The Vietnam War in 1970: GIs Kill Their Own Officers While Government Slays Student Protestors

A Sea of Fire, Episode 8

The Vietnam War

Directed by Ken Burn and Lyn Novick

Film Review

This week Maori TV showed A Sea of Fire, Episode 8 of the Vietnam War series. It covers the period from April 4, 1969 to May 1970 and the massacre of four students at Kent State and two at Jackson State

By April 1969, there were 543,482 US troops fighting in Vietnam, with thousands more on nearby naval vessels and support bases. By that date, 40,794 GIs had died in Vietnam.

In October Nixon, who privately acknowledged the US couldn’t win, replaced a complicated draft deferment system with a more popular lottery based on draftees date of birth. In December, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird announced the “Vietnamization” of the war (eg a transfer of responsibility to to South Vietnamese troops) and began drawing down US troop numbers (10,000 by the end of 1970).

The move led many serving GIs to become deeply demoralized about being sent to die in an unwinnable war. Accordingly, 1970 would see a big increase in “fragging,” the deliberate murder of officers by men under them. It would also see a big increase in draftees seeking asylum in Canada (30,000 in total).

I was disappointed this episode failed to cover the role of the CIA and South Vietnamese army setting up a thriving trade selling heroin to US GIs. My former partner served in Vietnam from 1967-1969 and returned to the US addicted to it.

The years 1969-70 would also see a big surge in the US peace movement. The October 15th Vietnam Moratorium was actually a general strike, with hundreds of university campuses closing down and tens of thousands of Americans staying off work in cities around the country. It would be the largest mass protest in US history.

In November, independent journalist Seymour Hersh broke the story of the My Lai Massacre, the brutal murder of 400 South Vietnamese civilians, which had occurred 20 months earlier. It would be only one of many civilians massacres in Vietnam.

In 1970, the peace movement, which had died down in response to Nixon’s gradual troop withdrawal, was reignited following the April 30, 1970 invasion of Cambodia by 30,000 US troops. Four million American students protested the invasion, 448 campuses were shut down and 16 states called out the National Guard.

At Kent State, the National Guard fired 67 rounds into a crowd of peaceful demonstrators, killing four, including an ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corp) scholarship student who was merely an onlooker.

On the same day, police shot two peaceful African American antiwar protestors at Jackson State University in Mississippi.

 

 

The GI Revolt That Ended the Vietnam War

Sir, No Sir: The GI Revolt

Directed by David Zeiger (2005)

Film Review

Sir, No Sir examines the GI revolt that effectively ended the Vietnam War. While it’s common to hear about fragging* incidents which occurred in Vietnam, I was totally unaware of the vast GI anti-war movement built by three years of sustained organizing in barracks, on bases, battlefields and ships and at armed forces academies like West Point.

This documentary traces the origin of this GI resistance movement to the 1967 court martial of a dermatologist who refused to train Green Berets how to treat common skin conditions of Vietnamese civilians. Captain Howard Levy took this stand due to his personal conviction that the US torture and murder of Vietnamese civilians was immoral. Levy, who was court-martialed and sentenced to three years in prison, inspired hundreds of other GIs once they realized the US government was at war with the entire civilian population of Vietnam.

Levy’s court martial was followed by many others, as active duty GIs began organizing anti-war meetings and participating in civilian anti-war protests while in uniform. Black GIs could be court-martialed for doing a soul handshake.

Word of the GI anti-war movement spread mainly through underground GI newspapers that sprang up on many bases. However GI coffee houses and Jane Fonda’s FTA (Fuck the Army) shows were also major organizing tools.

Civilian peace activists opened GI coffee houses near bases, where off duty GIs could listen to subversive rock music and get counseling, legal advice and accurate information about Vietnam and the anti-war movement. Although the FTA shows were also held off base, GIs attended in droves.

Refusing to Deploy Against US Civilians

In 1968, Fort Hood GIs newly returned from Vietnam were ordered to police the anti-war protests at the Chicago. Democratic Convention. After a group of black GIs met about refusing to deploy, they were beaten up by MPs and court martialed. The white “subversives” at Ft Hood (including one of my friends from high school) were treated more leniently. They were confined to base instead of being sent to Chicago.

In 1969 a thousand active duty GIs participated in an anti-war march at Fort Hood on Armed Forces Day. A year later 4,000 participated.

1971 Winter Soldier Conference

The Winter Soldier Conference the Vietnam Veterans Against the War organized in 1971 was the real turning point for the GI resistance movement. The purpose of the conference was to establish that the 1968 My Lai massacre wasn’t an isolated incident – that superior officers were ordering the deliberate targeting of civilians. Testimony at the Detroit conference also focused media attention on the government’s genocidal policies towards the Vietnamese. Specific examples included widespread use of the toxic defoliant Agent Orange and the deliberate reconfiguration of Napalm** to make it stick better.

Nixon Forced to “Vietnamize” the War

By 1971, so many GIs were refusing orders, fragging and killing officers and deserting that the Pentagon warned Nixon the military was on the verge of collapse. In response, the latter ordered the “Vietnamization” of the war. This would translate into a massive increase in aerial bombardment, as US troops withdrew, and the gradual transfer of combat duties to the South Vietnamese Army.


*Fragging is the murder or deliberate injury of members of the military, particularly commanders of a fighting unit. The term originates from the fragmentation grenades commonly used in these incidents.
**Napalm is a mixture of a gelling agent and petroleum or a similar fuel for use in an incendiary device. It was initially used against buildings and later primarily as an anti-personnel weapon, as it sticks to skin and causes severe burns when on fire.