Last Days


Stockholm, site of Jeff's travels

        Brother Jeff was not a well person. He had had a health episode while serving in Vietnam back in ’64 which remained unresolved. There weren’t that many US military advisors in-country at that early time in the war, hence the American military medical infrastructure was relatively minimal. Whatever had occurred in Jeff’s case – whether it was exposure to very toxic Agent Purple or something else – it never got properly diagnosed.

        He came back to the States, resumed a normal life, and generally ignored his health. By fall of ’68 as his creation, Vietnam GI, was reaching peak success, the old medical problem began to reoccur. Looking back, that turned out to be the beginning of his ‘Last Days’. Nonetheless, Jeff toughed it out for several more months, continuing his arduous schedule unabated until finally conceding that some serious doctoring was needed. 


A Meeting in Stockholm


 #1            We’ll never know for sure the root cause of the illness which took Jeff’s life at an early age in 1969, but a possible factor was the US aerial defoliation program in South Vietnam. Operation Ranch Hand began in ’62. The idea was to spray toxic herbicides on rice paddies in Viet Cong-held area as well as on thick jungle foliage to deprive the guerrillas of cover.

   Various toxins were tried until the military finally settled on Agent Orange in ’65, the name by which the program became notorious. Years later the Pentagon declassified some, but probably not all, information on the spraying patterns, which mainly described drop areas without reference to weather patterns or prevailing winds. Was Jeff exposed to Agent Purple during his tour in 1963-64 – as I said, we’ll never know for sure 

Only You Can Prevent a Forest

           Operation Ranch Hand began operational missions on 12 January 62. Initially the air crews were assigned to clear foliage along a major roadway north of Saigon; later, mangrove forests near the coast and rice-growing areas in the Mekong Delta were added as approved targets.

  Although the air crews were using Agents Purple and Blue, the results were somewhat less successful than expected. Adjustments were made to the number of nozzles on each wing boom to increase the droplet size of the herbicide which in turn was expected to minimize drift. Eventually the crews, borrowing from Smokey the Bear in an ironic twist, came up with the unit slogan, ‘Only You Can Prevent a Forest’.

           In the early years of the war, the small detachment gradually expanded its operations. Defoliation missions for the three aircraft increased from 60 in 1962 to 107 in 1963 to 273 in 1964. Significantly, the difficulty of the aerial tactics increased as operations were expanded from the relatively flat areas surrounding lines of communication in the South to the rugged topography of the mountain passes in the more northern provinces.


#2       Max Watts, a legendary figure in the anti-Vietnam War protest in Europe, and Jeff never met, but they operated along parallel lines that occasionally intersected. I got to know Max well in the last years of his life and through him became acquainted with his partner in antiwar work both in France and West Germany, Mary Jo Van Ingen, aka ‘June’, her political pseudonym.

         Before she and Max met in the mid- ‘60s, Mary Jo had been living the life of an American expatriate in Paris married to a French composer. They were then part of haute French intellectual life. On one occasion in the postwar period, Heidegger, the seminal German philosopher who had been friendly with the Nazis, was invited to France by friends of Mary Jo and her husband, René Leibowitz. She described an afternoon with the philosopher.

    The French intellectuals mentioned in her account are André Masson, the surrealist painter who later greatly influenced American Abstract Expressionism, Jacques Lacan, a noted psychoanalyst whose lectures helped shape 20th century French philosophy.

Lunch in Aix-en-Provence

             I met Heidegger in Aix-en-Provence when he and his wife came to lunch with the Massons when Rene and I were visiting that summer. Lacan, the brother-in-law of Rose Masson, was ‘rehabilitating’ Heidegger in French intellectual circles. Both Masson ladies were Jewish, and not too pleased to receive Heidegger, but not enough to counter Lacan. Who I suppose – in retrospect – was right.

             René didn’t object either, but he was called on to translate because Heidegger did not know French. Don’t tell me he read Descartes in translation. But he was probably like most of my French friends who knew English very well, but not perfectly, and so would never speak it. Anyway, Masson said Heidegger looked like a Burgundian peasant – bright blue eyes, weathered face. Mrs. H was the real Nazi type. I don’t know what he had to say. Mrs. H did most of the talking – lunchtime chitchat.


#3       Max Watts, honcho with June Van Ingen in Paris of Resistance Inside the Army (RITA), was a skilled writer and prolific story teller. His adventurous life provided great material. At the time RITA was formed, Jane Fonda, the actress, was lending a hand. In spite of its name, RITA mainly involved US GIs who had deserted in France.

