“What I did grasp was that this was a war, not so much against communism as it was sold to the American people, but a war against an entire people. It was, as we later described it, a genocidal war.”
Michael Uhl is a Vietnam veteran antiwar activist. He served in Vietnam during 1968-69 as a first lieutenant, where he led a combat intelligence team with the 11th Infantry Brigade. He helped expose the Phoenix Program, and co-authored the book “GI Guinea Pigs: How the Pentagon Exposed Our Troops to Dangers More Deadly Than War” with Tod Ensign.
“I felt that I was bred for war. But my inclination was to experience war was not of someone who felt he needed to prove his manhood in battle. Years later, really what I begin to understand after I become a writer was that, in retrospect, I had a writer’s curiosity that drew me to the war, not a soldier’s curiosity.”
Vietnam Full Disclosure
This Courage to Resist podcast was produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace — “Towards an honest commemoration of the American war in Vietnam.” This year marks 50 years of GI resistance, in and out of uniform, for many of the courageous individuals featured.
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Minor edits made for clarity and historical accuracy.
Michael Uhl: Do you know the story of the doubting Thomas? He would not believe in the resurrection of his master until he actually saw him and was able to put his fingers into his wounds. I had to learn through personal experience what the war was really like.
Matthew Breems: This is the Courage to Resist podcast. My name is Matthew Breems. This Courage to Resist podcast is produced in collaboration with the Vietnam full-disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace. Today’s veteran is Michael Uhl. Michael served in Vietnam in 1968, 69 as an intelligence officer in the 11th infantry. There, Michael experienced many atrocities and he became increasingly opposed to the war. Michael then went on to a life of activism working for amnesty for Gi disorders, speaking at the Stockholm War Crimes Tribunal, and offering numerous books on the subject. Hi Michael. How are you doing today?
Michael Uhl: I’m good, thank you. How are you?
Matthew Breems: I’m doing well.
Michael Uhl: Good.
Matthew Breems: Michael, for the sake of providing a backdrop for your story of resistance, could you give us just a little picture of your growing up years leading up to the Vietnam war? What did life look like for you growing up?
Michael Uhl: I grew up in a small village on Long Island and New York, about 40 miles from New York City, in the area that was undergoing rapid suburbanization after World War II. My mother and father had been part of that migration from the city. My father worked in what was known as a defense plant then. It was called Republic Aviation and he rose to middle management. Our community, I would say was insulated, comfortable, middle class and Republican. I had a Catholic school education, including a brief stint in a seminary, followed by a year and a half interlude in a public high school from which I graduated.
And then at Georgetown University I majored in linguistics, and I spent my junior year in Rio de Janeiro. The year 1964, the year that the military overthrew the democratically elected Brazilian government and ushered in a dictatorship that endured for the next quarter century. I was 20 years old. I witnessed tanks and soldiers in the street and some mild student resistant. And I heard accusations for the first time about American imperialism, but I wasn’t really politicized. I was more engaged by the culture and learning the language. When I returned to Washington DC, I lacked the credits to graduate with my class in 1965, and suddenly my deferment was rescinded and I received my draft notice.
But with the war heating up, this is 1965 and the army needed young officers, I was invited to join Reserve Officers Training Corps, ROTC. My sixth year at Georgetown, I took nothing but ROTC classes. And in one class in military history, the instructor was a major in infantry. He encouraged a lot of freewheeling philosophical discussion and I argued very passionately against war, and I proclaimed that I would never be able to shoot anyone. I had vaguely liberal politics by then in an environment where conservative Republican value’s dominated. But I was not political. More importantly, I was not a student of history.
After graduation in 1967, I received my commission as a second lieutenant and I was assigned to an elite branch of counter intelligence. And that required that I first be trained at infantry school before going to intelligence school. My first assignment after the training was at Fort Hood, Texas. I was a duty officer the night of the so called rebellion of the black soldiers later known as the Fort Hood 46. I had tried and failed to get one of the leaders released. The man was a decorated Vietnam vet who didn’t want to deploy to Chicago for the 1968 Democratic Convention, and he didn’t want to be used for civil control in the black neighborhoods.
