Can Soldiers Resist?

Against the Current, No. 133, March/April 2008

interviews with Tod Ensign and Phil Aliff

TOD ENSIGN IS director of Citizen Soldier, a GI/ veterans rights advocacy organization based in New York City. (See For his previous articles in Against the Current, see ATC 91 (March/April 2001) “A Decade of Gulf War Illness” and ATC 112 (September/October 2004) “The U.S. Military Under Stress.” Tod was interviewed for Against the Current by Nate Franco.

Against the Current: How did you get involved in the GI antiwar movement (during Vietnam)?

Tod Ensign: Like a lot of antiwar activists, I was looking for ways to become more involved. I’m a lawyer, and I had worked in the federal anti-poverty bureaucracy; I wanted to find a way to be more involved in a direct and dynamic way.

Some people like me went out and joined up with GI projects [the coffee houses around the bases]. They were working for meals and a place to sleep; that was the culture of the movement then.

We’re talking about two very different periods. During Vietnam you had the very large antiwar movement and the anti-draft movement, which was also large and dynamic. The anti-draft movement had big implications for college campuses, which were ablaze because of the conscription issue.

There was also the women’s movement, which was growing, and a number of women were organizers at these projects. Just as important was the Black liberation movement. At Camp Lejeune, the GI project there had a bookstore right in Jacksonville, a tough little southern town, and Black soldiers would come in there all the time, looking for Black revolutionary writing. They could barely keep the books in stock!

That was a very different period, and of course the GI movement emerged from those movements. It was a broad-based movement with many currents; that does not exist today.

After the My Lai massacre broke in early November of 1969, Ralph Schoenman, who had done the war crimes hearings in Europe, said “We ought to have hearings in this country to show that soldiers at the low ranks are not responsible for policies and that My Lai was the logical conclusion of “search and destroy” and other policies of the Vietnam war that were conceived in Washington and at Harvard by Samuel Huntington and the rest.” He added, “You can’t understand those policies by looking at soldiers’ conduct.”

That was absolutely right, and it’s exactly the same today. My first involvement with the GI antiwar movement was looking for soldiers to testify for these hearings. We weren’t veterans and didn’t have any connection to military life, but we wanted to show that the policies explained the war crimes. I went around to GI coffee houses all around the country.

ATC: How has the “all volunteer” military affected the current GI movement, compared to the Vietnam antiwar movement?

TE: As I explain in my book America’s Military Today (New Press, 2004), the Gates Commission made the tactical decision to no longer to have a conscript army, to go to an all-volunteer concept. This is a direct quote from [free-market economist Milton] Friedman: “I believe the majority of anti-war sentiment is driven by the draft.”

You know what; it’s worked pretty damn well for them. The military no longer reflects a cross-section of this society; it’s made up of poor, unemployed and working poor people.

The military today is cut off from the rest of American society, and that affects the antiwar movement very directly and its ability to reach soldiers through their families and buddies. It was a very important decision for them to be able to deploy soldiers to future and unpopular foreign adventures. It’s worked well for them. That’s why the GI movement hasn’t grown, and it’s part of why — even at Fort Drum — we have a hard time generating activism among active-duty soldiers and their families.

Some people in the antiwar movement think that the anti-draft movement stopped the draft. That’s bullshit; almost everywhere, the draft board worked fine. They didn’t get rid of the draft because it wasn’t working; they said, let’s have a military that’s not subject to broader political movements.

ATC: Why have you organized the coffee house? What do you think coffee houses near bases can accomplish for the current GI movement?

TE: Our reasoning was that we’re not going to build a GI movement like Vietnam because we don’t have a representative military anymore, but maybe we can still reach out and organize soldiers. For soldiers, this war is worse than Vietnam.

In Vietnam, soldiers did 12 months, came home, and that was it. Unless soldiers volunteered, that was it. The guys at Fort Drum are on their 3rd tour. A lot of them are going to do 40-45 months in Iraq and Afghanistan. The psychiatric evidence is all very clear: we know that after 240 days in combat, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) begins to become significant. So it’s no surprise that the rates of PTSD in this war are much higher.

This war is also worse because it is a totally counterinsurgent war. Soldiers never confront “the enemy,” never shoot people in uniform. Soldiers shoot civilians and children and women all the time. Those are stressors to soldiers — they always have been.

Counter-insurgency wars bring on more PTSD than conventional wars. You can morally justify shooting someone who’s pointing a gun at you.

