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Home History American History Soldiers: Desertion, Rebellion, and the Philosophy of the Refusal to Fight

Soldiers: Desertion, Rebellion, and the Philosophy of the Refusal to Fight

Throughout human history, war has often been a method for different governments, nation-states, as well as organizations, to control resources. These wars have become bloodier and more collectivized over the last 150 years. What do I mean by collectivized? The entire population is gearing up to destroy another nation and now legitimately the enemy of another “nation.” Carl Von Clausewitz’s theory of “Total War” reshaped warfare starting in the 1800s. Total war is defined as “war that is unrestricted in terms of the weapons used, the territory or combatants involved, or the objectives pursued, especially one in which the laws of war are disregarded.” The concept of “total war” has lead to extreme policies by nations such as strategic bombings, commerce raiding, collective punishment, forced labor for military, targeting of agriculture, Scorched Earth policy, Ethnic Cleansing,  prolonged sieges that starved cities and nations, use of nuclear weapons, chemical warfare, Free Fire Zones and many more. These extreme policies carried out resulted in the idea that soldiers have a “moral duty” to resist, disobey and refuse to join the military of a nation, usually a draft. The paper will examine the actions of Soldiers who refused to fight wars, deserted the military, and in some cases turn on command, during the Vietnam War.

What was the goal of the Vietnam War carried out largely through the United States?

The Vietnam War was primarily fought over Vietnamese Independence from the “West” (Britain, France, the United States and other “allies” of the United States). After World War II, the Vietnamese wanted independence from France, because it had largely remained a French colony prior to the war and during the war under the Japanese who further devastated the country. The Vietnamese had fought off the Japanese with US support and had planned a constitution modeled after the US constitution. The country was split by a UN mandate in 1954 which split Vietnam into North and South regions. In 1955, the planned democratic elections were halted in the South over fears they would vote to unify with North Vietnam and that the so-called ‘communist” Ho Chi Minh would win. The US, in turn, installed a puppet dictator, Ngo Dinh Diem, a wealthy business owner, staunchly anti-communist, and a Catholic in charge of a largely Buddhist nation. Diem brutally persecuted Buddhists and become so unpopular that he was assassinated by the CIA in October of 1963 and replaced by his brother. From 1950 to 1975, the US waged a war to control formerly French Indochina via, military aid (up to 90% of French fighting with US dollars until they lost in 1954), also during and after with “military advisors”, constantly increasing until the US openly intervened in Vietnam in 1964, in which it consistently increased troop deployments until 1975, when the war finally came to an end.

Nearly three million Americans would ultimately serve in Vietnam over the next 20 years (Wardog). Many Americans did not agree or even understand why the US was involved in Vietnam. The US lied about the “Gulf of Tonkin” incident in July of 1964, where a US ship was falsely attacked so President Lyndon B. Johnson could gain more war powers and the result had been a major escalation of the war. The Americans did not find out about this event until nearly ten years later. David Duncan, formerly a Green Beret in Vietnam, was one of the first military trainers in Vietnam. After his tour of duty, he came back and told people the war was a lie. “I was really proud of what I thought I was doing. The problem I had was realizing that what I was doing was not good. I was doing it right but I wasn’t doing right” (Sir!NoSir!). He took a stand openly against the war and resigned from the military. The war took a long time to end, it was pushed with starch anti-communism and what Einstein calls the “measles of mankind”, nationalism.

Other soldiers such as Dr. Howard Levy refused to perform their military duties to help the war effort. The ideas of personal responsibility made many people not only question the war, hate the war, but also actively try to stop it or refuse to participate in it. Soldiers created underground newspapers in military barracks, ships and cafes across the country to spread the anti-war news. These would often become ban by the military officers and that banning of it would ironically arouse interests by more troops in what was being printed, almost a metaphor in a way for the drug war. Troops on aircraft carriers were literally signing petitions not to go to Vietnam, over 1,200 sailors signed it.

