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)

Links to music videos:


Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Antiwar Activism or Pro Football – Never the Twain Will Meet

[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.]

As editor of Vietnam GI (VGI), his underground antiwar paper, Jeff Sharlet traveled the country constantly and even occasionally went abroad seeking stories to run in the paper. In the States, he most often sought out GIs just back from Vietnam, but he also met with antiwar activists. Aside from his charisma, Jeff had the additional cachet of being an ex-Vietnam GI – Been there, done that.

One of the most unusual people Jeff encountered was Dave Meggyesy, a pro football player. Meggyesy was then a star linebacker for the Cardinals, the National Football League (NFL) team in St Louis. He was one of the very few players in the NFL who was also an activist. Even more unusual, he was the rare political radical in the ranks of pro ball.

Dave Meggyesy had been a poor farm boy from Ohio whose stellar performance as a high school player earned him a football scholarship to Syracuse University, a football power in upstate New York. The previous season, Syracuse had won the national championship.

One of the most unusual people Jeff encountered was Dave Meggyesy…the rare political radical in the ranks of pro ball

Meggyesy fulfilled the coaches’ expectations, being named All-American honorable mention in his Sophomore season, although from the outset he was also something of a maverick on the Syracuse squad.

Dave Meggyesy tackling a runner, Syracuse-Notre Dame game, 1961

Football players were expected to take so-called remedial courses, the easiest possible to ensure their academic eligibility to play under NCAA rules. However, Dave bucked the coaches and insisted on taking regular, more demanding courses of his choice. Then, as he proved himself in the games, he was offered cash under the table for his ‘services’ to the team – a standard illegal practice in big time college football – but as an athletic purist he was taken aback and initially refused.

Further worrying the authoritarian head coach was his non-conformity – Dave lived off-campus with his girlfriend instead of in the team dorm. To make matters worse, the two of them hung out with irreverent arts students the coach regarded as ‘beatniks’.  They also read ‘subversive’ literature by Aldous Huxley, Ernest Becker, and Jack Kerouac, America’s ultimate rebel.

After a standout gridiron career at Syracuse, the St Louis Cardinals drafted him for the ’63 NFL season. A tackle in college, the pros converted him to linebacker, a key position on the defensive team requiring speed, agility, and intelligence. Dave had a very good rookie season in St Louis and was considered a player of promise, but he nonetheless continued his free-spirited ways to the distress of the coaching staff.

During the off-season, Dave enrolled in grad school at Washington University, a very distinguished institution in St Louis. Intending to eventually become a doctor, he took pre-med courses, but later switched to Sociology where he came under the influence of a noted politically active mentor. Professor Irving Louis Horowitz put him on to the writings of recently deceased C Wright Mills, arguably the most radical, intellectually combative scholar of the day.

Dave Meggyesy, St Louis Cardinals

Once the football season got underway each fall, Meggyesy was all business, constantly perfecting his game and making significant contributions to the Cardinals. Off-season however, he began taking an interest in politics. Although he was Caucasian, in ’64 he was asked by the St Louis chapter of the NAACP to lend his name for fund-raising.

He momentarily hesitated, worrying what the team owner might think of him stepping out of his purely jock role, but then gave his consent and retrospectively considered the decision to get involved his first political commitment.

During the following year, 1965, as President Johnson dramatically escalated the war in Vietnam, Dave became politically active. As antiwar opposition heated up on the nation’s campuses, he attended Washington University’s ‘teach-in’ against the war where he made contact with the campus Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) chapter. Although he didn’t formally become a member, he attended SDS meetings and found himself in agreement on the war issue.

His new SDS friends at the university introduced Dave to the radical press – the hard-hitting magazine Ramparts, published in the intensely political San Francisco Bay Area; and the left paper, The Guardian, out of New York. That fall the march on Washington conflicted with his daytime job as linebacker, but his wife made the trip to the capital.

Football was the singular focus and all-consuming passion during the season for most of Meggyesy’s teammates. Dave, however, was privately conflicted about his profession. He disliked the coaches’ treating adult men as juveniles, the many petty rules such as bed check, and the fact that players were often compelled to play injured – shot up with painkillers by the team doc.

Dave was privately conflicted about his profession, disliked being treated like a juvenile, petty rules, and players compelled to play injured shot up with painkillers

Dave Meggyesy, linebacker

Most of all he was shocked by the racism in the St Louis organization – for road games Black players were segregated in accommodations and eating arrangements. On the personal side during annual training camp, Meggyesy – to some degree a straight arrow – wasn’t particularly keen on post-scrimmage rituals of boozing, brawling, and philandering. Although he got along with his teammates, who respected him for his ability, he never ‘fit in’ with the culture of the outfit.

