Contents: The Sir! No Sir! blog is an information clearing house, drawing on a wide variety of sources, to track the unfolding history of the new GI Movement, and the wars that brought the movement to life.
Where applicable, parallels will be drawn between the new movement and the Vietnam era movement which was the focus of the film Sir! No Sir!
Disclaimer: In accordance with title 17 u.s.c. section 107, this material is distributed without profit for research and educational purposes.
The Sir! No Sir! Blog has no affiliation whatsoever with the originator of this article nor is the Sir! No Sir! Blog endorsed or sponsored by the originator. Links are provided to allow for verification of authenticity.
This article, by Jeremy Schwarz, was posted to the Austin American Statesman, August 15, 2009.
KILLEEN — Past the barber shops advertising $6 military cuts, weapons stores and used car lots, an anti-war coffeehouse occupies a small wooden house on a corner of Texas' biggest Army town. Six months after opening, the Under the Hood cafe has become home to a growing number of veterans and active-duty soldiers who are beginning to question America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Less than a mile from the gates of 53,000-troop Fort Hood, the cafe is a place where soldiers, many of them fresh off of multiple deployments, can swap stories and ideas without fear of retribution, its supporters say.
It has also become a refuge for soldiers who are refusing to deploy — or are thinking about it — including Spc. Victor Agosto, who last week was sentenced to 30 days in jail for refusing an order. Another Fort Hood soldier, Sgt. Travis Bishop, an Iraq veteran who has applied for conscientious objector status, was sentenced Friday to a year in federal prison for refusing to deploy with his unit to Afghanistan.
Not since the heyday of the Oleo Strut coffeehouse, the hub for the anti-war movement in Killeen during the Vietnam War, has such an enterprise thrived here. But unlike its predecessor, which closed in 1972, Under the Hood has for its driving force a newcomer to the peace movement, a 17-year Army wife with no history of activism.
The cafe is run by Cynthia Thomas, a former stay-at-home mom who didn't become politically active until 2007, when her husband, a Fort Hood soldier, was sent on his third deployment to Iraq. Thomas said she was furious about his deployment; she said her husband was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other maladies from a previous tour. When her stepson decided to join the Marines, she said she felt compelled to take a stand against the war.
At first she sought to connect to a group in Killeen. But finding no anti-war organizations in her adopted hometown, she stumbled on Code Pink, a group of anti-war activists from Austin. She became involved with the group and eventually crossed paths with former and current Fort Hood soldiers active in a local chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War.
With help from an original staff member of the Oleo Strut, they hatched the idea of a coffeehouse near the Army post. But making it happen proved harder than Thomas imagined.
"We went through four Realtors and just got stonewalled," Thomas said. "At the end we just said we wanted to do an outreach center, which was true, because if you said a peace house they didn't want anything to do with it."
Despite the initial resistance, Thomas said the response has been positive at the cafe, a homey place lined with couches and a help-yourself coffee bar.
"We've had no negativity from the soldiers that come in," she said. "At first they come in and they're looking around and a little uncomfortable, but then they come back. They feel they can come and talk to the regulars and get that peer support."
Most of the soldiers at Under the Hood are struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder; some are suicidal or self-medicating heavily with alcohol or drugs, Thomas said. The most extreme cases are referred to a counselor in Austin.
Others just need a place to curl up on the couch for a few hours or feel safe from the ridicule they say they would receive in their barracks for talking about their feelings and ideas.
"If you come home and you don't feel anything about (what you've gone through), then there's something wrong with you," said Malachi Muncy, who served two tours in Iraq with the Texas National Guard and is a regular visitor to Under the Hood. "It's helped me get over my issues, mainly by talking with people with the same issues. It's nice to be around other soldiers who aren't going be like, 'Suck it up.' "
Muncy drove a 42-wheel super heavy equipment transporter during his first tour of Iraq in 2004, as U.S. troops began seeing a surge in roadside bombings. "It was a really bad time to be driving a truck," he said.
