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May 2004 • Vol 4, No. 5 •


Iraq, Vietnam and the Draft

By Nat Weinstein

There is a discussion going on today among both opponents and supporters of the U.S. war on Iraq. It appears both sides are comparing the war on Iraq to Vietnam. But I don’t think that all those who see such a parallel necessarily mean that the war is likely to end with a victory for Iraq like that won by the Vietnamese. Rather I think most of those who talk about Iraq being another Vietnam simply mean that they have begun to believe that the U.S. will not be able to achieve its objectives in Iraq.

Those who point to the difference between the caliber of Iraqi leadership as compared to the far more sophisticated and effective Vietnamese leadership, bring a very important factor into the picture. But the emergence of a new leadership, better equipped to initiate the class struggle strategy that led to a revolutionary victory in Vietnam cannot be excluded if the war in Iraq goes on well beyond June.

Neither can we exclude the likelihood that despite the shortcomings in Iraqi leadership, events in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine will precipitate an explosion of anti-imperialist resistance in the Middle East and beyond. Moreover, one should not exclude the effects that a worsening global economy will have on events in the Middle East and in the United States itself, as well as on the course of events in Iraq. In fact, it is the deepening global economic crisis that helps explain why American imperialism departed from its half-century long policy of using either the UN or NATO as window dressing for its “peace-keeping” wars.

In my view, whether or not Iraq can free itself from American Imperialism, this war will result in a defeat—economically, politically and militarily—even more costly to the U.S. ruling class than was the Vietnam War.

The discussion over whether or not Iraq will be another Vietnam is certainly an important part of the education of today’s antiwar movement and should be probed to the end. But those opposed to the criminal U.S. war on Iraq must also draw the appropriate lessons from the very successful movement against the Vietnam War. It will serve all those opposed to the criminal war on Iraq as a reliable guide toward what must be done next.

Three forces contributed to Vietnam’s victory

There were three forces that contributed most to the ending of the U.S. war in Vietnam:

• First, of course, was the determination of the Vietnamese workers and peasants themselves and their leaders who put up a very effective combined military and political struggle for political and economic justice, as well as for their democratic right to national self-determination.

• Second was the role of world public opinion; and in that regard, the U.S. antiwar movement was one of the most decisive factors affecting the outcome of the Vietnamese people’s struggle for freedom from imperialist super-exploitation and grinding oppression.

As a matter of fact, playing a significant role in the victory of the Vietnamese people’s struggle for self-determination was the revolutionary origin of the United States of America and its effect on mass consciousness. After all, by the time kids have learned to read they are taught the
history of the American Revolutionary War for Independence from Great Britain.

And whether or not the average American independently made the connection between the American and Vietnamese revolutions, whenever the equals sign between the two was placed between the two wars by opponents of the war, no one dared dispute the essential identity between the two. And the parallel certainly applies with full force to the revolutionary struggle by the Iraqi people, first against Turkish, then British and now American imperialism.

It’s also important to note that the ever-larger demonstrations during the more than ten years of the Vietnam war did not, and could not by itself, force an American withdrawal from Vietnam. But the knowledge that hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans were marching against the war inside the belly of the beast, certainly contributed to the morale and determination of the Vietnamese people’s struggle for their fundamental human right to determine their own destiny.

• Third and most important of the factors that forced the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam was the growing opposition to that war by American GIs. And because that opposition was powerfully supported by hundreds of thousands and even millions marching in the streets of America and demanding that the government bring them home, gave them the confidence that they could express their own opposition to the war with little fear of victimization!

Knowing that millions of their relatives and friends were on their side and shared their sentiments about the war, gave GIs the courage to begin wearing peace buttons and going so far as to give the peace sign to a General sent to give morale boosting speeches to GIs in Vietnam. in one case, reported in the media, a General gave the peace sign back to them, which he thought meant “V for victory”—a popular pro-war slogan in World War II. The fact is that no one knew better than the GIs in Vietnam that the ordinary people of that long-suffering victim of Western imperialism feared and hated those who had come 10,000 miles from home to “save their villages from Communism . . . by destroying them.”

And as we shall see, by 1969, small contingents of uniformed GIs had begun regularly participating in the protest rallies, marches and demonstrations—including appearing on the speakers platform at mass antiwar mobilizations in Washington, New York and San Francisco.

