Sunday, August 30, 2009

A Radical Spectacle?

Here's an article taken from the Kasama Project website.

Politics in an Age of Fantasy
By Stephen Duncombe


In the autumn of 2004, shortly before the U.S. presidential election and in the middle of a typically bloody month in Iraq, the New York Times Magazine ran a feature article on the casualty of truth in the Bush administration. Like most Times articles, it was well written, well researched, and thoroughly predictable. That George W. Bush is ill informed, doesn’t listen to dissenting opinion, and acts upon whatever nonsense he happens to believe is hardly news. (Even the fact that he once insisted that Sweden did not have an army and none of his cabinet dared contradict him was not all that surprising.) There was, however, one valuable insight. In a soon-to-be-infamous passage, the writer, Ron Suskind, recounted a conversation between himself and an unnamed senior adviser to the president:

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernable reality.” I nodded and murmured something about Enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create reality. And while you are studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
It was clear how the Times felt about this peek into the political mind of the presidency. The editors of the Gray Lady pulled out the passage and floated it over the article in oversized, multi-colored type. This was ideological gold: the Bush administration openly and arrogantly admitting that they didn’t care about reality. One could almost feel the palpable excitement generated among the Times’ liberal readership, an enthusiasm mirrored and amplified all down the left side of the political spectrum on computer listservs, call-in radio shows, and print editorials over the next few weeks. This proud assertion of naked disregard for reality and unbounded faith in fantasy was the most damning evidence of Bush insanity yet. He must surely lose the election now.

What worried me then, and still worries me today, is that my reaction was radically different. My politics have long been diametrically opposed to those of the Bush administration, and I’ve had a long career as a left-leaning academic and a progressive political activist. Yet I read the same words that generated so much animosity among liberals and the left and felt something else: excited, inspired … and jealous. Whereas the commonsense view held that Bush’s candid disregard for reality was evidence of the madness of his administration, I perceived it as a much more disturbing sign of its brilliance. I knew then that Bush, in spite of making a mess of nearly everything he had undertaken in his first presidential term, would be reelected.

How could my reaction be so different from that of so many of my colleagues and comrades? Maybe I was becoming a neocon, another addition to the long list of defectors whose progressive God had failed. Would I follow the path of Christopher Hitchens? A truly depressing thought. But what if, just maybe, the problem was not with me but with the main currents of progressive thinking in this country? More precisely, maybe there was something about progressive politics that had become increasingly problematic. The problem, as I see it, comes down to reality. Progressives believe in it, Bush’s people believe in creating it. The left and right have switched roles – the right taking on the mantle of radicalism and progressives waving the flag of conservatism. The political progeny of the protestors who proclaimed, “Take your desires for reality” in May of 1968, were now counseling the reversal: take reality for your desires. Republicans were the ones proclaiming, “I have a dream.”

Progressive dreams, and the spectacles that give them tangible form, will look different than those conjured up by the Bush administration or the commercial directors of what critic Neil Gabler calls Life, the Movie. Different not only in content – this should be obvious – but in form. Given the progressive ideals of egalitarianism and a politics that values the input of everyone, our dreamscapes will not be created by media-savvy experts of the left and then handed down to the rest of us to watch, consume, and believe. Instead, our spectacles will be participatory: dreams the public can mold and shape themselves. They will be active: spectacles that work only if people help create them. They will be open-ended: setting stages to ask questions and leaving silences to formulate answers. And they will be transparent: dreams that one knows are dreams but which still have power to attract and inspire. And, finally, the spectacles we create will not cover over or replace reality and truth but perform and amplify it. Illusion may be a necessary part of political life, but delusion need not be.

Perhaps the most important reason for progressives to make their peace with the politics of dreaming has little to do with the immediate task of winning consent or creating dissent, but has instead to do with long-term vision. Without dreams we will never be able to imagine the new world we want to build. From the 1930s until the 1980s political conservatives in this country were lost: out of power and out of touch. Recalling those days, Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s senior political adviser, says: “We were relegated to the desert.” While many a pragmatic Republican moved to the center, a critical core kept wandering in that desert, hallucinating a political world considered fantastic by postwar standards: a preemptive military, radical tax cuts, eroding the line between church and state, ending welfare, and privatizing Social Security. Look where their dreams are today.


All spectacle counts on popular participation. The fascist rallies in Japan, Italy, and Germany; the military parades through Moscow’s Red Square; the halftime shows at the Super Bowl – all demand an audience to march, stand, or do the wave. Even the more individualistic spectacle of advertising depends upon the distant participation of the spectator, who must become a consumer. But the public in both fascist and commercial spectacles only participates from the outside, as a set piece on a stage imagined and directed by someone else. As Siegfried Kracauer, a German film critic writing in the 1920s about “the mass ornament,” the public spectacles that prefigured Nazi rallies, observed, “Although the masses give rise to the ornament, they are not involved in thinking it through.”

Ethical spectacle demands a different sort of participation. The people who participate in the performance of the spectacle must also contribute to its construction. As opposed to the spectacles of commercialism and fascism, the public in an ethical spectacle is not considered a stage prop, but a co-producer and co-director. This is nothing radical, merely the application of democratic principles to the spectacles that govern our lives. If it is reasonable to demand that we have a say in how our schools are run or who is elected president, why shouldn’t we have the right to participate in the planning and carrying out of spectacle?

A participatory spectacle is not a spontaneous one; an organizer… needs to set the stage for participation to happen. But the mission of the organizer of an ethical spectacle differs from that of other spectacles. She has her eyes on two things. First is the overall look of the spectacle – that is, the desires being expressed, the dreams being displayed, the outcome being hoped for. In this way her job is the same as the fascist propagandist or the Madison Avenue creative director. But then she has another job. She must create a situation in which popular participation not only can happen but must happen for the spectacle to come to fruition.

The theorist/activists of the Situationists made a useful distinction between spectacle and situation. The spectacle they condemned as a site of “nonintervention”; there was simply no space for a spectator to intervene in what he or she was watching because it demanded only passivity and acquiescence. The Situationists saw it as their mission to fight against “the society of the spectacle,” but they also felt a responsibility to set something else in motion to replace it. “We must try and construct situations,” their master theorist Guy Debord wrote in 1957. These “situations” were no less staged events than fascist rallies, but their goal was different. The Situationists encouraged people to dérive – drift through unfamiliar city streets – and they showed mass culture films after “detourning” the dialogue, dubbing the actor’s lines to comment upon (or make nonsense of) the film being shown and the commercial culture from which it came. These situations, it was hoped, would create “collective ambiances,” which encouraged participants to break out of the soporific routine of the society of the spectacle and participate in the situation unfolding around them: to make sense of new streets and sights, look at celluloid images in a new and different way, and thereby alter people’s relationship to their material and media environment. As Debord wrote: “The role played by a passive or merely bit-playing ‘public’ must constantly diminish, while that played by those who cannot be called actors but rather, in a new sense of the term, ‘livers,’ must steadily increase.” Whereas actors play out a tight script written by another, “livers” write their own script through their actions within a given setting. The ideal of the “situation” was to set the stage for “transformative action.”


Spectacle needn’t pass itself off as reality to be effective in engaging the spectator. At least this was the hope of the playwright Bertolt Brecht. Brecht was disturbed by what he saw of the theater that surrounded him in Germany between the wars. With most theater (and movies and TV) the goal is to construct an illusion so complete that the audience will be drawn away from their world and into the fantasy on stage. This seduction is essential to traditional dramaturgy. First theorized by Aristotle in his Poetics, it stresses audience identification with the drama on stage: when an actor cries, you are supposed to cry; when he triumphs, you triumph as well. This allure is aided by staging that strives toward realism or captivates the audience with lavish displays of full-blown fantasy… Such drama “works” insofar as the audience is well entertained, but there is a political cost. Entranced, the audience suspends critical thought, and all action is sequestered to the stage. A “cowed, credulous, hypnotized mass,” Brecht described these spectators, “these people seem relieved of activity and like men to whom something is being done. It’s a pretty accurate description of the problem with most spectacle.

As a progressive, Brecht was horrified by this response of the theatergoing audience. He wanted to use his plays to motivate people to change the world, not escape from it. He understood that no matter how radical the content of his plays might be, if his audience lost itself in the illusion of his play and allowed the actors to do the action for them, then they would leave their politics up on the stage when the play was over.

Brecht believed that one could change the way drama is done and thus change its impact on the audience. Borrowing from the Chinese stage, he developed a dramaturgical method called epic theater. Central to epic theater was the Verfremdungseffekt, a term he mercifully shortened to the V-effect, which, translated into English, means roughly “alienation effect.” Instead of drawing people into a seamless illusion, Brecht strove to push them away – to alienate them – so that they would never forget that they were watching a play.

