Below, five Metro DC DSA vets remember their growing awareness of how war feeds capitalism and vice versa. From different eras of the endless US war for corporate imperialism, our comrades below recount how they got to today.
As Bob notes below, this is the 50th anniversary of the beginnings of organized GI resistance to wars in which they have been entangled. Other vets from the era of Dewey Canyon III have their own recollections in the latest edition of The Veteran, the newspaper of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). The editorial by the VVAW collective leadership — a statement issued just a week after the January 6 coup attempt — warns that fascism is still on the table for many who are unable to let go of white supremacy. “We must be vigilant. We must use our experiences to educate others. We must demand explanations, not coverups; justice, not slaps on the wrist. People died in the Capitol for Trump's personal vanity and for the class interests that continue to support him.”
The struggle continues, and vets have the unique experience that makes their contribution to a socialist future an important element.
RECENTLY, I WAS SURPRISED to hear about the attitude towards vets by some comrades. We were starting a vets group to help with the PRO Act campaign when an active-duty Marine said that he didn't want to “come out” as active duty because he was told that some DSAers think they're baby killers. I told him that he should have more faith in his fellow comrades and that when VVAW was formed, we were welcomed with opened arms. Later, I joined DSA's Veterans Working Group and heard the same from them.
We decided to write an article to try to explain the position that young working-class people are in when they decide to join up. Faced with unemployment, they could get a job flipping burgers at minimum wage or join a gang and go to jail. Many are given a choice (by judges) — jail or military service.
We aren't born class conscious. Some are born to class-conscious parents and are schooled in correct politics. Others have wealthy parents and had their lives smoothed out for them. Most of us, though, aren't born with a silver or red spoon in our mouth and have to learn by making mistakes. I remember arriving in Vietnam and seeing a Coca-Cola plant and an Esso station and wondering if they were there because we were or we were there because they were.
I was in an artillery unit, and after six months I was given a three-day pass for R&R in Vũng Tàu. When I returned I was told that a soldier who was openly against the war threw a grenade in the bunker with his section and killed them all. I used to talk to him and he would complain about constant harassment from his whole section. The pressure was intense to conform.
When I got out of the Army I joined the peace movement as soon as I could. I was in a collective and demonstrating against the war on May Day in 1971 when I came across these guys in uniform throwing something. Turns out they were throwing their medals back. Shortly after that I joined VVAW.
This is the 50th anniversary of Operation Dewey Canyon lll, 1971. During that year we camped at Valley Forge. We visited VA hospitals and protested. At Christmas we took over the Statue of Liberty to stop the bombing of the dikes in Hanoi. We carried a coffin into the middle of Times Square, released hundreds of black balloons and led the crowd of 200,000 in a chant of “Peace Now” on worldwide TV on New Year’s Eve.
After a number of failures we joined with American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in a joint venture at Fort Meade, Maryland, in 1972. We called it the Military Law Project and were outside the gates of the fort. AFSC was supplying lawyers for conscientious objectors and I was recruiting socialists. We produced a newspaper called Highway 13 for three years which we distributed on post and was written by the GIs themselves. In 1975, at the end of the war, we were getting reports from the base that the newly returned soldiers were refusing to follow any orders. They had long hair and beards and stayed in their bunks all day. The military didn't know what to do with them. They couldn't court martial them all without it getting out. So they gave them early release. Shortly after, the draft was ended and the volunteer army began.
So when you’re feeling self righteous about us baby killers, remember that the draft could still be active and you could become a baby killer too.
MDC DSA NoVA Branch
DO MILITARY VETERANS BELONG IN DSA? In some ways there is no better or starker view of the machinery of capitalism we are all caught in than that available to the soldier in uniform.
Bob’s experience in service was different from mine, though both of us obviously hated being in uniform in Nam or out of it. I was a bourgeois kid, already a college grad when I tried to figure out how to get out of the draft and combat without having to go to jail. So I enlisted, listening to the sneaky lies of a recruiting sergeant who told me the Army Security Agency (ASA) didn’t go to combat zones. Hook, line and sinker for yours truly since it got me what I wanted: language training. But ASA went to plenty of combat zones, including Vietnam — just under assumed names such as the 8th Radio Research Field Station, Phu Bai (just south of Hue), where I spent the better part of 1967.
