A talk delivered at the launch of 'Mutinies', an issue of Revolutionary History. The Lucas Arms, King's Cross, London July 2002
I have spoken a couple of times before about this new Revolutionary History issue on Mutinies - of which I was an editor, but on which subject I am by no means an expert. I saw my role as an organising one - trying to get at the people who do know much about questions of mutinies, insubordination in the army, the role of the military and the role of violence in history. I think that I did find some people who were well versed in the themes and were able to offer fascinating articles and analyses. You will judge that. One of the questions that has come up at previous talks on this subject is the question of whether mutinies are a phenomenon of the past, whether the prospect of mutiny is no longer a reality - in particular - in the West, in today's professional armies. To forestall this question - or to raise it before it raises itself, I thought I would pose some questions today about the contemporary situation. But in order to get there I'd like, today, to fill in some details of mutinies and armies in the period after the period dealt with in the volume.
The volume predominantly focuses on the period around the end of the First World War - a kind of golden age of mutinies - indeed that whole period has particular significance for revolutionaries, being the period of the Russian revolution. We might expect then to see class struggle and new political forms of self-governance emerge on ships and amongst army camps, just as they emerge elsewhere. Of course, some of the mutinies described are less about forging new future forms of self-rule for the working classes, and more about weariness, about demobilisation, about re-entering society as it is - they have simply restorative aims. In any case, simply restorative or more challenging to the status quo, this post-First World War moment is an important one for revolutionaries. The war ended with mutinies in Kiel and Wilhelmshaven in Germany - and these became important centres of revolutionary self-organisation. The French invasion of Revolutionary Russia in 1919 and 1920 was hindered by the mutiny of the French fleet in the Black Sea. Amongst the other rebellions across the world, were mutinies among sailors in the British Navy and in the armies of the British empire in Asia, and there were apparently even mutinies among American troops sent to aid the White Army in the Russian Civil War.
The RH volume on mutinies does also address briefly the situation toward s the end of the Second World War, in particular in Egypt, with the British troops frustrated in their situation and posing demands and new forums of discussion and rule. This near Eastern setting is where I'd like to pick up the story today - in order to bring us into the future - through a few themes suggested by a newspaper - and these I hope will allow us to consider the post Second World War world, before we set off on some time-travelling into the future of mutiny.
A newspaper that I found. A Newcastle newspaper - The Sunday Sun - from July 23 1944. I acquired it because I found it on an auction site and - because my research is mainly concerned with Germany in the first half of 20th century - was intrigued by the front page headline. It details, through a fog of confusion and ideological bluster - rumours about an army revolt amongst the nazis - clearly this is referring to what later became known as the July Officers' Plot - where a number of generals - of right-wing, authoritarian persuasion plotted to assassinate Hitler - their actions and names are more or less famous: von Stauffenberg, Olbricht, von Trott, von Treschow etc etc. This aristocratic opposition is celebrated in the museum of anti-fascist resistance in Berlin, incidentally in the very building where the ring-leaders were executed.
The July officers' plot to assassinate Hitler, then. The Newcastle newspaper report makes things sound much more dramatic - more widespread - than just a revolt on the part of an elite. It is reported as it happens, and the official story is not yet decided, so something else peeks through, and lets us know about the ways in which history progresses, before ruling alibis are brought to bear. It seems almost like the scene at the end of the First World War - widespread revolt, a crumbling of rule, of law and order, a virtual civil war. Participation in this revolt goes beyond the antifa groups, with their communists and social democrats - there are arsenals seized by the rebels, mutinies in Kiel, Stettin and Norwegian harbours, huge clashes in cities with thousands of arrests. Clashes between the Wehrmacht and SS at Lyons, Besancon and Bourg, and in ten large German cities, while the Luftwaffe bombs revolt centres. The extent of the revolt is substantiated elsewhere. On August 22 1944 alone 5000 former Weimar politicians were sent to the concentration camps. In the last half of 1944 there was a wave of arrests among all oppositional circles. The number of arrests in connection with this attempt has been estimated anywhere between 5,000 and 20,000. In post war histories - including the official West German - 'Questions of German History' that every school child was given - there is nothing on this aspect of an unravelling of Nazi rule through mutiny and civil disobedience. In the allied countries too such a picture does not tally with the heroic picture of unconditional surrender brought about by allied armies against a homogenous population. Had it been acknowledged, then it might also have been necessary to acknowledge that, rather than allied victors, resisters themselves could administer Germany's affairs after the war. The reasons why this aspect is underplayed are presumably clear for anyone who is politically astute.
