Undergrad's research finds striking similarity between Vietnam War and Iraq conflict

The Vietnam War was never mentioned at all during history major Martin Smith's high school days in Kingsport, Tennessee--a town roughly the size of Santa Cruz. But by doing research at UCSC on that conflict during the midst of recent intense media coverage of the war in Iraq, he has discovered remarkable similarities between the two events.

Smith is a 33-year-old armed forces veteran himself-he served in the United States Marine Corps from 1997 to 2002 and studied Russian at the Defense Department's Language Institute in Monterey. Smith is also the winner of this year's Melkonian Prize for submitting the top proposal to UCSC's 2003-04 Humanities Undergraduate Research Awards (HUGRA).

Smith's project is titled "The Soldiers' Rebellion in Vietnam: Race, Class, and Resistance." He will present his research on Thursday, June 3, along with four other HUGRA award-winning students at the Merrill College Baobab Room between 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.

"I got inspired by an essay I had read about the fact that in Vietnam, it got to the point where morale was so low, that troops refused to fight," Smith recalled. "I had never heard this part of history before. So I began researching and learned that there has been resistance to every war we have ever fought. But in Vietnam the resistance to fight was on a scale never before seen by the U.S. Military-and it was documented in written reports by the armed forces."

Smith began looking for the reasons why resistance in Vietnam was so much larger than in previous wars. He found that one cause was the contradiction between official U.S. policy and what the government claimed was occurring in Vietnam, and what the troops were actually encountering on the ground.

"We were told the troops would be greeted in Vietnam as liberators and not met with hostility," Smith noted. "The troops were told they were fighting communism, but in reality they found they were just fighting poor peasants who were starving-they were just subsistence farmers."

Smith also found that Vietnam was different because it was a working-class war due to college deferments-blacks and Latinos served disproportionately on the front lines. He additionally discovered details of the impact of the anti-war movement that he had been completely unaware of, including the existence of hundreds of underground newspapers that were utilized to help build an anti-war GI movement.

"There were over 250 underground newspapers--many produced by soldiers, sailors, and airmen themselves--that circulated stateside, and several thousand were known to have reached the troops stationed in Vietnam," Smith said. "I've obtained numerous copies of these papers--it's fascinating how widespread their circulation was."

Smith's project suggests that Vietnam should be considered as part of the broader history of labor and the working class. He argues that it was a working-class revolt that helped to end the Vietnam ground war. "The military was the largest employer of working-class people at that time, and the soldiers' revolt was one of the most successful social movements of the period," Smith noted. He added that major reforms were also instituted after Vietnam in response to this working-class rebellion--the draft was ended, military policies and regulations were liberalized, and pay for enlisted soldiers almost doubled.

"It's important that we learn about Vietnam because of so many comparisons to situations going on today," Smith observed. "Especially now with the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, because a similar thing happened with the My Lai incident--it ripped the mask off what the U.S. was doing, leading many to question whether My Lai was an isolated incident or an example of systematic and widespread abuse."