Wednesday, November 5, 2014

FBI – Covert Historian of the ‘60s?

The ‘60s were fast-moving for those involved in the Vietnam antiwar movement of the day. Most of the young activists on the campuses considered themselves New Left (NL). The Old Left, epitomized by the American Communist Party (ACP), was merely a shadow of itself after years of hounding by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, better known as the FBI, and by Congressional committees and federal prosecutors.

The NL had arisen from the ashes but not without significant changes in shape and style from its predecessor. Gone were the Old Left notions of ideological fidelity; a hierarchical structure capped by centralized leadership; policy discipline; and secrecy. The NL tolerated diverse ideas; eschewed rigid structure and top-down leadership; disdained preoccupation with organizational discipline; and, most differently, the NL banished closed-door meetings in favor of functioning as an open organization.

Predictably, it was only the rare activist who had presence of mind or the time – full time students comprised the vast majority of the NL – to take notes or keep a journal on those exciting times in their lives. But, unbeknownst to them, the FBI had assessed the NL as a security threat to the government and dedicated itself to covertly recording the political doings of the activists as proxies for the sprawling, amorphous NL writ large.

Working through agents of the FBI field offices in large cities near universities but more often through local informants, little that  targets of surveillance did in their daily routines was not of interest to the Bureau. Whether in a formulaic-style memo written by an agent summarizing an informant’s report or a direct account – say of a NL meeting – in an informant’s own words, a large volume of documents known as the target’s file was assiduously compiled in the FBI field office and dutifully copied to FBI HQ, Washington.

In their earlier penetration of the Old Left, the Bureau had relied on undercover agents who joined the ACP or its Trotskyist rival, the Socialist Worker’s Party (SWP). However, the typical NL activist was a college student and much younger than the average FBI agent; hence, the use of campus informants who, given the open nature of most NL gatherings, had no difficulty mingling freely with the activists they were observing.

Decades later when the tumult of the antiwar movement was but a memory, many individuals began invoking the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to access information the FBI had gathered on them. By then the confidential reports had been declassified. The vast trove of FOIA files constituted a de facto history of the New Left – or did it? Even in the heavily redacted format (to protect informants’ names), reading several individual FOIA files side by side offers an unusual up-close view inside the antiwar movement and the activities of many of its young supporters.

No one reading these long ago accounts is likely to suggest that the FBI and its clandestine minions had set out to contribute to the historical canon on the period. However, given the Bureau’s mission to stymie and disrupt the NL through disinformation and other patently illegal tactics, the emphasis in the numerous reports that flowed relentlessly into the ‘files’ tended to be unvarnished writing and factual accuracy to the greatest extent possible.

Accuracy was generally achieved such that many former activists, upon reading their FOIA files 20 to 40 years later, have been reminded of moments in their early political lives they had forgotten and have often been astonished to find near verbatim accounts of their remarks at meetings.

Two major Indiana University (IU) activists from the ‘60s – friends of my late brother Jeff Sharlet – shared their FOIA files and gave me permission to discuss them in this blog. One of the former activists is Dwight Worker, who recently published an autobiographical memoir, The Wild Years (2013), and with whom I spoke and corresponded extensively.  Dwight’s complete FOIA file runs 1300 pages and weighs in at around 7 pounds.

Cover sheet, Dwight Worker’s FOIA file

In effect, I have two versions of Dwight Worker’s IU years (1964-68) as a New Left activist – his own and the FBI’s. Often Dwight’s personal account and the covert government rendering concur on particular events, but sometimes the eager beaver informants (there were 6 of them) missed or were unable to observe, not to mention comprehend, the full extent of his actions. In some instances the FBI version and Dwight’s’ narrative are at variance.

By comparing the two accounts of Dwight Worker’s activist years, we will be able to better judge the reliability of FBI files as apertures into the micro-history of the opposition to the war in Vietnam. To be sure though, the extensively redacted government documents need to be used cautiously and carefully as guides to the past.

Once the FBI field office in Indianapolis – 50 miles to the north of the IU campus in Bloomington – drew a bead on Dwight during fall ’65, a memo on his personal background was among the first documents placed in the confidential file opened on him. The special agent who wrote the memo indicated that the information had been obtained from the IU Admissions office, one of several administrative branches of the university that cooperated with the government in its surveillance of students. The profile gave a bare bones description:

DWIGHT JAMES WORKER was born 5/17/46 in East Chicago, Indiana.   His parent was referenced as Fred Worker, 2518 Hart Road, Highland, Indiana.  He graduated from Highland High School, 1964, ranking 14th out of 249 students. ...He is registered with Draft Board 178, Hammond, Indiana....He has attended Indiana University at Bloomington, Indiana, from 6/19/64 to the present date....He is employed 10 hours [a week] at the Big Wheel Restaurant and resides at 505 East 8th Street, Bloomington, Indiana.     

