Reading Vietnam GI

 #1        I'm a long time academic social scientist, but my son Jeff, my brother’s namesake, is a writer of note. I sometimes refer to him as Jeff2 to keep the two of them straight.  He’s been involved with this memoir project for some time, and his insights have always been of great value. 

A Lone Political Artist

            Jeff2 rang last night, a two-hour session, much of it about the role of art (redemptive, reformist, destructive, nihilist), Jeff1 as a character who doesn’t fit ‘type’, Vietnam GI [VGI] as an art form and a weapon, VGI as a collective work of art, Jeff1 as a lone political artist merging politics & art, Jeff’s antiwar strategy as a leap of imagination – while the left cults pursued their ideological dreams and the civilian movement marched on high policy, Jeff mobilized the men in harm’s way – the disdained, ignored, forgotten grunts -- as the Achilles heel of the war machine.


 #2        Donald Duncan, a Green Beret in Vietnam, was an outstanding professional soldier who subsequently became a GI antiwar icon. The most decorated soldier of his day, Master Sergeant Duncan left the Army in ’65 in protest of the US mission in Vietnam. Disgusted with the torture of captured enemy suspects, he quit, saying of his tour, “I was doing it right, but I wasn't doing right.” Of the mission, he flatly stated, “The whole thing was a lie!”

          He became Military Editor of Ramparts, a radical magazine of the Vietnam War era. In an article in late ’68 on declining troop morale in the combat zone, he had high praise for Jeff’s Vietnam GI. 

Soldiers Silent no More

             Many GI’s, aware that they are being systematically propagandized … [by the military], deliberately seek out sources for divergent views. One such source is the small tabloids put out by groups in the States and sent free to the GI’s. When these tabloids first started showing up in the GI’s mail, they were so obviously written by people with no conception of the dilemma of their target audience that the military gleefully allowed them to be distributed.

           But new tabloids have appeared, and at least one, Vietnam GI, is written solely by Vietnam veterans. At least two pages in each issue are devoted to letters from GI’s, expressing their frank opinions on the war, the lifers, and the military. The reception has been such that Vietnam GI is now publishing two separate editions, one for the overseas GI’s and one for those Stateside.

           Now the heretofore silent soldier in Vietnam knows he not only has a peer group back home, but also one in Nam – and they seek each other out.


#3        In early ’68 when Jeff launched VGI, it was the first underground paper to be edited by ex-Vietnam GIs. Two others, also addressed to the serving GIs, The Bond and The Ally, were in circulation, but both had been created by civilian activists. Very soon and thereafter, informed observers regarded VGI as the most successful of the three in reaching the Vietnam GI. 

A Clear, Radical Political Analysis

           Of the hundreds of underground GI papers which were eventually published, only a handful appeared regularly over time and had readership beyond a particular base or Army division. Of these, the most important were Camp News, The Bond, and Vietnam GI.

         Vietnam GI had the largest following in Vietnam due to its ability to put a clear, radical political analysis in language that connected with the experiences of the grunts. It was put out by Vietnam vets and by former members of the left wing of the Young People’s Socialist League ….


#4       ‘Fragging’ in Vietnam was the murderous way troops got rid of a sergeant or superior officer who they felt was recklessly putting their lives in jeopardy. The practice usually involved rolling a fragmentation grenade, pin pulled, into the target’s sleeping quarters or using a grenade to booby trap the place.

           Fragging flourished after the Tet Offensive of ’68, which signaled the failure and hopelessness of the American mission. To simplify the issue, a victim was often an inexperienced junior infantry officer who, either out of reckless zeal or a bid for glory and promotion, had led his men into dangerous situations that the seasoned troops knew better to avoid.

           Under Jeff’s leadership, Vietnam GI carefully avoided advocating to the troops any course of action that would put them in front of a court-martial subject to draconic military law. However, long after his death, one of Jeff’s editors argued that Jeff had privately condoned the fragging of officers and non-com’s – anything to stop the war – a position he shared with no one other than him. Another editor, Jim Wallihan, who knew Jeff equally well was deeply skeptical of the claim.

You Couldn’t Avoid the Topic

           Certainly Jeff and I talked about fragging. We all did. Jeff and I spent a lot of time talking about this kind of stuff while driving around the country to visit bases, sharing an apartment and so on.

   You couldn’t avoid the topic because Jeff and I heard it from returned GIs on the bases, and we all read the mail to VGI. Several of the letters-to-the-editor mentioned fragging incidents.

   I doubt that Jeff would have been worried about me being uncomfortable with his position unless there was really a much deeper blanket hostility than I realized. So I doubt he would have advocated indiscriminate fragging of officers or NCO’s.

