Waging Peace in Vietnam: Soldiers and Veterans Who Opposed the War

Edited by Ron Carver, David Cortright and Barbara Doherty. New Village Press / NYU Press, 2019

By James Loney (reviewer) | 2020-01-01 01:00:00

In an era where military service has come to be equated perforce with heroism, and yellow-ribbons forbid civil society from questioning the causes for which soldiers have been mobilized to kill, Waging Peace in Vietnam tells the suppressed and forgotten history of how widespread resistance within the US military, in coalition with the civilian anti-war movement, stopped a war.

The Vietnam War is one of the bloodier chapters in the history of twentieth century warfare. The British Medical Journal estimates 3,812,000 people were killed between 1955 and 2002. Three million US troops served in Vietnam, one and a half million saw combat, 58,220 were killed, 150,000 more were wounded, and 830,000 experienced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) The estimated cost of all this bloodshed is nearing a trillion dollars, making it the fourth most costly war in the history of the United States.

As Waging Peace reveals, rank and file opposition to the Vietnam War was so pervasive that it “‘forcibly curtailed military capabilities,” leading Colonel Robert Heinl Jr. to publicly declare in 1971 that the US Army was in a “state approaching collapse”.

Carver, Cortright and Doherty classify that opposition in two broad categories. Dissenters used free speech to question the official narratives that justified the war. They published underground newspapers (perhaps 300 in all), marched in protests, went to GI coffee houses, signed petitions and made public statements. Resisters took direct action. They disobeyed orders, went absent without leave, refused combat, engaged in sabotage.

While each soldier made the decision to dissent or resist alone, the cumulative effect was staggering.

War ships were forced to turn around or stay docked. Pilots refused to fly. GIs put peace stickers on their helmets. AWOL and desertion rates approached 25%. Thousands of active duty personnel crossed into Canada. Military prisons filled with men (the overwhelming majority of whom were black) who refused orders or protested against racial discrimination. Eight hundred veterans threw their medals and ribbons onto the steps of the Capitol Building. Some GIs turned to the desperate practice of attacking officers with fragmentation grenades (fragging), killing 86 and wounding hundreds.

Each chapter explores a different war resistance tactic (GI coffee houses, desertion, exposing war crimes, etc.) with personal testimonies from the military men and women who engaged in that tactic. Inspiring, wrenching and sometimes heartbreaking, these deeply honest accounts reveal how ordinary people struggled to reconcile conscience with action when faced with the excruciating moral dilemmas of war.

Waging Peace in Vietnam is much more than an interesting history or a much needed exploration of alternate forms of heroism. This retrospective examination of a successful social movement documents how civilians and military conscripts crossed social, class and race divisions to bring down a war. As such, it is an invaluable resource for social change organizers seeking to build social movements capable of uniting people across identity divides—the only thing that is likely to stand between planetary survival and extinction. It reminds us that people of conscience are everywhere, and the key to success may ultimately be found in the camp of your apparent enemy.

Reviewed by James Loney, a peace worker in Toronto.

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2020

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2020, page 29. Some rights reserved.

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