Olive-Drab Rebels Subversion of the US Armed Forces in the Vietnam War


            The American invasion of South Vietnam is regularly used as an example of the dangers inherent in occupying territory and then fighting a protracted and domestically unpopular war against an essentially hostile population.  The potential for this or that war to turn into someone's 'Vietnam' is repeated ad nauseam.  The fact that by the early 1970s the US military "where not near mutinous" was "in a state approaching collapse" (1) is less widely advertised as a reason for their eventual humiliating withdrawal.

            The two texts reprinted here attempt to understand the effect that the Vietnam war had on the American military, and its ongoing consequences.  The first, 'Harass the Brass' is the latest version of a leaflet handed out on various occasions at San Francisco's 'Fleet Week' - a large naval show attended by thousands of enlistees who come into the city from the ships.  It provides less specific detail about Vietnam than 'The Olive-Drab Rebels' but has a better analysis of the potential relationship between mutiny in the military and revolution in society as a whole.

            'The Olive-Drab Rebels: Military Organising During The Vietnam Era', written by Matthew Rinaldi and published in 1974, offers a detailed account of attempts by soldiers, civilians and the left to organise within the US armed forces.  It provides a lot of interesting and useful information which is not widely available elsewhere, and is analysed from a leftist perspective. It does make some mild criticisms of the practices adopted by the groups and parties that tried to parasitise rebellion in the military, but mainly on the level of their lack of success and failure to build a proper revolutionary organisation or instil the correct ideology. 

            Its characterisation of the ultimate goal of military organising as being the winning of "armed contingents for the left" which would then be part of the "armies of the revolution" is simply wrong. The point of organising within and against the military should be to subvert existing structures, hierarchies and roles - not to win over groups of soldiers who then continue to function as an army.  A conventional war of fronts between opposing armies (which the Spanish civil war decomposed into) is the type of combat that states engage in and, requiring the replication of statist organisational forms, does not co-exist well with revolutionary struggle.  The success of which is not dependant on a conquering proletarian army seizing the terrain and power of the bourgeoisie but upon the level of social transformation: "The question is not whether the proles finally decide to break into the armouries, but whether they unleash what they are: commodified beings who no longer can and no longer want to exist as commodities and whose revolt explodes capitalist logic. Barricades and machine guns flow from this 'weapon'." (2)

            The question of the way that wider contemporary events related to revolt within the army is also not adequately considered.  Its somewhat curious that the author regards it as a period when "the working class in civilian life was relatively dormant".  That may have been true in the early years of the war when the major unions such as the AFL-CIO were able to maintain their dominant position in controlling the sale of labour power and social unrest was just beginning to stir, but by the end of the 1960s wildcat strikes, workplace sabotage, rioting and other forms of proletarian resistance which largely existed beyond the control of social democratic mediators and the left were widespread.  As with some aspects of the anti-war movement they are often forgotten about in historical accounts. 

            The extent to which both warfare and the world in general has changed in the years since 'The Olive Drab Rebels' was written raises the question of its relevance to the present situation.  Downsizing and mechanisation to minimise reliance on a mass of potentially troublesome human beings has occurred on a massive scale both in the military and industry in general, coupled with the defeat and reversal of the social surge of the 1960s and '70s which had contributed to the scale and sustained nature of the anti-war movement.  The change from conscription to volunteer based armies in almost all advanced capitalist states has often been touted as guaranteeing loyalty, but in fact does not necessarily mean that soldiers will always be willing to die pointlessly, as Rinaldi points out - "There is a common misconception that it was draftees who were the most disaffected elements in the military.  In fact, it was often enlistees who were most likely to engage in open rebellion." 

            One of the most obvious effects of the war for the U.S. has been its deep reluctance to commit large numbers of troops to any one place for prolonged periods.  Although it has military bases in around sixty countries (and 'advisors' etc. in many more) troops are rotated through these fairly rapidly and are not present in huge numbers.  The general emphasis is on 'low intensity operations' - or in plain English the use of American special forces alongside local regular or paramilitary forces who are able to carry out savage repression against civilian populations without the US appearing to be directly responsible.  Prime examples include Columbia (through the supposed aid package 'Plan Columbia') and the Philippines and to a lesser extent Afghanistan; the number and scope of these conflicts is likely to increase as the 'War on Terror' legitimises all states' attacks on their own populations.

            The invasion and occupation of Iraq by several hundred thousand troops with its risks of mass casualties and becoming sucked into a long-term conflict, breaks the recent pattern of reliance on bombing victims into submission rather than fighting on the ground.  It seems somewhat ironic that the events of September 11th made martyrdom in defence of the 'American Way' politically acceptable - the British weren't, in general, so eager despite Blair's insistence on the necessity of a “blood price” for the continuation of the 'special relationship' - not one that would be paid by him or his friends and family. 

