I don’t mean to sound old school here. When General Giap, a commander of the Vietnam Peoples’ Army, wrote in his memoir about the conditions that allowed a victory over the almighty US armed forces in his country, he gave a lot of reasons. A singularly important one for us was the resistance to the war within the ranks of the American military. This should never be dismissed or forgotten.
The US generals, admirals, and the ruling politicians of that day learned this the hard way. It was not that they misunderstood the threat of disloyalty. VVAW (Vietnam Veterans Against the War) was regarded by the FBI as one of the most seditious and dangerous organizations in the country, behind the black radical groupings (the Panthers, BLA. etc.). It was also one of the most infiltrated groups.
It took a while for GI opposition in America to resonate within the broader anti-war movement and eventually with the population at large. This opposition included the participation of soldiers in larger protest demonstrations, creating forums for military personnel to air their grievances and to organize (like coffeehouses), the publication of underground journals distributed in the barracks or on board ship, and active servicemen and vets publicly speaking out against the war. David Cortright, a veteran GI resistance organizer, referred to these folks as the “dissenters.” He distinguished these kinds of activities from those of the “resisters.” The resisters disobeyed orders, went AWOL, sabotaged weapons and equipment, disrupted supply routes, and even attacked their own officers (an act which became known as fragging, referring to the use of fragmentation grenades). It was this amalgam of dissidence that wound up giving the willies to the US brass.
So if we fast forward to Covid 2020 and look at the conditions of the US sailors on the Big Stick aircraft carrier, the USS Teddy Roosevelt, and countless other vessels in their huge fleet, this warrants attention. The sailors are no doubt scared and pissed off. As I write this, the skipper of the Teddy Roosevelt, Brett Crozier, has been fired for raising the alarm over the disease. I’m sure more repercussions will come. The sailors on board have baulked, mainly out of loyalty to their captain. But what do the lower ranks do? They can’t complain via the usual grievance procedure and hope to get anywhere. It seems to me that their only choices are to obey orders and put faith in the higher command or commit mutiny. Mutiny might be a real option for them in this time of the plague. This sounds unrealistic, but it represents a ripple that could turn into a wave.
How might this be perceived? In a society that places enormous value on patriotism, probably not too well. Or are those values losing relevance as the virus holds sway? MSNBC, the liberal flagship cable news network, has already raised concerns about the navy situation, namely that this could fuck with US imperialism and wouldn’t that be a terrible thing. And they oppose Trump!
I think some clarity can be gained from previous efforts at organizing resistance amongst the ranks. I believe that the sailors had legitimate complaints certainly prior to the plague, but even more so now, and I would like to hold out that they might be able to self-organize. Around what, aside from the health threat, might be more problematic. Here’s one example of why.
In the late 1970s, I was part of an effort to cause disruption in the South African Defense Force. I had served in the South African infantry in Angola in 1976 and 1977 and became an opponent of South Africa’s illegal wars, internally and externally. By 1978, enough of us had scarpered to London and we formed a group of war resisters there. Some of us wanted to be just a vocal presence outside, good enough, but others of us wanted to agitate amongst the new recruits inside South Africa. There, the draft was compulsory for all young white boys. Our conundrum was how to approach them. We wanted as many as possible to avoid the draft, but we were naïve on our assumptions. Our ultimate goal was to recruit for the liberation struggle, and here we falsely hoped that refusal to serve for the regime meant allegiance to the fight against it.
We tried all sorts of strategies. We published an underground magazine called “Omkeer” (Afrikaans for About Face) and managed to get it clandestinely distributed to draft age white youth. The plan was to plant uncertainty and questions in the minds of the recruits, hoping that they wouldn’t automatically swallow the bullshit that they were due to get fed. We promised to advocate for political asylum for draft resisters or deserters who arrived in the UK or here (by that time I was sent to the US to help set this up), which we did. We wanted people inside the country to know that people like us could help outside the country. Our end was to weaken South Africa’s war mongering capability by any means at our limited disposal through the building of white resistance.
Back then, the captured war resisters were conscientious objectors, some for religious reasons, others being pacifists, and fewer for taking an overt political stand. They were all brave people because they were severely punished by the regime.
Meanwhile, we made all sorts of mistakes, the main one being the false belief that self-interest (the desire not to be in the army or the war) translated into a more developed critique of South African society. We paid for this and our group was a target for infiltration. It was easy for the Boers, all they had to do was send somebody over who said the right things and had credible credentials. Most of the people we dealt with took our help and we never saw them again. Those that stuck around were either allies or a peril. It was rough going.
We understood that we were hitting the enemy in a vulnerable soft spot for them, namely screwing with allegiance to their program of white solidarity. But they understood this too. And they were better equipped to fight us. They made our lives very difficult, and we tried to give the same back to them. So we kept it up. Eventually this all took off in South Africa, and by the late 1980s, the “End Conscription Campaign”, an indigenous group, was an almost popular organization for white men in South Africa.
My point here is that we were strong on our idealism and weak on our assumptions and judgment of where peoples’ consciousness was. I attended an anniversary of the End Conscription Campaign in Port Elizabeth, South Africa in 2009 and I couldn’t believe how milquetoast the politics were. This was fifteen years after the ANC transformation and these people were still talking like the lads who pitched up in London and New York in 1980. There wasn’t much there worth salvaging. They just didn’t want to go into the army. Looking after number one seemed to be the order of the day.
I would have to say that we had more success with young men who had already been in the army, versus those who didn’t want to go in. And those of us who had served communicated much better with the veterans. We not only understood the regular grievances, we also had jointly experienced some of the war’s horrors. These guys were the best recruits into the resistance movement and, on the whole, they were the most reliable and genuine. If we ever established a yardstick, it was here, and it served us (at least me) well.
In our wildest imaginations, we argued for resistance organization in the barracks. This was nigh impossible because almost every potential resister was isolated or in the minority. But it was a pursuit that was never abandoned, and we advocated it constantly throughout the pages of Omkeer and our other sources. Such were our pipe dreams.
The distinction between our efforts and the US ones is that we were exhorting people to change sides. Our task was different and a bit more difficult than what confronted US GI anti-war organizers.
By now, you might be asking yourself what has this got to do with the USS Teddy Roosevelt circumstance. Think about it. To quote Bruce Springsteen “From small things mama, big things one day come.” We are all soldiers whether we like it or not. And we need recruits too.