Dwight’s version of his background is understandably more extensive than the Admissions file. He was one of seven children of Fred Worker and his spouse, a housewife. His father dropped out of school in the seventh grade during the Depression, served in WWII with General Patton, was very patriotic, and ran his home like ‘a boot camp’. According to Dwight, the family was working poor, living from paycheck to paycheck.

Two significant aspects of Dwight’s early years were missed by the FBI – to wit, that one of his older brothers served in Vietnam in ’64 and that in his first year at IU he took his first political step by joining SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and working on their campaign to register Black voters.

Dwight Worker at Indiana University

During his Sophomore year in the fall of ’65, an SDS chapter, Students for a Democratic Society, took shape at IU, and Dwight became actively involved. Accordingly, the FBI designated him a target for surveillance. SDS’s open organizational meeting on October 3, 1965 became the subject of a 5-page report. The document’s cover sheet indicated that a new file had been opened on Dwight Worker.  Other than as a rank and filer, he didn’t play a particularly active role at that meeting at which officers were elected and various proposals voted on:

The Indiana University chapter of SDS held a public meeting at Indiana University to elect officers for the current academic year on October 3, 1965. Approximately 45 people were in attendance.      
The International Days of Protest, October 15 and 16, 1965, were discussed. It was decided that since SDS did not have enough members and is a minority on the Indiana University campus, a demonstration would not be effective on these dates. It was felt it would be far more effective if SDS turned out all of its member to protest against Richard Nixon when he speaks at Indiana University on October 17, 1965.

What the FBI was unaware of was that Dwight Worker didn’t simply drift into the fledgling IU New Left; he was quite purposeful in his decision to get involved. As mentioned, he had already become politically active in the Civil Rights Movement on campus during his first year, but it was a family tragedy that drove him into the ranks of the antiwar movement.

His brother Wayne, while serving with the Navy in Vietnam, suffered a very serious head injury in late ’64. In a coma for seven months, Wayne regained consciousness in a Chicago Veterans Administration (VA) hospital to find himself paralyzed, unable to speak clearly, and with severe memory loss.

Dwight spent time with his brother at the VA hospital. His father was devastated by his son’s condition, and Dwight returned

                   to school in the fall angry. Angry at the war
                   drums going on in the US, angry at what I
                   had seen at Hines VA hospital, angry at the
                   terrible waste, angry at the big lie.
[The Wild Years (WY), 52]

Not long after that SDS organizational meeting, former Vice President Nixon arrived on campus to speak in support of American involvement in the war in Vietnam, by then well underway since President Johnson’s (LBJ) major escalation during the spring of ’65.

Dwight joined the SDS protest demonstration outside the university auditorium where Nixon was speaking. An undercover informant reported seeing him at the demo. Otherwise the report had little to say about the protest. Nonetheless, three days later an FBI agent called upon Dwight’s high school guidance counselor who handed over his school records without hesitation.

In his recent memoir, Dwight had much more to say about the Nixon action, his first demonstration as an antiwar activist:

                   We were a pretty harmless bunch, perhaps
                   20 of us in total … surrounded by 10 campus
                   cops and over a thousand jeering, shouting
                   counter-demonstrating students. COMMUNISTS!
                   ‘COWARDS! TRAITORS! Send them to Vietnam
                   instead’ they were shouting. …

                   I held up my sign that said ‘Negotiate, Don’t
                   Bomb’. … They were throwing things at us. …
                   I looked at a nearby policeman and told him
                   about it…. He answered, ‘I would be throwing
                   things at you too’. (WY, 54)

As he became more active in SDS, Dwight became a singular focus of the FBI’s attention. In late ’65 and early ’66, he attended an SDS National Council at the University of Illinois on behalf of the IU chapter, as well as taking part as a speaker at a campus SDS forum and an all-day SDS conference at the university.  FBI informants duly filed accounts of these occasions:

                    Informant attended the SDS forum at Indiana
                   University on November 5, 1965. He stated that
                   the first speaker was DWIGHT WORKER, an
                   active member of SDS, who spoke on a trip to
                   Europe he had made recently. WORKER con-
                   cluded that international student opinion is
                   heavily against US policy in Vietnam … [a policy]
                   he described as ‘Imperialism’. WORKER seemed
                   insistently against US foreign policy in Vietnam.

Another informant reported that Dwight Worker was among 50-60 people attending an all-day SDS conference on February 19, 1966 at which a ‘reorganization proposal’ by Jeff Sharlet and Jim Wallihan was passed, and plans were made for a major demonstration in the spring when General Lewis Hershey, Director of the Selective Service System, was scheduled to speak at IU.*

Either out of modesty or memory lapse, Dwight was silent in our communications as well as in his memoir on his participation in various SDS gatherings, so it would be reasonable to assume that the FBI got it right that he was quite active in the IU chapter.

For further confirmation, Dwight makes cameo appearances in two other FBI documents amidst the Bureau’s heavy black-ink redacting – in February ’66 at the Activities Fair for Spring semester registration, he is observed manning the SDS table, while in a brief August memo he is listed among the new leadership as SDS Treasurer.

