History of Resistance
As long as there have been militaries and war, soldiers around the world have resisted, deserted, and refused combat duty for both moral and political reasons, and civilians have supported them. The term “GI,” meaning “Government Issue,” came into use in World War One to refer to Army soldiers and their equipment. It emphasizes the service members’ status as pieces of property belonging to the government, which GI resisters are all too aware of!
- 1781 - The Pennsylvania Militia mutinies against war profiteers and for food.
- The National Guard refusing to fire on strikers (and at times joining them) in the 1870s–1890s.
- GI-organized “Bring Us Home” committees throughout Japan and the Philippines in 1945-1946.
- During the Mexican–American War, 9,000 U.S. soldiers deserted. Among them were deserters from at least 12 regiments who switched sides to form a new battalion called St. Patrick’s, as the majority were Irish immigrants who found they had more in common with the Mexicans they had been told to fight.
- 1914/1915 Christmas Truce - Soldiers from multiple armies (French, German, Australian, British, many others) refused to fight during Christmas 1914, and to a lesser extent a year later. Known as the Christmas Truce, soldiers played sports, drank and fraternized with each other for a few days until officers forced them to continue fighting, though some officers joined in.
- 1919 - U.S. soldiers sent to oppose Russian Revolution desert and rebel.
- 1932 - Bonus Army, thousands of veterans of World War One, march and camp-out in DC demanding back-pay from war. General Smedley Butler addresses troops with rousing speech of support. The Cavalry eventually repressed the veterans and ends the protests.
- 1964-75 - Huge GI movement rocks United States Military, both in Vietnam and at bases at home and around the world. Over 300 GI anti-war newspapers are printed on base or near base, 10 percent of the U.S. military deserts or goes AWOL, and major incidents of combat refusal, mass draft resistance, refusals to deploy, and on-base protests and sit-ins occur. Movement brings the draft to an end and is a major force in bringing the Vietnam War to an end. GIs sabotage ships and stories of GIs switching sides (the so-called White Cong and the "Salt & Pepper" duo of white and black GIs) and fighting alongside the Vietcong are numerous.
Resisting the draft and declaring conscientious objector status have also been significant strategies for people seeking to deny their labor to the military. Draft resisters and conscientious objectors, as well as people resisting from inside the service, have endured beatings, jail (including solitary confinement), and social discrimination—and their courage has helped to create more political and social space for increased questioning and dissent.
For most of this guide, our historical reference point is the powerful GI resistance movement to end the war in Vietnam. The combination of the unyielding determination of the Vietnamese people, and the fierce GI resistance that built to a boil during the course of the war, eventually forced the U.S. government to end that war—achieving a historic victory!
The visible acts of resistance—like the tens of thousands of soldiers attending rallies, protests, and sit-ins on U.S. bases around the world—are only the tip of the iceberg. Soldiers took great risks in everyday acts as well as with overt defiance. Some tactics were cribbed from workplace organizing, like slowdowns, strikes, and sabotage of equipment. Others, like the GI Coffeehouse movement, grew directly from the conditions that soldiers confronted. Over 300 newspapers, most distributed clandestinely, spread the word and provided a sense of how many GIs were resisting.
Individual acts of resistance gave way to more and more collective action, including rebellions on bases and riots in brigs (military jails). One in seven soldiers deserted or went AWOL, and a few switched sides and fought alongside the Vietcong. Soldiers built an alternative culture among themselves that supported a different set of values and actions.
The cumulative results of all this dissent and disobedience had three powerful effects:
- Greater public pressure on the U.S. government to withdraw
- An incapacitated military
- A new generation of politicized veterans
It is important to note that during Vietnam, the majority of GI resisters were not draftees. People who had enlisted, most of whom were working class, rebelled at a higher rate. Much of the public misunderstand Vietnam-era resistance as a result of the draft, but remembering that “volunteers” were the backbone of the resistance is hopeful for us in this moment. We look to this era for strategy and inspiration, and are lucky to have many active veteran organizers in the peace movement who were part of the resistance to the Vietnam War.
Over the last few years, recognition of how important GI resistance is to ending U.S. wars abroad has grown within the peace movement. Organizing within communities directly connected to the military—veterans, GIs/service members, and military families—has built strong organizations and commanded national attention for their infectious determination and courageous voices.
For the first years of the Bush Administration’s “endless war,” the peace movement in general made little effort to organize with veterans and GIs. GI resistance was largely off the radar of the peace movement, except for a handful of groups that worked to support war resisters.
In July of 2004, just months after the first units returned from deployment, Iraq Veterans Against the War was founded and quickly emerged as a significant political force. Veterans for Peace, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and some other long-time peace activists and groups supported IVAW in its growth.
The founders were:
- Kelly Dougherty, USA
- Tim Goodrich, USAF
- Mike Hoffman, USMC
- Alex Ryabov, USMC
- Jimmy Massey, USMC
- Isaiah Pallos, USMC
- Diana Morrison, USA
From its inception, IVAW has been unified by three points:
- Immediate withdrawal of all occupying forces from Iraq,
- Reparations, and other compensation, for the destruction and corporate pillaging of Iraq so that the Iraqi people can rebuild their lives and control their future, and
- Full benefits, adequate healthcare, and other supports for returning service members
- IVAW has added to these points of unity resolutions against the continued occupation of Afghanistan, against the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy, and in support of GI resisters.
Veteran and GI leadership, a critical element of the domestic anti-Vietnam War movement, re-emerged to help shift national opinion away from supporting the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
At first, the majority of the peace movement recognized IVAWs leadership mostly by asking them to speak at rallies and hold their banner at the front of marches. Beyond a few local and national organizations offering resources and political support, there was little strategic and collaborative organizing between IVAW and civilian groups. However, as the peace movement came to terms with its need for a deeper and more inclusive strategy, the understanding of GIs as the “work force” that makes the wars possible began to take root.
IVAW and other strategy-minded organizers helped centralize the strategic importance of organizing with antiwar veterans, conscientious objectors, and GI resisters, and the need for supportive allies. Strategic campaign-based organizing to build a GI movement is just now beginning to develop.
Resistance in the Military [Added 3/12/2009]
Courage in the military does not always mean boldly facing the physical dangers of battle. The courage to stand up in the face of adversity to do the right thing and set the ethical example is a value every military member should have. Brave and courageous men and women have refused and challenged illegal and unlawful orders during numerous wars, even refusing unlawful orders to be part of illegal wars.
One famous example during the Vietnam war was Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, who stopped the infamous massacre at My Lai. Chief My Lai prosecutor William Eckhardt described how Thompson responded when confronted with evidence of atrocity: "He put his guns on Americans, said he would shoot them if they shot another Vietnamese, had his people wade in the ditch in gore to their knees, to their hips, took out children, took them to the hospital..flew back to headquarters, standing in front of people, tears rolling down his cheeks, pounding on the table saying 'Notice, notice, notice'...then had the courage to testify time after time." Like many other resistors challenging unjust, unethical, and illegal actions, Hugh Thompson was ignored at the time, largely hidden and generally dismissed by military history. However, his actions, much like those of many other resisters, were crucial to saving the lives of innocents.