Dialogue between U.S.-based Veterans for Peace (VFP) and Vietnamese veterans at War Remnants Museum, March 20, 2018


 
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One of the least known but most important chapters in the history of the American antiwar movement was the rebellion of troops within the military. In June 1971 the prestigious military publication Armed Forces Journal published an article entitled, “The Collapse of the Armed Forces.” Written by a retired Marine Corps Colonel, the article stated: “The morale, discipline and battle worthiness of the U.S. armed forces are, with a few salient exceptions, lower and worse than at any time in this century and possibly in the history of the United States.” In virtually every corner of the military, the burden of fighting an unpopular and unwinnable war led to dissent, social disruption and institutional decay.

When I learned the full story of what happened at My Lai, I was in the Army stationed at Fort Bliss Texas. I enlisted in 1968 for a stateside assignment hoping to skate by and avoid the war, but my conscience wouldn’t allow it. Even though I was stationed far from the front, I was part of the military machine and was contributing indirectly to a war I came to see as unjust and unwinnable.

In basic training they made us watch the propaganda film, Why Vietnam?, with President Johnson drawling on about the supposed noble purposes of the war. Our commanders tried to convince us that we were fighting to defend democracy and help the Vietnamese people. The more we learned about what was actually happening, though, the more skeptical we became. As I talked with vets coming home and began to read about the history of the war, I became deeply alarmed and troubled. I could not be silent about something I knew to be wrong. I felt compelled to speak out against the war even though I was an active duty soldier.

This was a time of growing dissent and unrest within the military, as in the rest of society. A widespread antiwar movement was emerging among GIs. We participated in peace demonstrations, signed antiwar petitions and published underground newspapers at military bases and aboard ships.

Fort Bliss had an active group called GIs for Peace. We organized protests against the war and had hundreds of members and supporters among troops at the base. We published a monthly newspaper, The Gigline, and had our own GI antiwar coffeehouse in downtown El Paso. When those of us in the GI movement saw the news of the massacre at My Lai, we were horrified but not surprised. Our ranks included combat veterans who had recently returned from the killing zones. We knew how the war was being fought: combat sweeps and attacks against villages, free-fire zones, and commanders constantly pushing for higher body counts. The military strategy was to drive people out of their ancestral villages into so-called strategic hamlets. In such a war, we knew, civilian casualties were an inevitable and constant reality.

The massacre at My Lai was the largest and most horrific attack against civilians, but it was not an isolated incident. Villagers in the My Lai region and in many parts of Vietnam were often sympathetic to the National Liberation Front.  When U.S. troops suffered casualties trying to ’pacify’ such areas, they sometimes blamed it on the civilians and attacked them as enemy supporters.At GIs for Peace we put the blame for the massacre on politicians and military commanders. Yes, it would have been heroic if troops had refused orders to shoot civilians, but that’s a lot to ask of a frightened and confused 19-year infantryman in the midst of a bloody war against a popular insurgency. The chief responsibility for the tragedy, we said, was with those who started and sustained the war, not the GIs who were forced to carry it out.

Many of our members at Ft. Bliss were outraged when a low ranking officer Lt. William Calley was the only one convicted for the massacre, while all the higher-ups who ordered the mission got off free. An angry local combat veteran went to the El Paso police department and asked to be arrested, saying if Calley was guilty so was he. GIs for Peace responded by convening a public hearing in which he and other troops testified that they too had attacked civilians and described what they had done.

My Lai was the product of an unjust war that never should have been fought in which American GIs ended up waging war against the Vietnamese civilians they were supposedly sent to protect.

Among U.S. troops in Vietnam, organized dissent were rare, but acts of direct resistance were pervasive and tore at the very fabric of military capability.  By 1970 the Army and Marine Corps in Vietnam were experiencing widespread defiance and forms of noncooperation that affected operational capacity. The most significant form of resistance to the war was combat refusal. On August 26, 1969 the headline on the front page of the New York Daily News read “Sir, My Men Refuse to Go!” with the subtitle “Weary Viet GIs Defy Order.”

You can see the front page headline on the wall of this exhibit.

The article told the story of sixty soldiers in an Army company near Da Nang who refused direct orders from their commander. There were many other instances of combat refusal.  One study found 35 incidents of combat refusal in the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division during 1970. Some of the incidents involved entire units. This was an average of three combat refusals per month in just one division. If we extrapolate the experience of the 1st Cavalry to the other six Army divisions in Vietnam at the time, it is likely that hundreds of mutinous events occurred in the latter years of the ground war. When commanders sent their units into the field, they could not be certain that the troops would follow orders.