He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and says he struggled to adjust when he returned. He eventually decided to volunteer for a second deployment.
"I said, 'I don't have to adjust; I can just go back to Iraq,' " he said.
Bobby Whittenberg is another Iraq war veteran who often talks with active-duty soldiers at the coffee shop. A former Marine who now lives in Austin, Whittenberg was shot in Iraq in 2004 and said he faced harassment and ridicule when he sought help for his post-traumatic stress disorder from military officials.
"They were like, 'You're letting your brothers down; you're scared to go back,' " said Whittenberg, a Purple Heart recipient.
After leaving active duty in 2006, Whittenberg moved to San Antonio to be closer to the Veterans Affairs hospital there. He has become something of a mentor to younger soldiers.
"I personally try to challenge them to think for themselves," he said. "They're in a very authoritarian, hierarchical lifestyle where it becomes very difficult to challenge authority."
Several active-duty soldiers at Fort Hood who go to Under the Hood said that despite the Army's efforts to reduce the stigma of post-traumatic stress disorder, soldiers who seek help are still labeled bad apples by some superiors. One soldier, who would not give his name because he feared retribution, said the Army needs to do more to support soldiers when they return from war.
"When you get back, you're released, and it's like, drink as much as you can and party," he said. "No one tells you that just makes you feel more depressed."
In recent years, military officials have sought to place more attention on the mental health of returning soldiers. At Fort Hood, officials have opened a Spiritual Fitness Center, which seeks to help soldiers and their families deal with the stresses of multiple deployments. That's part of a larger Resiliency Campus, which Army officials say will help combat alarming numbers of soldier suicides. And Fort Hood's commander, Lt. Gen. Rick Lynch, has also talked frequently of removing the stigma associated with soldiers seeking mental health help.
But some solders say places like Under the Hood play a vital role.
"I know soldiers who said, 'If I didn't have the coffeehouse, I would have killed myself,' " said James Branum, an attorney who has represented about 20 war resisters around the country.
Bishop, the sergeant who was court-martialed for refusing to deploy, said the coffee shop provided much-needed friendship.
"They support you whether your decision is to deploy or to resist," he said. "People think that it's an anti-military place. That's not true at all. It's incredibly pro-soldier. They are just against these wars."
Under the Hood is among a handful of what supporters hope is a growing number of GI coffeehouses around the country. Similar cafes have opened outside of Fort Lewis in Washington state and Fort Drum in New York.
It's still a far cry from the Vietnam era, when some 20 GI coffeehouses such as the Oleo Strut sprang up near military bases around the country and were credited with crystallizing the GI anti-war movement. The Killeen coffeehouse operated from 1968 to 1972, receiving visitors such as Jane Fonda and a young Stevie Ray Vaughan and producing an underground newspaper, according to Thomas Cleaver, a member of Oleo Strut's original staff who helped Under the Hood get on its feet.
Supporters at Under the Hood say the current conflicts are different: During Vietnam, many soldiers were draftees and more likely to be open in their opposition to the war.
"We know this is a different time and a different war," said Fran Hanlon, an Under the Hood board member from Austin. "We had trepidation (about opening the cafe), but we were also really excited about the potential."
This article, by Forrrest Wilder, was published by the Texas Observer, August 17 2009.
In March, Michael Kern, 22, returned to Fort Hood after a year and a day in Iraq.
Shaken by his experience and disgusted with the war, Kern, a native of Riverside, Calif., tried to readjust by getting as hammered as possible. “Put it this way: For the first month, I was drunk at work, I was drunk 24/7.”
In Iraq the violence had been fast and furious. “We were going through all sorts of bad shit: mortars, IEDs, indirect fire. Anything you can think of we experienced the first day.”
On his second mission, Kern drew the short straw to drive the lead vehicle—a “mine resistant ambush protected” vehicle—in a convoy looking for a weapons cache near Baghdad. An IED exploded next to his vehicle, damaging his door. The platoon pulled back to base. The next day, April 7, on an identical mission, insurgents came after his unit with AK-47s, machine guns and IEDs. During the nine-hour firefight, a sniper killed Kern’s buddy, Sgt. Richard A. Vaughn. Two others, including Kern’s lieutenant, were seriously injured.
