David Zeiger : Did the GI Movement End the Vietnam War?

Updated July 26, 2008

G.I. dissenters in David Zeiger’s documentary “Sir! No Sir!”. Photo courtesy of Displaced Fillms.

And What is the real legacy of the GI Coffeehouses?
By David Zeiger / The Rag Blog / July 25, 2008

David Zeiger is an award-winning film producer and director whose highly–acclaimed film Sir! No Sir! documented the little-known GI resistance to the Vietnam War. He was a staff member at the Oleo Strut, a GI coffee house in Killeen, Texas near Ft. Hood that was a major center of anti-war activities from 1968 to 1972.

Zeiger, also a writer and an activist, produces and directs documentary films through his company, Displaced Films.

This article joins a Rag Blog discussion of the history of the GI anti-war movement with articles by Tom Cleaver on the history of the Oleo Strut coffee house and on the founding of a new GI coffee house in Killeen called Under the Hood. Please see Under The Hood : An Anti-War GI Coffeehouse in Texas.

Over the past three years, there has been a significant and heartening growth of opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations among active duty soldiers, and several organizations have been doing tremendous work with soldiers and veterans. From the groups and individuals supporting soldiers who have refused deployment and been court-martialed, to the work of Iraq Veterans Against the War, Veterans for Peace, the Military Project and Different Drummer Café, serious and determined work is being done to turn the deepening disaffection and anger with the occupations inside the military into a real political movement and force (and I apologize now to everyone who I left out).

It is a source of great joy for me, in that context, to see the story of the GI Movement against the Vietnam War playing a significant role in inspiring and helping shape that burgeoning movement. The reissuing of David Cortright’s Soldiers in Revolt, along with important books published in the 90s (please see the list at the end of this article), brought to life what had been deeply buried for two decades and made it possible for a film like Sir! No Sir! to be made, and for this new movement to be born.

The GI Movement of the 60s is loaded with lessons for today. But those lessons have to be seen realistically to really be truly learned, and that puts a tremendous responsibility in the hands of those of us who were part of that movement. Memory can be a tricky thing, and it is no more helpful to exaggerate the events of that time than it is to deny them. Mythologizing or inaccurately portraying the GI Movement can, in my mind, do far more harm than good as people struggle to find ways to build a new movement in the military today. But a real understanding of its ups and downs, victories and defeats, and most importantly the tremendous struggle it involved on every level can be a powerful resource.

So I was very interested to read about the effort to open a new GI Coffeehouse in Killeen, Texas, outside of Fort Hood. The coffeehouse movement has, since the invasion of Iraq, been one of the few “forms” of organization from the 60s that seem to me to make a lot of sense today. But as I read Tom Cleaver’s depiction of the Oleo Strut Coffeehouse and its relevance for today, I found myself growing increasingly concerned that real understanding may be being replaced by nostalgia (and I speak from experience, as I am always fighting my own nostalgia while looking at the past). And beyond that, Tom’s interpretation of the GI Movement in the 60s raised many issues that I want to discuss here, in the spirit of making history serve the present.

Let me emphatically state first that I am not an organizer, but a filmmaker, and I do not pretend to know what the “right thing to do” is today. Nor do I intend to criticize or direct anyone. I don’t even consider myself an “expert” on the GI Movement. But I do hope that my two years working at the Oleo Strut, and the work that I and others have done to tell the GI Movement story today can be helpful. For the record, I am not a veteran. I went to Killeen in June of 1970 as a 20-year-old drop-out– and scared to death, I might add.

Now to the issues. The biggest for me is Tom’s statement that “GIs stopped the war in Vietnam and they can stop the war in Iraq.” This has become a pretty popular view nowadays among many people, and while it may sound ironic coming from me, I find it to be misleading and potentially very harmful. It takes what is true, the fact that the GI Movement cut at the heart of the war, and uses it as a kind of club over everyone else. But most significantly, it rips the GI Movement out of the political and social context that gave birth to it and nurtured its growth.