But while it took years before that happened in Vietnam, it only took months before American GIs and their families began doubting the bipartisan U.S. government’s reasons for invading Iraq. And now that it has become clear that Saddam Hussein had absolutely nothing that could be called “weapons of mass destruction, the attempt by Democrats who voted with both hands for “Bush’s war,” not one of them had challenged the claim that these weapons existed despite the failure by UN inspectors to find a single on during the 12 years between Gulf Wars One and Two and the year since the second war had begun.

Opposition to Iraq War began where movement against Vietnam War ended

It is well known that over a million Americans marched against the war on that now historic February 15-16 weekend—a month before the invasion of Iraq had begun. And on that same weekend more than ten million had also marched in the major cities of the world against the U.S. war on Iraq.

In the first mass demonstrations against the Vietnam War, the majority of antiwar protestors—reflecting the level of political consciousness reached by the masses at the time—called for “Negotiations Now!” However, the slogan inscribed on most hand-painted placards carried by antiwar marchers on the February weekend a month before the second War on Iraq had begun was “No Blood for Oil!” showed that masses of people had recognized the predatory nature of the this war. A large majority of today’s antiwar protestors understand the imperial designs of U.S. corporations on the natural resources of Iraq.

In fact, it was not until nearly the end of the 1960s that the great majority of Vietnam antiwar demonstrators had adopted the far more resolute antiwar demand, “Bring the Troops Home Now!”

From the very first, however, there was a small section of the Vietnam antiwar movement that rejected the slogan, “Negotiations Now!” simply because it implied that the United States had the right to set limits on the Vietnamese people’s right to self-determination. What proved to be the most effective section of the Vietnam antiwar movement had rejected the “Negotiate Now!” slogan from the outset because it gave credence to the “right” of American imperialism to send the world’s most powerful military behemoth into Vietnam to suppress the struggle of the Vietnamese workers and poor farmers for self-determination. And as the war dragged on and tens of thousands of body bags had already been shipped home, the “Bring The Troops Home Now!” demand began winning the support of millions.

From the first, the most consistent opponents of that war demanded, “U.S. Troops Out Now!” The importance of their contribution to the Vietnam antiwar movement cannot be overstated.

This vast difference between the response of the peoples of America and the world to these two wars goes a long way toward proving that mass revolutionary consciousness does not come into the heads of the millions of ordinary people out of the clear blue sky. It is a cumulative process derived from the living experiences, which evolves and can grow to new heights from one generation to another.

But those of us that went through the experience of Vietnam have a responsibility to pass on what we learned to those who came to maturity since then. Most important, it’s the duty of those who learned the lessons of that historic struggle against an unjust war to pass them on to the next generation of antiwar fighters. And, in line with past experience, it is always those who have the most to lose that are decisive. And in this criminal war on Iraq, it is the young men (and now women too) subject to the draft, who have the most to lose if it is their blood that the capitalist government insists is to be traded for Iraqi oil.

Against reintroduction of the draft!

The antiwar movement must begin now to build the most massive opposition to the re-institution of the Draft.

This is one of the most important lessons of the Vietnam antiwar movement and is already understood by millions of our youth and those who love them. But those of our readers who consider themselves a part of the vanguard of the working class have a special responsibility to help build the most effective opposition to the draft

Reading Halstead’s book Out Now!: A Participant’s Account of the American Movement Against the Vietnam War (Pathfinder, New York, 1978) would prove educational even to the most experienced veterans of the Vietnam antiwar movement.

Halstead was a leader of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and its youth organization, the Young Socialists Alliance (YSA). The SWP at that time had been a small but respected anti-Stalinist, but pro-Soviet, revolutionary workers’ party. Small as the SWP was, it played a leadership role in the Vietnam anti-war movement way out of proportion to its size.

The lessons of the Vietnam experience laid out in Halstead’s book now serve as an excellent guide to what today’s antiwar activists must do next. Clearly we face the strong possibility of hundreds of thousands of American youth being conscripted to fight the war in Iraq and new wars coming down the pike.

Neither is it a surprise that among the first to propose reinstitution of the draft was Democratic Party congressman and presidential candidate, the Rev. Al Sharpton—who had been more critical of the war than all others contending for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. And, in line with the shell game played by the two parties of big business, Sharpton gave it an “anti-capitalist” twist by demagogically arguing that “the sons and daughters of the rich and powerful” are not doing their share of the fighting and dying in Iraq.

Although he has correctly noted that it has been the sons and daughters of the poorest among us, even in the absence of the draft, who have been the first to be driven into the armed forces by economic necessity, he also knows that if you are rich enough you can find a way to keep your children out of harm’s way. It just so happens that the current U.S. president and vice-president managed, each in his own way, to avoid serving in Vietnam.

