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The story of the GI coffeehouses

December 14, 2007 | Page 10

ERIC RUDER examines the rise of the GI coffeehouse movement--during the Vietnam War and again today in protest of the war on Iraq.

THE FIRST GI coffeehouse opened near Fort Jackson in Columbia, S.C., in late 1967 to provide soldiers with a place to hang out, listen to music--and, most of all, talk. Up through 1966, most GI resistance to the Vietnam War took the form of individual refusals to participate in the war effort, rather than coordinated political protest against it.

By 1967, however, a segment of the antiwar movement began to understand that the growing discontent within the ranks of the military, if organized, could make a powerful component of the movement. But it was hard to reach out to soldiers, who had few places to go to escape the authoritarian grip of the military command on stateside bases.

Enter Fred Gardner, a Harvard graduate who did a tour of active duty in Vietnam as a reservist. He decided to take $10,000 of his own money, rent a Main Street storefront in downtown Columbia and open up the UFO coffeehouse--a play on the USO (United Service Organization) that sponsored Bob Hope's patriotic performances for the troops.

"By January 1968, we were officially open, and hundreds of GIs were hanging out at the UFO whenever they could get off post," recalled Gardner some years later. "They helped staff the place and provided the music on weeknights, jamming. On weekends, we brought in musicians through a booking service or hired good local acts.

What you can do

Different Drummer is hoping to hire a fulltime organizer and is asking for donations from those who support its mission. Go to the Citizen Soldier Web site for information about how to make a donation.

For an excellent history of the GI rebellion during the U.S. war on Vietnam, read David Cortright's Soldiers in Revolt, republished by Haymarket Books. David Zeiger's Sir! No Sir! is an inspiring documentary about the Vietnam soldiers' revolt, and is available on DVD, along with many other supplemental materials.

Richard Moser's The New Winter Soldiers: GI and Veteran Dissent During the Vietnam Era is based on extensive interviews with participants in the GI resistance movement during Vietnam. Also valuable on the role of the coffeehouses is Joel Geier's "Vietnam: The Soldiers' Revolt," published in the International Socialist Review.

The War Within: America's Battle Over Vietnam by Tom Wells is a comprehensive history of the antiwar movement, from its earliest days to the end of the war in 1975.


"Patrons were free to hang out, to read, to play chess or cards, to rap, to dance, to flirt, to discuss what was going on in their lives or the world at large. GIs added their artwork to the walls and hundreds of records to our collection. The UFO was the only integrated place in town--not just white and Black, but GIs and students, too."

The opportunity to meet and talk to other like-minded GIs provided the necessary spark for action.

"The first group protest action at Fort Jackson came in February 1968, a few weeks after the opening of the UFO--just days after the start of the Tet offensive," wrote David Cortright in his book Soldiers in Revolt. "On the evening of February 13, 35 uncertain but determined soldiers gathered in front of the main post chapel for what had been advertised as a silent protest service against the war."

Military police broke up the event before it really got started, but two GIs--Robert Tater and Stephen Kline--were arrested and thrown in the brig. As news of the incident spread, the larger movement took notice, and by summer, a campaign to raise money to finance more coffeehouse ventures was underway.

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GARDNER LEFT Columbia and helped set up two more coffeehouses--the Oleo Strut in Killeen, Texas, outside Fort Hood, and Mad Anthony Wayne's in Waynesville, Mo., outside Fort Leonard Wood. By late 1968, efforts to start coffeehouses were begun outside many more bases, including Fort Knox (in Muldraugh, Ky.), Fort Polk (in Leesville, La.), Fort Lewis (Tacoma, Wash.), Fort Dix and Camp Pendleton.

Many of these efforts struggled to set down roots in the small, largely pro-military towns that surround most military bases. Local police and municipal councils harassed the coffeehouses with supposed health code violations, charges of vagrancy and excessive noise, and arrests and jailings of organizers.

Military intelligence agents also came to scare away GIs--one of many indicators that the brass was alarmed at the rapid spread of the coffeehouses and the popularity they enjoyed among soldiers.

In August 1968, Army Chief of Staff Gen. William Westmoreland sent President Lyndon Johnson a secret memo expressing deep concern about the spread of the coffeehouses.