Kern tells me his story over two days in July at Under the Hood Café, a new GI coffeehouse and soldier-outreach center that opened in February. Since mid-May, when a drunken Kern first dropped in, Under the Hood has become his second home. While awaiting a medical discharge for PTSD and traumatic brain injury, he’s here almost every day, working out what happened to him in Iraq, planning anti-war events and helping other soldiers come to terms with their combat experiences. The coffeehouse provides a support network, friends who’ve helped him quit drinking, people he can call on day or night, and provides what Kern appreciated most about the military: a sense of camaraderie.
“If it wasn’t for this place, it’s sad to say, I feel like I would be dead. I feel like I would have killed myself,” Kern says.
Under the Hood is a rifle shot from the east gates of Fort Hood in a grim commercial zone of tattoo parlors, pawnshops, car lots, payday lenders, bars, strip clubs, and a place advertising “gold grillz” for teeth—establishments eager to drain young soldiers of their earnings. In this garrison town, the café has become a gathering place for dissident GIs, peace activists, veterans and active-duty soldiers who need help.
Inside, the walls are decorated with peace propaganda, including a map of the world pinpointing U.S. military interventions and a poster that reads, “You Can’t Be All that You Can Be if You’re Dead.” A bookcase is stocked with anti-war literature. For entertainment, there’s a dartboard, a foosball table and a big-screen TV with PlayStation. No alcohol is allowed, but there’s no shortage of cigarette smoke.
I came here to suss out efforts to build an anti-war movement within the Army. Fort Hood, the largest military installation in the country, has produced a smattering of war resisters in recent years. I met some of them at the coffeehouse, including Victor Agosto, an Iraq War veteran who refuses to deploy to Afghanistan, and Casey Porter, a mechanic who did two tours in Iraq. Porter, preparing to attend film school in Florida, recorded local life in Iraq, posting interviews with military personnel, battle footage and unvarnished street scenes.
Over the past four years, I’ve come into contact with scores of military personnel through my involvement with the Austin GI Rights Hotline, a group of volunteers trained to counsel service members about their rights.
Once a week, I sit on my couch and talk on the phone to soldiers, Marines and airmen who call with a dizzying array of issues, from the mundane to the impossibly complex. Many are stationed at Fort Hood. We get AWOL cases, people with untreated PTSD, 18-year-old enlistees who’ve found out their recruiter lied to them, middle-aged soldiers who’ve been stop-lossed, moms and dads calling on behalf of their kids, gay officers who’ve been outed—you name it. Some have made poor decisions; others are victims of a sometimes capricious, even cruel military system.
I got into it through my girlfriend. Katherine was in the news some years ago for being the first female conscientious objector to emerge from the war in Afghanistan. The military refused to recognize her as a conscientious objector, and after a long and painful process she was court-martialed and sentenced to 120 days in the brig. She ate lunch every day with Lynndie England, the young West Virginia woman best known for holding the leash in the infamous Abu Ghraib photos.
Joeie Michaels, Michael Kern’s roommate and an Under the Hood regular, used to dance at Babes, a Killeen strip club popular with GIs. Performing there, she made sure the troops left with a flier for the coffeehouse.
Under the Hood’s signal event was a Memorial Day peace march in the streets of Killeen, the city’s first since Vietnam. The Killeen newspaper reported about 70 participants. Cindy Thomas, the military spouse who manages the coffeehouse and plays den mother to the young, often-raucous soldiers, estimates about 10 to 15 were locals, including veterans and active-duty soldiers.
“It’s like a mother with a child,” Thomas says. “It’s unconditional love, and we help them any way we can.”
