Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Jeff and Max

Jeff and Max didn’t know each other, but they should have. Max was Tomi Schwaetzer, aka Max Watts; Jeff was my younger brother, Jeff Sharlet. Max and Jeff would’ve liked and respected each other. They were both working simultaneously on the Vietnam antiwar front of the ‘60s, although half a world apart – Jeff in the US and Vietnam, Max in West Europe.What makes an antiwarrior? Max, nearly a generation older, and Jeff came from disparate backgrounds. Max was an Austrian, Jeff an American. Max came from a professional family – his father a physician, his mother a psychoanalyst. Jeff was born into a business family, both parents ‘in retail’ as the saying goes. Neither family was particularly political. However, living in Vienna in the early ‘30s the Schwaetzer family could hardly have been unaware of the politics roiling the Continent. The Sharlets, from a provincial American city in the ‘40s and ‘50s, were certainly aware of the Cold War writ large (who wasn’t), but otherwise family table talk was business and social life.

What politicized Jeff and Max? As the Nazi movement swept across Austria, Max’s parents fled to neutral Switzerland, staying one step ahead of the coming Holocaust. At the time, Great Britain allowed two members of a refugee family on temporary visas. It was decided that Tomi and his father would go so that Dr Schwaetzer could try to establish the right to practice medicine in England.  Failing to do so, the doctor, a patriotic Austrian who'd though it would all blow over, committed suicide.  

Max’s parents, ‘30s

Meanwhile, Max’s mother and sister had made the arduous journey through Paris over the Pyrenees, across Spain to Lisbon, and aboard a ship to America. Under the circumstances, there was no one left in Europe to whom Max, a minor, could be sent, so the British government permitted him to remain at a boarding school. Max finally made it to the US working as a deckhand on a freighter, rejoining his family in New York where he began a life of left activism that eventually took him to revolutionary Cuba, the new State of Israel, France, Germany, and Australia, and continued until his last days many decades later.

             Max at Sodom Crossing, Israel, ‘50s

Jeff also came from a comfortable background. He spent years in prep school, but in his senior year his father suffered a financial reversal that severely curtailed Jeff’s plans for college. He went off to a low-tuition public university, but, very unhappy there, did not stay long. In those years, young men either attended college with a deferment, or the two-year draft beckoned. Jeff gave the military a 3rd year for the privilege of studying a foreign language for 12 months. He’d been promised a Slavic language and a European posting, but by the luck of the draw ended up in the Vietnamese course, inevitably becoming a Vietnam GI very early in the American war.

  Jeff as a cadet at the Albany Academy ‘60

Working as a spook in a semi-secret intelligence organization, Jeff found himself in some hot spots and unusual situations. Under cover he worked at the periphery of the coup against Diem; was involved in infiltrating commandos into the North; and engaged in other mysterious actions, the secrets of which he took to the grave. Jeff went to Vietnam in ’63 curious about the international politics of that part of the world, but came home thoroughly disillusioned with the US mission in Vietnam. He devoted the remainder of his short life to opposing the war.

Their modus operandi was different, but Max and Jeff were working along parallel lines. Max dealt largely with US deserters, but also disgruntled troops in France and West Germany; Jeff’s constituency was mainly active duty GIs in Vietnam as well as stateside troops training for the war. Max operated on a case by case basis with individual deserters who came to him for help as well as dissident troops in the ranks.The spontaneous movement for which Max was spokesman was called RITA, Resistance inside the Army. Jeff reached military personnel of all services en masse through his underground paper, Vietnam GI (VGI), the first of its kind edited by an ex-GI exclusively addressed to men at arms in the war.

Both men became antiwarriors of stealth by necessity. If the French authorities caught US deserters, they’d return them to their bases in Germany where, inevitably, sanctions awaited, so Max and his RITA colleague June van Ingen had to keep them well hidden. Max, an alien on French soil, became the object of French police surveillance himself and was eventually deported for his RITA activity. He continued the work in Germany where he came under clandestine scrutiny by US Military Intelligence (MI).

