From "When John Wayne Went Out of Focus"

Revolt in the War Machine

Revolutionary Worker #1047, March 19, 2000

Going into the Vietnam War it was taken for granted that America's youth would eagerly answer the call to war, just as their fathers had in World War 2. But rather quickly the U.S. military machine found itself severely hobbled from within: mutinies broke out in jungle gorges and on board the U.S.'s fighting fortresses; officers were killed by their own troops; hundreds of thousands of soldiers deserted the ranks before their tours were up; antiwar protests, organizations, and newspapers tormented the brass on every major U.S. military installation in the world.

When the first U.S. ground troops were sent into battle in March 1965, with the massive firepower and support capacity of the U.S. behind them, they were told that they were in Vietnam to crush a force which was politically isolated among the local populace. But from the first the U.S. troops found themselves pitted against a determined, if outgunned, armed revolution which enjoyed massive popular support. Eight years, some $120 billion and 3,000,000 troops later, the country which sent these soldiers to war had lost the war.

The Magnitude of the Contagion

In 1971, the Armed Forces Journal published a shocking (and now famous) article on "The Collapse of the Armed Forces":

"The morale, discipline and battleworthiness of the U.S. Armed Forces are, with a few salient exceptions, lower and worse than at any time in this century and possibly in the history of the United States. By every conceivable indicator, our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and non-commissioned officers, drug-ridden and dispirited where not near-mutinous. Elsewhere than Vietnam, the situation is nearly as serious."

By 1969 a majority of the U.S. troops had turned against the war for many different reasons; the demoralization and questioning among the troops was profound. Not only did most of the ground troops in Vietnam hold at least grudging respect for the enemy, being especially awed by its staying power and popular support, but by 1970 soldiers could easily be found who openly sympathized with the Vietnamese liberation struggle--that is, with "the enemy"--especially among Black and other oppressed nationality soldiers.

Desertions and AWOLs. In 1971, seventeen of every 100 soldiers went AWOL and seven of every 100 soldiers deserted (went AWOL for more than 30 days). This translates as 98,058 deserters in the Army in 1971, 67% of whom came from the lowest ranks.

Combat Refusals. According to one writer, "The latter stages of the Vietnam War produced no fewer than ten major incidents of mutiny." According to another writer, "By 1975, there were 35 separate combat refusals in the Air Cavalry Division alone." And for each of these major refusals there were dozens of minor ones or situations in which combat orders were effectively thwarted.

Simply refusing to fight became the main way the troops in Vietnam opposed the war. It generally took the form of "advancing only so far" (rather than refusing to advance at all), or refusing to "engage" the enemy ("search and destroy" missions were dubbed "search and avoid").

In the fall 1971, 1,200 of 4,500 sailors on the attack carrier Coral Sea signed a petition opposing a return to Vietnam. A thousand antiwar protesters gathered to support them. Three junior officers resigned and condemned the war and 35 sailors deserted the ship.

A year later Black sailors revolted on the carrier Kitty Hawk demanding an end to racism on the ship and a withdrawal of the carrier from the war.

A month later 150 Black, Chicano, and some white sailors seized parts of the carrier Constellation for 24 hours, forcing the ship to return to San Diego.

Fragging. Col. Heinl wrote in his Armed Forces Journal article: "Word of the deaths of officers will bring cheers at troop movies or in bivouacs of certain units." Officially there were 239 fragging attempts in 1969, 386 in 1970, 333 in 1971 and 58 in 1972. Only killing by hand grenades counted in these statistics. Attempts to kill officers using rifles, automatics, claymore mines, "misdirection of hostile ambush" (i.e., shooting your officer in the back while in combat), and so on, did not count as fragging. So the real number of attacks on officers was much higher. Many officers received "friendly warnings" like a grenade pin on their bunks.

One veteran recalled: "Nobody fucked with nobody in the field. An officer knows if he messed with you in the field, in a fire fight you could shoot him in the head. This was standard procedure in any infantry unit [by the end of the war]. Anybody tells you differently, he's shitting you."

Each incidence of fragging had a multiplier effect. One Army judge warned that "once an officer is intimidated by even the threat of fragging, he is useless to the military because he can no longer carry out orders."

Fraternization with the Enemy. Jack Anderson reported in a 1980 column:

"According to military sources... as many as 500 American GIs actively assisted the enemy in Vietnam. About 30 prisoners of war went over to the enemy and played active anti-American roles in the POW camps. And as many as six Americans are believed to have taken up arms against U.S. troops in Vietnam. At least two of these--both Marine privates--are known to have joined in combat with the Viet Cong against American forces."

The most celebrated case of a soldier deserting and then fighting with the liberation forces against the U.S. was the case of Robert Garwood, a Marine Corps private who defected to the NLF in 1965, actively collaborating with the liberation forces throughout the war. Numerous GIs during the war reported sighting a "salt and pepper" combo, a white and a Black GI who seemed to be fighting the U.S. troops all over South Vietnam.

There were other much more widespread forms of fraternization between GIs and Vietnamese liberation forces, like local "truces" between GIs and local NLF or NVA fighters. Many GIs have described such experiences. In 1971, NVA and NLF troops received orders not to fire at troops wearing the symbol of a rifle turned upside down, or carrying their rifles in the down position while on patrol. A favorite saying among Black troops in Vietnam became, "No VC ever called me nigger."


By the late 1960s the disintegration of the U.S. military became so severe that the U.S. imperialists were forced to regard the very reliability of their troops as a major factor in the war's overall prosecution. A small and increasingly influential number of soldiers were refusing orders in one way or another, while the majority of the troops were obeying orders often only with great reluctance or in name only. The minority of GIs who were still gung-ho were usually looked upon by the others as, at best, suicidal and at worst "traitors" within the enlisted ranks. And a significant section of the Armed Forces was consciously and often actively antiwar and linked--spiritually if not always organizationally--with the Black liberation and antiwar movements in the U.S.

The indispensable underlying cause of the disintegration of the U.S. armed forces in Vietnam was the persistent battering they were receiving at the hands of the Vietnamese liberation forces--the result of a people's war. The U.S. military was continually frustrated in its efforts to "pacify" and control South Vietnam and wipe out the Vietnamese liberation forces. This battering created a profound crisis in the U.S. military, a crisis of widespread demoralization, with troops questioning and rebelling against everything from barracks discipline, to what they were doing in Vietnam, to what kind of society had sent them to fight and die in Vietnam.

"I think that the veterans who deserve to be honored and are honored by the revolutionary proletariat and oppressed people of the world are those who recognized what they were being forced to do, who stared right in the face of what they were doing, recognized it for what it was...and found it totally repulsive; particularly those who rebelled against it and joined in the struggle against those atrocities and against U.S. imperialism and some of whom actually became revolutionaries."

Bob Avakian, Chairman of the RCP

This article is excepted from a longer piece by Nick Jackson titled "When John Wayne Went Out of Focus: GI Rebellion and Military Disintegration in Vietnam." The article appeared in Revolution magazine in Spring 1988 and is available at most Revolution Books stores and outlets.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)