Thursday, June 12, 2008

Soldiers: Know Your Rights!

By Jonathan Hutto, Sr., The Nation Institute

The following is an excerpt from
Anti-War Soldier: How to Dissent Within the Ranks of the Military, from Nation Books.

On November 9, 1969, the New York Times published an open appeal by 1,365 active-duty service members calling for an end to the Vietnam War and for no punishment for participating in the historic Vietnam
Moratorium march. The petition of these soldiers, representing 80 bases and ships throughout the world, had a huge impact and helped establish the (limited) civil liberties and rights GIs have today. The members of the GI Movement risked their careers and personal security by signing this petition and participating in subsequent actions.

One of those signers was
David Cortright, who went on to write Soldiers In Revolt, the definitive 1975 chronicle of the GI Movement. He was part of an activist group of GIs at Fort Hamilton, New York. Thirty-five of the 60 personnel in his company signed the petition and several traveled to Washington, D.C. for the historic march.

I contacted David to arrange for a community meeting with some of my civilian and active-duty colleagues in June 2006 in Norfolk, Virginia. Its success led us to ponder whether something similar could be organized around the Iraq War. We wanted to build a movement where service members could express their dissent in a legal, constructive way. I began researching the rights and responsibilities of active-duty service members. The most comprehensive source I found was the website for the
Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors (CCCO), which was very helpful in determining the limits for GIs in petitioning their government for redress of grievances.

I also found an old leaflet from the
Military Project, an organization based out of New York, which seeks to educate active-duty service members about their civil liberties and constitutional rights. The leaflet had several DOD directives that listed limited rights to express dissent:

DOD Directive 7050.6
Military Whistle-blower Protection Act

This Act is the foundation for the
Appeal For Redress, our organization. It establishes that every soldier can communicate individually with a member of Congress and Inspector General (IG) without reprisal. Punishment constitutes a violation of Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Failure to Obey Order or Regulation. Once a reprisal is initiated, the soldier can file a complaint with an IG and seek redress from his Commanding Officer (CO). If the CO fails to provide it, the military member has the right to file an Article 138 complaint against the CO seeking redress and restoration to the member of any rights, privileges, property or status to which the member would have been entitled had the wrong not occurred.

Guidelines for Handling Dissident and Protest Activities Among Members of the Armed Forces

This directive explained how to conduct the redress campaign.

Distributing newspapers and/or publications: Soldiers can distribute newspapers, even ones critical of government at official outlets on base such as post exchanges and military libraries.

Publication of Underground Newspapers: A member of the military may write for an underground publication if it is done off duty and on nonmilitary equipment. Articles in the publication may not contain slanderous language that is punishable under federal law.

Participation in political demonstrations: Soldiers can participate in political demonstrations while off base, off duty, in the United States, out of uniform and not acting on behalf of the military. Military members cannot attend demonstrations where violence is likely to occur.

DOD directive 1344.10
Political Activities by Members of the Armed Forces on Active Duty

Military members:

• may express their personal views on political and social issues.

• may make monetary contributions to a political organization.

• may attend political meetings, rallies, or conventions when not in uniform.

• may write a letter to a newspaper editor expressing personal views on public issues.

• are prohibited from making a contribution to and soliciting or receiving a contribution from another member of the armed forces or a civilian officer or employee of the United States to promote a political cause, including a political campaign.

• are prohibited from using contemptuous words against officeholders and government officials.

DOD Directive 1354.01
DOD Policy on Organizations That Seek to Represent or Organize Members of the Armed Forces in Negotiation or Collective Bargaining

Military members may:

• join or maintain membership in any lawful organization or association not constituting a "military labor organization."

• present grievances concerning the terms or conditions of the service of such member in accordance with established military procedures.

• petition the Congress for redress of grievances.

The Strom Thurmond Anti-Union Law

In 1976 the
American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) was considering a union drive in the military. The drive was based on the recent GI Movement and the American Service Members Union (ASU), the first attempt to organize a service members union within the United States. At its height in 1970 the ASU had 15,000 members. Although it had all but disappeared by 1973, with GI activists being discharged and transferred in the thousands, the ASU was a bold example of the political potential of lower-ranking GIs (it was solely for lower-level troops).

Strom Thurmond led the charge to outlaw unionization and organizing within the military when he introduced S. 3079 during the 94th Congress. Before the bill was signed, the military made it law in October of 1977 through the establishment of DOD Directive 1354.1, prohibiting all forms of "collective job-related action" within the ranks and banning union solicitation on base. The directive prohibits soldiers from joining, maintaining or soliciting membership in a labor organization and from striking.

The Appeal for Redress, however, has shown that active-duty troops can express themselves legally to the government and civil society at large. Using the limited rights we have under the Military Whistle-blower Protection Act and DoD regulations, we mobilized more than 2,000 U.S military members in 10 countries to send appeals to their congressional members to end the Iraq War.

But there are limitations to our work.

Commanders do not legally have to recognize active-duty organizations.

Many soldiers are unaware of their political options.

Most fear potential reprisals for speaking out.

Not breaking any laws does not prevent retaliation by the brass.

Only the fear of mass action by enlisted men and women can prevent retaliation.

The Appeal for Redress is a model for a successful GI movement for the 21st century. Human Rights training in boot camp and the support of the veteran/civilian community are key to success.

Human rights training in boot camp. Boot camp is where service members must receive a firm grounding on all of their rights and responsibilities. They must be educated about their rights under Article 138 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice and their right to seek out an IG to correct misconduct by the chain of command and to appeal to higher authority if the wrong has not been addressed. These complaints are sent to the General Court-Martial Convening Authority, comprised of general and/or flag officers. Unlike Equal Opportunity advisors, IGs are independent of the command structure, DoD civilians mandated by federal law to investigate and report to commanders on mission performance, discipline, efficiency and the morale of the armed forces. They do not have the authority to correct the wrong, but their findings carry weight with commanders.

Veteran and civilian support is imperative. The appeal's success was largely due to the support of major veteran peace organizations, which formed a task force that supported the troops in terms of supplies, contacts, legal support and overall coordination.

Civilian activists and community organizers were also instrumental. The Military Project, a civilian organization in New York City, provided key support in their publications. It is my hope that with the support of these peace activists, the appeal will develop into a permanent active-duty support network.

This network must work with influential, established nongovernmental organizations and members of Congress.

Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and Amnesty International USA (AI) can be effective in helping GIs maintain, enhance, and become educated about their civil liberties. The ACLU can help publish manuals that educate GIs on their rights; the NAACP can help organize hearings with the Congressional Black Caucus addressing the surge in Nazis and white supremacists joining the military.

Former California Congressman Ron Dellums used his position on the House Armed Services Committee to investigate racism and other misconduct within the military in the wake of hate crimes committed by troops in the early nineties. This type of advocacy is needed today from Congress.

AI can help the GI movement by challenging the unionization ban using the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR). Countries such as South Africa, Belgium and Australia grant their troops unionization rights.

The history of social justice movements demonstrates that when all legal means are exhausted, those seeking relief will use unsanctioned strategies if the government fails to act. During the struggle for the abolition of slavery in the 1800s, the denial of Dred Scott's human rights in 1857 led to John Brown's raid in 1859. During the Vietnam era, the brutality of Chicago's police against antiwar demonstrators in 1968 led to a mass movement against the war. The Appeal For Redress gives our leaders the platform to address the concerns of GIs before they lose faith in their government.

Navy Petty Officer Jonathan Hutto is a founding member of Appeal for Redress. He can be contacted at

© 2008 The Nation Institute All rights reserved.

View this story online at:

No comments: