Wednesday, August 29, 2012

"He Cut Trail For Us"

A few years back I received a request to use a photo of my late younger brother, Jeff Sharlet, in a forthcoming mass market history text. I of course said yes, the more visibility for my brother and his role in the Vietnam GI antiwar movement the better. When asked about my fee, I replied that the memoir in progress about my brother has never been about money, but to secure his niche in the history of antiwar protest. Jeff had already received considerable posthumous recognition. An award-winning documentary film on the GI movement was co-dedicated to him, while sections of several books were written about his Vietnam service and his underground paper (my favorite line being, “Vietnam GI was professional, tough, witty, and radical.”*), so why not a picture of Jeff in Vietnam, presumably with a brief caption that might inspire some of the middle school kids who’d see it.

Maybe 18 months later, curious when the book would appear, I sent a general inquiry to the publishing house, but never got a response. The publisher’s Web site was such a byzantine maze that I figured this is surely a quixotic pursuit and decided just to keep an eye out for the title when it appeared in print, which it eventually did.  Ordering it for the memoir shelf was easier said than done, for it had been published in different variations, for different markets. Making an educated guess, I shelled out a hundred bucks and received a handsome 4-pound volume of nearly 700 pages.

I opened it with pleasant expectation, calculating that hundreds of thousands of middle schoolers would be reading (and toting) this text and gazing upon my brother, a quiet hero of a different era. The American Journey: Modern Times,** with a 15-page table of contents and an enormous number of photos, graphs, and charts is a most impressive textbook unlike the more modest texts of my distant youth. Turning to the exceptionally fine-tuned index, I quickly found the reference to Jeff indicating that he had both a page and a photograph.

I looked through the general section, Challenges at Home and Abroad, with chapters on the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Vietnam War, to get a sense of the setting . Perusing the Vietnam War and antiwar protest chapter, with the exception of a factual error and a mere map reference to the My Lai massacre without explanation, I noted that the discussion was generally balanced on the origins, conduct, and conclusion of the war as well as the variants of the antiwar movement – civilian, GI, draft resisters, and conscientious objectors.

And then I turned to Jeff’s page. Under the heading ‘The Vietnam Years at Home’ I saw the photo of Jeff in army fatigues in Vietnam with a brief account of him as a Vietnam GI and subsequent opponent of the war, all presented as a simulation of a page from a diary. The mini-narrative opened with mounting casualties in Vietnam, many people began to protest the war followed by the thesis of the piece, “Jeff Sharlet was a Vietnam veteran who opposed the war ….” It would have been fine if the sentence had ended there, but I was taken aback by the rest. It went on to say that because Jeff was ‘disgusted’ by the student war protestors, he decided to start his paper, Vietnam GI (VGI). I was stunned because I knew Jeff had launched the paper hoping to give heretofore voiceless GIs a platform.  He knew from experience that many of them had grave reservations about what we were doing in Vietnam.

The civilian antiwar movement was already strong by early ’68 when the first issue of VGI appeared. In an interview in a mainstream civilian underground paper, Jeff and his colleague Jim Wallihan argued that civilian protestors and GI war opponents needed to work shoulder to shoulder to oppose the war. Although VGI primarily addressed the troops, it had thousands of civilian readers as well; Jeff hoped they would grasp that the GI was not the enemy of the movement, but a potential ally in opposing the administration’s war policy.

Reading on to the end of the ‘diary’ page about Jeff, I saw to my dismay that whoever wrote the brief text was not finished skewing his record. Bizarrely, it stated that GIs ‘whether they supported or opposed the war’ knew they could find a forum in the pages of VGI.

If the unknown writer had merely said that Jeff would publish letters-to-the-editor reacting to articles pro and con, that would have been accurate. In fact, he published several letters from officers highly critical of VGI, usually followed by his sharp rebuttals, but the vast majority of correspondence came from enlisted men strongly opposed to the war.

The idea that Jeff would have given space to promote the war effort in a demonstrably antiwar paper was ludicrous. Such articles filled the pages of Stars and Stripes, the main military paper, and the myriad unit papers such as Tropic Lightning News, the weekly of the 25th Infantry Division.

I thought to myself where did these strange inventions about Jeff come from. The book’s title page listed five American historians, but I guessed at most each might have responsibility for overseeing a section of the text and supervising a stable of researchers, writers, and editors. Otherwise it would have been hard to imagine that the notable ‘authors’, busy turning out their own scholarly monographs during the long gestation of the publisher’s entry in the textbook sweepstakes, had time for the pick ‘n shovel work of a complex, multifaceted creation like American Journey. Turns out I greatly overestimated the authors’ role – apparently it’s well known in the publishing industry that the so-called ‘authors’ do not really write the textbooks.

So I reconciled myself to the reality on the page with the consolation that at least the publishers and their legions got the basic facts right – that Jeff came out of the war a major opponent, founder of a successful underground paper, and, by implication, a major force in the emerging GI protest movement. Without the photo of Jeff and jumbled summary in the textbook, the middle school students across America would have had no idea that GIs themselves, as well as civilians, had opposed the Vietnam War.

I mentioned news of the textbook coverage in my annual email update about the memoir project to the 200+ interlocutors who have helped on the project. I included the relevant page as an attachment. I was going to caveat the attachment with a note about the inaccuracies that had surprised me, but decided that the explanation would be too long and complicated for a brief update message. Instead, I thought I’d wait to respond to anyone who might inquire about the anomalous statements in the book.

I didn’t have to wait long. That very day I received two emails with strong objections to the textbook’s misrepresentations about Jeff and VGI. Both were from veterans of the Vietnam era, one a GI who served in Europe, the other from an ex-Vietnam Marine. Both men had read VGI with great appreciation and admired Jeff from a distance, and both had become GI antiwar activists. Curiously neither guy was on my mailing list – someone had shared the memoir update with the two of them which was fine, but both held me responsible for the offending content of Jeff’s ‘page’ in the middle school text.

Before expressing his shock and dismay, the Marine wrote:

Of course, I did not know [Jeff], but the Vietnam GI newspaper was legendary as the first of about 200 such antiwar papers written by veterans and GIs.  I and all the GI and veteran activists who came after Jeff owe him a debt of gratitude for cutting trail for us. 
The GI was even more upset, charging that I had mangled my "valiant brother's memory and role in history," and described his first encounter with VGI 

I remember VGI, the first antiwar newspaper     by GIs!  Jeff was a revolutionary! I was in the Army at the time & later became involved in the GI antiwar movement.  VGI had a lot to do with that and I remember passing around the paper while I was stationed in Germany. 
I very much appreciated the positive feedback on VGI and of course felt their criticism of the textbook was well justified, but misdirected. I replied to both men, explaining that I had merely granted permission for the use of Jeff’s photograph, that in fact McGraw Hill’s agent gave no assurance that it would actually be used or offered me any opportunity to have input on its possible use. The upside was that I became acquainted with two major GI activists from the Vietnam War era I had previously known of only indirectly.
Paul Cox had been a combat Marine in Vietnam from February ’69 to August ’70, much longer than the standard Marine tour of 13 months. He’d gone off to war with no knowledge of the country’s history or the causes of the conflict, and eventually developed disgust for what he’d been sent to do. Returning to the States filled with guilt and anger, Paul encountered civilian antiwar activists who helped him redirect his feelings toward those in the military and the government who were the war’s authors. 
With sympathetic fellow Marines at Camp Lejeune NC, he co-founded the GI underground paper, Rage, which announced as its raison d’etre “We publish RAGE, a paper by and for GIs and their dependents of Camp Lejeune and the New River Air Station. … It is a weapon against the brass to let them know we can think, learn new ideas, and help others in our struggle against the Marine Corps and the military system.”
The other GI who reacted to the way the textbook twisted Jeff’s story was Hal “Phoenix” Muskat who served in the Army in Europe 1966-69, initially in Paris where he encountered antiwar activists and first read VGI, and later near Frankfurt in West Germany where he refused orders for Vietnam. Finishing his enlistment back in the States, Hal became a prominent GI activist.

Hal Muskat, GI antiwar activist 

While at Fort Dix, Hal served as one of the editors of the GI underground paper, Shakedown, and helped start the GI coffee house in nearby Wrightstown NJ. Reassigned to Fort Knox KY, he co-founded the post underground paper FTA (Fun, Travel and Adventure in Army bureaucratese, but Fuck the Army in GI argot). He’d also been involved with Spartacus at Fort Lee VA. Busted twice for ‘distributing’ antiwar papers (a military offense), Hal served a couple of stockade stints for his activism for which he was recently featured in a documentary on the GI protest movement.
Fortunately, two other people joined our conversation, adding expert explanations for Jeff’s story’s ‘spin’ and providing a longer term view of the entire affair. A distinguished sociologist, James Loewen, wrote that the distortions of Jeff’s intent and purpose did not surprise him. As the author of the best-selling study, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, he was well aware of the miswriting and distortions of history in school texts.
Reading his account of how Vietnam has been handled in school books, it became obvious that both the war and the antiwar movement, controversial in their day and still so in minds of many, would be likely candidates for authorial or editorial ‘spin’ in a mass-market volume. So who are the spinners?  According to Professor Loewen’s book, he learned authoritatively that chapters on recent American history in textbooks “are ‘typically’ written by freelance writers.” He quotes one ghost writer who wrote even more candidly about the process.

