Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Torture in Vietnam

It’s no secret that torture was used in the Vietnam War – by both sides. However, I’m interested here in the American side of the equation, to wit, when US personnel were involved or bore witness. It’s commonly assumed torture on ‘our’ side of the conflict could be laid at the door of our South Vietnamese allies, both the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and the national police. Indeed, there were many accounts of ARVN soldiers or police kicking or punching Vietcong (VC) prisoners who were tightly bound as well as civilian VC suspects. There were also reports of waterboarding, a harsh technique for extracting information, now widely known since 9/11.

It was a model soldier, Master Sgt Donald Duncan, who first blew the lid publically on the widespread use of torture in Vietnam. A highly decorated Green Beret sent to Vietnam in ’65, Sgt Duncan turned down a field commission a year later and left the Army over his profound opposition to the mission and how it was being carried out. Part of it was his revulsion as a soldier to the torture he witnessed and the complicity of US forces in handing over civilians suspected of VC sympathy to the ARVN. Duncan published a major firsthand exposé in a radical magazine and testified in ‘67 at the Copenhagen session of the International War Crimes Tribunal organized by Lord Bertrand Russell as to what he saw and heard in Vietnam. The torture issue was out in the open.

US troops were not only accomplices in the use of torture, but active participants as well. A former medical officer told me how he witnessed wounded VC being tortured over his objections. A combat unit back from the field brought a couple of seriously wounded enemy soldiers to his aid tent. He and his staff patched them up so they could be quickly medevaced to a field hospital for urgent medical care if they were to survive for standard post-action interrogation. The combat personnel, however, would not wait and began immediate interrogation through an interpreter before the trail went cold. The objections of the military doc, the regimental surgeon himself, were overruled on the basis the military situation took precedence. The method of ‘persuasion’ was poking the prisoners’ wounds, causing great pain if answers weren’t forthcoming on their unit’s strength, deployment, and equipment. Other times, patrols in the field conducted ad hoc interrogations under threat of torture, trying to learn whereabouts of the elusive enemy.

Field interrogation by knife*

By far though, the most common form of torture employed by US forces was euphemistically called the “Bell telephone hour,” a reference to the instrument used as well as to a familiar stateside music program sponsored by the Bell Telephone Company. This technique involved using a standard military field telephone to deliver a painful shock to the person under interrogation when cooperation was withheld. Military Intelligence (MI), a branch of the Army, was principally responsible for interrogating captured enemy soldiers as well as civilians suspected of being VC. The use of the field phone to extract information was routine for MI’s trained interrogators.

Although Jeff served in Vietnam with the Army Security Agency (ASA), a communications intelligence outfit, he would have been aware of MI and their procedures. Apropos, he located Peter Martinsen, a former MI interrogator in Vietnam, and interviewed him for Vietnam GI (VGI) so that GI readers would know what was going on in those MI tents. A little background on Peter Martinsen: he had also testified before the Russell Tribunal on war crimes, an unofficial body of distinguished international public intellectuals and members of the arts, at the Copenhagen session in ‘67. A member of the tribunal wrote that they were “overwhelmed” by Martinsen’s testimony. A young man, son of a psychology professor, he was demoralized by what he had been required to do, including beating Vietnamese civilians under interrogation; witnessing torture daily; and having caused the death of a teenage girl by forcing her out of hiding with a smoke bomb. Needless to say, Martinsen had turned against the war, deeply upset by what he’d been involved in.

Brother Jeff caught up with Peter in the States. He had been with the 541st Military Intelligence, the MI detachment with the 11th Armored Cav Regiment, which operated in Long Khanh Province about 50 miles east of Saigon. Like Jeff, he was a Vietnamese linguist, but an interrogator as well. Jeff asked him how he tried to get information out of the people rounded up, including women and children. Martinsen replied:

Force was used a lot, and like … you could beat them with your open hand and not leave a mark on them. Electrical torture with a field phone … it really gives a nasty shock. You know how bad it is, and you can imagine being shocked for three or four hours by one of those things. That was pretty common.
Standard torture device of military interrogators

To convert the above EA312 military phone to an electrotorture device, the interrogator merely had to attach a ground wire and a hot wire to the terminal block at the top of the instrument at one end, and to sensitive parts of the prisoner’s body at the other end. Then each turn of the crank on the side (which would normally cause a phone to ring elsewhere), delivered a short but powerful shock to the individual being asked questions.