Elsewhere in Dwight’s FOIA as a result of the frequent black cross-outs, the file is simply cryptic. One report reads, ‘On February 24, 1966 this source advised’ followed by six blacked-out paragraphs. Another document states mysteriously:

                   On July 23, 1966, DWIGHT WORKER was observed
                   in the vicinity of the Indiana University Auditorium
                   and Showalter Fountain by [redacted] in company
                   with an unknown girl. WORKER and the girl got
                   into a 1959 Ford, green, bearing 1966 Indiana
                   license plate [redacted].

Presumably the report alludes to the campus rendezvous point for people heading to Indianapolis that day to demonstrate at LBJ’s scheduled speech there. A group of IU students, among whom was Karen Grote, collaborator on this blog, did indeed make it to the capital for the protest, but at the instigation of the Secret Service 28 of them were preemptively arrested before the President spoke.**

During IU’s Spring semester ’67, Jeff Sharlet became president of the campus SDS. A student informant reported to the FBI that Dwight Worker among 46 others attended the first meeting at which Jeff presided on February 23, 1967. He described the session in some detail:

                   Jeff Sharlet was chairman of this meeting…. Sharlet
                   stated that he had attended the regional SDS
                   conference at Northern Illinois University. … He said
                   that next month there will be another regional
                   meeting. He volunteered Bloomington, Indiana as
                   the site for the next meeting.

 SDS HQ in Chicago accepted the invitation, and the next regional meeting was held at IU on March 17-19, 1967. The campus chapter announced that the conference would not be open to the public, only members, and credentials would be checked. Given the FBI file’s comprehensive account of the event, including the lengthy agenda, it’s obvious that the informant was a member of SDS.

 According to his or her oral report to an FBI agent, the conference theme was ‘Student Power’ in the universities with draft resistance a secondary topic:

                   At the Sunday afternoon session … Jeff Sharlet
                   gave a talk on the subject of student power. All
                   of the discussion was focused on the point of
                   student leadership in the university by SDS
                   members. ***

 Dwight Worker who was in attendance that Sunday as well as at other sessions saw himself as a kind of protégé to Jeff Sharlet, the SDS leader. Jeff was an older ex-Vietnam GI and as Dwight saw him quite mature. He added:

                   Jeff was absolutely unique at IU. He had this
                   charisma, an understated charisma. He was
                   always calm, the one who put things in bigger
                   perspective. Jeff was masterful in handling
                   meetings with agent provocateurs and dis-
                   ruptive individuals in general.

                   He liked my energy and enthusiasm for antiwar
                   stuff – Up against the wall mother-fucker – but
                   thought I had just too much unrestrained
                   energy at times. Jeff would tell me to calm down,
                   relax, it’s going to be OK. ****

 In Dwight’s case, there was little about him that the Bureau did not regard as worthy of the file. They even kept track of what might be considered his ‘extracurricular’ or at least non-antiwar activities. Apparently FBI Indianapolis had a mail subscription to the IU campus paper, Indiana Daily Student (IDS).  Several clippings turned up in Dwight’s FOIA. One was unrelated to opposition to the war, while the other was a purely human interest story.

In the former article, IDS wrote that Dwight Worker had conducted the initial organizational session of the Sexual Freedom League at which a slate of officers was elected. In the latter clipping, which included a head shot of Dwight, he is credited with saving a toddler from drowning at a local lake.

By the fall of ’67, the FBI had fashioned an imposing political profile for Dwight Worker that they shared per request with a US Army Military Intelligence (MI) unit at a base just north of Indianapolis. Dwight was characterized as a major political activist at IU. No doubt he came to MI’s attention because of his involvement in draft resistance at the university. 

FBI profile on Dwight Worker, 1967

Reporting on a meeting of the IU anti-draft organization on October 5, 1967, a confidential source wrote that:

                   At this meeting DWIGHT WORKER proposed
                   minor harassments of the draft boards. He
                   stated that he thinks the Selective Service
                   System is very discriminatory, and he will
                    refuse to go to Vietnam under any

Just several weeks later, the New Left at Indiana University staged its most dramatic action, and the FBI gave the event and Dwight Worker’s considerable role in it maximum coverage in his file.

Dow Chemical corporate recruiters were scheduled to meet with interested IU students at the Business School. Campus activists heard that the manufacturer of napalm was in town, and the Committee to End the War in Vietnam (CEWV), an umbrella group for the university New Left, hastily organized several dozen students to sit-in at the B-school, effectively blocking the recruitment effort.

Dow had recently visited the University of Wisconsin where a pitched battle hospitalizing a number of people had ensued between protestors and the Madison police. The IU Administration took note and prepared for all eventualities. The sit-in got underway with Dwight Worker conspicuously in the forefront of the group, and police in riot gear quickly moved in. The room was cleared of protestors but for four students who chose to resist, among them Dwight.

