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(en) Harass the Brass by Kevin Keating

From ManchesterOldham AF <anarchist_federation@yahoo.co.uk>
Date Mon, 15 Dec 2003 23:40:51 +0100 (CET)

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New on the www.af-north.org website. Harass the Brass by Kevin Keating. How mutinies,
fragging and desertions rocked the US military in Vietnam. A tale of relevance to today.
A friend who was in the U.S. military during the 1990-91 Persian Gulf
War told me that before President G.H.W. Bush visited the troops in
Saudi Arabia, enlisted men and women who would be in Bush’s
immediate vicinity had their rifle and pistol ammunition taken away
from them. This was supposedly done to avoid “accidents.”
But it was also clear to people on the scene that Bush and his
corporate handlers were somewhat afraid of the enlisted people who
Bush would soon be killing in his unsuccessful re-election campaign.

The suppressed history of the last big U.S. war before Operation
Desert Storm’ shows that the Commander-in-Chief had good
reason to fear and distrust his troops. Our rulers want us to forget
what happened during the Vietnam war -- especially what happened
inside the U.S armed forces during the war. Our rulers remember it all
too well. They want us to forget what defeated their war effort, and
the importance of resistance to the war by enlisted men
and women.

Until 1968 the desertion rate for U.S. troops in Vietnam was lower
than in previous wars. But by 1969 the desertion rate had increased
fourfold. This wasn’t limited to Southeast Asia; desertion rates
among G.I.’s were on the increase world-wide. For soldiers in the
combat zone, insubordination became an important part of avoiding
horrible injury or death. As early as mid-1969, an entire company of
the 196th Light Infantry Brigade sat down on the battlefield. Later
that year, a rifle company from the famed 1st Air Cavalry Division
flatly refused - on CBS TV - to advance down a dangerous trail. In the
following 12 months the 1st Air Cav notched up 35 combat refusals.
From mild forms of political protest and disobedience of war orders,
the resistance among the ground troops grew into a massive and
widespread “quasi-mutiny” by 1970 and 1971. Soldiers went
on “search and avoid” missions, intentionally skirting clashes
with the Vietnamese, and often holding three-day-long pot parties
instead of fighting.

By 1970, the U.S. Army had 65,643 deserters, roughly the equivalent
of four infantry divisions.

In an article published in the Armed Forces Journal (June 7, 1971),
Marine Colonel Robert D. Heinl Jr., a veteran combat commander with
over 27 years experience in the Marines, and the author of Soldiers Of
The Sea, a definitive history of the Marine Corps, wrote:
“By every conceivable indicator, our army that remains in Vietnam
is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or
having refused combat, murdering their officers and noncommissioned
officers...Sedition, coupled with disaffection from within the ranks,
and externally fomented with an audacity and intensity previously
inconceivable, infest the Armed Services...”

Heinl cited a New York Times article which quoted an enlisted man
saying, “The American garrisons on the larger bases are virtually
disarmed. The lifers have taken our weapons away...there have also
been quite a few frag incidents in the battalion.”

“Frag incidents” or “fragging” was soldier slang in
Vietnam for the killing of strict, unpopular and aggressive officers and
NCO’s. The word apparently originated from enlisted men using
fragmentation grenades to off commanders.

Heinl wrote, “Bounties, raised by common subscription in
amounts running anywhere from $50 to $1,000, have been widely
reported put on the heads of leaders who the privates and SP4s want
to rub out. “Shortly after the costly assault on Hamburger Hill in
mid-1969, the GI underground newspaper in Vietnam, GI Says,
publicly offered a $10,000 bounty on Lieutenant Colonel Weldon
Hunnicutt, the officer who ordered and led the attack. “The
Pentagon has now disclosed that fraggings in 1970 (209 killings) have
more than doubled those of the previous year (96 killings). Word of
the deaths of officers will bring cheers at troop movies or inbivouacs
of certain units.”

