Podcast: “Disruption of the military was the major cause of US defeat in Vietnam” -Eric Seitz
Attorney Eric Seitz represented hundreds of objectors being drafted and GIs facing courts-martial during the US war in Vietnam. He continued to defend military resisters during the Gulf War (including Courage to Resist’s Jeff Paterson), and more recently, Iraq and Afghanistan objectors.
“All of the millions of us who were part of anti-Vietnam-War efforts, certainly did disrupt. In fact, the military has summed up on their own that the disruption of the military was the major cause of U.S. defeat in Vietnam, and the necessity for withdrawing the troops.”
“We concluded politically that if we really wanted to disrupt the war effort, our efforts were better utilized representing people in the military who were beginning to stir and express opposition.”
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Eric Seitz: All of the millions of us who were part of anti-Vietnam-War efforts, certainly did disrupt. In fact, the military has summed up on their own that the disruption of the military was the major cause of U.S. defeat in Vietnam, and the necessity for withdrawing the troops.
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 on the podcast, I have attorney Eric Seitz. During the Vietnam era, Eric represented hundreds of conscientious objectors being drafted as well as GIs facing courts-martial. He continued to serve military personnel in the First Gulf War and more recently, in Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. Well, good afternoon, Eric. How is sunny Hawaii for you today?
Eric Seitz: Perfect. Beautiful.
Matthew Breems: Have you ever said anything different than that when anyone’s ever asked you?
Eric Seitz: Oh yeah. I have. It’s sometimes a little bit hot and muggy.
Matthew Breems: Right. Well, I’m looking forward to talking with you today. Your story of activism is a little different than many who served in the military. And you served more in a legal aspect, representing those in the military, people who were opposed to the war and conscientious objectors. Can we just start off by hearing how you came to a place where you started representing GIs back during the Vietnam era?
Eric Seitz: Well, first of all, I grew up in a very progressive family. My parents were radicals in the 1930s and continued their political activism until I left the home and went to college. I went to a politically active college, Oberlin College, where I was very much involved in antiwar activities and civil rights activities in the South. And then I very consciously made a decision to go to law school because I wanted to continue to do political work, and I got to Berkeley. And at that point, that was 1965, -66, the Vietnam war was raging. We’d already been involved in some demonstrations and activities in opposition to the war early on while I was in college. And when I got to law school, I found myself susceptible to the draft. What every good law student would do is, I ordered the rules and regulations and I became an expert in draft law.
And that was somewhat unique in those days, because to my surprise, even that handful of lawyers in those days who were doing antiwar stuff, representing people in opposition to the draft, had never seen the rules and regulations and were basically doing it off the top of their heads. So I became an expert and in 1967, I think, I attended the first conference of lawyers who were doing draft work in Los Angeles, and there were maybe about 20 of us at that point across the country. And even though I was still in law school, I was somewhat their peer because I had had an arrangement with a lawyer in San Francisco who allowed me to operate a draft counseling service out of his office. And I represented and helped several hundred, maybe even several thousand people over a period of two, two and a half years. And I was hired as a consultant by other lawyers.
I was consulted by federal judges in those days. And it was quite a trip where we were able to basically help everybody. Nobody that I represented ended up going into the military or going to Vietnam. But by 1967 or so, the handful of us that were doing this, and many of us were associated with the National Lawyers Guild, realized that one, although we were saving all of our clients, they were almost always white kids who had access to lawyers. And it didn’t really slow up or deter the draft system; that just meant that they’d drafted other people, mostly low- income non-white kids who didn’t have access to lawyers. And two, by that time, we had had such success, including success in the courts, that a number of other organizations like the ACLU and liberal organizations and lawyers had moved into the field. So we didn’t really need to continue to represent people in draft cases.
