“Arrived there during the ’69 Tet Offensive. I mean, I had misgivings about the war. I was pretty much against the war. But because of my family background, I couldn’t bring myself to avoid the draft and go to Canada. My family had a pretty heavy hand on the way I looked at the world, even though I’d been gradually moving toward a very strong anti-war attitude.”
“We were supposed to think about how we were winning the war was by body counts. And so when we’d blow an ambush, you’d be sent out to check to see know how many bodies you could count. Just the insanity of it. It just seemed all so surreal to me.”
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.” Last year marked 50 years of GI resistance, in and out of uniform, for many of the courageous individuals featured. Interview and edit by Matthew Breems. Production assistance by Stephanie Atkinson. Jeff Paterson, Executive Producer.
“And then my work became all in about my experience. And I basically just bled on my canvases. And all the photo work, all the painting I did, was all about Vietnam. And that helped me confront a lot of that.”
Visit William’s website “A Matter of Conscience: GI Resistance During the Vietnam War“ (amatterofconscience.com)
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I was thinking about going to Canada, I was thinking about deserting. And I could not actually bring myself to do it at that time.
And the next morning, when I got up, I was walking and there was a church on the way. I sat in this church for the longest time, trying to figure out, “Am I going to go to Canada? Am I going to go in?” And then I finally decided, “Well, if I’m really going to be against the war, maybe I should go see it firsthand. So that when people ask me why I’m against the war, I’ll have real firsthand information about why the war is wrong.”
This is the Courage to Resist podcast. Since 2005, Courage to Resist has worked to support military resistance to illegal and unjust wars, counter recruitment, draft resistance, and the policies of empire. Vietnam veteran Bill Short is our guest on this episode of the Courage to Resist podcast.
Bill was an army sergeant in Vietnam, where he eventually refused orders to fight. He was court-martialed twice before being discharged. Bill went on to be an activist artist, creating photography exhibits and books that highlighted anti-war servicemen. He was also an associate producer on the acclaimed documentary, “Sir! No Sir!”
Well, Bill, thank you so much for taking the time to be on the podcast today. We are excited to hear your story of activism. All of our guests we start with the same place, and that’s with some background information about you as a person and your upbringing. And what led you to find yourself being in the US military?
Well, I grew up in an Air Force neighborhood. My dad was a research engineer at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, for a unit called Foreign Technology Development; as my dad was a civilian engineer working there. But our neighborhood was filled with people like him, and Air Force majors and colonels.
And I also have a long history with the military in this country. Both sides of the family fought in the Revolutionary War. My great, great grandfather, James David Short, was somebody who was always talked to me about as I was growing up, who was a civil war veteran, a corporal in the Union Army. My grandfather was a World War I Navy veteran. My dad was a Navy veteran. Just about every war, I think, except the Spanish-American War, my family had taken part in.
So there was a lot of sense of duty and service to country?
Yeah. My dad could have probably made a lot more money as an electrical engineer in the civilian world than in the military. But he was very much a Kennedy Democrat and believed in, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” kind of guy.
And so when I graduated high school and went to–this is all in Ohio, Wright-Patterson, for those of you who don’t know, is in Fairborn, Ohio, which is right next to Dayton, Ohio. I went to Ohio University and I was going to be a math major since 1965. Graduated high school in ’65. And I was going to be a mathematics major, primarily because my dad had always pushed me toward technical aspects of study. I was good in math in high school.
And I also joined the Air Force ROTC. And was thinking that I was going to be an Air Force officer and a mathematician. Took me about one semester to realize that Air Force ROTC wasn’t for me. First demonstration I ever went to, I carried a sign calling for the bombing of Hanoi. Because it was a ROTC protest. We went there in our uniforms to protest.
But I dropped out of ROTC pretty quick and pretty much discovered counter-culture. Got involved with sex, drugs, and rock and roll, from 1966 on. And ended up being suspended from school for grades. And got snatched up in the draft in 1968.
So I can imagine your family isn’t real pleased that you don’t do well in school, and now you find yourself in the draft?
Yeah. My dad was pretty understanding though. My mother was too. And then when I got drafted, scored high on all the testing that they give you. And I thought, “Well, I’ll probably end up in Germany as a clerk typist because I had two years of college. And I’ll just go there and spend the war effort smoking hashish.”
