Published on Saturday, June 11, 2005 by the Santa Cruz Sentinel (California)
UCSC Grad, Once a Marine, Lauded for Insight into Protests by Troops
by Jondi Gumz
SANTA CRUZ At 34, Martin Smith is one of the oldest graduating seniors at UC Santa Cruz this weekend. He also is one of the most outstanding.
His senior thesis argues that anti-war activity among soldiers during the Vietnam War is a part of the history of the American working class.
An alumni committee was so impressed it gave him the Steck Award, a $1,000 prize endowed by a UCSC alumnus and his family for the finest senior thesis. History professor Dana Frank called it the best student paper she had read in 14 years of teaching at the campus.
The award is the latest in a string of honors for Smith, a history major who won the Melkonian Prize last year for his research on troop resistance to fight in Vietnam. He presented his 98-page paper at a history conference in Illinois in April.
Ironically, Smith will be working rather than participating in his graduation ceremony this morning. He works on campus at Merrill College as assistant programs coordinator.
"To be frank, I need the extra cash and my family lives far away in Tennessee," he explained.
After graduating from high school in Kingsport, Tenn., he started as a piano major at the Cincinnati Conservatory. But he became more interested in politics than attending classes, and dropped out. He supported himself working as a waiter, then decided to enlist in the military.
The Marine Corps was the first service he approached.
"As silly as it sounds, I liked their uniforms better," he said.
He was guaranteed a spot at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey and an assignment in Hawaii.
"It was a hard offer to refuse," he recalled.
He learned Russian and spent three years on Oahu before being honorably discharged shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He decided to complete his college degree.
"UCSC seemed ideal," he said.
A new mission
Nationwide, more than 30 percent of todays college students are older adults who tend to have higher dropout rates than traditional college-age students.
Smith overcame those odds. He relished the opportunity to be in school.
"At times, I felt I was on a mission to learn," he said.
His award-winning research paper was sparked by an essay he read about American troops in Vietnam refusing to fight. He had never heard that piece of history.
His curiosity aroused, he began searching for the reasons troop resistance in Vietnam was stronger than in previous wars.
He read GI underground newspapers and reports of congressional hearings. He studied television war footage and documentary films. He interviewed veterans and even found protest inscriptions engraved on Zippo lighters the troops carried during the war.
Among the many books he read was one by former Harvard professor Christian Appy. Appy called Vietnam the "working class war" because of college deferments and the high proportion of blacks and Latinos on the front lines.
"I took his basic argument a step further," Smith said.
Smith reasoned that the resistance tactics adopted by soldiers drug abuse, refusals to fight, and the killing of officers in grenade attacks known as "fragging" represented a "working class revolt."
He saw parallels between troops negotiating orders with their commander and workers negotiating with their boss.
He also sees parallels to the ongoing conflict in Iraq, where soldiers have refused orders and underground newspapers critical of the American military presence in Iraq are posted on the Web.
A radical shift
By the time Smith finished his research, his perception of the military had radically changed.
"I thought the military was just a bunch of gung-ho Rambo types," he said. "Nothing could be further from the truth."
Instead, he sees the military as a cross-section of society, dealing with the same problems the civilian world faces, including drug abuse and poor leadership.
Smith seems to have found his niche in academia. He has won a fellowship to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign starting in August. He plans to study with scholars David Roediger and James Barrett and earn a doctorate in history.
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