An American hero died last week. One you have almost certainly never heard of, by the name of Tom Bernard. Tom was one of the WORMS (We Openly Resist Military Stupidity), one of the many thousands of American servicemen and women who actively opposed the Vietnam war.
The story of GI resistance to the Vietnam war is one of the best-kept secrets in American history. Just for starters, how many people know that by the end of the war surveys showed that opposition to the war was greater among active-duty military personnel than among students?
This is not a matter of mere scholarly interest: an understanding of the GI anti-war movement during the Vietnam years would be extremely useful for today's soldiers.
Dave Zeiger, who made a wonderful film on these patriots called Sir! No Sir!, sent out this letter on the passing of Tom Bernard:
Dear friends of Sir! No Sir!
It is with deep, deep sadness that I am writing to tell you of the death of Tom Bernard. Tom suffered a massive heart attack on Sunday, December 27. He was 60 years old.
I met Tom while filming Sir! No Sir! in what I later learned was a typical "Tom" way. I'll never forget the email I got out of the blue from this guy I had never heard of, telling me simply that he had been part of an extremely significant group that had to be part of this film. They had never told their story publicly, and in fact had been threatened with prosecution for treason if they ever did. I was certainly intrigued, and soon Tom and I were friends.
Several months and a couple of failed attempts later, I found myself in a house with Tom and three other courageous, exemplary members of the WORMS-We Openly Resist Military Stupidity.
One of the most thrilling aspects of the GI Movement during the Vietnam War was its ubiquitous nature. In every corner of the military, everywhere on the planet, GIs found creative, stunning ways to rebel. Even if no one outside their individual unit knew they existed, they became part of an elegant tapestry of chaos and resistance.
And none were more elegant than the WORMS. Trained in Vietnamese, they were part of an ultra-secret unit that flew over North Vietnam intercepting communications from the "enemy," and translating them for the Pentagon to use in planning military strategy. As Tom described it to me, they began developing an almost personal relationship with the voices they were hearing, and soon knew that the real "enemy" was not the people they were listening to, but their own bosses. Knowing firsthand how civilian centers were targeted and hospitals were being bombed, they decided to dedicate their lives toward ending that criminal war.
As they told me their story, the depth of their humanity and courage shown through-and I knew Tom had not exaggerated their significance. Finding themselves in a critical position for the war effort, they developed creative, challenging, fun(that was a requirement!), and profoundly effective ways of resisting. Their impact was far greater than they or anyone else knew.
I don't know much about Tom's life after Vietnam, but I do know that-as is true for thousands-those years as a GI resister informed all of it. I know that he never gave up his determination to change the world and his sense of purpose that was born with the WORMS.
My heart goes out to his wonderful wife, Helen, and their family. I will never forget Tom, and am very grateful to have known him the brief time I did.
If you have not had a chance to see Sir! No Sir!, I hope you will give it a look. You can find it on NetFlix or at your local video store.
If you or someone you know or love is currently in the US military and struggling with issues of conscience, a good list of resources can be found here.
For a more in depth look at GI resistance during the Vietnam war, read my book People's Movements, People's Press: The Journalism of Social Justice Movements, which includes a chapter on the underground GI press during the war. By the end of the war, there were underground papers opposing the war being published on every US military base, on every battleship and aircraft carrier, and even in the Pentagon and the Strategic Air Command.
Here are some facts on GI resistance to the war you will find in the book. Note that all my sources for what follows come from US military sources, not the peace movement.
• 25% of US soldiers participated in "dissidence," (expressing opposition to the war), and 25% participated in "disobedience" (refusing orders, going AWOL, sabotage, attacking officers). 37% of all soldiers participated in one of the two, and 32% did so more than once. If drug use is considered an act of disobedience or dissidence, the total comes to 55%.
• The term "fragging" refers to attempts by troops to kill their own officers, a term which did not even exist until the Vietnam war. The Army alone reported 551 "fraggings" from 1969-1972, with 86 dead and 700 injured. Other scholars put this number of at between 800 and 1,000. These numbers include only fraggings with grenades, the weapon of choice since they left no fingerprints. If shootings with firearms were included, the total would be much higher.
• "Combat refusal" was another term coined in Vietnam, referring to refusal of orders to advance during combat. In every other war in US history, this was deemed "treason" and punishable by death. In Vietnam, in the elite 1st Cavalry Division alone, considered the Army's top unit, there were 35 combat refusals in 1970 alone, some involving entire units.
• "Widespread breakdowns in troop discipline forced the military police into a front-line role serving as assault troops against other soldiers. These actions were typified by two instances. Composite military police [were] engaged in a rather spectacular standoff on September 25, 1971. Fourteen soldiers... had barricaded themselves in a bunker and were holding out with automatic weapons and machine guns... A month later, another military police strike force air-assaulted onto the Praline Mountain signal site... Two fragmentation grenades had been used in an attempt to kill the company commander two nights in a row. Initial escorts had proved insufficient protection, and military police had to garrison the mountaintop for a week until order was restored."
• The biggest mutiny in the history of the US Air Force occurred at Travis Air Force Base in May 1971. The base was in chaos for four days. 380 MPs and police were called in, the officer's club was burned, dozens were injured, 135 GI's were arrested, and the base remained in state of siege for days.
• By 1972, sabotage was crippling the US Navy's participation in the war. The House Armed Services Committee reported in 1972 "literally hundreds of incidences of damaged Naval property wherein sabotage is suspected." A massive fire on the USS Forrestal caused $7 million in damage and a two-month delay in deployment, making it the biggest sabotage in naval history. Three weeks later, sabotage on the USS Ranger caused $1 million in damage and delayed deployment for three and a half months.
• The USS Kittyhawk, sent to replace the Forrestal and Ranger, had a riot on board the day operations began. Hundreds of armed sailors clashed with Marine guards, with dozens injured. A few weeks later on the carrier Constellation, more than 100 mostly black sailors organized by the Black Fraction staged a sit-down strike.
• Survey data confirms the picture painted by these incidents. A survey of black combat soldiers showed that 36% said they would join the Black Panthers, while another 18% said they would "consider" joining," totaling 54% of black troops that expressed support for the armed overthrow of the US government. In 1971 alone, soldiers mailed 250,000 complaints to Congress.