VN-E24: Bob Musil
Podcast (VN-E24): “I just couldn’t have any part of it” – Bob Musil, former Army Captain
Vietnam Series Podcast, Episode 24:
Bob Musil led the GI Resistance at Ft. Benjamin Harrison and received orders to Vietnam as a result. He was the first Army Captain to publicly refuse orders to Vietnam. Bob was eventually discharged as a conscientious objector and went on to led the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors. He’s been deeply involved with peace and disarmament movements since.
“When I tell people that there were over 4,000 junior officers, lieutenants, and captains, inside the U.S. military brought suit against the Secretary of Defense for war crimes, who carried out demonstrations, who were quite active in their opposition, they are just astounded.”
“Reporters would say, “So if your grandmother were attacked … would you defend her?” … I’d say, “Well, I don’t know what I would do … But I do know that I wouldn’t call in a B-52 strike on her neighborhood.””
“I went in uniform to the National Cathedral listening to then well known anti-war speakers like the Reverend William Sloane Coffin, who had been my chaplain at Yale University–he was a leading resister. There were gold-star mothers testifying and weeping. There were religious parts to it, broadly speaking. And that moment of sort of coming out as an officer, not just someone in an anti-war rally who was attending an event that had been prohibited, was a moment where I felt like I crossed some sort of line.”
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Bob Musil: When I tell people that there are over 4,000 junior officers, lieutenants, and captains, inside the U.S. military brought suit against the Secretary of Defense for war crimes, who carried out demonstrations, who were quite active in their opposition, they are just astounded.
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. This podcast features Mr. Bob Musil. As an army officer, Bob began openly protesting the war while on active duty in the United States. After having his views quoted and published in a national magazine, Bob suddenly received orders to go to Vietnam. He refused his deployment as a conscientious objector, making him one of the few army captains ever to do so.
Good afternoon, Bob. Thank you for taking the time to do this interview for the podcast today. You’ve got a pretty unique story about your anti-war involvement—and continued anti-war involvement. Why don’t you just start off by sharing a little bit about yourself?
Bob Musil: I think unusual is the correct word, Matt. It’s great to be able to talk about this. I think it’s important for contemporary politics in understanding that people know about some of the realities of resistance to the Vietnam War that get lost. In my own case, I think what’s sort of unique is that I ended up an army captain on active duty opposed to the war in Vietnam. So you say now, “How is a guy who’s an anti-war activist get to be an army captain?”
Simple version: I went to Yale university. And I was over-young. I think I was the youngest guy in my class. I was planning to get a PhD and go on from there. And even then, I was so young, I was afraid I would be drafted afterwards. Whereas many of my classmates had sort of calculated that they’d go to law school, grad school, they’d be over 26, which was when they stop drafting you.
As it turned out, I thought I would be eligible for the draft, and so I went in the ROTC, which I, frankly, never liked, but the truth is, I ended up being commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserve. In those days, you were allowed to delay your active duty so long as you were in a army-approved graduate program and stayed with it, and then you’d go on active duty. You were just in the reserves on paper.
So I went off… Actually, I went to summer camp in 1964 and was commissioned a lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserves one week before the Gulf of Tonkin incident. And that’s a long time ago, but it meant I went off to graduate school as the war began to escalate, and I became involved in anti-war activities on campus, underground newspapers, protests, etc. Unlike my anti-war compatriots on campus, most of whom, frankly, really didn’t have to worry about the draft, because they would find deferments or ways out of it, I knew I had a lieutenant’s commission ticking in my pocket like a time bomb, that no matter what I did, I would have to go on active duty.
I explored going to Canada, which I never liked. I have a long history in my family in this country. I thought I was doing the patriotic thing being anti-war. I thought about refusing and going to prison right away, but I ended up going into the army actually to organize anti-war stuff against the war from active duty. And so I ended up teaching communications, film, radio, policy at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indiana, is the home of the Defense Information School, that at the time was training about 2,600 enlisted and officer personnel in what they call “information” in the army,. It runs their newspapers, televisions, radio stations, and all of that.
