Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Mission to Paris

Joe Carey took some edgy photos in his time. He was then a combat photographer with the 25th Infantry at Cu Chi when the Vietnam War was at full bore. His assignment was to supply the divisional weekly paper, Tropic Lightning News, as well as the monthly magazine with pictures, suitable pictures, for the troops. To get his shots, Joe would accompany combat patrols to the Ho Bo Woods, the Iron Triangle, and the old Michelin Plantation, putting himself in harm’s way. He got some terrific close-up photos of the war, but they weren’t all ‘suitable’. The general would’ve blown his top if he’d seen the interrogation by torture shot in his publications. Joe stashed those photos away, his private portfolio of the war.

Joe got through his 12-month tour and came back to the States in April ‘68. He hooked up again with Jeff Sharlet in Chicago where Joe’s wife Suzan was teaching. The two ex-Vietnam GIs had previously met at Indiana University before Joe was drafted. Jeff had done his war earlier and was finishing up his degree work before moving on to grad school at University of Chicago. A year later, he decided grad school could wait, there was a senseless war raging that had to be opposed.

By the end of ’67, Jeff was ready to launch the first GI-led antiwar paper for GIs, at least the many he was aware of who had growing doubts about the wisdom of the US mission in Vietnam. The first issue of Vietnam GI (VGI) bore the date January 1968. It would soon find an enthusiastic readership among GIs in Nam and those in stateside camps, men who survived their tours there or were waiting to deploy.

Jeff realized he needed photos of the war, not just to break up the text, but to put a face on the conflict. Fortuitously, Joe Carey came along and got back in touch. Co-opted into the editorial collective, Joe provided VGI with many of his ‘unsuitable’ photos from the field, including one of a so-called Viet Cong (VC) suspect – more likely just a poor peasant caught in the middle between the American steamroller and the guerrillas formally known as the People’s Liberation Army. The man was pinned to the ground, an officer questioning him with a knife in hand:

Photo credit:  Joseph Carey

Joe also passed on to Jeff one of the most shocking photos of the war, an atrocity photographed by a combat GI who bore witness and wordlessly handed his roll of film to Joe when he arrived on the scene. Jeff realized the photo was a dynamite visual against the war, young American soldiers posing like great white hunters on safari with their grisly trophies. He offered it to the national media, but none of them would touch it since editors knew how vindictive the Johnson White House Press could be to journalists who seriously embarrassed the administration. A European news service eventually put it out on the wire, and the photo also reportedly appeared in a major Soviet newspaper.

Meanwhile, with no takers stateside, Jeff ran the photo in the May issue of VGI along with his own caption. About that time, the Army’s Military Intelligence unit out of Fort Sheridan IL had gotten wind the photo was going to appear, and agents came to Chicago looking for the negative; but Jeff had taken the precaution of hiding it off-premises before he ran the photo. Eventually the picture was reprinted in the civilian underground press, including the Berkeley Barb and the San Francisco Express Times, and the Army could no longer ignore the extremely adverse publicity it was generating.

They went in search of the offending GIs in the shot; they were located and court-martialed at Fort Sill OK, one of the more out of the way US military bases, the idea being to keep the proceedings low profile. Although it was not his photo, Joe Carey’s connection was detected, and he was summoned to testify at the trial (Nb. Although a GI finished his tour and returned to civilian life, there remained a period of inactive reserve during which he was subject to being called back – so Joe was still on the books).

In the end, the outcome of the court-martial was no more than a slap on the wrist, very characteristic of military justice in the middle of a war. The ringleader, a staff sergeant, was reduced in rank one grade while the younger privates were deemed to be following a superior’s orders and let off. For such comic opera justice, Joe had driven all the way from San Francisco to dusty Lawton OK.

From Vietnam GI, May '68

Enter Dave Dellinger at this point in the tale. A long time pacifist, by ’68 he was the titular head of the ‘Mobe’, short for the broad movement against the war, and editor-in-chief of Liberation, a small but powerful magazine committed to the antiwar cause. Dellinger was well connected; he knew all the major activists in the States and in Europe. SDS, Students for a Democratic Society, had migrated to Europe with a few chapters in cities with concentrations of American civilians. There were also myriad indigenous European anti-Vietnam War groups, especially in France, The Netherlands, West Germany, and Sweden. In addition, there were sizeable communities of US military deserters being harbored in Stockholm, Copenhagen, and Paris. In brief, the war was a very big issue abroad as well as on the homefront.

One particular European group is of interest here – Paris American Committee to Stop War (PACS), made up of expatriate Americans including Alexander Calder, the sculptor; Susan George, a political activist who had opposed France’s war in Algeria; Ian Morris, a novelist; and Mary Jo van Ingen, later to become a professor of English, among others. PACS had been organized in ’66 and had ties with other groups on the Continent opposed to the war. Maria Jolas, long the grande dame of the American expat community in Paris and a person of consequence in the literary world at large, served as executive secretary of PACS. Except for World War II, Madame Jolas, a tall, striking woman then in her mid-‘70s, had made her life in Paris since the ‘20s when she and her husband Eugene, who had died in 1952, became an important part of  the modernist movement in literature and the arts in general.

