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Return of the GI coffeehouse

November 3, 2006 | Pages 8 and 9

TOD ENSIGN, the director of New York City-based Citizen Soldier, has started a GI coffeehouse in Watertown, N.Y., near Fort Drum. During Vietnam, GI coffeehouses gave soldiers a place to hang out, listen to music and talk--about the war, the growing movement against it and everything else they didn't feel they could discuss freely under the watchful eye of their superiors on base. Ensign spoke to Socialist Worker about the Different Drummer Café.

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WHAT ARE your plans for the Different Drummer Café?

THIS BASE is relatively new. Fort Drum has become an important Army base in the last 10 years. They have three brigades up here--almost 14,000 troops--and they are heavily deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan. And in March, a whole brigade is coming back from Iraq.

One of the things I'd like to develop is a big celebration to welcome them home, be glad they're back--and then try to work with families here to see if we can get an effort underway to have them not go back. The Army is trying to figure out ways to not send people on multiple tours because it's sending morale into the toilet.

I did an event up here at the community college, and two women came whose husbands were both in Iraq. One was Black, and one was white, and I was able to get them talking about what they are experiencing, and urged them to come down to the coffeehouse.

I also want people to start writing for the coffeehouse Web it can have some real-time reporting on what's happening here.

What else to read

"An Appeal for Redress," written by active-duty troops, can be read on its own Web site--military personnel are welcome to sign on. You can also visit the Different Drummer Café Web site for ongoing reporting on military resistance.

David Cortright's Soldiers in Revolt: GI Resistance During the Vietnam War, recently republished in a new edition by Haymarket Books, is a fascinating account of the resistance movement within the military that helped bring the Vietnam War to an end.

Riverbend's Baghdad Burning Internet blog is updated--when electricity supplies allow--with an eyewitness account of what life is like for ordinary Iraqis.

For an ongoing analysis of the situation in Iraq and the wider Middle East, read Juan Cole's Informed Comment blog. Articles by left-wing Iraq expert Michael Schwartz appear regularly on the Web site. Schwartz also sends out articles of interest on his IraqViews listserve--to subscribe, send an email to [email protected] with the message: "sub iraqviews-l".

For a book that provides the background to the U.S. war and occupation, get Iraq Under Siege: The Deadly Impact of Sanctions and War, a collection of essays edited by Anthony Arnove (with one by Socialist Worker columnist Sharon Smith) published in an updated edition after the invasion.


It's going to take some work. There's a lot of paranoia here. The base is completely closed. You can't just walk onto the base. Years ago, we used to just go on the base and set out GI newspapers, but it's different now at all active-combat bases.

Partly, this lockdown was in response to 9/11, but now it's become standard operating procedure. That means it's harder to have contact--you can't just go to the commissary and talk with people. Passing out materials is virtually impossible. It makes it a lot more difficult.

HOW DID you choose this base?

INITIALLY, WE were considering Fort Bragg, but the thing I liked about Fort Drum is that there's a core of people here. Veterans for Peace has several members that are pretty enthusiastic about the project.

Another thing I like about it is that there's very little going on here. There's no club in town, for example, that has live music on a regular basis. There's no bookstore up here. Thursday night is going to be talent night, so people can get up and sing, do comedy, rap, whatever.

That's an attraction. Bragg has a lot more stuff going on, as you would expect. There are several coffeehouses there--not GI coffeehouses, but commercial coffeehouses that feature almost nightly entertainment with singers and the kind of stuff that we want to have here. So if we can break out into these communities, we have the field to ourselves.

One thing that surprised me was that I expected to have trouble advertising in the base newspaper.

It turns out that these base newspapers are what they call "civilian enterprise publications" because they are owned by businesspeople. They sell ads and make a lot of money off them because they don't pay for reporting--the military provides them with low-level, so-called reporters who feed them copy. The command maintains nominal editorial control, but I'm sure it's more than nominal.

The local newspaper here--the Watertown Daily Times--handles the classified and display ads for the base newspaper. It's called the Fort Drum Blizzard. I was really pleased that they put our ad on page 2, and so we are on the base to that extent. The question is how many soldiers will see that and possibly turn out.

The real nut to crack is how to reach and work with an all-volunteer force. To what degree are the lessons of the Vietnam period relevant, and to what degree are they irrelevant?

Who are we dealing with now in terms of leadership among soldiers? And how has that whole idea of a contact affected the willingness of soldiers to say I'm not an indentured servant here, I'm a citizen, I have rights. What is the level of expectation among those soldiers? And what is the level of paranoia and fear?

DO YOU already have people on base who you're working with?

A MOTHER came in today whose son is AWOL and is going back, so I'm working with at least one case there now. But at this point, I could not say that we have even a small core of soldiers on the base who have said to us that they want us to come in and want our help and support.

But I recently re-read David Cortright's book Soldiers in Revolt, and the fact is that the first GI coffeehouse, which was started by Fred Gardner and Donna Mickleson near Fort Jackson, was a similar deal. They went there in late 1967 and opened up a spot in Columbia, S.C., near the base. They put up a sign and spread the word as best they could. And soldiers started coming in to that coffeehouse--about 600 a week within the first few months.

I really hope that this will succeed and then lead to other efforts elsewhere. Maybe there will be things that each of us experience, and we can share--something people do elsewhere that's highly effective we can do here and vice versa.

To be honest, this has to grow into more than a single base. I think that would begin to change the military's response. There was a Stars and Stripes poll conducted in Iraq some time ago, and 30 percent of soldiers said bring us home immediately, and another 39 percent said set a date within a year. So 70 percent of the force is saying that they want out now or very soon.

What does that mean? It doesn't mean shit to the command, but it says something about the potential audience for what we're doing.

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