Peter Martinsen concluded saying, “This is a dirty war, and there’s no reason on earth for us to be there.” At the time of his interview with VGI in early ’68, Martinsen was 23. A few years later he committed suicide.

*Photo credit Joseph Carey

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Army Pushback

As Jeff Sharlet’s Vietnam GI (VGI) circulated widely among troops stateside and in Vietnam, the Army began to push back, a clear signal the paper was hitting its mark. The first indication that VGI and its impact on the troops was worrying the military authorities (generally called ‘the brass’) appeared in VGI’s ‘Mail Bag’ for the June issue of 1968. Jeff printed the following letter from an Army legal officer in Vietnam under the heading “VGI RATTLES BRASS”:
Department of the Army
HQ 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile)
Office of the Division Staff Judge Advocate
APO San Francisco 96490*
*[The route for all mail to and from US personnel in Vietnam]

Dear Mr. Sharlet:

Some idiot who is editor of Vietnam GI … is using your name and is mailing his ‘writing’ to members of the Public Information Office (PIO) section of this Division. The personnel there have enough good publications to occupy their time and have no desire to read the filth and untruths published in Vietnam GI.

James A. Mundt
Major, Judge Advocate General [JAG] Corps
Division Staff Judge Advocate
At the end of Major Mundt’s letter, VGI’s editors commented: “Screw you. Let’s hear from the EMs (enlisted men) in the PIO section themselves.”

A month later, the JAG office of the 1st Air Cav, then based at An Khe in Binh Dinh Province, upped the ante. VGI was usually mailed with various real and fictitious return addresses from Chicago and New York to avoid unwanted attention from postal inspectors on the lookout for ‘seditious literature’, as well as company commanders (CO) in Vietnam trying to prevent ‘subversive’ material from reaching their troops.

In this case, a JAG Lt Colonel wrote to VGI’s East Coast distributor that the paper “does serious violence to the truth”, its “political philosophy is of no consequence”, and, with no hint of irony, that “people here are dying to preserve freedom of the ‘press’.” To stress that he considered VGI a danger to the 1st Air Cav, the colonel added a notation to the bottom left corner of his letter – “Copy furnished: FBI, 201 E 69th St, New York, NY 10021.”

The brass’s discomfort with troops reading VGI of course didn’t deter Jeff and the editors. On the contrary, more copies were printed and shipped to Nam (in plain brown wrappers under the radar), so the Army tried a new tactic – a training film.

During fall of ’68, a “Nam veteran” was handing out copies of Vietnam GI to new recruits at Fort Dix NJ and surprised to learn they already knew about the paper. Their CO had lectured the recruits, warning that VGI and other underground papers were trying to confuse them about the war, and then he required them to sit through a short training film on the subject. As one recruit described the film:

GIs go to a party – in their Class A’s [day uniforms],  dig? – and they meet some nice broads. Well these chicks ask the guys how they like the Army and they say, ‘Oh, it’s Okay’. Then one of the chicks shows them a paper called Vietnam GI and tells the guys that this paper is on the soldier’s side and against the officers.

Young woman handing out VGI at Boston Army Center ‘68

Another recruit picks up the story – the lights go up and the CO comes back on, telling them VGI is written by communists and intended to get them “pissed off about the war and the draft.”

In a kind of barracks epitaph for the Army’s pushback efforts, the GI added: “Personally, most of us guys figure [the CO] and the other lifers are running scared.”

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

"Dear Jeff", Vietnam GI’s Mail Bag

At the end of fall semester ‘67, my brother, Jeff Sharlet, withdrew from the University of Chicago grad school to go fulltime on his passion, GI antiwar protest. He and fellow ex-Vietnam GIs launched his underground paper Vietnam GI (VGI) at the start of ‘68. The January and February issues had been sent out – to Army bases in the States and to quite a number of individual soldiers in Vietnam. The initial issue contained a box offering VGI free to any military personnel whose address was received. The response was almost immediate and enormous.