In the States, J Edgar Hoover ordered surveillance on Jeff and his VGI staff. The FBI successfully discouraged Chicago area printers from taking on the press run of the paper, forcing Jeff and colleagues to drive long distances to a willing printer. Agents would knock on Jeff’s apartment door, always in standard trench coat and fedora, just to remind him they were watching. MI, operating out of a stateside base, also got in the act since VGI was considered a threat to the ‘good order and discipline’ of the Army. And unless the paper was mailed by the expensive method of First Class, the postal authorities were on the lookout for ‘seditious’ material being sent through the mails.

Max and Jeff’s respective undertakings required different approaches to publicity. For Max, who made his living as a journalist, publicity was the key, the more and the higher the visibility, the better. Thus, he would set up interviews in Paris with the US press in Europe eager to talk with deserters as undercover operations with the GI’s identity screened from the journo by a sheet stretched across the room. Later in Germany, a GI leaked to Max that his phone was being tapped by the Germans on behalf of MI, an embarrassing story for the Army that Max played beautifully to the European and American press, including good billing in the New York Times (NYT).

Conversely for Jeff, the direct glare of publicity on his enterprise was to be avoided in the interest of maximum efficacy. Anything that would give an investigative edge to the FBI, MI of Northern Illinois, the postal inspectors, or the Chicago Police Department’s ‘Red Squad’ was unwelcome. Hence, assembling issues of VGI would often entail moving from one friendly apartment to another to keep the opposition guessing. And when Jeff went on the road, either to do interviews with returning Vietnam combat veterans or for fundraising to pay the bills, he would occasionally call me to say hello, but always from a telephone booth in one city or another which he would routinely say best not to identify.

Nonetheless as VGI’s success with troops at home and abroad became apparent; both Jeff and the paper unavoidably came in for favorable visibility in spite of his low profile – including in the NYT, the magazine Esquire and, via the wire services, in the regional press.

Max, a skilled helmsman, once blocked a US nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser from entering Sydney Harbor, ‘80s. He continued his activism to the end.

In effect, both Jeff and Max in their different theaters of operation, succeeded in stoking opposing GI resistance to the Vietnam War by seeding doubt among the very people being asked to put themselves in harm’s way in prosecuting the Vietnam War. In turn, each man received well-earned recognition in subsequent literature on the conflict – Max in books by the ex-deserter Richard Perrin (’01); the former defense lawyer for GIs in Germany, Howard De Nike (’02); as well as his fellow RITA activist June van Ingen (‘11).* Jeff has been memorialized in David Cortright’s classic of GI resistance (’75), Andrew E. Hunt’s history of Vietnam Veterans against the War (VVAW) (’99), and Bob Ostertag’s study of the underground press (’06).

Jeff Sharlet will get a memoir of his short but interesting life (d.’69) for which this blog is a percursor, while the long and dramatic life of his comrade in peace, Max Watts (d. ’10), awaits its biographer.

*See her novella Max’s Anti-Vietnam Network posted on her blog Against the Army at

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

War Poets

The good war, WWII, produced relatively little soldier poetry, although individual poems live on in contemporary memory. In sharp contrast, Vietnam, the war most would like to forget, yielded numerous soldier-poets and many volumes of verse, some highly acclaimed. In both wars, poets sang of violence, death, and survival. In addition, Vietnam War poetry has another dimension.
After WWII, men who had served for the duration returned home triumphantly with their units, were feted, and honored for their victory over dark forces. Their sons who marched off to Vietnam did so for only 12 months (13 for Marines). They’d arrive at a so-called repo depot—a soldier replacement system—as individuals and, if they survived their tour intact, would be released a year later, put on a plane, and returned to civilian life. Re-entry was as a lone individual, unheralded and even scorned, and for many of the Vietnam soldier-poets these sad, lonely, and often bitter experiences also became subjects of their verse.