To accomplish the V-effect, Brecht and others, notably the Berlin director Erwin Piscator, who staged many of Brecht’s plays, developed a whole battery of innovative techniques: giving away the ending of the play at the beginning, having actors remind the audience that they are actors, humorous songs which interrupt tragic scenes, music which runs counter to mood, cue cards informing the audience that a scene is changing, stagehands appearing on stage to move props, and so on. Brecht even championed the idea of a “smokers’ theater” with the stage shrouded in thick smoke exhaled by a cigar-puffing audience – anything to break the seamless illusion of traditional theater.

While the function of the V-effect was to alienate his audience, it is a misreading of Brecht’s intentions to think that he wanted to create a theater that couldn’t be enjoyed. Nothing could be further from his mind. He heaped ridicule on an avant garde who equated unpopularity with artistic integrity and insisted that the job of the dramaturge is to entertain, demanding that theater be “enjoyable to the senses.” For both political and dramaturgical reasons he rejected the preaching model of persuasion; he wanted his audiences to have fun, not attend a lecture. Deconstructing the mind/body binary, Brecht believed that one could speak to reason and the senses. One could see through the spectacle and enjoy it nonetheless: a transparent spectacle.

Brecht’s V-effect has been adopted, in some cases quite consciously, by some of the more theatrical activist groups. Recall the Billionaires for Bush. Wearing long gowns and tiaras, tuxedos and top hats, the activists playing billionaires don’t hope to pass themselves off as the real thing. Real billionaires wear artfully distressed designer jeans; these Billionaires look like characters out of a game of Monopoly. Because their artifice is obvious, there is no deception of their audience. They are not seen as people who are, but instead as people who are presenting. Because of this the Billionaires’ message of wealth inequality and the corruption of money on politics is not passively absorbed by spectators identifying with character or scene, but consciously understood by an audience watching an obvious performance.

Furthermore, the spectacle the Billionaires present is so patently playacted, so unnatural, that the absurd unnaturality of a caucus of “people of wealth” advocating for their own rights is highlighted. This is, of course, what American democracy has become: a system where money buys power to protect money. This is no secret, but that’s part of the problem. The corruption of democracy is so well known that it is tacitly accepted as the natural course of things. One of the functions of the V-effect is to alienate the familiar: to take what is common sense and ask why it is so common – as Brecht put it: “to free socially conditioned phenomena from that stamp of familiarity which protects them against our grasp today.” By acting out the roles of obviously phony billionaires buying politicians for their own advantage, the Billionaires encourage the viewer of their spectacle to step back and look critically at the taken-for-grantedness of a political system where money has a voice, prodding them to question: “Isn’t it really the current political system that’s absurd?” The transparency of the spectacle allows the spectator to look through what is being presented to the reality of what is there.

Unlike the opaque spectacles of commercialism and fascism, which always make claims to the truth, a progressive spectacle invites the viewer to see through it: to acknowledge its essential “falsity” while being moved by it nonetheless. Most spectacle strives for seamlessness; ethical spectacle reveals its own workings. Most spectacle employs illusion in the pretense of portraying reality; ethical spectacle demonstrates the reality of its own illusions. Ethical spectacle reminds the viewer that the spectacle is never reality, but always a spectacle. In this way, ironically, spectacle becomes real.


For spectacle to be ethical it must not only reveal itself as what it is but also have as its foundation something real. At this point it is worth reiterating my initial argument that to embrace spectacle does not mean a radical rejection of the empirical real and the verifiably true. It is merely acknowledging that the real and the true are not self-evident: they need to be told and sold. The goal of the ethical spectacle is not to replace the real with the spectacle, but to reveal and amplify the real through the spectacle. Think of this as an inversion of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s infamous case to the United Nations for war in Iraq. Armed with reasoned reports and documentary photos of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear ambitions, Powell employed the tools of fact to make the case for the full-blown fantasy of Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction. Ethical spectacle employs the opposite strategy: the tools of spectacle as a way to mobilize support for the facts. As such, an ethical spectacle must start with reality.

An ethical spectacle must address the real dreams and desires of people – not the dreams and desires that progressives think they should, could, or “if they knew what was good for them” would have, but the ones people actually do have, no matter how trivial, politically incorrect, or even impossible they seem. How we address these dreams and desires is a political decision, but we must acknowledge and respond to them if we want people to identify with our politics. To engage the real as part of an ethical spectacle is not the same thing as being limited by the current confines of reality. For reality is not the end but a point of beginning – a firm foundation on which to build the possible, or to stand upon while dreaming the impossible.


The poet Eduardo Galeano writes of utopia:
She’s on the horizon…

I go two steps, she moves two steps away. I walk ten steps and the horizon runs ten steps ahead. No matter how much I walk, I’ll never reach her. What good is utopia? That’s what: it’s good for walking.
This is the goal of the ethical spectacle as well. The error is to see the spectacle as the new world. This is what both fascist and commercial spectacle does, and in this way the spectacle becomes a replacement for dreaming. Ethical spectacle offers up a different formulation. Instead of a dream’s replacement, the ethical spectacle is a dream put on display. It is a dream that we can watch, think about, act within, try on for size, yet necessarily never realize. The ethical spectacle is a means, like the dreams it performs, to imagine new ends. As such, the ethical spectacle has the possibility of creating an outside – as an illusion. This is not the delusion of believing that you have created an outside, but an illusion that gives direction and motivation that might just get you there.

I would love to give an example of the ideal ethical spectacle, one which incorporates all the properties listed above. I can’t. There isn’t one. The ideal ethical spectacle is like a dream itself: something to work, and walk, toward. Progressives have a lot of walking to do. We need to do this with our feet on the ground, with a clear understanding of the real (and imaginary) terrain of the country. But we also need to dream, for without dreams we won’t know where we are walking to.

Progressive dreams, to have any real political impact, need to become popular dreams. This will only happen if they resonate with the dreams that people already have – like those expressed in commercial culture today, and even those manifested through fascism in the past. But for progressive dreams to stand a chance of becoming popular, they, too, need to be displayed. Our dreams do little good locked inside our heads and sequestered within our small circles; they need to be heard and seen, articulated and performed – yelled from the mountaintop. This is the job of spectacle. Spectacle is already part of our political and economic life; the important question is whose ethics does it embody and whose dreams does it express.

© 2007 Stephen Duncombe

Stephen Duncombe’s new book Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy makes the case for a progressive politics that embraces fantasy and spectacle, images and symbols, emotion and desire. In essence, a new political aesthetic: a kind of dreampolitik, created not simply to further existing progressive agendas but to help us imagine new ones. These are extracts from the book, which was published by The New Press in January 2007. For more details about the book, the author and the publishers check out or

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Friday, August 28, 2009

"In Vietnam the Brass are the true Enemy, not the enemy."

The following is a report written in 1971 by Col. Robert D. Heinl, Jr. on the state of the United States military during the Vietnam War. It has been edited for posting here so as to focus on the resistance of the soldiers to the war and the US military. There are many other useful things covered in this report, and you can find it in its entirety here.

As is always the case, this article is posted for discussion and should not be taken as having an analysis shared by Learning to Fly. This article is clearly written by a reactionary scrotch. Enjoy.


The morale, discipline and battleworthiness of the U.S. Armed Forces are, with a few salient exceptions, lower and worse than at anytime in this century and possibly in the history of the United States.

By every conceivable indicator, our army that now 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.

Elsewhere than Vietnam, the situation is nearly as serious.

Intolerably clobbered and buffeted from without and within by social turbulence, pandemic drug addiction, race war, sedition, civilian scapegoatise, draftee recalcitrance and malevolence, barracks theft and common crime, unsupported in their travail by the general government, in Congress as well as the executive branch, distrusted, disliked, and often reviled by the public, the uniformed services today are places of agony for the loyal, silent professions who doggedly hang on and try to keep the ship afloat.

The responses of the services to these unheard-of conditions, forces and new public
attitudes, are confused, resentful, occasional pollyanna-ish, and in some cases even calculated to worsen the malaise that is wracking. While no senior officer (especially one on active duty) can openly voice any such assessment, the foregoing conclusions find virtually unanimous support in numerous non-attributable interviews with responsible senior and mid-level officer, as well as career noncommissioned officers and petty officers in all services.

Historical precedents do not exist for some of the services' problems, such as desertion, mutiny, unpopularity, seditious attacks, and racial troubles. Others, such as drugs, pose difficulties that are wholly NEW. Nowhere, however, in the history of the Armed Forces have comparable past troubles presented themselves in such general magnitude, acuteness, or concentrated focus as today.

By several orders of magnitude, the Army seems to be in worse trouble. But the Navy has serious and unprecedented problems, while the Air Force, on the surface at least still clear of the quicksands in which the Army is sinking, is itself facing disquieting difficulties.