   We promoted solidarity among enlisted men and ragged on the brass and the lifers. That shows up throughout the run of VGI. We ran stories or printed letters about organized resistance; the one about the transportation outfit holding up all the vehicles in a work-to-rule action comes to mind.

   Perhaps that would have had the potential for a broader, organized troop revolt.


#5       When Jeff founded Vietnam GI, he recruited ex-Vietnam GI's from several branches of the military to serve on his editorial board, including Bill Harris, an ex-Marine. They had met as students at Indiana University.

           Harris later went on to become a notorious fugitive from the law. He and his wife Emily had joined a small, murderous West Coast group called the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). Under the nom de guerre ‘General Teko’, he and Emily (‘Yolanda’) had participated in the kidnapping of Patty Hearst. Eventually caught, the Harrises served 8 years in prison for the kidnapping.

                                       Bill Harris – ‘General Teko’

           The oldest of the recruits to the SLA at 28, Harris was a Vietnam veteran. After returning and earning a Master's degree in Urban Education at Indiana University, he moved to Oakland in '72 in search of a teaching job.     

           A heavy LSD user, Harris ended up sorting mail at the Berkeley post office and spent his spare time volunteering with Black prisoners at the Vacaville Black Cultural Association (BCA).

           Decades after serving their initial terms, the Harrises, now divorced, were resentenced in the early 21st century for involvement in the murder of a bank customer during an SLA bank robbery in '75.


#6      After Tet, as the war dragged on and GIs became more politically conscious of the bad situation they were in, quiet resistance to the mission began to steadily mount. Jeff, Dave Komatsu, and Jim Wallihan could observe this trend in the numerous letters-to-the-editor of VGI.

           In the final years of the war as US troop levels were being drawn down, GIs went to some lengths to survive and get home in one piece, including malingering on phony patrols, group refusal to obey orders (mutiny), and the deliberate but surreptitious killing of a superior (fragging). Dave spoke of Jeff’s position on these issues. 

A Profoundly Angry Man

  In some of the letters, GIs expressed the idea or the intent to frag a lifer sergeant or officer who was recklessly risking the lives of the men. Dave described Jeff as a profoundly angry man who, in his single-minded determination to bring the war to a close, not only condoned but subtly encouraged the fragging of officers and non-com’s to that end. He said that no one on the paper other than himself was aware of Jeff’s attitude.

  To be sure this was not expressed openly in VGI, but in correspondence with GIs in the field who had raised the topic in their letters-to-the editor. Dave added that he and Jeff were very careful in the choice of language in their replies to GIs contemplating fragging and that after the paper ended he destroyed all the correspondence.


#7        It turned out that Jeff had been thinking about Vietnam GI during his IU years, well before he actually conceived the paper. He had a vision of what an underground paper addressed to GIs should be, how it should function. 

VGI as a Mirror

           VGI as a mirror to allow enlisted men to see themselves, to see that they weren’t alone in their doubts about the mission.


#8       When Jeff conceived VGI, he formed a Vietnam GI Editorial Advisory Committee for the masthead. He had reps from the Army, Air Force, and Marines. Jeff knew the guys who agreed to lend their names to the enterprise. They included Jan Barry; co-founder of VVAW; Bill Harris, later a notorious SLA leader; and a Black GI, Dink McCarter, who was not only antiwar but a civil rights activist. 

Dink McCarter

           In April ’68, McCarter, a member of Veterans for Peace, was a co-leader of a city-wide student antiwar strike centered at Chicago’s Columbia College. Subsequently, he went to grad school at the University of Rochester, where he earned an MA in Political Science in ’72. He apparently did not complete his dissertation topic on the Black Caucus in the Congress.

           Along the way, McCarter published a few short pieces, one under the title, ‘Dr King Was Right’, saluting MLK for linking the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement. At Rochester in ‘73, he was named Director of the university’s Education Opportunity Program, which provided pre-college enrichment studies for Black students accepted at the University of Rochester under the program.


#9     When Jeff and Dave were ready to launch VGI, they had everything they needed. Jeff had the message, Dave the experience with an underground tabloid, and an initial mailing list was in hand. The only remaining prerequisite was the funds to print the paper and mail it. The antiwar movement, generally hostile to GIs at that time, wasn’t going to help, so Jeff solved the problem.

A Paper for War Criminals?

            Jeff put up his Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to start us off. That was the only cash we had when we began. The peace movement wasn’t giving us money, that’s for sure. Their whole line was, ‘You mean a paper for the war criminals? Why do want to organize war criminals?’ 

#10       Jeff conceived, created, and initially funded VGI. He had help from Dave Komatsu, but essentially it was Jeff’s project.

