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Two generations of the GI movement

March 16, 2007 | Pages 8 and 9

The Appeal for Redress is an Internet statement signed by 1,715 active-duty military personnel calling on Congress to withdraw the troops from Iraq.

Navy Seaman JONATHAN HUTTO spearheaded the Appeal for Redress, which was launched in September. Jonathan says the initiative was inspired by reading Soldiers in Revolt: GI Resistance During the Vietnam War by DAVID CORTRIGHT. Here, Jonathan and David talk with Socialist Worker about organizing a new GI movement.

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HOW DID you come to the decision to start the Appeal for Redress?

Jonathan: I was first introduced to the concept of GI organizing by an old professor of mine at Howard University some years before I went into the Navy. We were in the midst of a struggle against police brutality in Prince George County, Md., and my professor told me about the struggle for GI rights then.

Later, when I was off the coast of Iraq on board the USS Theodore Roosevelt in January 2006, he sent me the 30th anniversary copy of Soldiers in Revolt. Upon reading it, I inquired as to the whereabouts of Mr. Cortright, because I really wanted to get to know him. This professor sent me his contact information, and I followed up.

We had a forum here in Norfolk, Va., so David could address veterans in the peace community as well as people on active duty. We had a small roundtable that night of active-duty folks who David spoke to, and from there, we were able to build a relationship.

What you can do

Several recent articles provide a useful look at the GI rights movement today. A good place to start is SW's interview with Chanan Suarez Díaz "Dissent in the ranks"; Marc Cooper's "About Face: The Growing Antiwar Movement in the Military"; and "Iraqis are people too," by Cindy Sheehan.

Labor Beat, which produces and distributes progressive media on labor and social issues, has produced an excellent video called the "Rise of the Anti-War Soldier." It's available on the Internet and on DVD.

Active-duty soldiers can register their discontent by signing the Appeal for Redress. For news and updates about war resisters and other initiatives, go to the Iraq Veterans Against the War Web site.

Troops who need advice about their rights should go to GI Rights Hotline Web site or call 800-394-9544 from the U.S. or 510-465-1472 from outside the U.S.

David Cortright's excellent history of the GI rebellion during the U.S. war on Vietnam, Soldiers in Revolt, is available in a new edition from Haymarket Books. David Zeiger's Sir! No Sir! is an inspiring documentary about the Vietnam soldiers' revolt, and is available on DVD, along with many other supplemental materials.

 

It was a couple months later that David e-mailed me about the idea of starting a petition to get active-duty folks to ask the White House and Congress to end the Iraq war.

We did some research and found that active-duty folks actually don't have the right to petition. But digging further, we found that the Military Whistleblower Protection Act and some other regulations give members of the military the right, without prior command approval and without any reprisals, to contact their representatives in Congress on any issue.

THIS IDEA grew out of a similar campaign by troops in 1969, right?

Jonathan: Exactly. In 1969, there were 1,365 active-duty personnel who put out an open letter in the New York Times--and David was one of them--calling for an end to the Vietnam War, but also calling for the rights of service members to participate in mass demonstrations and not have reprisals against them for being at these demonstrations.

This open letter was published in the run-up to the huge demonstration in Washington, D.C., on November 15, 1969. We saw this as a bold and courageous move that we wanted to build on and take forward.

DAVID, DID you write Soldiers in Revolt in the hope that it could be used as a how-to manual for organizing an antiwar movement in the military?

David: Not exactly. As Jonathan said, I was one of the signers of that petition and circulated it around the Fort Hamilton complex where I was based. I was part of the GI movement for the rest of the time I was in the military--more than a year and a half.

And the more I saw and ran into activists, the more amazed I was at how widespread the movement was. I had studied history in college and thought, "This is history in the making here." Somebody needs to chronicle this, because it's truly amazing.

Of course, the establishment press wasn't paying attention to it even then. In those days, there was little recognition of what was going on in the ranks, and the Vietnam vets movement was rising at the time.

So I decided to collect documents and take notes, thinking some day I would have time for writing this story up. But I think my main goal was to chronicle this, so that future generations could understand how this war was brought to an end, how unpopular it was, and the resistance to the war in the ranks.

I never imagined our country would be so foolish that this aggressive policy would rear its head again--that we'd be back in another war as we are today. I understood the nature of militarism, but you always hope that we can learn lessons as a country and as a people.

Now that we see soldiers speaking out again, I guess the book is seen as a model, but I never saw it as an instruction guide to stop the war because I was hoping that we had learned the lesson of not getting involved in these wars again.

HOW WOULD you compare the GI movement now and then?

David: The biggest difference is that we have an all-volunteer military now, so people entering today are doing so because they want to be there. They either like the military and look forward to a career, or they need the educational benefits--they've got loans to pay, or they want to go to college and can't afford it.

So from the get go, you've got people who aren't hostile to the military, and in many cases are very respectful and want to be part of the military.

The political climate in the military today is much more repressive in the sense that there are fewer rights than we had in the 1960s and '70s--partly because of the anti-unionization law that was passed in the '70s, and partly because of the repressive climate post-9/11. So the ability to create an organization is much less.