Only the Marines - who have made news this year by their hard line against indiscipline and general permissiveness - seem with their expected staunchness and tough tradition, to be weathering the storm.

Back To The Campus

To understand the military consequences of what is happening to the U.S. Armed Forces, Vietnam is a good place to start. It is in Vietnam that the rearguard of a 500,000 man army, in its day and in the observation of the writer the best army the United States ever put into the field, is numbly extricating itself from a nightmare war the Armed Forces feel they had foisted on them by bright civilians who are now back on campus writing books about the folly of it all.

"They have set up separate companies," writes an American soldier from Cu Chi, quoted in the New York Times, "for men who refuse to go into the field. Is no big thing to refuse to go. If a man is ordered to go to such and such a place he no longer goes through the hassle of refusing; he just packs his shirt and goes to visit some buddies at another base camp. Operations have become incredibly ragtag. Many guys don't even put on their uniforms any more... The American garrison on the larger bases are virtually disarmed. The lifers have taken our weapons from us and put them under lock and key...There have also been quite a few frag incidents in the battalion."

Can all this really be typical or even truthful?

Unfortunately the answer is yes.

"Frag incidents" or just "fragging" is current soldier slang in Vietnam for the murder or attempted murder of strict, unpopular, or just aggressive officers and NCOs. With extreme reluctance (after a young West Pointer from Senator Mike Mansfield's Montana was fragged in his sleep) the Pentagon has now disclosed that fraggings in 1970(109) have more than doubled those of the previous year (96).

Word of the deaths of officers will bring cheers at troop movies or in bivouacs of certain units.

In one such division -- the morale plagued Americal -- fraggings during 1971 have been authoritatively estimated to be running about one a week.

Yet fraggings, though hard to document, form part of the ugly lore of every war. The first such verified incident known to have taken place occurred 190 years ago when Pennsylvania soldiers in the Continental Army killed one of their captains during the night of 1 January 1781.

Bounties And Evasions

Bounties, raised by common subscription in amounts running anywhere from $50 to $1,000, have been widely reported put on the heads of leaders whom the privates and Sp4s want to rub out.

Shortly after the costly assault on Hamburger Hill in mid-1969,the GI underground newspaper in Vietnam, "G.I. Says", publicly offered a $10,000 bounty on Lt. Col. Weldon Honeycutt, the officer who ordered(and led) the attack. Despite several attempts, however, Honeycutt managed to live out his tour and return Stateside.

"Another Hamburger Hill," (i.e., toughly contested assault), conceded a veteran major, is definitely out."
The issue of "combat refusal", and official euphemism for disobedience of orders to fight -- the soldier's gravest crime – has only recently been again precipitated on the frontier of Laos by Troop B, 1st Cavalry's mass refusal to recapture their captain's command vehicle containing communication gear, codes and other secret operation orders.

As early as mid-1969, however, an entire company of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade publicly sat down on the battlefield. Later that year, another rifle company, from the famed 1st Air Cavalry Division, flatly refused -- on CBS-TV -- to advance down a dangerous trail.

(Yet combat refusals have been heard of before: as early as 1813,a corps of 4,000 Kentucky soldiers declined to engage British Indians who just sacked and massacred Ft Dearborn (later Chicago).)

While denying further unit refusals the Air Cav has admitted some 35 individual refusals in 1970 alone. By comparison, only two years earlier in 1968, the entire number of officially recorded refusals for our whole army in Vietnam -- from over seven divisions - was 68.

"Search and evade" (meaning tacit avoidance of combat by units in the field) is now virtually a principle of war, vividly expressed by the GI phrase, "CYA (cover your ass) and get home!"

That "search-and-evade" has not gone unnoticed by the enemy is underscored by the Viet Cong delegation's recent statement at the Paris Peace Talks that communist units in Indochina have been ordered not to engage American units which do not molest them. The same statement boasted - not without foundation in fact - that American defectors are in the VC ranks.

Symbolic anti-war fasts (such as the one at Pleiku where an entire medical unit, led by its officers, refused Thanksgiving turkey), peace symbols, "V"-signs not for victory but for peace, booing and cursing of officers and even of hapless entertainers such as Bob Hope, are unhappily commonplace.

As for drugs and race, Vietnam’s problems today not only reflect but reinforce those of t he Armed Forces as a whole. In April, for example, members of a Congressional investigating subcommittee reported that 120 to 15% of our troops in Vietnam are now using high-grade heroin, and that drug addiction there is "of epidemic proportions."

Only last year an Air Force major and command pilot for Ambassador Bunker was apprehended at Ton Son Nhut air base outside Saigon with $8 million worth of heroin in his aircraft. The major is now in Leavenworth.

Early this year, and Air force regular colonel was court-martialed and cashiered for leading his squadron in pot parties, while, at Cam Ranh Air Force Base, 43 members of the base security police squadron were recently swept up in dragnet narcotics raids.

All the foregoing facts – and mean more dire indicators of the worse kind of military trouble – point to widespread conditions among American forces in Vietnam that have only been exceeded in this century by the French Army’s Nivelle mutinies of 1917 and the collapse of the Tsarist armies in 1916 and 1917.

Society Notes

It is a truism that national armies closely reflect societies from which they have been raised. It would be strange indeed if the Armed Forces did not today mirror the agonizing divisions and social traumas of American society, and of course they do.

For this very reason, our Armed Forces outside Vietnam not only reflect these conditions but disclose the depths of their troubles in an awful litany of sedition, disaffection, desertion, race, drugs, breakdowns of authority, abandonment of discipline, and, as a cumulative result, the lowest state of military morale in the history of the country.

Sedition – coupled with disaffection within the ranks, and externally fomented with an audacity and intensity previously inconceivable – infests the Armed Services:

At best count, there appear to be some 144 underground newspapers published on or aimed at U.S. military bases in this country and overseas. Since 1970 the number of such sheets has increased 40% (up from 103 last fall). These journals are not mere gripe-sheets that poke soldier fun in the "Beetle Bailey" tradition, at the brass and the sergeants. "In Vietnam," writes the Ft Lewis-McChord Free Press, "the Lifers, the Brass, are the true Enemy, not the enemy." Another West Coast sheet advises readers: "Don’t desert. Go to Vietnam and kill your commanding officer."

At least 14 GI dissent organizations (including two made up exclusively of officers) now operate more or less /31/ openly. Ancillary to these are at least six antiwar veterans’ groups which strive to influence GIs.

Three well-established lawyer groups specialize in support of GI dissent. Two (GI Civil Liberties Defense Committee and new York Draft and Military Law Panel) operate in the open. A third is a semi-underground network of lawyers who can only be contacted through the GI Alliance, a Washing, D.C., group which tries to coordinate seditious antimilitary activities throughout the country.

One antimilitary legal effort operates right in the theater of war. A three-man law office, backed by the Lawyers’ Military Defense Committee, of Cambridge, Mass., was set up last fall in Saigon to provide free civilian legal services for dissident soldiers being court-martialed in Vietnam.

Besides these lawyers’ fronts, the Pacific Counseling Service (an umbrella organization with Unitarian backing for a prolifery of antimilitary activities) provides legal help and incitement to dissident GIs through not one but seven branches (Tacoma, Oakland, Los Angeles, San Diego, Monterey, Tokyo, and Okinawa).

Another of Pacific Counseling’s activities is to air-drop planeloads of sedition literature into Oakland’s sprawling Army Base, our major West Coast staging point for Vietnam

On the religious front, a community of turbulent priests and clergymen, some unfrocked, calls itself the Order of Maximilian. Maximilian is a saint said to have been martyred by the Romans for refusing military service as un-Christian. Maximilian’s present-day followers visit military posts, infiltrate brigs and stockades in the guise of spiritual counseling, work to recruit military chaplains, and hold services of "consecrations" of post chapels in the name of their saintly draft-dodger.

By present count at least 11 (some go as high as 26) off-base antiwar "coffee houses" ply GIs with rock music, lukewarm coffee, antiwar literature, how-t-do-it tips on desertion, and similar disruptive counsels. Among the best-known coffee houses are: The Shelter Half (Ft Lewis, Wash.); The Home Front (Ft Carson, Colo.); and The Oleo Strut (Ft Hood, Tex.).

Virtually all the coffee houses are or have been supported by the U.S. Serviceman’s Fund, whose offices are in new York City’s Bronx. Until may 1970 the Fund was recognized as a tax-exempt "charitable corporations," a determination which changed when IRS agents found that its main function was sowing dissention among GIs and that it was a satellite of "The new Mobilization Committee", a communist-front organization aimed at disruption of the Armed Forces.

The Action Groups

Not unsurprisingly, the end-product of the atmosphere of incitement of unpunished sedition, and of recalcitrant antimilitary malevolence which pervades the world of the draftee (and to an extent the low-ranking men in "volunteer" services, too) is overt action.