Congressional hearings on fraggings held in 1973 estimated that
roughly 3% of officer and non-com deaths in Vietnam between 1961
and 1972 were a result of fraggings. But these figures were only for
killings committed with grenades, and didn’t include officer
deaths from automatic weapons fire, handguns and knifings. The
Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps estimated that only
10% of fragging attempts resulted in anyone going to trial.

In the Americal Division, plagued by poor morale, fraggings during
1971 were estimated to be running around one a week. War equipment
was frequently sabotaged and destroyed. By 1972 roughly 300
anti-war and anti-military newspapers, with names like Harass the
Brass, All Hands Abandon Ship and Star Spangled Bummer had been
put out by enlisted people.

“In Vietnam,” wrote the Ft. Lewis-McCord Free Press,
“The Lifers, the Brass, are the true enemy...” Riots and
anti-war demonstrations took place on bases in Asia, Europe and in
the United States. By the early 1970s the government had to begin
pulling out of the ground war and switching to an “air war,” in
part because many of the ground troops who were supposed to do the
fighting were hamstringing the world’s mightiest military force by
their sabotage and resistance.

With the shifting over to an “air war” strategy, the Navy
became an important center of resistance to the war. In response to
the racism that prevailed inside the Navy, black and white sailors
occasionally rebelled together. The most significant of these
rebellions took place on board the USS Constellation off Southern
California, in November 1972. In response to a threat of
less-than-honorable discharges against several black sailors, a group
of over 100
black and white sailors staged a day-and-a-half long sit-in. Fearful of
losing control of his ship at sea to full-scale mutiny, the ship’s
commander brought the Constellation back to San Diego. One hundred
thirty-two sailors were allowed to go ashore. They refused orders to
reboard the ship several days later, staging a defiant dockside strike
on the morning of November 9. In spite of the seriousness of the
rebellion, not one of the sailors involved was arrested.

Sabotage was an extremely useful tactic. On May 26, 1970, the USS
Anderson was preparing to steam from San Diego to Vietnam. But
someone had dropped nuts, bolts and chains down the main gear
shaft. A major breakdown occurred, resulting in thousands of dollars
worth of damage and a delay of several weeks. Several sailors were
charged, but because of a lack of evidence the case was dismissed.
With the escalation of naval involvement in the war the level of
sabotage grew. In July of 1972, within the space of three weeks, two
of the Navy’s aircraft carriers were put out of commission by
sabotage. On July 10, a massive fire swept through the admiral’s
quarters and radar center of the USS Forestall, causing over $7
million in damage. This delayed the ship’s deployment for over
two months. In late July, the USS Ranger was docked at Alameda,
California. Just days before the ship’s scheduled departure for
Vietnam, a paint-scraper and two 12-inch bolts were inserted into the
number-four-engine reduction gears causing nearly $1 million in
damage and forcing a three-and-a-half month delay in operations for
extensive repairs. The sailor charged in the case was acquitted. In
other cases, sailors tossed equipment over the sides of ships while at

The House Armed Services Committee summed up the crisis of
rebellion in the Navy:
“The U.S. Navy is now confronted with pressures...which, if not
controlled, will surely destroy its enviable tradition of discipline.
Recent instances of sabotage, riot, willful disobedience of orders, and
contempt for authority...are clear-cut symptoms of a dangerous
deterioration of discipline.” The rebellion in the ranks didn’t
emerge simply in response to battlefield conditions. A civilian
anti-war movement in the U.S. had emerged on the coat-tails of the
civil rights movement, at a time when the pacifism-at-any-price
tactics of civil rights leaders had reached their effective limit, and
were being questioned by a younger, combative generation. Working
class blacks and Latinos served in combat units out of all proportion
to their numbers in American society, and major urban riots in Watts,
Detroit and Newark had an explosive effect on the consciousness of
these men. After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. major
riots erupted in 181 U.S. cities; at that point the rulers of the United
States were facing the gravest national crisis since the Civil War.
And the radical movement of the late 1960’s wasn’t limited to
the United States. Large-scale rebellion was breaking out all over the
world, in Latin American and Europe and Africa, and even against the
Maoists in China; its high point was the wildcat general strike that
shut down France in May, 1968, the last time a major industrialized
democracy came close to social revolution.

