Podcast: “It was a bit crazy.” Andy Berman on enlisting to stop the war

by April 22, 2019Blog, Frontpage Slider, GI Resisters, Podcasts1 comment

“We were holding demonstrations, and sometimes the demonstrations became very militant. Yet, the war kept on going.”

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.

“I had been organizing against the war in the general public for many years. It struck me that what we need to do is organize from within. Yes, my reason for joining the military was to bring the anti-war message inside the military. I didn’t have any specific plans other than to do that.”

“In perspective now, 50 years later, it was a bit crazy. When you’re that young, you think you’re immortal. I understood there would be some risks involved, but hey, I was 22 years old.”

“My commanding officer spoke to the troops and said that Berman was a communist and the FBI was gonna pick me up and we were gonna go to jail.”

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Transcript

Andy Berman: We were holding demonstrations, and sometimes the demonstrations became very militant. Yet, the war kept on going.

Matthew Breems: This is the Courage to Resist podcast. My name is Matthew Breems.

Andy Berman: It struck me that people in the military or people that have been in the military have a certain additional legitimacy when they talk about war and they talk about stopping war. And, that struck me. That struck me very much.

Matthew Breems: This Courage to Resist podcast is produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure Effort of Veterans for Peace. Today I’m speaking with Andy Berman of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Andy’s path to military service is unique in that he specifically joined the Army in order to foster and spread anti-war sentiment among the GIs. Andy tells us his story in this April 2019 interview. Andy, why don’t you start off telling us a little bit about growing up. What your family life was like. Any military expectation?

Andy Berman: Fortunately, I grew up in a largely progressive family environment. My folks were first generation Americans without a whole lot of formal education, but they did have good working class values. As a kid, I was taught always to root for the underdog, be it the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team or black folks fighting for civil rights or workers on strike. During the Vietnam War, mom and dad even participated once or twice in these demonstrations. It was a very supportive environment. I was given the values that I am part of society and that I have an obligation in my life to be with the underdog, to fight for justice. Very much a part of morality that I was brought up.

Matthew Breems: You grew up in a very progressive household. Along with that, were there any expectations for military service for you or are you a first generation military person in your family?

Andy Berman: No, no. Absolutely not. My grandfather was a bit of a war resister in the Romanian army at the turn of the century. My dad did serve in the US Army during World War II. He had a certain pride in it, but he understood that armies and war, this is not the way for humanity to live and that something is basically wrong with war in general. Even though he understood that in World War II and as a young man supportive of the Americans who fought in Spain who were viewed as heroes in my lifetime, the Americans who volunteered for the Abraham Lincoln brigade were the heroes, but there was no expectation whatsoever that I would be in the military.

Matthew Breems: You didn’t grow up with an expectation of military service, but there certainly was that element in your family history. Take us on the journey which led to a place where you really resisted the Vietnam War, you became an anti-war supporter.

Andy Berman: I grew up in New York City. I went to college in New York City, in the city colleges. In the mid-1960s, I got involved with an organization called Students for a Democratic Society and I was involved in the Civil Rights Movement with congress of racial equality, went to some demonstrations. During the years I was at college, I was very active in the early years of the anti-war movement, which began on campuses. It became a passion. I went to some early demonstrations. I watched the news. I joined various peace organizations, such as SDS. It became part of my consciousness. But, like everyone else involved in the anti-war movement, I felt a certain frustration. We were going to demonstrations, we were petitioning, we were meeting our congresspeople, and we were holding demonstrations. Sometimes the demonstrations became very militant. Yet, the war kept on going. The war kept on going regardless of what we were doing, or it seemed that we were having absolutely no impact. That created a general feeling of frustration and a feeling that we had to do something better, had to do something more. For years, I was mulling about this.

The first time I actually thought about the role of the military in the anti-war movement was at a demonstration in New York City. I believe it was in 1965. It was the Easter Peace March down 5th Avenue. There were many contingents of people calling for an end to the war in Vietnam. This is very, very early on. This is 1965. I saw a contingent called Veterans for Peace in Vietnam. It was mostly World War II vets, who were opposing the war in Vietnam. I saw another contingent of Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the Americans who had volunteered to fight in Spain against Franco in 1937-38 period. I was really impressed at how much support, how much recognition, how much honor they were given by the crowd and it struck me that people in the military or people who have been in the military have a certain additional legitimacy when they talk about war and they talk about stopping war. And, that struck me. That struck me very much.