From April 18 to April 23, 1971, some 900 Vietnam veterans were involved in a massive anti-war rally in Washington, DC. The events included lobbying Congress, “Guerilla Theater” in the streets and keep in mind this was during the 1971 investigation into war crimes, with “150 vets testifying from firsthand experience” (VVAW). This helped the organization Vietnam Veterans Against the War, formed in 1967, became a national organization. The April events were considered one of “the most powerful anti-war demonstration held up to that time”(VVAW). It scared President Richard Nixon so much that he received hourly reports on the demonstration (VVAW). 50 veterans even took over the office of Senator James Buckley (R-NY) after he refused to meet with them. The last day of the demonstration the veterans each individual made a statement against the war and then threw their medals over the White House fence protesting against the war. One Veteran from the demonstration famously stated that “If we have to fight again, it will be to take these steps.”

The famous May Day Protests in 1971 saw, according to Chief Jerry V. Wilson, some 12,000 to 15,000 protestors block streets, throw “chicken shit” to mock the colonels, block government buildings and marching in protest of the war (Halloran). Most of the protesters were a mix of students and veterans. These people believed that serving the war effort was deeply wrong and that the war would end when soldiers refused to fight the wars. In the 1980s, under the Presidency of Ronald Reagan, much of this history of the anti-war movement was swept under the carpet and myths of the “hippies” who spat on soldiers started.

Many sailors, pilots, and San Diego residents even joined the anti-war movement. Sailors on the USS Coral Sea, at first signed hundreds of petitions then thousands of them signed it. On Sept. 13, 1971, they wrote a petition to Congress stating that a majority of the sailors do not believe in the Vietnam War and asking that their ship not return to Southeast Asia. Before the petitions could be sent to Congress they were ripped off by the lifers and are now being held by the ship’s executive officer. He said the petition was legal but ignored attempts by the crew to get it back. So the crew ignored the executive officer and started a new petition. Over 300 men signed the first one and were pissed off when it was ripped up (Good Times/Vol. IV No. 29/OCT. 1, 1971). When the ship sailed out the Golden Gate on Monday for a two-week trial run, there were thousands of leaflets with the text of the petition and places for signatures.

The naval carriers and pilot crews often had little combat casualties and dealt severe damage to the civilians across Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, especially when President Richard Nixon started slowly withdrawing troops in 1969, it meant more bombing and higher civilian deaths. Veterans started focusing on actively persuading people that the war was wrong. Saying things like I was there, I did terrible things and we shouldn’t be there, things like that are a lot more persuasive when you can say you fought in that war. Soldiers also did symbolic things like wear black armbands to say they support a protest at home. The Vietnam War is also where you see the “black power” movement start to emerge and groups like the black panthers. Where are legitimate questions asked why are black people fighting for a country that doesn’t provide them with equal rights? Famous athletes like Muhammad Ali refused to fight the war, perhaps modern day Kaepernick could be said as a mini Ali.

Soon after their return home from Vietnam in 1971, a group of 236 GI’s from the 173rd Airborne Brigade made the following statement: “Throughout our time in the service we’ve seen minority group GI’s discriminated against. In Vietnam, that’s been evidenced by higher casualty rates. Other times it takes the form of slower promotions, higher penalties for rules violations, and the worst job assignments. We feel that the Army fosters racism and has purposely avoided dealing with the day-to-day problems of minority groups”(Boyle).

To briefly address it I will reference what’s in Richard Boyle article not far below the previous quote,
“Many white officers and NCO’s made a practice of harassing Black GI’s about their Afros which didn’t conform to “military regulations.” While right-wing soldiers were allowed to fly confederate flags on Martin Luther King’s birthday and could generally count on getting away with making open racial slurs, Black GI’s were given sentences of up to 6 months for giving the clenched fist salute and “dapping” (a brotherly greeting)”(Boyle).