One militant West Coast Group, Movement for a Democratic Military (MDM), has specialized in weapons theft from military bases in California. During 1970, large armory thefts were successfully perpetrated against Oakland Army Base, Vets Cronkhite and Ord, and even the marine Corps Base at Camp Pendleton, where a team wearing Marine uniforms got away with nine M-16 rifles and an M-79 grenade launcher.

Operating in the middle West, three soldiers from Ft Carson, Colo., home of the Army’s permissive experimental unite, the 4th Mechanized Division, were recently indicted by a federal grand jury for dynamiting the telephone exchange, power plant and water works of another Army installation, Camp McCoy, Wis., on 26 July 1970.

The Navy, particularly on the West Coast, has also experienced disturbing cases of sabotage in the past two years, mainly directed at ships’ engineering and electrical machinery.

It will be surprising, according to informed officers, if further such tangible evidence of disaffection within the ranks does not continue to come to light. Their view is that the situation could become considerably worse before it gets better.

Desertions and Disasters

With conditions what they are in the Armed Forces, and with intense efforts on the part of elements in our society to disrupt discipline and destroy morale the consequences can be clearly measured in two ultimate indicators: man-power retention (reenlistments and their antithesis, desertions); and the state of discipline.
In both respects the picture is anything but encouraging.

Desertion, to be sure, has often been a serious problem in the past. In 1826, for example, desertions exceeded 50% of the total enlistments in the Army. During the Civil War, in 1864, Jefferson Davis reported to the Confederate Congress: "Two thirds of our men are absent, most absent without leave."

Desertion rates are going straight up in Army, Marines, and Air Force. Curiously, however, during the period since 1968 when desertion has nearly doubled for all three other services, the Navy’s rate has risen by less than 20 percent.

In 1970, the Army had 65,643 deserters, or roughly the equivalent of four infantry divisions. This desertion rate (52.3 soldiers per thousand) is well over twice the peak rate for Korea (22.5 per thousand). It is more than quadruple the 1966 desertion-rate (14.7 per thousand) of the ten well-trained, high-spirited professional Army.

If desertions continue to rise(as they are still doing this year), they will attain or surpass the WWII peak of 63 per thousand, which, incidentally, occurred in the same year (1945) when more soldiers were actually being discharged from the Army for psychoneurosis than were drafted.

The Air Force, -- relatively uninvolved in the Vietnam war, all-volunteer, management-oriented rather than disciplinary and hierarchic – enjoys a numerical rate of less that one deserter per thousand men, but even this is double what it was three years ago.

The marines in 1970 had the highest desertion index in the modern history of the Corps and, for that year at least, slightly higher than the Army’s. As the Marines now phase out of Vietnam (and haven’t taken a draftee in nearly two years), their desertions are expected to decrease sharply. Meanwhile, grimly remarked one officer, "let the bastards go. We’re all the better without them."

Letting the bastards go is something the Marines can probably afford. "The Marine Corps Isn’t Looking for a Lot of Recruits," reads a current recruiting /36/ poster, "We Just Need a Few Good Men." This is the happy situation of a Corps slimming down to an elite force again composed of true volunteers who want to be professionals.

But letting the bastards go doesn’t work at all for the Army and the Navy, who do need a lot of recruits and whose reenlistment problems are dire.

Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr., chief of naval Operations, minces no words. "We have a personnel crisis," he recently said, "that borders on disaster."

The Navy’s crisis, as Zumwalt accurately describes it, is that of a highly technical, material oriented service that finds itself unable to retain the expensively-trained technicians needed to operate warships, which are the largest, most complex items of machinery that man makes and uses.

Non-Volunteer Force?

If 45% of his sailors shipped over after their first enlistment, Admiral Zumwalt would be all smiles. With only 13% doing so, he is growing sideburns to enhance the Navy’s appeal to youth.
Among the Army’s volunteer (non-draftee) soldiers on their first hitch, the figures are much the same: less than 14% re-up.

The Air Force is slightly, but not much, better off: 16% of its first-termers stay on.

Moreover – and this is the heart of the Army’s dilemma – only 4 % of the voluntary enlistees now choose service in combat arms (infantry, armor, artillery) and of those only 2.5% opt for infantry. Today’s soldiers, it seems, volunteer readily enough for the tail of the Army, but not for its teeth.

For all services, the combined retention rate this past year is about half what it was in 1966, and the lowest since the bad times of similar low morale and national disenchantment after Korea.

Both Army and navy are responding to their manpower problems in measures intended to seduce recruits and reenlistees: disciplinary permissiveness, abolition of reveille and KP, fewer inspections, longer haircuts – essentially cosmetic changes aimed at softening (and blurring) traditional military and naval images.

Amid such changes (not unlike the Army’s 1946 Doolittle Board coincidences intended in their similar postwar day to sweeten life for the privates), those which are not cosmetic at all may well exert profound and deleterious effects on the leadership, command authority and discipline of the services.

Soulbone Connected to the Backbone

"Discipline," George Washington once remarked, "is the soul of an army."
Washington should know. In January 1781, all the Pennsylvania and New Jersey troops in the Continental Army mutinied. Washington only quelled the outbreaks by disarming the Jersey mutineers and having their leaders shot in hollow square – by a firing squad made up of fellow mutineers.
(the navy’s only mutiny, aboard USS Somers in 1842, was quelled when the captain hanged the mutineers from the yardarm while still at sea.)

If Washington was correct (and almost any professional soldier, whether officer or NCO, will agree), then the Armed Forces today are in deep trouble.

What enhances this trouble, by exponential dimensions, is the kind of manpower with which the Armed Forces now have to work. As early as three years ago, U.S. News and World Report reported that the services were already plagued with "… a new breed of man, who thinks he is his own Secretary of ?State, Secretary of Defense, and Attorney General. He considers himself superior to any officer alive. And he is smart enough to go by the book. He walks a tightrope between the regulations and sedition."

Yet the problem is not just one of trouble-makers and how to cope with them.

The trouble of the services – produced by and also in turn producing the dismaying conditions described in this article – is above all a crisis of soul and backbone. It entails – the word is not too strong – something very near a collapse of the command authority and leadership George Washington saw as the soul of military forces. This collapse results, at least in part, from a concurrent collapse of public confidence in the military establishment.

General Matthew B. Ridgway, one of the Army’s finest leaders in this century (who revitalized the shaken Eighth Army in Korea after its headlong rout by the Chinese in 1950) recently said, "Not before in my lifetime … has the Army’s public image fallen to such low esteem …"

But the fall in public esteem of all three major services – not just the Army – is exceeded by the fall or at least the enfeeblement of the hierarchic and disciplinary system by which they exist and, when ordered to do so, fight and sometimes die.

Take the case of the noncommissioned and petty officers.

In Rudyard Kipling’s lines, "the backbone o’ the Army is the noncommissioned man!"

Today, the NCOs – the lifters – have been made strangers in their own home, the regular service, by the collective malevolence, recalcitrance, and cleverness of college –educated draftees who have outflanked the traditional NCO hierarchy and created a privates’ power structure with more influence on the Army of today than its sergeants major.

Word to the Whys

"Discipline," wrote Sir John Jervis, one of England’s greatest admirals, "is summed up in the one word, obedience."

Robert E. Lee later said, "Men must be habituated to obey or they cannot be controlled in battle."

In the Armed forces today, obedience appears to be a sometime thing.

"You can’t give them an order and expect them to obey immediately," says an infantry officer in Vietnam. "they ask why, and you have to tell them."

Command authority, i.e., the unquestioned ability of an officer or NCO to give an order and expect it to be complied with, is at an all-time low. It is so low that, in many units, officers give the impression of having lost their nerve in issuing, let alone enforcing orders.

In the words of an Air Force officer to this reporter, "If a captain went down on the line and gave an order and expected it to be obeyed because ‘I said so!’ – there’d be a rebellion."

Other officers unhesitatingly confirmed the foregoing.

What all this amounts to – conspicuously in Vietnam and only less so elsewhere – is that today’s junior enlisted man, not the lifer, but the educated draftee or draft-motivated "volunteer" – now demands that orders be simplistically justified on his own terms before he feels any obligation to obey.

Yet the young soldiers, sailors and airmen might obey more willingly if they had more confidence in their leaders. And there are ample indications that Armed Forces junior (and NCO) leadership has been soft, inexperienced, and sometimes plain incompetent.

In the 82nd Airborne Division today, the average length of service of the company commanders is only 3 ½ years.

In the Navy, a man makes petty officer 2d class in about 2 ½ years after he first enlists. By contrast, in the taut and professional pre-WWII fleet, a man required 2 ½ years just to make himself a really first-class seaman.