Possessive about His Baby

             Jeff was as possessive as anybody about his baby. But then you gotta remember, everybody’s real young, everything’s real chaotic, we were all immature and crazy and bingo.

           Without me, there would have been a VGI. I don’t think as good, but certainly it would have been there. I contributed stuff and people. Maybe Jeff would have had more trouble finding the right combination of people who were on the right wave length.


#11     VGI  had a wide circulation. Getting it into VN was a challenge, but that’s where the paper had its greatest impact.

500 Subscribers in One Battalion

           People were always looking us up. They had read the paper or they were in a local antiwar group. A lot of GIs came back from Germany; they’d never seen the paper. It circulated there, but it wasn’t the same.

           See, the intensity of Nam was that we’d get the paper into entire units. Remember, there was one battalion with 500 subscribers. That effectively meant all the EM who could read.

           We’d mail to them under ‘Midwest Bible Study’, but it’d keep changing. We never used just one return address. Because that’s too dangerous. It was always religious. You can’t fuck with a piece of religious mail. So it was always religious.

           Time magazine subscribed. DK


#12     Jeff had people in a network in Chicago and elsewhere as well as on the campuses who would let him know about returning Vietnam GIs who wanted to talk. He also traveled the base camp circuit, talking to young recruits off-post in the GI coffee houses – always looking for an antiwar story.

  Among other posts, he made it to Fort Carson, Fort Campbell, Fort Polk, Fort Leonard Wood, Fort Hood, Arnold AFB, and Fort Jackson. He would record the stories he picked up in a pocket notebook. 

He Will Refuse Orders to Vietnam 

  Pfc Thomas H Fleming III
          5160 Carnegie Ave
          Pittsburgh, PA 15201
          (412) 781-1276

  Co D, 12th Bn, 30th Trng Bde
          Fort Jackson, SC 29207 

  A 19-year old Catholic draftee, father a mailman. Just finished AIT. Antiwar when drafted (questioning), was in the middle of the road in Basic – wasn’t sure whether he’d go. 

  Has thought about it in AIT, talked with friends who came back and family, decided not to go. Now must obey conscience and realizes the consequences.

  Fleming reports to Fort Lewis April 5th, and will refuse orders to Vietnam.

#13      Jeff frequently took notes when he was on the road in military towns even when he wasn’t sure if the material would work in VGI. Typically, his notes were brief and written in fragmented style, usually with an address and tel # should he decide to follow up.

Jail for His Conscience

            What is he going to do when he gets out of jail? Still believes in Catholicism – will they reject him. People just go through the army playing the game, go to Vietnam, then come home and just drink to forget. Not against or for the war, just to serve out their time and forget what they did, and what happened to them.

          His religious friends at home ask what was this all for, friends getting killed; he said, ‘What is this, what is war?” Really turned him against the war.

          He realizes the consequences of trying to use his freedoms in America – he will go to jail for acting on his conscience. Everyone’s friends are dying for something called freedom, love, America.

          Will be considered a coward, hope people won’t condemn me for what I believe in. All wars are unjust. You don’t start thinking about it until close to being drafted or when drafted.

          Refuses to cooperate with the military – if drafted now, would be a resister. Won’t go anywhere.


#14      After Jeff’s death, the magazine Liberation ran a full-page obit prominently and reprinted several letters from the June ’69 issue of VGI. 

You Are Helping the VC

           I read your paper for the first time tonight and I must say you are right in most cases, but aren’t you laying it on a little too thick? I believe you are just helping the VC.

[VGI] replies:

          You admit that VGI is ‘right in most cases’, but you say we ‘are just helping the VC’. You’d better get it straight. Are Uncle Ho and his sampans going to capture New York?

           If the Russians ever attacked us it’d be with nuclear missiles – and how is occupying Nam going to save us from that?


#15     Another VGI  letter was reprinted in Liberation.

Who the Hell Are They Trying to Kid

           Just finished reading your rag. It’s great and I agree with you all the way; the Army sure does Fuck a guy. I’ve spent 18 months in this Hell Hole they call Viet Nam.

           I have been wounded twice. They say it was for freedom. Who the hell are they trying to kid.


#16      Jeff-2 read the entire run of VGI and discussed the paper with Dave K.

An Anarchic Sensibility

           When I read VGI, I see an anarchic sensibility. That’s confirmed for me by DK, and by you, when you both tell me Jeff was not an ideologue. He was not interested in replacing one order with another. He was not, so far as I can tell, particularly interested in order.

