Wednesday, January 7, 2015

GI in a Pagoda – From Olive Drab to Saffron Yellow

The Army Language School (ALS) sat on a vast bluff on the central coast of California overlooking Monterey Bay. Subsequently renamed the Defense Language Institute (DFI), the school still sits high on that bluff above the now revitalized Cannery Row. When the writer John Steinbeck roamed the area during the Great Depression, the canneries along the waterfront below thrived on the catch of the sardine fishing fleet.

Much later in the mid-‘50s when I was assigned to ALS for language study, the sardine fisheries had collapsed, and the canneries had gone into decline; it was a ramshackle scene notable only due to Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row (1945). After I graduated, the street of defunct canning factories was officially renamed in honor of the novel and its famous author who a few years later was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The language school was first established in ’41 for training GIs in Japanese. After the war, ALS moved to its present location, the Presidio of Monterey, an old Spanish fort. The school’s curriculum grew rapidly apace with the challenges of the postwar international situation. When I studied at Monterey, over 25 languages were being offered by native speakers from various countries. By the end of the ‘50s, more than 20,000 military personnel had passed through ALS.

Not surprisingly, given international tensions, the school emphasized the intensive training of service personnel in the languages of the United States’ Cold War adversaries and their client states as well as instruction in the languages of our allies in the global struggle. Russian was by far the largest language program then, followed by Chinese and Korean. Collectively, the various languages of the USSR’s Baltic and East European satellites also enrolled a large group of military students.

Given international tensions, the school emphasized the intensive training of service personnel in the languages of US Cold War adversaries as well as in the languages of our allies in the global struggle.

Smaller numbers of soldier-students studied Greek, Turkish, Arabic, Persian, Burmese, Indonesian, and Thai as well as several West European and Scandinavian languages. During the year I spent at ALS studying Czech, one of my college friends was learning Persian across the post.

When I revisited the school several years ago the curriculum had changed radically since the end of the Cold War and onset of the war on terrorism. The barracks and classroom buildings where the East Europeanists had lived and studied still stood, but had been repurposed. With the liberation of the former Soviet Union’s satellites and the inclusion of most of the now-independent countries in NATO, the study of their languages was no longer essential. 

Instead, my old billet and neighboring barracks had been converted to additional classrooms for the hundreds of men and women soldiers training for America’s contemporary challenges – studying among others two of the heretofore secondary languages of the ASA/DLI curriculum -- Arabic and Farsi (Persian) – as well as new additions such as Pashto, a language of Afghanistan, and Urdu, spoken in Pakistan. 

In the ‘60s, my brother Jeff Sharlet followed me to Monterey as a GI student of Vietnamese. In ’62 a low intensity ‘hot’ war was underway in South Vietnam, and the Pentagon was steadily but quietly building up its cadres of translators and interpreters. As the war heated up, Jeff and most of his ALS cohort ended up in Vietnam.

Vietnamese had first been taught in the US during WWII. A special program for a small number of GIs was created at University of California – Berkeley and University of Wisconsin – Madison. Later during the Cold War ‘50s, Vietnamese was added to the roster of languages taught at ALS. Vietnamese native speakers joined the school’s faculty in ’54, the year of France’s defeat in the first Indochina War when the US began to assume its fateful responsibility for the newly created state of South Vietnam.

In the course of the second Indochina War – the American war – 
20,000 military personnel passed through the gates of the Defense
   Language Institute and its regional branches to study Vietnamese.

In the course of the second Indochina War – the American war – 20,000 military personnel passed through the gates of the Defense Language Institute and its regional branches to study Vietnamese. The great majority were sent for a short course (8-weeks) designed for officers and non-commissioned officers headed to Southeast Asia as military advisors to units of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam.

A much smaller contingent, including Jeff and his buddies, spent 11.5 months in the classrooms of the Monterey Presidio being trained as translators and interpreters. Most of the long-term students were part of the Army Security Agency (ASA), an autonomous communications intelligence outfit, or they were assigned to the Military Intelligence (MI) branch of the Army.

Unlike my generation of Cold War GIs who, because of the Iron Curtain could at best only observe the countries of the Soviet Bloc from afar, Jeff and his fellow linguists lived and worked in a Vietnamese language environment. As a result they were able to hone their language skills with some of them becoming quite fluent in Vietnamese.

Of my fellow linguists of the European communist states who continued using their languages after leaving the military, a number became academics, specialists on the countries whose languages we had learned and worked in for a couple of years of our military tour. Jeff and his group also parlayed their language skills as well as the Vietnam experience after the service, but in more varied ways.