In effect, Dave Meggyesy was not in sync with his peers. His innate intellectual curiosity alone set him apart, but it was his progressive radical activism that began to open up a growing divide between him and the politically conservative owner and coaches.

Dave’s intellectual curiosity alone set him apart, but his activism opened a divide between him and the conservative owner and coaches

He had given an antiwar talk at nearby Southern Illinois University, which elicited an outraged letter from a Cardinal fan to the owner. Then, in April of ’67 Dave took off for New York to be part of the huge march against the war and later that fall helped organize and finance buses to Washington for St Louis activists participating in the great demonstration at the Pentagon.

During spring ’68, brother Jeff was on the road again for VGI, visiting GI antiwar coffee houses where he’d meet with combat veterans and men training for Vietnam. On this tour, his itinerary took him down to the Mad Anthony Wayne GI coffee house outside the giant infantry training base at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

A meeting was arranged between Jeff and Dave Meggyesy in St Louis. Unfortunately, with the passage of time when I contacted Dave in recent years, he couldn’t recall their conversation, but presumably they rapped about the war and the emerging GI protest movement.

That spring Dave and his wife were in the thick of the antiwar movement, often hosting large SDS meetings at their house. By then, his political resume was nearly as impressive as his football feats, and he had attracted FBI surveillance.

Cardinals’ management had grown quite uncomfortable with his dissidence, which was attracting many letters from angry ‘patriotic’ fans. The bottom line for management was of course the gate and profits.

Just before the ‘68 summer training camp, Meggyesy received an oblique but clear indication that management was going to ask him to make a choice – politics or football, never the twain will meet. He was only saved from the ultimatum when the team’s racism finally broke in the news, and the owners felt they couldn’t handle a political scandal as well.

Undeterred by the threat looming over him, at training camp in northern Michigan Meggyesy circulated a petition among his teammates in support of Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, the peace candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Eugene McCarthy button

He collected a surprising number of signatures from teammates and after practice drove down to the Chicago convention to lobby the Missouri delegation on behalf of McCarthy. To no avail however – Missouri was firmly in the camp of the mainstream candidate, Vice-President Hubert Humphrey.

In ’69, which would turn out to be Dave’s final season in pro ball, he publicly irritated fans, management, and teammates when he consistently refused to salute the flag during the National Anthem before games. During one game, a belligerent fan heckled the maverick linebacker unremittingly, shouting that he was a ‘commie’.

During the season, the St Louis organization finally lost patience when Dave gave an extensive interview to a major Philadelphia daily criticizing the Cardinals’ management, the culture of football in general, and, of course, the war. The coaches no longer spoke to him, and he was benched, sitting out most of the games.

In the highly divisive and charged atmosphere over the war in the country in the late ‘60s, activist politics and pro football – his conscience and his profession – proved a toxic mix for Dave Meggyesy. By that point, he was thoroughly disenchanted with everything about football, and being punitively benched for lesser players was the final straw for him. At the height of his career, he quit the game at the end of his seventh season, packed up his wife and kids, and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area.

There, with the help of a Berkeley professor, Dave wrote his controversial autobiography, Out of Their League (1971). One reviewer called it “the first critical look at the dehumanizing aspects of pro football,”* and the book soon became a best seller. 

Subsequently, in addition to a personally rewarding stint coaching high school football, Dave devoted the rest of his working life to following his conscience. He went on to teach courses on the sociology of sports at Stanford University, founded ‘Athletes United for Peace’, co-founded the Esalen Sports Center, and eventually headed the western region of the NFL Players  Association, the labor union of pro ball, finally retiring in 2007.
*San Jose Mercury News, date unknown

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Rear Echelon Blues – Then Came War

[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 beginning August 6th.  We will keep you informed about our progress to publication.]
Duty in the Philippines (PI) seemed like a playground to my brother Jeff Sharlet, stationed there in early ’63. It was a bit like being back on a college campus, but instead of going to classes the GIs worked shifts on classified material. They were Vietnamese linguists (lingys) in a communications intelligence outfit, the Army Security Agency (ASA), an adjunct of the NSA, the National Security Agency. Off-duty, their time was theirs, and Jeff made the most of it as if on prolonged spring break.

However, by June he was growing weary of the routine in the PI. You might call it the rear echelon blues. The action was elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Also the drenching rains of the monsoon season, which began in May,   had a depressing effect. And the work translating intercepted North Vietnamese military communications, initially interesting to Jeff, had become predictable and tedious.

Equally tiresome was the usual GI social scene of starting out at the Airmen’s Club at Clark Air Force Base (AFB) with its cheap drinks, then moving on to the low-life bars of Angeles City – the nearby GI town -- and the occasional trips to the more upscale watering holes of Manila, the capital. Jeff was becoming jaded with endless pub crawling.

