Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Unsung Hero of GI Resistance

It was pure serendipity when Jeff and Tom met in June of ‘67. Jeff was about to graduate from Indiana University (IU) in Bloomington in the middle of the American heartland, while Tom lived uptown in Manhattan in New York. Jeff Sharlet was New Left, president of IU SDS; Tom Barton was Old Left, a longtime activist. Rarely the twain met, but Tom, a so-called faculty brat in town to visit his parents, happened to be walking by just as events leading to Jeff’s arrest were unfolding —more about that further on.

Tom Barton had been something of a local legend during his student days at IU. At that time in the ‘50s, ROTC, the Reserve Officer Training Corps, was compulsory for male students on many campuses. In 1960, Tom led student opposition to the ROTC requirement, a protest that was inevitably received unfavorably by the Board of Trustees. Conscription was the order of the day in Cold War America, and the trustee chairman also happened to chair the local draft board. Although an enrolled grad student in good standing, Tom suddenly received a draft call, its retaliatory intent transparent.

He applied for Conscientious Objector (CO) status, entailing two years alternate service, but was rejected. There were procedural irregularities in the board’s decision, and Tom refused induction. The FBI was called in, he was arrested, and his case turned over to the US Attorney for southern Indiana for prosecution for draft evasion. Undaunted, Tom appealed to Selective Service headquarters in Washington. Given the punitive nature of his draft call and the IU trustee’s egregious conflict of interest in the matter, the government dropped charges against Tom and granted him CO status.

He performed his alternate service with the Peace Committee of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of Friends, an organization active in the anti-nuclear protests sweeping the country. There he organized local chapters of the Student Peace Union (SPU), a 200-strong group drawn from area colleges and universities and served as Regional Director for the Philadelphia area. In effect, Tom Barton fulfilled his obligation and emerged a seasoned peace activist, experience he would carry into anti-Vietnam War protest later in the ‘60s

When Jeff and Tom first crossed paths, Jeff and fellow SDS leader Jim Wallihan were leading a demo near campus against local merchants, especially a pizza joint that had refused service to high school hippies. The protest, held in front of the doughnut shop across the street from the joint, was peaceful and orderly, perhaps with a few chants in the air. One of the shop owners called the cops, several uniforms and plainclothesmen arrived in four cars. As they pushed the group back off the sidewalk, an IU student began to address the group of demonstrators. A detective grabbed the kid, cuffed him roughly, and shoved him into one of the patrol cars where he began beating him with a flashlight.

Witnessing the arrest, Tom Barton called out, “Get his name.” At that moment another cop collared him saying “That’s all for you buddy” and he too was put in the back of the cruiser, as it happened in the custody of a young cop who turned out to be Tom’s high school classmate. Jeff and others protested the cops’ behavior, and were also arrested. Tom got bailed out and the next day wrote up a broadside describing the entire incident, especially the heavy-handed tactics of the abusive detective. The broadside circulated both in town and on campus and would eventually help Jeff in court, but, more important in the long run, Jeff and Tom would find themselves shoulder to shoulder on the antiwar barricades.

That summer Jeff went to New York, first stopping to meet Jan Barry and join his newly organized Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). Afterward, he dropped by to see his new friend Tom Barton. Tom in turn introduced Jeff to his friend, Dave Komatsu, visiting from Chicago. Earlier Tom and Dave had been fellow members of a breakaway group from the American Socialist Party and on the board of the group’s paper. Jeff had mentioned to Tom he hoped to find a way to give active duty GIs opposed to the war a voice in the rising national chorus of protest.

Dave Komatsu was the perfect guy to hook up with. A long-time left activist, Dave knew his way around Chicago where Jeff was headed that fall for grad school at University of Chicago. Jeff was thinking of an underground paper for GIs, and Dave and his wife Kit had had earlier experience writing and producing an off-beat, low budget political paper, American Socialist. During fall term ’67, Jeff and Dave brainstormed the idea. Jeff the ex-GI had the contacts, while Dave had the know-how in putting out a paper, a match made in heaven. Start-up money was the only remaining piece of the project. Jeff solved that by withdrawing from grad school and using his Woodrow Wilson Fellowship funds to launch Vietnam GI (VGI) in early ’68 as the first GI-edited antiwar underground paper for active duty GIs.

VGI front page, June ‘69

Jeff and Dave needed help getting VGI to the troops in Vietnam. They had acquired a mailing list of left-leaning GIs, but Chicago, a hotbed of activism, was a magnet for federal, military, and local surveillance against the New Left and antiwar activists in general. The FBI worked hand in glove with suspicious US postal authorities on the lookout for cheap 3rd class printed matter, especially to Army APO addresses through which all mail to troops abroad passed. Undercover Army Counter-Intelligence agents operating out of Fort Sheridan in northern Illinois monitored all expressions of opposition to the war, while Mayor Daly’s police ‘Red Squad’ specialized in low-level harassment.

