The U.S. military in Vietnam was at the edge of chaos, according to a study by Colonel Robert D. Heinl, Jr., author of the "definitive history of the Marine Corps," published in Armed Forces Journal
in 1971. As Colonel Heinl put it, the military was experiencing "widespread conditions...that have only been exceeded in this century by the French Army's Nivelle mutinies of 1917 and the collapse of the Tsarist armies [of Russia] in 1916 and 1917." This, in effect, is what led to the creation of the "All Volunteer Force," so as to avoid the draft, which played a critical role in fomenting what was to become a large, organized, and extremely powerful GI resistance movement.
During the Vietnam era of U.S. foreign policy, statistics flowing back to Washington about the American war machine in Vietnam then pointed toward an unimaginable nightmare. Drug use was rampant; desertions stood at 70 per 1,000, a modern high; small-scale mutinies or "combat refusals" were at critical, if untabulated, levels; incidents of racial conflict had soared; and strife between "lifers" and draftees was at unprecedented levels. Reported "fraggings" — assassination attempts — against unpopular officers or NCOs had risen from 126 in 1969 to 333 in 1971, despite declining troop strength in Vietnam. According to Colonel Heinl's figures, as many as 144 antiwar underground newspapers were being published by, or for, soldiers. And most threatening of all, active duty soldiers in relatively small numbers (as well as a swelling number of Vietnam veterans) were beginning to actively organize against the war.
Thus, in January 1973, before the war was over, President Richard Nixon announced that an American draft army was at an end and an all-volunteer force would be created. The U.S. military had realized it was not possible to fight an endless, unpopular counterinsurgency war with the kind of conscript army a democracy had to offer. Thus, the all-volunteer force was created to avoid another GI resistance movement similar to that which helped end U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
Today the U.S. finds itself in two seemingly unending occupations. With veterans not being given healthcare they need upon their return, redeployment becoming increasingly common, and a stop-loss policy that continues to lower morale among troops, GI resistance is once again on the rise, and that is what this book is about.
Examples of various forms of GI resistance are once again becoming commonplace.
On May 1st at Fort Hood in central Texas, Specialist Victor Agosto wrote on a counseling statement, which is actually a punitive U.S. Army memo: "There is no way I will deploy to Afghanistan. The occupation is immoral and unjust. It does not make the American people any safer. It has the opposite effect."
Ten days later, he refused to obey a direct order from his company commander to prepare to deploy and was issued a second counseling statement. On that one he wrote, "I will not obey any orders I deem to be immoral or illegal." Shortly thereafter, he told a reporter, "I'm not willing to participate in this occupation, knowing it is completely wrong. It's a matter of what I'm willing to live with."
Agosto had already served in Iraq for 13 months with the 57th Expeditionary Signal Battalion. At the time, while still on active duty at Fort Hood, he admitted,
It was in Iraq that I turned against the occupations. I started to feel very guilty. I watched contractors making obscene amounts of money. I found no evidence that the occupation was in any way helping the people of Iraq. I know I contributed to death and human suffering. It's hard to quantify how much I caused, but I know I contributed to it.
Even though he was approaching the end of his military service, Agosto was ordered to deploy to Afghanistan under the stop-loss program that the Department of Defense uses to retain soldiers beyond the term of their contracts. At least 185,000 troops have been stop-lossed since September 11, 2001.
Agosto betrayed no ambivalence about his willingness to face the consequences of his actions:
Yes, I'm fully prepared for this. I have concluded that the wars [in Iraq and Afghanistan] are not going to be ended by politicians or people at the top. They're not responsive to people, they're responsive to corporate America. The only way to make them responsive to the needs of the people is for soldiers to not fight their wars. If soldiers won't fight their wars, the wars won't happen. I hope I'm setting an example for other soldiers.
Today, Agosto's act is becoming less isolated in an all-volunteer military built to avoid the dissent that, in the Vietnam era, came to be associated with an army of draftees. His is an example that is beginning to have far greater meaning for an increasingly overstretched military plunging into an expanding Afghan War seemingly without end, even as its war in Iraq continues.
Agosto was court martialed and sentenced to one month in a county jail. He is now free. One week after his court martial, another soldier from his base, Sergeant Travis Bishop, was also court martialed for refusing to deploy to Afghanistan.
These recent examples, however, are the continuation of a thread of resistance that has been ongoing, and growing slowly but surely, since nearly the beginning of the occupation of Iraq.
In October 2007, for instance, I interviewed Corporal Phil Aliff, an Iraq War veteran, then based at Fort Drum in upstate New York. He recalled:
During my stints in Iraq between August 2005 and July 2006, we probably ran 300 patrols. Most of the men in my platoon were just in from combat tours in Afghanistan and morale was incredibly low. Recurring hits by roadside bombs had demoralized us and we realized the only way we could avoid being blown up was to stop driving around all the time. So every other day we would find an open field and park, and call our base every hour to tell them we were searching for weapon caches in the fields and everything was going fine. All our enlisted people had grown disenchanted with the chain of command.
Aliff referred to this tactic as engaging in "search and avoid" missions, a sardonic expression recycled from the Vietnam War when soldiers were sent out on official "search and destroy" missions.
Sergeant Eli Wright, who served as a medic with the 1st Infantry Division in Ramadi from September 2003 through September 2004, had a similar story to tell me:
Oh yeah, we did search and avoid missions all the time. It was common for us to go set camp atop a bridge and use it as an over-watch position. We would use our binoculars to observe rather than sweep, but call in radio checks every hour to report on our sweeps.
While no broad poll of troops has been conducted recently, a Zogby poll in February 2006 found that 72 percent of soldiers in Iraq felt the occupation should be ended within a year. My interviews with those recently back from Iraq indicate that levels of despair and disappointment are once again on the rise among troops who are beginning to realize, months after the Obama administration was ushered in, that hopes of an early withdrawal have evaporated.
Other forms of resistance include speaking out once back home, using art as resistance, resisting rampant sexism and discrimination in the military, and using the Internet as cyber-resistance.
In November 2007, the Pentagon revealed that between 2003 and 2007, there had been an 80 percent increase in overall desertion rates in the Army (desertion refers to soldiers who go AWOL and never intend to return to service), and Army AWOL rates from 2003 to 2006 were the highest since 1980. Between 2000 and 2006, more than 40,000 troops from all branches of the military deserted, more than half from the Army. Army desertion rates jumped by 42 percent from 2006 to 2007 alone.
The Iraq War boils on at still-dangerous levels of violence, while the war in Afghanistan (and across the border in Pakistan) only grows, as does the U.S. commitment to both. It's already clear that even an all-volunteer military isn't immune to dissent. If violence in either or both occupations escalates, if the Pentagon struggles to add more boots on the ground, if the stresses and strains on the military, involving endless redeployments to combat zones, increase rather than lessen, then the acts of Agosto and Bishop may turn out to be pathbreakers in a world of dissent yet to be experienced and explored. Add in dissatisfaction and discontent at home if, in the coming years, American treasure continues to be poured into an Afghan quagmire, and real support for a GI resistance movement may surface. If so, then the early pioneers in methods of dissent within the military will have laid the groundwork for a movement.