The PI scene had become all too familiar to him until the abrupt call to war suddenly changed everything, as we’ll see in the following excerpts from his letters home.

2 Jun 63 – back from leave at the 9th ASA, Clark AFB, the Philippines

          I recently returned from Hong Kong. It’s a great place, sort of an orientalized San Francisco or an anglicized Chinese city.

Hong Kong harbor

Thanks for the book on Southeast Asia. I haven’t read it yet, but I have little hope for the future of this region. The present situation is the fault of the British, French, Dutch, and American colonialists.

4 Jun 63

Last night I went to town, the night before I went to town, the night before that I went to town. Tonight I will go to town, tomorrow night I’ll go to town, the next night I’ll go to town, as a matter of fact I go to town frequently.

          I also sing with the Clark Glee Club to improve Philippine-American relations.

♫ Just an old sweet song
Keeps Georgia on my mind

19 Jun 63

          Well, I’ve completed about a third of my tour of duty. My only useful activity is singing in the Clark Glee Club. We sang on Manila TV on a Jack Paar-type show last week. Our group is very popular with the American and Filipino communities.

          We sing some songs in Tagalog.* We sang at the joint US military aid group in Manila for all the generals and admirals who advise this country on its defenses. They gave us a filet mignon and lobster dinner.

          Last week we sang at an officer’s club on an American naval base where we got roast beef. I was talking to a Navy captain’s wife in the bar, and she told me single Navy officers find this a very boring assignment, as do peons like me.

          Nice Asian girls, except in westernized Japan and Hong Kong, do not go out with Caucasians. It is not socially acceptable. Therefore, all GIs from lieutenants to privates are relegated to bar girls.

Right now I’m off the hostess kick and spending less time in the local GI town. I’m going more often to Manila where the people are a little more worldly.

♫ Hit the road, Jack
And don’t you come back’
No more, no more††

          I never realized how great the little conveniences of the States were. For instance – toilet seats, sidewalks, paved streets, air-conditioned buses, trash collectors, clean food, clean people, and the absence of bugs and dust.

          Here when you travel on an intercity bus, if someone has to go to the bathroom, he yells, the driver stops, people get off, women squat on one side, men on the other.

          At least with the rain, everything’s no longer brown; the sugar cane and rice shoots are green now. All in all, I try to make the best of a hurting situation.

Monsoon downpour

30 Jun 63

          My ‘whole goal in life’ is not to go into town drinking every night. I have some good friends here in the unit who are extremely intelligent, mostly guys from the Army Language School (ALS).

We travel together, have great intellectual discussions over beers, and do other things. I’m making the best of it. I do a lot of reading and keep busy all the time.

I think about important problems in the States and the world. For example, three cops beating a Negro woman in Birmingham, a fanatic assassinates a Negro leader in Jackson, Mississippi, and another fanatic in Atlanta slashing a sit-in student. Filipinos ask about these incidents, and there is little one can say.

23 Jul 63

          I have read most of the books you sent, but I’m still reading the last few. I just finished ‘Dr. Zhivago’ and I’m now reading ‘The Marxists’ by C Wright Mills.

          Southeast Asia is an amazingly complicated problem. In my own mind, I haven’t yet come up with a way of offsetting Chinese Communist influence and keeping these states non-communist.

For instance, Burma has pro-Chinese Communists and more nationalist Communists; it’s not a cohesive entity in any sense, politically, ethnically, or geographically. This situation is repeated in every Southeast Asian state.

19 Aug 63 on leave in Tokyo

This is a very beautiful country, which is much like the US economically and physically, but very different culturally. It has been an interesting and educational experience.

 Japan in bloom

Then a week later, a sudden brief, cryptic message home.

27 Aug 63 from the Clark AFB flight line 

I’m leaving for Vietnam for some ‘field work’.

If you miss the train I’m on, you will know that I am gone
You can hear the whistle blow a hundred miles†††

Back story: Jeff and a small team of Vietnamese lingys were abruptly dispatched from the PI as the internal political crisis in South Vietnam intensified during summer ‘63. Relations between the Catholic political elite around President Diem and the Buddhist clergy had worsened.

A Buddhist monk publicly burned himself to death in protest against the regime. The shock waves were felt throughout the country and beyond as the horrific news photo went around the world.

When a second Buddhist self-immolation occurred soon after, the South Vietnamese military elite cautiously inquired of the American Embassy what the US attitude might be toward a coup.

The war against the Viet Cong was not going well, and by then President Kennedy (JFK) had lost patience with Diem’s resistance to the reforms needed for winning ‘hearts & minds’ in the villages.