And we concluded politically that if we really wanted to disrupt the war effort, our efforts were better utilized representing people in the military who were beginning to stir and express opposition. So a couple of things happened in 1967, 1968. First of all, the so-called mutiny at the Presidio occurred, and I was peripherally involved in that. And then a couple of Air Force guys came to see us who were stationed at little, long-gone Hamilton Field in Marin County, and they wanted to conduct an antiwar demonstration in uniform. And in those days, there was no rule or regulation that prevented them from doing so. Although logically it would seem that using their military uniforms and their identification to foster a political position would probably get them into trouble. But anyway, we worked with them. They held their demonstration. I think it was probably the first anti-war demonstration by active military people that occurred in 1967, -68. And of course they were court martial-ed and we represented them in their court martials.
They ended up getting kicked out of the Air Force, which they really didn’t care about. One of them went on to become a fairly prominent attorney, and I don’t know what happened to the other one, but that was my first brush with the military justice system. And at that point then, late 1968, -69, I had moved into military justice and became equally familiar with the rules and regulations and procedures, the manual for courts martial, and actually taught a course at UC Berkeley law school on military law, where I taught 10 or 12 law students how to do military cases. And many of them, when they graduated, in fact went on and did do some of those cases. So I graduated from law school in 1969. My first job out of law school was as the executive director of the National Lawyers Guild in New York, which was then a very growing and thriving organization because of all the antiwar and political activities, the Black Panthers, a number of other groups that were active, and we are representing all of them.
And my job was to go around and coordinate the political defense around the country for all of those people. But one of the programs that we invested in heavily, in terms of time and resources, was to provide training for military lawyers. And at that point, the coffee houses were starting to be formed. We provided lawyers for all of them. We did court martials all over the country for people who were speaking out, who were involved in antiwar activities in that period of time, from 1969 to -71. And in 1970 or so, -71, we began to get calls and letters from people actually in Vietnam who needed lawyers. So we began to explore what we could do to represent some of them. A couple people went to Vietnam for individual cases, and in 1971, May, I took a trip around the world, literally left New York, flew to Paris, was supposed to go to Vietnam to scope out the feasibility of setting up a law office under the auspices of the National Lawyers Guild.
But I couldn’t get a visa to Vietnam. That’s a whole other story. But they saw me coming and they headed off my opportunities to get a visa. But I went on anyway. I was in the Philippines and Okinawa in Japan. And at that point, in mid 1970, because of the conditions in Vietnam and the very vast opposition to the war among the ground troops, the world was changing dramatically, and it was shifting over to becoming an air war, which was largely being fought by airplanes and by the Navy from ships that came out of Subic Bay in the Philippines or docked in other ports in the Pacific. So although we couldn’t get into Vietnam, we set up our office in the Philippines and in Japan, and we had five of us, four lawyers and one paralegal. I spent the year there in 1971, 1972, traveling around Asia, representing people fanning the flames of opposition to the war.
At that point, the infamous FTA troupe, with Donald Sutherland and Jane Fonda, came through, and we served as guides and supporters for them. I traveled with them extensively. There was a film of that in which you can see my face on several occasions. I actually have a line in the film, which was very thrilling to work with them because they were very bold, very creative. And we, you know, wreaked havoc in Japan. They were trying to figure all kinds of ways to kick me out. I was at largely Iwakuni Marine Corps base, although I traveled all the way up and down. I went from one end of Japan to the other. And they hated me at Iwakuni. They banned me from the base until they were told they couldn’t. And then so what happened was, when I went on base, and I probably did 30 or 40 court martials during the course of the year there, I would have to have a Marine escort, a Military Police escort.
But the Military Police escorts were my allies, and they would tell me everything that was going on on base. And when I would ride around in the truck that they’d provided with my driver, I would get all kinds of signs from Marines who knew who I was and were very supportive. And it was quite an interesting situation, which is very well depicted, I think, in the film, if people haven’t seen it. Well, I was there for the first year, and then I went back to raise funds for the program for the second year. And while I was in California, martial law was declared in the Philippines, and the first thing that happened—literally the first thing after martial law was declared—was that our offices in Subic Bay were raided, and everybody who was there was arrested.
