One Soldier Against the Empire

It's hard even to remember anymore the true state of the U.S. military as the Vietnam War ground toward its bloody end. By the late 1960s, the statistics flowing back to Washington about the American war machine were enough to give any general nightmares. Drug-taking was rampant. (By 1971, up to 60% of returning soldiers admitted to some use.) Desertions stood at seventy per thousand, a modern high; small-scale mutinies or "combat refusals" were at critical levels; incidents of racial conflict had soared; and strife between officers ("lifers") and soldiers ("grunts") was at unprecedented levels; reported "fraggings" – assassination attempts – against unpopular officers or NCOs had risen from an already startling 126 in 1969 to 333 in 1971, despite declining troop strength in Vietnam. According to military count, as many as 144 underground newspapers were then being published by, or aimed at, soldiers. ("In Vietnam," the Ft. Lewis-McChord Free Press typically wrote, "the Lifers, the Brass, are the true Enemy, not the enemy.") And the country was experiencing the largest political exodus of potential soldiers, AWOLs, and deserters since large numbers of Tories left the country two hundred years earlier, after the American Revolution.

In 1971, Colonel Robert D. Heinl, Jr. reviewed the evidence for Armed Forces Journal in an article entitled "The Collapse of the Armed Forces," and concluded: "[T]he foregoing facts point to widespread conditions among American forces in Vietnam 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." Hardly less threatening to military cohesion at the time, active-duty soldiers in relatively small numbers as well as significant numbers of Vietnam veterans were by then beginning to organize against the war.

If you want part of the explanation for why the Vietnam War ended and all of the explanation for why the draft that once did result in a genuine citizen's army was abandoned for an all-volunteer military, look no further than this traumatic set of events. And it's been true that, whatever the problems – and they've been multifold – staffing an overstretched volunteer military to fight two increasingly unpopular wars without end in Iraq and Afghanistan, Vietnam-style unrest in the military has been slower to grow. But there's nothing like a losing war in an alien land among an increasingly hostile populace to throw one's worst acts into strong relief. So, despite the obstacles, small but growing numbers of American soldiers – like Lieut. Ehren Watada, "the Army's first commissioned officer to publicly refuse orders to fight in Iraq on grounds that the war is illegal" – have stepped forward to challenge the Bush administration, its war-making, and the military. Their often lonely acts of resistance reflect an extra degree of courage in comparison with the Vietnam era – and where it's been difficult for them military families as well as parents of the American dead in Iraq like Cindy Sheehan have heroically stepped into the void.

Former federal prosecutor, Elizabeth de la Vega, whose new book U.S. v. George W. Bush et al. will be published this December (and highlighted at this site), considers one of these new military resisters in her own unique way. If you want to look for "profiles in courage" in the age of Bush and Cheney, this is certainly a good place to start.