Matthew Breems: Andy, what specifically influenced you to volunteer to join the military in order to become a resistor from within the establishment? Was that something that originated with you individually or were you influenced by someone or some organization?

Andy Berman: In 1970, I went on a work brigade to Cuba, something called the Venceremos Brigade, where a few hundred Americans actually went down to Cuba to cut sugarcane. Help in the harvest. What was really interesting is that after our work day, and this went on for about six weeks I believe, every evening, there would be a cultural event or a political event. Among the Americans, and there were several hundred there, there were every peace and left group you could think of. They were all making presentations about their program, and particularly their ideas about how to stop the war in Vietnam. There were some folks that didn’t make a whole lot of good impression on me, but the ones that did make the most impression on me was a small group of folks from The Oleo Strut. The Oleo Strut was a coffeehouse outside of Fort Hood, Texas. The coffeehouse there, as coffeehouses elsewhere by American bases, were centers where GIs could come and get exposed to anti-war ideas. They could relax, have coffee, watch some films, have discussions to create an anti-war presence next to the bases. The people that were talking about their work, they also impressed me a great deal. They were convinced that working with GIs and the GIs opposition itself could be a really major factor in stopping the war, changing the American public’s perception and helping to stop the war. That struck me too.

Matthew Breems: Really being like a Jonah mentality, changing the beast from within.

Andy Berman: Right. This is a process that went on over several years. But, I was involved in an anti-war demonstration that went onto the base in Fort Dix, New Jersey and somehow, God knows how, we were able to get onto the base with our anti-war banners. It was amazing. But then, a bunch of MPs marched towards us with gas masks on and they sprayed us with tear gas. It was really, really rough. But, the thought that came into my mind was we need to get these soldiers who are shooting gas at us on our side. We need to talk to them. That was pretty much the point at which I decided I would join the military. In perspective now, 50 years later, it was a bit crazy. When you’re that young, you think you’re immortal. I understood there would be some risks involved, but hey, I was 22 years old. I could handle it.

Matthew Breems: To clarify, your sole reason in joining the military then was to perpetuate and to disseminate anti-war information to the soldiers on the base there.

Andy Berman: Absolutely. Absolutely. I had been organizing against the war in the general public for many years. It struck me that what we need to do is organize from within. Yes, my reason for joining the military was to bring the anti-war message inside the military. I didn’t have any specific plans other than to do that. However, this was a period in which there were coffeehouses. There were civilian support structures. There was an organization called United States Servicemen’s Fund, which was funding the coffee houses. Yes, by the way, Jane Fonda, wonderful Jane Fonda, helped fund the coffeehouses, helped support GIs. There was a support structure. I didn’t ever feel that I was alone. Everywhere I went, and I went to three or four different bases in the US and then finally I went to Germany, everywhere there was some level of civilian support.

It was particularly remarkable at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Fort Bragg, North Carolina is the home of the 82nd Airborne. I was stationed there in early 1972. At that point, there was a coffeehouse there. There was a civilian support structure, about six or eight civilians in town, Fayetteville, North Carolina, working to support GIs. We had perhaps a dozen GIs who were active on a regular basis, produced a newspaper called Bragg Briefs. Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland, and Holly Near had just been there and they were doing a cabaret show at the coffeehouse, so there was a lot of activity going on there. In retrospect, did we make a difference? Did we influence anyone? Did anyone decide not to go to Vietnam? Or did anyone who went to Vietnam hold back? It’s impossible to know. But, we did have a significant presence there, distributing a lot of anti-war literature, showing films, and exposing GIs to anti-war ideas.

Matthew Breems: What year did you end up joining the military then? What year was this?