And they were being held on capital offenses by the Philippine constabulary. And of course, they seized all our files, which were files for ongoing military cases, created all kinds of problems for the Navy down the road, because the Navy was right there with the Philippine authorities when they came in and raided our offices. But eventually, we were able to get the three people who were there who were arrested out of the Philippines. They were told they could never come back. They were all told, “Tell Eric Seitz, he’d better not come back, either.” So I never have gone back. And I was in California and at that point looking for someplace to relocate. And hopefully be in a stable place and have a family and do the kinds of things that I hadn’t done yet in my life.
Matthew Breems: During that time, that Vietnam era, was there a case or two that really sticks out to you as being significant in being able to stand with GIs that were facing court martials?
Eric Seitz: Well, we did hundreds of cases in Asia. Many of them were very significant in terms of people organizing demonstrations, people distributing newspapers. But the one that I was most prominently involved in occurred that following year when I got back: I’d heard from my roommate with whom I was staying, he was a taxi driver, about an incident where there had been severe damage done to the gears of an aircraft carrier, the USS Ranger. And that somebody was arrested and was being charged. And we put out all kinds of bulletins, which in the Bay Area was pretty easy to pursue, because there were so many agencies involved in antiwar activity. And eventually somebody from the USS Ranger came in, identified the sailor who was in jail, and retained me to go see him in jail. And the guy’s name was Patrick Chenowith, and he was charged with sabotage in time of war, i.e., throwing items, heavy items into the gears of the engine of the Ranger, which prevented it from sailing to Vietnam.
And so I represented Pat Chenowith. That took a year, and eventually he was acquitted in a very interesting court martial that took place at Treasure Island. And eventually the boat sailed off to Vietnam. But it was one of these situations where the crux or the defense was that everybody on the ship took credit for what had happened because it was such a popular act. Everybody didn’t want the boat to sail to Vietnam, and people would yell from one end of the ship to the other, “Hey, I’ll bet you’re the guy who threw the things in the gears.” And the guy would say, “Yeah, but you know, nobody knows about it, so keep it quiet,” and things like that. We put on actually 10 witnesses in the trial who had taken credit themselves for doing that—but didn’t actually do it. So Pat was acquitted in what was probably one of the most highly publicized and celebrated cases of that period of time, followed by the media extensively when he was acquitted. It was on the front page of the New York Times.
Matthew Breems: So moving past the Vietnam era, I know you represented our very own Jeff Paterson, the project director of Courage to Resist, during the Gulf War era. Can you tell us a little bit about that case and the significance of it?
Eric Seitz: Sure. I can still visualize one evening, and this is about 1990—I’m not exactly sure, but it was sometime around that time—when this very skinny, shy guy showed up in my front yard with somebody and was introduced to me, and said that his unit from Kaneohe Marine Corps Air Station had just been ordered to deploy to Kuwait, and he didn’t want to go. He opposed the deployment of troops. He thought the war was basically a subterfuge to protect oil interests of the United States in that region. And so he wanted to make a statement by refusing to go. And would I represent him? Well, the first thing I did was I checked with various people as to how they thought that that stand would go over as a matter of public interest. And even the progressives on the mainland, with whom I spoke at that time, they said, “Oh, that’s a terrible position.
Of course, we should support the sending of troops to Kuwait because Saddam Hussein is a madman. He’s invaded Kuwait. We should protect the people of Kuwait against that madman,” et cetera. And it was extremely disheartening that people had such a superficial and bad understanding of the situation. And we got no help, no support whatsoever, initially. It got to the point where the Marines from— were supposed to deploy, and we went out there, and I was on the base, and Jeff and I were in a dining hall having a cup of coffee, and the Military Police came and picked me up and told me that I was being kicked off the base. And so, I wanted to be there to witness this, because my greatest concern, which I had seen happen in other cases, was that they would just put him on the plane, and they would take whatever disciplinary action they were going to take when they got over to the Middle East.