           That’s not a political position, even if it has political implications. At its most basic, it’s a sensibility; in the writer I see Jeff becoming, it’s an aesthetic. Don’t take the word ‘aesthetic’ lightly, though. It’s akin to revelation, a lens through which one can look and, perhaps, understand.


#17      Finding GIs back from the combat zone with stories to tell was one thing, but finding the ones sufficiently articulate to sit for a VGI interview was another.

Often Drunk or Stoned

          It was hard to get a good interview or a good letter or a short article. You’d find many guys who clearly had experienced something real, shocking even, only they were completely inarticulate and were only good for a few cryptic sentences. (frustrating!) Particularly since they were often drunk or stoned.

          Jeff was always meeting new people, sifting through them. At that time, Jeff was one of the main Nam vets active nationally (not like later on when there were many), and whenever Vets for Peace or some other antiwar group on a campus met a guy who’d just come back and wanted to talk, Jeff was often contacted.

          He was always going to campus conferences as a speaker just so that connection would keep happening. Often Jeff would come back and say, ‘It was a waste of time’, or ‘I met a guy on leave and maybe he’ll write to us when he gets short’. DK ltr


#18     Matthew Rinaldi was a well-known left activist of the ‘60s. He wrote about Jeff and VGI in his widely-read article ‘The Olive Drab Rebels’.

It Helped Play a Catalytic Role

           The first attempt was the creation of a newspaper called Vietnam GI. The paper was created by Jeff Sharlet, a vet who had served in Vietnam in the early years of the war. He came back to the States fairly disillusioned, returned to school, and found himself alienated by the student movement, particularly by its hostility to GIs.

            In late ’67, he set out to create some form of communication and agitation within the military. That vehicle was VGI, which was very effective at that time. It carried a lot of very grisly news about the war, but it also carried lots of letters from GIs and consistently ran an interview with a GI either just back from Nam or recently involved in an act of resistance.

           The paper was widely circulated and well received. It represented a significant breakthrough when it first appeared and helped play a catalytic role throughout the service. 


#19    Dave Cortwright, who wrote the definitive book on GI resistance, referred to Jeff and VGI.

The Most Influential Early Paper

         Vietnam GI, the most influential early paper, surfaced at the end of ’67, distributed to tens of thousands of GIs, many in Vietnam, effectively closed down after the death of founder Jeff Sharlet in June, ’69. 


#20    The Boston Draft Resistance Group used Vietnam GI  regularly in its anti-draft activity.

We Can Organize to End the War

             VGI, the antiwar GI newspaper, was handed out at the early morning show so that at least everybody who went into the Army from the Boston area would have a copy. Stories from it of discontent and organizing within the Army appeared in leaflets written by the men who did the horror show.

            One leaflet lists examples of how Black soldiers from Fort Hood refused to go on riot duty to the Democratic Convention in Chicago and how reservists in California sabotaged their vehicles. It continued: ‘The lesson is clear – inside as well as outside the Army we can organize to end the war’.


#21     In addition to shipping copies of VGI  to Vietnam, Tom Barton led the effort to distribute the paper to soldiers in the New York metro area. This is from a Help Wanted leaflet they circulated in activist circles. 

Go Where the Soldiers Are

           Men in the armed forces are beginning to turn against the war and the system responsible for it. In the New York area, soldiers on nearby bases want the truth about the war and are asking us to get VGI to them before their units are called.

          Teams of distributors go where the soldiers are, like the Port Authority and Reserve meetings. Your help is very badly needed.


#22    Jeff and his VGI editorial team operated on a shoestring. Money was always tight. At one point, he addressed a fund-raising letter to civilian contributors who were supporting the paper. 

We Are Struggling to Stay Afloat Financially

        Please excuse the form letter, but our staff is very small and overworked. As it is, we have not even been able to keep up with our correspondence from Vietnam.

        At present, we are struggling to stay afloat financially. In fact, our biggest problem is that our potential GI audience is expanding much faster than our means. Our circulation is already at 20,000 and growing. 


#23     VGI  inspired not only many underground base and unit papers in the US forces, but also antiwar papers addressed to soldiers of foreign armies. The publisher of a Dutch antiwar paper sought to arrange an exchange subscription. 

It Is Already Forbidden in the Army

        We publish our monthly, de Soldatenkrant (the Soldier’s Newspaper), which we sell to soldiers in train stations and near the gates of barracks. I enclose the first issue. It is already forbidden in the Army.


#24     Money to keep VGI going was a constant problem. After Jeff’s death, The Ally out of Berkeley, also a GI antiwar paper, ran a black-framed box to help their fellow paper out. The pitch was to ask readers to ask civilian friends to help. 