So while Sharpton demagogically calls for the drafting “of the rich, as well as the poor,” Democratic Party banner-bearer, John Kerry, who opposed the Vietnam War, now uses his status as a Vietnam veteran to lead the charge to send more U.S. troops to Iraq. And to leave no doubt as to where he stands, Kerry has made the winning of the war on Iraq a central part of his election campaign.

This brings to the forefront the question of the draft?

How to most effectively oppose the war and the draft

Lets take a look at a page from Halstead’s book, Out Now! Those who did not go through the experience of the Vietnam War will find it very enlightening, as will others who may have forgotten some of its lessons. Halstead reports how some of the most consistent opponents of the Vietnam war had continued to oppose the war even after they had been conscripted:

[During the height of the Vietnam War,] when antiwar activity among GIs became widespread and a number of soldiers who had been active YSAers in civilian life were prominently involved, it was assumed by many within the movement that the YSA had deliberately sent people into the army. This was never the case. They were drafted. Nor did the YSAers quietly allow themselves to be drafted. As a general rule, YSAers called by the draft would notify the authorities in writing of their antiwar position and declare their intention to maintain these views and express them within the army. When a YSAer showed up for induction, it was often with a bundle of antiwar literature under his arm and accompanied by a demonstration of friends and supporters. In the early period they were drafted anyway. After the army had some experience with these organizers, however, the letter was usually enough to ensure a reconsideration of the induction.

The YSA and SWP preferred to keep their members in civilian life if possible, where they could organize freely and spend far more time on antiwar activity—not to mention socialist political work—than was possible in the army. They had no illusion that their own small forces could make a critical difference—except by occasional example—in activities within the army, which were tenuous and difficult at best.

The proletarian military policy1 was a political approach, not an adventure, not a fad, and certainly not a gimmick. It advocated pointing the antiwar movement toward the great mass of ordinary working class Americans, including those in the military, and including the 99 percent who were not opposed on principle to all military service.

Nor did those of us in the YSA and SWP view GI antiwar activity as a substitute for building the antiwar movement in the civilian population. On the contrary, it was our view that the civilians were the key force. Without a mass antiwar movement in the civilian population the GI movement could never get beyond occasional isolated individual acts. There was, however, an important reciprocal factor. Any antiwar stand by GIs carried great weight with the civilian population and cut, like nothing else could, through the “support our boys” demagogy of the hawks. Conversely the more massive the civilian movement, the easier it was for the GIs to express their own opposition to the war.

In addition, we in the SWP also had our hopes that a GI movement could develop which would have a direct effect on the war machine. We knew this was at least theoretically possible, because it had happened before. Not only in extreme situations of social collapse like Russia of 1917, but within the U.S. military itself in what was called the “going home movement” following World War II.

It seems to me that this approach to the draft is exactly how the antiwar movement should deal with this question in the days ahead. After all, it stands to reason that if one supports the demand, “End the War and Bring the Troops Home Now!” consistency demands that the slogan, “Stop the Draft!” follows logically and is just as necessary.

A policy such as the one advanced by some of the most consistent opponents of the Vietnam antiwar movement is on the order of the day today. While the Iraq antiwar movement may be understandably marking time at the moment, it is certain to rise up even more powerfully in the period ahead. And given the construction of a leadership that has absorbed the many rich lessons of history, the antiwar movement can grow both quantitatively and qualitatively. That is, not only by mass action in the streets of America and the world, but also in the workplaces where the power of mass action against the war could be a thousand times more effective and ultimately decisive.

It is also becoming clearer by the day that so long as those now in power continue to rule the world we will remain in a war that has no end. The vanguard of today’s antiwar movement is also beginning to understand that the struggle against war is also a struggle against the world capitalist status quo.

In fact, it is becoming increasingly apparent to serious political activists that there are only two possible outcomes to humanity’s future. Either capitalism will self-destruct, taking intelligent life on the planet Earth with it, or the system that provides abundance for the privileged few and scarcity for the many will be overthrown and the world reconstituted on the basis of a world socialist order. That is a society exclusively devoted to the satisfaction of human needs and wants and the preservation of space-ship Earth as a planet capable of supporting life in general and human life in particular.

1 See this month’s selection from the Arsenal of Marxism, “The Military Program Of The Proletarian Revolution,” by V. I. Lenin.





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