Why young people picked up the guns: A review of ‘Turn the Guns Around: Mutinies, Soldier Revolts and Revolutions’

By L.T. Pham
January 17, 2017

A review of John Catalinotto’s “Turn the Guns Around: Mutinies, Soldier Revolts and Revolutions”

John Catalinotto’s “Turn the Guns Around” captures a political period in history when struggle was at an all-time high — from the movement to resist the war in Vietnam, by both civilians and GIs (whom Catalinotto primarily focuses on), to the Black Power movement. What is crafted together in the book serves as a guide, not intended to provide answers but considerations on the kind of organization and consciousness needed to defeat the bosses and the banks today.

Similar to the struggles in the 1960s and 1970s, today we see the culmination of several movements. Black and Brown people, immigrants, LGBTQ people, women, people with disabilities and even prisoners are fortifying our ranks to confront the pending Trump administration. And youth in particular are finding ways to connect the issues to a common cause: a capitalist system no longer able to hold itself up, so it resorts more and more to police, ICE raids and detentions of migrants, and other “bodies of armed men” to enforce its interests.

For young people, like myself, who turn to history to better figure out how to actually pierce capitalism at its core and push it closer to its death, there are valuable takeaways from “Turn the Guns Around” for all young revolutionaries to consider.

From the outset, the book reminds us that “being determines consciousness.” Revolutionaries must commit to the process of change, must be open to the working class’s ability to shift its consciousness because it is our class that is constantly under attack and forced to live and work in direct opposition to our true interests.

Soldiers sent to Vietnam were only able to break through the propaganda of the violent state by witnessing for themselves the extent to which working people, peasants and the oppressed were willing to defend their fight for liberation. This, coupled with the exploitative conditions under which GIs were forced to fight, live and work, made GIs align closer with their class — the working class — and not the politicians and bosses.

“Turn the Guns Around” also makes it clear precisely why it was necessary to organize GIs who were in resistance to the war. And more so, why it was important to have radical GIs be part of an organization. The American Servicemen’s Union was formed because for many workers in the U.S. being in a union was a way of life. When this was paired with the revolutionary potential of that period, the union became a fighting body for better conditions but also against war and racism.

The ASU was able to connect radical GIs to one another, to bring the struggles of the GIs to civilians, and create the clear ideological relationship between the interests of GIs and the interests of Vietnamese people defending their country and of Black folks in the United States resisting state violence. The development of the ASU and its success reinforced the importance of organization — which in this period will also be essential to defending and uniting the working class. There are hundreds of thousands of people who aren’t just hungry to understand the world better but also want to change it, and we must build the organizations capable of bringing people into our movement.

Catalinotto’s book should inspire us all to have a deep understanding of the chains of command — whether they are embedded in the military, factory workplace, or the banks and corporations. These chains of command can be broken. Capitalist state power is penetrable; there are many contradictions that exist in favor of our class, but only if we make use of them.

For young revolutionaries picking up “Turn the Guns Around,” I would encourage us to remember that who we are in this period matters — particularly for LGBTQ youth, youth of color and other oppressed youth. And who we are should make us better at fighting for our class interests, should raise questions of how we organize, and not whether or not to organize.

We can only break the chain of command across all sectors of our society through unity and solidarity. Our class is made up of workers and oppressed people globally, of different nationalities, abilities, genders, sexualities and more. The wretched conditions of capitalism bind us together and make our class infinitely stronger and more revolutionary than the bosses who seek to make us inhuman.

We have picked up the guns in a different period, but in the legacy of revolutionary struggle no less. There will be unlikely alliances formed; there will be many people coming to consciousness but realizing that they can’t do it on their own; and we must be bold because we know that our vision for a socialist world is not only possible — it is inevitable. Catalinotto’s book tells the stories and the history of what will make it so.