From grumbling to fragging

Jim Moody recalls how resistance to the Vietnam War grew in the US armed forces

The current discontent expressed with the armed forces - witness the grumblings expressed on such soldiers’ websites as British Army Rumour Service (ARRSE) - is on a comparatively low level. But the Vietnam war reminds us that discontent can rapidly escalate.

As the unpopularity of the conflict in South East Asia increased, this was reflected in opposition that escalated into acts of mutiny carried out by the men and women serving in the US armed forces. They organised themselves, published papers, sabotaged, shirked and fragged (ie, killed their officers).

Resistance to the US military from within started out modestly through individual acts of courage. Exemplars were the Fort Hood Three (Dennis Mora, David Samas and James Johnson), who refused to be shipped out to Vietnam in 1966. Their joint press statement said:

“Our officers just talk about five and 10 more years of war with at least half a million of our boys thrown into the grinder. We have been told that many times we may face a Vietnamese woman or child and that we will have to kill them. We will never go there - to do that ... We have made our decision. We will not be a part of this unjust, immoral and illegal war ... We refuse to go to Vietnam!” (FHT Defense Committee The Fort Hood Three New York 1966). They were each given three years hard labour.

Captain Howard Levy MD was court-martialled in May 1967 for refusing to train Green Berets; hundreds of GIs showed their support every day he walked to court. He spent three years in prison. Decorated captain Dale Noyd refused to give flying instructions to prospective bombing pilots and received a one-year prison sentence. Marines William Harvey and George Daniels were sentenced to six years (for using “disloyal words”) and 10 years (for “causing insubordination and disloyalty”) hard labour respectively. Harvey’s and Daniels’ real crime was questioning the Vietnam war in discussions with other black recruits.

US navy nurse Susan Schnall helped organise the dropping of 20,000 leaflets announcing the GI and veterans’ March for Peace in San Francisco over military bases using light planes. She was sentenced to six months’ hard labour for “impairing morale of the troops by dropping leaflets publicising the GI march ... and disobeying a direct order not to wear her uniform in the march”.

In 1968 matters changed qualitatively. Vietnamese liberation forces seized the initiative during that spring’s Tet Offensive: their obvious widespread support showed GIs and WACs (members of the Women’s Army Corps) the real nature of the war. In the USA, thousands went absent without leave (awol), many gravitating to San Francisco. Initially, those who protested and organised, let alone those who deserted, were treated harshly by the military top brass. With the growth in the civilian movement against the war, this changed. In a glare of publicity, for example, nine servicemen (the Nine For Peace) were arrested by military police while chained together in a church. Their courts martial for desertion merely led to their discharge.

San Francisco’s Presidio stockade (military prison) hosted a steadily growing stream of military inmates. When a guard killed a prisoner there in October 1968, 27 of his comrades tore the place apart, then sat down and sang, ‘We shall overcome’: they were charged with capital offences under the Mutiny Act. Randy Rowland, a military activist who surrendered on an awol rap to get inside the Presidio, reported: “We knew the penalty for mutiny was death, but in a wildly elated way we didn’t care. We were going up against the motherfuckers, we were taking our stand. They brought firemen up to squirt us with their hoses, but the firemen refused to do it.”

He continued: “The Presidio 27 mutiny was one of the early big acts of resistance in the military. By 1971, even by Pentagon admission, the US army had degenerated to the point where it was unreliable. GIs had decided that it wasn’t our war and no amount of oppression could crush our movement” (www.vvawai.org/sw/sw31/pgs_35-44/presidio_mutiny.html). By early 1969, the Free the Presidio 27 movement had made so much headway that instead of serving their 14- to 16-year jail sentences they were all released.

Numerous anti-war coffee houses for armed forces men and women opened near military bases. The underground armed forces press flourished; its titles included As You Were, Harass the Brass, All Hands Abandon Ship, Star Spangled Bummer, A Four Year Bummer, The Ally, Attitude Check, Task Force, Gigline, The Bond, Counterpoint, Last Harass, Fed Up, and Open Sights. By 1972 there were around 300 anti-war papers circulating within the armed forces. Thousands of GIs were involved in creating and clandestinely distributing these publications to their many tens of thousands of readers. The military pursued Gypsy Peterson, editor of Fatigue Press, but after being arrested he was cleared of all charges.

Officers were losing control over soldiers’ minds. More and more incidents of outright rebellion were reported by the GIs’ own papers. In 1968, rebellion broke out at the US marine brig at Danang and at the US army stockade at Longbinh (familiarly known as LBJ), which was largely burnt down after being held by the rebels for a month. In 1969 there were rebellions at military prisons in Fort Dix, Fort Jackson, Fort Riley and Camp Pendleton. At Heidelberg University on July 4 1970 a thousand GIs held a meeting to discuss the war in Vietnam, US military and economic activities around the globe and racism in the military. Firebombs went off inside the US base at Nellingen; 100 black and white GIs defied orders and marched through the base shouting ‘Revolution!’ and ‘Join us!’

“In early 1969 the 196th Light Infantry Brigade [over 3,000 men] publicly sat down on the battlefield and refused orders to move out. Later that year a rifle company from the 1st Air Cay refused on CBS-TV to advance down a dangerous trail. Troops refused to cross the border into Cambodia during the invasion of May 1970. During the Laos invasion, February 1971, Troop B of the 1st Cav refused to recapture their captain’s command vehicle containing secret operation orders” (GI Revolt 1970).

Military personnel were not happy they were denied the freedoms of other citizens: “The underground peace movement among GIs is gaining ground ... an antiwar group called GIs United Against the War in Vietnam is suing the army in an attempt to gain the same right to protest as civilians” (About Face No2).

“On November 9 1969, the GI press service placed in the New York Times an ad signed by 1,365 active-duty servicemen-women. The ad announced the GIs’/WACs’ support for the November 15 demonstrations in Washington and San Francisco and called for the immediate withdrawal of all American troops from Vietnam” (Left Face Vol 2, No1).

Summing it all up in a quasi-official officers’ journal in 1971, marine colonel Robert D Heinl Jr wrote: “By every conceivable indicator, our army that remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and non-commissioned officers, drug-ridden and dispirited, where not near mutinous.”

“‘Frag incidents’ or just ‘fragging’ is current soldier slang in Vietnam for the murder or attempted murder of strict, unpopular or just aggressive officers and NCOs ... the Pentagon has now disclosed that fraggings in 1970 have more than doubled those of the previous year. Word of the deaths of officers will bring cheers at troop movies or in bivouacs of certain units. In one such division - the morale-plagued Americal - fraggings during 1971 have been authoritatively estimated to be running about one a week” (‘The collapse of the armed services’ Armed Forces Journal June 7 1971).

The desertion rate was rocketing: it rose from 1.47% in 1966, to 2.62% in 1968, to 5.23% in 1970. A GI went awol every three minutes. In the five years to January 1972, 354,112 GIs left their posts without permission. A year later, as the peace accords ending the Vietnam war were being signed in Paris, 98,324 were still missing.