Re-enter Tom Barton who volunteered to help distribute VGI internationally, especially to Vietnam. Not that the Feds and the military were quiescent in New York, but the metro area was so huge and diverse that it was harder to keep an eye on. Hence, Jeff unobtrusively shipped big boxes of VGI to Tom, who would pick them up at the 14th Street Post Office near where he lived. He in turn, using various innocent-sounding, fictitious return addresses as well as diverse mail drops to avoid attention, transshipped the copies to GI subscribers in Vietnam. Multiple copies went to a cadre of mail clerks and combat troopers throughout South Vietnam who had written, offering to surreptitiously ‘distribute’ the ‘seditious’ paper in their units.

Tom became VGI’s East Coast Distributor for the New York metro area. This also included organizing fellow activists to hand out VGI at the Port Authority bus terminal through which soldiers and airmen returning to bases in the region passed, and even handing out copies to GIs on duty at an antiwar rally in Washington. However, to avoid unwanted notice from the authorities, his name didn’t appear on the masthead. Nevertheless, Tom Barton was a key member of the team which made VGI a great success early on as a global phenomenon wherever US troops were based.

Time moved on: Jeff died in ’69, a week later SDS imploded, and Nixon began the long de-escalation. Three ex-GIs – John Alden, David Patterson aka Joe Harris, and Craig Walden – took over VGI, carrying it forward til summer ’70 when the funding, always in short supply, dried up.

As VGI was winding down, Tom became a member of the editorial board for Wildcat, a new publication directed at industrial workers. By then VGI had inspired some 300 GI antiwar papers flying under the radar at US bases all over the world. GI protest grew powerful and contributed to war’s end, but in time it was lost to historical memory as America put an unpopular conflict behind it and the Cold War rolled on.

During the ensuing years, Tom Barton, a New York hospital worker and union shop steward, tried from time to time to keep memory of Jeff alive, once writing to Hanoi to suggest that the Vietnamese recognize the role of Jeff and GI protest in bringing the war to an end; another time giving an interview with Jim Wallihan about Jeff to IU’s hometown paper. Finally, during the Iraq War of ’03, Tom saw his opportunity to reprise Vietnam GI. He launched GI Special, a hard hitting, online anti-Iraq War daily. At the time I was seeking people who knew Jeff for a memoir on his short but interesting life. I didn’t know Tom Barton or his part in the GI resistance movement until Karen, the “Indiana Surprise” of the May 25, 2011 post, came up with an early Internet issue of Tom’s newsletter that re-ran Dave Komatsu’s long obit on Jeff from VGI of  summer '69.
Typical ‘bring the troops home’ leader

When I contacted Tom, one of the first things he said was that he saw himself following in Jeff’s footsteps with GI Special as successor to VGI. As formal hostilities ended in Iraq, but conflict between Iraqi resistance groups and US troops raged on for years, Tom’s lone antiwar voice gained readership among troops in the field as well as civilians in the States and abroad in over 90 countries. Tom became a co-founder of the Military Project and its periodical Traveling Soldier and helped ex-GIs organize the Iraq Veterans against the War (IVAW) in the spirit of VVAW. For years since, the Military Project has made complete xerox sets of VGI issues available on request at nominal cost to Tom’s newsletter readers.

Tom Barton addressing the Military Project, ‘08

In recent years GI Special morphed into the current Military Resistance, now with much greater coverage of the intensified fighting in Afghanistan. Every day after work, Tom Barton puts out the day’s news on the war from both off-beat and mainstream media (“101st Airborne lost 131, the most killed in a single deployment since Vietnam”); as well as stories from the contemporary GI coffee houses that have sprung up near stateside bases; and, always relentlessly, the latest obits from local papers throughout the country lest the losses become aggregate abstractions, many from small towns rarely heard of—Ashford AL, Centennial CO, Checotah OK, Immokalee FL—with sad headers like:

Attack in Kabul Kills Austin Soldier

Marine Lance Cpl Jason Barfield Killed in Combat 10/24/11 in Helmland, Afghanistan

Sgt Alessandro Plutino, a US Army Ranger, Was Killed Monday

Killed by a Taliban Bomb, the Devoted Teenage Mother Who Joined the Military to Fund the Dream of Becoming a Nurse

Sgt Jeremy King: A soldier’s death isn’t anything like the movies. There was no patriotic music, there was no feeling of purpose. It’s just … death

Marine Lt James Cathey coming home from Iraq, Reno NV
Photo credit Todd Heisler, Rocky Mountain News

In ’04 when film maker David Zeiger approached Tom Barton for advice on a documentary about the Vietnam GI resistance movement, Tom told him the first thing to do was read the entire run of Vietnam GI, which he gave him. A year later when Sir! No Sir!, the first film on Vietnam GI protest, was premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival, it was dedicated to ‘Jeff Sharlet, Founding Editor of Vietnam GI ’.

Let’s hear it for Tom Barton, heretofore unsung hero of GI resistance, past and present.

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