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The New Winter Soldiers: GI and Veteran Dissent During the Vietnam Era by Richard Moser
By Kim Scipes (Reviewer)
"And it's one, two, three, what are we fighting for?" were the words to the most popular song among American soldiers in late 1969 and the early 1970s-in Vietnam. The US Army and Marine Corps were torn apart by internal struggles against the war and against the authoritarianism and racism as young GIs struggled to survive the war and their time in the military. Entire units refused to fight -- a death penalty offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (sic); when operations did take place, they were oftentimes likely to be "search and avoid" rather than the official "search and destroy" missions; officers and NCOs were killed by their own men as "fragging" entered the language and fragmentation grenades entered their "hootches"; sabotage was rampant; troops were being disarmed when they came out of the bush to prevent firefights from taking place between blacks and racist whites; and drug usage--both marijuana and heroin (the latter flown in from Thailand by the CIA)--was rampant. This resistance, which started before the 1968 Tet Offensive by the Vietnamese, mushroomed afterward.
But these struggles were not confined to Vietnam itself--they took place, with varying degrees of intensity, wherever the US military was located (including in the Navy and Air Force, overseas and in the States)--and vets kept struggling against the war and the military even after they got out. The antiwar demonstration led by Vietnam Veterans Against the War in Washington, DC during April 1971--"Dewey Canyon III," where antiwar vets threw their medals for valor and service in disgust back at Congress--showed in no certain terms that young soldiers were rejecting the war and everything associated with it.
This war inside the military --inspired by the mass movements in the states by Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, gays and lesbians, women, and students--threatened to cause the US military to disintegrate. Ties were consciously made by activists within the military.
The intellectual leap that connected war to other forms of oppression was an essential part of the [GI] antiwar movement. Indeed, the antiwar movement treated war not simply as some extraordinary event but rather as a well-established cultural system with its own structure of human meanings and identities. War and empire became understood as activities that both created and were dependent upon oppressive sexual and gender identities, racism, and economic exploitation. From this perspective, the war in Vietnam was not only a question of poor policy choices, diplomatic errors, and even national aggression, but also the most extreme expression of America's democratic shortcomings.
It was these struggles, in light of the Vietnamese fighting abilities and willingness to bear any costs, that forced the US to withdraw its forces from Vietnam. When we consider the harm done to the people and the damage to the country itself--as one limited example, more bombs were dropped on Vietnam than were dropped on Italy, Germany and Japan combined during World War II--there can be no question that this was a major victory.
While there have been some good books written about the war, and even about parts of the resistance, Moser's book is the first to pull together the story about the resistance in one place. He includes the war against the war in Vietnam, as well as the resistance movement inside the US, and the struggles by veterans once they got out. Probably nothing turned the American public, Nixon's "silent majority," against the war as did protests by US veterans and servicepeople.
However, Moser's book is more important than just telling the story, as important as that is. After all, these struggles by mostly working class men and women constituted the greatest working class mobilization in this country since the 1930s--they just took place inside the military instead of workplaces.
Moser places these struggles squarely in the context of American tradition, history and culture. He suggests that there are two different military traditions in this country. One, which he calls the "winter soldier" tradition, is where people answer their country's call to fight for justice, freedom and liberty. He uses the Revolutionary War and the efforts by northern soldiers in the Civil War as his examples. He contrasts this to the "fighter" tradition, exemplified by the Indian fighter, the Bourbon officer of the Confederacy, and the Rough Rider, fighting to defend an established position of superiority and "rooted in an exceptional national character that bears the infallible wisdom of Western civilization. This superiority assumes patriarchy, white supremacy, and survival of the fittest." And while these two traditions were merged into the single "fighter" of World War II, Moser argues that the struggles by the servicepeople during Vietnam reaffirmed the tradition of the Winter Soldier in opposition to the fighter-and, in the case of Viet Nam, won.
This is a very strong argument. It validates the willingness of particularly young men to serve their country, while recognizing their efforts against it and its military when they realized they had been lied to and mistreated. He places their efforts to "straighten out" the military in parallel to those efforts by the young and people of color who were similarly trying to "straighten out" this entire country. This is a book that celebrates the struggle against death and destruction, even when these are sometimes used tactically to stop the war.
It is good that these efforts are finally getting recognition due them. But I don't think even Moser recognizes the importance and risks that people took while on active duty to take a stand. Within the draconian military "just-us" system (one loses most if not all of their Constitutional rights upon entering the military), resistance was met by arrests, bad discharges and prison time when activists were apprehended. Yet these efforts have largely gone unreported. If there are any heroes on the American side in the war, certainly these people qualify.
Richard Moser's study is a landmark. One cannot understand the resistance to the war in this country, and certainly not the level of resistance, unless one includes a study of struggles within the military. These young people were not saints, but their love for democracy and justice was a lot greater than most people have recognized, and certainly under much worse conditions than many of us experienced. Moser brings this home in a very powerful way.