“Turn the Guns Around” – Interview with John Catalinotto (Part 2)
- 17 Jan 2017
American author and socialist activist John Catalinotto granted an exclusive interview to Investig’Action to talk about his new book, “Turn the Guns Around”. We discuss the resistance to the Vietnam War from within the US army and historical soldier revolts that were decisive in revolutionary uprisings, turning “a weapon of oppression into a tool for human liberation”, and what progressive forces can learn from this.
(Second part of the interview with John Catalinotto. For the first part see here)
In your first answer, you talked about how these soldier revolts have been crucial in revolutionary uprisings. Can you expand a bit on that, maybe focusing on one of the examples?
The one uprising that went to a conclusion, changed the state power, making a political revolution as well as a social revolution and carrying it through to the end, was the Russian Revolution. In that case, the February revolution, whose 100th anniversary is in two months. It started on international women’s day, March 8 (a different calendar was being used in Russia at the time, so it was February then), with a strike of the women workers in Petrograd (St. Petersburg). The next day, the men joined. By the third day, the police were starting to fire on the workers, and the czarist regime also called out the garrison of troops against the workers. But the troops were very demoralized by the war, and there was a lot of contact between the workers, especially women, and the rank-and-file troops.
This was mostly a spontaneous development, although there are always conscious elements in the background. The important moments happened when the garrison saw police shooting at the workers. The troops fired on the police. Then this group from the garrison went over to the revolution. But once they went over, they had to win over all their friends, because if the uprising didn’t get pushed to conclusion they could get killed, or put into jail forever. So they kept winning over people to their side until finally the whole garrison came over to the revolution and that was the end of the czar.
That started a period of 8 months of developments where there was a much more conscious organizing of the soldiers and sailors, on the part of all the revolutionary parties but mainly the Bolshevik party. The sailors in Kronstadt, an industrial and naval base island very close to Petrograd already wanted to make a socialist revolution in March! But it took a while and slowly the bulk of the military was won over to be on the side of the Soviets. So this played a very important role. Of course the workers were leading the revolution in Moscow and Petrograd, but the soldiers and sailors were essential to it.
The military is the guardian of the state, or the capitalists, but you are saying that in these moments of uprising, these revolts can work swing the correlation of forces to the other side?
Yes, that’s what happened in these scenarios. Everyone can figure out how it might happen in the future. Or try and see how it might have happened in other periods or situations than the ones I wrote about. The state is what keeps the capitalists in power. Part of that state is also ideological, in control of the media and the minds of the people, but in the end they rely upon force. And it’s the force of the police, the courts, the jails and in the end, the big imperialist military, which is a worldwide police force and a worldwide state apparatus that protects property. But part of that depends on the consciousness of the individuals inside it.
In the examples that I brought up, and some other examples, when there is contact either between the rebellious masses and the rank-and-file of the military, this has an effect on their consciousness. Or in the cases of Vietnam and the liberation movements in the Portuguese colonies, there was a long-term wearing down of the colonial military, which was brought about because the colonized peoples kept fighting and fighting, making life miserable for the colonialists. At the same time there was a political development going on. In Portugal this led to a coup organized by the junior officers that overthrew the fascist government and opened up the prisons, freeing all the political prisoners, trade unionists, etc. It opened up the door for a lot of important conquests for the working class in the period that followed.
You’ve mentioned the events in Russia, but at the end of WWI there was also a rebellion that brought the end of the monarchy in Germany…
In Germany, the rebellion started with the sailors, who were ordered to fight in Flanders in what they believed was a suicide mission. The sailors believed that the admirals, who were the most right-wing elements in what they called the pan-germanic officer movement, just wanted to make a grandiose last gesture, an idea of “we’re going to go down fighting”, and the sailors they didn’t want to commit suicide. So they rebelled, and when they rebelled they were punished for it, and in order to stop being punished they had to keep the rebellion going. They would go into a town, and the government would send the army against them, but instead of repressing them, the army would meet with them. They’d have a discussion then the army would join them, and they would liberate another town in Northern Germany. They liberated Hamburg and then Munich in the south. Finally they got to Berlin, and the Kaiser abdicated. So you can imagine a situation developing like that in certain places today, although you can’t predict it. The changes in the consciousness of people are very hard to predict.