I was profoundly unmilitary. I hated being on a military base, even though I didn’t have to wear the uniform. I wore civilian clothes and I was exempt from all of the robotic aspects of the military culture, but I hated being in the military. I felt completely isolated and I began to get profoundly depressed. I didn’t have a heavy workload, and to pass the time I began to study Vietnamese to escape. This was natural for me because I was a language and linguistics major. But what happened next was something that really requires some explanation. I volunteered for Vietnam.
Matthew Breems: So you were at Fort Hood doing your military training, not enjoying military life and culture, and at that point you decided to volunteer for Vietnam.
Michael Uhl: Basically, to escape Fort Hood, I volunteered for Vietnam.
Matthew Breems: Take us through the thought process behind that. What led you to that decision?
Michael Uhl: The way I explained that to myself is that as an American born into the 20th century, I felt that I was bred for war. But my inclination was to experience war was not of someone who felt he needed to prove his manhood in battle. Years later, really what I begin to understand after I become a writer was that, in retrospect, I had a writer’s curiosity that drew me to the war, not a soldier’s curiosity. I mean, you grew up in after World War II and everybody in your dad’s generation, and also women in my family had served in the military. And it was just, you thought it was part of your legacy that my grandfather’s generation had World War I, my father’s generation had World War II, the older boys in our neighborhood had gone off to Korea, and so that it just seemed inevitable that we were going to have a war of our own.
I got to Vietnam, and I was actually assigned as the leader of a combat intelligence team attached to the infantry. And it happened to be the notorious 11th Brigade, which about eight months before I got there, had committed the massacre at My Lai. Most of the men I had been with in intelligence school were assigned either to stateside duty, where they were doing background investigations on people that were being considered for high level security clearances, or if they went to Vietnam, they tended to be assigned to, very desirable situations where they were they wore their civilian clothes. They lived in private houses off the beach. They had a pretty easy duty. But I, in contrast, I was assigned to an infantry unit, which, considering the fact that, like I said, I was not terribly military, was ironic.
Matthew Breems: Do you think that assignment was intentional by the superiors that wanted to try get some of that out of your system?
Michael Uhl: No, I don’t think they really paid much attention to me one way or another. I think it was just the roll of the dice.
Matthew Breems: So, at this point you weren’t so vocal about your antiwar sentiments that they would have taken notice of that?
Michael Uhl: No. No. And I didn’t really. I wasn’t so much vocal about my antiwar sentiments as I was vocal about my personal values. I guess it was a kind of pacifism, but a sense of myself that I could never shoot anyone… I had no interest in guns. I did not grow up in a gun culture, and I didn’t believe that that was an experience I was going to gravitate to. Like I said, I didn’t feel I had to prove myself in that sense. I didn’t have that macho thing going on. Anyway, over a period of months I witnessed many terrible things, atrocities and torture, random killing. But for me it was an abusive treatment of the Vietnamese by the United States military that really, really began to turn my head around. It really became the education that I had lacked before going into the military.
Matthew Breems: Was this systematic and encouraged abuse of the citizens by the military hierarchy or just the soldiers and GIs taking it upon themselves to abuse the citizen?
Michael Uhl: Well, there was both. And there was the indiscriminate use of our firepower and the air and artillery strikes. I simply was not a student of history, even though I was a college graduate and I had spent a year abroad in a third world country. I had no real curiosity about the war. I was completely apolitical, I’d maybe watch the news if Kennedy was making some policy announcement. But once I was in that situation, once I was actually in the war and seeing the license that the average GI, not just the brass, but the average GI had… not everybody but to a significant degree, the average GI was able to treat the Vietnamese people with complete disregard and abuse. And in the background, the fact that we were hurling these enormous amounts of explosive ordnance out into the surrounding countryside or military aircraft were just dropping these tons and tons of explosives.
What I did grasp was that this was a war, not so much against communism as it was sold to the American people, but a war against an entire people. It was, as we later described, a genocidal war. It was actually then my good fortune to be evacuated with a very serious case of tuberculosis. And after four months in the hospital, I began graduate studies at New York University and I became immediately involved in the antiwar movement.