In fact it is really not part of the popular image of nazi Germany that there should be any resistance at all. But if one searches hard one finds evidence. One of the sources is in fact the US military administration in post-War Germany. The US Office of Strategic Services was very keen to seek out information on the population at the close of the war, in order to mark the cards of the population in their German dominion. According to a report titled 'The Size and Composition of the Anti-Nazi Opposition in Germany'a report on the part of the Morale Division of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey (USSB) of the U.S. Air Force, the opposition comprised the following. (1) In Hamburg, for example, an Antifaschistiches Deutsches Kampf Komittee was established, which included 700 Communists, Social Democrats, and other left wing elements, 200 of whom were organised into armed Hundertschaften (hundreds). The group possessed stolen antiaircraft guns, machine guns, rifles, and pistols. A former leader of the Social Democratic Reichsbanner (the Socialist paramilitary organization) estimated that about 600 former Reichsbanner men continued to meet together in small groups of 3-4. In the Hamburg shipyards and plants there were anti-Nazi cells throughout the period of the war. The same was true of countless other German cities - Lübeck, Halle, Leipzig, Frankfurt, in the Ruhr and so on. In Bremen the Communists had about two hundred activists. This figure was reported both from Gestapo and Communist sources. The Sozialistische Arbeiterpartei had some thirty to forty activists In 1944 a consolidated organization called 'Kampf gegen Fascismus' was formed and after the Allied occupation the KGF claimed a membership of over four thousand in Bremen, mainly of left-wing sympathies. Members of these groups worked on go-slows and carried out acts of sabotage. The Morale Division report notes the following:
Sabotage in its more dramatic forms was not frequent. There are some reports of sabotage of U-boats and other vessels by German Communists in the Hamburg and Bremen shipyards. The Gestapo in Hannover discovered frequent cases of sabotage in armament plants for which Russian workers were primarily responsible. But wherever there were left wing oppositional groups the slogan 'Langsam Arbeiten' was spread. Oppositional activists in positions of administrative responsibility sometimes sabotaged on the job. A woman member of the NKFD [Nationalkomitee Freies Deutschland] in Leipzig who was in charge of female labor discipline in the Reichstreuhaender der Arbeit (the agency in charge of foreign workers), administered the minimum penalty, and encouraged some of her colleagues to do the same. Foremen in the Deutsche Werft in Hamburg deliberately wasted steel, and slowed down U-boat production by delaying in the transmission of information as to changes in design.
If the theme of mutiny appears a little lost in all this recollection of resistance and workplace disobedience, I note only of the testimony of Gisevius at the Nuremburg Trials in 1946 when he noted that after 1938 'jeder Streikversuch von Seiten der Linken als Meuterei im Kriege bestraft worden wäre, und ich erinnere Sie an die vielen Todesurteile, die in die Hunderte gingen, die solche Zivilisten unter den Kriegsgesetzen erhielten.' 'every attempt at striking on the part of the Left was treated like a mutiny in wartime, and I remind you of the many death sentences, which went into the hundreds, which such civilians received under the miltary laws.'
Where previously I have referred to mutinies as taking place in concentrated microcosms of society - a ship, an army troop - here the opposite might be seen - in a militarised society, every act of class struggle is a type of mutiny and the punishment as severe. These oppositional groups and individuals, in any case, were never rewarded for their work or endurance - because as we know another war began immediately after the Second World war - the Cold War - or the war against communism - making every leftwing activist a suspect and a threat.