Put simply, GIs did not stop the war in Vietnam. The Vietnam War was ended by a combination of forces–first and foremost the Vietnamese people, whose struggle for self-determination became an inspiration for millions around the world. And beyond that the antiwar, counterculture Black liberation and revolutionary movements were all key to creating the context for soldiers in their thousands to revolt and certainly play a major role in bringing the war to a grinding halt. It can even be described as the straw that broke the camel’s back–but that wouldn’t have happened without all those other straws!

Look at Tom’s main example from the summer of ‘68–the urban rebellions and demonstrations at the Chicago Democratic Convention, and the GI’s response to being ordered into riot control duty (“First we fought the Vietnamese, now they want us to fight Americans,” as Dave Cline said). There’s clearly a cause and effect here. If Black people were not rebelling in the cities, and if students and radicals weren’t planning to demonstrate at the Democratic convention, there would have been no riot control in the military, and it wouldn’t have been such a powerful impetus for rebellion that it was.

(In that light I want to correct a significant inaccuracy in Tom’s description of the Fort Hood 43, the Black GIs who resisted deployment to the Chicago convention. Tom describes them as a highly organized group, who had chosen which soldiers would refuse to go based on their service in Vietnam. That isn’t what happened. As vividly described in Sir! No Sir! by Elder Halim Gullabehmi, one of the participants, several hundred soldiers met all night in an open field to protest their deployment and discuss their grievances and make plans. No decision had been made. In the morning, when 43 were still in the field waiting for a response from the base Commanding General, they were ambushed by MPs, beaten, and thrown in the stockade. Many, including Elder Halim, were later sent to Vietnam as further punishment).

What gave the GI Movement so much power was its deep connection to the broader movement it was part of. That movement wasn’t just students resisting the draft to keep from going to Vietnam themselves (another popular myth, in my view). It was the Black Panther Party; it was Vietnam Veterans Against the War; it was national organizations that were constantly expanding the scope of protest against the war; it was students who were shutting their campuses down to force companies like Dow Chemical off campus and end university complicity with the war; it was all those things and more. In 1971, the same time Colonel Heinl wrote his famous article that Tom quotes, Washington was wracked with a myriad of demonstrations, including the May Day attempt by over 10,000 people to shut the city down (which Nixon specifically cited as a reason to “get the troops out as quickly as possible.”).

I’m not saying this to nit-pic, or to in any way lessen or denigrate the impact of the GI Movement. Yes, the GI Movement had become a force in the military that seriously challenged its authority and ability to fight; and yes, thousands of GIs were actively organizing and demonstrating, but that can’t be ripped out of the context it grew in and declared to be the sole force that ended the war. Doing so, it seems to me, could lead to a distorted view of the situation today and very unrealistic expectations. It certainly doesn’t help point the road forward.

Part of the importance of understanding the context for the GI Movement is recognizing that it faced tremendous repression. The whole nature of the military is based on isolation from the world outside, and the more that world intruded, the more they fought back. The coffeehouses were an essential link between soldiers who faced tremendous repercussions for their actions and the broader movement in society. That link was political, and just as importantly cultural, and without it much of what flourished would have been quickly crushed.

And that raises my questions about the differences between then and now. In 1968, the Oleo Strut was for the most part the only way that GIs could be in contact with that movement (although even the local porn shop carried The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Soul on Ice). Most GIs didn’t have cars then, and at night and on weekends the only place you could go was the downtown strip since bus service ended there. Life was very constricted. The Strut was literally a haven, one you couldn’t find anywhere else, and a place to listen to music and read literature that was only available there. Especially in the early years, that made up a lot of what sustained it.

It’s a different situation today, is it not? Mobility and communication are worlds apart from 1968. While we were filming IVAW in their efforts to bring Winter Soldier to the soldiers at Fort Hood this year, much of their outreach was done at bars in Austin–60 miles away! There isn’t the kind of central place today that GIs are locked into, making something like the Strut unique. That seems to me to be a significant change.

One reason this is important is that the coffeehouses themselves faced huge obstacles to staying open. Tom mentioned the KKK and “goat-ropers,” but it went way beyond that. They were physically attacked, hit with bizarre legal charges, and often burned down. But those weren’t the most difficult challenges.