Our attempt at the Different Drummer is an experiment, to break the silence. We have bands on the weekends that pack our place to capacity with 18-20 year olds. What’s it mean, though? We get soldiers, soldiers with their girlfriends, “army brats,” army dependents. We have literature, big book racks filled with stuff that’s virtually given to people if they want it.

But we’ve had a hard time translating the crowd into any kind of coherent political engagement. They come in, meet girls — just like during Vietnam — but how are we politicizing? It’s an interesting problem, and we haven’t solved it.

Dave Zeiger, who made the documentary “Sir! No Sir!” and, during Vietnam, was at Oleo Strut for two years, said, “We had exactly the same issues then. We felt they were running a nightclub for soldiers. And for a while we didn’t put on any cultural performances or music other than political stuff, and it mostly bombed.” Even then! [Oleo Strut was a coffee house in Killen, Texas, 1968-72. It was named after a shock absorber in a helicopter’s landing gear — ed.]
Our second hope was that we could spark similar projects at other bases. It’s been a year and three months, and so far that hasn’t happened. We’ve met with people who are interested, but nothing has come into existence.

For one thing, you don’t have people coming in and saying, “Let me help.” We don’t have people coming up to the Different Drummer saying, “I just got out of college and I want to give a year to this!” That’s true for a lot of reasons: 1) because people are $60,000 in debt from their student loans and 2) because there isn’t the fat out there.

ATC: What are your successes? What are the challenges?

TE: Our hope was to 1) make it a laboratory for how to work with soldiers and    2) stimulate similar projects and then we learn from them. We’re open, we don’t have an agenda, and we’re not trying to recruit people to some vanguard thing. But when you’re alone as a single project, you have to generate new ideas. One of the reasons we have some success is because I’m a lawyer and we’re able to rigorously defend soldiers, especially on PTSD issues. In those cases, we really kicked the army’s ass. We got our guys down to [army hospital] Walter Reed.

They never send anyone to Walter Reed! But because we’ve had all these years of legal experience with the military, we have been successful with legal defense and advocacy. We’ve gotten a lot of attention. We get great publicity! We’ve got a whole program on PTSD on a station up there! We have media attention and high visibility legal cases, but how does that translate into soldiers coming together and articulating their issues on their own terms? That’s the challenge.

ATC: What do you see as the most exciting part of the GI movement?

TE: The antiwar movement needs to build on the collapse of the Veterans Administration’s services. The military almost doesn’t have mental health services. Fort Drum doesn’t even have a bed to put a suicidal soldier in — no mental health beds. This might lead to widespread revulsion and disgust with the military. Today I don’t see a lot of evidence for it but it could happen. It doesn’t have to be an antiwar statement; it is just that “we’ve done our share.”

There’s no way to relieve the pressure. Bush will never in a million years go to a draft, nor will Hillary or Obama. They say they’re going to sign up another 60,000 troops, but they can barely meet their recruiting quotas now.

At Winter Soldier, I’ll be talking about the GI movement, and I hope that people will come forward to start new projects like the Different Drummer, projects that allow GIs to get together and self-organize and that can encourage and support resistance.

ATC: How severe is the military’s “manpower” crisis today — and how much will this be mitigated by the post-”surge” reduction in troop levels in Iraq?

TE: When Clinton entered office, there were 2.1 million people were on active duty. When he left, there were 1.4 million. That’s 700,000 people gone. That’s the work of the defense lobbies. The defense budget grew some, but it couldn’t grow much, so they put their money on the expensive guns and equipment, and got rid of 700,000 troops. When they went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, they had 35% fewer troops than they had in 1991, when they went into Kuwait.

To build a successful volunteer military the Gates Commission had three recommendations. The first was that wages had to be brought to a competitive level — just above the night window at Wendy’s, about $24,000 a year and health benefits.

Second, women had to be integrated into the force, giving them a larger pool to recruit from. And they are — 15% of the force is female — with the exception of the marines and the army combat units. The trouble is that army combat soldiers and marines are what they need! That’s who’s doing the fighting; they don’t need people in the back, running computers in the office.

The Gates Commission’s other point, which is really key and which the antiwar movement has done a lousy job of exploiting, is that in any future large-scale initiative the Reserves and the National Guard must be mobilized. That’s right in the 30-year old Gates report! No one should be surprised — they had to mobilize those people! But the antiwar movement has no influence in those communities.