Dwight Worker (see arrow) at the Dow sit-in, 1967

The FBI’s extensive account relied on newspaper coverage of the clash as well as on their well-placed informant. Given the violence which occurred between the police and the four resisters, the latter’s report was relatively bland:

                   About 3:15 PM on October 30, 1967, a group of
                   students in the Business School attempted to
                   enter the interview rooms occupied by Dow
                   representatives. [IU] Safety Division police
                   were unable to close the door. The students
                   made a concerted rush, and several of them
                   assaulted police officers. Police reinforcements
                   rushed to the scene and arrested 35 students….

Actually, another memo in the FBI FOIA file provided a clear hint of the forthcoming battle with the Dow. At a meeting earlier in October, the discussion turned to police harassment of protestors generally. Dwight was present and offered the group karate lessons, promising ‘he could teach them some simple karate techniques and … how to combat the police’.      

Apropos, a clipping in the file from the Bloomington press gave a more vivid account of the Dow story, focusing its coverage on Dwight Worker. Their angle was the irony that Dwight, whom they had lauded earlier in the year for saving the toddler, was back in the news as the title of the piece indicated:

Heroism Forgotten in Aftermath
Worker Faces Charges After Riots

   Dwight Worker made the news
again for conspicuous conduct.
Pictured in Bloomington and
statewide papers as a young
man being dragged semi-
conscious by a policeman
… he was identified as one of
36 demonstrators arrested in
the IU Business School after a
wild clubbing, slugging fight
between policemen and sit-ins
protesting Dow Chemical’s
on-campus job interviews.

   Worker, a 21-year old
Psychology Senior faces charges
of disorderly conduct, assault and
battery and resisting arrest. …

             A police night stick had
          clipped Worker on the back of
          the head and he spent two days
          in the IU Health Center with a

Dwight Worker being dragged to police bus following Dow protest, 1967

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Dwight as he was pursuing his activism at IU, the Indianapolis FBI had been anonymously mailing newspaper clippings on his activities to his parents. Often handwritten marginalia was added, ‘Do you know this is what your son is doing’.

After the Dow melee, Dwight drove home to visit his family after a long interval. As soon as he entered the house, his father confronted him in a rage, calling him “a GODDAMN COMMUNIST” and took a swing at his son.

                   ‘We know, we know what you been doing
                   in Bloomington. Get out of here and don’t
                   ever come back!’ …

                   I hugged my crying mother and left. That
                   was the last time I saw or spoke with them
                   for years. (WY, 78-79)

Following Dwight’s involvement in the mayhem at the B-school, the local FBI had amassed a thick file on him and decided to recommend him to the Secret Service as a serious national security threat. The recommendation was to include him in the ‘Security Index’, individuals who, in the event of a national emergency – and depending on the priority assigned – were to be either immediately detained or put under close surveillance.

FBI HQ, Washington, was sufficiently persuaded so that J Edgar Hoover sent the Director of the Secret Service a summary of Dwight Worker’s file under a cover sheet with a box checked off stating:

                   Because of background is potentially dangerous;
                   or has been identified as member or participant
                   in a communist movement; or has been under
                   active investigation as member of other group
                   or organization inimical to the US.

By early January ’68 the Secret Service had accepted the FBI’s recommendation, and Dwight Worker was described in a document as “a Priority I subject of the Security Index.”  However, a semi-annual update on the ‘subject’, which the Indianapolis field office owed to the Indianapolis branch of the Secret Service, was overdue because Dwight had left Bloomington abruptly for parts unknown.

What the FBI for all their professional diligence did not know was the full extent of Dwight’s rather dramatic running conflict with his draft board over his refusal to go to Vietnam. The conflict had come to a head in the first weeks of 1968; to avoid arrest, Dwight had gone on the lam.

In a last letter to the Selective Service System, Dwight:

                   told them I had changed my name from
                   Dwight to Adam, my address from 446 ½
                   East 2nd Street, Bloomington, Indiana, to
                   Mountains, Streams, and Forests, and my
                   race from white to Indian.

                   I signed it, ‘Fuck You Paleface’. (WY, 91)

Dwight ended up in New Mexico where to avoid detection he “lived entirely off the grid. No phones, electricity, water, gas, rent, or traceable bills of any sort.” (WY, 77). Despite these elaborate precautions, he was astonished to learn from his FOIA file a quarter of a century later that the FBI had known his whereabouts within six weeks.

In conclusion we’ve traced Dwight Worker’s journey from a typical Indiana University Freshman in 1964 to a major campus New Left activist and ultimately a fugitive national security risk by 1968. But what about the FBI as a covert historian in recording Dwight’s story?

In Dwight’s case, the Bureau with all its resources missed the drama of their subject’s culminating confrontation with the draft, which was the catalyst for his abrupt disappearance when for a time he went off the FBI’s radar. In addition, even with half a dozen conscientious informants feeding them a steady stream of information, the FBI was clueless on Dwight’s motivations, his crucial relationships with fellow activists, and the influence of certain individuals on him.