In the late ‘20s, Maria, an heiress from a very old American family, and Eugene created the journal transition as a vehicle for literary modernism. They published most of the distinguished or soon to be distinguished writers of the day including T.S. Eliot, Andre Gide, Ezra Pound, Kay Boyle, the young Hemingway, and not least, James Joyce, who was then in self-imposed exile in Paris. The influential journal continued until just before the outbreak of the war when it completed publication of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, published serially over the years in its pages. The Jolas’s had become the author’s close personal friends and devoted literary supporters up to his death in early ’41. They then looked after his family and his literary estate. By the late ‘60s, Maria Jolas was one of the last survivors of Joyce’s Paris circle.

Maria Jolas was a networker par excellence. Earlier in life she and Eugene successfully networked among the literati of Europe and America for the cause of modernism; in the Vietnam War era she was in touch with like-minded antiwar leaders throughout Europe and in the States. She threw her formidable organizing ability into protest against the war. Meanwhile, the American war in Vietnam had taken a turn for the worse in early ’68, and those opposed to it took heart.

Maria Jolas, Paris, late '60s
Photo credit:  Gisele Freund

The Tet Offensive, which opened suddenly with a stunning attack on the US Embassy compound in Saigon, was winding down after several months of intense fighting along the length of the country. By late spring ’68, the offensive had turned into a military defeat for the insurgents although it simultaneously became a political-psychological victory of considerable consequence for them. The enemy had dramatically shown that heretofore secure major cities were vulnerable to large-scale attack. In the wake of Tet, General Westmoreland was out, and President Johnson soon withdrew from the ’68 presidential race.

Any notion that there was a light at the end of the tunnel was extinguished; instead, the more realistic prospect of a long, grinding unwinnable war slogging on was featured on television screens and in major print media; and, for GIs in the war and in the pipeline, it was the big story in the relatively new GI antiwar press led by Jeff Sharlet’s Vietnam GI, Andy Stapp’s The Bond, and The Ally, ably edited by Clark Smith. Opposition to the war in the ranks was rising.

Earlier in late ’66, for Maria Jolas the war had suddenly become much more than a distant conflict. An Army truck driver, the first GI deserter to seek help from supporters of North Vietnam in France, was told of her work and, figuratively speaking, landed rather abruptly on her doorstep seeking assistance. Maria was initially taken aback. For one thing, PACS existed at the tolerance of the French government, which had as leverage the granting of residence permits to foreigners for only short, renewable periods. Generally, it was the policy of the government to turn over wayward GIs who fell into French hands to the US military authorities in West Germany.

On the other hand, nothing in Maria’s background or life experience had prepared her for Gregory Graham, a private first class (Pfc) from Waco TX, fleeing from his unit in Germany to avoid deployment to Vietnam. He was a redneck youth raised in an orphanage who had enlisted to get out of Texas; his explanation for deserting was something of a shock. Graham told Maria, “Ah doann mind barbecued bonzes, but ah hate fried drivers, that ain’t my scene. I split.”

Translated from Texas vernacular, he said he didn’t object to Buddhist monks in Vietnam dousing themselves with petrol and burning themselves alive as an antiwar protest, but he disliked the prospect of being personally fried – when a gasoline tanker, such as he would drive in Nam, went over a mine – and living in agony for three days before dying.*

An Austrian living in Paris, Max Watts, came to the rescue and helped Maria deal with her unexpected guest. Graham was hidden from the French and American authorities in a French psychiatric hospital on the Loire River where he was alternatively classified as a patient or a gardener depending on who was asking. Word got out among antiwar groups near US bases in West Germany as well as in Amsterdam and Antwerp where GIs deserting their units often first headed, that help was available in Paris.

In ’67 several more GIs found their way to Maria, who, with the assistance of Max and his comrade, Mary Jo (aka June) van Ingen, placed them beyond the reach of the French cops. This experience gave rise to RITA, Resistance Inside the Army, a formidable network for helping US deserters as an action against the war.**

By ’68 Maria Jolas was a seasoned anti-Vietnam War activist, a familiar figure at Left Bank antiwar rallies. That spring a French group, the English name of which was the National Committee of Vietnam (NCV), allied with PACS, planned an antiwar event in Paris, a rally in an appropriate venue with speakers. Aware that the GI antiwar movement writ large was growing, Maria contacted her American comrade Dave Dellinger seeking an ex-Vietnam GI to speak at the event.  Dellinger turned to brother Jeff, who by spring ’68 was editing VGI, already widely read below the radar by troops in Nam and stateside camps.

Jeff, however, was up to his neck in work on the paper – touring base camps for interviews with returned combat veterans, visiting GI coffee houses, and, not least, raising funds among East and West Coast liberals to pay the printing and mailing bills to keep VGI afloat. Instead, he recommended Joe Carey for the Paris mission, especially since Joe had most recently seen the war up close through the lens of his camera. Furthermore, Joe had brought home pictorial evidence of what was really going on over there. Jolas liked the idea. So did her French colleagues.

