Click on the title to link to an "American Left History" blog entry, dated March 16, 2009, and titled "A Short Note on History and the Individual- A Tale of Sorts".
Over the past several years that this blog has been running I have had, on a fair number of occasions, an opportunity to write entries that link my current radical political preoccupations with some aspect of my earlier political development, or the effect of some earlier development on my subsequent attitude toward the struggle for our communist future. Nowhere is that link more apparent that in my current, revived struggle to generate support for the creation of anti-war soldiers and sailors solidarity committees (hereafter solidarity committees) as we gear up our opposition to Warmonger-in-Chief Obama’s provocative Afghan War troop escalation.
Literally, my baptism of fire as a radical (although not then as a communist) is directly related to my personal involvement in the military, the struggle against the military while I was in it during the Vietnam War period, and the conclusions that I drew thereafter about the imperial nature of modern American capitalist society and the a lifelong need to oppose it as a result of that experience. However, today I am not interested in rehashing those events, per se, so much as to draw attention to some lessons and some anecdotal evidence for the importance of creating those solidarity committees. For those who want to read more specifically about the contours of my own political trajectory I have placed a linked article above from an “American Left History" blog entry, dated March 16, 2009, and titled "A Short Note on History and the Individual- A Tale of Sorts".
First things first, though. Prior to the later stages of the anti-Vietnam War movement, there had been no serious thought, at least that I was aware of, given to directly link up the student-based civilian anti-war movement to the emerging anti-war sentiment INSIDE the military. That sentiment was building, especially in the draft-based army the was fighting the war and taking a serious psychological, if not physical beating, as the Vietnamese liberation forces proved tougher than expected. Those soldiers, at least some of them, also in the end got caught up in the anti-war fervor that was building up at home, and around the world.
Finally, significant numbers of civilians, and not just young people, although they were well represented, began looking to find a way to express their anti-war sentiments in a more fervent and effective way that through the electoral process, or its extension, the seemingly endless mass demonstrations created mainly to put pressure on those politicians to end that war. Those militants found a ready, if somewhat less politically sophisticated, audience willing to listen. An unusual moment in American history, to be sure.
Of course, we now know, at least those of us who looked into the matter, then and later, that there were a whole lot of prior experiences that in some cases, especially on the part of the American Socialist Workers Party, were willfully ignored about the earlier efforts to link up with soldiers struggles. In the SWP’s case that included their class struggle fight against World War II for while many members and supporters were sent to jail under the Smith Act, the fight for faster troop demobilization immediately after World War II and in their lonely struggle against the Korean War. Moreover, we of the left were left woefully ignorant of the most important example of anti-war military work in history, the Bolshevik anti-war program against the carnage of World War I, encapsulated in the slogans “the main enemy s at home” and "not one penny, not one man for the war", that was also a critical factor in the later success of the October revolution. I could also add to the list the struggle of French leftists of various political tendencies to aid the Algerian national liberation struggle by trying to break the rank and file soldiers of the French army from its murderous course. There are other examples, too few to be sure, but the lesson to be drawn and the point to be made here is that the core of the support started from civilian political organizations outside the military.
And that, of necessity, becomes the central point. Even under conditions of relative bourgeois political normalcy the ruling class gets very touchy about people, in or out of the military, fooling around with their military (and their police, prisons and courts, as well). They will forgive many things but not that. To insure that bourgeois stability today, especially in light of the lessons that THEY have learned from the Vietnam War experience where, arguably, their army toward the end almost fell apart as an effective fighting force, they have curtailed or restructured the democratic rights of those in the military that we civilians take for granted. Thus issues like: when and where and how service personnel can use their political rights, including their right to demonstrate; who they can talk to and when: and, the use or non-use of the uniform are all very much issues that those of us on the outside do not directly confront. I will not bore you with tales of the gross curtailment of justice meted out under military law, except to paraphrase something the great sardonic comic and social critic, Lenny Bruce, said - “in the hall of (military) justice, the only justice is in the halls”.