Along with the good luck of bourgeois privilege, I got lucky in being shipped out to Korea before spending more than half a year in Vietnam (and just two months before Tet in 1968). At the Korea listening post, scorn for the war in Vietnam was widespread among enlisted types and we could play at being hippies. After a year there (and a drug bust) my bumpy progress back stateside left me at Fort Meade, just outside DC, where even in 1969 the level of dissent Bob speaks of above was high. I soon lost my security clearance for participating in peace marches on the weekends. I finished up at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where many GIs who lost their clearances wound up, and got introduced to the GI Coffeehouse movement, a haven for dissent right there in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
When I got out in 1970, a friend got me a job working the mimeograph machine in the Socialist Party USA office in NYC (I thought of myself as a Marxist-Leninist with weapons training and thought socialists were wimps). I joined VVAW right away, and a lot of my comrades there had similarly revolutionary notions that didn’t feel delusional at the time. But after a one-year stint at the SP (where they began to look thoughtful and vaguely interesting as well as wimpy), I headed back down to Fayetteville and wound up working a year there as a civilian (living with GIs and ex-GIs in the same dumpy off-post rental I had lived in while still in uniform) and helping start a VVAW chapter in the Haymarket coffeehouse with the love and support of the coffeehouse collective. Organizing in Fayetteville and talking to the coffeehouse collective began to morph me into a socialist, though it wasn’t until a year or so later, in Florida, that I took a thick paperback off the shelf in my favorite bookstore and wondered, “Who is this guy Harrington — the same one who was chair of the SP when I worked there — and why would a book about socialism have to have THAT many pages?” DSOC was still in Harrington’s future in 1974, and in my own. But ideas were beginning to hang together.
You might think I was pretty lucky in my Army experience compared to many who suffered, and often died, as tools of corporate imperialism. And you would be right. But without the rage and helplessness that is the peculiar lot of the soldier in uniform (wartime or no) I would probably have never had my bourgeois, college-boy path so altered and the mechanics of capitalism and its alternatives so exposed to me.
MDC DSA PG County Branch
I DON'T FULLY UNDERSTAND WHAT THE PERCEPTION OF MEMBERS OF THE MILITARY ARE TO SOCIALISTS or to most people in general. I assume most people can separate individuals from systems but even when they can't, it's an opportunity for enlightenment.
A lot of people who join the military don't do it to fight in foreign wars or even for the patriotic heroism you see in ads and commercials. It's a job, a means of moving forward when your options seem limited. Especially to people like me who come from a low-income background. I joined the Marines because I was an angry, misguided teenager desperate for change. It was the positive choice out of the few paths before me. Even now I'd say my recruiter saved my life. It was only a matter of time before I could become absorbed by the hustlers and gangsters in my old neighborhood of Washington Heights in New York.
I remember walking into the recruitment office, having a look around and seeing only the Marine recruiter at his office. The Army and Navy offices were vacant so I walked into his office and had what for me would be a life-changing conversation.
After a practice aptitude test, he had convinced me to work as an Aviation Supply Specialist, basically working logistics in a warehouse, and explained to me what to expect in my active-duty years in service over the next four years. Lucky me, having the most honest recruiter in all of the Marine Corps, he detailed the uncertainty of knowing where I'd be stationed and the psychological challenges of the military lifestyle, right down to the indoctrination and propagandizing I'd be exposed to.
I was fortunate to have never gone into combat as well, spending most of my time between South Carolina and Japan. I got out in 2010 with mixed emotions about the entire experience but felt so very fortunate to have the next four years of college completely paid for.
Struggling through engineering school and job hunting, I never fully considered morals or ethics or even paid much attention to government, even though I was an active-duty member of the Marines post 9/11. It wasn't until I was finally working towards stability with a steady job and a stream of income to pay rent that I took a step back and really considered morality and the current state of things in the United States. When you're struggling to achieve a stable life, you don't think of the current state of things outside of your personal bubble.
I was working in the Department of Energy when I first started thinking about politics. I would have to re-educate myself to overcome years of conditioning and learn about the true price of capitalism. As far as politics go, I was aware of the presidential races but paid no mind to the consequences. After all, what does the president of the United States personally do for me? It was 2016 when I first really started paying attention, especially because, for the first time, I would be directly affected by the consequences of an election. Since then, I strove to learn more about socialism as a path forward so that others who come from backgrounds similar to my own don't have to struggle blindly.
It took me a long time to get to my current state of awakening, and my time in the military facilitated a big part of that. I joined the DSA only recently, much later than I should have, and have always had criticisms of our US system but never really considered how I could be a part of the solution. There are many veterans who joined the military for personal reasons, but a majority — like myself — came up under difficult circumstances, propagated by a broken system, and deserve our support. If welcomed, these veterans would serve as enthusiastic comrades in the DSA.
LIKE MANY PEOPLE, I JOINED THE ARMY FOR ECONOMIC REASONS. I was going deeper and deeper into student loan debt while working a dead-end job and had trouble paying rent. The Army gave me a chance to have a reliable and sufficient paycheck, housing, health care, job training, a way out of Arkansas, and a future. The guarantee of some sort of security and an end to my own precarity was more than enough to convince me to enlist. But that’s not the only reason I joined.