America’s two great armies, no more than a few decades apart, fought very different wars as reflected in the poetry. Karl Shapiro, a WWII combat infantryman, described his unit moving along the Australian coast in Troop Train. Slowing, the train passed through a town heading for the ships and combat in the South Pacific. Townsfolk stopped to look:
And women standing at their dumbstruck door
More slowly wave and seem to warn us back,
As if a tear blinding the course of war
Might once dissolve our iron in their sweet wish. 
Louis Simpson of the 101st Airborne spoke of battle and surviving in Europe:
Helmet and rifle, pack and overcoat
Marched through a forest. …
Most clearly of that battle I remember
The tiredness in eyes, how hands looked thin
Around a cigarette, and the bright ember
Would pulse with all the life there was within.
And for another soldier-poet, Anthony Hecht, the death of A Friend Killed in the War combined dark and vivid images of nature and fantasy: 

           Night, the fat serpent, slipped among the plants
           In the clean brightness of magnesium
           Flares, there were seven angels by a tree. ...
           And his flesh opened like a peony,
           Red at the heart, white petals furling out.

And finally, there was Randall Jarrell’s poem of air combat memorializing death in the maw of war, perhaps the most memorable lines of WWII:

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dreams of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters,
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

The early poetry of the Vietnam War brought forth equally graphic, but more literal images of a very different kind of war, one fought among civilians indistinguishable from the enemy, one fought not for terrain but for attrition. In WWII men died for ground gained, giving the whole endeavor a sense of linear progress, while Americans in Vietnam exchanged their lives for the enemy’s, only to withdraw, post the body count, and return to fight and die over the same ground another day.

The most notorious instance was the 1969 Battle of Hamburger Hill in which the 101st Airborne assaulted a hill held by North Vietnamese forces (NVA) numerous times during a 10-day engagement, finally taking the summit at the cost of dozens killed and hundreds wounded only to withdraw a few weeks later. In effect, individual survival in Vietnam meant eluding the circle of death.

Apropos, one of the most distinguished soldier-poets of the war, W.D. Ehrhart, a former Marine rifleman, wrote that most of them “were not really poets at all,” just soldiers so angry about the war that silence was no longer an option. He added that most of their poems were driven by “emotion rather than craft.”* Jan Barry, co-founder of Vietnam Veterans against the War (VVAW), a former associate editor of brother Jeff Sharlet’s Vietnam GI (VGI), and a poet himself, is credited as the most important force behind the emergence of Vietnam GI poetry.*

Cpl Ehrhart filling sandbags, Quang Tri, ‘67
Credit: W.D. Ehrhart

Given the nature of the war as a counter-insurgency against an elusive enemy, GI poetry rarely describes pitched battles – there were few – and instead focuses on shadowy encounters with small groups of enemy troops and sometimes, tragically, South Vietnamese civilians mistaken for Viet Cong (VC). Other topics were fears and survival strategies, coming home, and haunting memories.

A Vietnam soldier-poet writes “all our fear/and hate/Poured from our rifles/Into/the man in black/As he lost his face/In the smoke/Of an exploding hand frag,” while elsewhere, describing a buddy randomly killing a farmer planting rice, he writes, “With a burst of sixteen. … I saw rice shoots/ Still clutched in one hand” (Frank Cross). On the death of his comrades, another poet sadly describes:
All the dead young men, some willing,
boys mostly, riding the knife of their youth and sex
to woo and conquer death, blown
away, splintered, wrapped in ponchos, and the lucky ones
saved by medics to serve as a memento (Steve Hassett)
Fear was ever-present. “When the M-16 rifle had a stoppage/ One could feel enemy eyes/Climbing/His/Bones/Like/Ivy” (MacAvoy Layne). A medic-poet writes “I sleep strapped to a ‘45/bleached into my fear” (D.F. Brown). And always survival was uppermost, but not for country or flag as another GI put it, “I fought Not for This Country Tis’/ of Thee/But for the next day I wanted to see” (C. Quick).

As for the unfortunate South Vietnamese peasantry caught between the VC and the Americans, wartime life was difficult and frequently fatal. Perhaps no soldier-poet spoke to the perils of farming in a war zone better than Michael Casey in the signature poem of his collection of Vietnam War verse, Obscenities, which won the Yale Younger Poets Prize for 1972.