During the 10 years of the Vietnam War according to figures by the Pentagon, 500,000 deserted (Woolf). A large anti-war movement actively protesting, the Vietcong (a “determined enemy”), a military on collapse, Nixon announced the policy of “Vietnamization” making the Vietnamese takeover the efforts which completely failed and people knew it would fail in the 1970s.

“By every conceivable indicator, our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and noncommissioned officers, drug-ridden, and dispirited where not near mutinous”(Heinl).
By Col. Robert D. Heinl, Jr.
North American Newspaper Alliance
Armed Forces Journal, 7 June 1971

The US military had become almost self-governing in a way, even outside of its officers. Soldiers refusing to go on missions, people on drugs everywhere, especially heroin, officers being killed for given orders; to put it bluntly it was a circus. Because of the drug addiction and disapproval of the military, there was now an “epidemic of barracks theft”. This theft is even more devastating for moral where you have soldiers unable to trust each other, especially when in combat.

“Soldier muggings and holdups are on the rise everywhere. Ft. Dix, N.J., has a higher rate of on-post crime than any base on the East Coast. Soldier muggings are reported to average one a night, with a big upsurge every pay-day. Despite 450 MP’s (one for every 55 soldiers stationed there – one of the highest such ratios in the country) no solution appears in sight (Heinl). Armed Forces Journal

There are more military police than ever and still, the situation cannot be dealt with. The military was in a state of active revolt.

“Crimes are so intense and violent in the vicinity of an open-gate “honor system” detention facility at Ft. Dix that, according to press reports, units on the base are unwilling to detail armed sentinels to man posts nearby, for fear of assault and robbery”(Heinl). Armed Forces Journal

So bad that the military can’t even protect a gate so they have to have a bullshit system to protect themselves from looking weak. These issues are some of many that build up an identity of the military at war with itself that can’t maintain itself, in a war it doesn’t want to fight, unrest at home and a country trying to find itself. Toward the end of the war things got so bad a term “fragging” was given to the time when US soldier in Vietnam would attack their commanders for giving those orders to fight or go on missions.
“Shortly after the costly assault on Hamburger Hill in mid-1969, the GI underground newspaper in Vietnam, “G.I. Says”, publicly offered a $10,000 bounty on Lt. Col. Weldon Honeycutt, the officer who ordered(and led) the attack”(Heinl).

Several attempts were made on that soldier’s life although he went home alive. But even the brashness to publish something about killing an officer in a newspaper with a bounty shows how bad the situations were. This did affect judgments by leaders, “Another Hamburger Hill is definitely out “said one Major (Heinl). The problem of soldiers refusing to fight is evident throughout the end of the war, notable by two examples, the entire units of 196th Light Infantry Brigade publicly sat down on the battlefield and 1st Air Cavalry Division refused going down a dangerous trail (Heinl). When soldiers actively don’t believe in the “value” of the war serious consequences happen to the nation’s military.

Briefly, I will talk about the problems of historically armies in World War 1, World War 2, Iraq, Afghanistan 1980s and Modern, while touching back to Vietnam. During WW1, over 240,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers were court-martialed (Hinke). World War II saw 1.7 million US courts-martial, “one-third of all American prosecutions”, and around 21,000 desertions (Hinke). During the Afghan War, 60,000-80,000 ethnic Soviet border troops from the Muslim Central Asian regions deserted (Hinke). 85,000 Afghan national troops also deserted during this period (Hinke).

2001 to Today
“Pentagon estimates more than 40,000 troops have deserted from all branches of military service. In 2001 alone, 7,978 deserted” (Hinke).

All these problems of desertion relate to poor morale, belief in conflict, in some instances pay, the requirements of troops and length of the conflict. These conflicts are all about domination of regions, resources and/or competing for national interests. The Vietnam War adds up to a cumulative discontent with soldiers disbelief in the value of the conflict and actively trying to end the war. This dislike by the US soldiers does not mean that the Vietcong were just in their actions, who often killed, tortured, overtaxed and committed numerous atrocities, but as the song For What it’s Worth says, “Noboy is right if everybody’s wrong”.