The military is trying to buy their way out of this shortage. The average bonus for re-enlistment is $30,000-40,000. They are also giving recruitment bonuses: you can get a $10,000-15,000 bonus for first-time enlistment.

The counter-recruitment movement doesn’t understand that the military is going to spend what they have to spend because to the military its chump change. After all, $200 million is almost the cost of one Raptor [F-22 Fighter plane]. They’ve figured out that when you have an economy like this, with NAFTA and the job loss, they can do it—and so far they have.

ATC: The staggering death toll from “Gulf War Syndrome” following the 1991 war was pretty successfully covered up. Do you have a sense of the number of “non-combat” deaths or crippling ailments among U.S. forces in the current wars?

TE: There’s no doubt that the Gulf War Syndrome is real. In this war, PTSD is going to be off the graph. Suicide — off the graph. All the things that come with the PTSD will be way up in the coming years, especially when the military doesn’t make any plans to treat people. There is no facility at Fort Drum, and that’s the most-deployed unit in the Army. You don’t have to be an epidemiologist to know what’s going to happen.  Soldiers are treated like just so many soda bottles to be thrown out.

IN 2005-06 PHIL Aliff served nearly one year in Iraq as a member of the 10th Mountain Division. He participated in approximately 300 patrols in the Abu Ghraib and Fallujah areas west of Baghdad. Aliff, who suffers from PTSD, is a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War.

Against the Current: What have your successes been? What have the challenges been?

Phil Aliff: It’s really important to have a safe place for veterans to go and articulate their views off-base. We’ve been able to recruit a large active-duty Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) chapter due to the events at the Different Drummer (see We need a full-time organizer at the coffee house who has roots in the military. Specifically, we need a veteran of the war on terror who can effectively do outreach on the base. This will play a really important role in reaching soldiers who have not yet been to the Different Drummer but might be interested.

ATC: What do you see as the most exciting part of the GI movement?

PA: The response we’re getting from active duty soldiers about Winter Soldier is very exciting. Many people have heard about IVAW through the organizing around Winter Soldier, and want to come to it. Through this outreach we’ll be able to build a broader base within the military.

ATC: Given the tactical shift in loyalties among Sunni factions in Anbar province, the Mahdi Army’s cease-fire and the much-publicized “reduction in levels of violence,” what’s your sense of the current morale of U.S. forces on the ground?

PA: The morale is very low, and for a number of reasons. The high rate of deployment is part of it — people are on their fourth deployments now. Soldiers who are on their third tours aren’t seeing the changes in Iraq that they were told would be made. For example, on his second tour my brother was told that the area his unit was deployed in would be turned over to Iraqi forces. But now he’s going back to the same place for a third tour.

Although the military hasn’t released the numbers, the rate of AWOLs is up. So is the number of soldiers choosing to get out of the military and not reenlisting. Domestic violence is also a widespread problem — definitely not the isolated event that the military says it is. There is stigma attached to receiving help for PTSD, and many don’t get it.

I think that right now a lot of soldiers are looking for the 2008 elections to affect the war. A lot are looking to the Democrats or Ron Paul.

We had a distrust of the chain of command because they put us in situations where we would be ambushed or get in firefights. We felt we were in combat so that they could receive their promotions. There was a lot of anger about that; the situation is still the same.

Most enlisted people direct resentment towards the chain of command. But we’re also seeing some [officers] turning against the war. For example, more of them are joining IVAW. The people who joined the military as a career are upset because of the military’s policies: repeated tours, being forced to fire on civilians and using illegal weapons like white phosphorus. As IVAW does more grassroots organizing, we’ll see more about the depth of that broad-based resentment. In the last year four active-duty chapters have started on active-duty forts.

ATC: To what extent do soldiers unhappy with the chain of command and critical of the war know about a GI antiwar movement? Outside of IVAW, to what extent is there any organizing or publicity of antiwar critiques — such as in blogs, emails, letters home, etc.?

PA: A lot of GIs don’t know about the GI antiwar movement yet, because the movement is still small. But we’ve seen a lot of blogs that have soldiers talking about the movement and the war and how they see it.  I think that soldiers see the broader movement in more publicized events, like demonstrations, but I’m not sure how they view them. Because most soldiers don’t know about IVAW we don’t really know how they feel, but the events at Fort Drum have been very popular. A lot of the soldiers we talk to feel that we’re a voice for them.

ATC 133, March-April 2008