The building housing Under the Hood’s local antecedent, the Killeen coffeehouse Oleo Strut, is a few blocks away; it now houses an office complex. The Oleo Strut had a four-year run from 1968 to 1972, according to a history on Under the Hood’s Web site. Run by civilians and veterans, the Oleo Strut plugged Fort Hood soldiers into the Vietnam anti-war movement and spread their ideas in the barracks. An underground newspaper circulated from the coffeehouse, and the crowd there organized demonstrations and teach-ins. Musicians passed through, purportedly including a young Stevie Ray Vaughan.
“The tinder was very dry,” says Tom Cleaver, an Oleo Strut alum, Vietnam veteran and Hollywood screenwriter who helped raise money to start Under the Hood. “They ended up in ’69 and ’70 having big demonstrations there, a thousand guys marching in Killeen against the war.”
Fort Hood at that time was a holding station for soldiers returning from Vietnam with less than six months left on their enlistments. Before being discharged, many were deployed to suppress domestic riots and protests, including those at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
“Here they come back to America, and what does the Army want them to do?” Cleaver asks. “Fight a war in America. That radicalized a lot of guys. They came back with bad feelings about the war, and now they were supposed to go defend the war.”
There’s no draft now, nor is there a broader social counterculture, to tap into. Given that, Thomas says, one of Under the Hood’s primary functions is giving soldiers a place to speak openly.
“The military, they don’t want you to think for yourself,” Thomas says. “They don’t want you to be informed; they don’t want you to know that you have support because they function by fear and intimidation over these soldiers. So when you have a space where you can talk freely and find out what your rights are, you have that support, you have that kindness. It is a threat to them.”
One coffeehouse regular, Spc. Ben Fugate, told me that after his commander spotted his name in a Killeen Daily Herald article about the Memorial Day peace march, his unit was lectured for two hours on the dangers of protesting.
Fugate, who describes himself as “very conservative,” had been quoted in the paper saying, “I lost three buddies in my platoon in Iraq, and for what? Why lose more when we don’t have to?”
Kern, seated on a couch in a cozy back room at Under the Hood, explains how he became a coffeehouse fixture. It’s a Thursday in July, and he’s wearing a T-shirt that asks, “Got Rights?” He’s pale and swallowing tranquilizers to suppress panic attacks.
“I’m fucked up,” he says. “I know it.” Later, he says, “You know how they say a teenage boy thinks about sex every eight seconds. Every eight seconds I think about Iraq.”
Kern, a tanker, says his unit averaged about two and a half missions per day.
At first, Kern says, he was gung ho: “I was an excellent soldier. I took joy out of killing people in Iraq. It was such an adrenaline rush. I craved it.”
Over time, bravado faded into depression, guilt and a strong feeling that the war was wrong. When Kern deployed to Iraq he took a small handheld digital video camera and a laptop with editing software. He fixed the camera to his vehicle’s turret and captured hours of patrol footage.
Some of that raw video has been distilled to a 10-minute film called Fire Mission that’s available online.
In the film’s last minutes, Spc. Steven Pesicka, a soldier in Kern’s unit, narrates what he calls a “mortar mission for shock and awe” near an Iraqi village. The first mortar lands near a house, and the forward observer calls for the next one to be targeted 200 meters farther from the village. The mortar team thought that was too far away, Pesicka says. The film shows the second mortar hitting the town. “Oh fuck,” the forward observer is heard to say. “They did not drop 200 [meters], over. They hit the town.”
Minutes after the explosion, the soldier describes dead bodies being loaded into the back of trucks.
Such experiences led Kern to a radical form of empathy.
“If you just take a step back and you think, I mean, I’d be doing the same thing if Iraqis were in the United States,” Kern, dressed in battle fatigues, says in Fire Mission. “I’d be the dude trying to plant a bomb under the road. I’d be trying to kill them. Oh, hell yeah, get the fuck out of my country.”
Beginning in May or June, Kern started having nightmares, sometimes while he was awake. On several occasions he hallucinated an Iraqi child with half his skull missing, as real to him as the desert heat. His psychiatrist says the child might represent guilt, but all Kern knows is that it scared the shit out of him. In January, on his birthday, while his unit was on patrol, he told a commander—in confidence—that he was going to see a mental health specialist. The doctor prescribed Zoloft and sent him on his way. Back with his platoon, Kern discovered that the commander had ratted him out to his platoon sergeant.