It is absolutely standard practice in the textbook publishing industry to assign ALL the writing to freelancers.  Then you rent a name to go on the cover.*** 
David Zeiger, the director of the award-winning documentary,  Sir! No Sir! † (SNS), on the Vietnam GI antiwar movement, co-dedicated to Jeff Sharlet, put Jeff's appearance in American Journey and the consequent misstatements in broader perspective.  There had been a number of documentary films on the civilian antiwar movement, but the crucial role of GIs in protesting the war had been forgotten until David resuscitated it and in a single stroke changed the way the antiwar movement would henceforth be remembered.  Although equally dismayed by the 'spin', David concluded that "even mentioning Jeff and the GI movement is an advance", given that the book is being used in schools all over the country by vast numbers of middle schoolers.
The only remaining question for me was how did my consent to a welcome request to use Jeff’s photo in a mainstream schoolbook come to such a surprising ending. All signs pointed toward the multi-billion dollar textbook marketing business, especially to the markets that play major roles in the national process. Of these, Texas has the second largest school population, is one of the few large states that pay 100% of the cost of textbooks, and mandates a review of guidelines for school texts every ten years – all of which gives it enormous clout in the writing, and ultimately the marketing, of texts for school children at every grade level.
The Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) is an elected body whose chair is appointed by the governor. Given low interest and even lower turnouts for school board seats, political conservatives gained control of the elections, and their minions have exercised great sway over standards for textbooks used in the state. Because of Texas’s purchasing power, the major textbook publishers, Pearson/Prentice Hall, Houghton Mifflin, and McGraw Hill, publisher of American Journey, customarily pay close attention to what the state wants.
Texas guidelines tend to dictate the shape of the big three’s products, especially on sensitive issues. As the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me wrote, “Fear of not winning adoption in Texas is a prime source of publisher angst ….” (215) Given the cost of producing a typical text, usually in the millions, books crafted for access to the Texas market then end up becoming the default choices for most other states. Since the ‘70s, the highly politicized Texas SBOE has been especially concerned about stemming what it considers a ‘liberal bias’ in text writing, especially in science and, somewhat more recently, social studies.
The most contentious science issue has been the fight over evolution by those who prefer creationism or its euphemistic alternative ‘intelligent design’, while the thrust in social studies has been rolling back secularism and multiculturalism. According to a rightwing newsletter, “contested subjects” in social studies that draw the attention of the Texans include the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Cold War.
Wouldn’t one assume that the Texas SBOE calls in academic experts to assist in their deliberations. They in fact do, but if the conservative board members are not pleased with expert advice on an issue, they seek other less qualified but more congenial points of view. The initial impetus to censor textbooks in Texas came from an oilfield worker with a year of college. Until a few years ago, a dentist who regards evolutionary theory as nonsense ruled the roost. Most recently academic opinion was set aside for the input of a special politically connected consultant, an insurance salesman with no higher education.****
Were Texas standards the genesis of the distortions added to Jeff’s story in American Journey? The claims that he was ‘disgusted’ with Vietnam War protestors and welcomed pro-war views in his antiwar paper would certainly pass muster in the Lone Star state. Texas is not only deeply religious country, but well-known for its patriotic fervor. Outside of a minority of students at the University of Texas in liberal Austin, most Texas campuses were relatively quiet compared with universities elsewhere during the ‘60s and ‘70’s.
Did McGraw Hill think it wise to add a few ‘patriotic’ flourishes to Jeff’s narrative. Where does the chain of responsibility from the Texas SBOE lead. Was it a staffer working in the bowels of a giant corporation who took it upon himself to ‘spin’ the sole reference to GI antiwar protest, or was it an anonymous freelancer doing piece-work. What about the distinguished historians gracing the title page as putative ‘authors’ of American Journey. Three of them are from Princeton, Columbia, and UCLA with impressive scholarly publications to their credit. Do they share responsibility for ‘lies my teacher told me’. Or was it understood they were meant to be mainly window-dressing, exchanging a few letters with the publisher, lending their names, and drawing a nice fee.
Whatever the motive or  the cause, the full truth on the Vietnam GI antiwar movement is out there where any middle schooler, curious for more information, can Google ‘Jeff Sharlet Vietnam’ or ‘Vietnam GI’ and instantly find Jeff’s Wiki and Web site as well as this blog.
* F Gardner, Unlawful Concert: An Account of the Presidio Mutiny Case (1970), p 210. The author dedicated his book to “Jeff Sharlet, founder of Vietnam GI, dead at twenty-seven”
** Published by Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, 2009
*** J Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me (1995, 2007), pp 253, 319
**** On the Texas SBOE, see M Blake, “Revisionaries: How a group of Texas conservatives is rewriting your kids’ textbooks,” Washington Monthly (2010), and G Collins, “How Texas Inflicts Bad Textbooks on Us,” New York Review of Books (2012)

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