PSARA Oral Histories Project:
Bob Barnes Interview
Pvt. E-2 Bob Barnes
Bob Barnes Interview
PSARA Advocate Archives
May 2022 Page 5 (Part I)
June 2022 Page 6 (Part II)
Swimming Against the Current,
Interview with Bob Barnes
By Angie Bartels
When he enlisted into the US Army in 1968, Bob Barnes intended to join a branch of the service where he wouldn’t see combat. “I wasn’t opposed to combat in principle, but I was in a pretty unformed way opposed to the Vietnam war.”
In college, Bob played bass in rock and roll and jug bands where they played Country Joe and the Fish’s Fixen’ To Die Rag, their anti-Vietnam war anthem, sentiments which he himself felt. He had also met members of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) out of Austin, TX, who tried to talk him out of enlisting. But Bob’s opposition in those days was theoretical. It hadn’t yet taken form in reality.
Enlisting in the armed services after college just seemed like the next thing to do. Bob came from a hard-working middle-class family whose members enjoyed hunting. Guns did not intimidate him. He wasn’t part of the resistance in those days, and he didn’t want to go to graduate school just to get a deferment. Besides, he had talked with his friendly Army recruiter and was told that he could join the Adjutant General’s Corps and go to Embassy parties in DC for four years. “I thought that sounded marvelous, and being dumb as an East Texan rock, I bought it hook, line, and sinker.” He was shipped off to Fort Polk, LA, and ended up in the Infantry. But that didn’t worry him – he was going to embassy parties for the next four years.
Ft. Polk, LA, was where most infantry troops were trained before going to Vietnam. The Army called it “Tigerland,” as its climate and geographical conditions were like those of the jungles of Vietnam. As Bob settled into his barracks, he started to feel that something was very wrong. He found that most of the other guys were kids, 3, 4, 5 years younger than himself. “Most of them were not white. Most of them did not join. They were either drafted or they were given a choice by some judge – enlist in the Army or go to jail. So they joined the Army.”
“It was a whole different world than I had ever been exposed to, not just military life in the barracks, but a whole different bunch of people that had not been part of my frame of reference. I had gone to a segregated high school and the color lines in my privileged life were pretty much invisible. But they were sure as hell there in retrospect.”
Once he got over the disorientation, he cruised along on automatic pilot knowing that this was something he had to get through but wouldn’t have to worry about once he was out of training. “So we got through Basic Training and then onto Advanced Infantry Training where, during target practice, what were once just targets were now human silhouettes that had the letters ‘VC’ (Viet Cong) printed on them. That was done to acclimate us to shooting enemy combatants. And that’s when I really started questioning (1) Is this something I really wanted to participate in? And (2) did I want to be in a leadership position over anybody in this war, particularly kids whom I knew were not there out of any commitment on their part? They were strictly cannon fodder and they knew it. And I said to myself, I ain’t going to do that.”
Soon the new soldiers were confronted with a crisis that did not directly affect Bob. Graduation from Advanced Infantry Training was to take place a few weeks after Christmas. Everyone was sent home on leave for the holidays with the promise that at the end of graduation, they would be allowed to go home again before they received their orders and shipped out to their assignments. The holiday happened and everybody came back to the base. They were then told, “No, sorry, we’re going to have to cut your orders right now, as soon as you graduate, and you’re going to wherever you’re assigned.” Most of them were going to Vietnam.
“There was this spontaneous, all-encompassing, ‘We can’t believe this is happening, this can’t be happening.’ When we marched in formation we counted, about 200 people, ‘1-2-3-4, 1-2- AWOL.’ It was just crazy.” After graduation, Bob spent that night shuttling people into Leesville, Louisiana, where the bus station was located. He was not at risk of going to Vietnam right then. He was waiting for orders to Officers Candidate School (OCS). Yet he wanted to help these guys who were very upset. He didn’t know what to do.
Bob estimates a couple hundred men took off that night for home. The Army put the word out instantly, “If you took off and then reported back within two weeks, there would be no consequences.” He’s unsure how many folks came back, but he suspects most of them did and accepted their orders. He remembers that a few went to Canada.
Bob had begun researching the implications of going AWOL. He called his friends from SDS and explained the situation, about the guys who were being ordered to go to Vietnam without a chance to say goodbye to their loved ones. What could they do? Bob was told they had three options: they could go AWOL, they could go to Canada, or they could file as conscientious objectors (CO). SDS folks provided articles about why the US was in Vietnam, something to do with oil, tungsten, and resources. They also provided a copy of the Army’s handbook and contacts for conscientious objector counselors.