Vietnam GI Is Their Special Rag

           THE VGI IS HAVING MONEY TROUBLES. Despite the fact that thousands of GIs in Nam-land have come to feel that VIETNAM GI is their special rag, GIs do not have the bread to float it.

           That’s why we’ve never asked guys for money. And we’re not going to start now. But we don’t have any rich uncles either, and the VGI is a shoestring operation.


#25         Jeff and Jim Wallihan gave an extensive interview to The Movement late summer ’68 under the title ‘The New Left and the Army’, hereafter Movement-’68. 

Time to Start Dealing with the Military

              Last fall, a group of Vietnam Veterans and a couple of movement people decided it was time to start dealing with the military. We felt that the vehicle of a newspaper was the best way to begin since it could reach a large audience as well as provide information on events in the Army and establish contact with and among GIs who were already politically active or who wanted to get into things.

            In January, we ran 10,000 copies, and since then we have increased the printing to 30,000 per month.


#26     Movement-’68 cont.

The Oppressiveness of the Military System

          We don’t condemn individual actions although there is a clear preference for collective actions. We run articles about actions, often written by guys who are involved in them. Guys on other bases can pick up on the ideas and the tactics if they are relevant to their situation.

          Politically, we run a lot of material on the oppressiveness of the military system for the GIs who are impressed into it. We run articles on the war, who’s responsible for it, and who does and doesn’t benefit from it.

         On top of that, we run a lot of stuff on what’s going on politically within the system. We also run a lot of letters covering a wide spectrum of views.


#27     Movement-’68 cont.

It Takes a Lot of Bread to Mail Thousands of Papers

           The key immediate thing for us is money, so we’d better get in a plug. Active duty GIs can’t contribute much on their salaries, so we have to rely almost entirely on civilian contributions.

           It takes a lot of bread to mail out thousands of papers to GIs since they have to go first class in order to get through – that’s about 12 cents a copy. It also takes bread to get around to the bases, most of which are situated around the South and East Coast. So, we’re really in need.

#28     Movement-’68 cont.

Direct Orders Not to Distribute the Paper

          There’s a lot of solidarity among guys in a platoon. They stick together and won’t rat on a buddy when the Brass starts calling guys in to find out where the papers are coming from.

          There have been cases where officers have given GIs direct orders (violation is a court martial offense) not to distribute the paper, and the guy’s buddies have taken over the distribution, backing him up.

          That way we keep a few jumps ahead of the Brass – they cut off a distributor, an organizer, and we pick up a couple more. Many returnees from Nam tend to be pretty gutsy and take a lot less crap.


#29      VGI operates on a financial shoestring and needs financial support.


#30     Jeff and VGI team sometimes typeset pieces that didn’t make the cut in the issue at hand for spatial reasons or subject, for example, this one. 

Question of the Month

          Question: Where would we be without our great South Vietnamese allies?

          Answer: Home

#31      Another example of a typeset piece which ended up on cutting room floor.

Loser of the Month

         Our ‘Loser of the Month’ award goes to Gov George Romney. If his visit to Nam is any example, his campaign for President is in deep trouble. It’s Ok with us if the poor guy doesn’t want to talk to anybody who doesn’t come from Michigan, but where does he get this ‘Michigan Medal’ stuff?

          Why is he handing out these little brass things with his signature? We hear in one company a GI put up a sign offering to trade his for a pack of Fizzies. Any takers?

          And while we’re at it, Romney must really be ‘off the wall’ to be running around giving guys his pep talk about how ‘some of us must die young’. Thanks anyway, George.

#32        Another outtake from VGI.


            There must be some really sick cats floating around Ft Benning. The grapevine has it that there is a black market in dried ‘Viet Cong’ ears there. We thought all this stomach-turning, gung-ho shit began and ended with that incident with the 173rd.

          Remember, a while back they were ordered to go out and cut the ears off VC casualties, with beer awarded to the top trophy collectors. This was too raw even for the higher brass, and the whole thing got put down.

           But it seems once one of these perverted ideas starts circulating around, there are always a few gung-ho types who can’t resist it. It’s these gung-ho types who keep fouling things up for everybody, sometimes to the point of getting other people knocked off.

          A guy who thinks that having a dried human ear in his pocket will make him a ‘tiger’ isn’t the man to trust with your life.


#33     Ken Burg aka Lawrence recalls helping on VGI.

Pinup Photos in VGI?

           I recall that Dave Komatsu wanted VGI to print pinup photos like regular military publications did, which prompted a heated argument.


#34     Late summer ’68, Jeff specifically addressed GI protest in VGI.

Antiwar Activity at Several Stateside Bases

           In the past two months, there has been an increasing amount of antiwar activity at several Stateside bases. We who have been to Vietnam already have a lot of respect for GIs with the guts to rap and organize against the War on Stateside bases.