Do you know the story of the disciple Thomas? The doubting Thomas? The story was up in the Gospel as the resurrected Christ. He would not believe in the resurrection of his master until he actually saw him and was able to put his fingers in the wounds of the crucified Christ. Well, in a sense, I suppose I was like that. I didn’t learn about it by reading about it. It would have seemed the most logical thing in the world for someone who was being sent to Vietnam, maybe to pick up a book about what the war was all about. For reasons that I still don’t completely understand, I never did that. I found myself in the situation where it was the life experience itself from which I was able to derive the most important lesson in my life, and that Vietnam really turned my head around. It turned me into a person that became engaged in the world in a way that I had not been previously.
Matthew Breems: So, you finish your duties over in Vietnam, you contract tuberculosis, which gets you a ticket home. Take us on the next step. How did you become an active resister?
Michael Uhl: Well, I mean I was already primed, but so I was raring to go. By the time I got out of the hospital, I actually got myself kicked out of an army hospital because I had gotten into an altercation with a full bird colonel. I didn’t have a name for it then, but I was really experiencing post-traumatic stress, and they kicked me out of the hospital and sent me to a veteran’s hospital in Manhattan. And from the veteran’s hospital I would sneak out and I went down to NYU. I went to the linguistics department and talked to the department head, and he immediately accepted me into a doctoral program. As soon as I got out of the hospital, I started my graduate studies, but I also started looking around for the antiwar veterans. I started going to teach ins, and to the mass demonstrations that were taking place in 1969. The big moratorium, the big march in Washington. I soon connected up with a couple of antiwar activists who had not been in the military, but were part of an organization called the Citizens’ Commission of Inquiry on US War Crimes.
It was something that had evolved from the Bertrand Russell Tribunals. One of the men who had worked on this with Russell, came back to the United States and started this group called CCI, Citizens’ Commission of Inquiry. I met these two activists, a guy named Jeremy Rifkin and another fellow named Tod Ensign. They had taken it upon themselves to recruit veterans like me to begin to organize fellow veterans to come forward and testify publicly about the atrocities that they had participated in or witnessed. Our political orientation was that My Lai was just the tip of the iceberg, and that atrocities on one scale or another word were ubiquitous and widespread, and that the architects and the managers of the war were work criminals. And they should be prosecuted under the precedence of the Nuremberg tribunal, which had tried the Nazi leadership after World War II. We went all around the country having these press events and public forums where veterans would stand up and talk about atrocities that they had seen in Vietnam.
Matthew Breems: At this time in general, in America at this time, was it pretty much unknown that this was going on over there?
Michael Uhl: The massacre took place on March 16th of 1968, and it wasn’t until the middle of November 1969 when it was publicly revealed in the United States. It was a shocking revelation to the American public. It was precisely that revelation that we hoped to build on to show that My Lai was not unique. That there was a matter of what we call standard operating procedures in the way we were fighting the war, the kinds of tactics we were using, search and destroy, and the forced relocation of people, and what they called harassment and interdiction artillery fire, and the systematic torture of prisoners. And all this was part and parcel, part of the way in which the war was being fought. And again, it wasn’t just being fought against this elusive armed enemy, it was being fought against the entire population. That work with CCI went on for about a year and a half and ended up with a couple of major national events, one of which was the Winter Soldier Investigation.
By that time I’ve had dropped out of graduate school, and I saw myself as a full time antiwar activist. The war was still going on after the war crimes work had been basically had culminated. My friend Tod Ensign and I had founded a group called Safe Return in late 1971 and we were launching a campaign to win amnesty on behalf of military resisters, basically deserters. Men who had left the military, gone into exile or were living underground in the United States in the tens of thousands. There were more than 500,000 cases of desertion during the war, soldiers we identified as working class resisters, as opposed to draft objectors who were more middle class.
In other words, we were working on behalf of a class of the resistance we believed, who would not get the recognition that other kinds of resisters we’re going to get. And so also saw the amnesty issue at this early stage as a way of continuing to focus public attention on the war, which was not over. So again, it’s like this is late 1971 The United States would not sign the peace accord until January of 1973, and so our campaign for amnesty was not only to focus attention on the nature, on the widespread phenomenon of military desertion, but also it’s a way of continuing, like I said, to focus public attention on the war that was far from over.