Like many people, I also joined the Army for ideological reasons. I believed that the US military played a good and necessary role in international affairs. I bought into the patriotism. I rationalized away the history of the US military as a few high-profile blunders by civilian leaders in service of greater global stability. Perhaps most importantly, I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself. I wanted to be part of a collective struggle to make the world a better place.
I still hold on to that last thought, having long since discarded the rest. It was a driving factor that led me to join DSA.
I turned the corner from liberal to socialist while I was in the Army. As I became increasingly skeptical of the work I was doing and the role the military played in international affairs, I turned to the ascendant left media. Ideas and theories I had never heard before suddenly made everything click. My entire worldview shifted, and I began laying the groundwork to leave the Army and join the movement. If I could be so moved, so could other troops.
The gulf between troops and socialists is not as wide as many may believe. Troops know what it means to be part of a movement, to cast aside their individualism in service of a greater goal. Troops understand organization, delegation and how to build effective structures. Many troops have practical leadership experience. The skills and knowledge acquired from serving in the armed forces can be valuable to any socialist organization and will ensure that DSA remains resilient and efficient as it expands to become the largest socialist organization in American history.
Troops also have firsthand experience with many socialized programs and their pitfalls. Troops understand how mismanagement and a few bad actors can ruin communal living, how poor administration can cause headaches with free health care, how overwrought bureaucracy can hinder essential services and how meritocratic systems can be gamed to promote poor leaders. Because troops have practical knowledge of theoretical socialist programs, they are in a unique position to help craft, implement and administer policy as we march closer to the ability to do so.
Active recruitment of veterans and active duty will do a great service to the socialist cause. Their knowledge and skills will prove invaluable as we build towards a better future. While it is true that there are conservative and chauvinist currents throughout the military, troops come from a wide range of backgrounds and are disproportionately BIPOC. Most that I met were apathetic or had underdeveloped politics, like much of the US population. Most were disaffected youth who joined because they had few better options. As foreign military intervention wanes, many troops will check out and become disillusioned with a military that has less and less for them to actually do. This is our time to make inroads and bridge that gap, to give these folks a positive movement in which to put their skills and knowledge to good use, to give them a place where they can feel the camaraderie that up until now has been the sole purview of the armed forces. They will be better for being with us, we will be better for having them and, together, we can fight for a socialist future.
MDC DSA MoCo Branch
I SIGNED MY LIFE OVER to the US government at 18 years old. It’s still an astounding thing to think about — how little one knows about the world at 18. The Army knows this, and they take advantage.
I grew up in a small town in northeast Tennessee. In the 1990s, a third of our residents were employed by the TV manufacturer Magnavox, and when they shut down their factories, the town was severely impacted. My grandmother, who raised me and my brother, lost her pension after working with them for over 20 years. With few other options, she got a job at Walmart. Needless to say, we had little money.
We benefited from Tennessee’s low-income health-care option, TennCare, and free lunch programs. In school I got good grades; I graduated high school with a 3.6 GPA, but my family had no money saved for college. The Army knows this, and they take advantage.
I spent the bulk of my time with the Army in Florida, so I got to visit home often. I would visit my grandmother, who at that point spent her time as an aide for older people who need home care; she was usually the same age as her client. She would complain about how sore her feet were, how expensive her insurance was and how worried she was about my upcoming deployment. I would talk with my younger brother, who was working his way through community college. He benefited from state funding for community colleges and worked part-time for a local coffee shop. I would spend time with my wife, who was $45,000 in student debt after earning the best scholarship that her school offered. She had to stay in-state for tuition prices, so we spent most of our time apart. My family is more important to me than anything. The Army knows this, and they take advantage.
My contract ended in 2018 and I returned home for good. I was ready to finally go to school using my GI Bill benefits, which gave me 36 months of college tuition and a housing stipend. My wife and I looked for work. She was a recent college graduate and my only marketable skill was my security clearance. I worked in manufacturing and retail, but none of the jobs paid a living wage, none of the jobs had benefits and none of the jobs provided any sense of job security. Any attempt to organize would have resulted in my immediate termination. The Army knows this, and they take advantage.
I was contacted by a recruiter only a few months after the end of my contract; this time I knew better. The Army provided me with a middle-class income, job security, free health care and college tuition. Coming from a poor region, I understand the value of these things and how unfortunately rare they are in today’s job market. I also understand that these issues are byproducts of capitalism, and that the military preys on those that have been abandoned by this system. My experiences fuel my effort to fight for a more just system. That’s why now, at 25 years old, I’ve signed my life to a new cause: to fight for socialism.
MDC DSA veterans: To learn more, join the #veterans-active-duty on our chapter's Slack channel.