 At best we can conclude that the tens of thousands of pages now revealed in FOIA files mainly provide occasional glimpses of the New Left pursuing its goals in myriad campus venues as well as the skeletal framework of a decade of tumultuous dissent.


Dwight Worker at his farm outside Bloomington, Indiana

As for Dwight Worker, he eventually worked for years for IBM as a software engineer and was recruited by Indiana University to teach in the Business School where he won a number of teaching awards. These days in retirement, he describes himself as an international bicyclist, an organic farmer, and a writer – the memoir of late being his second book.

*** For a brief account of the election of an SDS activist as Student Body President of IU, Spring ’67, and Jeff Sharlet’s part in the campaign, see

**** Author’s interview with Dwight Worker, February 11, 2009

***** The Bloomington Tribune,  November 13, 1967

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Marching to Different Drummers*

 [Dear Reader:  The time is at last at hand to turn full-time to writing the memoir. To facilitate the writing, the blog continues to post, but now monthly on the 1st Wednesday of each month.  We will keep you informed about our progress to publication.]

Two generations of Sharlets, Bob and Jeff, recently participated in a remote interview with long-time activist Thorne Dreyer of The Rag Blog and Rag Radio, cutting edge alternative media out of Austin TX.  The long time reader is no doubt aware that Bob, the well-known scholar of Russian constitutional law, is the older brother of the subject of this blog, the late Jeff Sharlet, 1960’s ex-Vietnam GI, activist, and underground press founder and editor; and that the other Jeff in the interview is his son, the best-selling author and namesake.

The interview covers a wide range of topics, many of which have appeared in more detail in this blog, but here, for the first time on air, father and son speak candidly, not only about the remarkable man who was one’s brother and the other’s uncle, but also about their own career trajectories and thoughts about the memoir in progress for which this blog is a precursor. The interview has been preserved as a podcast here: 

                                                                 “A more congenial man I never knew

L to R: Bob Sharlet; Jeff, his late brother; and Jeff, his son

During the interview you will hear Bob recount his path from aspiring writer at Wesleyan University in the ‘50s to the army, where he was posted to the Army Language School (ALS, now the Defense Language Institute). At ALS he was taught Czech, and then stationed in Germany from where he toured Europe before returning to college, and becoming a political scientist schooled in the rigors of his field. 

His brother Jeff, expecting to follow in his footsteps, was diverted onto a very different path at ALS – the Army Security Agency (ASA) anticipated an imminent need for Vietnamese linguists.  Jeff’s experience in Vietnam and the subsequent buildup of American forces there would turn him into an antiwar activist once he was back in school in the States.

For a time, he and his brother Bob were at odds over the Vietnam War politically, each influenced by his personal angle of vision – Bob as an academic Soviet specialist focused on the Cold War, Jeff as an ex-Vietnam GI activist.

After his brother Jeff died at a young age in ’69, Bob promised himself he would give his brother’s short but accomplished career as a founder of the GI Movement**  its place in the history of the antiwar movement. Upon his retirement from academe, Bob at last had the opportunity to finally fulfill that commitment.

With invaluable assistance from Karen Ferb, a good friend of his brother’s from long ago, he set out to make contact with Jeff’s GI buddies, fellow college antiwar activists, VGI staffers from his Chicago days, and friends, all of whose memories of Jeff he assiduously collected. Bob also began studying memoirs to learn how they are made as well as to help him slip the bonds of analytical social scientific writing.  It was not an easy task.

Along the way his son Jeff blossomed into a writer of national reputation known for his research skills and for turning out notable creative nonfiction that eventually landed him in his current professorship at Dartmouth. 
Jeff the son had grown up in a writerly family where Jeff the brother acquired “mythic status” from Bob’s recounting of his brother’s activism as the founder-editor of the influential underground paper, Vietnam GI (VGI).

VGI was the first antiwar paper to be written by ex-Vietnam GIs for the troops. Jeff the namesake remembers first stumbling upon issues of the paper as a boy and seeing the uncle he never knew peering out of his own obituary and later memorialized in verse.

He knew and loved the men
Who write the letters home
And when he came home
He gave them something to believe in.
Not long ago he said:
“We felt a newspaper
Was the best way to begin…

To talk to the enlisted men
The guys on the bottom
Help bridge the gap between
The movement and the people.”
He was a quiet, vital guy
Who thought before he spoke,
Courage from his courage
Example of his deeds,
For Jeff is dead…
                                                    ~ Lincoln Bergman in ‘Seeds of Revolution’

Bob and his son talked often about the memoir with Bob eventually inviting Jeff to collaborate on the book.  After all, Jeff was a successful writer and would have much to impart to what he called his father’s “towering work of historical investigative journalism.”  He should know – his own achievements include the important investigative works The Family and C Street, both of which address the fundamentalist threat to democracy in America and elsewhere.