In late August, JFK cabled his new ambassador to ‘green light’ the South Vietnamese generals. The conspirators immediately began secretly planning an anti-Diem coup.  

Anxious to keep abreast of the clandestine developments in Saigon, the White House relied on reporting from its military and intelligence sources in the Embassy as well as the special team of ASA specialists flown in from Clark.

Jeff and his fellow lingys had been quickly assembled with full field gear and sent off posthaste to Vietnam. They were installed in a remote corner of a base outside Saigon where they worked around the clock covertly tapping all the coup-planners’ voice communications.

As to the ‘big picture’ of why they were eavesdropping on allies, the plans afoot were well above the ASA team’s pay grade and ‘Need to Know’. However, daily arrangements for the transfer of their translated intercepts to a nearby air base to be flown out to NSA-Washington, gave the team a pretty good idea of how serious the matter was.

Each day’s intelligence product was packed in ammo cans rigged with thermite grenades, then transported by jeep under armed guard. ASA’s security guards were under orders to pull the grenade pins and run like hell if there was any danger the material might be compromised and the clandestine US operation exposed to the South Vietnamese government.

15 Oct 63 ASA monitoring base at Phu Lam

          Jeff wrote me from Saigon that he and the special ASA group were pulling out and returning to the Philippines.

During the rush deployment from the PI, Jeff had forgotten to leave a forwarding address at the Clark mailroom, and while he was in Vietnam on that first tour he never wrote home.

Of course he couldn’t write about the secret operation – not even fellow ASA troops in the area with high security clearances were entitled to know – but off-duty Jeff did do other things that could be put in a letter. He was especially taken with Saigon, then called the Paris of the Orient.

 Saigon flower stall, 1963

Meanwhile, our Mother wrote him at Clark AFB, but her letter came back marked ‘UNKNOWN’. Understandably upset, she called their local Congressman who advised a letter to the Army’s Adjutant General.

She wrote the general at the Pentagon that very day, “Dear Sir: I will appreciate your advising me by return mail exactly where my son is.” Unaware of the distress he had caused our parents, Jeff casually resumed corresponding from the PI.

29 Oct 63 – back at 9th ASA, Clark AFB

          I’m now back in the PI after 49 days in Vietnam. Don’t believe what Madame Nhu** is saying in the States. The fact remains that South Vietnam is a complete dictatorship and the Buddhists are persecuted.

          The rainy season has ended, but heat and humidity linger. Hopefully we’ll have cooler weather soon. This climate breeds lethargy.

♫ We’re having a heat wave,
A tropical heat wave††††
My driver’s license was supposed to be renewed by September 30th, and I didn’t do it. I was in Vietnam at the time, in the jungle. I’ll write to Motor Vehicles and tell them I was fighting a war and to please excuse this oversight.

On 1 Nov ‘63 the South Vietnamese generals carried out their successful coup during which the president and his brother, the notorious secret police chief Nhu, were assassinated. General Minh, leader of the junta, became the new head of state, beginning a long period of political instability in Saigon.

General Minh, new head of state, 1963

Meanwhile, on the lighter side of history, our Mother’s insistent inquiry as to Jeff’s whereabouts had worked its way down the chain of command from Washington to Saigon and back to the 9th ASA at Clark – much to his embarrassment:

5 Nov 63

          I know you must have been worried when your letter was returned to you, especially after reading about the coup in Saigon (by the way it’s the best thing that's happened in Vietnam in a decade; now the people are very happy).

          I neglected to write to tell you I had returned to the PI, but I wish you hadn’t contacted your Congressman. It caused a lot of trouble for the field station commander, my company commander (CO), and me.

I’m writing this letter because I have received a direct order from my CO to write one tonight. He even wants to see me put it in the mail.

          Please be more discreet in the future. The Army and I (although at opposite ends of the philosophical totem pole), do not relish embarrassments and inconveniences like this.

22 Nov 63

          In the middle of the night we heard of the President’s assassination. No words can describe the gloom that hangs over this place. It’s as if a little bit of everyone suddenly died. It was more than a shock – much more than a shock.

20 Dec 63

          I think the States are going to hell under the strain of the ‘Cold War’. As for me, I haven’t yet decided whether I’m going to agitate in my society to better it, or retire from the struggle completely to hide in some environment like the academic community.

          Vietnam is a little quieter these days. Happy Holidays.

          The turbulent year ’63 came to a subdued end, but then just several weeks later in early ‘64 another coup took place in Saigon, and Jeff was soon on his way back to Vietnam – back to war – a story for another time.    

*Tagalog, along with English, one of the two official languages of the Philippines.

**Diem’s sister-in-law, then on a speaking tour in the US promoting the regime.