            We support all the various antiwar activities that are happening these days at different posts around the country. We’re for any EMs, draftees, and enlistees (what the hell, everyone makes a mistake sometime), who stand up for their rights and are trying to keep the Brass off their backs. Just to stay with the program is tough enough in the service, but to try to organize against the War from the inside is hard as hell.

           We don’t advocate any single way of organizing against the War in the service. We say that the methods cannot come from outside the military, but have to be developed by GIs according to the local conditions on their bases.


#35     Ken Lawrence mentions CADRE.

Blue Gargoyle Coffeehouse

          CADRE’s office, such as it was, was a desk at the American Friends Service Committee downtown. Their actual organized presence was most visible at the Blue Gargoyle coffeehouse on the University of Chicago campus.


#36     Jeff and Dave Komatsu used Ken Lawrence’s apartment for certain interviews, including an early one with a Black GI. Ken’s wife was Black, and they lived in the ghetto.

A Mostly Black Community

          Our apartment was in a large corner tenement at the corner of 50th St and Dorchester Ave. The owners were tolerant, politically progressive slumlords who rented to lots of movement activists.

    From there we moved to a 12-flat coop on 53rd St between Kimbark and Woodlawn Avenues. Our involvement with VGI spanned both locations.

  Tuck and Martinsen were passing through Chicago. Jeff and Dave told us they would be bringing them to our flat for interviews and asked us to provide food, drink, and conversation. It was intentionally informal to put our guests at ease.

  Dave Tuck had regarded antiwar activists with contempt until his younger brother got a draft notice and local peace activists counseled him on how to stay out of the Army. Dave then felt he owed the movement a duty to relate his Vietnam experience to us, but he was still wary of us, having a stereotype image of affluent white cowards.

  However, when he got to our home – a mixed family of modest means in a mostly Black community with lots of street people coming and going, he commented that he was pleasantly surprised. He seemed impressed that I had a rifle on the wall. All of us took well to him, so the entire day went well.

#37     Ken Lawrence described another interview at his place.

We All Thought He Was Creepy

           The interview with Peter Martinsen was almost the opposite to Dave Tuck’s. Despite his remorse about Vietnam, we all thought he was creepy and could not fathom how anyone could have performed the tortures he recounted.

           We were courteous and deferential to him for the sake of the cause, but we were relieved when he left.


#38       Jeff-2’s take on the first issue of VGI.

Nothing Hopeful about the Headline

           The new year brought the first issue of Vietnam GI, but there was nothing hopeful about the headline: “It seemed like I’d been doing this all my life.” The story that followed was an interview between Jeff and a 26-year-old ex-Marine named Dave Tuck.

           Tuck, wrote Jeff, “finds working in the Cleveland Post Office much calmer than his 13-month tour in Vietnam.” The account that follows reads like a migraine, a pounding, painful experience devoid of thrills or sensationalism.

          This wasn’t gonzo journalism, or new journalism, or even existentialism; it was what James Agee called the “cruel radiant symphony of what is.”


#39      I had asked one of the helpers with the VGI mail if GIs included photos of atrocities they witnessed.


           Absolutely! The ones that stuck in mind were the ‘trophy’ ones with GIs posing with bodies, heads, ears, etc. Actually, I was pretty shocked and sickened, and stopped looking through them all.

           Dave had me open the mail, paperclip the photos to the letters, and put those in a pile for him to go through.


#40    BDRG used VGI extensively in its anti-draft work as indicated in its Nov ’68 newsletter.

Distributing VGI Helped to Create Bonds

           Why do we talk to GIs and what do we hope to accomplish? We began the activity without clear goals, feeling that it was important to try to find out what was going inside the Army. By talking to GIs, we hoped to build mutual trust and remove the idea that peace creeps hate servicemen and are against their interests by getting students out of the draft.

           We wanted to show GIs that antidraft work actually supports them, our aim being to bring them home. Finally, we felt that distributing Vietnam GI would help us create bonds between servicemen who disagreed with US policy, just as talking with us puts them in touch with the peace movement.


#41     BDRG had a very instrumental understanding of the role of VGI in the GI movement.

VGI Helps to Counteract Army Propaganda

           A Vietnam returnee described the Army to me as ‘organized apathy,” that is, it deliberately encourages apathy among the soldiers. I asked the soldier what alternatives to apathy he had seen, and he mentioned an ‘organizer’ in his company who had made such determined efforts to form an antiwar group, despite several times in the brig, that he was eventually given a general discharge.

           This example, he remarked, had impressed many others in his company, and more talk, etc. against the war had resulted.