“I was called out in front of the entire platoon, was made an example of, saying why are you going to mental health. This isn’t a war. This isn’t bad.” The next day, on a mission, Kern talked openly of suicide. “Still to this day, my buddy doesn’t know he talked me down, but I really wanted to kill myself on that mission. I had three loaded weapons sitting right next to me. I could have done it real easy.”
Back home, Kern avoided his demons, drowning them in drink. Thomas and Michaels encouraged Kern to open up.
“They’d be like, ‘How was Iraq?’ I’d say ‘Oh, it was just Iraq.’ I kept brushing it aside and stuff. They kept telling me, ‘You’re gonna break, you’re gonna break. You need to get help.’ ” Kern relented.
Michaels found a psychiatrist in Austin whom Kern has been seeing twice a week for free. In May he visited Fort Hood’s mental health services office, but was told he’d have to wait six weeks to see a doctor.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi child had followed Kern back to Texas. On the first of June, Kern was in the bathroom at Under the Hood when the child made an appearance. Afterward, Thomas and Michaels found Kern sitting outside under a tree. “The look on his face was just empty. His eyes were hollow,” Thomas says. Kern entered the 12-bed psychiatric ward at Fort Hood’s military hospital. He spent the next week there, emerging with a diagnosis of PTSD and traumatic brain injury. Doctors put him on five medications, including tranquilizers, antidepressants and antipsychotics, which he carries in a small orange pillbox.
A week after being released, Kern started a blog, “Expendable Soldier.” In his first post he wrote, “I still hate myself and everything I do. No matter what I am doing any day of the week I some how am still reminded of the things I did while I was in Iraq, and sometimes it gets so bad that I believe I am still in Iraq. ... Sometimes I wish I never came back.”
Still, Kern reports for duty at the coffeehouse every day. He’s working on restarting an Iraq Veterans Against the War chapter in Killeen and talking to other soldiers about the coffeehouse. Does he feel like he’s become part of an anti-war movement? “I am part of an anti-war movement,” he says. “There’s no ‘feeling’ about it.”
This article, by Rebecca LaFlure, was published by the Killeen Daily Herald, February 6, 2009
As an Army wife of 17 years, Cindy Thomas struggled through her husband's three deployments to Iraq. The second tour of duty left him close to death with a brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, collapsed lungs and multiple fractures in his spine and pelvis.
But it was not until her stepson, then 19 years old, called to say he was joining the Marines in 2007 that she felt compelled to vehemently protest the ongoing wars in the Middle East and work to improve the lives of soldiers and their families.
"It was at that moment when I thought, 'I have to do something, we have to do something,'" Thomas said. "It's our children who will be fighting in these wars."
Since April 2008, Thomas has devoted her time, thoughts and passion to opening Under the Hood Café, a local outreach center for active duty military personnel, veterans, family members and friends to support and console each other about their daily struggles.
The café house is located at 17 College St. in Killeen.
Thomas said the refuge, scheduled to open Saturday, will be a "free speaking zone" to discuss difficult issues such as the death of a friend or family member overseas, spouses and children coping with the absence of their loved ones during multiple deployments or perhaps a guilty conscience for fighting in a war that increasingly more soldiers no longer believe in.
"A lot of people want to hear the hero story. We don't want to hear that they're hurt because it hurts us," Thomas said. "I did that for a very long time. ... When I started searching for the truth, going online, looking at videos that no one wants to see, it becomes so much harder to live on a daily basis knowing that this is happening, and you're not doing anything about it."
Spirit of the Oleo Strut
Created in the spirit of the Oleo Strut, a GI coffee house that operated in Killeen during the Vietnam War, the Under the Hood concept was first developed in March 2008 when Tom Cleaver, a Vietnam veteran from Los Angeles and former Oleo Strut staff member, noticed a Fort Hood soldier's story online.