Offer to receive VGI free

Handwritten letters-to-the-editor, “Dear Jeff”, began arriving along with ‘subscription’ requests at VGI’s Chicago office from troops in Vietnam as well as stateside units. Members of the paper’s floating staff (civilian supporters who turned up to stuff envelopes and other clerical chores as needed) would type up each letter; the letter writer then received the next issue of VGI along with a reply from one of the editors. By the March ‘68 issue, the first batch of letters ran on page two under ‘Mail Bag’ in large, bold letters, identified just by the writer’s rank and unit to protect him from military retaliation for his act of protest.
The first seven letters to appear reflected the scope of VGI’s reach, from Vietnam in – the Central Highlands, to up near the North Vietnamese border, and on a war ship in the South China Sea; and to West Germany as well as stateside Army and Air Force bases (AFB). The lead letter dated 8 March 68 from Pleiku was typical of many that followed. A trooper in the 4th Infantry Division, having read the first two issues, requested a subscription not just for himself, but for a number of his buddies. Another writer from the China Beach area, most likely a Marine, asking for the next issue, said simply “I like most what I seen in your paper and what you stand for.”

A private writing from Fort Campbell KY went a step further, as many other letter writers later would. Saying that most of his fellow trainees expected to be sent to Vietnam, he offered to serve as a ‘distributor’ for VGI;
I could distribute about as many copies of the paper as you send
me …. I’m putting copies in the day rooms of the training companies,
but could easily hand them out to hundreds of individual trainees
and men back in my unit.
From the sailor aboard a ship off the coast of South Vietnam came news that the first issues of VGI had been “widely read by enlisted and junior officers alike,” and if multiple copies could be sent “the whole ship (340 men) could be covered.”

But in that first wave of feedback, a letter from Bolling AFB outside of Washington, DC went to the very heart of Jeff’s purpose in creating Vietnam GI – to give voice to the voiceless guys fighting the war: “God knows that those of us who have been there – and who are yet silent, trapped by fear or bitterness or impotence – need a surrogate speaking for us.”

During spring ’68 Jeff began sending me each issue of VGI as it came off the press. I was well aware of his antiwar views as an ex-GI, but found each new batch of letters surprising. At that point in the Vietnam War – except for an occasional media-visible protest such as the Army doctor who refused an order and was court-martialed in ’65, the Fort Hood Three who said No to Vietnam and received long prison sentences, and four sailors who deserted the aircraft carrier Intrepid in Japan in ’67 – there was little or no public awareness of a protest mood among many military personnel.

VGI Mail Bag continually surprised me with its blunt letters critical of the war from a wide range of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and, not least, members of the ‘Green Machine’ (the Marines) – reflecting significant military dissent below the radar of the national media. On one occasion I asked Jeff if the letters were for real, had he made them up. No, he replied they were the real McCoy, but added he could have written them.
It ain't me, it ain't me, I ain't no senator's son, Son.
It ain't me, it ain't me; I ain't no fortunate one.*
By the April ’68 issue, Jeff and company had even received a letter from a retired general, a critic of the war, approving of their work. In that same mail bag was a letter from a GI in Germany at a base facing regular levies of troops being reassigned to Nam. Predictably, he reported the only support for the war came from the ‘lifers’ or sergeants, career soldiers.

A spring letter from Fort Gordon GA indicated that VGI was having an impact by raising GI consciousness about the war, and breaking through the wall of silence surrounding military life:
Dear Jeff:
Thanks for the letter and especially the copies of Vietnam GI ….
We’ve been attempting to organize against the war … [and papers
like VGI] are very helpful in making guys feel they are not alone….
Let’s face it. With the possibility of being sent to Vietnam … being
almost a certainty for the vast majority of us … what have we got
to lose by fighting against it.
More and more letters poured in from all branches of the military and a wide variety of units, including the 1st Marine Division, 1st Air Cavalry, Danang Air Base, 198th Infantry Brigade, 155th Assault Helicopter Company, 196th Light Infantry, a sailor aboard the SS Valley Forge, 1st Marine Air Wing, and even from wounded Vietnam GIs in Washington’s Walter Reed Hospital as well as Watson Army Hospital, Fort Dix NJ. Almost every writer mentioned multiple readers of a single issue as a Spec-4 (Specialist 4th Class) wrote: “Within 5 minutes every man in the billet was peering over my shoulder reading your publication. Raquel Welch would not have received a hardier reception.”