Going back to Portugal, one of the appendices you have in the book is a very interesting pamphlet that Amílcar Cabral (2) wrote to the colonial army, in some sense to his enemy. What’s his message?
I wanted to include this pamphlet specifically because it showed that the colonized peoples understood, and the leader of their revolution understood that it was possible to reach into the colonial power’s army, as there was a class struggle going on there. These soldiers were not fighting for their own interests, or for their families’ interests, or for their class interests. They were fighting for the fascists and for the rich in Portugal, actually for England and the United States as well. So he directed a pamphlet, a long one, which I translated to make it available to the US movement. It essentially has these messages:
- We are going to fight until we win
- If you fight against us, you might die
- You are not fighting for your interests, you should not be fighting for the rich in Portugal
- If you come and join us, we’ll protect you and we’ll make sure you’re safe
So those were the main messages, and then it ends with a call “Look soldiers, be courageous, do the right thing. Don’t fight for the masters, don’t fight against our people”. I really think it’s a great message.
Cabral also refers to some people who had already done it, and this happened during the course of a long war, in the Portuguese colonies of Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique and Angola. One third of the Portuguese young men went into exile rather than be drafted into the military, while people that went in also resisted throughout. For example, in Álvaro Cunhal’s (3) writing at the time, he describes what was going on, and this was very much like what happened in the early stages of the struggle in the US military during the Vietnam war. The soldiers would get together in the mess hall, where they ate, and they would refuse to eat food. Or they would throw things and break stuff, this kind of resistance. Except in Portugal the government insisted on pursuing the wars to their conclusion, and the army grew from 79.000 in 1961 to 218.000 in 1974 in a country of only 9 million. Two-thirds of them in Africa, with young conscripts required to serve overseas for two years, compared to one year for the U.S. troops in Vietnam. Eventually they brought the war back home with the 1974 rebellion and coup, which completely changed life in Portugal, and was a great inspiration for everyone around the world.
Does this internal rebellion work as another battlefront for the military?
Yes, it’s another big battle, a class struggle. And Cabral, a leader of an African liberation movement, understood that an important part of the movement was to reach out into the Portuguese army and look for the dissidents, try to encourage them, even saying “come over, we’ll protect you, we’ll get you out of here”. This is his enemy he’s talking to. “We have to shoot you if you’re going to shoot at us, but if you come over we’ll protect you”. The Vietnamese did the same kind of thing with the US troops. They would have an agreement with the US troops, where they would say: “We’re going to be fighting over here on the right, you go over to the left, we won’t bother each other”. And that happened a lot toward the end of the war.
Is this a kind of battle that a structure like the military is less prepared to face? Because as you said, it is very reliant on the chain of command.
In the last chapter of my book I go into this a little bit. The US military has changed very much how they organize the army. During the Vietnam war they had a mass army, they had 3.5M troops in the armed forces. Of course they were all over the world, but they had at some point 540.000 troops in Vietnam. Nowadays, instead of 3.5M troops there are 1.4M troops in the US military. It is much more a professional military, and because it’s a much more professional military, the developments can’t take place exactly the way they did during the Vietnam War.
There has been opposition, e.g. against the Iraq War, there have been a lot of individuals who have come out in opposition, very brave people like Chelsea Manning who exposed all of what was going on. But there hasn’t been the same kind of attitude of complete and widespread opposition the way there was in the 1960s and early 1970s. The Pentagon officers – loyal to U.S. imperialism — who commented on what was happening during the Vietnam war were saying that military was on the verge of collapse and that something needed to be done. So they had to reorganize and make it a more professional military. The problem that it brings to them is that they don’t have a military that wins anymore. They can create enormous amounts of damage with their air war, by attempting to maneuver one grouping in an oppressed country against another, creating all sorts of pain, as they have in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, etc. Their military-industrial complex still makes money from the war. But they have not, in any of these places, established anything like they used to in the colonial world: a stable, puppet-government that continued to feed profits back to the imperialist metropolis.
So what was their solution?
