Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Green Beret Antiwarrior

We first heard about Gary Rader from Tom Cleaver, a Hollywood screenwriter and former Vietnam War sailor. Tom and my brother, Jeff Sharlet, had first met in Chicago late summer ’67. Jeff had recently moved to town from Indiana University where he’d completed his BA, won a Woodrow Wilson national fellowship, and was about to enroll in the University of Chicago’s PhD program in Political Science. The two Vietnam vets happened to turn up at a meeting of the Chicago Area Draft Resisters (CADRE) led by a somewhat strange but charismatic young man named Gary Rader, one of the group’s founders.

At that time Rader was unusual in antiwar circles – he was in the Special Forces, albeit as a reservist. Graduating from Northwestern University (NWU) in nearby Evanston in 1966, he had enlisted in a Green Beret reserve unit based in Illinois. While serving the required 10 weeks active duty at Fort Bragg NC, the young recruit heard war stories from Special Forces troops returning from Vietnam, tales of military blunders, killings of civilians, and widespread corruption in the Saigon regime. Returning to Chicago, Rader co-founded CADRE, a Quaker anti-draft group, which became one of the largest in the country.

Six months after that summer meeting, Jeff launched Vietnam GI, the first GI-led antiwar paper addressed to active duty troops, and Gary Rader was on the masthead as a contributing editor for the first issues in early '68. Obviously, he was someone I wanted to talk with for the memoir about Brother Jeff. So Karen set out to find him.

Who was Gary Rader? Those who knew the young man in the ‘60s described him as tall, blond, ruggedly handsome, and good-natured. Dr. Benjamin Spock also said he was “rugged looking”. From of his NWU profs I learned Rader had been an exceptionally talented undergrad political scientist, had even collaborated with his mentor on an article for a learned journal. The professor added that he was a friendly, likeable fellow, but short on patience with those who didn’t pick up on things as quickly as he did, including even his profs.

Gary Rader was initially apathetic about the Vietnam War, although strongly opposed to the draft as a means of raising troops for fighting it. At another point, he described himself as pro-war, but by fall of ’67 he had moved 180 degrees to the left, writing in the New York Review of Books: “I was finally willing to admit this war was illegal, unjust, immoral, stupid, you name it.” During that same year, as Rader acquired national visibility in the antiwar movement, he wrote a short autobiographical piece which included an unusual statement equating himself with Muhammad Ali, the most prominent draft resister of the day, arguing that he and Ali were the government’s leading targets for repression.

Beginning spring ’67, Rader became a familiar participant in national antiwar demos in New York and Washington, quite conspicuous in his military uniform with bloused boots and the distinctive headgear of the Special Forces. You couldn’t miss him, and the New York Times didn’t miss his presence as a member of the Army’s foremost group of warriors standing amongst thousands of civilian protestors. Ex-Vietnam GIs—and especially active duty troopers—in uniform were still fairly rare at the big demos of those times.

Gary Rader in uniform, NYC demo, 1967

The zenith of Gary Rader’s career as an antiwarrior was the great Pentagon protest of fall ’67. He was a major player as one of the principal speakers. In Norman Mailer’s book, Armies of the Night, which appeared not long after, the author wrote many that day felt the speech by Gary Rader was the finest of the occasion. Speaking with bullhorn in hand to tens of thousands of protestors facing hundreds of soldiers, bayonets fixed, with helicopters whirling overhead, Rader, whose voice at the outset overlapped in a surreal way with the officer trying to keep his troops in line, began:

My name is Gary Rader; I’m twenty-three years …
‘Company B hold your line. Nobody comes, nobody goes’.
I was in the Special Forces Reserve
‘Company B hold your line’
and I quit and I want …
‘nobody comes, nobody goes’
I want to tell you what led me to that …
‘Company hold your line’
what led me up to that decision.
‘nobody comes, nobody goes’
We will be heard ….
And he was heard as the officer fell silent, and Rader carried his teach-in not just to the civilian legions, but to the troops themselves, many of whom had surely just experienced their first critical view of the war.

Rader was arrested and in and out of court and jail several times in the course of his activism. In 1970 he had a role in a movie with Youth International Party (Yippy) leader Abbie Hoffman, and then, as abruptly as he had burst upon the national scene several years earlier, Gary Rader to all extents and purposes disappeared. Karen queried a number of former CADRE activists, but no one had seen or heard of him for years, even decades, until one day several years ago she found an old CADRE hand, now an academic, who told us what happened.

Movie poster: Gary Rader on left with guitar

Rader had relocated to New York where he worked with the long time antiwar group, War Resisters League. But, as we learned, he became unstable, “never got his feet on the ground.” His mother and girlfriend later managed to get him into a psychiatric facility. And it was there in November ’73 that Gary Rader took his own life. Like his old comrade Jeff Sharlet, he died too young. Unlike Jeff who succumbed to illness four years earlier, we don’t know why.

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