The grade of corporal has practically been superseded in the Army: Sp 4s hold most of the corporals’ billets. Where the corporal once commanded a squad, today’s Army gives the job to a staff sergeant, two ranks higher. Within the squad, it now takes a sergeant to command three other soldiers in the lowly fire-team.
"This never would have happened," somberly said a veteran artillery sergeant major, "if the NCOs had done their jobs … The NCOs are our weak point." Sp 4 Gyongyos at Ft. Carson agrees: "It is the shared perception of the privates that the NCOs have not looked out for the soldiers."

When B Troop, 1st Cavalry, mutinied during the Laos operation, and refused to fight, not an officer or NCO raised his hand (or his pistol) or stepped forward. Fifty-three privates and Sp 4s cowed all the lifers of their units.

"Officers," says a recently retired senior admiral, "do not stand up for what they believe. The older enlisted men are really horrified."

Lieutenant William L. Calley, Jr., an ex-company clerk, was a platoon leader who never even learned to read a map. His credentials for a commission were derisory; he was no more officer-material than any Pfc. in his platoon. Yet the Army had to take him because no one else was available. Commenting on the Calley conviction, a colonel at Ft. /38/ Benning said, "We have at least two or three thousand more Calleys in the Army just waiting for the next calamity."

Albert Johnson, the tough Master Chief Petty Officer of the Atlantic Fleet, shakes his head and says: "You used to hear it all the time – people would say, ‘The Chiefs run the Navy.’ But you don’t hear it much any more, especially from the Chiefs."

A Hard Lot at Best

But the lot of even the best, most forceful leader is a hard one in today’s military.

In the words of a West Point lieutenant colonel commanding an airborne battalion, "There are so many ways nowadays for a soldier that is smart and bad to get back at you." The colonel should know: recently he reduced a sergeant for gross public insubordination and now he is having to prepare a lengthy apologia, though channels to the Secretary of The Army, in order to satisfy the offending sergeant’s congressman.

"How do we enforce discipline?" asks a senior general. Then he answers himself: "Sweep it under the rug. Keep them happy. Keep it out of the press. Do things the easy way: no court-martials, but strong discipline."

Towards the end of the eighteenth century, after years of costly, frustrating and considerably less than successful war, Britain’s armed forces sere swept by disaffection culminating in the widespread mutinies in most of the ships and fleets that constituted England’s "wooden walls" against France.

Writing to a friend in 1979, Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty said, "The Channel Fleet is now lost to the country as much as if it was at the bottom of the sea."

Have things gone that far in the United States today?

The most optimistic answer is – probably not. Or at least not yet.

But many a thoughtful officer would be quick to echo the words of BGen Donn A. Starry, who recently wrote, "The Army can defend the nation against anything but the nation itself."

Or – in the wry words of Pogo – we have met the enemy, and they are us.

Written by Col. Robert D. Heinl, Jr., published in Armed Forces Journal, 7 June, 1971. Taken from

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Organizing Resistance Within the Military

From Courage to Resist ...
GI Resistance Under the Radar

By Sarah Lazare, Courage to Resist for Truthout. August 3, 2009

An interview with two former soldiers who describe how they helped prevent their unit from deploying to a war zone.

What do you do if you are a soldier being asked to fight a war you do not believe in?

For two former soldiers whose unit was ordered to deploy to Iraq in April 2005, the answer came in the form of work slowdowns, letter-writing campaigns, and one-on-one organizing with fellow soldiers. The result: they helped prevent their unit from deploying to a war zone.

In this interview, Skippy and Robert, who did not give their full names for fear of military retaliation, share their stories, telling how they convinced several in their unit to deliberately fail physical training, called public attention to the insufficient training and gear they were being asked to fight with, and found creative ways to encourage soldiers to "drop the military before the military drops you." They tell how they dealt with the fear and intimidation of standing up to their command, and about friends and comrades who fell victim to "broken Joe" syndrome.

These stories give a glimpse into the world of GI resistance - the oft-hidden side of the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the military is not forthcoming with information about the number of troops refusing to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, statistics suggest military resistance overall is on the rise. Since 2002, the Army has court-martialed twice as many soldiers for desertion and other unauthorized absences per year than for each year between 1997 and 2001. AWOL rates in the Army are at their highest since 1980, with the desertion rate having jumped 80 percent since the start of the Iraq War, according to The Associated Press.

Skippy and Robert's experience shows that while some GI resisters go public, much resistance happens silently, under the radar, in circles of trusted friends, in the small acts that fly in the face of military obedience and command. Their stories serve as a reminder that there are multiple ways to resist military control, and despite military efforts to quash dissent, these varied forms of resistance are as ongoing as the wars themselves.

Sarah: I know that you two were involved in an unconventional form of GI resistance where you essentially ... organized your unit not to deploy to Iraq. Can you tell me the story of how that happened?

Robert: Sure; we were in Fort Polk, Louisiana, in an area called "the box," which is a large training area that is meant to resemble different areas of Iraq or Afghanistan. They basically employ civilians from outside the base and bring in interpreters to try to make a realistic training situation. We were training to go in and basically rebuild UNAID, which is military assistance to the United Nations operations. It can be very dangerous, because the Rules of Engagement that govern soldiers under the command of the UN are very limiting and create fear because they are unrealistic in the battlefield - they'll get you killed.

We weren't as a unit prepared for that, and that's where Skippy and I started to look for other actions. We were against the war and were hoping just to ride out the rest of our military career. We both knew that after that deployment, by the time the next deployment came up, we'd be getting out. As we started to gear up for going to Iraq we started to explore actions for getting out of the military. Skippy went towards a hardship discharge, and I went conscientious objector. And basically you could say we agitated several other soldiers to take other means to get out of the military.

Skippy: As concerned citizens and concerned soldiers, we were looking at the situation in front of us and saying, you know, this just doesn't seem right to us. And so we started to talk to our fellow soldiers about this to get a sense of, "are we alone on this, what's going on," and we did quickly realize that everybody else had the same kinds of feelings as us. They either felt that there was something really fishy about the war, in general, or particular, they would start to say that our leadership was incompetent, that we're totally dependent upon a leadership that obviously doesn't know what they're doing.

The other thing was we didn't even have the proper equipment to train, let alone mobilize. So it was like, "hey, here's this super dangerous mission, how about let's mobilize the guard for it, they've been in the box for a while, they might be able to handle this." But the reality was, we totally couldn't handle something like that, and we were actually struggling to do a good job in "the box" in my opinion.

So we endeavored to talk to our fellow soldiers, and we told them to call their parents and let them know what was going on and complain about it. So that's where the letter-writing campaign really came in handy, and the parents are really the backbone of this whole thing. Rob, maybe this is a good time to go into how you helped set up initially that conference call with Dick Durbin, senator from Illinois.

Robert: Ok, sure. So it was set up by my fiancée, who was working with different groups who were doing antiwar work, and they were able to set up a conference call, and basically we carried forth some of the demands of the soldiers there. You know, complaints about no body armor, our leadership was absolutely horrible - for example, in our infantry unit, our sergeant major had been a cook his entire military career.

Same thing with our company commander, who was absolutely horrible - there was no confidence, at least within our platoon, in his ability. You know, within the military it's very interesting, because you have a lot of the lower enlisted, you could say, specialists and below, basically people who aren't in a leadership position, for the most part coming from working-class communities. The military was a way to advance. For them it was pretty easy to get in discussions in which we were able to challenge the concept of authoritarianism a little bit. So we did seek out senators to help us, including Durbin and to my understanding other letters went to Obama, but we also sought self-empowerment amongst everyday enlisted soldiers. Within our platoon, if not at that deployment, shortly after, when we returned from Fort Polk, we had about seven people who sought some form of discharge, and that's almost an entire squad in a platoon. Within a platoon, you have four squads. For us I think it was a pretty big victory.

Skippy: It was during kind of this dialogue phase, we would cut out the various pictures in the magazines and we'd make these flyers and we'd put them up as another sign of resistance. Initially I think we would just distribute them in random places. I actually found this advertisement for the National Guard from way back when, and it was a guy's head yellin' "hoo-wah" so I cut his head out with the hoo-wah phrase kind of echoing from his mouth and I put it in the center of the toilet. We cut out these letters you know so that it says "drop the Mili before the Mili drops you."

It's really strange in the military, you almost feel like you shouldn't do these things, because somebody might catch you, but then when you start talking to people, it's like they have the same ideas that you do, in a way, so it's like you find yourself in this weird position where you feel like you're alienated but then there's signs that maybe you're not. So we wanted to create another sign to say that you're not.

Sarah: The latest study that was done, which was in 2006, showed that 72 percent of all the troops in Iraq are against the war and want immediate pullout. Do you think there was an organic natural sentiment against the war or at least skepticism within the ranks?