The most horrific indication of the breakdown of the armed forces was the prevalence of fragging, an attack with a fragmentation grenade.  The Army began keeping records on assaults with explosive devices in 1969. By July 1972, the total number of fragging incidents had reached 551, with 86 fatalities and over 700 injuries. The targets of these fragging attacks were mostly officers and noncommissioned officers. The frequency of fragging in Vietnam War indicated an army at war with itself. It provides grim evidence of the anger and social decay that were tearing the military apart.

As the Nixon administration intensified bombing attacks after 1969, antiwar resistance grew among the sailors and airmen ordered to participate in the onslaught. Starting in 1970 thenumber of GI antiwar papers in the Navy and Air Force increased sharply. Organized antiwar protest began to emerge aboard several U.S, aircraft carriers. Junior officers and sailors aboard the U.S.S. Constellation and the U.S.S Coral Sea organized petitions against deployment to Southeast Asia.

By 1971 acts of sabotage by Navy crew members became a serious problem in the Navy. Figures supplied to a Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives listed 488 acts of “damage or attempted damage” in the Navy during fiscal year 1971, including 191 incidents of sabotage, 135 arson attacks, and 162 episodes of “wrongful destruction.”. Two U.S. aircraft carriers were put out of commission for commission for months by acts of sabotage in July 1972, the U.S.S. Forrestal and the U.S.S. Ranger. These actions caused major damage and disrupted Navy operations.

Antiwar dissent and resistance also emerged in the Air Force. The number of GI papers at air bases jumped from 10 at the beginning of 1971 to 30 a year later. Antiwar coffeehouses opened near several bases, and demonstrations and protest actions occurred at or near air bases in April and May 1972. 

As dissent and resistance spread within the U.S. military, morale and discipline collapsed. I argue that by 1970 U.S. ground troops in Vietnam ceased to function as an effective fighting force. This was a factor in the Nixon administration’s decision to accelerate troop withdrawals. Antiwar resistance in American society and in the armed forces limited U.S. military options and contributed to ending the war.

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Greetings My Friends,

 

Welcome to the second part of the opening ceremony for the Waging Peace exhibit.  My name is Chuck Searcy and I am the president of Veterans For Peace Chapter 160 based in Viet Nam, with some members living and working in Viet Nam and others outside of the Viet Nam who stay connected here with humanitarian efforts to heal the wounds of the war, and with frequent visits to Viet Nam.

 

This is the seventh year that our VFP chapter has hosted American veterans to tour Viet Nam, to see old battle fields that are now serene and peaceful, to look at the serious damage our country inflicted on Vietnam and the recovery that is still underway, and to witness projects that are helping to mitigate the continuing legacies of war, unexploded ordnance and Agent Orange / dioxin.

 

Not every American tourist, and not every U.S. veteran, wants to know the truth about the war.  But I am pleased to say that most do seek the truth, and the success of this War Remnants Museum is evidence of that interest.  With over a million visitors each year, this is the second most popular museum in the whole country.

 

This year’s Veterans For Peace tour is the largest ever.  There were 24 veterans and 15 additional friends, family members, peace activists who assembled in Ha Noi 16 days ago.  Another six VFP members and colleagues joined us at Son My for the My Lai 50th anniversary commemoration, and an additional five have joined us here in HCMC. 

 

We served in the Army, Navy and the Marine Corps.  Some refused to deploy to Vietnam, some found ways to resist once they arrived. Some deserted the military leaving family and friends behind as they traveled into exile in Canada, France and Sweden.

 

All of us found ways to oppose and try to stop the war while we were in uniform or after we left the service.

 

In a few minutes you will hear some of our stories.  We hope to hear stories from our Vietnamese friends who fought with honor and passion to liberate your country from yet another foreign power.  I would not be surprised if this dialogue, at the end of our journey, is remembered as one of the most powerful experiences of our trip. 

 

We have scheduled this to be a half-day meeting to allow us to adjourn early and have a relaxing lunch at a nearby restaurant where we can continue to talk more informally.  We invite our Vietnamese counterparts, veterans of the battles and of the resistance movement for independence, to join us as our guests.  So, when this morning’s session ends, don’t go home.   Stay.

 

We’ll have many more stories to share, along with some good food

 






 
   
  Date 13/04/2018  

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