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Antiwar Veterans Day

Last week three veterans who opposed the US intervention in Vietnam years ago told their stories at a symposium that’s now online (Google “Peace Movement Support for Antiwar GIs”). The speakers were John Kent, a Navy fighter pilot who turned in his wings rather than fly combat missions in Vietnam, and then helped organize the Concerned Officers Movement. J.J. Johnson, A GI who in 1966, with two comrades at Fort Hood, Dennis Mora and David Samas, refused orders to Vietnam and was sentenced to three years in Leavenworth. And Susan Schnall, a Navy nurse who leafleted Bay Area bases from an airplane to publicize the Oct. 12, 1968 march on the Presidio. The march, which was led by veterans and active duty personnel, culminated in a rally on the Marina Green at which Lt. Schnall spoke. She was in uniform — a violation of the regs. She was sentenced to six months hard labor and dismissed from the Navy. 

After the talks a viewer asked the speakers “to address how and why organizing of servicemen worked so well during the Vietnam War but struggled to gain traction during the US wars of the past two decades.” Schnall, who is now a leader of Veterans for Peace, answered immediately: “There’s no longer a draft.”

She elaborated: “There’s an economic draft, but there’s no longer an every-person-is-vulnerable draft… You don’t see thousands and thousands of people in the streets, because it is not their mother, their father, their sister, their brother, their child who’s being impacted… We now have a professional military. It is offered as a way out of poverty, as a way to provide education and jobs and training and this is why a lot of us are still talking about the need for a draft where everybody is involved.” 

By the start of the ’70s the Army was plagued by crumbling morale (most GIs realized the cause wasn’t worth risking their lives for), race hatred and drug abuse. The Pentagon responded shrewdly by implementing a dramatic “Reduction in Force” and ending the draft. 

Peace movement leaders celebrated, unconcerned about the impact the RIF would have on hundreds of thousands of NCOs who were being denied job security. They were denigrated as “lifers,” unworthy of sympathy. As the infantry became dysfunctional, the job of holding their units together had fallen to NCOs. They were thus seen as pro-war. And there were enough racist, bloodthirsty sergeants to give the myth its germ of truth.

The RIF, introduced in early 1972, would reduce an Army of 1.5 million men down to 840,000. (The Army was then more than 90% male and non-commissioned officers and specialists were “EMs.”) A carrot-and-stick system of motivation called the “Qualitative Management Program” was introduced. The carrot was higher pay and better living conditions. The stick was “involuntary retirement.” There would be no more assurance that if you did your job satisfactorily you could retire with a decent pension after 20 or 30 years.

“A new policy regarding enlisted career management has been implemented,” General Westmoreland announced in early 1972. “It is intended to enhance the quality of the career enlisted force. It provides for the selective retention of the best soldiers, improved career progression and denial of reenlistment to the non-progressive and nonproductive. Those who do not meet the criteria established will be separated on a mandatory basis.” In other words: up or out.

Sgt. Major Copeland, who was supposed to speak for enlisted personnel but actually spoke to them on behalf of the brass, said “In today’s Army, as in the world of sports, you are only as good as your latest performance.”

The RIF was enforced by a board that met regularly at the Pentagon to review the records of EMs from every pay grade and decide who would be denied re-enlistment. Promotion above the rank of E-5 would henceforth require a high school diploma. NCOs were tested on how well they could perform their secondary MOS (Military Occupational Specialty), and a low score could get you RIFfed. Even IQ scores were taken into account by the review board. How well you actually did your day-in, day-out job became less important.

This is from a leaflet written in ‘72. We ran it up the flagpole and nobody saluted.

NCOs and specialists are the working class of the Army. Supply, maintenance, clerical work, cooking, recruiting, training… all are the direct responsibility of career enlisted men under the not-always-helpful supervision of officers. But since the officer in the supervisory position is the one who will get the credit if the unit performs well, the NCO has to maintain a pretense that the officer is doing the more significant work (even if the officer is doing no real work at all). The NCO must always pretend that the “old man” (who is often a younger man) had a certain idea, got a certain job done. If an NCO isn’t self-effacing enough, he can expect a less-than-outstanding efficiency report. The buffoon, the mother hen, the alcoholic – these are familiar stereotypes that NCOs hide behind to conceal the fact that they are serious and efficient. The RIF means that an officer’s evaluation can determine whether or not the NCO gets thrown onto the civilian job market. And the officer is under pressure from above to get rid of a certain number of men. 

At the height of the Vietnam war, with hundreds of thousands of low-ranking enlisted men swelling the ranks, NCOs could be viewed as a middle level between top management (the big brass) and the workforce of first-term soldiers. Now, however, it is becoming apparent that “Non-Commissioned Officer” is just a fancy term for Enlisted Man. 

Today if there is a middle-level group in the Army workforce it is the less classy officers, many of whom are facing a RIF of their own, diminished chances of promotion, and much longer time-in-grade. The Qualitative Management Program can be seen as a move by the Pentagon to make sure that NCOs accept their lowered status. The higher pay, better housing, proficiency pay, re-enlistment bonuses, etc., are all to the good. But none of these “carrots” outweigh the terrible threat of being “involuntarily retired.”

Most men who decide to make the Army their career do so because they want to provide security for their families. They endure hardships, separations and risks. Their prestige in the society at large is low. It is time we laid to rest the vicious lies and stereotypes! Army sergeants are not cruel and depraved. They do not like war. They have no vested interest in war except the artificial ones built into the system in the form of combat bonuses and faster promotions. Most NCOs dread nothing more than a long and dangerous separation from their wives and children. As Carl Bunn, spokesman for the Association of Retired Army Sergeants put it recently, “We have to get out from these brushfires.”


  1. Jonah raskin November 18, 2023

    Very informative

  2. George Dorner November 18, 2023

    Only in America is November 11th Veterans Day. Elsewhere it’s Armistice Day.

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