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Resistance R Us - Then ... and Now

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One of the best kept secrets of our time is the ferocious GI resistance to the war in Vietnam. It covered the gamut from individual, passive, and unorganized to overtly active, collective, and organized. It sprouted in military barracks and on aircraft carriers. It flourished in army stockades, navy brigs, and in the dingy towns that surround military bases. It penetrated elite West Point, spread through Vietnam’s battlefields and, according to a Vietnam-era military officer, by 1971 it had “infested the entire armed services.” Until the recent screening of the documentary, Sir, No Sir, the American public knew little about the resistance to that war.

Today, there is budding GI resistance to this war, the Global War on Terror (GWOT). So far, resistance has not blossomed into the near-epidemic of that time but the ground is fertile and – thanks to Sir, No Sir! – GIs are learning their history and emulating their forebears.

As a counselor on the GI Rights Hotline, I know that, for every GI in the news refusing to fight, there are thousands more GIs quietly saying “no” to this war. I predict that, despite the monolithic nature of the military, GI resistance to the GWOT will be active, individual, public, and persistent. It will also be supported by a parallel and collaborative civilian resistance -- irate mothers, fathers, and grannies, for example -- and facilitated by the Internet and the widespread recognition that our nation has “been had” by cynical radical neoconservatives. I predict this as I am one of those irate mothers.

An Army of One

My association with the U.S. military and the Global War on Terror began very personally. I come from a long line of men enlisted into war – from the British Raj in India, the second Anglo-Boer War, WW I and II, and South Africa’s covert war against the Frontline States. Seeing first hand the physical and psychological devastation wrought on my family’s males, I came to believe that – given the opportunity – motivated individuals and nations can resolve conflict without resorting to government sanctioned violence. Ironically, I am also a “military mom”: my son is a highly trained soldier and a U.S. Army medic. When he enlisted in 1999 I was not pleased about his choice but, as he pointed out, there was no war on the horizon.

“Besides, he said, “I am not going to change my mind about serving.”

Little knowing my prescience, I responded, “We’re at the end of the Clinton presidency. Who knows who the next president may be or what disastrous policies he may inflict upon us?”

My son was deployed to Afghanistan in 2003. I struggled through that six-month tour of duty and the additional three-month extension. Six months later he was deployed to Iraq. At that point, I engaged the war from the point of view of a warrior mother: I traveled to Iraq to learn first hand about how the invasion was affecting our troops – and Iraqi families. That trip grew into MotherSpeak, an organization which shares the stories of mothers around the world affected by war and terror. Then I trained as a counselor on the GI Rights Hotline and have spent more than two years counseling troops and decoding military rules and regulations. I also co-founded Courage to Resist to support the troops that refuse to fight.

Just the facts…

Official Pentagon numbers state that over 8,000 soldiers troops have gone Absent without Leave (AWOL) since the start of the GWOT in March 2003. They also state that over 40,000 troops from all branches of the military have gone AWOL or taken Unexcused Absences (UA) since 2000.

I believe the unofficial numbers for all troops are even higher. In 2005, for example, GI Rights Hotline counselors answered over 38,000 calls nationally. Today, the Hotline has more than doubled the number of trained counselors to cope with the volume of calls. In 2006, over 75 percent of the calls answered came from troops already AWOL or UA or about to go AWOL or UA. In telephone conversations with administrators at military Personnel Control Facility (PCFs) around the nation, I’ve learned that, at minimum, approximately 25 to 50 AWOL or UA troops await processing out of the military each week. This does not include the six to eight “catchers” – military personnel who travel around the country -- retrieving and returning troops to bases for non-judicial punishment. The majority of reluctant GIs are either discharged or reattached to their units and their stories never reach the public.


To understand the military’s Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) it helps to understand military lingo: Soldiers (Army, National Guard, Individual Ready Reserve) “go AWOL”; Marines, Sailors, or Airmen/women “go UA”. Initially, none is a “deserter” as this describes a service member who intends never to turn him- or herself back into the military. AWOLs and UAs fully intend to return to the military. While many nuances pertain, the distinction between AWOL/UA and deserter is not a matter of semantics: the maximum penalty for desertion during wartime is execution.

Each branch of the military has its own process for AWOL or UA service members. The rules and regulations for each branch are clearly stated in the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and service members have the right to access them. Unfortunately few troops conduct the research that could help their case; knowing this, gung-ho base commanders, officers, or NCOs can – and do -- bend the rules based upon personal preference or antipathy towards individuals. At these times, the expertise of GI Rights counselors or civilian lawyers specializing in military law is invaluable.

Of the four branches, the Army’s process is the easiest to understand: a soldier must be gone at least 30 days before s/he is officially categorized as AWOL. After this period the associated paperwork prepared and a federal warrant is made out for her/his arrest. If no other charges are pending – and the service member is not arrested during a routine traffic violation or similar event – and s/he turns her- himself in at a PCF, s/he could be discharged within five to seven days.

If the Army’s process is the easiest to understand, the Marine Corp’s process is the most complex and most likely to include unexpected consequences to a service member. Where the Army usually begins processing out AWOLs after 30 days, UA Marines must be gone over 180 days. During this time UAs must keep a low profile and avoid being turned in, arrested, or otherwise apprehended by suspicious civilians or local or military police.

Despite the assumption that the military is a bureaucracy that doesn’t change easily, I find that the Marine Corp change procedures informally depending on circumstances. Former Marine Jeff Paterson, who claimed Conscientious Objector status and refused to deploy for Gulf War I, reported that, in his experience at that time, Marine leadership is less likely to return a UA who has been gone for six months or more to a unit.

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Susan Galleymore is the author of Long Time Passing: Mothers Speak about War and Terror, sharing the stories of people in Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and U.S. [Pluto Press 2009]. She is also host and producer of Raising Sand Radio (more...)
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