The war in Iraq has re-politicised some of the generation of soldiers who opposed the war in Vietnam, veteran Jerry Lembcke told Socialist Worker.
The Vietnam war turned his world upside down, and when he returned home in February 1970 he became active in the anti-war movement.
“I wasn’t political at all when I was drafted and went into the military,” he said. “The military experience itself was politicising for me and quite empowering.
“People I met in the military helped me understand what the war was about and how I had come to be in the middle of it.”
Dissent developed as soldiers began to question the aims of the war.
“It is the politics, not the horror, that is the biggest influence on turning the soldiers against war,” said Jerry. “It is the understanding and the solidarity, of being around people who have a common position, and the appreciation of the struggle that each of us was going through.”
Jerry added that there are many myths about the treatment of soldiers in the 1960s and 1970s. Chief among them was that the anti-war movement was hostile to the troops.
This myth is debunked in his book, The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam.
“There is no hostility to soldiers among ordinary people today, and there was no hostility to soldiers in the 1960s and 1970s,” he said.
“The US government is trying to twist the image of the anti-war movement into one that is hostile to the troops. A similar thing happened towards the end of the war in Vietnam.
“They are accusing the movement of being disloyal to the troops. As this ‘lost war’ goes on, we are going to hear more of this type of accusation.”
Discontent among soldiers reveals itself in many ways. One of these is the way soldiers react to the trauma of war.
According to a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, one in five soldiers returning from Iraq suffers from post traumatic stress disorder. Over 70 percent of veterans who are classified with the disorder served in Vietnam.
However, the issue of trauma is sometimes used against the movement.
Jerry said, “They say, ‘Oh, these guys had a very traumatic experience, and that is why they are acting up and speaking out.’ It is being dismissed as the result of traumatic experience rather than admitting that there is growing anger and politicisation among veterans.
“Iraq veterans come home dispirited, disappointed and disillusioned - the war experience wasn’t what it was supposed to be. There are two ways they can go with that. Soldiers can conclude ‘therefore I oppose this war, and this administration’, or they can talk about it as a traumatising experience.”
There are parallels between the slow politicisation among troops in Vietnam and what is happening in Iraq today.
“We suspect there is a kind of politicisation that is going on today,” said Jerry. “But it is hard to document. We need to talk to more people coming back. It seems to me that it just beginning to happen.
“There are also large number of Vietnam veterans who are becoming active again. I was inactive from the late 1970s until the Gulf War of
1990-1. That war restarted my engine. That war reconnected me. The war now is having the same effect on other veterans.”
Jerry Lembcke is associate professor of sociology at Holy Cross College, Massachusetts. His book, The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam, is available from New York University Press.
In February 1971, one month after the revelations of the My Lai massacre, an astonishing public inquiry into war crimes committed by US forces in Vietnam was held in Detroit. The Vietnam Veterans Against the War organised this event, called the Winter Soldier Investigation. More than 125 veterans spoke of atrocities they had witnessed and committed. This documentary was made by the participants.
See Winter Soldier at Marxism 2006
7pm LSH: Goldsmiths, Sunday 9 July A five day political festival from 6-10 July, central London. Go to www.marxism2006.org.uk