Examine the Vietnam War
Examine the Opposition to the War in the Military(Army)
– How they applied refusing to fight philosophy
-Social Problems of the time (small)
-US Military on verge of Collapse?

Present – Stop video at 5:23 mins (https://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Cvideo_work%7C1786515/sir-no-sir)
(Ask Questions
Question 1: What do you think about the idea “if people refuse to fight the wars can’t continue”?
– Quick Facts:
More than 21,000 American soldiers were convicted of desertion in World War Two
Since 2000 estimate of more than 40,000 troops deserted from all branches of the military.
In 2001 alone, 8,000 deserted the US military.
More than 5,500 desertions 2003-2004
Any guesses to how many deserted during the Vietnam War 10 year period? 500,000!
-Question 2
Was what they did right for refusing to fight what they perceived as an unjust war?
-Quick Facts
How many people if there was a draft implemented tomorrow and require you to show up at your local town hall would do so, to prepare for a military conflict against China and North Korea?

Images and further Readings

http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/viet-nam-veterans-against-the-war-demonstrate-against-the-news-photo/526094756#viet-nam-veterans-against-the-war-demonstrate-against-the-war-in-picture-id526094756 ( March in DC Arlington Cemetery)

24 May 1969: Senior US officers say the strategic location of Hill 937 – ‘Hamburger Hill’ https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/24/troops-count-cost-vietnam-hamburger-hill-archive-1969



(2009). From US War Dogs : http://www.uswardogs.org/new_page_18.htm
Between Hitler and Stalin . (n.d.). From UCRDC: http://www.ucrdc.org/HI-SCORCHED_EARTH_POLICY.html
Boyle, R. (1973). GI Revolts The Breakdown of the US Army in Vietnam. From Richard Gibson : http://richgibson.com/girevolts.htm
Col. Robert D. Heinl, J. (1971, June 7). THE COLLAPSE OF THE ARMED FORCES. North American Newspaper Alliance. From https://msuweb.montclair.edu/~furrg/Vietnam/heinl.html
Col. Robert D. Heinl, J. (1971, June 7). THE COLLAPSE OF THE ARMED FORCES. From Montclair University : https://msuweb.montclair.edu/~furrg/Vietnam/heinl.html
Drooling on the Vietnam Vets. (2000, May 2). From Slate : http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/press_box/2000/05/drooling_on_the_vietnam_vets.html
Halloran, R. (1972). 7,000 Arrested in Capital War Protest; 150 Are Hurt as Clashes Disrupt Traffic. From http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/big/0503.html
Turse, N. (2017, September 28 ). The Ken Burns Vietnam War Documentary. From The Intercept: https://theintercept.com/2017/09/28/the-ken-burns-vietnam-war-documentary-glosses-over-devastating-civilian-toll/
United Nations Office of Genocide Prevnetion and The Resposiblity to Protect . (2017). Ethnic Cleansing . From United Nations : http://www.un.org/en/genocideprevention/ethnic-cleansing.html
VVAW. (1977, Apirl ). Vets’ History: Operation “Dewey Canyon III”. From Vietnam Veterans Against the War: http://www.vvaw.org/veteran/article/?id=1656
Woolf, C. (2015, March 26). From the Revolution to Bowe Bergdahl, desertion has a long history in the US. From PRI: https://www.pri.org/stories/2015-03-26/revolution-bowe-bergdahl-desertion-has-long-history-us
Zeiger, D. (Director). (2005 ). Sir!No Sir! [Motion Picture].

Links if need be


Marco Palladino
Senior Completing Under Graduate in Political Science Minor in Sustainability at MU Competition is for the Weak. Jobs are for the sick. Hammers, Nails, One Tool, One Solution. Homo Homini Lupus.



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