I never expected that I would be a soldier, or that I would protest the Vietnam War while on active duty, or that I would sue the Army in federal court for violating my First Amendment rights. But it all happened, and it shaped my life in ways I never could have imagined.
I was drafted in 1968 and reluctantly volunteered for the 26th United States Army Band at Fort Wadsworth, N.Y. Veterans returning from the war told harrowing tales of what they experienced. Doubts swirled in my mind, and I began to read about Vietnam. Questions turned to shock as I realized the cruel injustices of the war. I desperately wanted to escape, but it was too late. I was stuck in the Army, part of the green machine, forced to serve a cause I could not accept.
One day I saw an article about soldiers who opposed the war and decided I would join the growing G.I. peace movement. I was looking for a way to express my moral objection, and I felt that if soldiers were demanding peace, political leaders would take notice. My activism began in April 1969 when I joined a contingent of active-duty troops at an antiwar rally in New York’s Central Park.
Afterward, an organizer of the April rally asked if I would pose for an antiwar poster. I agreed, and the following week I arrived at the Manhattan studio of the great fashion and portrait photographer Richard Avedon. I had no idea who he was, so I wasn’t nervous in his presence. He gently placed a live dove on my wrist and asked me to move my arm slowly up and down, capturing a striking image. The resulting poster that he created was not a photo of me personally but of the antiwar soldier as the archetype.
That summer we learned about a G.I. antiwar petition organized by the New Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam. The plan was to collect more than a thousand signatures from service members across the military and release the names before a protest scheduled for Nov. 15 in Washington. The ad appeared on Nov. 9, 1969, two days before Veterans Day, in The New York Times. It read: “We are 1,365 active-duty servicemen. We are opposed to American involvement in the war in Vietnam.” Among the names were more than 30 from the band at Fort Wadsworth. The following Saturday, a dozen of us were among the nearly quarter to half-million people to march on Washington.
Back at the base, news of the petition and rally cheered fellow soldiers, but it brought a stern rebuke from the command. We were told to keep our opinions about the war to ourselves. We refused to be silent and circulated another petition in spring the next year, but we were forced to withdraw it under escalating threats of collective punishment.
The ax fell in July 1970 when Fort Hamilton Command imposed punitive reassignments, duty restrictions, and make-work details. Musical performances ceased. I, a specialist at the time, was branded a “troublemaker” and ordered to report to the Army band at Fort Bliss, Tex.
My bandmates and I decided to fight back by filing a lawsuit against the Army. Civilian lawyers represented us, and later I appeared in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York seeking an injunction to prevent the Army from transferring me.
The court refused to block the order, but it took jurisdiction of the case and convened a trial. Our attorneys proved that I was transferred not for military necessity but to suppress my antiwar dissent. The court ruled in our favor and ordered that I be sent back to New York, but the Army appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which ruled against us. I ended up staying in Fort Bliss — where I continued participating in antiwar activities.
The court case had ambiguous results legally, but it was a great theater. The spectacle of soldiers suing the Army made headlines and helped the antiwar cause, which was what we wanted.
I guess I should be grateful to the Army. My experience in the military taught me about war and protest and persuaded me to study, teach and work for peace. I have not strayed from that path in all the years since.
David Cortright is a guest contributor to the At War newsletter. He is a professor of peace studies at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and is co-editor of “Waging Peace in Vietnam: U.S. Soldiers and Veterans Who Opposed the War” (New Village Press, 2019).