The crisis that racked American society during the Vietnam war was
a grave development in the life of what had been a very stable and
conservative society, but it wasn’t profound enough to create an
irreparable rupture between the rulers and the ruled. In the early
1970’s, the U.S. was still coasting on the relative prosperity of
the post-World War Two economic boom. Social conditions faced by
working people in the U.S. weren’t anywhere near as
overwhelming and unbearable as they are now. U.S. involvement in a
protracted ground war in Iraq today or Columbia tomorrow could have
a much more rapid explosive impact on American society.

A number of years ago, in a deceitful article in Mother Jones
magazine, corporate liberal historian Todd Gitlin claimed that the
peaceful and legal aspects of the 1960’s U.S. anti-war movement
had been the most successful opposition to a war in history. Gitlin
was dead wrong; as a bourgeois historian, Gitlin is paid to render
service unto capital by getting it wrong, and get it wrong he does,
again and again.

The most effective “anti-war” movement in history was at the
end of World War One, when proletarian revolutions broke out in
Russia, Germany and throughout Central Europe in 1917 and 1918. A
crucial factor in the revolutionary movement of that time was the
collapse of the armies and navies of Russian and Germany in
full-scale armed mutiny. After several years of war and millions of
casualties the soldiers and sailors of opposing nations began to
fraternize with each other, turned their guns against their commanding
officers and went home to fight against the ruling classes that had
sent them off to war. The war ended with a global cycle of mutinies
mirroring the social unrest spreading across the capitalist world;
some of the most powerful regimes on Earth were quickly toppled and

Soldiers and sailors played a leading role in the revolutionary
movement. The naval bases Kronstadt in Russia and Kiel and
Wilhelmshaven in Germany became important centers of
revolutionary self-organization and action, and the passing of vast
numbers of armed soldiers and sailors to the side of the Soviets
allowed the working class to briefly take power in Russia.

The French invasion of Revolutionary Russia in 1919 and 1920 was
crippled by the mutiny of the French fleet in the Black Sea, centered
around the battleships France and the Jean Bart. Mutinies broke out
among sailors in the British Navy and in the armies of the British
empire in Asia, and even among American troops sent to aid the
counter-revolutionary White Army in the Russian Civil War.
Revolutionary unrest doesn’t happen every day, but when it does
break out, it can overcome the most powerful states with a surprising
and improbable speed, and the collapse of the repressive forces of the
state is a key moment in the beginning of a new way of life. It’s
an ugly fact that war and revolution were intimately linked in the most
far-going social movements of the 20th century. With the U.S.
governments’ self-appointed role as the cop for global capitalist
law and order, it’s likely that the crisis that will cause an
irreparable break between the rulers and the ruled in the United
States will be the result of an unsuccessful war. That day may soon
be upon us. At that point, widespread fraternization between
anti-capitalist radicals and enlisted people will be crucial in expanding
an anti-war movement into a larger opposition to the system of wage
labor and commodity production that generates wars, exploitation,
poverty, inequality and ecological devastation.

An examination of what happened to the U.S. military during the
Vietnam War can help us see the central role “the military
question” is going to play in a revolutionary mass movement in the
21st century. It isn’t a question of how a chaotic and rebellious
civilian populace can out-gun the well-organized, disciplined armies of
the capitalist state in pitched battle, but of how a mass movement can
cripple the effective fighting capacity of the military from within, and
bring about the collapse and dispersal of the state’s armed forces.
What set of circumstances can compel the inchoate discontentment
endemic in any wartime army or navy to advance to the level of
conscious, organized resistance? How fast and how deeply can a
subversive consciousness spread among enlisted people? How can
rebels in uniform take effective, large-scale action against the military
machine? This effort will involve the sabotage and destruction of
sophisticated military technologies, an irreversible breakdown in the
chain-of-command, and a terminal demoralization of the officer corps.
The “quasi-mutiny” that helped defeat the U.S. in Vietnam
offers a significant precedent for the kind of subversive action
working people will have to foment against 21st century global
capitalism and its high-tech military machine.