  VGI is an alternative to apathy – an open statement of disgust with the war. It helps counteract Army propaganda, supports the men in their feeling that the war is wrong, and recounts instances of resistance within the Army – thus doing in a small way what the ‘organizer’ had done for the men in his company.

  A further example – a girl who had talked to GIs told me of a fellow who was very upset about having to go to Vietnam. He wanted facts; he wanted to know how things stood. He accepted Vietnam GI gladly and wanted a subscription to it.


#42     BDRG was quite effective, showing up at more than a dozen draft boards in the Boston area to conduct ‘early morning shows’, for which they had a pool of 150 volunteers, at induction centers and going out to Ft Devens to make contact with GIs. Their general strategy was ‘to gum up the war machine’. They adopted VGI  for tactical purposes in May ’68. 

All Thought It Was a Good Paper

           All thought Vietnam GI was a good paper and we should get it, which it turned out we already did.


#43     Charlie Fisher was a major player in BDRG. Abby Rockefeller was also part of the group.

An Excellent Thing to Read

          Charlie said that Vietnam GI is an excellent thing to let people going to their physical read.

          A draft counseling center will open on Friday in a nice building in Jamaica Plain. Abby will be there to look over counseling.


#44     Charles Gillis, a law prof in the Midwest, recalls how important VGI was to him at Cu Chi in VN.

The Way Oxygen Is Received

            I don’t recall how I got my eager hands on Vietnam GI, although I can assure you it was received the way oxygen is received by people choking to death. Such things were precious treasures that reminded one to not give up hope.

#45      Jan Barry, co-founder of VVAW, recalls circulating VGI.

We Handed Out Copies of VGI

           We handed out copies of VGI when we spoke at teach-ins at Columbia University (several early members of VVAW were students there) and at NYU and other colleges in the NY metro area as well as at peace demonstrations.


#46     VGI was available in GI coffee houses, including the first one, the UFO outside Ft Jackson SC.

Never Enough Copies of Vietnam GI

           A newspaper rack is hung with papers such as the Vietnam GI, an ultramilitant antiwar publication; The Free Press; The Bond; The Veterans’ Stars and Stripes for Peace; and others. The NY Times, Newsweek, and Time are also around. The papers in the former category have been confiscated in barracks in some cases according to GIs.

           It seems there are never enough copies of Vietnam GI to go around.


#47      GIs were entitled to have one copy of an antiwar publication, but getting caught with multiple copies got them in trouble. 

CO Confiscated Copies of Vietnam GI

        Since he was drafted more than eight months ago [in ‘68], he has been in constant trouble with ‘the system’. His commanding officer confiscated copies of Vietnam GI, an ultramilitant antiwar publication, from his barracks foot locker.

        He was reported for holding antiwar discussions in the latrine and has undergone a security investigation. When he refused to draw a weapon for guard duty on the ‘moral ground’ of not believing in the use of firearms, he was whisked before a summary court martial.

#48     Jeff received many testimonials from GI readers in VN who sent in letters. Here’s a latterly one from Charles Gillis, law professor, Gonzaga University, who served with the 25th Infantry Division Artillery. 

The Way Oxygen Is Received

           I don’t actually recall how I got my eager hands on Vietnam GI altho I can assure you it was received the way oxygen is received by people choking to death.

            I enjoyed seeing your brother’s foto. He looks appropriately bad-ass. Your brother helped me stay sane and he was a hero to me.
#49      Don Duncan, Master Sergeant Special Forces, had been a model soldier in ’65, but became disenchanted with what he found himself part of, especially the torture. Resigned the Army and became a dissident journo writing for Ramparts in late ’68.

The Heretofore Silent Soldier Knows He Has a Peer Group

          New tabloids appeared, and at least one, Vietnam GI, is written solely by Vietnam veterans. At least two pages in each issue are devoted to letters on the war, the lifers, the military. The reception has been such that VGI is now publishing two separate editions, one for overseas GIs and one for those stateside.

          Now the heretofore silent soldier in Vietnam knows he not only has a peer group back home, but also one in Nam – and they seek each other out.


#50      Jan Barry, co-founder of VVAW and staff member at VGI, later created a blog.

Journalism-Activism in American History

           In the tradition of Ben Franklin-style colonial-era newspapers that challenged the coercive actions of the British empire, of Fredrick Douglas’ ‘North Star’ challenge of the entrenched institution of slavery, and of numerous other examples of journalism-activism in American history, Sharlet launched an antiwar paper for GIs, written by active-duty GIs and young veterans of the controversial war in Southeast Asia.