Cultivating rice paddies, Vietnam
Credit W.D. Ehrhart

The scene is a column of armored personnel carriers, tracked vehicles, going single file through a farmer’s rice paddies, the irate farmer hitting the lead track with a rake. The track commander tries to reason with him and the farmer nearly hits him with the rake . So the column redeploys and continues through the fields “side by side,” leading Casey to suggest:
If you have a farm in Vietnam
And a house in hell
Sell the farm
And go home
Another of the war poets was Jeff’s Vietnam buddy, Ed Smith, a fellow Vietnamese linguist. Just months before his death in ’03, Ed penned a long poem, published posthumously, invoking memories of a beautiful older Vietnamese woman with whom he’d been in love in Saigon in 1963; her name was Pham Thi Mui. Describing how she had been a young singer in an entertainment unit of the Viet Minh that performed for the troops closing in on the French at Dien Bien Phu in ’54, he writes,
with that catch
in your voice
you were all
the girls they’d left behind
in Nghe-An, up the river Da
A North Vietnamese soldier-poet has also written of a lost friend, a young woman soldier assigned to the Ho Chi Minh Trail who, at the cost of her life, had saved a convoy from a bombing attack. The poet, Lam Thi My Da, recalls, “We passed by the spot where you died/tried to picture the young girl you once had been.”*** The war memories of most of the American poets are not as gentle. “Willy” knew too much, writes a bard, “Staring/his eyes reflected/Exploding bombs and mangled bodies” (R. Lomell). For another, “Seven winters have slipped away/the war still follows me” (Gerald McCarthy). And then there’s the rice farmer the soldier wantonly shot who

On dark nights
In Kansas
… comes to
Mitch’s bed;
And plants rice shoots
all around.
(Frank Cross)

W.D. Ehrhart himself probably best expresses the feelings of his fellow poets and, for that matter, most returning Vietnam GIs who had been in harm’s way, in his poem Coming Home: “San Francisco airport -- … No brass bands/No flags/No girls/No cameramen/Only a small boy who asked me/What the ribbons on my jacket meant.”

There were also civilian poets who wrote on the long Vietnam War. One in particular was Lincoln Bergman, a radical antiwar activist who memorialized Jeff in a long verse published in The Movement, a national underground paper published in the San Francisco Bay Area. It’s fitting to close with a few stanzas:

Seeds of Revolution

for Jeff Sharlet, editor of  Vietnam GI
who died in 1969 at the age of 27.
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…

*W.D. Ehrhart, “Soldier-Poets of the Vietnam War, Virginia Quarterly Rev., Spring, 1987
**Jan Barry, co-editor of the first two anthologies of Vietnam War poetry, Winning Hearts and Minds (1972) and Demilitarized Zones (1976).
***Transl. by Ngo Vinh Hai and Kevin Bowen.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Jeff in Japan

Summer ’68. Jeff Sharlet gets a call from Dave Dellinger, titular head of the antiwar movement, editor of Liberation, and later one of the Chicago 7, the premier political trial of those times. Since the US escalation of the war in Vietnam in ‘65, Dellinger had begun organizing meetings in Europe between the American peace movement, largely a civilian group, and the National Liberation Front (NLF), the political arm of the Liberation Army of South Vietnam, also known colloquially by the GIs as the Viet Cong (VC). In ’67, the sides met in Bratislava in Communist Czechoslovakia (CSSR). The ’68 meeting was to be in Prague, the delegation to be led by Bernardine Dohrn of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), subsequently the leader of the Weather Underground.

Dave Dellinger, ‘69

The NLF had specifically asked that Jeff be part of the delegation; presumably the success of his antiwar paper, Vietnam GI, had come to their attention. Would Jeff join the group as an ex-Vietnam GI representative of the rising GI resistance movement? Jeff was of mixed feelings about the invitation. Yes, he wanted to support the undertaking, but at the same time he was worried. In Vietnam he had served with the Army Security Agency (ASA), the military arm of the National Security Agency (NSA), a very secret organization. Upon completing his tour of duty, Jeff had received the standard de-briefing. Nothing was to be disclosed about his military duties on pain of imprisonment and heavy fine, and no travel behind the Iron Curtain for five years. In 1968, Jeff had been out of ASA for only four years, and was very reluctant to incur the wrath of official Washington, his antiwar position notwithstanding.