Skippy: I guess from my humble perspective it did seem like that was out there and a lot of that had to do with what people were getting from the news, mixed with what they actually saw on the ground. Since we were in a training scenario, it was a little different for us, because we weren't actually in country. We were just in Fort Polk, Louisiana. But I think the premise is the same because we were out there trying to mimic what was going on in country, so a lot of our missions would be very similar to what missions were like over there. So we could still connect the dots in a similar way.

Sometimes people would understand that a lot of the training scenario just seemed really bizarre in and of itself. We would play the bad guys some rotations and then we would play the good guys some rotations, so we would really get this juxtaposition of perspectives.

So when we did eventually engage in dialogue at chow or whatever, or when we were in down time, talked about how messed up would it be to go over there, how unfair that would be, how ridiculous this scenario was, etc. It starts to click together that all that's really going on is that there's this deep network of factions warring and backstabbing each other while we get caught in the middle. Folks didn't really want to be a part of that.

It reminds me a lot of how people felt about isolationism; it's like an isolationist kind of perspective. Like, "Well, what's our business over there, why is that our responsibility" kind of thing, like; "Why can't they just deal with their own issues." But Robert and I were relatively enlightened on these matters. At least in our small circle of influence, were able to put out the idea that this is sort of systemic. We'd make sure to point out that this has deep roots in capitalism and history, and that these are patterns that extend between nations and over time, and so we were kind of bringing that flavor to it.

Maybe it helped, maybe it didn't, I don't know, but I know folks really did begin to pick up the idea that they could resist. We did do something akin to a slow-down strike. I know personally I did encourage troops to not qualify as best as they could. When you get mobilized you have to qualify with your weapons and that kind of thing and we realized that we were just so ate up anyway that it really didn't matter anyway how well we did on these things because it's not going to really accurately reflect who we are. Our rationale was to just do the bare minimum, don't try to prop up what we look like on paper any more than it's already distorted.

It was kind of scary because we didn't want to publicly broadcast that we were doing these things to anybody, but we wanted to make sure that it was kept within like teams or squads, so I don't know how far it did get out. Then there were soldiers who were not too motivated necessarily against the war. For example, this one guy, you know that wasn't his big thing, I don't think that was really even on his mind, but his thing was, he just hated the military, and he wasn't gonna try.

There's this peculiar broken Joe syndrome you could call it, it's like where folks kind of see the despair already so they just kind of reiterate it in their own individual ways. It's like "Oh well, like the war is bullshit anyway it's not as if it's legitimate and I can feel ashamed, it's actually illegitimate and I can feel proud to dog it."

Sarah: Can you talk about the outcome of your organizing and what happened? You ended up not having to deploy, right?

Robert: Skippy got out on a hardship discharge for family-related reasons. I went out on conscientious objection; once the investigation started, things went really sour. Two weeks after I went conscientious objector, somebody else from another platoon within our company went conscientious objector too. I think they were kind of fearing that people are really looking for a way out. While we were there within our platoon, one or two people got out for drug-related reasons. Afterwards two more got out for the same reason. They would kick people out for, say, smoking pot. People would be like, well, do I stay in the military and go to war or smoke some pot?

After I left, I don't think there was a lot of momentum left within resisting; it was hard to have other people take initiative and be a strong voice against it. I'm not sure exactly how strong that sentiment against the military is within our old unit, but when we got back, about a year or two years after, there were people getting out or finding ways to get out. So that continued for sure, and then there were people who would have re-upped and stayed in the military decided not to.

Sarah: So the letter-writing campaign played some kind of role, in at least pressuring the military to not deploy you all; could you explain a little bit about that?

Robert: We don't know 100 percent if that's exactly the case. So the letters go in and we get a meeting at Durbin's office and we're basically on video cameras with some of his representatives in DC. I believe that there was around 2,000 letters sent out within a week, so for them it was probably like "OK, why are we getting hit with so many letters, what's going on, it's something we'll probably have to address." And then within our company and battalion, basically our entire leadership was constantly being brought out on these meetings, there was definitely a lot that was going on, you'd hear people talking about the letter campaign.

Skippy: Remember that time we came back on leave and then they put the whole battalion into formation? They were like "who's writing, whose calling back home telling their family that the weapons are broken and the unit's messed up?" And meanwhile we're just standing there like [muffled laughter].

Robert: They brought a company in at a time to a church, and then they gave everyone an hour-long speech on how the unit is prepared, how you're not supposed to be calling home about this stuff, you have a chain of command, don't go writing home. Sergeant Major the cook, who all of a sudden became infantry, he was like you know, "When I call home I tell my wife I have a good weapon and I'm prepared to use it and I know how to use it. And I'll be safe." And I'm thinking well, maybe you have a weapon, but we don't have a weapon.

I was on CQ duty, which is, basically within the company they have a headquarters and the CQ sits there, you're at the desk if they need you to do something, you'll do it. It's a 24-hour watch, so I'd kind of hear what's going on with the other companies and they'd have their battalion meetings in there. And they'd be like "We've got to find out whose doing this," and I'm just sitting there like "Oh man, I know who it is."

Skippy: I believe there's another component to it. Remember when Private Joe shot himself in the guard tower? Private Joe was in another company, but in the same battalion. He had a lot of mental issues. He had gone to the Army shrink and everything, and for whatever reason they told him he was fine. So he's on guard duty in this guard shack and he convinces the other soldier to go grab the sergeant for something. Then he puts the barrel of his weapon into his mouth and blows the back of his brains all over the guard shack. So when Private Joe shot himself, that's when all of the leadership just went apeshit, I don't know how, maybe that played a factor too in our getting denied the deployment as well. I remember distinctly the next day being appalled by just the regularity of the military machine and it just not giving a damn about Private Joe for one second. It was almost like it was a joke to them, and they cleaned it up and everything marched right on; it was very surreal. They did eventually honor him and say something, but it took a while; it wasn't like an immediate concern of theirs, it seemed.

Robert: When you go conscientious objector the first thing you have to do is announce it; you have to tell your company commander. I was supposed to get promoted to sergeant like the next day and that got scrapped. The second part is you basically have to state your beliefs or reasons, motives of why you're going conscientious objector, and then you have to see the chaplain and then from there you have to see a psychologist. Then you have almost like a hearing within your company, with an outside company commander. In general I was trying to get basically diagnosed as having depression and anxiety. So the process says you have to first go to see the chaplain, which is interesting because on one hand it's a party that's outside of your chain of command, but at the same time it's also a chaplain, so if you're not very religious or whatever or a different religion, who really wants to go talk to a chaplain? I didn't. Then I tried to see a private psychologist, and I was able to see one in Chicago and basically was able to have myself diagnosed.

Skippy: A lot of the depression, I think, was real. You were close to broken Joe syndrome as well.

Sarah: Skippy, you were out already on hardship discharge when you heard that your unit was not going to be deploying, right?

Skippy: Yeah, I was long gone. It was in March 2005 that I officially got out. When I heard the news from Rob, I guess even then I really didn't kind of connect our resistance with the canceled deployment, because what we were doing kind of felt more instinctual than anything. A lot of our resistance just kind of felt like the thing that we should do at the time. Even though we did kind of have a broad articulated strategy between each other and amongst some sympathizers, it still felt like anything could happen at any moment. The atmosphere was totally precarious, and the uncertainty just made all of us so anxious. I remember Rob and I were coming up with just alternatives; we had like 100 alternative plans, like "If this goes wrong, if the other thing goes wrong ..." I remember us just revisiting it to each other constantly and now it just reminds me of how anxious we really were and how scary everything really was. So it was definitely a sigh of relief but really hard to put what caused it into a direct line.

Sarah: What do you hope GI's and the peace and antiwar movement can learn from your experience?

Robert: My reasons for going into the military were, I had a 1.9 GPA in high school, and right now, next semester at school I'll be student-teaching to fulfill the requirements to become a history teacher. But when I was younger I had no confidence in myself. I came from a working-class family, my dad worked at the post office and was a Nam vet, in the infantry. That was the reason I didn't at that time go active Army, but I had considered it. But looking back at it, there's a feeling of wanting to get ahead, of wanting to not be in such a precarious situation that my family was in. Not that we were poor, but we basically just got by. With having a 1.9 GPA in high school I was just wondering what I was going to do with myself. My parents can't afford to put me in school, so what I'm seeing in my future is just getting by, just working your ass off so hopefully you could retire.

So I looked at the military as a way of basically thinking that it would solve my problems. Whether you go in the military or not, the situation's gonna remain the same. There's much broader and larger economic forces at play.

So then from there it's like, who are you fighting for? Who is benefiting from Iraq? And then I think from there the question is, do you have agency in your life; are you empowered? You know, was my family empowered at work, in our community? In short, there's no running away from these authoritarian social relationships, and if you really want to make things better in your community then you have to take part in community struggle. And you have to take part in struggle at your job. I think that whether or not they're in the military, people need a sense of agency and empowerment.