There was this context that the war had basically disappeared from the front pages and the public had been lulled into imagining that the American involvement was over just because our troops were being withdrawn, but in fact 100,000 American troops were still over there. We realized that the American public was being deceived, the war was still going on, and that the amnesty issue would be a vehicle for focusing attention on the ongoing war. The amnesty movement lasted for roughly five years. It began when the war was still going on, and it continued when the war was over. By 1977 the amnesty movement had run its course when President Carter issued a pardon that applied only to those who had resisted the draft, but left out the military resisters.
We knew that this was a lost course right from the start. We knew that it was very unlikely that the American deserters were going to be amnestied. But like I said, for it was part of our commitment to the antiwar movement. And because we also supported the GIs, who we felt had done something that was honorable. And if you opposed the war, then why wouldn’t you support the GIs, who also opposed the war by refusing to participate. We hit on a way of dramatizing this issue by selecting these test cases. We’d bring deserters back from Sweden or from Paris, who in many cases had already been to Vietnam. We, then, would launch these very, very public defenses of these guys. And we got a tremendous amount of publicity doing this … But we were never able to really convinced the American public, in Middle America that it was reasonable to make that leap between opposition to the war to support for the resistance. But we were dyed in the wool antiwar activists at this point. We weren’t motivated by outcomes. We were motivated by our passion to oppose war, and regardless of whether or not our objectives were going to be fulfilled.
Matthew Breems: The amnesty movement ran its course at this point for you in 1977-ish, what did you do from there? Obviously, your passion for antiwar is still very strong. What did you do with that passion?
Michael Uhl: Well then, Tod Ensign and I founded a group called Citizen Soldier, which was a GI and veteran advocacy group. We were going to defend soldiers and GIs that were running afoul of the military justice system, with a wider mission of opposing US militarism. We created a small foundation called ATOM, Inc. Alternatives to Militarism. That was basically our political orientation. It was opposing US militarism. Citizen Soldier actually continued in existence until my friend Tod died in 2014. But the time I was there when we were co directors, our most visible achievement was in bringing a public attention to the effects of exposure to herbicides, like Agent Orange on the health of the thousands of American soldiers who had served in the war. We even wrote a book about that, and we organized veterans all around the country to come forward also in the same way that we had brought deserters to come forward and talk about what they were experiencing. We were in coalitions with doctors and epidemiologists who were beginning to make the case scientifically that the exposure of these herbicides had led to these health problems that the veterans were undergoing.
And again, Citizen Soldier was not just about defending the rights of these veterans and calling attention to how they had been damaged by the war. But we always saw the struggle through a much wider lens as part of this ongoing struggle about how the Vietnam War was going to be recorded historically. In other words, with everything we did, we had the objective of bringing discredit on the Vietnam war. There had been such massive public opposition. And for decades there remained strong resistance throughout the American public to get involved in another Vietnam. And we were … This was the feeling that we were trying to magnify, and exploit, and perpetuate that somehow the lessons of Vietnam would be strong enough to prevent future US wars.
If you look at American history, that basic sense of repugnance that so permeated the American public held for almost 30 years until the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It was really a very long period of peaceful period in the United States. You’re dealing with another generation on the scene. And then people had forgotten those lessons or they never had learned those lessons or they didn’t mean the same thing to them that they meant to us in any event. But still, I think the important historical takeaway from that is that Vietnam had so strongly influenced the American public that it kept the United States out of war for almost 30 years. Now I’m ignoring the Gulf War.
Matthew Breems: Even how the Gulf War was fought, it was very much an in and out operation because of our experiences in Vietnam.
Michael Uhl: Exactly. And it also required this creation of this vast international coalition. Getting back to my story, I was pretty much of a burnout by early 80s. I had just started a family. My son was born. I moved in with my partner. I think that the PTSD was really also becoming more of a problem, and I just had to get away from that kind of activism. I left Citizen Soldier. I continued to serve on the board. I continued to write for them and all. These many years, Tod and I continued to be best friends until he died. But I was no longer an activist, but I immediately became involved in the creation of Veterans For Peace. I’m a charter and lifetime member and I’ve served on the organization’s board of directors and as editor of the national newsletters, but I didn’t really become active again until the invasion of Iraq. because I was trying to make a living, and teaching writing at the University of Maine, and involved in freelance writing.
