And What is the real legacy of the GI Coffeehouses?
By David Zeiger / The Rag Blog / July 25, 2008
David Zeiger is an award-winning film producer and director whose
highly–acclaimed film Sir! No Sir! documented the little-known GI
resistance to the Vietnam War. He was a staff member at the Oleo
Strut, a GI coffee house in Killeen, Texas near Ft. Hood that was a
major center of anti-war activities from 1968 to 1972.
Zeiger, also a writer and an activist, produces and directs
documentary films through his company, Displaced Films.
This article joins a Rag Blog discussion of the history of the GI
anti-war movement with articles by Tom Cleaver on the history of the
Oleo Strut coffee house and on the founding of a new GI coffee house
in Killeen called Under the Hood. Please see Under The Hood : An
Anti-War GI Coffeehouse in
Over the past three years, there has been a significant and
heartening growth of opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan
occupations among active duty soldiers, and several organizations
have been doing tremendous work with soldiers and veterans. From the
groups and individuals supporting soldiers who have refused
deployment and been court-martialed, to the work of Iraq Veterans
Against the War, Veterans for Peace, the Military Project and
Different Drummer Café, serious and determined work is being done to
turn the deepening disaffection and anger with the occupations inside
the military into a real political movement and force (and I
apologize now to everyone who I left out).
It is a source of great joy for me, in that context, to see the story
of the GI Movement against the Vietnam War playing a significant role
in inspiring and helping shape that burgeoning movement. The
reissuing of David Cortright's Soldiers in Revolt, along with
important books published in the 90s (please see the list at the end
of this article), brought to life what had been deeply buried for two
decades and made it possible for a film like Sir! No Sir! to be made,
and for this new movement to be born.
The GI Movement of the 60s is loaded with lessons for today. But
those lessons have to be seen realistically to really be truly
learned, and that puts a tremendous responsibility in the hands of
those of us who were part of that movement. Memory can be a tricky
thing, and it is no more helpful to exaggerate the events of that
time than it is to deny them. Mythologizing or inaccurately
portraying the GI Movement can, in my mind, do far more harm than
good as people struggle to find ways to build a new movement in the
military today. But a real understanding of its ups and downs,
victories and defeats, and most importantly the tremendous struggle
it involved on every level can be a powerful resource.
So I was very interested to read about the effort to open a new GI
Coffeehouse in Killeen, Texas, outside of Fort Hood. The coffeehouse
movement has, since the invasion of Iraq, been one of the few "forms"
of organization from the 60s that seem to me to make a lot of sense
today. But as I read Tom Cleaver's depiction of the Oleo Strut
Coffeehouse and its relevance for today, I found myself growing
increasingly concerned that real understanding may be being replaced
by nostalgia (and I speak from experience, as I am always fighting my
own nostalgia while looking at the past). And beyond that, Tom's
interpretation of the GI Movement in the 60s raised many issues that
I want to discuss here, in the spirit of making history serve the present.
Let me emphatically state first that I am not an organizer, but a
filmmaker, and I do not pretend to know what the "right thing to do"
is today. Nor do I intend to criticize or direct anyone. I don't even
consider myself an "expert" on the GI Movement. But I do hope that my
two years working at the Oleo Strut, and the work that I and others
have done to tell the GI Movement story today can be helpful. For the
record, I am not a veteran. I went to Killeen in June of 1970 as a
20-year-old drop-out– and scared to death, I might add.
Now to the issues. The biggest for me is Tom's statement that "GIs
stopped the war in Vietnam and they can stop the war in Iraq." This
has become a pretty popular view nowadays among many people, and
while it may sound ironic coming from me, I find it to be misleading
and potentially very harmful. It takes what is true, the fact that
the GI Movement cut at the heart of the war, and uses it as a kind of
club over everyone else. But most significantly, it rips the GI
Movement out of the political and social context that gave birth to
it and nurtured its growth.