The soldier's name was Bryan Hannah, a young cannon crew member who had recently returned from a 15-month tour of duty in Iraq. Hannah was struggling with suicidal thoughts and an overwhelming guilt for fighting in, what he believed to be, a never-ending and unjustified war.
Hannah said he felt alone and largely ignored by the on-post mental health resources.
"I was going through a hard time, not just because of my PTSD, but I didn't know what to do," Hannah said. "I knew this war was wrong, but I had no one to tell me that it's OK to not support the war and be in. I didn't have anyone to comfort me. Home was 1,800 miles away in Michigan."
As a way to vent his frustrations, Hannah kept a candid online blog chronicling his experiences in the military. One particularly powerful entry was published in the GI Special, a widely circulated independent e-newsletter covering the Iraq war from the perspective of the troops and their family members.
Cleaver, an avid GI Special reader, noticed Hannah was stationed at Fort Hood, and contacted the soldier. The two began corresponding by e-mail.
Hannah was honorably discharged from the Army in November, and is now attending college in Austin. He wants to be a history teacher.
According to Cleaver, Hannah and several other Fort Hood soldiers wanted to organize a modern-day Oleo Strut for a long time, but they didn't know how to turn the idea into reality.
With Cleaver's connections and fundraising abilities, he and the Fort Hood chapter of the Iraq Veterans Against the War, began to organize the project.
In April, Thomas was asked to help execute their vision.
"We have counseling services on post obviously, but when you're sitting around and hanging out, it's more relaxing and natural, and you feel more comfortable asking for help," Thomas said. "The concept of it is having that place they can come and not only support each other and help each other out, but maybe even advocate for each other."
Thomas said the house will have a kitchen with coffee and snacks, a break room, a pool table, a big-screen television, a jukebox and multiple couches and tables, all funded by donations.
Though a peace activist herself, Thomas stressed the café is open to people of all ideologies.
Thomas said she is prepared for some public backlash, but her goal is to provide an inclusive environment for military community members to share their stories.
"They might not like what some of us or some of the soldiers have to say because everybody's experience is different. If you experienced ... reconstruction and helping the community, then great, that's absolutely great. But not every soldier did," she said. "There are others with difficult stories, and the difficult choices they had to make. They have a right to be heard. If you want to support them, hear them. Just let them have their voice."
For more information on Under the Hood Café or to read about the history of the Oleo Strut from someone who was there, go to www.underthehoodcafe.org.
This interview, with david Zeiger, was originally posted by James R., to Indymedia Ireland, March 21 2008
Some weeks ago, with last weekend's Winter Soldier event on the horizon, I talked to David Zeiger, through the freebie magic of Skype. He's the directer of the documentary Sir, No Sir. It's a Displaced Films and BBC production that came out about two years ago, and focused on the GI movement to end the war in Vietnam.
It consists in part, of interviews with veterans explaining why they resisted the war, and in some cases went as far as to defect. Hundreds went to prison and thousands into exile, by 1971 it was a movement that in the words of one colonel had “infested the entire armed services” - yet few people today are aware of this soldiers movement against the war in Vietnam.
The film was completed in 2005 winning both the audience award at the LA Film Festival and the Starfish award for best documentary. I interviewed David for some context on the current movement of war resisters, he also spoke about unmaking Hollywood legends around Vietnam and the process of radical news making. Here you can read the transcript of our talk or listen to the full audio, vocal ticks and clicks galore at the link below.
How did you get in touch with that older generation of dissident troops that you talked to in the movie?
Well I was involved with a lot of them back during the Vietnam war. I wasn't a Veteran but I was a civilian supporter of the GI movement. I worked for about three years in a little town in Texas, just outside of Fort Hood, in a coffee house. That was part of a network of coffee houses that helped support soldiers who were organizing against the Vietnam war. To give them legal advice and to help with printing and that sort of stuff. So I knew a lot of these guys and when I decided to make the film I started with the people I knew and just kept going deeper and deeper - just trying to track down a lot of people I knew existed, but didn't know exactly where they were.