Also, we're not seeing the level of direct resistance that we saw in Vietnam. There was so much desertion and very widespread drug use. In Vietnam itself, there were fraggings and combat refusals--a real advanced state of anarchy and decay within the military. We're not seeing that at all.

On the other hand, what's similar is that there's a broad sense that this mission is futile, it's wrong, and it's been botched completely by the command. There's a lot of resentment about the burdens being imposed on the military to carry out this bad policy.

I see growing signs of discontent, opposition and low morale, and that's starting to be expressed by things like the Appeal.

Lastly, we are now in the Internet age, so we're not seeing the underground newspapers like in the old days, but we're seeing lots of traffic on the Internet. The Appeal for Redress itself is a Web-based organizing campaign, and there's the soldiervoices.net site that's been developed. Much of the opposition is expressed through Internet communication.

HOW WOULD you describe the contours of discontent in the military today?

Jonathan: First and foremost, I think people are starting to develop a general distrust of government and the promises that politicians have made on both sides of the aisle. The justifications given for going into Iraq are the basis of a lot of the anguish I hear.

When the Appeal first started, people who were career military told me they couldn't quite understand how the country got into Iraq. They could somewhat understand what Afghanistan was about, but they didn't quite understand how the country got into Iraq.

And people are just sick and tired. In the Navy, they have an Individual Augmentee program, where sailors are being retrained and reassigned, and sent to Iraq to fill jobs over there because they feel that people from the Navy trained stateside are better prepared to go into that situation than a fresh recruit.

This isn't only affecting people's morale, but it's also affecting re-enlistment rates. Once you re-enlist after being on sea duty for five or six years, you get shore duty for three or four years. But now shore duty isn't being guaranteed, and people are being sent overseas for 16-month tours.

In a general sense, the masses of sailors that I talk to are people who turned out to the polls in November, voted their anguish and dissent, and now months later, this situation is a huge debate within the Congress with no real end in sight. The last thing we've heard is that they're pushing for a pullout by August 2008. Well, for some people, that's just too late.

General distrust of the government and of the politicians and their promises is leading people to take more grassroots action, to sign on to the Appeal for Redress, to get involved with Iraq Veterans Against the War, to get involved with mass demonstrations like we're going to see March 17 in Washington, D.C.

WHAT IMPACT do you think the Walter Reed scandal is having within the military?

Jonathan: Soldiers are coming to see that you can't really depend on the brass to be an advocate for you in this situation.

Walter Reed is a case in point. Letters, warnings and other signs went to the brass for a year or two years about the conditions of soldiers at Walter Reed, and nothing was done about it until it hit the mass media.

It shouldn't have had to come to that. Once those warnings were given, then those services should have been provided, and changes should have been made. The people I talk to understand that you really can't really depend on the chain of command in that situation.

David talked earlier about the anti-unionization law. It's the reason why military personnel, particularly enlisted men and women, need an advocacy organization to fight and advocate on their behalf--about issues of war and imperialism, but also about the basic grievances these soldiers have at Walter Reed or elsewhere.

David: I agree. Another way in which there are similarities rather than contrasts between the Vietnam era and today is in the kinds of conditions and harassment and racial prejudice and careerism that goes on in the military every day, all to the disadvantage of the enlisted.

I got a communication the other day from one of our Appeal supporters--actually, it's the guy who helped set up the SoldierVoices.net Web site. He's over in Iraq right now, he just finished reading the book, and he said the last chapter on soldiers and democracy is as relevant today as it was 30 years ago.

That was very surprising to me because it says there's a lack of rights, and that commanders can still harass and repress the troops, even though we're supposedly in an era of a volunteer and professional armed forces.

People aren't coming in just as two-year draftees; they're serious about their military commitment, yet they're still being treated like peons by a lot of the commanders. That may be a tolerable condition under certain circumstances, but the whole military is going through stress right now, so these kinds of internal resistance factors start to increase, and the troops become less willing to tolerate it. The brass have to go more on the defensive.

Jonathan said an important thing: Where are the military leaders who should be speaking out against this insanity? There's too much careerism.

These people know damn well that this is a lost cause, and there's no way the U.S. can "win," whatever that means in Iraq. Yet they go along with it. Their careers may get advanced, but that doesn't help those in the lower ranks. Those kinds of tension are increasing.

For active-duty service members--folks like Jonathan who have more than a full-time job on duty--it's almost impossible to sustain their political commitment, their fight for their rights, without civilian support.

During the Vietnam days, we saw a lot of that. There was the GI coffeehouse movement, but there were also other organizations. I was helped by a group that I think was called the GI Civil Liberties Defense Committee.

Today, we have a little bit of that, but it's coming from Veterans for Peace, the IVAW and military families. We haven't really seen the civilian antiwar movement step up and commit itself to reaching out and providing sustained support for a growing number of service members who are now joining the ranks of the antiwar movement.

As Jonathan says, there are a number of voices being raised now. We need some sort of organization of GIs to advocate on behalf of the rights of enlisted people: first and foremost, for the First Amendment right to speak out and express their opinions to members of Congress about these issues; but also to advocate for better conditions, like at Walter Reed and other medical centers, but also on racial discrimination and sexism in the army.

There are all sorts of problems that need to be addressed and require some sort of a support network to help active-duty service members.

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