When I started in, one of the earliest things that I did, which you’re not supposed to do, is protest on Moratorium Day. In October of 1969 was the Moratorium nationwide, huge demonstrations. I put an anti-war flag on my Volkswagen. I put anti-war badges on my uniform and headed in to yak and protest about the war on the base, which is technically illegal. As it turned out, I was a little frustrated: no one paid much attention.
And so while in the military, I began to do a number of things at Fort Benjamin Harrison. It’s in Indianapolis. I went and counseled young men at the Indianapolis GI Draft Counseling Center in the Methodist church downtown while on active duty, because I didn’t think I was anything like a pacifist or a conscientious objector—I was just anti-war. I began to put anti-war materials into my courses for both officers and enlisted people. That didn’t work. I started an underground newspaper … I mean, you can get court-martialed for putting out newspapers that attack the war and the president and say, “This is immoral, illegal,” etc.
And then I formed two different chapters or branches of organizations. One was called GIs United for Peace, which was mostly consisted of enlisted men and a few women, but enlisted men. And the other was a group that people still don’t know much about called the Concerned Officers Movement. When I tell people that there were over 4,000 junior officers, lieutenants, and captains, inside the U.S. military who brought suit against Melvin Laird, the Secretary of Defense, for war crimes who carried out demonstrations, who were quite active in their opposition, they are just astounded.
And so we had a chapter of the Concerned Officers Movement at Fort Benjamin Harrison, and I brought small groups to national anti-war rallies for example. I think more importantly, I participated along with others in a GI resistance activity, which was basically a service, a memorial service at the National Cathedral in Washington, in which the Pentagon let it be known that this was not a memorial but a political demonstration, and that anyone who appeared therefore at such an event in uniform could be court-martialed, etc.
And so with others, I went in uniform to the National Cathedral listening to then well known anti-war speakers like the Reverend William Sloane Coffin, who had been my chaplain at Yale University—he was a leading resister. There were gold-star mothers testifying and weeping. There were religious parts to it, broadly speaking. And that moment of sort of coming out as an officer, not just someone in an anti-war rally who was attending an event that had been prohibited, was a moment where I felt like I crossed some sort of line.
And so I increasingly began to recruit and get people involved in anti-war activities at the base. That meant we went to local demonstrations. We worked with people like William Kunstler, who was once a well known attorney. I remember going with Kunstler, who was surrounded by Black Panthers as his personal guards because he was in fact in danger, working with local anti-war people, some of whom went on for long careers in anti-war activities themselves. John McAuliff, who ran the anti-war Indochina summers for the American Friends Service Committee and did many other things and still is active, was an outside guy trying to work with us GIs. We both were a little suspicious of each other because there were also in fact infiltrators or/and sort of crazy ideologues. All sorts of people wanted to help GIs. We didn’t trust them all that much.
But ultimately, I began to connect up to a national network, and I think one of the things that people have to understand that I think is unique about organizing inside the military, frankly, it is not the same as campus organizing, organizing among civilians. I gathered up a group of GIs to talk to a New York Times reporter who wanted to do a story about Fort Benjamin Harrison, which was training all of the PR people for the military. And I had let it be known that we were teaching people to lie. Now, you have to understand how difficult this is for a group of GIs to go off base clandestinely, meet with a New York Times reporter, tell their stories, all at risk of court-martial and/or being sent to Vietnam.
Matthew Breems: Sounds like you are very active all while on duty. Were there any repercussions from your superior officers during this whole time?
Bob Musil: Yes. Well, some people just sort of, as I said, sort of ignored us for a while, but when it went national— I did a petition in The Nation magazine, which was clearly very, very public. I also— A colleague of mine left our anti-war petition under the Xerox flap, and he got sent off to just sit at a desk. He had already been to Vietnam; they couldn’t punish him much more. And so ultimately as a result, I received orders to Vietnam.
I just want to say about speaking to the New York Times, you can look in the June 13th, 1971, New York Times, there’s a story way in the back in which Captain Musil is quoted about, “We are teaching people to lie here at Fort Benjamin Harrison.” And to do that in print is…risky. It’s not like writing in a college newspaper. But as it turned out, that is the very day that Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers in the New York Times. Headlines, “Pentagon Papers reveal America knew that the war is bad. They’ve been lying.” My story was sort of buried. But I think some combination of speaking to the New York Times, petitions in The Nation magazine, led to my receiving orders to Vietnam as punishment for all of this anti-war activity.