So you were involved in running a cafe called the Oleo Strut?
Yeah, we profile it in the film, yes this was part of a network of coffee houses that were set up in the US and actually overseas a lot in Germany and in Asia. These were staffed by Veterans and civilians who were supporting the soldiers who were organising against war and against racism in the military and that kind of stuff. So this was a story that I was very familiar with but over the last 30 or 35 years the story of what had happened in the military really got sort of buried and a lot of the guys had just gone back into their lives.
You do describe on the film posters by-line, that this is the “suppressed story of the GI movement to end the war in Vietnam.” Can you give me some sort of idea of just how far off mainstream agendas this movement has been and I guess how the documentary has placed it back into the centre of how we can imagine an anti-war movement? Where does this conservative revisionism around Vietnam come from? Do you think the contemporary anti-war movement has lost a sense of the role of soldiers as participants in such movements?
Well absolutely. This story was deeply buried after the war, for a variety of reasons. I mean, first of all, just to give you some sort of perspective, the movement inside the military against the war had become so widespread that the military, essentially not that they had given into it, but they had no real choice but to pull troops out of Vietnam and to try and make real changes. They did a survey in 1971 that showed that over half the soldiers in the military had engaged in some sort of protesting against the war. And it was very public, it was very out there and it was covered in the media. There were huge events and there were mutinies.
And after the war, for one thing and for the people who had been involved in it and for the anti-war movement and everything there was kind of several years of people just wanting to move on. So it opened up the field to a lot of revisionism about what had happened. Starting in particular under the Reagan administration, the reality of what had gone on in the military was replaced with a string of films from Hollywood that presented the war as being loyal soldiers who came home and were betrayed by the American people who had opposed the war, who had turned their backs on the soldiers. And turning your back on the war and opposing the war, got turned into turning your back on and betraying the soldiers.
There were over 200 films made since Vietnam about the war and none of them, until my film ever said a word...except for another one that was suppressed at the time...ever said a word about opposition inside the military. There was some stuff about veterans, but nothing about the organizing inside the military. So this thing was... and you know the idea that replaced it was the myth that was so wide spread in this country the past ten years, that soldiers came home and anti-war activists and hippies were waiting at the airport and spat at them and you know, threw stuff at them. The fact is that none of this is true. There was never a verifiable incident of something like that actually happening.
But it became so widespread, that I think its safe to say that most people in the anti-war movement today in this country, believe that during Vietnam the soldiers were betrayed by the anti-war movement. It has a big chilling effect. It gives the idea that if you are too active against the war, or if you accuse the war of being genocidal or targeting civilians you are by definition, targeting or vilifying the soldiers. None of that is true and bringing out that, in fact, this is not what happened during Vietnam has a big impact on how soldiers look at what is going on and how a lot of civilians see it.”
So you've talked about the Rambo effect, the troop returns home and gets rejected by civilian society – have you seen any of the recent Hollywood films on Iraq and are they dealing with it in a manner different to how film dealt with the Vietnam conflict?
I've seen a lot of the films that have come out. I think in the documentary world there's been more of an attempt to honestly get at the reality of what is happening on the ground. There's From the Ground Truth and some other films that are trying to get at the opposition that is growing inside the military. One film, of the ones that's started coming out of Hollywood...I've not seen Redacto, but I've heard its a very powerful movie that does portray how American troops have just essentially been unleashed on the people and the kind of atrocities that it can create.
The tendency in Hollywood and just in general is still, that in this country the focus is so deeply on American service men. The issue everyone wants to deal with is “what effect is this war having on our troops?” So much of the horrendous nature of the war, in terms of the hundreds of thousands of civilians killed, the occupation, the brutality – all of that, gets buried under the question that keeps getting put on the agenda here, which is: “is this hurting American troops?” Which I think again is a result of the pretty successful propaganda campaign that went on about Vietnam in the eighties and the nineties.