"I was pretty much shocked by some of the things that I saw," he wrote. Westmoreland described the spread of the coffeehouses "and related matters potentially affecting discipline, such as outside-encouraged desertion to foreign countries, the concept of a soldier union, increased drug abuse, and other possible disciplinary vulnerabilities that may be exploited by those dedicated to doing so."

Westmoreland concluded that the "consensus is that coffeehouses are not yet effectively interfering with significant military interests, and, consequently, suppressive action may be counter-productive."

By September, however, Westmoreland had reversed himself, reporting to Johnson that authorities had arrested several Oleo Strut organizers. One of them, Pfc. Bruce Peterson, was the first editor of Fatigue Press, the GI newspaper produced by the soldiers who ran Oleo Strut.

After searching for a pretext to discipline Peterson, local police arrested him for possession of marijuana. The amount was so small--it was "found" among the lint in his pants pocket--that it was "destroyed" during lab testing. Peterson was sentenced to eight years hard labor. It took two years to get the conviction overturned and win his release.

The military authorities had good reason to fear Oleo Strut. In August, 43 Black GIs, who became known as the Fort Hood 43, had refused to be deployed to Chicago to put down protesters at the Democratic National Convention.

Oleo Strut helped to coordinate a defense campaign for their comrades, using the Fatigue Press to publicize the case, and the Fort Hood 43 were given relatively light sentences, despite their mutinous action.

Many coffeehouses were associated with GI newspapers--such as Pawn's Pawn produced by soldiers at Mad Anthony Wayne's, Attitude Check produced by the Green Machine coffeehouse at Camp Pendleton, and Fed Up at the Shelter Half coffeehouse near Fort Lewis.

These newspapers in turn reflected the diverse political currents that coursed through the GI movement. Some advocated the hippie counterculture of peace and pot, others championed the rise of the Black Power movement, and still others argued for collective bargaining rights and better living conditions for soldiers.

Right-on Post, produced by soldiers at Fort Ord, described its cause as "GIs dedicated to freeing themselves and all the exploited peoples from the oppression of the U.S. military. We recognize our true is the capitalist who sees only profit. They control the military which sends us off to die. They control the police who occupy the black and brown ghettos."

Coffeehouses also provided a place for GIs to make contact with other aspects of the growing social justice movements of the times. Sexism, for example, was (and still is) rampant in the macho world of the military, but activists in the women's liberation movement who spent time at coffeehouses saw that some soldiers had broken free of the generally pervasive sexist assumptions.

"I was staggered to hear four of [the soldiers] contemptuously referring to some others in their unit as sexist pigs," recalled Nora Sayre of the GIs she met at the Fort Bragg coffeehouse. "Almost all of the antiwar GIs I met were stronger supporters of the women's movement than many civilian radicals--perhaps because GIs are beginning to rebel against their own experience with machismo."

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THE FIRST, and so far only, coffeehouse for the new generation of GI dissent today is the Different Drummer Café in Watertown, N.Y., outside Fort Drum. It was started in October 2006 by Citizen Soldier director Tod Ensign and is now a joint project with Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

"In the first year, we have made some substantive progress," said Ensign in an interview. "We are now drawing to our events a small but growing number of soldiers from the base."

Different Drummer's impact on the GI movement in the area is evident. The Iraq Veterans Against the War's (IVAW) first chapter made up of active-duty members was started in March 2007 at Fort Drum, with help from Different Drummer.

Ensign, the IVAW chapter and Different Drummer also played an important part in successfully defending Eugene Cherry, a soldier at Fort Drum that the Army wanted to court-martial for going AWOL to get mental health care. Eugene fought back, and with help from his friends, he walked away from the military with a general discharge and the bulk of his GI benefits intact.

The Different Drummer and Ensign are now defending another GI, Brad Gaskins, whose story is similar to Eugene's--and they've begun a series of events at the Drummer to discuss the fight to get the military to recognize and devote adequate resources to the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"These meetings on PTSD are important so that we can demonstrate that we're pro-soldier as well as antiwar--that we are ready and willing to take steps to defend soldiers who are being prosecuted for AWOL charges brought on by their inability to receive even minimal mental health care on base," Ensign said.

"We're the only group in the area that is in any way public about the problem of PTSD. You don't hear the USO talking about it on base. You don't hear the military's so-called family support groups saying anything about it. We are an active voice on behalf of these soldiers against these endless deployments and against this endless war."

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