What is interesting in this context is another story on the front page of this newspaper. It is surely not unrelated - though the tone within the newspaper might suggest that the two events are - one is celebrated as the end of a barbaric regime, the other a small factual report:
'Sentences on Mutineers'
Four death sentences were passed by Greek court martial yesterday upon members of the crew of the Greek warship Saktouris, who, along with two other warships, staged a mutiny at Alexandria last April, reports Reuter. Thirteen other sentences were imposed on men of the crew ranging from 20 years to imprisonment for life.
This, as far as I can tell, is a reference to the mutinies staged by Greek sailors at Alexandria, which was attributed to communist agitation.
From what I have managed to find out about it, in early April 1944 a large part of the army, and five ships from the navy, mutinied and struck in favour of republican government. A terrified British ambassador to the Greek government - that was in exile in Cairo - wrote to Churchill, 'What is happening here among the Greeks is nothing less than a revolution'. In suppression of the rebellion, eleven seamen were killed, others wounded, and many subsequently interned. In relation to Greek affairs, official British policy favoured the restoration of King George II, whereas the resistance was overwhelmingly republican - the British pursued this aim through repressive measures against the left in their mutinous disorders in the Middle East. Not that the left was one harmonious camp: Gareth Jenkins observes the following, referring to the EAM, the political wing of ELAS, the Peoples' Liberation Army:
By the end of April the starving mutineers were forced to surrender to the British who arrested the leaders and put 20,000 in prisoner of war cages. Yet the EAM, far from offering support to the mutineers, attacked them. The Greek CP (the KKE) was only a tiny minority in the resistance movement but its prestige ensured that it pressured the EAM into reaching an agreement for a government of Greek unity. As in Italy, the Communists subordinated the idea of social change to victory over the enemy.
In any case, observations on these matters bring us into the period of the Cold War again, for interesting - a former Trotskyist James Burnham turned liberal anti-communist and geo-politician, in his 1946 book The Struggle For The World, opens with this sentence, 'The Third World War began in 1944', and he expands on this with reference to the mutiny by Greek sailors at Alexandria. The British quickly crushed the mutiny, but Burnham thought there was something of general significance in the event. The mutineers were members of the ELAS, the military wing of the Greek Communist Party-controlled EAM. As such there was communist influence - which is to say influence from the USSR - still an ally of Britain at that point. He concluded then that a different war was also in process: 'the armed skirmishes of a new war have started before the old war is finished.' That new war of course is the Cold War, or its pre-skirmish, the battle for political and economic domination ina carved-up Europe.
Burnham's book as a whole announces the US intention to overcome communism, and any other threats to US supremacy, actively promoting a more aggressive strategy - called 'liberation' - to undermine Soviet power. This work found resonance in the highest political quarters. Burnham noted in the first essay in The War We Are In (1967), 'The analysis of communist and Soviet intentions in Part I of The Struggle for the World was originally part of a secret study prepared for the Office of Strategic Services in the spring of 1944 and distributed at that time to the relevant Washington desks.' When Burnham diagnosed what he called a 'sixth period' or Tehran period in Soviet politics, he was not necessarily wrong, of course. My point is that the revolts and mutinies of that period, on the part of ordinary people, are conveniently disregarded or worse made sinister - illegitimate - as part of a Soviet plot. This enables the postwar, Cold War world to come into being as a standoff between regimes. Effectively, in this moment, a certain postwar settlement was being worked on - the parameters of a postwar world, which was explained in terms of ruling class spheres of influence - divided between rulers who rule over people, whether supposedly in the name of democracy or supposedly in the name of the people themselves.