For the C Street book, he traveled at great risk to Uganda to expose the influence of American fundamentalists and politicians on the so-called Ugandan “kill the gays” legislation. He later went to Russia to report on the virulent homophobic movement there – both journeys a kind of reprise of his uncle’s travels to Sweden and Japan as well as to the GI coffee houses across America on behalf of beleaguered American servicemen – many of them hounded by the military for their opposition to the Vietnam War.
*This post has been written by Karen Grote Ferb, Bob’s collaborator on the blog.

**For more information about the GI Movement, underground press, and GI coffee houses, see , an award-winning documentary film covering those subjects dedicated to GI activist Jeff Sharlet.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

War in the Bush – Atrocity the Norm

[Dear Reader:  The time is at last at hand to turn full-time to writing the memoir. To facilitate the writing, the blog will continue to post, but now monthly on the 1st Wednesday of each month.  We will keep you informed about our progress to publication.]

Atrocity is usually thought of as the exception in war – certainly the American way of war. Witness the My Lai massacre of ’68 in Vietnam – when the cover-up was finally penetrated, it was considered a terrible aberration, a one-off tragedy of the war. Its horrific singularity was glibly explained away as failure of leadership and an infantry platoon that went berserk.

It wasn’t until years later we learned that it was only the scale of My Lai – the number of South Vietnamese civilians killed – that was unique. In fact, as was discovered when the Pentagon’s archives were at last opened, numerous US combat units – many of them well led by competent officers – committed atrocities in the countryside throughout that long, futile war. They were war crimes that went undetected, unreported, or, more often, investigated and quietly shelved.*

The Vietnam War was not a war of fronts with identifiable armies, but instead a series of relentless guerrilla actions large and small and counter- insurgent reactions. While US forces in the jungles of SVN were clearly recognizable by uniform, their main opponent for much of the conflict – the Viet Cong (VC) – was not, at least not until they attacked with AK-47s blazing. More often than not, the VC wore the black pajamas of the South Vietnamese peasantry, rendering them indistinguishable from civilians – like a ‘fish in water’ to quote Mao.

That was war in the bush with all the ambiguities of an elusive enemy in an often impenetrable terrain. There were few certainties in the Vietnam War – moral or otherwise. What, then, if we strip away all illusions to the contrary and assume the perverse position that the war’s many atrocities, especially against civilians, was frequently either the unacknowledged norm or certainly not the exception?

For the VC, the commission of atrocities was usually a coldly calculated policy for the purpose of intimidation in order to gain control of the peasant villes caught in the middle between the forces. The idea was to sever the allegiance of the countryside to the government in Saigon.

For American units, mistreatment of civilians, not to mention atrocities, was strictly against command policy. Many of the incidents that did occur were usually the result of the frustration caused by not being able to locate the elusive VC or tragic mistakes in the fog of war, but others were malevolent acts of barbarism by entire units.

In ’68, when brother Jeff Sharlet, an ex-Vietnam GI, founded Vietnam GI, the first GI-edited underground antiwar paper addressed to GIs, he was handed a photo of four US troopers who had just beheaded two VC bodies. It was an appalling sight – the first atrocity photo to emerge in public – and Jeff ran it over an antiwar caption, commenting, what did the generals expect from 18-year olds with M-16s acting like God in an ethical wilderness far removed from civilization?

The most eloquent and starkest case for atrocity as a bush war norm is made by the fictional character Colonel Kurtz, a maverick Special Forces commander in the Vietnam War flick, Apocalypse Now (1979). The story is straightforward – the colonel had become an embarrassment to the Army, to Saigon HQ, for his unorthodox tactics.

A Green Beret officer was dispatched to terminate his command, to take him out. In the end, even high command’s hit man, who had studied his target’s thick file and talked with him, came to see the perverse logic of Kurtz’s unbridled way of war.

Viewed appreciatively for its antiwar story line,** fine acting, and spectacular visuals, the film is a rare vehicle for traversing uncharted territory from atrocity as war crime to atrocity as strategic choice and tactical necessity in bush war. To see Kurtz’s contrarian rationale unfold, we need to accompany the designated terminator on his journey upriver to the colonel’s remote jungle camp.

Captain Willard is no innocent in Vietnam. He’s a seasoned Green Beret officer previously assigned to carry out targeted assassinations. The assignment awaiting him, however, will turn out to be radically different.

Willard is summoned into the presence of a general and his aide as well as a mysterious civilian, no doubt CIA. They hand him sealed orders for a classified mission – to travel hundreds of miles up a jungle river into off-limits territory, nominally neutral Cambodia, to terminate Kurtz. The general’s aide adds – with ‘extreme prejudice.’

Willard is mystified by the assignment, but is told only that Walter Kurtz, once a promising officer with a stellar record slated eventually for flag rank, had wandered off the reservation, broken with military authority, and was out there running his own war with ‘unsound methods’. Willard is given the colonel’s career file and sent on his way. He had done this kind of work before, but never against an American, least of all a fellow officer.