Andy Berman: I joined the military on December 2nd, 1970. It was the first anniversary of the assassination of Fred Hampton, the Black Panther leader in Chicago. I simply walked into the recruiting center in Chicago and said I wanna join. They gave me a physical, took a test. It was very easy to get in. From there, that evening, I called up USSF and I said guys, I’m here. I’m in. Let’s keep in touch. From there, they sent me to Fort Lewis for basic training and then later to Fort Gordon for advanced training, and then ultimately to Fort Bragg. Finally, from Fort Bragg, I got overseas orders. They sent me to Germany. Why? I don’t know. There was still 400,000 troops in Vietnam that needed to be replaced and many, many GIs were being sent there. But, they did not send me. Did they know at that point that I was an activist? At some level they certainly did, because military intelligence was watching us, as I found out years later when I got records under the Freedom of Information Act. We were constantly being monitored.

Again, in Germany, there was a wonderful international civilian support structure supporting GIs who spoke out against the war. We literally had American lawyers in the town of Heidelberg who were ready to take your case if you got into any trouble with the military. There again, we published an underground newspaper called Fight Back, with emphasis on the letters FTA, which I’m sure your listeners understand what that means. We distributed the paper. We did various events at a music festival. There was a good sense of anti-war sentiment. We had no trouble. No trouble getting the message out. This was getting a little later in the war, late 1972. Opposition to the war in the states was very big, and it was reflected in the military. So, the audience for our message was very receptive.

Matthew Breems: You infiltrate the military as an anti-war individual. You’re doing activities, you’re having success there. You have a receptive audience, just a culture at large, and America was with you. Take us down the next steps. What happened militarily or in your military career after that?

Andy Berman: Basically, the things that I was doing, passing out literature and other things, they maybe were violations of the regulations, but we were not engaged in any kind of sabotage. We were exercising our American free speech. We were being monitored very, very carefully. One thing that I did do was a little risky. When I was in Germany, towards the end of 1972, there was at that time a Vietnam War Crimes Tribunal being held in Denmark. The American Deserters Committee, which was in Sweden, came down to the tribunal and there was an official delegation from the Democratic Republic of North Vietnam. The civilian supporters in Germany wanted to go up to the conference and they asked me if I would come along, and I did. You get a certain amount of leave time in the military, so i went up to there.

I did attend the conference and I met with the official delegation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, which nominally could have gotten me in a great deal of trouble, but when I saw my records from military intelligence years later, they were not even aware that I had been there. That was a bit of very good luck on my part. But, with good luck and also civilian support and lawyers always ready to support us, it was possible to do these things without being at great risk. Finally, the moment of truth did come. In January of 1973, there was a roundup of anti-war activists from German and we were shipped out on very short notice. We were split up. Some of the guys were sent to Alaska. I was sent to Fort Polk, Louisiana. It was an attempt, clearly, to stop the anti-war movement in Germany.

Matthew Breems: Did they tell you that’s why you were being reassigned or was it just …

Andy Berman: It was known. My commanding officer spoke to the troops and said that Berman was a communist and the FBI was gonna pick me up and we were gonna go to jail. No charges were pressed, but we were separated and spread out. We did get our 15 minutes of fame. CBS TV national news covered it. The Washington Post had a story about us. But, we were not court-martialed. So, I spent eight months of my final time in the Army in Fort Polk, Louisiana. This was after the Paris Peace Accords had been assigned. The anti-war movement itself was very much on the decline, and there was not a whole lot I could do in Fort Polk. Finally, I got a discharge and I left the Army in December of ’73. Shortly thereafter, the war was over.

Matthew Breems: Just for a matter of the record, can you describe what your military occupation was and what units you were attached to?

Andy Berman: I was in the 582nd Transportation Unit and also in the Signal Corps. I was, for a period of time, a truck driver. Also, I was a helicopter radio repairman. In retrospect, 50 years later, it was kind of a foolish thing to do, but I take a certain amount of pride. I certainly did risk getting into serious trouble, but I had a lot of support and I avoided it. What I do tell young people, life is a one shot deal. You need to follow your conscience and try to make decisions in your life that come from your deepest moral beliefs. Humanity right now is teetering on the blink. If we don’t figure out how to turn away from war, I think the future of human beings, we may literally cease to exist. And time is not on our side. So, my advice to young people when I do go to schools and talk about my experiences is listen to your conscience and make your decisions based on your deepest moral beliefs. Don’t be forced into doing things that you find repugnant. Since then, I’ve continued to be an activist. I continue to work in peace and justice movements. I’ve done solidarity work for Nicaragua, Cuba, El Salvador, elsewhere.

