A Matter of Conscience: GI Resistance During the Vietnam War
Each of the photographs and oral histories of former GI resisters compiled in this exhibition bears witness to the difficult choices the veterans confronted and sustained with strong personal convictions during the Vietnam War. These portraits and histories represent a larger voice of dissent that erupted from within the ranks of the U.S. military, and came to frustrate our leaders' ability to fight a war that many Americans believed was unjust.
Dissent within the military during the Vietnam era was unprecedented. According to Defense Department figures, as many as 503,926 incidents of desertion occurred between July 1, 1966 and December 31, 1973; compared with 191,840 reported cases of men refusing draft induction between 1963 and 1973. Desertion, AWOL (Absent Without Leave), disciplinary infractions, refusing orders, fraggings and sabotage were all expressions of protest for servicemen and women. Over the course of the war there were nearly 500 alternative GI newspapers. Throughout the country GI coffeehouses and organizations became flashpoints for anti-war activity and organizing for GI rights.
Growing up in the shadow of World War II, on a steady diet of John Wayne movies, these veterans' acts of dissent and protest often ran counter to the values they learned as children. The obligation to defend God and country seemed an inevitable task. The military demanded blind trust and soldiers were expected to obey, right or wrong. But at the same time, GIs entered the military with a set of moral values that often did not conform to the duties they were expected to carry out as soldiers. The GI resisters had the courage to listen to their consciences and their decision to act may help us better understand why the Vietnam War continues to haunt us.
The Vietnam War has been scrutinized and analyzed in Hollywood films, books and television documentaries, but the retrospection has been narrowly defined. This project is an attempt to help fill a void that still exists. Our 58 interviews, collected from 1987 to 1992, represent only a fraction of the stories of GI resistance that might be told; they speak for the many more thousands who shared these feelings, but did not feel able to act.
This project was funded through support from the Addison Gallery of American Art, the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, the Cambridge Arts Council, the Polaroid Corporation and the Lucius and Eva Eastman Fund.
Willa Seidenberg William Short