It's not all a disaster for the workers, of course. Inside this same newspaper, is another report of interest to this story of military discipline and consciousness. D.S. Tennant, General secretary of the Navigators and Engineer Officers Union writes a piece with the headline - Merchant Navy and its Futures. Of course, the merchant navy had at this time been pulled into active combat rather than commercial activity right at the start of the war. In 1944 the merchant navy was transporting armies too Europe in preparation for the liberation. Tennant reflects on how the officers are already asking what the future - postwar world - will hold for them. He reminds readers of the lack of gratitude shown by the nation after the First World War - this manifested in reductions in pay, worsening conditions, unemployment and widespread financial misery. Tennant notes that this must not be allowed to happen again and the way around it is international co-operation via an authority that would allocate quotas of tonnage to various countries 'in accord with their economic requirements and their past contribution to maritime enterprise'. Tennant also observes that conditions have been improving in the Merchant Navy through 'collective agreements and negotiated on the National Maritime Board'. He writes:
Pay has been materially increased, new standards of accommodation provided, leave on a more generous basis afforded.
So a meritocratic and planned economy is envisaged, as well as collective representation, against a background of improved conditions. It sounds almost like socialism. Something had to be promised and even delivered, after all this sacrifice and to secure the hearts and minds of those on this side of the line to come. Just a glance at the adverts and features in the newspaper reveals something of the gruelling texture of everyday life: death notices in the Roll of Honours, of soldiers who recently died of wounds in Northern France, and the small ads - for artificial limbs and the Valopio solution for work weary eyes, not to mention C&A ads for fibrene dresses in all of two tones of grey and hints on how to cope with rationing and shortages.
So the promise of improved conditions - not least in the military after the war. This is important for our topic. Because clearly many of the mutinies of the earlier period - at the end of the First World War no less than ones before stretching back to the 18th century came about as a result of appalling conditions in the strictly hierarchical microcosm of society - the ship or the army camp. Does this improvement in conditions in the military forces of the Western world - coupled of course with the eventual abolition of National Service or the Draft in the UK and USA - mean the end of mutinies here? (2) Of course it is not the end of mutinies per se. A cursory glance through online newspaper archives brings up many references to contemporary mutinies and acts of military disobedience.
There are countless mutinies going on as we speak. These take various forms - in Israel, the officers' refusal to fight in the occupied territories. To date, around 500 Israeli officers and soldiers have declared their refusal to serve in Occupied Palestinian Territory. The Israeli army has said it would jail refusers and in the past few months more than 80 have served time in Israeli military prisons. In Chechnya troops refuse to act as 'cannon fodder'. A newspaper report, from the end of March 2002, states:
Outraged by poor pay, incompetent commanders and antiquated equipment, a growing number of soldiers from specially trained Interior Ministry units are threatening to disobey orders to serve in the rebel republic. In the latest case of open insubordination, members of an elite paramilitary squad from the northern city of Cherepovets have given their superiors until next week to heed their demands. An ultimatum to their commanders, published across a whole page of Komsomolskaya Pravda, a national newspaper, yesterday, ridiculed Moscow bureaucrats for claiming that there is no war under way in Chechnya, just a 'counter-terrorist operation'. Their protest came to light on the same day that Russia released figures showing that 3,220 soldiers have been killed and nearly 9,000 injured in two and a half years of fighting in Chechnya. The Cherepovets soldiers' defiance is only the most recent example of a collapse in morale among Interior Ministry troops - professionals, unlike the conscripts serving in the army - ordered to deploy to the North Caucasus. Units from Syktykvar, Kaliningrad, Murmansk and Vologda, all cities in Russia's north or north west, have all protested at the length and conditions of their tours of duty in Chechnya so far this year. Among their grievances are efforts by their commanders to cut their bonuses for being involved in combat. The Cherepovets ultimatum goes further, heaping scorn on 'Moscow clerks', the officers commanding operations in the region and corrupt pro-Russian Chechen officials. Troops posted to Chechnya had to take their food, water and bedding with them as supplies were 'pitiful', the Cherepovets unit said. Russia maintains an 80,000-strong force in Chechnya to assert its authority over the war zone but a shortage of combat-ready units has put severe strain on the military.
Perhaps this means that the mutiny remains a kind of microcosm - in that the chaos of the wider situation - Russia's economic and social collapse - is reflected back into the military situation. And it is interesting to note here that professional rather than conscript status does not necessarily produce loyalty, if anything the opposite.
