keep in touch with each oth­er. Anoth­er func­tion for the move­ment might be the spread­ing of infor­ma­tion on care­ful work and clu­ing guys in on the con­se­quences of actions that aren’t going to accom­plish any­thing except get them screwed. Some GIs are naive in this regard. And of course the defense func­tions of pro­vid­ing pub­lic­i­ty, lawyers, etc. are often impor­tant. In the long run, the move­ment, strength­ened by con­tact with work­ing-class guys in the mil­i­tary, can join with them in devel­op­ing a work­able per­spec­tive for more per­ma­nent orga­ni­za­tion.

Campus Vets

There is one key area in which almost noth­ing has been done that offers great poten­tial. There are now over half a mil­lion vet­er­ans on cam­pus­es. The move­ment can help get these guys togeth­er by dis­trib­ut­ing the paper to them and set­ting up con­tacts. As vet­er­ans their poten­tial is great, because of their expe­ri­ence and because of the legit­i­ma­cy that goes with it.

The key imme­di­ate thing for us is mon­ey, so we bet­ter get in a plug. Active-duty GIs can’t con­tribute much on their salaries. So we have to rely almost entire­ly on civil­ian con­tri­bu­tions. It takes a lot of bread to mail out thou­sands of papers to GIs since they have to go first class in order to get through – that’s about twelve cents a copy. It also takes bread to get around to the bases, most of which are scat­tered around the South and the East coast. So we’re real­ly in need.

The Move­ment: One last thing – have you run up against a lot of harass­ment from the brass?

VGI: Oh yeah, but we’ve found that there’s a lot of sol­i­dar­i­ty among guys in a pla­toon. They stick togeth­er and won’t rat on a bud­dy when the brass starts call­ing guys in to fInd out where the papers are com­ing from. There have been cas­es where offi­cers have giv­en GIs direct orders (vio­la­tion is a court mar­tial offense) not to dis­trib­ute the paper and the guy’s bud­dies have tak­en over the dis­tri­b­u­tion, back­ing him up. That way we keep a few jumps ahead of the brass – they cut off a dis­trib­u­tor, an orga­niz­er, and we pick up a cou­ple more. Many returnees from Nam tend to be pret­ty gut­sy and take a lot less crap.

Nobody we know of has been hurt for dis­trib­ut­ing the paper yet. The cats who do it are cool as hell. We got one let­ter from an offi­cer in Nam who com­plained about not being able to find out how to receive the paper from any of his men – and we had a lot of papers cir­cu­lat­ing in that unit, too.

As far as the staff, which is almost entire­ly ex-GIs, goes, we’ve got­ten a lit­tle harass­ment, but so far no major actions have been direct­ed at us by the brass. It would be tough for them, giv­en the base we’ve built up among GIs. Like we know of sev­er­al cas­es where it’s been sol­diers who turned civil­ians onto the paper for the first time. We get a lot of let­ters from guys who view it as “their paper,” which is the way it should be.

This inter­view orig­i­nal­ly appeared in the San Fran­cis­co-based New Left pub­li­ca­tion, The Move­ment 4, no. 9 (Octo­ber 1968): 10–11. The Farm­work­er Move­ment Doc­u­men­ta­tion Project archive at UC-San Diego hous­es dig­i­tized copies of The Move­ment, avail­able online.


  1. The clas­sic study of the Viet­nam “sol­diers’ revolt” remains David Cor­tright, Sol­diers in Revolt: GI Resis­tance Dur­ing the Viet­nam War (Chica­go: Hay­mar­ket Books, 2005 [1975]); see also Pen­ny Lewis, Hard­hats, Hip­pies, and Hawks: The Viet­nam Anti­war Move­ment As Myth and Mem­o­ry (Itha­ca: Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2013) and Chris­t­ian Appy, Work­ing-Class War: Amer­i­can Com­bat Sol­diers and Viet­nam (Chapel Hill: Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na Press, 1993). 

  2. A more robust account of the GI under­ground press can be found in Derek Sei­d­man, “Paper Sol­diers: The Ally and the GI Under­ground Press,” in Protest on the Page: Essays on Print and the Cul­ture of Dis­sent, eds. James L. Baugh­man, Jen­nifer Rat­ner-Rosen­hagen, and James P. Danky (Madi­son: Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin Press, 2015). 

  3. On black GI resis­tance in par­tic­u­lar, see David Cor­tright, “Black GI Resis­tance Dur­ing the Viet­nam War,” GI Resis­tance: Sol­diers and Vet­er­ans Against the War 2, no. 1 (1990): 51–64. For more on the con­nec­tions between return­ing black GIs who served in Viet­nam and the black lib­er­a­tion move­ment in the Unit­ed States, see Cur­tis Austin, “The Black Pan­thers and the Viet­nam War,” in New Per­spec­tives on the Viet­nam War: Re-exam­in­ing the Cul­ture and His­to­ry of a Gen­er­a­tion, eds. Andrew Wiest, Mary Kathryn Bar­bi­er, and Glenn Robins (New York: Rout­ledge, 2010), 101–20; also see the archival texts pub­lished in View­point: Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Action Move­ment, “Greet­ings to Our Viet­namese Broth­ers! (1964),” and League of Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Black Work­ers founder Gen­er­al Gor­don Bak­er Jr.’s “Let­ter to the Local Draft Board (1965).” Joshua Bloom and Wal­do E. Martin’s Black Against Empire: The His­to­ry and Pol­i­tics of the Black Pan­ther Par­ty (Berke­ley: Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia Press, 2013) con­tains a per­cep­tive analy­sis of the artic­u­la­tions between the draft resis­tance move­ment, the anti­war agi­ta­tion on U.S. cam­pus­es, the rise of the New Left, and the uni­fy­ing pow­er of black lib­er­a­tion groups like the Black Pan­ther Par­ty. 

Authors of the article

was one of the first antiwar GI press publications, founded in 1968 during the Vietnam War. Its lead editor was Jeff Sharlet (1942-1969), a Vietnam veteran and key figure in the broader soldiers' revolt.

was a San Francisco-based New Left newspaper, which covered the civil rights, Black Power, and antiwar movements during its publishing run from 1965-1970.

is a historian and research analyst with LittleSis.org. He lives in Buffalo, New York.