If those adverse conditions are part of the obstacles that we face today in organizing support for anti-war G.I.’s then you get a small sense of what it was like for soldiers in the Vietnam era (and before) to express their political opposition to that war, and more importantly, to organize their fellow soldiers around the struggle against it. And that is where the personal part of this entry really begins. I have already mentioned in previous postings that in 1968 I went from pillar to post in bourgeois politics trying to defeat Richard M. Nixon, rightly seen as the most visible political villain of that time. I worked, exhaustively, for Bobby Kennedy and after his assassination, holding my nose, for Hubert Humphrey. (Excuse me one moment: I am still blushing over that one). Thus, I knew how to get thing done, or get advice on how to get things done, in bourgeois politics.
Not so when I tried to do essentially the same thing (merely to exercise my democratic right to organize) anti-war opposition in the military. First off, I had not links to any radical groups to fall back on. I was, in any case, at that time leery of most of them. Moreover, one of the bases that I was at was in the Deep South and out in the boondocks (and today the location of key military bases, like Fort Drum in rural upstate New York, home of the heavily-used 10th Mountain Division continues that trend) , and a Yankee to boot, put me at a severe disadvantage. So whom did I turn to? Well, who is more against war that the Quakers, at least in the popular imagination. Even I knew that much at the time. So I ran to the Quakers, or rather their outreach branch, the American Friends Service Committee.
Of course they were mainly set up to counsel individual resisters, military of civilian, at that point. No question, however, that they did yeoman’s work in assisting and supporting various efforts that were undertaken by my military friends and me (and, not so strangely, today they still do that same work). Today in light of my political perspective I might not be able to make a righteous united front with them or join with them in their contingents in anti-war marches because the pacific slogans they would be able to support and the explicit anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist slogans called for by today’s political situation are counter-posed but I have always had a soft spot for their steadfastness, and that, my friends, is a rare commodity. That said, I kept those experiences in mind, especially the need to broaden the scope of the anti-war work to a more explicitly left-wing political level when I was "discharged" from the service (nice term, right?).
If I was not familiar, in the early of stages of my military ‘career’, with the G.I. anti-war coffeehouse movement that was starting to blossom at such places as Fort Hood (the legendary “Oleo Strut”, whose history I have placed a link to on this site recently) and Fort Ord (California) I was totally immersed in the literature after my discharge. I immediately got involved in an anti-war G.I. coffeehouse in the Northeast with some other radicals that I was familiar with (and, more importantly for organizing purposes, who knew some soldiers at the base). Many of the things that I learned about extra-parliamentary organizing came out of that experience. Although it was relatively shorted-lived (a couple of years, off and on) as the war in Vietnam dwindled down, the draft ended, and soldiers, especially drafted soldiers who were easier to approach, stopped showing up it became time to move on. An invaluable experience though.
Is anti-war G.I. work hard? It is nothing but tough work, believe me. The above-mentioned restrictions on military personnel’s political activities. The, frankly, low political consciousness of the rank and file soldier. The, usually, tough personal circumstances that drive an individual soldier to seek relief outside the military chain of command. The very real problem of spies, finks, and informers, military and civilian, in the small town environment where the work has to get done. Hell, sometimes the gap between the obvious up-front political goals of the civilian support group and the soldiers’ lesser demands. All those militate against success. Ya, it’s tough. But hear me out.
How good does it feel, as I have felt, to be in an anti-war demonstration INSIDE a military base with soldiers (out of uniform, of course) calling for an end to the Vietnam War. That will trump a thousand marches in Washington, D.C. Or of holding anti-war demonstrations right outside the gates of some boondocks fort, staring down a company of military police at the ready, to let one and all know the struggle continues and the anti-war soldiers inside do not stand alone. Or, to get back to the history of military anti-war work mentioned above, to savor the Bolshevik experience, if for now only second-hand. That is music for the future. Now though create, or start to think about creating, those solidarity committees. And emblazoned on their banners- Obama- Immediate, unconditional withdrawal of all U.S./Allied Troops and mercenaries from Afghanistan and Iraq. Hands off Pakistan and Iran.