As it turned out, Jeff went out on the runway, sat down on the tarmac. To their credit, the Naval Investigative Service took these beautiful photographs for evidentiary purposes, which when we got a hold of, we blew up into big glossy pictures, which became posters all over the world of resistance, of Jeff sitting there on the tarmac and we could never have got that on our own. And we ended up then in a court martial where they basically charged him with insubordination, violating orders, missing deployment, et cetera, and they were going to throw the book at him and make a big example of him. The first thing we did was, we went to federal court and we actually got a federal judge, in what I think is still the only occasion that’s ever happened, to order the Marine Corps to release Jeff from confinement because he was being held clearly to prevent him from propagating First Amendment rights to talk about his position.
And we had a federal judge who ordered him to be released, and they did release him. And then we went through the court martial, and he was convicted of some charges, but the ultimate outcome was that he was just kicked out of the Marine Corps, which was fine because obviously he didn’t want to be there under those circumstances, anyway. So it was a very successful case, and during the course of that case, we were able to educate and I think convince many, many people, millions and millions of people, that going to the defense of the rich oil sheiks in Kuwait was certainly not something that right-minded people in the United States had any interest in doing.
It was indeed a war that was fought, that was propagated to protect the oil companies and the oil interests. That while Saddam Hussein might’ve been what he was, that that was really not why we were there. We were there because of our own geopolitical and economic interests. And many, many people eventually came over to support Jeff and the position that he initially staked out at a time when that tradition was very unpopular. So it was a very successful effort. We got a lot of support from people all over the world who came to his aid and supported him in the court martial. And eventually, the Marine Corps was so pressured that he ended up getting out without really any significant consequences whatsoever.
Matthew Breems: So was a clear victory from your perspective.
Eric Seitz: Absolutely, it was a clear political victory, and more importantly, it was a learning experience for a lot of people about a war that was from the beginning generally supported. Although by the end, I think basically a lot of people had learned and changed their positions. And I think Jeff had an enormous role in changing public opinion.
Matthew Breems: Now, fast forwarding to the second Iraq invasion and the invasion in Afghanistan, the longest-standing conflict in American history thus far, have you had the opportunity to represent GIs and soldiers in either of those conflicts?
Eric Seitz: Well, there was an instance where a guy here in Hawaii called me up, a guy who I’d fought with on local issues. And somewhat sheepishly, he said, “My son is a lieutenant in the Army, stationed at Fort Lewis in Washington, and he’s about to be deployed as a company commander with his unit to Iraq. He was told by his superiors to do a lot of research and find out what this whole thing was about, so he understood, so that he could communicate and educate his troops as to why they were there. And of course, in doing so, he found out that the whole invasion of Iraq was a fraud, that there were never any weapons of mass destruction, that everything about that invasion, you know, basically was contrived. And he said, “Look, I’m willing to go to Afghanistan. I understand the reasons for that. But I’m not willing to go to Iraq.
So he went, he told his commanders his position, they told him to go get counseling and get therapy and do this and that. Instead, his dad came and got me. And his name was Ehren Watada, and Aaron was the first officer to refuse to go to fight in Iraq back— I think it was about 2005, something like that. He was also ordered to deploy, went on the bus to where they were supposed to get on a plane, refused to get on a plane, and was then arrested and charged with missing movements, disobeying orders, and several counts under Article 134 for making statements about the war, the first of which was in uniform—after which he made several public statements which were not in uniform. And so they convened a general court martial at Fort Lewis. And I represented him in that, and that was really a huge undertaking, a huge cause celebre.
We initially had a very successful hearing, at which the military judge allowed us to bring witnesses and challenge the legitimacy and the legality of the US presence in Iraq. Although the motions to dismiss were denied, it had an enormous impact on public opinion. It was the first of its kind to really, from a legal perspective, challenge the legitimacy of the war effort. And then we went on to the court martial, and the court martial was going very well. And in the midst of that, the military judge, I think, became very concerned. Ehren was just about to testify. The military court members were very sympathetic. He was a very articulate, very influential figure. The judge contrived to grant a government motion for a mistrial on something that was just absurd, and then wanted to reset the trial so that it could be done differently and over again, in a way that he could control better.
