Book Review: Supporting the Troops Who Work Against War

Waging Peace in Vietnam: U.S. Soldiers and Veterans Who Opposed the War Edited by Ron Carver, David Cortright, and Barbara Doherty

New Village Press, 2019; distributed by NYU Press

How can we end America’s endless wars? Active duty soldiers from the Vietnam era offer a clue: refuse to fight, individually and together. Spread the word, build the rebellion. Don’t stop till the war simply can’t go on.

That’s the message of Waging Peace in Vietnam: U.S. Soldiers and Veterans Who Opposed the War. It’s a blizzard of messages, really, from a dizzying array of personal angles, situations and political positions. Everything from conscientious objection, union organizing, setting up support centers (“Coffee Houses”) near military bases, publishing anti-war newspapers for soldiers and sailors, dropping thousands of anti-war leaflets from the air over large military bases, mutinies in combat zones, fragging, disabling war ships and aircraft, going into exile, and more – including taking their stories into high schools, churches and colleges across the country.

The Vietnam era saw the biggest and most effective resistance among soldiers and sailors of any U.S. war before or since. It was big enough to grind the war machine to a halt – after the Vietnamese national liberation forces had proved they couldn’t be beaten.

But it wasn’t just that war, and it has been both active duty people and veterans. Today Veterans for Peace (VFP), which emerged from the Vietnam-era resistance, incorporates and supports Iraq and Afghanistan soldiers and veterans. Their stories are part of Waging Peace, too.

The book is crammed with testimony of individual bravery and reckless heroism: soldiers defying their commanders both in combat situations, on-base and inside military stockades, where only their fearlessness and off-base solidarity could make resistance possible. The temper of the times was a key factor: the massive civilian anti-war movement, eloquent civil rights leadership, and the rebellions in black communities in cities across the country combined to inspire defiance and courage in troops who had already become “fed up” from their horrifying combat experience in Vietnam.

This underscores a key lesson for today: a mass movement for change – against war, racism, and all the evils of capitalism – fosters the support system the soldiers and sailors need and respond to.

Today’s political climate may not seem so conducive to resistance, at least on the surface. Trump has tried to make it seem too dangerous, perhaps most infamously when he fantasized about what the United States did to resisters in the past:  “Bang. Twenty years ago it was bang.” The last person executed for desertion was in 1945, and, as usual, Trump is wrong about recent history. In Vietnam, resisters showed they could stop endless wars.

Waging Peace is just the latest in a growing series of powerful books and other media about resistance in the U.S. military ranks. Co-editor David Cortright wrote Soldiers in Revolt: GI Resistance During the Vietnam War, considered the definitive history of Vietnam-era GI resistance. The 2005 film Sir! No Sir! dramatically documents the breadth and depth of the rebellion, as well as the heroic support provided by Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland, and other celebrities.

Other valuable sources include DSA member Stan Goff’s Full Spectrum Disorder: The Military in the New American Century, which powerfully exposes “special forces” operations in Somalia (“Black Hawk Down”), Panama, Haiti, and Colombia’s so-called war on drugs; Turn the Guns Around, by John Catalinotto, which details the history of the Vietnam-era American Servicemen’s Union; and the amazing online “Podcast” series by Courage to Resist, featuring the voices and transcripts of testimony by dozens of resisters. 

Many of these resisters are available to speak at events around the country. A Waging Peace exhibit is or has been on display in many places here and abroad – including in the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, as well as in bookstores and on college campuses. (For info, go to https://wagingpeaceinvietnam.com/contact.)