His route is to proceed upstream on the fictional Nung River through the Mekong Delta from Vietnam into Cambodia. Transport is a small, well-gunned Navy river patrol boat (PBR) manned by a crew of four. The crew’s initial obstacle is that the mouth of the Nung is controlled by a strongly fortified VC village. Movement orders call for Willard and crew to rendezvous with an infantry unit that will get them past the Cong.
Thus, the film becomes a riparian view of the Vietnam conflict or, as Willard puts it, a journey ‘up a river that snaked through the war’. The voyage will alternate between moments of sheer terror and interludes of manic frivolity ranging from war zone hijinks to bizarre encounters.

Their first encounter involves the full array of combat, oddly culminating in a recreational break more suitable to the Southern California coast than the shores of the Nung. Willard meets the swashbuckling Colonel Kilgore, whose hot shot air cavalry unit is to get the patrol boat past the VC strong point. Kilgore and troopers do so with heavy firepower and great panache.

Hueys in attack formation out of the sun

In the old horse cavalry tradition, a bugler sounds the call for a chopper attack on the VC ville. Outfitted with loudspeakers blasting out Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’, the lethal Hueys charge out of the sun, .50 cal machine guns blazing and rockets swooshing into the seemingly peaceful ville.

The surprise attack a success, the choppers land on the beach to carry out mopping up operations. Noting the waves where the Nung empties into the South China Sea, the cowboy colonel—decked out in a frontier-style campaign hat—begins planning a surfing exhibition. He’s been told that one of Willard’s crew is a famous Los Angeles surfer. Steaks and beer are choppered in, and the combat mission turns into a beach party as Willard, shaking his head in disbelief, and the PBR depart the unreal scene and head upriver.

Let's go surfin' now
Everybody's learning how
Come on and safari with me


Robert Duvall as Colonel Kilgore

As the boat makes its way upriver, Willard periodically reads Kurtz’s file in narrative voiceover, and we gradually hear the renegade colonel’s story and glimpse his ‘unsound’ philosophy of war. We learn that Kurtz was a soldier’s soldier, third generation Army, West Point, Green Beret airborne ranger, highly decorated. He had first been in Nam early in the war, ’64.

Tasked to assess the prospects for greater US involvement in the then still low profile guerrilla conflict, Kurtz disappointed the Joint Chiefs by handing in a pessimistic report. It was not what President Johnson (LBJ) and the Pentagon wanted to hear, and the report was buried in Washington. LBJ’s escalation followed in ’65.

The PBR steams on through the dense tropical terrain, unexpectedly coming upon more strange encounters – a run-in with a huge, snarling tiger ashore, a USO show with Playboy bunnies at a remote combat base strung with colored lights like a country fair, and a rendezvous at the last US outpost on the Nung where Willard is advised, ‘You’re in the asshole of the world, Captain’.

Willard continues reading Kurtz’s dossier, which reveals bit by bit his draconic approach to bush war. Key to Kurtz’s departure from the Army’s way of war was the first tour in Vietnam in ’64. Willard wonders what he saw that ultimately led him to become a hunted fugitive.

According to Pentagon documents in the file, Kurtz’s alienation from the military’s ‘good order and discipline’ occurred gradually. Returning to Nam for another tour as a Special Forces commander in ’67, he pulled off a highly successful, but officially unorthodox, operation against the VC using his Montagnard force without authorization from HQ. The Saigon generals were about to come down hard on Kurtz, but stateside publicity for his notable victory caused them to back off.

From his file, Willard understands that Kurtz scorned US policy of limiting GIs to one-year tours, which he felt only produced dilettantes, tourists passing through Vietnam. In contrast, for the VC the war was zero-sum. They had only two ways home – death or final victory. Hence, to fight the diehard VC the colonel relied on his savage native troops who were also in for the duration.

In late ’68 Kurtz finally went over the edge from his superiors’ point of view. His outfit had been suffering frequent ambushes, so he conducted a thorough investigation, identifying several South Vietnamese personnel as double agents. He ordered them assassinated. Obviously he was right because enemy activity in the area dropped dramatically, but for Saigon HQ he had finally gone too far – they charged him with murder.

By then, Kurtz and his ragged force were beyond reach – he had gone deep into Cambodia, out of bounds for US personnel. Thus, when Willard received his lethal assignment, he was told his mission did not officially exist. The Army was operating off the books to get one of their own.

As for the fugitive colonel, in a letter to his son that somehow found its way into his official file, Kurtz defended himself against the charges. As Willard thought to himself, charging someone with murder in Vietnam was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500. To his son, Kurtz expressed the same opinion of the charges, which he found ‘under the circumstances of this conflict, quite completely insane’.

As the PBR makes its approach to the river’s end and Kurtz’s compound, surprises await Willard and his naval comrades. The first is an attack on the boat by hundreds of natives hidden along the banks. Thousands of arrows rain down on the crew as they frantically return fire with their M-60s and twin .50 cal machine guns raking the tree lines.

