First came the letters to local papers from grieving relatives. Then, in ones and twos, young deserters began to slip across the border to Canada.
Finally the first underground papers appeared among the troops, with reports of discontent in the ranks.
This is not Vietnam in 1971, but the US today. Opposition to the occupation is growing among soldiers and “military families” – working class Americans who see the army as the only route to further education.
Discontent takes the form of small acts of defiance – emails back home or anti-war posters on military vehicles – through to units refusing to obey orders, faking patrols and, in some cases, desertion.
David Sanders, 20, from Arizona, fled to Canada after hearing his unit would be posted to Iraq. He told Socialist Worker:
“I was fully against the war. Like many of my comrades I joined up to get an education. Many of the recruits felt unhappy about the war.
“We knew we were being lied to about the reasons they were sending us. We knew it was about oil and money.
“People were unhappy, but many were too frightened to talk about it.
“We began to hear how the suicide rate in Iraq was high, and that many soldiers wanted to desert.
“Many soldiers, sailors and pilots are beginning to feel unhappy about the war, and morale is plummeting – we started feeling like this is the new Vietnam.
“When news came that we were being sent to Iraq, I jumped on a Greyhound bus and fled to Canada.”
For David desertion was a hard choice. His father, a Marine for 13 years, refuses to speak to him. David also faces imprisonment in the notorious Levinworth military prison if Canadian authorities refuse his plea for asylum.
Brandon Hughey,19, is also seeking asylum in Canada. He wrote, “This [war] was justified by the Bush administration under the pretence of finding weapons of mass destruction, and that Saddam Hussein had ties to terrorist organisations.
“But as time wore on, no weapons of mass destruction could be found. Nor could any connection to terrorism.
“I had made a promise to myself that under no circumstances would I become complicit in the illegal occupation of Iraq.
“No contract or enlistment oath can be used as an excuse to participate in acts of aggression or crimes against humanity.”
Thomas Barton is a former organiser for Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and the force behind Traveling Soldier. This new paper is inspired by Broken Arrow, the anti-war soldiers’ paper in Vietnam.
Thomas says that the kind of discontent that began to build among troops in Vietnam is beginning to appear again today: “It’s not that what happened could happen again. What happened before is happening again, right in front of our eyes, at a higher level of awareness and organisation.”
Other Vietnam veterans have reopened the “underground railway”, spiriting war resisters across the border to Canada.
In July a group of soldiers formed Iraqi Veterans Against the War – modelling itself on the 15,000-strong Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The soldiers have called on their comrades to speak out against the occupation.
The US military brass fear the “Vietnam syndrome” is returning to haunt them. Opposition to that war began among serving soldiers and spread to working class communities.
By 1975, on the eve of the US defeat in Vietnam, over 30,000 soldiers had deserted to Canada, and the biggest killer of US army officers was their own men.
Opposition among the troops in Iraq has not reached the levels of the Vietnam War, but growing unease over the war is feeding into wider discontent back home.
Dante Zappala, a high school teacher, wrote to the Los Angeles Times after hearing that his brother was killed in Baghdad:
“I’ve had countless people tell me my brother is a hero and died defending our freedom. In a country that promotes the virtues of the free market, he died for the benefit of the war profiteers and for very little benefit to himself.”
‘You killed some civilians, and you’re gonna have to live with it, partner’
One of the founders of Iraqi Veterans Against the War is Michael Hoffman, 24, an artillery gunner who took part in the push on Baghdad. He told Traveling Soldier:
“While we were still [in the US] our first sergeant came in front of the [troops], and he told us what his view of the war was.
“He says, ‘We’re not going there because of weapons of mass destruction. We’re not going there to get rid of Saddam Hussein or to install democracy. We’re going there for one reason alone, and that’s oil.’
“They’re doing things almost like something they heard about in Vietnam, where guys would go on patrol, and they’d sit outside the base and make false radio reports.
“Instead you’ve got guys who are sent on patrol, and instead of a real patrol they jump in a Humvee and drive through town as fast as possible to avoid any kind of confrontation.”
Another founder of the Iraq veterans’ group, Jimmy Massey, described the growing disillusionment even among battle-hardened troops. He told the Smoky Mountain News that the war “was like turning a bunch of pitbulls loose on a cage full of rabbits.
“One minute you’re passing out candy to a little kid, and ten minutes later you’re opening fire on a vehicle with women and children. And the Iraqis saw that, they saw the evil side to Americans. And we set ourselves up for failure from the beginning.”
For Massey, a sergeant in the Marines with 13 years service, the wanton killing in Iraq was too much to bear. He went to his superior and demanded he be discharged.
“I told him, ‘Thank you sergeant major, I don’t want your money anymore. I don’t want your benefits. You killed some civilians, and you’re gonna have to live with it, partner, and I’m gonna tell the truth.’”
Opposition to the war is also feeding into anger at the Democrats ahead of the elections. Traveling Soldier denounced presidential hopeful John Kerry as a “killer in chief wannabe who wants to send more troops”.
The paper told soldiers, “Every moment spent campaigning for Kerry is a moment wasted on what doesn’t work.
“Every moment spent trying to build the anti-war movement to put a fire under the feet of politicians from BOTH parties is one spent on what works.”