Well, he made a mistake, because by that time jeopardy is attached and although everybody poo poo-ed the issue— Right after the mistrial was declared, I announced that I thought the case was over: they couldn’t re-try him. They did reconvene a court martial. Efforts to block that court martial went all the way up to the military courts, and then it was taken into the federal court in Tacoma, Washington. And a judge who was appointed by President Bush, who came from a relatively conservative background, issued an injunction preventing the Army from retrying Ehren. So that was a total victory, even though, you know, basically he’d spoken out and clearly was guilty from a military standpoint of what he was charged with. He was able to simply get out of the Army with an administrative discharge as well. And that was a major victory.
But more importantly, the whole case, which went on for about a year and a half, was a real rallying point for millions and millions of people who had demonstrations, who appeared at the court martial. There were at least two or three documentary films, which are excellent, that were made about Ehren. And as I said, he was a very outspoken and very articulate figure who galvanized support from a lot of people. So that was probably one of the most spectacular cases that I’ve been associated, and I was very gratified to have done so. The year after that, I actually went to Afghanistan to represent two military guys from here, who in the wake of all of the scandals about abusing prisoners, had been charged with abuse of prisoners in an incident that could not have occurred. But the Army was trying to show, “Hey, we’re really serious about these things because we’ve been criticized.”
And instead of charging officers or other people who were clearly involved, they charged these two guys who were NCOs, who were just simply present when the particular victim in this case was arrested. He did not identify them as people who had abused him, but they were going to try them in Afghanistan, convict them, and then they were going to trump at how tough we are on troops who abuse prisoners. So I was able to get into Afghanistan. That’s another story in itself. The Army wasn’t going to let me go. And after the hearing was over with it that we prevailed in, they weren’t going to let me out. I had to sit at the airport for several days and get congressional help before I could get on a plane to get out of there. You know, we actually prevailed in that. And I think,as a consequence of that, the Army very dramatically changed its policy of developing “show cases” to answer its critics. Because I’m not aware that there were other cases after that which were similar.
Matthew Breems: So looking back on all these cases that you’ve represented, do you feel that there’s been any positive change in how the military responds to soldiers and service people, men and women that resist the conflicts that they find themselves in?
Eric Seitz: I don’t know one way or the other. I think, you know, my perspective on these cases is that, if I can contribute to help people who put themselves in harm’s way by taking heroic acts, that’s certainly something I’d like to do. And if we can rally and create public opinion around those cases, so that people can support the military people in those situations and can support the positions that they’ve taken and the idea of standing up for what you believe in, that that’s critical. The people in Vietnam who stuck their necks out and took enormous risks certainly did make it easier for generations of military people that came after them. I don’t regard myself as being as responsible for creating that culture as the people I represented. And my job fundamentally was to give them voice and enable their voices to be heard as much as possible.
And I’m gratified to have been able to do that. That’s what I went to law school to do. And I do think that all of the millions of us who were in part of the anti-Vietnam-War effort certainly did disrupt. In fact, the military has summed up on their own that the disruption of the military was the major cause of U.S. defeat in Vietnam and the necessity for withdrawing the troops. And I’m gratified by that, that I was able to play some small part in that. But it was just a small part. It was part of a larger uprising by millions of people who took what I considered to be a correct political position and fought for it. And you know, a lot of people died; a lot of people went to prison. There were lots of sacrifices in fighting for that, but it was a righteous and correct example. And to the extent that people have continued to do that and are doing it today, you know, I’m ready to help them in any way I can.
Matthew Breems: Well, Eric, thanks so much for your time today. I love hearing your take on it from a very different perspective from some of our service people. So thank you for sharing with us today.
Eric Seitz: All right, thanks for doing it.
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 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.
Photo left: Attorney Eric Seitz with Marine Cpl. Jeff Paterson during US v. Paterson (November 1990). Photo right: Mr. Seitz with Army Lt. Ehren Watada and family during US v. Watada pre-trail hearings (January 2007). Courage to Resist Executive Director Jeff Paterson was the first service member to refuse to fight in Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War. Ehren Watada was the first military officer to refuse to fight in Iraq in 2006.