Russia's old enemy the USA is not suffering from anything like the same sort of chaos, but still the ruling class has no reason to be complacent there. A subterranean history of conscript anti-officer activity in Vietnam can be pieced together from the work of Kevin Keating and others. Its purpose is to stimulate new revolts amongst the military and civilian population, so one can also find reference to contemporary anxieties on the part of the ruling class in relation to the professional armies currently deployed. A leaflet given out to all the thousands of military personnel involved in Fleet Week, the yearly navy celebration and mock-operation in San Francisco notes the following:
A friend who was in the US military during the Persian Gulf War told me that when George Bush visited the troops in Saudi Arabia before the war, many enlisted men and women in Bush's immediate vicinity had their rifle and pistol ammunition taken away. The bolts were also removed from their rifles. If this was so, it makes it clear that Bush and his corporate handlers may have been afraid of the US enlisted people who Bush would soon be killing in his unsuccessful re-election campaign.
The suppressed history of the Vietnam war shows that the Commander-in-Chief had good reason to fear and distrust the troops. Our rulers want us to forget what happened during the Vietnam war, and they want us to forget what defeated their war effort - and the importance of the resistance to the war by enlisted men and women.
Until 1968 the desertion rate for US troops in Vietnam was lower than in previous wars. But by 1969 the desertion rate had increased fourfold. This wasn't limited to Southeast Asia; desertion rates among GIs were on the increase world-wide. For soldiers in the combat zone, refusing to obey orders became an important part of avoiding horrible injury or death. As early as mid-1969, an entire company of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade sat down on the battlefield. Later that year, a rifle company from the famed 1st Air Cavalry Division flatly refused - on CBS TV - to advance down a dangerous trail. In the following 12 months the 1st Air Cav notched up 35 combat refusals.
From mild forms of political protest and disobedience of war orders, the resistance among the ground troops grew into a massive and widespread 'quasi-mutiny' by 1970 and 1971. Soldiers went on 'search and avoid' missions, intentionally skirting clashes with the Vietnamese and often holding three-day-long pot parties instead of fighting.
On so on it goes, detailing the acts of disobedience - which included hundreds of officer-murders. Thereby it hope to open up the possibility for protest based on reference to a submerged tradition, recorded at the time in around 300 anti-war and anti-military newspapers, with names like G.I. Says, Harass the Brass, All Hands Abandon Ship and Star Spangled Bummer, written by enlisted people. Yet again, those acts of disobedience were fuelled and fuelled in turn wider civil disobedience and a crisis of political legitimation.
Now the story of what happened in Vietnam is well known - how the US got a bloody nose, not only because of the enemy's persistence but also their own people's defection. In military terms a ground war was abandoned in favour of an air war, precisely because of the ineffectiveness of their ground forces - an ineffectiveness that owed something to sabotage, resistance and demoralisation. Incidentally 'air war' only increased the role of the navy - and allowed for more technical sabotage of aircraft carriers and the like.
It is the strategic aspect that I would like to finish with in this brief consideration of the question of mutiny and its possibility today - or in the future. I do not want to end pessimistically - because one thing that looking at the theme of mutiny has taught me, is that as long as there are soldiers and sailors being sent to do dirty work or being confined against their will, there is a possibility of mutiny that can spark off or intensify dissatisfaction and revolt in the wider society. However I want to speculate for a moment on the armies not just of the future, but those already with us and the ways in which revolt is affected by technology.