If you look at WWII, and you ask people who were flipping the switches at Auschwitz, they say they were just following orders. It's a common thing in the military to say, "Hey, I'm just following orders, I'm just a soldier," and that's not the truth. You can determine what you're gonna do, you can take control of your life and you can do something. What fascinates me about history is if you look at pictures of the civil rights movement and you look at the National Guard's original role, it was breaking the strike movement. Shooting striking families, you know like literally mowing them down with machine guns. Of course the assumption is you're just following orders. So if a soldier wants to question or a soldier's opposed to war, then they need to find, or should be encouraged to find, ways to resist. You need to take control of your own situation, to take control of your life, or somebody who really doesn't care anything about you is going to control your situation and they're going to control your life. You have to take some accountability for what you're gonna do and stop just following orders and being some drone or little duck in a row.

Skippy: Echoing what Robert was saying, I certainly agree with the agency part and I certainly think that's the best message to get to GI's right now. To question everything and be critical; the trend in the military is to not be critical. In order to survive properly, you actually have to be very critical. That's the biggest one piece of advice I could or would give any soldier or GI in the military now. And then the second would be, you have to investigate different ways to get out of the military, and encourage others to get out of the military. You can do similar things that we talked about here today, which is just to slow down things, talk to your fellow soldiers, and just begin to realize that you're not alone in that sentiment and you can do something to get out of the situation.

I think that the peace movement can learn a lot from what we've said here, because they have a really important role to be playing that they seem to want to play, but really haven't articulated. In our little micro-scenario, you could say those parents who wrote letters were part of the antiwar movement just in that brief instance of time and space. They represented what a lot of people are trying to replicate in different places at different times. So it's really just about finding those opportunities for people to resist and then supporting them 100-110 percent all the way and responding to their needs and trying to play an auxiliary force to what the troops want. It's hard to communicate to the troops because they're either in country or on leave. If you can get veteran groups, I think antiwar movement people - if they're serious about antiwar - they would volunteer or get involved with organizations that are already formed for that purpose. Why reinvent the wheel when this stuff's been tried a lot? We also need to get our heads together to come up with new and surprising projects and tactics.

Sarah Lazare is a project coordinator for Courage to Resist.

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Friday, August 21, 2009

Power and Revolution

Andrej Grubacic has come up a few times in conversation on this blog, so it seems appropriate to familiarize ourselves with his work and engage with it. Grubacic is a Bay Area activist and co-author of Wobblies and Zapatistas, as well as other articles available at ZMag

Power and Revolution
by Andrej Grubacic

{This paper is a revised version of the essay co-writen with David Graeber: Anarchism or the Revolutionary Movement for the 21st Century. It is revised and will be revised further for the presentation for the June 1 - 7 2006 Z Sessions on Vision and Strategy, held in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. }

It is becoming increasingly clear that the age of revolutions is not over. It's becoming equally clear that the global revolutionary movement in the twenty first century, will be one that traces its origins less to the tradition of Marxism, or even of socialism narrowly defined, but of anarchism.

Everywhere from Serbia to Argentina, from Seattle to Bombay, anarchist ideas and principles are generating new radical dreams and visions. Often their exponents do not call themselves "anarchists". There are a host of other names: autonomism, anti-authoritarianism, horizontality, Zapatismo, direct democracy... Still, everywhere one finds the same core principles: decentralization, voluntary association, mutual aid, the network model, and above all, the rejection of any idea that the end justifies the means, let alone that the business of a revolutionary is to seize state power and then begin imposing one's vision at the point of a gun. Above all, anarchism, as an ethics of practice-the idea of building a new society "within the shell of the old"-has become the basic inspiration of the "movement of movements", which has from the start been less about seizing state power than about exposing, de-legitimizing and dismantling mechanisms of rule while winning ever-larger spaces of autonomy and participatory management within it.

There are some obvious reasons for the appeal of anarchist ideas at the beginning of the 21st century: most obviously, the failures
and catastrophes resulting from so many efforts to overcome capitalism by seizing control of the apparatus of government in the 20th. Increasing numbers of revolutionaries have begun to recognize that "the revolution" is not going to come as some great apocalyptic moment, the storming of some global equivalent of the Winter Palace, but a very long process that has been going on for most of human history (even if it has like most things come to accelerate of late) full of strategies of flight and evasion as much as dramatic confrontations, and which will never-indeed, most anarchists feel, should never-come to a definitive conclusion.

It's a little disconcerting, but it offers one enormous consolation: we do not have to wait until "after the revolution" to begin to get a glimpse of what genuine freedom might be like. Freedom only exists in the moment of revolution. And those moments are not as rare as you think. For an anarchist, in fact, to try to create non-alienated experiences, true democracy, is an ethical imperative; only by making one's form of organization in the present at least a rough approximation of how a free society would actually operate, how everyone, someday, should be able to live, can one guarantee that we will not cascade back into disaster. Grim joyless revolutionaries who sacrifice all pleasure to the cause can only produce grim joyless societies.

These changes have been difficult to document because so far anarchist ideas have received almost no attention in the academy. There are still thousands of academic Marxists, but almost no academic anarchists. This lag is somewhat difficult to interpret. In part, no doubt, it's because Marxism has always had a certain affinity with the academy which anarchism obviously lacked: Marxism was, after all, the only great social movement that was invented by a Ph.D. Most accounts of the history of anarchism assume it was basically similar to Marxism: anarchism is presented as the brainchild of certain 19th century thinkers (Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin...) that then went on to inspire working-class organizations, became enmeshed in political struggles, divided into sects...

Anarchism, in the standard accounts, usually comes out as Marxism's poorer cousin, theoretically a bit flat-footed but making up for brains, perhaps, with passion and sincerity. Really the analogy is strained. The "founders" of anarchism did not think of themselves as having invented anything particularly new. The saw its basic principles-mutual aid, voluntary association, egalitarian decision-making-as as old as humanity. The same goes for the rejection of the state and of all forms of structural violence, inequality, or domination (anarchism literally means "without rulers")-even the assumption that all these forms are somehow related and reinforce each other. None of it was seen as some startling new doctrine, but a longstanding tendency in the history human thought, and one that cannot be encompassed by any general theory of ideology.

On one level it is a kind of faith: a belief that most forms of irresponsibility that seem to make power necessary are in fact the effects of power itself. In practice though it is a constant questioning, an effort to identify every compulsory or hierarchical relation in human life, and challenge them to justify themselves, and if they cannot-which usually turns out to be the case-an effort to limit their power and thus widen the scope of human liberty. Just as a Sufi might say that Sufism is the core of truth behind all religions, an anarchist might argue that anarchism is the urge for freedom behind all political ideologies.

Schools of Marxism always have founders. Just as Marxism sprang from the mind of Marx, so we have Leninists, Maoists,, Althusserians... (Note how the list starts with heads of state and grades almost seamlessly into French professors - who, in turn, can spawn their own sects: Lacanians, Foucauldians....)

Schools of anarchism, in contrast, almost invariably emerge from some kind of organizational principle or form of practice: Anarcho-Syndicalists and Anarcho-Communists, Insurrectionists and Platformists, Cooperativists, Councilists, Individualists, and so on.

Anarchists are distinguished by what they do, and how they organize themselves to go about doing it. And indeed this has always been what anarchists have spent most of their time thinking and arguing about. They have never been much interested in the kinds of broad strategic or philosophical questions that preoccupy Marxists such as Are the peasants a potentially revolutionary class? (anarchists consider this something for peasants to decide) or what is the nature of the commodity form? Rather, they tend to argue about what is the truly democratic way to go about a meeting, at what point organization stops empowering people and starts squelching individual freedom. Is "leadership" necessarily a bad thing? Or, alternately, about the ethics of opposing power: What is direct action? Should one condemn someone who assassinates a head of state? When is it okay to throw a brick?

Marxism, then, has tended to be a theoretical or analytical discourse about revolutionary strategy. Anarchism has tended to be an ethical discourse about revolutionary practice. As a result, where Marxism has produced brilliant theories of praxis, it's mostly been anarchists who have been working on the praxis itself.

At the moment, there's something of a rupture between generations of anarchism: I would like to express my affinity with what might be loosely referred to as the "small-a anarchists", who are, by now, by far the majority. But it is sometimes hard to tell, since so many of them do not trumpet their affinities very loudly. There are many. in fact, who take anarchist principles of anti-sectarianism and open-endedness so seriously that they refuse to refer to themselves as 'anarchists' for that very reason .

But the three essentials that run throughout all manifestations of anarchist movement are definitely there - anti-statism, anti-capitalism and prefigurative politics (i.e. modes of organization that consciously resemble the world you want to create. Or, as an anarchist historian of the revolution in Spain has formulated "an effort to think of not only the ideas but the facts of the future itself". This is present in anything from jamming collectives and on to Indy media, all of which can be called anarchist in the newer sense.

The new anarchists are much more interested in developing new forms of practice than arguing about the finer points of ideology. The most dramatic among these have been the development of new forms of decision-making process, the beginnings, at least, of an alternate culture of democracy. The famous North American spokescouncils, where thousands of activists coordinate large-scale events by consensus, with no formal leadership structure, are only the most spectacular.

Actually, even calling these forms "new" is a little bit deceptive. One of the main inspirations for the new generation of anarchists are the Zapatista autonomous municipalities of Chiapas, based in Tzeltal or Tojolobal-speaking communities who have been using consensus process for thousands of years-only now adopted by revolutionaries to ensure that women and younger people have an equal voice. In North America, "consensus process" emerged more than anything else from the feminist movement in the '70s, as part of a broad backlash against the macho style of leadership typical of the '60s New Left. The idea of consensus itself was borrowed from the Quakers, who again, claim to have been inspired by the Six Nations and other Native American practices.

Consensus is often misunderstood. One often hears critics claim it would cause stifling conformity but almost never by anyone who has actually observed consensus in action, at least, as guided by trained, experienced facilitators (some recent experiments in Europe, where there is little tradition of such things, have been somewhat crude). In fact, the operating assumption is that no one could really convert another completely to their point of view, or probably should. Instead, the point of consensus process is to allow a group to decide on a common course of action. Instead of voting proposals up and down, proposals are worked and reworked, scotched or reinvented, there is a process of compromise and synthesis, until one ends up with something everyone can live with. When it comes to the final stage, actually "finding consensus", there are two levels of possible objection: one can "stand aside", which is to say "I don't like this and won't participate but I wouldn't stop anyone else from doing it", or "block", which has the effect of a veto. One can only block if one feels a proposal is in violation of the fundamental principles or reasons for being of a group. One might say that the function which in the US constitution is relegated to the courts, of striking down legislative decisions that violate constitutional principles, is here relegated with anyone with the courage to actually stand up against the combined will of the group (though of course there are also ways of challenging unprincipled blocks).

One could go on at length about the elaborate and surprisingly sophisticated methods that have been developed to ensure all this works; of forms of modified consensus required for very large groups; of the way consensus itself reinforces the principle of decentralization by ensuring one doesn't really want to bring proposals before very large groups unless one has to, of means of ensuring gender equity and resolving conflict... The point is this is a form of direct democracy which is very different than the kind we usually associate with the term-or, for that matter, with the kind of majority-vote system usually employed by anarchists in the past. With increasing contact between different movements internationally, the inclusion of indigenous groups and movements from Africa, Asia, and Oceania with radically different traditions, we are seeing the beginnings of a new global reconception of what "democracy" or "revolution" should even mean, one as far as possible from the neoliberal parlaimentarianism currently promoted by the existing powers of the world.

Again, it is difficult to follow this new spirit of synthesis by reading most existing anarchist literature, because those who spend most of their energy on questions of theory, rather than emerging forms of practice, are the most likely to maintain the old sectarian dichotomizing logic. Modern anarchism is imbued with countless contradictions. While small-a anarchists are slowly incorporating ideas and practices learned from indigenous allies into their modes of organizing or alternative communities, the main trace in the written literature has been the emergence of a sect of Primitivists, a notoriously contentious crew who call for the complete abolition of industrial civilization, and, in some cases, even agriculture. Still, it is only a matter of time before this older, either/or logic begins to give way to something more resembling the practice of consensus-based groups.

What would this new synthesis look like? Some of the outlines can already be discerned within the movement. It will insist on constantly expanding the focus of anti-authoritarianism, moving away from class reductionism by trying to grasp the "totality of domination", that is, to highlight not only the state but also gender relations, and not only the economy but also cultural relations and ecology, sexuality, and freedom in every form it can be sought, and each not only through the sole prism of authority relations, but also informed by richer and more diverse concepts.

This approach does not call for an endless expansion of material production, or hold that technologies are neutral, but it also doesn't decry technology per se. Instead, it becomes familiar with and employs diverse types of technology as appropriate. It not only doesn't decry institutions per se, or political forms per se, it tries to conceive new institutions and new political forms for activism and for a new society, including new ways of meeting, new ways of decision making, new ways of coordinating, along the same lines as it already has with revitalized affinity groups and spokes structures. And it not only doesn't decry reforms per se, but struggles to define and win non-reformist reforms, attentive to people's immediate needs and bettering their lives in the here-and-now at the same time as moving toward further gains, and eventually, wholesale transformation. It rejects the very opposition between reformism and revolution.

And of course theory will have to catch up with practice. The problem at the moment is that anarchists who want to get past old-fashioned, vanguardist habits-the Marxist sectarian hangover that still haunts so much of the radical intellectual world-are not quite sure what their role is supposed to be. Anarchism needs to become reflexive. But how? On one level the answer seems obvious. One should not lecture, not dictate, not even necessarily think of oneself as a teacher, but must listen, explore and discover. To tease out and make explicit the tacit logic already underlying new forms of radical practice. To put oneself at the service of activists by providing information, or exposing the interests of the dominant elite carefully hidden behind supposedly objective, authoritative discourses, rather than trying to impose a new version of the same thing. How to move from ethnography to utopian visions-ideally, as many utopian visions as possible? It is hardly a coincidence that some of the greatest recruiters for anarchism in countries like the United States have been feminist science fiction writers like Starhawk or Ursula K. LeGuin.

One way this is beginning to happen is as anarchists begin to recuperate the experience of other social movements with a more developed body of theory, ideas that come from circles close to, indeed inspired by anarchism. Let's take for example the idea of participatory economy, which represents an anarchist economist vision par excellence and which supplements and rectifies anarchist economic tradition. Parecon theorists argue for the existence of not just two, but three major classes in advanced capitalism: not only a proletariat and bourgeoisie but a "coordinator class" whose role is to manage and control the labor of the working class. This is the class that includes the management hierarchy and the professional consultants and advisors central to their system of control - as lawyers, key engineers and accountants, and so on. They maintain their class position because of their relative monopolization over knowledge, skills, and connections. As a result, economists and others working in this tradition have been trying to create models of an economy which would systematically eliminate divisions between physical and intellectual labor. Now that anarchism has so clearly become the center of revolutionary creativity, proponents of such models have increasingly been, if not rallying to the flag, exactly, then at least, emphasizing the degree to which their ideas are compatible with an anarchist vision.

This doesn't mean anarchists have to be against theory. It might not need High Theory, in the sense familiar today. Certainly it will not need one single, Anarchist High Theory. That would be completely inimical to its spirit. Much better, I think, something more in the spirit of anarchist decision-making processes: applied to theory, this would mean accepting the need for a diversity of high theoretical perspectives, united only by certain shared commitments and understandings. Rather than based on the need to prove others' fundamental assumptions wrong, it seeks to find particular projects on which they reinforce each other. Just because theories are incommensurable in certain respects does not mean they cannot exist or even reinforce each other, any more than the fact that individuals have unique and incommensurable views of the world means they cannot become friends, or lovers, or work on common projects. Even more than High Theory, what anarchism needs is what might be called low theory: a way of grappling with those real, immediate questions that emerge from a transformative project.

Similar things are starting to happen with the development of anarchist political visions. Now, this is an area where classical anarchism already had a leg up over classical Marxism, which never developed a theory of political organization at all. Different schools of anarchism have often advocated very specific forms of social organization, albeit often markedly at variance with one another. Still, anarchism as a whole has tended to advance what liberals like to call 'negative freedoms,' 'freedoms from,' rather than substantive 'freedoms to.' Often it has celebrated this very commitment as evidence of anarchism's pluralism, ideological tolerance, or creativity. But as a result, there has been a reluctance to go beyond developing small-scale forms of organization, and a faith that larger, more complicated structures can be improvised later in the same spirit.

There have been exceptions, such as the North American Social Ecologists's "libertarian municipalism". There's a lively debate developing, for instance, on how to balance principles of worker's control-emphasized by the Parecon folk-and direct democracy, emphasized by the Social Ecologists.

Still, there are a lot of details still to be filled in: what are the anarchist's full sets of positive institutional alternatives to contemporary legislatures, courts, police, and diverse executive agencies? Obviously there could never be an anarchist party line on this, the general feeling among the small-a anarchists at least is that we'll need many concrete visions and many utopian dialogues. Still, between actual social experiments within expanding self-managing, ungoverned communities in places like Eastern Europe or Latin America, and of the efforts of new anarchists all over the globe, the work is beginning. It is clearly a long-term process. But then, the anarchist century has only just begun.

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