  The actress was then living in Paris with the French director Roger Vadim, her husband, and was then principally known for starring in his film Barbarella. Jane had also put Max in touch with her friend Vanessa Redgrave who helped him organize a big antiwar affair in London. Then Max lost touch with Jane and thought she had dropped out of the movement until one day in Lisbon he discovered she had not.

An Afternoon in Fascist Portugal

   I was strolling thru downtown Lisbon, looking for something to read. Portuguese would be a bother, a bore. And under Fascism, I’d doubt they’d sell much of interest in any case. But lo and behold, I see a French magazine hanging up outside a newsstand kiosk, the Nouvelle Observator.

  And there on all of the front page, a picture of Jane Fonda. Face, not nude body, but all the same … I ask myself what the Nouvelle Observator, a fairly serious left magazine, is doing featuring (what I had known as a fairly flighty sex-kitten) actress, on its cover.

  Flashback to 1969 or was it 1968: Jane Fonda had met, and suitably prompted by Max, come good for 500 Francs ($100) and some of (her then husband) Roger Vadim’s old clothes for the Paris GI deserters. She had met Dick Perrin and other deserters in Paris and invited them to Barbarella previews. They had been chuffed, impressed.

  June was less so and thought Jane Fonda to be an ‘airhead’, flighty, unreliably doing whatever hubby Vadim told her. For June, relations with Jane may also have been somewhat complicated because, apart from husbands, there was the Deneuve problem.

  Catherine Deneuve lived below June and complained about the noise. Me. Max’s heavy boots on the flag-stone floor, Deneuve’s ceiling. And add to the complications, Jane Fonda’s husband Vadim was also was also going out with Deneuve.

  Problems I ignored. Anyway, after Jane Fonda having been, at least in a minor manner, good in ’68 when we were winning, things had gotten tougher in ’69. I had mistakenly assumed it was the tougher times which led to Jane ‘dropping out of activism’. In fact, she was busy having a baby (Vanessa), shooting They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? in America, and getting away from and over Vadim.

   Now in the middle of Fascist Portugal, I find out she had come good, but with a real vengeance. RITA, RITA ALL THE WAY. Fonda, barred from US Army bases, was now climbing over fences to talk to the antiwar GIs. She had become a supporter of GI activism, far more dedicated, effective, self-sacrificing, beyond anything I could have imagined back when we first introduced her to GIs like Perrin in Paris in ’68.

   All this I learned from a chance-bought French weekly – in Fascist Portugal.


#4       Probably no one worked harder to keep memory of Jeff’s antiwar achievements alive than Tom Barton. A lifelong man of the left, Tom had been Jeff’s East Coast distributor for Vietnam GI. It was Tom whose circulation beat included smuggling bundles of the paper into Vietnam.

               In ’86, long after Jeff’s death, Tom wrote to Vietnam’s Communist leadership in Hanoi describing Jeff’s work with VGI urging them to issue a stamp in his honor. They declined, but very graciously. The respondent wrote back in English, but his grasp of grammar and spelling was imperfect, so I have rendered it in lightly corrected form for better readability.

His Antiwar Activities Are Never Forgotten

     Although the war waged by US aggression in Vietnam has ended 10 years now, it has left a deep remembrance in the hearts and souls of many, many people in our two countries. Day by day we still find more war victims of the second generation poisoned by Agent Orange – children with extraordinary deformities.

             It’s really terrible so we always express our gratefulness to those who contributed their role to stop that dirty war. If you are able, please give Jeff Sharlet’s brother kind words from an unfamiliar Vietnamese.

          Being a man who has lost many relatives in the battles of the war, I myself am deeply aware of loss, but proud. I think that although Jeff Sharlet is now gone, his activities against the US Army’s war in Vietnam are never forgotten in the souls of progressive people.


#5       SDS was headed for a major crisis at its mid-year convention of ’69, but no one anticipated that the largest youth organization in the country, as it was known, would split asunder in an orgy of shouting, harsh rhetoric, and even the exchange of blows, as described in ‘Days of Rage’:


Consumed with Battle

           The SDS convention took place at the Chicago Coliseum on Wednesday, June 18, 1969; nearly 2,000 people attended. The Weathermen arrived as part of the larger RYM – Revolutionary Youth Movement – caucus, but both were consumed with battle against their archrivals, PL.

           (The basic difference between the two groups was that PL adopted a Maoist philosophy of focusing on ‘workers’, while Weatherman put its emphasis on the ‘oppressed’, especially Blacks.)