None of the arrows hit their mark, but a spear kills ‘Chief,’ the boat captain and helmsman. As Willard soon discovers ashore, the attackers were fearful he was coming to take away their man-god, Kurtz. They were, of course, right.

As the boat closes on the dock, ghastly sights, obviously intended to ward off intruders, greet Willard – dozens of skulls on poles, dead bodies dangling from trees like so much strange fruit, flaming torches, and most gruesome, numerous bodies impaled on sharp stakes. At the edge of the river, he sees piles of corpses, half in, half out of the water. Already apprehensive, Willard can have little doubt of what lies ahead.

Going ashore he walks toward a vast throng of heavily-armed natives, many with bows and spears, others gripping modern weapons. A spaced-out American, part of Kurtz’s exotic entourage, serves as his guide as he seeks out the colonel to talk with him. Willard is guided to an enormous ancient Cambodian temple on a rise dominating the sprawling encampment.

It’s Kurtz’s headquarters, his command center, his sanctuary from the civilization he left behind downstream. Before Willard is ushered into Kurtz’s presence, his hands are bound, and two loin-clothed warriors bearing AK-47s fall in behind him.

Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz

What followed was more an ‘audience’ than a meeting between two officers of the US Army. Sitting in a shadowy recess, Kurtz does most of the talking – at first his questions to the captain are prosaic, but then turn ominous:

Kurtz: Are you an assassin?
Willard: I’m a soldier.
Kurtz: You’re neither. You’re an errand boy sent by grocery clerks to collect a bill.

On an unobtrusive signal to the escorts, Willard is hauled off and confined to a tiger cage in the scorching sun. Nearly losing consciousness, after a time he is brought before Kurtz again who is reading aloud from T.S. Eliot, a poem foreshadowing what his departure from civilized norms and the adoption of brutal methods of warfare have cost him personally:

We are the hollow men,
The stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw.***

Willard realizes that the strange, highly articulate man before him has slipped the bounds of sanity into madness. He grasps that, for the generals, Kurtz’s assassination of the South Vietnamese double agents was merely the pretext for his own deadly mission.

In reality, the Army has to get rid of the mad colonel whose ‘unsound methods’ in prosecuting the war – his private war – have made a mockery of the ‘rules of engagement’ as well as the standing directive on avoiding collateral damage whenever possible.

Instead, Kurtz faces the VC, a ruthless and implacable foe, by adopting their harsh norms absent the superficial ‘etiquette’ of Western-style warfare. In effect, the outlaw colonel gives the lie to the policy of ‘limited war’, instead conducting his own war within the war writ large as one of total annihilation.
As Willard sits passively before him, Kurtz opens up further, revealing the traumatic scene that first unhinged him and became the source of his progressive alienation from higher authority. Unmoored by his experience, Kurtz had become a deeply troubled figure ruling a primitive empire, alone and adrift in a bottomless sea of darkness.

The colonel describes the moment at which he broke with his previous persona and career. It was in ’64. Aside from assessing the situation for Washington, part of his mission was to win the ‘hearts & minds’ of villagers in his area of operation – to garner good will for the South Vietnamese government in the capital by good deeds on its behalf.

Kurtz’s A-team entered a ville where his medic inoculated the children against polio. After the team returned to its camp, a village elder came running to tell them a terrible thing had happened. Kurtz and his men rushed back and beheld a shocking sight. The VC had hacked off the inoculated arms of every child, and thrown the severed limbs into a pile. Kurtz was overwhelmed with grief:
I cried, I wept … I wanted to tear my teeth out.And I want to remember it, I never want to forget it.                  
But calming down he looked at the waking nightmare clearly, and understood the VC’s message:
My God, the genius of that! … The will to do that.I realized they were stronger than we. Becausethey could stand it. These were not monsters.These were men.
Thus, his initiation to bush war where horror and moral terror were the norm – to kill without feeling, without passion, without judgment.

By the time Willard had reached his destination, Kurtz had gone over the edge and was leading his personal legion of fierce native warriors in a private war on the VC. For Kurtz, atrocity was no longer the exception, but the norm. He summarizes for Willard his unvarnished philosophy of war:
Horror and moral terror are your friends [in war].
If not, they are your enemies to be feared.
Furtively reentering the temple later, Willard carries out his assignment, assassinating Kurtz, but he has become deeply affected by his exposure to the colonel’s primordial, uncompromising logic of war.

His grisly task accomplished, Willard makes his way back to the boat where the voice of command can be heard over the radio, awaiting the signal for an air strike to eliminate the remnants of Kurtz’s tribe from the face of the earth.

This is the end
Beautiful friend
This is the end††

However, a profoundly changed Willard flips the radio off and sails away downriver, turning his back on the Army,

*N Turse, Kill Anything That Moves (2013)
**V Canby, New York Times Movie Review (August 15, 1979)
***T S Eliot, “The Hollow Men” (1925)

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