As rampaging market forces trash living conditions for the majority of
the world’s people, working class troops will do the fighting in
counter-insurgency actions against other working class people. War
games several years ago by the Marines in a defunct housing project
in Oakland, dubbed ‘Operation Urban Warrior,’ highlight the
fact that America’s rulers want their military to be prepared to
suppress the domestic fallout from their actions, and be ready to do it
soon. But as previous waves of global unrest have shown, the forces
that give rise to mass rebellion in one area of the globe will
simultaneously give rise to rebellion in other parts of the world. The
armed forces are vulnerable to social forces at work in the larger
society that spawns them. Revolt in civilian society bleeds through
the fabric of the military into the ranks of enlisted people. The
relationship between officers and enlisted people mirrors the
relationship between bosses and employees, and similar dynamics of
class conflict emerge in the military and civilian versions of the
workplace. The military is never a hermetically sealed organization.
Our rulers know all this. Our rulers know that they are vulnerable to
mass resistance, and they know that their wealth and power can be
collapsed from within by the working class women and men whom
they depend on. We need to know it, too.

Much of the information for this article has been taken from the book
Soldiers in Revolt: The American Military Today, by David Cortright,
published by Anchor/Doubleday in 1975.
Readers should please send copies of this article to any enlisted
people they know.

An American soldier in a hospital explained how he was wounded: He
said, “I was told that the way to t ell a hostile Vietnamese from a
friendly Vietnamese was to shout ‘To hell with Ho Chi Minh!’
If he shoots, he’s unfriendly. So I saw this dude and yelled
‘To hell with Ho Chi Minh!’ and he yelled back, ‘To hell
with President Johnson!’ We were shaking hands when a truck hit
(from 1,001 Ways to Beat the Draft, by Tuli Kupferburg).


1. A few far-sighted individuals among the U.S. political elite
apparently fear that U.S. involvement in a ground war could trigger
large-scale domestic unrest.

According to Newsweek magazine, at a meeting in the White House
during President Clinton's intervention in the Balkans, a heated
exchange took place between Madeleine Albright, then ambassador
to the United Nations, and then-National Security Adviser Colin

Newsweek gives the following confusing and semi-coherent account:

"...Powell steadfastly resisted American involvement. He initially
opposed even air drops of food, fearing that these would fail and that
U.S. Army ground troops would inevitably be sucked in. His civilian
bosses, who suspected him of padding the numbers when asked how
many U.S. troops would be required, grew impatient.

At one meeting, Madeleine Albright, then ambassador to the United
Nations, famously confronted Powell. "What's the point of having this
superb military that you're always talkingabout if we can't use it?" she
demanded. In his memoirs, Powell recalled that he told Albright that
GI's were "not toy soldiers to be moved around on some sort of global
game board."

An official who witnessed the exchange told NEWSWEEK that
Powell also said something quite revealing that has not been reported.
"You would see this wonderful society destroyed," the general angrily
told Albright.

It was clear, said this official, that Powell was referring to his beloved

("Colin Powell: Behind the Myth," by Evan Thomas and John Berry,
Newsweek, March 5th, 2001)

Colin Powell was a junior officer in the fragging-plagued Americal
Division during the Vietnam War. On numerous occasions, Powell
has said that the US defeat in Vietnam was the main influence on the
way he sees the world. Pow ell clearly understands that the armed
forces are a function of the larger civilian society that spawns them.

Was Colin Powell speaking about the US Army -- or about US society
itself with his comment about seeing "this wonderful society
destroyed?" You be the judge!

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