A solution presented itself in short order. The Citizen’s League for Peace in Vietnam of Japan, known as Beheiren, also contacted Dellinger and asked him to send a GI antiwar activist to help them sort out problems with US deserters they were harboring. Dellinger approached Jeff’s associate editor, David Komatsu, a Japanese-American who spoke the language, about making the trip. Komatsu preferred to join the Prague gathering where he felt the political action would be and came up with an arrangement satisfactory to all. Since both events were in August ’68, he proposed that he and Jeff switch venues. Off the hook, Jeff agreed and headed for Kyoto, while Komatsu made the journey to East Europe. As it turned out, the Prague conference had to be moved to Budapest because of the Soviet invasion of CSSR, but that’s another story.

In Japan, Beheiren had hidden nearly 20 US military deserters from Japanese and US authorities while waiting to move them safely out of the country, but they were having difficulties with their guests. Kept under wraps with peace activist families, many of the Americans were street kids who understood neither the language nor customs of the country and couldn’t stand being holed up. Some of them took to crime, stealing money for drugs and assaulting women. The largely middle-class Japanese activists couldn’t cope and sought counsel from someone from the States experienced in GI protest.

♫ There must be some kind of way outta here
said the joker to the thief
There's too much confusion...
I can't get no relief*

To provide cover for the sudden appearance of an American GI activist in their midst, Beheiren arranged for the consultation to occur in the context of an international peace conference held in Kyoto, the former imperial capital.

Kyoto international conference hall

Jeff had visited Tokyo on military leave in ’63, liked the country, and was happy to return. Beheiren incorporated him into the conference agenda as one of nearly two dozen US participants from various organizations, so Jeff’s involvement would not be conspicuous. Jeff spoke the second day on the issue of on how to assist US deserters. Although he felt that disaffected Vietnam GIs ideally could more effectively oppose the war by remaining in the ranks and influencing their buddies and conveyed this view privately to the Beheiren leadership, he took a diplomatic position on the agenda item in his public remarks as recorded by the Japanese police and a State Department observer:
Jeffrey Sharlet, Secretary General of the Vietnam GI Committee,
expounded various difficulties confronting US soldiers before and
after their desertion. … He stressed the need for Beheiren to
consider the future fate of deserters when assisting them in running away.
In effect, Jeff strongly urged Beheiren in private conversations not to encourage US deserters because of the harsh legal consequences they would face in the military justice system and because they could help the cause more by spreading antiwar sentiments within the military. At the same time he attended to his real mission in Kyoto by conferring with and calming hidden deserters in the evenings. They were a mixed group of white and black GIs, mostly poorly educated, and all bored and restless in their underground situation. Jeff tried to persuade them to be patient with their Japanese friends while Beheiren worked on undercover arrangements to move them to another country beyond the reach of the US military police. Beheiren eventually succeeded in moving the group abroad, but that too is another story.

On the third day at the conclusion of the conference, Jeff’s Japanese guide informed him there would be a march on Kyoto City Hall. Some hundreds of Japanese activists gathered at a nearby rally site. Having seen televised accounts of such marches and clashes with the Japanese police, Jeff begged off, saying he had business elsewhere. Since he was the sole ex-Vietnam GI among the conferees, his guide wouldn’t hear of it and they proceeded to the assembly point. Jeff could see the waiting police, massed in military formation with helmet visors down and shields and long batons at the ready, and he instinctively headed for the rear of the column of militant left students. But the guide politely told him no, no, as a guest of honor you must be at the front.

With great apprehension, Jeff found himself in the middle of the front rank, six across with arms locked, as the column of 500 snaked down the main street, skirmishing with police along the route. In the end, 14 policemen and two students were injured, but Jeff survived unscathed and wisely took cover. What he did not know was that putting a non-Asian foreigner in the front rank was standard practice in the Japanese peace movement since the police would not strike a foreigner, least of all an American, to avoid an international incident.

And so ended another day for Jeff on the antiwar front of the Vietnam War.

*All Along the Watchtower by Bob Dylan, 1968