In 1971, just a month after graduating from law school, I and four other National Lawyers Guild members went to Southeast Asia with the Guild’s newly created Military Law Project to serve as civilian defense counsel for GIs who were facing courts martial for resisting the war. The military was reluctant to hold trials back in the States for GIs who were opposing the war, lest the folks back home were to understand the level of resistance, so, for the most part, the trials happened on bases in Asia, but military law allowed service members to have civilian defense counsel if any were available. We decided to make ourselves available.
Most of my cases were in courts on US bases in the Philippines at Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Force Base. But in November, 1971, I went to Vietnam for a few months to defend thirteen black GI’s against charges of “mutiny.” These men had been part of a unit at a fire base near the demilitarized zone between north and south Vietnam. They had requested permission to go to Cam Ranh Bay, a large American base nearby, to attend a memorial service organized by the Black Panthers for some black children killed in a church bombing in Los Angeles. Permission had been denied, and they had been ordered out on patrol.
Racial tension permeated the American ground troops in Vietnam. The Black Panther Party was giving a voice to a growing radicalism among blacks. Black Panthers were brutally gunned down in their homes by police in Los Angeles and Chicago. Tanks and swat teams were becoming commonplace in American cities. This tension was interwoven with the growing resistance to the War in Vietnam. In 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech that riveted the nation, but which is largely ignored today as King’s legacy is sanitized and de-politicized.
“Since I am a preacher by trade, I suppose it is not surprising that I have several reasons for bringing Vietnam into the field of my moral vision. There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle that I, and other, have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor — both black and white — through the Poverty Program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the build-up in Vietnam and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war. … We were taking the young black men who had been crippled by our society and sending them 8,000 miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem. …
“In the ghettos of the North over the last three years … as I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through non-violent action. But they asked — and rightly so — what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. … I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.”
This was the background for the trumped up mutiny charges against the GI’s I was in Vietnam to defend. Only the black members of the unit were ordered out on patrol that day. They refused to go, thinking it a set up. While they were in their bunker that evening, stun grenades were tossed in, and when they came bursting out of the bunker in panic and confusion, they were met not by the enemy, but by their white counterparts and their lieutenant, and were arrested for mutiny. No one was hurt except one of the black defendants deafened by the grenade blasts. And no one disputed the basic facts. This, and the subsequent court martial, shaped my view of race relations in the US military in Vietnam. Only by threatening to bring the press into the picture, to get the story published in the press back home, was I able to keep all but one of the defendants out of jail, but all of the others received less than honorable discharges. No one was ever prosecuted for throwing the grenades.
It was not only black GIs who were rebelling against the war from the inside. As it became clear that the US didn’t have a clear objective in the war, that there was no way to “win” without annihilating the entire Vietnamese population, more and more ground troops were reluctant to die for nothing. Hundreds of officers and non-commissioned officers were killed by their own troops while leading patrols; many others died of “unknown causes.”
Colonel Robert Heinl Jr. a 27-year Marine combat veteran, wrote the following in 1971.
“The morale, discipline and battle-worthiness of the U.S. Armed Forces are, with a few salient exceptions, lower and worse than at any time in this century and possibly in the history of the United States. By every conceivable indicator, our army that remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and non-commissioned officers, drug ridden and dispirited where not near mutinous.”
Many GIs were coming home and joining the anti-war movement. Others were coming home stoned. One of the most striking things about the GIs in Vietnam was how many were getting hooked on cheap and very available drugs, everything from marijuana to heroin. It was not hard to believe the rumors that the military was responsible for making those drugs available, to try to mollify a rebellious army. Mostly the Vietnam veterans were coming home disillusioned, home to a country where virtually no one understood or wholeheartedly supported the undeclared war where they had been asked to risk their lives and where some 58,000 of their buddies would die.
Those months in Vietnam had a profound impact on me, in matters both intensely personal and intensely political. If there was one mantra of that era that has stuck, it is that the personal is political. It was eerie being an American woman in Saigon in 1971. Saigon had already experienced the “Tet Offensive” in which the Vietnamese nationalist forces had made it clear that they had the support of a significant portion of the south’s population. It was just a matter of time before the US would have to withdraw. There were no more US troops allowed in Saigon. They were kept on their bases. I stayed at a gracious old French colonial hotel at night, having drinks at the bar with cynical journalists, and by day I rode a motor scooter out to US Military Assistance Command Headquarters at Long Binh, about 30 minutes on an empty road that had been the site of fire fights the night before. Every morning I passed a beautiful if dilapidated French villa set back off the road which had been converted into an orphanage. The hand painted sign in front of the villa read in English, “Please don’t shoot the orphans.”
I would get to the gate of MACV Headquarters at Long Binh and would be waved right through, not because the Military Police recognized me, but because I was a white American woman, hence presumed safe. When I would go to the jail to see my clients, I was treated with a patronizing chivalry by the guards, and told to be careful because my clients were desperate and violent. I was only 25 years old and fresh out of law school. Maintaining my dignity, composure and presence of mind took nearly all of my intellectual and emotional strength. What replenished me were my clients, who somehow managed to maintain their collective sense of humor along with courage and righteousness.
When the mutiny case ended, I returned to the Philippines, to the town of Olongapo, the base town outside Subic Bay Naval Base, where the Pacific Fleet was headquartered. There I and a Lawyers Guild colleague represented sailors and marines in courts martial and lived a somewhat surrealistic life in a town devoted primarily to pandering to sailors on leave. The Navy was none too happy to have us in town, and in an effort to keep us away from the enlisted men, banned us from all parts of the base other than the court and law library. Nonetheless, word spread rapidly that some American civilians were in town, and our house became the unofficial “GI Center” for the more courageous GIs who didn’t mind the brass knowing about their opposition to the war. A lot of them just came by for the company… we were a bit of home.
The US Naval Base at Subic Bay was separated from the town of Olongapo by a canal and as the GIs came across the bridge over the canal, the first bar they hit had a moat around it that was an extension of the canal, a stinky, garbage strewn moat, in which a crocodile floated languidly. To get the marines and sailors into some odd kind of mood, the proprietor had a beautiful young woman sell newly hatched ducklings to the GIs to throw to the crocodile. A lot of those young men had had enough of gruesome death in the war they had just come from, and bought the ducklings to save them from the crocodile’s jaws. A somewhat unwieldy number of ducklings ended up at our house, and I had a rather large flock of ducks in the back of the house. I gave them away to the neighbors whenever I could.