Put simply, GIs did not stop the war in Vietnam. The Vietnam War was
ended by a combination of forces–first and foremost the Vietnamese
people, whose struggle for self-determination became an inspiration
for millions around the world. And beyond that the antiwar,
counterculture Black liberation and revolutionary movements were all
key to creating the context for soldiers in their thousands to revolt
and certainly play a major role in bringing the war to a grinding
halt. It can even be described as the straw that broke the camel's
back–but that wouldn't have happened without all those other straws!
Look at Tom's main example from the summer of '68–the urban
rebellions and demonstrations at the Chicago Democratic Convention,
and the GI's response to being ordered into riot control duty ("First
we fought the Vietnamese, now they want us to fight Americans," as
Dave Cline said). There's clearly a cause and effect here. If Black
people were not rebelling in the cities, and if students and radicals
weren't planning to demonstrate at the Democratic convention, there
would have been no riot control in the military, and it wouldn't have
been such a powerful impetus for rebellion that it was.
(In that light I want to correct a significant inaccuracy in Tom's
description of the Fort Hood 43, the Black GIs who resisted
deployment to the Chicago convention. Tom describes them as a highly
organized group, who had chosen which soldiers would refuse to go
based on their service in Vietnam. That isn't what happened. As
vividly described in Sir! No Sir! by Elder Halim Gullabehmi, one of
the participants, several hundred soldiers met all night in an open
field to protest their deployment and discuss their grievances and
make plans. No decision had been made. In the morning, when 43 were
still in the field waiting for a response from the base Commanding
General, they were ambushed by MPs, beaten, and thrown in the
stockade. Many, including Elder Halim, were later sent to Vietnam as
What gave the GI Movement so much power was its deep connection to
the broader movement it was part of. That movement wasn't just
students resisting the draft to keep from going to Vietnam themselves
(another popular myth, in my view). It was the Black Panther Party;
it was Vietnam Veterans Against the War; it was national
organizations that were constantly expanding the scope of protest
against the war; it was students who were shutting their campuses
down to force companies like Dow Chemical off campus and end
university complicity with the war; it was all those things and more.
In 1971, the same time Colonel Heinl wrote his famous article that
Tom quotes, Washington was wracked with a myriad of demonstrations,
including the May Day attempt by over 10,000 people to shut the city
down (which Nixon specifically cited as a reason to "get the troops
out as quickly as possible.").
I'm not saying this to nit-pic, or to in any way lessen or denigrate
the impact of the GI Movement. Yes, the GI Movement had become a
force in the military that seriously challenged its authority and
ability to fight; and yes, thousands of GIs were actively organizing
and demonstrating, but that can't be ripped out of the context it
grew in and declared to be the sole force that ended the war. Doing
so, it seems to me, could lead to a distorted view of the situation
today and very unrealistic expectations. It certainly doesn't help
point the road forward.
Part of the importance of understanding the context for the GI
Movement is recognizing that it faced tremendous repression. The
whole nature of the military is based on isolation from the world
outside, and the more that world intruded, the more they fought back.
The coffeehouses were an essential link between soldiers who faced
tremendous repercussions for their actions and the broader movement
in society. That link was political, and just as importantly
cultural, and without it much of what flourished would have been
And that raises my questions about the differences between then and
now. In 1968, the Oleo Strut was for the most part the only way that
GIs could be in contact with that movement (although even the local
porn shop carried The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Soul on Ice).
Most GIs didn't have cars then, and at night and on weekends the only
place you could go was the downtown strip since bus service ended
there. Life was very constricted. The Strut was literally a haven,
one you couldn't find anywhere else, and a place to listen to music
and read literature that was only available there. Especially in the
early years, that made up a lot of what sustained it.
It's a different situation today, is it not? Mobility and
communication are worlds apart from 1968. While we were filming IVAW
in their efforts to bring Winter Soldier to the soldiers at Fort Hood
this year, much of their outreach was done at bars in Austin–60 miles
away! There isn't the kind of central place today that GIs are locked
into, making something like the Strut unique. That seems to me to be
a significant change.
