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 élite 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 “coöperation.” 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 naïve 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.

References   [ + ]

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.