They started outsourcing. For example they hire mercenaries from other countries. The food is also no longer done by the military, it’s brought by a private company, which makes money, but it’s not part of the military. They hire people to drive trucks and stuff like that, as they did in in Iraq. So just like there’s outsourcing in the industrial world, they’re outsourcing in the military. And they are also more reliant on technology, just like in industry. They have drones. Why do they use drones? Because if you have a drone you won’t get even one pilot shot down. You might at worse lose the plane. But even there, there are drone pilots who have objected to being used that way and who have refused to do it. So there’s always the chance of a change in consciousness taking place, and it depends a lot on what’s going on in the society in general, as well as what’s going on within the military.
You have a very nice line which is that these movements managed to “throw a wrench into the war machine”. What should leftist or progressive forces take from this and how should they move to do this again?
I’ll say what I hope that the new generation of leftists can take from it. And that is that the state apparatus is not omnipotent. There are weaknesses in it. You have to find the weaknesses and think about them all the time. You have to look for the opportunities. You have to really build a party that does it, because individuals are not going to do it on their own. And you look for the opportunity the way we saw an opportunity in 1967, we saw this Andy Stapp confront the military, write a letter saying “long live Ho Chi Minh”, and get attacked by the military. And we immediately sent as many people as we could to help him. Because we saw that there was a possibility of opening up this kind of struggle. That’s what people need to be doing now. I don’t know that it’s going to take the same form as it did in 1967. Maybe if there was a large scale war with China, or even Iran, and they had to reinstate conscription…
By the way, some of the officers, who are pro- US military, are discussing this, talking about the idea that maybe it’s better to have conscription. Instead of having a professional army, it would be an army closer to the people, so it would get more support from the people. They say that more troops are needed to carry out all these wars. In the situation of a mass army in a very nasty war, you can reproduce something like what happened in the past. But today, the opportunity to break up the state may occur in some other arena. You need to have people who are consciously thinking about it, looking for the opportunity, and ready to step in when it takes place. And I do not know how, and exactly when, that is going to happen. I do not have a crystal ball, I just have history!
Could this arena be, instead of a war waged abroad, a war waged at home? For instance, the police state, the repression of black communities, or the recent confrontations surrounding the North Dakota pipeline. Could that be a possible scenario?
Right, that’s a possibility. For example, in 1968 there were soldiers who refused riot duty against the Black population. And there’s even an example this year, of something like that, I bring it up at the very end of the book. I bring that up as the other possibility of a break in the military. That is if the military has to repress worker struggles, popular struggles, black liberation struggles, etc.
In North Dakota, the struggle to stop the North Dakota pipeline was very popular. Of course it was a struggle that was led by the indigenous nations there, but it also had a lot of support in environmental movements, there’s a joining of interests for stopping this pipeline. And it got support from a lot of veterans. So at the last confrontation that took place there were a couple of thousand veterans out in North Dakota facing the police and the national guard. So you can imagine a situation developing over there where the military refuses to be used. Even some of the local sheriffs and law enforcement agencies were objecting. They didn’t like spending all their time doing repressive actions against the population. The rulers count on racism against the Black population, or in this case against the Native people. If the movement can break down racism, then the young troops won’t want to repress a movement they might sympathize with. So that’s another possibility of breakdown in the military. That’s going to be something to pay attention to.
(2) Amílcar Cabral was the founder and leader of the PAIGC (African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde), a liberation movement in the Portuguese colonies of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, and he is remembered as one of the most prominent African Marxists. He was assassinated in 1973 by agents of the Portuguese political police.
(3) Álvaro Cunhal was the secretary general of the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) between 1961 and 1992, the most influential figure in the party’s history.
John Catalinotto has been active in anti-imperialist politics since the October Missile Crisis in 1962. From 1967 to 1970 he was the political organizer for Workers World Party in the staff of the American Servicemen’s Union. Since 1982, he has been managing editor of Workers World, the last pro-communist newspaper still published weekly in print in the USA. He was a co-organizer of the Yugoslavia War Crimes Tribunal in New York in June 2000 and the Iraq War Crimes Tribunal in New York in 2004, both with the International Action Center, a U.S.-based organization founded by Human Rights activist Ramsey Clark. Before Turn the Guns Around he had edited and contributed to two books, Metal of Dishonor (about depleted uranium) and Hidden Agenda: the U.S.-NATO Takeover of Yugoslavia.
Cover photo: The Petrograd Soviet in 1917
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