One reason this is important is that the coffeehouses themselves
faced huge obstacles to staying open. Tom mentioned the KKK and
"goat-ropers," but it went way beyond that. They were physically
attacked, hit with bizarre legal charges, and often burned down. But
those weren't the most difficult challenges.
Even the most successful coffeehouses were never self-sustaining
financially. We barely survived, even with the Herculean efforts of
the United States Serviceman's Fund, a group whose sole purpose was
raising money for the GI Movement. But even with that and the day
jobs many of us had, we came close to shutting down many times. In
addition the constant legal battles and harassment arrests (I spent
nights in jail for such things as hitch-hiking, driving with a dirty
license plate, and swearing in front of a police officer), were a
huge financial drain.
It was also a constant struggle to keep staff. Burn-out was a big
problem in places like Killeen (and I don't imagine that's much
different today). Keeping a place like the Strut alive wasn't a
weekend or summer gig. The reality is that there were many long
periods when it was successfully isolated from the soldiers, and it
took tremendous endurance to survive those times. Life in the GI
Movement, like life in the military, was characterized by many months
of intense tedium punctuated by moments of intense action.
In short, the GI Coffeehouses of the 60's were a major force that
filled a very specific need, one that grew out of the times we were
living in. They were also a major commitment of time and
resources–extremely difficult to sustain but well worth it for the
role they were playing at that time.
Again, I am not raising these things to pour cold water on the
current effort. But I believe that to be kept alive, history has to
be seen in all its parameters. And I do think it's important to not
view the coffeehouses of the 60s through rose-colored glasses,
especially when you're contemplating diving into the fire. I'm not
drawing conclusions, just raising questions.
So as I said in the beginning, I offer these observations and
thoughts in the spirit of welcoming all of the work being done today
in the military, and wanting to use our history to enrich it. I hope
The books that I referred to are:
* Soldiers in Revolt by David Cortright (aka The Bible)
* The New Winter Soldiers by Richard Moser
* The Spitting Image by Jerry Lembcke (A wonderful expose of the myth
of the spitting hippie)
* A Matter of Conscience: GI Resistance During the Vietnam War by
William Short and Willa Seidenberg (This is an incredible book, very
hard toget but well worth it. Bill and Willa traveled around the
country in the early 90s photographing and recording extensive oral
histories of dozens of veterans of the GI Movement. Their work formed
much of the basis for Sir! No Sir!).
There are also several great books on the veterans' movement, and
particularly Vietnam Veterans against the War.
PS–Again to keep the record straight, Fred Gardner, one of the
founders of the GI Coffeehouses, was not an officer, but a PFC
attached to an Army Reserve unit at Ft. Jackson when he and others
started the UFO Coffeehouse in 1967. The "Summer of Support" referred
to in Cleaver's article was not organized by him, but by Rennie Davis
and Tom Hayden, original founders of Students for a Democratic
Society. SOS was one of, but not the only organization supporting the
I heard an interesting story about the Oleo Strut and the general
attitude of the soldiers to authority. The guy who told me the story
was a combat vet send to Ft Hood to decompress along with a lot of
other guys who had seen heavy combat. He is the only source but I
have no reason not to believe him. He told me that there was a small
lake somewhere around the base with a small island in it and that it
was common for the soldiers to use rowboats and go to the island
where they would have numerous small fires around which they would
talk and decompress. Of course there was a considerable amount of the
magical herb being smoked out there too. The cops knew what was going
on and a squadcar load of them got into a couple of the small
rowboats and decided to liberate the island. They landed and went to
the first campsite and announced "Y'all are all under arrest" My
friend told me that the entire island became silent and then across
the island could be heard the sound of the hammers being pulled back
on the government issue .45 callibar handguns that the GI's still
carried. Needless to say the cops were tripping over one another
trying to get back into their boats.
Robert Pardun / July 26, 2008