Even the most successful coffeehouses were never self-sustaining financially. We barely survived, even with the Herculean efforts of the United States Serviceman’s Fund, a group whose sole purpose was raising money for the GI Movement. But even with that and the day jobs many of us had, we came close to shutting down many times. In addition the constant legal battles and harassment arrests (I spent nights in jail for such things as hitch-hiking, driving with a dirty license plate, and swearing in front of a police officer), were a huge financial drain.

It was also a constant struggle to keep staff. Burn-out was a big problem in places like Killeen (and I don’t imagine that’s much different today). Keeping a place like the Strut alive wasn’t a weekend or summer gig. The reality is that there were many long periods when it was successfully isolated from the soldiers, and it took tremendous endurance to survive those times. Life in the GI Movement, like life in the military, was characterized by many months of intense tedium punctuated by moments of intense action.

In short, the GI Coffeehouses of the 60’s were a major force that filled a very specific need, one that grew out of the times we were living in. They were also a major commitment of time and resources–extremely difficult to sustain but well worth it for the role they were playing at that time.

Again, I am not raising these things to pour cold water on the current effort. But I believe that to be kept alive, history has to be seen in all its parameters. And I do think it’s important to not view the coffeehouses of the 60s through rose-colored glasses, especially when you’re contemplating diving into the fire. I’m not drawing conclusions, just raising questions.

So as I said in the beginning, I offer these observations and thoughts in the spirit of welcoming all of the work being done today in the military, and wanting to use our history to enrich it. I hope this helps.

The books that I referred to are:

* Soldiers in Revolt by David Cortright (aka The Bible)

* The New Winter Soldiers by Richard Moser

* The Spitting Image by Jerry Lembcke (A wonderful expose of the myth of the spitting hippie)

* A Matter of Conscience: GI Resistance During the Vietnam War by William Short and Willa Seidenberg (This is an incredible book, very hard toget but well worth it. Bill and Willa traveled around the country in the early 90s photographing and recording extensive oral histories of dozens of veterans of the GI Movement. Their work formed much of the basis for Sir! No Sir!).

There are also several great books on the veterans’ movement, and particularly Vietnam Veterans against the War.

PS–Again to keep the record straight, Fred Gardner, one of the founders of the GI Coffeehouses, was not an officer, but a PFC attached to an Army Reserve unit at Ft. Jackson when he and others started the UFO Coffeehouse in 1967. The “Summer of Support” referred to in Cleaver’s article was not organized by him, but by Rennie Davis and Tom Hayden, original founders of Students for a Democratic Society. SOS was one of, but not the only organization supporting the GI Coffeehouses.

Thorne,

I heard an interesting story about the Olio Strut and the general attitude of the soldiers to authority. The guy who told me the story was a combat vet send to Ft Hood to decompress along with a lot of other guys who had seen heavy combat. He is the only source but I have no reason not to believe him. He told me that there was a small lake somewhere around the base with a small island in it and that it was common for the soldiers to use rowboats and go to the island where they would have numerous small fires around which they would talk and decompress. Of course there was a considerable amount of the magical herb being smoked out there too. The cops knew what was going on and a squadcar load of them got into a couple of the small rowboats and decided to liberate the island. They landed and went to the first campsite and announced “Y’all are all under arrest” My friend told me that the entire island became silent and then across the island could be heard the sound of the hammers being pulled back on the government issue .45 callibar handguns that the GI’s still carried. Needless to say the cops were tripping over one another trying to get back into their boats.

Robert Pardun / July 26, 2008

Under The Hood : An Anti-War GI Coffeehouse in Texas. / by Tom Cleaver / The Rag Blog / July 23, 2008

And Austin, 1969 : Bob Bower, Anti-War GI by Henry Mecredy / The Rag Blog / July 24, 2008

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1 Response to David Zeiger : Did the GI Movement End the Vietnam War?

  1. Anonymous says:

    This is a thoughtful, well written and welcome contribution to the topic. Neither nostalgia nor factional divisions will facilitate social change in our time.

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