Matthew Breems: What does that solidarity work look like for you?

Andy Berman: When the US was doing the Contra War in Nicaragua, there were groups that would do education forums. Many, many people would go to Nicaragua. I went to Nicaragua myself and I did some work down there, and come back, telling the American public, doing education forums, that US foreign policy in Nicaragua and El Salvador was terribly wrong and we should oppose US war efforts there. That’s what solidarity work looks like. As a matter of fact, today I am most deeply involved in solidarity work with Syria. Syria is a very tough issue for the American peace movement and I think a lot of us have gotten it wrong, seeing only the US as the culprit. I don’t wanna get into the politics of it, but I think the important thing is that we need to oppose war and war makers from wherever they come. Often they are from our government in the United States, but not always. The bombs that Assad drops on the people of Syria kill just as much as US napalm did in Vietnam. Our job as anti-war activists is to oppose war period.

Matthew Breems: Looking back at your time in the military and knowing what you know now, with the 20/20 hindsight of maturity, would you do it again? Would you intentionally join the Army to resist war?

Andy Berman: That’s a good question. It was a brash, somewhat foolish thing I did. I was very lucky not to get burned. If I was 22 again, under the similar circumstances, I suppose I would. But, I don’t advise it to anyone right now. I do advise people to avoid military service and to understand that soldiers who do go into the military are often victims themselves. Not to treat them as the enemy.

Matthew Breems: For the sake of our listeners, what were some of the potential repercussions of your activity when you were in the military? What could’ve potentially happened to you if you had been charged?

Andy Berman: Shaking hands with the Vietnamese enemy while you are an active duty soldier has certain consequences. That certainly could have gotten me into trouble. The fact that I was in the military late in the war, not early on, I think held back the hand. They didn’t want another case. They didn’t want another Fort Hood Three, which was with three soldiers early during the war. There was a black soldier, a white soldier, and a Latino soldier at Fort Hood who refused to go to Vietnam. They got prosecuted and they got court-martialed. Later on, I think there was a reluctance by the military to court-martial people. But, I think the anti-war movement in the country, anti-war spirit that pervaded the US in ’71, ’72, ’73, held back the hand of the military in terms of going after the GI activists. I did have a bit of luck, but also it was the time and it was the support of many civilians.

Matthew Breems: If you were to talk to younger people today that have strong feelings about being part of the anti-war movement, what would you advise them to do? How should they take action? What’s the most effective way to initiate change in our culture?

Andy Berman: It’s tough. People go into the military today. Why do people go into the military? The job market is not that bad anymore. You don’t have to go into the military to get a job. People are still doing it because it’s considered, in some parts of our culture, to be an honorable thing to do. It’s a family tradition. We still respect people who put their lives on the line for things that they believe in. But, I would say that looking at American foreign policy, basically since World War II, is largely shameful. Many of the places that we have had military intervention we’ve been on the wrong side. Look at American foreign policy before you join the military.

Look what we’re trying to do now in Venezuela, trying to overthrow a government. Not necessarily the best government in the world, but we have no business there. We had no business supporting the contras in Nicaragua or supporting the right wing government in El Salvador. Look at American foreign policy before you join the military and say is this something I wanna fight for? No one is attacking the US militarily. We have a lot of problems in this country that need your heart and your hands to work on. If you want some adventure, you want to go overseas, join the Peace Corps. I did that too, when I was young, before I was in the military. I went to the Peace Corps. I went to Africa. I was a math teacher and I did smallpox inoculation. I was working for the US government and I was very proud of it. But, not the military. Military is not a place to go until America becomes truly committed towards peace and justice in this world.

Matthew Breems: Andy, thank you so much for your time. I love your story. I love the fact that you followed your deep convictions and it made such a risky but meaningful decision in your life, to really go after what your convictions were telling you needed to be done. Thank you for telling your story to us.

Andy Berman: Thank you very much for having us and giving me the opportunity to do this interview.

Matthew Breems: The Courage to Resist podcast is 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. Visit vietnamfulldisclosure.org and couragetoresist.org for more information and to offer your support. Thank you.