I didn’t become a full time activist again, but I was very much engaged in that Veterans For Peace activity for the next couple of years. Now basically, I’m back to not being involved as an activist anymore. For me personally, even though I’ve contributed in the last couple of years, I’ve needed to step away from the antiwar protests. That kind of protest involves you in endless rounds of conflict. And the conflict is … I finally realized, after all these years that I have to make a choice to avoid that conflict if I’m going to survive in this world, and if I’m still going to find some way of making a contribution to issues that are important to all of us.
Matthew Breems: Michael, with all of your experience in study and investigation into war making and an antiwar activism, what would you say are some concrete actions just a regular average person in America could do to make a difference in American policy to reduce war, at least as far as America is involved?
Michael Uhl: That’s the $64,000 question. You get these mailings from all these people that are running for the Democratic nomination, these surveys, right? What do you think are the priority issues? And there’s not a single candidate across the entire spectrum of the Democratic party that asks a question about war and the military. … They give you a list of 10 priorities. Select the ones that are most important to you, right? The environment, healthcare. Not one of them talks about the military. Now this, the elephant in the room, the fact that the military is soaking up 50% of the national budget underwriting these wars that are taking place all over the world, supporting these 170 something American military installations throughout the planet. But not one of these candidates within mainstream politics is taking on the question of this big bite out of the American economy that is being taken by the military industrial complex.
The protest against war by these small groups like Veterans For Peace are essentially falling on deaf ears. And these other issues may be our way of getting around that in some way. The environmental issues, the climate change issue. Like I said, I support the goals, I support the objectives of the antiwar movement, the peace movement. We don’t even have an antiwar movement anymore. You’ve got old time activists that go back 50, 60 years basically that are leading the charge. Do you have an answer for that question?
Matthew Breems: Maybe the question is more, how do you pass the baton on to the next generation? How do you have the next generation take it up with new enthusiasm and passion that will cause real concrete change, political change, cultural change in our country?
Michael Uhl: The only thing that I feel like I’ve been able to contribute in that respect is that I’ve written four books that are part of the record. And that’s the way the baton gets passed usually. It’s that somebody picks up a work, they develop a curiosity about a topic, say the Vietnam War, and they start reading in it. And often that’s the way that people are radicalized. It’s by reading the accounts of the past that they use to basically, fuel their activities in the present. I have some faith in history I suppose. That’s what it really is. I think that the solution is learning what has happened before, learning how to use what’s happened before as a tool in the present, as Karl Marx famously quoted. Making our own history. Humans have the power to make their own history but not under circumstances of their choosing. That’s the paradox.
Michael Uhl: History itself is now against the American Empire. That empires come and go, and the American empire is really entering its final phase. How long that will go on, I don’t know. But the challenges from China, from all these other countries are so extensive. The wheel of history is turning, and the American empire is significantly weaker now than it has ever been before since its heyday in the 20th century. That’s what’s going to make a difference, in terms of American capacity to maintain these kinds of … To maintain its hegemony through these military adventures. Now, will China then take up the cudgel? Who knows?
Matthew Breems: Right?
Michael Uhl: Will we ever see an end to it?
Matthew Breems: Well, Michael, thank you so much for doing this interview with us. Your insights are very unique and valuable. And thank you for all the work that you’ve done over years in the antiwar movement. Very, very impressive. Thank you for sharing your time with us.
Michael Uhl: Well, thanks, and thank you for doing this.
Matthew Breems: This Courage to Resist podcast was produced in collaboration with the Vietnam full disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace. This year marks 50 years of GI resistance to the US war in Vietnam, in and out of uniform for many of the courageous individuals featured. This episode was recorded and edited by Matthew Breems. Special thanks to executive producer Jeff Paterson. Visit vietnamfulldisclosure.org and couragetoresist.org for past episodes, more information, and to offer your support.