Matthew Breems: So there was no indication up to that point that you were going to be going to Vietnam?
Bob Musil: No. I began to get indications that people were not happy, but I would say it was when they basically gave me orders and said, “You’re going to have to give up this job and go to Vietnam,” that I said no. At that point, I am not aware of any active-duty captains. I’d just been promoted sort of automatically when you put your time in, to captain. By that time, I had decided that I wanted no part of even going to Vietnam and being anti-war over there.
One of my fellow instructors pleaded, “Don’t send me to Vietnam. I’m against the war. I’ll go anywhere else.” He believed he was not a conscientious objector, so he went to Vietnam and filed stories after the Five O’Clock Follies, which is where all the announcements from the military about what’s going on in the war happen, leaked stories to people at CBS. I mean, he was doing some anti-war stuff as a public-affairs guy in Vietnam. I just felt I couldn’t even do that. I just knew too much about what people had been doing there. I had been opposed to this war for so long.
And I did what is called in the military and legal jargon, I “crystallize.” I had a long history of anti-war stuff. I was increasingly vocal. I was increasingly concerned about the whole military, and finally, I just couldn’t have any part of it. And ultimately, I was able to get a conscientious objector discharge. And so instead of going to Fort Leavenworth, which is what I expected, I ended up looking around and getting a job as the head or the co-director—it was called associate secretary—of CCCO, an agency for military and draft counseling that did both draft resisters, draft counseling, military counseling, and opposition to the war.
So I have to say how weird it was to turn from an anti-war captain to a conscientious objector. Within a month period, while I was on active duty and speaking out to the press and at demonstrations and refusing, I’d get interviewed, and people will say, “Well, why are you opposed to the war?” And they would listen to me like an army captain. I would talk about the bombing and the B-52s and guys I’d known who had tortured and killed people and etc. A few weeks later, I’m a conscientious objector, and the reporters would say, “So if your grandmother were attacked… If she was about to be raped, would you defend her?” And I’d sort of sigh, thinking, “Oh, my God, it’s the usual conscientious objector story,” and I’d say, “Well, I don’t know what I would do. I don’t know that anyone knows exactly what they would do. But I do know that I wouldn’t call in a B-52 strike on her neighborhood.”
And it took me a while to understand how to use both my military experience, and now, as the head of a conscientious objector group, to speak out. But we ended up helping GI resisters, as I had been, who were thrown into brigs and stockades, who were beaten when they were jailed, who were stripped naked and left chained in their cells. I went to visit these guys and went to stockades and trying to intervene and help them.
I, ultimately, was part of a steering committee of a group little known now called the National Council for Unconditional and Universal Amnesty, NCUUA. And that happened because I wrote an article for The Nation magazine, where I’d had the anti-war petition, called “The Truth About Deserters”, drawing on my own experience in the military, and lots and lots and lots of data and interviews, and working directly with people at CCCO who were… they were called “deserters,” large numbers of whom were protesting the war. They would just leave and go home, or they’d go AWOL, or they’d go to Canada. They all were just counted as deserters, which as you know is a stigma, like “coward,” these people sneaking off in the night, leaving their compatriots to die, when it was a huge amount of protest to the war inside the military as well as people going to Canada. And so I worked with others to try to get an amnesty. Ultimately, we got pardoned, which is not an amnesty for draft resisters, deserters. This is under Jimmy Carter. It wasn’t satisfactory, but it helped large numbers of lives.
A lot of people think that anti-war people faded away—they became stockbrokers or went about their business. I could spend much of our time together, Matt, talking about people who continued in the anti-war movement. I’m just one example. I went from CCCO to SANE, the National Committee for Sane Nuclear Policy. I did national radio. I did their national education. We protested not just nuclear weapons but also American intervention in Central America. I went down to Central America with delegations to show people what was happening in the Contra wars and to get publicity about that.