At least two became academics, one becoming a distinguished scholar of Vietnamese politics. Another stayed on in Vietnam, and yet another returned as a civilian employee of a US company that constructed infrastructure for the military. Another GI linguist, for whom the romance of Vietnamese culture was strong, became a student of Oriental languages back in the States as well as a poet of the Vietnam experience.

Doffing the uniform, a couple of others became players in the Vietnam War writ large. One young ex-Vietnam GI became station chief for the National Security Agency (NSA) in Saigon, later rising to the number two position in the agency back in Washington.

Then there was brother Jeff who founded the first GI-edited underground antiwar paper directed to serving GIs and in the process became an early leader of the emerging GI opposition to the war. *

Among Jeff’s generation of Vietnam GIs, one young ex-Army Security   
Agency linguist took the unusual step of becoming a Buddhist monk.

However, among Jeff’s generation of Vietnam GIs, one young ex-Army Security Agency linguist took the unusual step of becoming a Buddhist monk. Steve Shlafer had completed a couple of years of Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) when he dropped out and enlisted in ASA. Like Jeff, Steve was sent to ALS for intensive language training in Vietnamese and upon graduation deployed to South Vietnam for classified work. 

Steve Shlafer (r) at an ASA base outside Saigon, 1963

During the requisite 12-month tour in-country, Steve Shlafer became not only an outstanding linguist, but also deeply interested in Vietnamese Buddhist culture. After completing his military obligation, he returned to Vietnam, enrolling at Saigon’s Van Hanh University in – a Buddhist-run school – where he studied Buddhist theology as well as Chinese and Vietnamese literature. Finishing his studies in ‘67, Steve was hired by an American subcontractor to a Washington agency to research and write an in-depth study of a particular Buddhist sect.

In early December of ‘67, he submitted an extensive report on the Hoa Hao religious tradition. Hoahaoism is a relatively modern version of Buddhism with a populist and social welfare orientation. The movement, which today claims two million adherents across Vietnam’s Mekong River Delta, focuses mainly on peasant farmers, emphasizes Buddhist lay worship at home and in the fields rather than primarily in temples, and favors aid to the poor over pagoda-building and expensive rituals.

Three years later, Steve Shlafer’s nearly 300-page study was cited in a State Department training manual for Foreign Service officers assigned to Vietnam.

Cover page of Foreign Service Institute manual on Vietnam (1970)

A few days after handing in his manuscript, Steve Shlafer completed final preparations for becoming a Theravada (also known as Southern Buddhism, the most prominent form in Southeast Asia) Buddhist monk, an extraordinary commitment for a foreigner in general and an American ex-GI in particular. After performing the ritual of walking three times around the pagoda, he entered and took his vows. With shaved head he donned the traditional saffron gown with yellow sash and was assigned a cell in the pagoda. Almost immediately the new monk became the center of media attention back in the States.

Steve Shlafer making the ritual walks around the pagoda, 1967

To further characterize Steve Shlafer’s dramatic act in the midst of the Vietnam War, the Associated Press (AP) highlighted that he was Jewish. Of course, for the American public it would have been hardly less remarkable if a Vietnamese speaking ex-GI of the Christian persuasion had been inducted into the Buddhist religion.

Steve Shlafer (l) taking his monastic vows, 1967

At a mini-press conference in his pagoda cell, Thich Thien Hien, aka Steve Shlafer, told the newsmen that his parents back home were aware of his plans, and he had just written them that he had taken the step. He fended off questions about his parents’ reaction, saying – perhaps with a smile, “They probably think it’s another one of my wild schemes.”**

Simultaneously, the New York Times interviewed his mother in New Jersey who expressed skepticism of her son’s whole venture. Saying that she had tried to “kid him out of it,” his mother speculated that Steve would give up the idea of being a monk in a few months and return to college in the States.***

Not long after the solemn ceremony – in late January ’68 when the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army launched the Tet Offensive throughout South Vietnam – Steve in his religious regalia reportedly took temporary cover with his old unit out near the airport. Given the fact that Saigon was a battle zone, it was probably a wise decision notwithstanding his new status and appearance as a monk – especially as a rather conspicuous American Caucasian Buddhist.
In the end Mrs Shlafer was right since Steve eventually did give up monkhood. However, that wasn’t and still isn’t unusual in Buddhist practice where men have been known to enter the pagoda for a period of time and then return to their previous lives. In any event, Steve Shlafer married and spent a dozen years in Sweden from 1974 to 1986 where he completed medical school at the University of Goteborg.

Returning to the States, he did his medical residency and became a physician. Many decades on since wartime Saigon, Dr Stephen Shlafer has long been a respected pediatrician in the Pacific Northwest.

*For an account of the GI antiwar paper, Vietnam GI, see

**AP story run in the New York Times, 4 December 1967

**New York Times, 4 December 1967