What I didn’t realize that the military at that time … this is 1968 … they were looking for people to serve as small unit commanders, like sergeants. And so, after basic, I was sent to Infantry AIT, Advanced Individual Training, at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. And spent basic there and then was sent to Infantry AIT after basic.
After that, I was offered an opportunity to go to what’s called Noncommissioned Officer’s Candidate School at Fort Benning, which was a school that cranked out combat sergeants.
So when did you actually end up in Vietnam?
February of 1969. Arrived there during the ’69 Tet Offensive. I mean, I had misgivings about the war. I was pretty much against the war. But because of my family background, I couldn’t bring myself to avoid the draft and go to Canada. My family had a pretty heavy hand on the way I looked at the world, even though I’d been gradually moving toward a very strong anti-war attitude.
And then arrived in the Bay Area in Oakland, to report to the distribution station. I got there a day early. I did it because I was thinking about going to Canada. I was thinking about deserting. And I could not actually bring myself to do it at that time. And the next morning, when I got up, I was walking and there was a church on the way. I sat in this church for the longest time, trying to figure out, “Am I going to go to Canada? Am I going to go in?” And I finally decided, “Well, if I’m really going to be against the war, maybe I should go see it firsthand. So that when people ask me why I’m against the war, I’ll have real firsthand information about why the war is wrong.”
So even right up until the moment you were getting deployed, that you were very conflicted about this decision. You have this family history, both God and country, family tradition, pulling on you, and then also your experiences and interaction with people in college. But you came to a place where at least you felt enough resolution to say, “I’m at least go over there and experience it.”
It made sense for me. It might not have made sense for a lot of other people at the time. But because of my family history–our family was really close. I was really close with my grandparents. It was tough. It was hard to essentially go against my family. Because I knew if I did that, I could possibly be completely alienated from my family.
It’s a very high cost when you’re a young man.
So the decision’s made: “I am going to go see this war firsthand, so I can tell people firsthand why I’m opposed to it.”
What did you begin to see firsthand?
Well, shit hit the fan pretty quick. Because as we flew in, we received ground fire with the plane that we were landing in. So when I got there, being a sergeant, you have to go through three days of orientation when you get in country, right off the bat. Get preacquainted with your weapons, go through weapons training.
And so we’re firing M79 grenade launchers. And the sergeants that were running that had targets that we were supposed to fire at. And the targets we were firing at were gravestones. That seemed appalling to me, that we would be desecrating these gravestones. And I just said, “I’m not going to do it.” I said, “I know how to shoot this thing. I’m not going to fire it at these gravestones.”
So the dehumanizing of the Vietnamese was apparent to you right from the get-go.
Right from the beginning, yeah. And that carried through with everything else that I did.
I ended up getting assigned to 1st Infantry Division in Lai Khê, which was based in the Michelin Rubber Plantation. And we were in what was called a free-fire zone, meaning that if it moved, you shot it. Didn’t work in villages, we worked in forest and rice paddies, and along the rivers and pathways that led into Vietnam from Cambodia. We’d walk as a company doing search and destroy, S&D, missions. Then we’d split up into platoon size ambushes at night.
We were supposed to think about how we were winning the war was by body counts. And so when we’d blow an ambush, you’d be sent out to check to see know how many bodies you could count. Just the insanity of it. It just seemed all so surreal to me.
And what’s going through your head at this time? You came into the Vietnam War with a lot of misgivings about it. And now you’re in the very thick of it. What’s going on inside as this is happening and you’re going out on these patrols?
Survival. I mean, you’re stuck out there. And this is what the military preys upon, is your brotherhood, your sense of brotherhood, and responsibility to the guy fighting next to you. Between you and any way to get back to some civilized area, it’s a helicopter flight.
And any refusal to fight, or resistance there, puts your fellow soldier, your brother, so to speak, in jeopardy. And that’s a very difficult instinct to go against.
It is. When I became platoon sergeant, we got a new sergeant in that took my place who was another NCOC graduate. And Richard and I became pretty good friends. And I was also pretty good friends with this guy Gary, who was the platoon sniper.