I moved on to Physicians for Social Responsibility, which is a group that won the Nobel Peace Prize. I did not—it’s an organizational award. There, we continued to protest nuclear weapons, but I also had the opportunity to lead the opposition to the Iraq War—well, the Persian Gulf War AND the Iraq War, through PSR. We would do things… Like we had a national press briefing involving trauma surgeons. Everyone knew that in Iraq, it was going to be preceded with shock and awe, that we would launch all sorts of cruise missiles—which we did, but in advance of that, we traced and figured out the number of missiles, how many people might be killed. We brought in trauma surgeons who explained the injuries, and that in Iraq, they didn’t have fancy trauma evacuation and surgeons as in the United States, that a trauma injury that might be fixed here would be a death sentence there.
And so I ended up helping to form a coalition called the Win Without War coalition, it still exists, it opposed the Iraq War, with an anti-war captain friend of mine, John Spratt, the senior congressman at the time from South Carolina. And he and I had met at demonstrations in Washington. We had been anti-war GIs together, and here, he was a congressman on the House Armed Services Committee and leading the Spratt Amendment, which was to prevent us leaping into war in Iraq. Same on the Senate side was Senator Dick Durbin, who’s still there.
But there was much more opposition to the Persian Gulf War, which I also helped to lead the opposition to. And there, I spent long hours talking directly to people who voted against the war. At the time, Representative Jim Moran from Virginia was a sort of a truculent, tough guy, ex-Marine, and we spent hours talking about what was really going on, and what would happen, etc. And I could go on. But that got the largest vote against any war ever in American history.
And all of that kicked up a new generation of active-duty anti-war activity both in the Persian Gulf and in Iraq. I’ve spent time working since with organizations and veterans who were and continue to be opposed to the Iraq War, our presence in Afghanistan, the continuing presence that still goes on to this day.
I’m getting to be pretty senior, but I’m still active with what we call an environmental justice group called the Rachel Carson Council, which focuses mainly on the threat to the planet from global climate change and its effect on poor countries and poor people in this country. And we try to advocate on that. But because Rachel Carson, who was back in the early ’60s the best known environmentalist of the 20th century and the only woman people could name at the time—there are far more now—was opposed to nuclear war, and war, and stereotyping other people, other countries, as the “other.” And so I still work, and I head the Council for a Livable World. I meet with members of Congress, candidates for Congress, about war and peace issues to this day and with the Rachel Carson Council, also lobby work, sign on to things about our continued building of nuclear weapons, our interventions.
So I’m afraid that that establishment young man who went off to Yale University and was like many cocky young men when Yale was segregated by gender, race, and many other things, he was going to be a college professor, a college president, then go into public life, sort of like my contemporary John Kerry. Or Al Gore. But I made the mistake from an establishment point of view by refusing orders. And it sent me on a wonderful turn away from that career to understanding and working with working-class guys, people of color, people who are deeply affected still by the military and by people overseas in various countries who we have killed for no good legitimate reason that anyone can see.
It obviously changed my life, and most of my compatriots are either climate change environmental people or civil rights activists or anti-war activists. And many of us never gave up. We never will. I never will. And I think a podcast like this is important to have people understand that these are issues that are going to still take generations. We have not made ground; we’ve lost some ground. But there are people all over Washington, all over the country, who are deeply, deeply involved.
So it isn’t going to be long until it will be late in my life, but I’m happy to work with 20-year-olds in my office—and in the Congress I should add, who are going to make a huge difference. That I think is the lesson of Vietnam, not that you win all the time, not that you get everything, but if you keep at it, new people will come and join the ranks just as they do the military, but in this case, join the ranks of anti-war and anti-nuclear and civil rights and justice and climate justice. And so that for me is the lesson of Vietnam. I happen to be sort of odd. There aren’t too many active duty guys, army captains, who can say that, but I’m proud to stand alongside of others who were not in the military, who were in the military, and still be resisting, frankly, resisting at this hour.
Matthew Breems: Well, Bob, thank you so much for your service, not in the military necessarily but your service nonetheless to our country as an anti-war advocate. I, for one, believe that’s more valuable than any service you could have given with a gun and as a captain. So thank you for that, and thank you so much for your time today on our podcast.
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 U.S. 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.