ne of the greatest achievements of the Vietnam
anti-war movement was its creation of a GI coffeehouse and counseling
network. The first coffeehouse was opened outside Ft. Jackson, South
Carolina in late 1967, two-and-a half years after U.S. troops invaded
Vietnam. Within weeks, hundreds of GIs had visited during their
off duty hours. Over the next year, similar projects sprang up outside
20 other major U.S. bases.
These projects embodied the “countercultural” spirit of
the times. Sex, psychedelic drugs, and rock and roll coexisted with
a strong anti-war message. Civilian activists, mostly recruited
from the anti-war movement, worked in tandem with active duty GIs,
some of whom had just returned from Vietnam. At some projects, the
soldiers played a leading role in setting political goals, providing
counseling, and putting out anti-war newspapers.
Today, anti-war organizers are again discussing how active duty
GIs can play a more active part in the struggle against the war.
Stars and Stripes
newspaper poll of soldiers fighting in
Iraq reported in March 2006 that 72 percent of them wanted to be
withdrawn within a year, while 29 percent favored immediate withdrawal.
Organizers from Citizen Soldier, a GI-veterans rights advocacy group,
recently met with anti-war veterans and GIs in Fayetteville, North
Carolina, home to Ft. Bragg, where 40,000 combat troops are stationed.
They discussed the prospects for establishing a coffeehouse and
counseling project near the base—the largest in the eastern
U.S. Their hope is that a successful pilot project at Bragg could
stimulate the creation of similar efforts at other key posts.
Both the U.S. military and U.S. society have changed since the Vietnam
era. Foremost is the transformation of a conscript-driven military
to one that is entirely composed of “volunteers.” This
has made the armed forces much less representative of U.S. society
as a whole. One of the primary reasons why advocates of an “all
volunteer” military wanted to junk the draft was their belief
that it fueled much of the anti-war opposition— especially
among young people.
The transition to a volunteer force has had two other significant
consequences. One, women were integrated into most military jobs,
except for the infantry and armor. Today, every sixth soldier is
female, except in the Marine Corps. Second, the shrinkage of active
duty force levels, which became necessary once competitive wages
were being paid, has meant that reservists and Guard troops must
shoulder a much greater combat burden. Today, one out of three GIs
in Iraq is a reservist. These soldiers are older, have family obligations,
and are less accustomed to the rigors of military life.
These demographic changes are central to any discussion of how a
coffeehouse project could attract the participation of GIs. During
Vietnam, the average low ranking soldier was paid less than $300
a month. They lived in austere barracks and ate their meals in dingy
chow halls. These conditions made an off-base coffeehouse seem attractive
as a refuge from the tedium of the “green machine” and
its grinding routines.
Today, half of all soldiers are married and many have children.
Their relatively good pay and benefits allow them to buy expensive
cars and vans and many choose Applebee’s and Mickey D’s
over the mess hall. To counter serious problems with recruitment
and retention, the Pentagon now offers a series of bonuses ranging
from $10,000 to $40,000, payable over the life of an enlistment
hitch. Elite “Delta Force” troops can get up to $100,000
if they’ll sign for another tour. (A note to those who believe
that recruiting shortfalls may force a reinstitution of the draft:
the Pentagon has shown that it will spend whatever it takes to induce—
bribe?—low income youth to fill its combat slots.)
One of the main attractions of the Vietnam era coffeehouse was that
GIs identified them with the “countercultural” changes
that were sweeping the U.S. at the time. Psychedelic paraphernalia
and drugs fanned the latent anti-authoritarianism of soldiers. This,
in turn, sparked challenges to all forms of authority—sexual
mores, gender roles, social conventions, and the military’s
vaunted chain of command. One key demand of the U.S. Servicemen’s
(sic) Union was “an end to sir-ing and saluting.” Explicit
anti-war organizing, while important, was only one item on the projects’
Popular culture today is much more diffuse. Organizers concluded
that a coffeehouse/counseling project could succeed in attracting
significant numbers of soldiers assuming that it provided Internet
access, good coffee, and plenty of free parking. Many young soldiers
quest for intellectual, cultural, and political fulfillment today,
as they always have. A coffeehouse that combines an alternative
bookstore with a lively mix of free musical performances, stand
up comedy, and poetry (with some political speechifying thrown in)
could become highly popular with a significant minority of GIs.
A number of important questions remain. Who will finance the project?
Certainly GIs can be expected to provide more than a small portion
of the budget. During Vietnam, the United Servicemen’s Support
Fund raised substantial sums, which it then parceled out to the
local projects to help them pay rent and staff salaries. Nothing
like the USSF exists today, but something along these lines will
be needed if these projects are to thrive. Important first steps
have been taken, but much more needs to be done.
Ensign is director of Citizen Soldier, a GI/veteran rights advocacy
group founded during the Vietnam war (www. citizen-soldier.org) He
is author of
America’s Military Today
Press) Comments on this article are invited: [email protected]