We went back out for another month and we kept complaining and bitching about the war. And then finally, Richard and Gary and I, we were back in the NDP, just talked it over with all the other guys in our unit. And we said, “The three of us are going on strike. We’re not going out anymore.” And the other guys all said, “We’d like to do that too. But, number one, our families would probably disown us. Number two, we’re going to go to prison. And we don’t know for how long. And number three, we probably won’t get a job when we go back to the United States because we’ll have a dishonorable discharge.”
And that was mainly what kept guys from doing it. Probably half my platoon would have done it if it hadn’t been for that. And the other half were ambivalent about the war but felt like they needed to see it through.
So the three of us went to our lieutenant, said, “Next operation. We’re not going.” And he freaked out, went to the captain. Captain, put us basically under our own self arrest. Flew us back to the base camp at Lai Khê. They split us up. And I don’t know what they told the other two guys, but the other two guys got freaked out and ended up getting convinced to go back out into the field. And I couldn’t be convinced.
They told me I was going to get charged with leading a conspiracy to mutiny against the United States government because I was the leader of the group. And that that was going to carry a 20 to life sentence. And I thought, “I’m going in for a long time.” I got two court martials. I got my first court martial, and I defended myself. And I was charged with … instead of a sentence given a general court martial, I was given a special court martial. And a special court martial carries a maximum of six months sentence.
So I went to trial, and I had a panel of five judges. What I was been charged, eventually, was refusing a direct order. And that direct order was to go out into the field. And my defense was that I’d never refused a direct order because I actually had never been given an order to return to combat. So my defense was that I had never been given the direct order.
Of course, when I defended myself, they can put you on the stand and cross-examine you. And when they cross examined me, and said, “If you’d been given the direct order, would you have refused?” And I said, “Yes, I would. But I hadn’t been given the order.” Well, they found me guilty anyway. And they sentenced me to six months, suspended five of it, and sent me to LBJ, Long Binh Jail, for a month.
And then I came back to the same unit, same battalion, different company. They sent me out to an NDP. They had a helicopter waiting on the helipad with its rotors going. They had a pack with an M16, and a helmet. On the tarmac, they had two sergeants and an officer snap me to the position of attention. They ordered me to pick up the pack, pick up the weapon, pick up the helmet, and get on the chopper to go to the field. And I refuse.
So the minute they did that, I knew that if I had had legal counsel, and I hadn’t defended myself, I would have beat the first court martial. Because they were covering their ass from what I’d done in the first one.
So I got sentenced to a full six months, went back to LBJ. And my XO, the executive officer from Bravo Company, actually volunteered to be my legal counsel. And he put up a real nice defense. He privately told me that he couldn’t do what I did, but he understood why I did it.
And then when I got to LBJ, I met a whole bunch of other guys who had been in for refusing to go on operations, or had refused orders, or had been busted for smoking pot.
So the morale is quickly, quickly degrading.
It had really bottomed out. Robert Heinl, who was a colonel, wrote an article in ’71 that spoke directly to this issue, that the military was basically inoperable in Vietnam because of the anti-war movement.
So what happens to you now, after the second court martial?
I was offered a general, under less than honorable conditions. Which was nicknamed, “The Undesirable”. The reason they didn’t give me worse papers, or offer me worse papers, was because of the anti-war movement. They didn’t want to be sending a lot of people back from Vietnam with really bad discharge papers. So they said, “Okay, we’ll give you a undesirable discharge. But you have to be interviewed by a psychologist to make sure that you understand what you’re doing by accepting this undesirable.”
So I went to the stockade shrink. And he said, “Well, what are you going to do when you go back?” I said, “I’m going to go back to school.” He said, “Well, you know you’re not going to get the G.I. Bill?” He said, “Okay, well, I’ll see what I can do.”
So when I got back to the States and received my papers, I got a general discharge. But I got a general discharge under honorable conditions. And what he had done, is he had determined that I was unsuitable … not undesirable, but unsuitable … for military duty. And being unsuitable meant that the military had made a mistake by drafting me, that I should never have been drafted in the first place.
So I ended up getting the G.I. Bill. And I went back to school at Ohio University for a couple of semesters and then transferred to Antioch College, which was probably the best thing I ever did.
Got out in September of ’69. Went back to Ohio University in the spring of ’70. Got deeply involved in the anti-war movement at Ohio University. During the riots at Ohio University, as a result of Kent State, we set the ROTC trash cans on fire. The same ROTC building that I had been in as an ROTC student, we set the trash cans on fire outside of the building as part of our protest.