                                   1st Air Cavalry Patch                        USS Valley Forge

The immense popularity of VGI was evident wherever US military personnel were stationed. As an avid reader with the 198th Light Infantry put it: “It’s an even money bet which is more popular in our unit, Playboy or Vietnam GI.” The reason was clear – as a ‘sky soldier’ near An Khe with the 173rd Airborne wrote, VGI was “the Truth” paper.

* “Fortunate Son”, written by John Fogerty .

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Subversion by Newspaper

1968, the third year of the American war in Vietnam. Concurrently, the broader, global Cold War was approaching its quarter-century mark. It’s sometimes forgotten that the Vietnam War was but one of a number of proxy wars between the two great Cold War adversaries of the last half of the 20th century, the US and the USSR. An understandable lapse. The war in Vietnam was live-fire, blood and guts, while the Cold War dragged on for decades of feints, threats, bluffs, and secret operations that rarely came to light.

Brother Jeff Sharlet fought the Vietnam War as a GI, and then fought against it as a leader of GI antiwar protest. I preceded him as a Cold War soldier in Europe in the ‘50s, later becoming a scholar of the Cold War. Jeff’s ‘weapon’ against his war was Vietnam GI (VGI), the underground paper he created in early ’68 to give voice to GI dissent. At the same time, two law profs and I were completing a study for the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (USACDA) preparing for SALT, the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks. SALT-1 eventually yielded the first arms control treaty between United States and the Soviet Union.

We analyzed all aspects of Soviet law for its potential to obstruct on-site arms verification on Soviet territory in the event the two sides agreed on a treaty to slow the nuclear arms race. We found many opportunities for legal obfuscation and concealment, finally leading US treaty negotiators to insist on “national technical means of verification.”

Since ’56, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the US Air Force (USAF) had been conducting manned U-2 flights over Soviet territory well above the range of their anti-aircraft defenses.  That came to an abrupt end on May Day, 1960 when the Soviets brought down pilot Francis Gary Powers with a recently developed ground-to-air missile, the SAM-2 – later used with deadly effect against American planes attacking North Vietnam during the Vietnam War.

North Vietnamese SAM-2 battery

As a result of the ‘U-2 incident’, the CIA accelerated the ongoing development of a series of unmanned spy satellites capable of photographing objects as small as one to two feet on the ground below. A recon satellite would be launched in an orbit taking it over Soviet missile sites. The vehicle would then fly on over the Pacific where on remote command it would release a capsule with the film canister at a pre-determined location northwest of Hawaii.  At a top secret facility on an air base in the Islands, the USAF maintained planes specially equipped to recover the capsule by snatching it in mid-air as it descended by parachute, a tricky maneuver. The base also included helicopters with specially trained crews for rescuing pilots who crashed in the ocean.

The younger brother of Jan Barry, the ex-Vietnam GI co-founder of VVAW, Vietnam Veterans against the War, was an airman at that base while Jan was working on VGI with Jeff, my brother. Recently, Jan posted on his blog* the unusual story of his brother and VGI:
“Sometime in the spring of 1968, my brother Ted visited me in New
            York City and drolly told a story about how a copy of Vietnam GI had
            set off a big commotion in an Air Force special operations unit. It seems
            that a copy of the paper mysteriously appeared on the commanding
            officer’s desk in a highly secure area of a base in Hawaii. …

            Spying my name among the culprits on the masthead of this antiwar
            rag, Air Force investigators called in the FBI and targeted Ted, a
            paramedic in the air-rescue detachment. ‘Whose side are you on?’
            the commander demanded. The agitated colonel, who had lost a
            brother in the war, proposed that my brother join him in a raid on
            North Vietnam. The FBI agents flipped out a document that they
            said was a psychological profile of Ted’s radical brother, who
            resigned from West Point after serving in Vietnam. They implied that
            Ted was likely in his brother’s orbit.

            Ted, who professed ignorance of the newspaper’s appearance in their
            midst, was saved by a lieutenant who noted that the airman was a
            highly regarded member of his crew who had jumped out of heli-
            copters with rescue gear to save pilots who crash-landed in the
            ocean. ..."

The Air Force and the FBI knew that whoever did it, antiwar dissent now reached deep into even highly trained, highly motivated special operations units.

A single copy of VGI had penetrated a Cold War inner sanctum and rattled its occupants – subversion by newspaper.