At the beginning of February 2002, three men, probably hunting scrap metal on the ground in Afghanistan, are killed on a hillside close to Zhawar Kili by an unmanned aerial vehicle - a pilotless Predator drone. The Pentagon defends the attack, stating that the Predator had watched the three men for several hours before the decision to fire the missile was made. The men were engaged in what the Pentagon called 'suspicious activity'. In fact, the Pentagon has suggested that Bin Laden may have been one of those killed. The Predator Drone plane hangs over a zone for hours, feeding a stream of video to personnel in the US, miles and miles away, where someone who is, in a sense, a pilot and a gunner sits - invulnerable, directly under the command of the highest US authorities in a risk-free war. The Predator can cruise or hover for nearly 24 hours, and it has radar that can operate through cloud cover, as well as infrared sensors that can generate images in dim lighting conditions. Predator video cameras have transmitted live datafeeds to AC-130 gunship crews, thereby making it possible for them to seek and destroy. Predators can fly up to 140 mph at altitudes up to about 25,000 feet. Originally built as reconnaissance planes, they were modified to carry Hellfire heat-seeking missiles. Before 11 September 79 Predators had been bought, at a cost of about $3 million to $4 million per drone. In his latest budget, Bush asked for a $1 billion for remote-controlled aircraft, including 22 new Predators. The next generation planes, the Predator B, will have 50% more destructive materials and be twice as fast. In the case of 4th February when three scrap metal hunters were killed, it transpired that those who have authority to observe and then fire missiles from these intelligent planes are not the army as such but the CIA. 'Intelligence' turns deadly. It has been observed that such a blurring of boundaries - the conferring of a military role to the CIA - has been matched by increasing deployment of the military to quell internal dissent - despite the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878. This act bans the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines from participating in arrests, searches, seizure of evidence and other police-type activity on U.S. soil. The Coast Guard and National Guard troops under the control of state governors are excluded from the act. But, clearly, the military have been used recently in the 1992 LA riots and at Seattle in 1999. These deployments might be expected to increase as 'fear of terrorism' grips the establishment and also as an anti-capitalist movement shows the potential to become a rather serious threat in the US today.
If some of the new technologies of killing sound like stuff from sci-fi movies - it is no surprise. Hollywood and the Pentagon have been working together closely lately. There are a number of military-themed shows in preparation - what has been termed militainment, and said to go along with a general militarisation of civilian everyday life. It amounts to a kind of training, the ideological moulding of expectations and perhaps a desensitising to the inflicting of violence on others. The newest shows are called 'AFP: American Fighter Pilot', 'Military Diaries' and 'Profiles from the Front Line'. More striking in terms of changes in the military filed, is the possible future development of the solider, who is certainly not forgotten amongst all this intelligent machinery. The US military are investing millions of dollars to create 'muscle suits for soldiers'. These suits will 'augment human strength' and allow soldiers to 'leap extraordinary heights and distances'. The Pentagon's plans appear to be influenced by the mobile combat suits used to fight alien bugs in the 1997 film Starship Troopers.' (3) It opens an interesting perspective on how the military bosses regard human life - something that can be fused with technology into killing machines. It also indicates that there is a direct line from fantastical Hollywood science fiction to actual military developments - Hollywood prepares the ground ideologically as well as providing a type of R+D.
I suppose that the turn toward automatic and long-distance military technologies relates to the problem of casualties - something which Western armies currently find hard to justify. For us, the interest is in whether such moves make future mutinies impossible. What happens to the possibility of mutiny if the rules of engagement change so much? If soldiers are not in the field of battle and if soldiers do not experience the trauma of killing or being exposed to death, are they less likely to revolt - perhaps - or could it be said that they become more like other worker who operates machinery, or white-collar workers who operate computers - complicit in the system, in various ways sustaining the system as it is, their business being the industrialisation of killing at long range. What I mean is that the soldiers or machine operators might still rebel - as do workers from time to time - but that rebellion could emerge not from the direct horror of the situation, not out of brute necessity and disgust at their circumstance, but rather more politically from a grasping of the whole and a realisation of their part in it.
But we are not really there in this post-physical world and maybe we can't ever really be. There is still much bloodshed, still an economic rationale to setting men against men - they are much cheaper than Predator Drones for a start. However things develop, it will remain the case that the military is not separate from the rest of society - we can count on the fact that when the temperature rises here, it rises there too - whatever the form of fighting, whatever the technologies in the hands of the operators - and that always means that whatever those weapons - if they are made for killing - presumably they can always be turned on the real enemy.
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