Jeff supplied funds to have a selection of Joe’s combat photo outtakes enlarged and mounted, Dellinger provided the plane ticket, and Joe Carey was off to Paris. He was met at the airport by Dr M. F. Kahn of the Faculty of Medicine in Paris, a member of the sponsoring French antiwar group, who took him to his apartment where Tom Hayden of the SDS leadership waited to brief him.

  David Dellinger            Joseph Carey

By pre-arrangement, Joe was put up with a French journalist, and his Parisian hosts included Maria Jolas and Laurent Schwartz. During his stay in Paris, Maria entertained him several times at her apartment in Montparnasse, which had been the artistic center of Paris at the time Maria and Eugene launched transition, in the 6th arrondissement not far from Saint- Germain-des-Prés, which became the center of the existentialist movement following WWII. It was a comfortable place with many framed photos of Maria’s family and friends***, and, of course, much evidence in bookcases of her long involvement in the literature of the first half of the century.

Joe had been aware of Maria’s relationship to Joyce. An English lit major, he had read about her in the definitive Joyce biography, but had no idea she was an activist as well. A gracious hostess, he remembered Maria showing him her signed first editions of Joyce. On his last Sunday in Paris, she also invited the American writer Mary McCarthy over, they drank iced tea, and Maria told stories of her time with the Joyce family.

Laurent Schwartz served as Joe’s guide in Paris. Schwartz, one of the great mathematicians of the 20th c, had won a Fields Medal, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize; he was also a well-known French political activist who had opposed France’s wars in Vietnam, and Algeria and was now bringing his activist skills to bear against the American war in Vietnam. The previous year he had sat as a member of the Bertrand Russell War Crimes Tribunal at its sessions in Stockholm and Copenhagen.  Schwartz, along with Jean-Paul Sartre, had founded NCV, which was sponsoring a follow-up war crimes tribunal at which Joe Carey would make his presentation the evening of his arrival.

Laurent Schwartz

Joe had raced to Paris to be there in time for the event on an early July evening and was quite tired from the journey. He was able to grab a few hours of sleep at Dr Kahn’s before being whisked off to the venue for the Paris tribunal, a small art theater. His 30-odd Vietnam photos, including the headless atrocity shot, in 8x10’s and 11x14’s, were set up on the stage. The proceedings were in French, so Maria Jolas sat alongside him and translated his presentation. At the end of the evening, the French organizers asked if he would extend his stay since other antiwar events were coming up, and they hoped he’d be willing to participate. Additional funds were found to cover expenses, and Joe was of course delighted to spend several weeks in Paris.

As an ex-Vietnam GI who seen action and had had a special angle of vision on the war, Joe was in much demand in Paris left circles. On another occasion he was scheduled to appear at the Quaker Center with the playwright Arthur Miller and Wilfred Burchett, a well-known Australian journalist of the left. Joe also gave newspaper interviews, was feted at parties, and wined and dined by high ranking representatives of North Vietnam and the National Liberation Front, the political arm of the insurgency in South Vietnam. Paris was still in turmoil from the May student uprising on the Left Bank, and, with the Bastille Day celebration approaching, another round of student unrest was in the offing.

On that day, July 14th, Joe, as an experienced photographer, went out onto the streets of the Latin Quarter to shoot some film of the students battling the cops. However, he soon realized that from the police point of view, the line between observer and participant was non-existent; his film was exposed, his Nikon smashed, and he narrowly escaped arrest. He later heard that French students who’d been nabbed had been made to run a gauntlet of cops swinging rubber truncheons. In spite of the high drama of his Paris days, looking back on his sojourn decades later, Joe’s fondest memories remained those afternoons and dinners chez Madame Jolas.

After his successful mission to Paris, Joe Carey returned to the States, eventually becoming a chef, nationally known as Chef Joseph; a restaurateur; an author; and founder of the Memphis Culinary Academy.**** As for the notorious atrocity photo he had passed on to Jeff for Vietnam GI – since the end of the Vietnam War many years ago it has hung in the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon.

In the War Remnants Museum

*Max Watts, “American RITA GIs in the Paris of May of 1968,” Le blog de Mai (May 1, 2008)
**, June van Ingen’s writings on RITA and its times
***Thanks to George Carrano, an American antiwar activist who visited the Jolas apartment in early ’68 and remembered the many interesting photos on walls and surfaces.


  1. Minor item: you mention Montparnasse as being the head of intellectual life at that time. Actually, I would say Saint Germain des Près. Sartre and Simone B. had made the Flore, more than the Deux Magots, well known during the war because they and other intellectuals went there to write--it had a first floor (second in the U.S.) which was heated. James Baldwin, much later, also wrote up there. I think Montpárnasse was more the 20's (as in Midnight in Paris). And Maria's place was much nearer Saint Germain--it was just on the thoroughfare to Montparnasse.

  2. Dr Kahn, a lifelong activist, reported to the Russell Tribunals in Scandinavia that US forces' extensive use of riot gas against Vietnamese villagers caused hundreds of civilian deaths. For example, 35 women and children were killed in September 1965 near Vinh Quang.


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