Several people in my film point out the Vietnam war was not about the American troops, it was about what was going on in Vietnam and what the US was doing in Vietnam. I think that's true of Iraq. The Iraq war is not about the American troops, it is about the US invading and occupying a country and it's interesting how things get kind of twisted around here.”
The GI movement against the Vietnam war probably gets more recognition within the military than outside of it, in the sense that people speak of the Powell doctrine and the creation of an all volunteer army as a consequence of the belief that the draft allowed a series mutinous movement to cohere within the military. But is it possible to speak of an economic draft today and how do you think the GI movement may have revolutionized the military itself?
Well I think the interesting thing is that, in a lot of ways eliminating the draft more spoke to the civilian movement than the GI movement because you know the draft became a real focus of the student movement and it sparked a lot more widespread protest I think than they wanted. Inside the military, although the draft had a big role in the movement, really the what sparked it and drove it was volunteers. People who had gone into the military, thinking they were doing the right thing, going to defend America just as their uncle did in Korea and their father did in World War Two, and their grand-father did in World War One. How much of that is a mythology is another question.
But there was a sense of betrayal among the troops, and really the troops that felt most betrayed were the ones that had volunteered. In many ways that kind of speaks to today and the fact that there is an all volunteer army, and a lot of it is an economic draft – there is a very high level of desertion going on right now, which is both political and an expression of “this is not what I joined the military for.” The politics of soldiers seeing that they've been lied to, that they were told that we are going over there to defend democracy, going over there to help the people of Iraq, just as they said about Vietnam, and seeing that this is not at all what is going on. That betrayal is what causes the turmoil in the military rather than people being press ganged into it.
So I think there are a lot of changes. The military did a lot to defuse the potential for a GI movement again, they've been doing that for a long time, and its not just the draft. They try and make the military more appealing. They put McDonald's at the bases and do little stuff, to make it feel more like home weirdly enough. They also try to create a stronger sense of unity among the troops, that you are there fighting for your buddies, you may not be fighting for America, but you are fighting for your buddies to try undercut the opposition inside But the reality is the reality and I think that is what is driving a lot of soldiers to deeply question and oppose the war today.”
In the movie you highlight that there were 300 underground newspapers, and that really testifies to what a remarkable network the antiwar GI movement was. How was this done under the very nose of the command structure, there must have been an awful lot of work involved? Do you think the internet could be put to a similar use today? I mean producing a newspaper is a lot harder than producing a website say. Do you see any echoes of that?
Well its interesting. The underground newspapers in the military were a fascinating and interesting kind of thing. They were considered to be illegal by the military. Especially when they first started coming out in '68 and '69. There were all kinds of attempts by the military to court martial people who were putting them out, to court martial people who were distributing them. Both for the actual charge of subverting the military and for trumped up charges, drugs and that sort of thing.
But it became so wide spread and people were so creative in how they were getting them out and getting them on bases, that eventually the military really couldn't do anything about it. I think it was around 1970 or 1971, there was a memo sent out by the Pentagon outlining what was acceptable and what wasn't acceptable – essentially accepting the existence of these papers and trying to control them without outright suppressing them as they had been doing in the early part of the war.
And the difference, its a funny thing the Internet. The GI newspapers created a lot of a sense of a community of opposition and it was great. And that was this physical, tactile kind of thing. Centering around this newspaper, guys would get together and you'd have to write the articles, you'd have to figure out how to paste it up, how to get it printed and fhow to get it distributed, and all that kind of thing.
The Internet on one hand eliminates the need for all that stuff because you can create your blogs and do whatever you can to get your stuff up there, and you are instantly in contact with the world. But on the other hand there's this isolation to it because everyone is sitting at their terminal doing this. So far it hasn't at least helped build that sense of an actual community of opposition. I think it is in a certain sense, but not in the sense of the physical opposition that it is going to take to really do something about the war. So I don't know, it's both a boon and a curse in some ways.
I guess thats' an interesting question to end an interview for a website like Indymedia, so thanks for that.