After that spring at Ohio University, when Kent State erupted and the Ohio University campus got shut down, I just went into kind of lockdown myself and just ended up … basically, I was stoned for three years. I just did drugs for three years. Dropped as much acid as I could. Smoked as much pot as I could. Worked construction. Went to demonstrations. Went to all the big demonstrations in Washington.
So what began to happen to pull you out of that season of your life and into the next?
Well, I kept trying to go back to school. And I discovered photography along the way. And I was an amateur photographer through the ’70s.
And then I finally, in 1979, decided that I’d make one last attempt to go back to school. And I went back to school and majored in art. And that did it. I went back to Ohio University for a couple semesters and then transferred to Antioch. Spent two years at Antioch and got my undergraduate degree in a Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting and sculpture and photography.
And then my work became all in about my experience. And I basically just bled on my canvases. And all the photo work, all the painting I did, was all about Vietnam. And that helped me confront a lot of that.
So your artwork was a very therapeutic process for you, a cathartic-
It was, it was cathartic.
Yeah, it was.
And then I got into grad school at USC and came out to Los Angeles to go to grad school. Then after I finished grad school, moved to Boston. And then just saw that I could probably speak louder with my photography than I could with my painting.
And I started hearing stories of other guys who had done acts of resistance like I had done, while they were serving in the military. So I thought, “I need to maybe consider photographing and interviewing these people.”
So my wife, who was a working journalist, we decided that we were going to put this book project together. We started interviewing locally and shooting 4×5 film portraits of these vets who had protested the war while they was serving in the military.
And then it grew. And then I became an artist in residence at the Addison Gallery of American Art. And they funded the completion of this work. I think we spent five years interviewing and photographing people around the country who had protested the war from inside.
And then, eventually, the Addison published the book in 1992. Also, during that time, I started making trips back to Vietnam to work on, “As Seen by Both Sides”, which was a exhibition of 20 Vietnamese artists … Vietnamese artists living in Vietnam, not immigrants … and 20 American artists who did artwork protesting the war.
And then that led me to meet Vietnamese veterans in Vietnam. And I befriended a bunch of former Vietcong and NFL fighters. I met all these people. I started thinking, “Their stories need to be told.”
So my wife and I made three trips to Vietnam. I made six trips in total. But my wife made three trips with me to interview 90 people who fought against the United States. And these are people who were NVA soldiers, Vietcong soldiers, spies, anti-war protestors who went to the universities in Saigon. We interviewed survivors of the Mỹ Lai massacre, 90 people, all the way from the Chinese border down to the Mekong Delta.
First one, the Vietnam American veterans, is: “A Matter of Conscience: GI Resistance During the Vietnam War”. And the other one is “Memories of the American War: Stories From Vietnam”. That one hasn’t been published. We tried to get it published, but most publishers thought the stories were too depressing. So we’ve exhibited it, but it’s still waiting to be published.
And if someone wanted to view some of these works, where would be the best place for them to do that?
Our website, amatterofconscience.com. All one word. amatterofconscience.com.
And Bill, you were also one of the associate producers on the “Sir! No Sir!” documentary. Can you speak on that experience?
Yeah. When I first met David, the film was actually kind of framed in a little bit different way. It was going to be more inclusive, it was going to just be an overview of veteran protest. And then when he discovered our book and we started talking, he narrowed it down to just resistance inside the military.
And of all the people who are interviewed in “Sir! No Sir!”, I think a good two thirds to three quarter of them came from our book, “A Matter of Conscience”. And there’s some photographs of street photographs, and landscapes and things that are from those trips there as well.
I consider myself not just an artist, but a cultural worker. And my artwork has always been … even if you go to my personal site, which is williamshort.com, and look at the work there, it’s all invested in some sort of politics.
Well, Bill, thank you so much for taking the time to be on the podcast today. We really appreciate hearing your story of activism. And, again, your website is amatterofconscience.com. Is that correct?
And the movie that you also helped be a producer on is “Sir! No Sir!” And that is available on Netflix, at least as of August, 2021. Thank you so much for your time.
This podcast is a Courage to Resist production, recorded and edited by Matthew Breems, with special thanks to executive producer, Jeff Paterson. Visit couragetoresist.org for more information and to offer your support.