Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Marching to Different Drummers*

 [Dear Reader:  The time is at last at hand to turn full-time to writing the memoir. To facilitate the writing, the blog continues to post, but now monthly on the 1st Wednesday of each month.  We will keep you informed about our progress to publication.]

Two generations of Sharlets, Bob and Jeff, recently participated in a remote interview with long-time activist Thorne Dreyer of The Rag Blog and Rag Radio, cutting edge alternative media out of Austin TX.  The long time reader is no doubt aware that Bob, the well-known scholar of Russian constitutional law, is the older brother of the subject of this blog, the late Jeff Sharlet, 1960’s ex-Vietnam GI, activist, and underground press founder and editor; and that the other Jeff in the interview is his son, the best-selling author and namesake.

The interview covers a wide range of topics, many of which have appeared in more detail in this blog, but here, for the first time on air, father and son speak candidly, not only about the remarkable man who was one’s brother and the other’s uncle, but also about their own career trajectories and thoughts about the memoir in progress for which this blog is a precursor. The interview has been preserved as a podcast here: 

                                                                 “A more congenial man I never knew

L to R: Bob Sharlet; Jeff, his late brother; and Jeff, his son

During the interview you will hear Bob recount his path from aspiring writer at Wesleyan University in the ‘50s to the army, where he was posted to the Army Language School (ALS, now the Defense Language Institute). At ALS he was taught Czech, and then stationed in Germany from where he toured Europe before returning to college, and becoming a political scientist schooled in the rigors of his field. 

His brother Jeff, expecting to follow in his footsteps, was diverted onto a very different path at ALS – the Army Security Agency (ASA) anticipated an imminent need for Vietnamese linguists.  Jeff’s experience in Vietnam and the subsequent buildup of American forces there would turn him into an antiwar activist once he was back in school in the States.

For a time, he and his brother Bob were at odds over the Vietnam War politically, each influenced by his personal angle of vision – Bob as an academic Soviet specialist focused on the Cold War, Jeff as an ex-Vietnam GI activist.

After his brother Jeff died at a young age in ’69, Bob promised himself he would give his brother’s short but accomplished career as a founder of the GI Movement**  its place in the history of the antiwar movement. Upon his retirement from academe, Bob at last had the opportunity to finally fulfill that commitment.

With invaluable assistance from Karen Ferb, a good friend of his brother’s from long ago, he set out to make contact with Jeff’s GI buddies, fellow college antiwar activists, VGI staffers from his Chicago days, and friends, all of whose memories of Jeff he assiduously collected. Bob also began studying memoirs to learn how they are made as well as to help him slip the bonds of analytical social scientific writing.  It was not an easy task.

Along the way his son Jeff blossomed into a writer of national reputation known for his research skills and for turning out notable creative nonfiction that eventually landed him in his current professorship at Dartmouth. 
Jeff the son had grown up in a writerly family where Jeff the brother acquired “mythic status” from Bob’s recounting of his brother’s activism as the founder-editor of the influential underground paper, Vietnam GI (VGI).

VGI was the first antiwar paper to be written by ex-Vietnam GIs for the troops. Jeff the namesake remembers first stumbling upon issues of the paper as a boy and seeing the uncle he never knew peering out of his own obituary and later memorialized in verse.

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…
                                                    ~ Lincoln Bergman in ‘Seeds of Revolution’

Bob and his son talked often about the memoir with Bob eventually inviting Jeff to collaborate on the book.  After all, Jeff was a successful writer and would have much to impart to what he called his father’s “towering work of historical investigative journalism.”  He should know – his own achievements include the important investigative works The Family and C Street, both of which address the fundamentalist threat to democracy in America and elsewhere.

For the C Street book, he traveled at great risk to Uganda to expose the influence of American fundamentalists and politicians on the so-called Ugandan “kill the gays” legislation. He later went to Russia to report on the virulent homophobic movement there – both journeys a kind of reprise of his uncle’s travels to Sweden and Japan as well as to the GI coffee houses across America on behalf of beleaguered American servicemen – many of them hounded by the military for their opposition to the Vietnam War.
*This post has been written by Karen Grote Ferb, Bob’s collaborator on the blog.

**For more information about the GI Movement, underground press, and GI coffee houses, see , an award-winning documentary film covering those subjects dedicated to GI activist Jeff Sharlet.