           The convention’s first two days were consumed with the trappings of student-leftist gatherings, angry speeches, PL chants against RYM, RYM chants against PL, even fistfights.   


#6       Like most of his generation, Jeff was into music. He may have been a young man rushing toward the end of his story, but most of his favorites were upbeat. One record that he particularly liked in his last months was Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys, especially the rousing melody about brothers missing each other like ships passing in the night.

 Different Drum

You and I travel to the beat
of a different drum
Oh can't you tell by the way I run


#7        During fall ’68 a so-called ‘mutiny’ occurred at the Army stockade at the Presidio of San Francisco. Most of the prisoners there were serving short sentences for infractions of Army rules, mostly AWOL. In October, a guard shot and killed a mentally unbalanced soldier trying to escape.

   Twenty-seven prisoners conducted a sit-down protest of the killing and the generally miserable conditions at the stockade. The Army labeled the incident a mutiny and threw the book at them. A fine book written about the affair a few years after, was dedicated to Jeff posthumously. In it the author described the victim of the shooting.

Richard ‘Rusty’ Bunch

    Richard ‘Rusty’ Bunch, a small (5’4”), skinny (130 pounds), young-looking soldier who came from Ohio, had gone AWOL from Fort Lewis, Washington, in January, 1968. Living in a flophouse in Haight-Ashbury with a number of ‘hippies’, he was soon making frequent and heavy LSD trips.

   In May he returned to his home in Moraine near Dayton, where his wild clothing, filthy habits, and weird statements led his mother to conclude that he had become mentally deranged. He told her he was ‘immortal’ had ‘died and been reincarnated’, and ‘had the power to kill people at a glance’.

   Mrs Bunch tried to have her son committed, but found the regional VA hospitals unwilling to accept as a patient an AWOL GI. MPs arrived after a phone call, and Bunch found himself in the stockade at Fort Meade, Maryland from where he was ultimately transferred to the Presidio. 


#8        By late ’68, VGI was well-established, Jeff was unwell, and he was moving on.

Writing a Novel

           Jeff was absolutely not going to stick around the left. He said that. Jeff meant he had done his mission. This is what he set out to do. He was thinking of writing a novel. DK


#9       Although Jeff was very ill, he was talking about writing a novel, but he never got there.

He Was Dying

        He was talking about how he really wanted to write a novel. Typical first novel. (laughs) About a guy who goes to Vietnam. But he also wanted to put the military academy in it. (laughing) He was really pissed about that military academy.

        He was dying, we just didn’t realize it. It just, just hit us, all of us, but completely. The only one of us who thought Jeff might have something fatal was Kit.

        So a lot of Jeff’s conversations back then, he’d be talking about doing stuff, but it’d be half-hearted. I’d like to do it, I dunno. He knew too cause he was dying.

        I’m sure Jeff would have tried a lot of different things. In reality he was a guy who as a kid had been brought into a war, a terrible war, and that war was his life as long as he lived. DK


#10     Dave describes how it all ended.

A Very American Experience

        There was no attempt to build an empire, an organization. We just talked to people in the revolt, people who were the most fucked over. We encouraged their revolt. We helped this thing happen, we took part in it, it was over.

        It was at the very worst a draw. If you look at it, we did pretty good. OK, we left no empire behind, no left organization, no blah blah documents. Jeff wasn’t in exile writing obscure ideological tracts. None of that.

        A very American experience. (laughs)



#11      Aside from his public appearance at the Japanese peace conference in Kyoto in early August ’68, the clandestine reason for bringing Jeff in was for the Beheiren group to gain his private counsel on how to handle the increasingly restless GI deserters hidden away in various Japanese homes. The group’s policy was to encourage desertion. Jeff did give his private counsel, but he also set the stage for it in his public remarks. 

Remarks About the Deserters

        Now, I want to make a few statements about the question of desertion and how it affects the deserters. The vast majority of American GIs, whites and blacks, are from working-class backgrounds.

They are young and badly educated. They usually have few employable skills. They usually speak no foreign languages and have little knowledge of other cultures. American working-class people tend to be extremely culture-bound.

GIs also tend to have strong family ties, and given the working-class consciousness of most parents, desertion usually means permanent rejection by the family.

Finally, there is the problem of strong peer group relationships among GIs. For a GI to desert means that he will live in a peaceful country while his fellow GIs die in Vietnam. The problems of the deserter’s guilt feelings about his GI comrades, his family, and rejection by his society, cannot be ignored.

I think that anyone who is concerned with the desertion question should be aware of these attendant problems.