That’s when Bob learned that one could file as a CO for discharge from within the service. He compiled this information and shared it with the guys in his unit, who in turn shared it with others. “The anti-war movement within the military was at that point vibrant. The army was in rebellion. What we were doing was just a microcosm. There were air force pilots refusing to fly their B-52 bombers on bombing sorties, and hundreds of active-duty soldiers signed a letter published in the New York Times denouncing the war.”
“I was left at Ft. Polk awaiting my assignment to Officer Candidate School (OCS), and I started thinking, what am I going to do? At that point, I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I was not going to Vietnam.” Bob entertained fantasies of going through OCS, which was a six-month program, and “then at graduation, when I was given my little gold bars, throwing them on the stage and denouncing the war. I thought, wow, that’s a big waste of my time, going six months just to do that? Instead, I dropped out of OCS and filed as a conscientious objector. I marched the application into my commanding officer’s office, and he tore it up. Then I handed him a copy of the army regulation, which they didn’t have in their books, and he tore that up too. What I was doing was outside of his and the army’s frame of reference. No one in anyone’s memory had filed for CO status from within the service. When I look back on this, I think, how in the hell did I think that I could pull something like this off? I was not a political activist. I had no one but my then wife, Peggy, who stood by me as an ally. I had a copy of the application and the regulation, and I was finally able to convince the officers that they had to accept my application.”
Bob did a lot of KP for a while. He was the first person at Ft. Polk to file as a CO since WWII. And the Army literally did not know how to deal with him. The regulation wasn’t even in the book, as they had removed it. Bob had to carry it around with him, and one commanding officer ripped it up when Bob handed it to him. But they couldn’t stop him. “It was army regulation 635-20 which said clearly that one had the right to file as a CO from within the military. So I did, and I wasn’t alone in this. I gave others the information, and I shared it as far and wide and with as many people as I possibly could. I was assigned to drive around the base and deliver mail and by a certain point, I was distributing The Ally, which was a national underground newspaper. It was not put out by active-duty people, but it was for them, and there were articles written by soldiers. I could see what bad shape the army was in. It was already in a state of crumble when I joined. There was a guy I went through Basic with who talked way over my head. He had joined the army with the intent of organizing against the war. That was brave. Another guy was trying to unionize soldiers. I’m not sure how successful they were, but this was the lake I was swimming in. The resistance was growing.”
Bob was finally kicked out of Ft. Polk upon the denial of his second application for discharge, on the grounds that he did not sincerely hold the beliefs that he professed. “The base commander told me that I could punch him in the face and he would not bring charges because he wanted me ‘off his fucking base!’ I had my third set of orders for Vietnam, and I wasn’t going to get away with staying around Ft. Polk any longer.” So Bob and Peggy flew out to Ft. Lewis in Washington State, and he wrote his third application on the plane ride out here.
When he turned his paperwork in at the Overseas Replacement Station at Ft. Lewis, he was assigned to a barracks with 50 other CO applicants. By the fourth night, Bob and company had made contact with the antiwar movement in Tacoma. They began sneaking off base and making and distributing leaflets on the base. Finally, their commanders decided they had to assign the CO applicants somewhere while their applications were pending. “It took them over a year to process my first application. It took a lot less time for the second. So I knew a decision on the third application would come back quickly.”
In the meantime, the leadership assessed their skills and assigned them to different units. “Several of us had what they considered office skills so they put five of us in the company’s office.” Soon the five soldiers were running the office, where they had access to phones and long-distance calls. They were in touch with all of the US Senators from around the country who were in any way anti-war. They used the office mimeo machine to print their leaflets.
The leadership didn’t catch on for a couple of months, but finally they did. There was a heated rebuke of all that Bob and company had done and an instant assignment to other places. “We were scattered out around the base. But there was no disciplinary action. I had less than six months left in the Army, so they couldn’t send me overseas. The worst they could do was throw me in the back of a delivery truck, which they did. I spent the last several weeks doing KP as part of a delivery crew, delivering potatoes to different kitchens. And then my time was up, and I was discharged honorably with full benefits.
Since my interview with Bob, I’ve thought a lot about his story and what he might have been feeling. It takes a lot of courage and strength to swim against the current. Life is sometimes easier if we do what “authority” expects of us. But Bob took the high road “and that has made all the difference.” In my eyes, he is truly a hero.
Angie Bartels is PSARA's Membership VP. This story is one of a series of interviews she's doing with PSARA members.