            The relatively easy initial victory has convinced some that America's military power is now unstoppable.  The facts both historical and contemporary suggest otherwise.  Global opposition to the war was on a scale unseen in recent times even though some of it was the result of the politically expedient support of some sectors of the ruling class.  The open support of some sections of the mass media for anti-war protests was in part an expression of the divisions that the war provoked amongst their masters.  The opposition of states such as France and Germany which elicited a certain amount of praise was more the result of fears about being sidelined in international politics and being cut out the plunder of Iraq's resources rather than concern for the well-being of the Iraqi population. In the anti-war movement there were just as many conflicting interests and positions resulting in absurdities which ranged from those emphasising the 'illegality' of the invasion, to Ms Dynamite's asinine plea at the million-plus strong demonstration in London on 15th February 2003 for everybody to just love each other.  The massive unpopularity (for whatever reason) of their mission can't have gone unnoticed by the troops on the ground but the extent of dissatisfaction remains an unknown quantity at present due to the tight control over an already loyal press.  At least one 'fragging' (3) occurred in Kuwait before the fighting had even begun, which was put down to an 'unstable' individual rather than an expression of more generalised dissatisfaction.

            At the time of writing it looks like the US will have to do exactly what it has tried to avoid since Vietnam and keep a very large presence in Iraq for an indefinite period if it wants to ensure a steady flow of oil out, US company contracts in and keep the Islamists out of power. Hundreds of millions of dollars of reconstruction contracts have already been handed out to corporations such as Haliburton which are intimately linked to the Bush administration; according to some reports bidding commenced before the fighting had even started.  Iraq is awash with arms which are being turned on the invaders in a situation somewhat similar to the Soviet invasion/occupation of Afghanistan; they won all the set piece battles as well but were unable to win the guerilla war that followed.  It seems somewhat implausible for the Americans to blame Saddam loyalists for their troubles when they are busy re-employing the very people they claimed to be removing.  No doubt the former Baathists' expertise in repression and terror will come in very handy in the months and years ahead.  Despite their talk of introducing/imposing freedom, democracy and by implication consumerism, the US forces haven't managed to adopt the strategy that was so successful for Saddam in previous years - he didn't survive for so long simply on the basis of fear, but also maintained social peace through economic means.  The US occupation administration's general incompetence, brutality and failure to restore even the impoverished conditions that most Iraqis endured in the later stages of Saddam's rule can only lead to trouble.  The pressing question now is what kind of trouble?  The almost total destruction of Iraqi society has led to proletarians fighting a three-cornered battle against the occupation forces, the ex-Baathists and, unfortunately, each other.  Passive and active resistance to the occupation is endemic, but it is difficult to discern either its composition or its trajectory, to what extent it is integrated into a nationalist or Islamic movement and to what extent it expresses an autonomous proletarian activity.  The most visible sign of resistance; the random killing of soldiers who are likely to have joined up because the military is their sole source of waged work, as opposed to having a burning desire to defend the 'heimat', is hardly to be celebrated, but information about any more potentially revolutionary activity is going to be difficult to get - unless its so widespread that it becomes impossible to ignore or suppress. 

            The experience of trying to control a hostile Iraqi population is already sapping the morale of troops suffering from the psychological after-effects of the slaughter that they have just participated in. Soldiers are now openly begging to be sent home and asking why they are in Iraq at all.  If they are forced to stay it may only be a matter of time before they'll start to refuse to risk their lives and shoot other proletarians in preference for shooting up heroin and/or their officers - a possibility which may well have occurred to Colin Powell who was a junior officer in Vietnam.

            Possibly the US's present program of colonial military adventurism is already running into serious difficulties and in the longer term can't rely on domestic support, especially if the body bags really begin to pile up.  One military strategist has written that "It is a mistake to think that America's quick defeat of the demoralised, corrupt Iraqi regime reflects its new technological military prowess rather than Hussein's political weakness.  Rumsfeld wishes to trumpet to strength of the Pentagon's arms but this conclusion is scarcely justified by the facts.' (4) 

            In spite of the changed social and political landscape the experience of Vietnam has had ongoing repercussions for the way that the American military operates; and the movements against it, both inside and outside of the armed forces, can still point to ways in which we can resist and undermine capitalist war.

Harass The Brass is also available at

The Olive-Drab Rebels is also available at

Other texts and information on opposition to war can be found at


(1) Colonel Robert D. Heinl, The Collapse of the Armed Forces, North American Newspaper Alliance, Armed Forces Journal, 7 June, 1971.

(2) Gilles Dauvé, When Insurrections Die, Antagonism Press, 2000, p.25.

(3) Vietnam-era term for the killing of officers by their men, often with grenades.

(4) Gabriel Kolko. Iraq, the United States and the end of the European Coalition.


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