My Opposition to the Vietnam War
Greg Laxer. Introduction by William Astore.
This week, historians have marked the 100th anniversary of World War I, a cataclysm that resulted in the deaths of more than nine million soldiers and the collapse of four empires. Yet there’s another grim anniversary that has gone mostly unmarked: the 50th anniversary of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in 1964 that gave President Lyndon B. Johnson a blank check to escalate American military involvement in Vietnam. That resolution led to the deaths of more than 58,000 American soldiers and as many as three million Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians caught up in the American crusade against homegrown Communism in Southeast Asia.
Greg Laxer opposed that war from within the US Army, and for that opposition, he paid a heavy price. We’re pleased to offer the following excerpt from his memoir that recounts his Army experiences and the burden of opposing a war when you wear a military uniform. W.J. Astore
Author’s Introduction by Greg Laxer: This is an excerpt from the eleventh and final chapter of my memoir-in-the-making about my opposition to the Vietnam War from within the US Army, 1967-1971. This chapter ranges far and wide beyond the Vietnam Era itself. The American Servicemen’s Union (1967-1974) was a leftist organization with which I was deeply involved starting in 1968, when I first refused to ship out for duty in Vietnam. (There would be a second refusal later, the Army being rather stubborn.) The ASU opposed all wars of imperialist aggression and agitated for civil rights for military personnel in the guise of a labor union model. I can’t say with certainty whether the information revealed below is new to the general public, only that I suspect it is. The analysis that follows is that of the author.
When American Servicemen’s Union was shut down I took into my personal possession, for safekeeping, four pamphlets (“Historical Studies”) that had been published by the US Army in the early 1950s. Someone in sympathy with the anti-war movement had made these available to us, which means they were still in use during the war against Vietnam. It could have been a junior officer, but more likely a low-ranking enlisted person whose job had been collecting the materials after a classroom session for Commissioned Officers and putting them back in a cabinet, then emptying the ashtrays, sweeping up, etc. In order of their publication, these volumes were: Pamphlet No. 20-201, Military Improvisations During the Russian Campaign (August 1951); No. 20-234, Operations of Encircled Forces–German Experiences in Russia (January 1952); No. 20-291, Effects of Climate on Combat in European Russia (February 1952); No. 20-243, German Antiguerrilla Operations in the Balkans, 1941-1944 (August 1954).
The middle two volumes were rated “RESTRICTED Security Information.” The US military establishment obviously didn’t want the public to be alarmed that they were drawing up contingency plans for war against the Soviet Union. But they had a wider concern that, in the post-World War II environment, they would be ordered to fight guerrilla forces trying to free their nations from exploitation by the Western powers. Since Nazi Germany waged many such campaigns, America’s military leadership assembled groups of actual former (in theory!) Nazi officers with experience in that arena of war for advice. (This is explained plainly in the Introduction to each pamphlet.)
The pamphlet published in 1954, about the Balkans experience, is the most enlightening one for us to examine. From page 22: “the shooting of hostages or burning of homes of suspects and whole communities suspected of sheltering the guerrillas [failed to] achieve the desired results.” Now cut, in your mind, to the many instances documented on film (consider this report on the “Zippo Brigade” by Morley Safer) of US troops torching whole villages in Vietnam. On page 38 we find: “The readiness of the Bulgarians [home-grown Fascists collaborating with the Nazis] to shoot suspects without investigation of any kind finally prompted the German Commander in Serbia to request a careful preliminary investigation of each case before an execution was carried out.” Now cut to Col. Mike Kirby, John Wayne’s character in The Green Berets, declaring “Out here, mister, due process is a bullet.” Then cut to the famous documentary footage of the instant execution on a Saigon street of a “suspected VC guerrilla.”
The Germans designated captured guerrillas “illegal combatants” (page 53). Fifty years later another imperial military/intelligence apparatus would take to kidnapping foreign nationals abroad, designate them “enemy combatants,” torture some of them and/or imprison them indefinitely without trial. True “military logic” at work: troops invade a foreign country with no justification whatsoever under international law and claim the right to declare “illegal” any resistance by the local population. As the old saying goes, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
In summation of this particular study, it seems that in their own minds the Germans were always on the brink of totally annihilating the guerrillas, but something always got in the way: troops deployed to the Balkans were older on average, and less well prepared for the terrain than the average German unit; they had trouble getting replacement parts for their vehicles; their Italian allies didn’t have the stomach for this war; they got infiltrated by spies, and so on. Despite claiming kill ratios of 5 to more than 20 to one over their opponents in Greece and Yugoslavia, the Germans withdrew in autumn 1944 without having defeated the guerrilla forces.
Does not this prove the merit of the doctrine of People’s War? Those who have lived in a terrain all their lives can utilize that terrain more efficaciously than any invading/occupying force. But did the US learn anything from the German officers’ accumulated knowledge? Of course not! With his superior technology, essentially unlimited resources for re-supply of weapons and ammunition, and ability to deliver terror from the skies Uncle Sam arrogantly went about destroying Vietnam “in order to save it.” In the end, North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap emerged the victor–at a terrible, terrible cost–and more than 58,000 American lives had been thrown away permanently, with many more disabled for life.
From this experience, did the United States take away any lessons, especially in the sense of avoiding future quagmires? It would be hard to argue an affirmative answer to that question, looking at its record of invasion/occupation in the intervening decades.
Greg Laxer is a lifelong peace activist who served time in military prisons for opposing the War against Viet Nam from within the Army.