#51     Jan Barry, Jeff’s fellow ex-GI antiwarrior, later told a story on his blog of the penetration and impact of VGI early on. The story was relayed to him by his brother, a helicopter crewman serving in a highly-classified unit in Hawaii during spring ’68.

A Copy of VGI Mysteriously Appeared on the CO’s Desk

            It seems that a copy of the paper mysteriously appeared on the CO’s desk in a highly secure area of a base in Hawaii. The unit did helicopter rescue missions for air crews whose planes crashed in the Pacific. It also secretly retrieved capsules from satellites that took photos of the Soviet Union.

           Spying my name on the masthead of this antiwar rag, Air Force investigators called in the FBI and targeted Ted, a paramedic in the air-sea rescue detachment. ‘Whose side are you on?’ the commander demanded.

            The FBI agents flipped out a document that they said was a psychological profile of Ted’s radical brother who resigned from West Point after serving in Vietnam. They implied that Ted was likely in his brother’s orbit.

             Ted, who professed ignorance of the newspaper’s appearance in their midst, was saved by a lieutenant who noted that the airman was a highly-regarded member of his crew who had jumped out of helicopters with rescue gear to save pilots who crash-landed in the ocean.

             But the damage was done to military decorum. Somebody dropped that paper on the colonel’s desk in a top-secret facility. The AF and the FBI knew that whoever did it, antiwar dissent now reached deep into even highly trained, highly motivated special operations units.


#52     Jim Wallihan discusses VGI’s editorial mission.

Solidarity Among Enlisted Men

          We promoted solidarity among enlisted men, ragged on the brass and lifers. That shows up throughout the VGI run, I think. We ran stories or printed letters about organized resistance, the one about the transportation company deadlining all the vehicles; a work-to-rule action, comes to mind. Perhaps this had the potential for a broader organized troop revolt.

          Not so curiously, I think our tendency on fraggings was similar to that on desertion. These were often individual actions that could get an individual soldier in a big jam under UCMJ. Why ‘advocate’ it? We were more about moving from individual to collective action.


#53     With the hope of finding ex-GI readers and/or distributors of VGI in Viet Nam, I advertised in the magazine ‘Vietnam’. One distributor/reader from the Americal Division contacted me, an invaluable source. 

I’d Like to Hear from You

          Wanted: Vietnam GI, the GI paper in Nam, ’68-’69: Distributors/readers, I’d like to hear from you for a book I’m writing the founder/editor of VGI.

#54      CADRE, a Chicago draft resistance group, frequently helped produce and distribute monthly issues of VGI. Jeff Falk remembered. 

People Would Take Bunches of the Paper

           CADRE helped with Vietnam GI in improvisational ways. Nothing formal. My wife typeset a few articles in the Komatsu apartment. People would take bunches of the paper and do with them what they could:

  give them to people they met, give them to active duty military they knew to be opposed to the war, and distribute them on base – Naval Air Station Glenview was just north of Chicago. There were many service people enjoying weekends in Chicago.

          I was told of one instance when a bunch of people took a night ride to a military base in southern Illinois, and in the darkness of night a woman dressed in a flowing white dress walked up to the sentry box at the entrance, said hello, left a pile of papers, and returned to the car, which then drove off.

          Informal and improvisational. 

#55     VGI was often referred to by cognoscenti as like the dissident press of colonial times or Soviet samizdat. 

Associated Press of the GI Underground

           Irreverent, rude, mimeographed, and produced in secret, GI papers were the Associated Press of the GI underground. They formed a passionate counter-narrative to the forever rah-rah of base papers like Scout or the national Stars and Stripes.

          In those newspapers, cheerful headlines talked of ‘our heroes’ while Stripes’ often thorough coverage of the war mostly still concentrated on the massive ‘Red’ losses.

           Jeff Sharlet’s Vietnam GI, launched in 1968 and funded by Sharlet’s Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, was welcomed at Vietnam APO boxes and sneaked onto stateside military bases coast to coast, often personally by Sharlet and his IU buddy Tom Barton.


#56     Terry DeMott, who answered my ad in Vietnam’magazine, was a VGI distributor in Nam. Bob Brown of the Chicago staff was his contact. This letter was dated 9/10/68.

We Have 200 Individual Cats Who Distribute for Us

          Things are rolling here in VGI-land. We’re very, very tight on staff and money, so bad that it always seems that we’ll collapse in the morning. But, baby, you should see how the GI subs are coming in.

        We have 200 individual cats in the services who distribute for us now! A month and half ago, we had 75. Our circulation is 50,000 – three-fourths to GIs!

        The Army is having shit-fits about us. There’s a standing order out on most bases not to take the VGI. We are beginning to add some full-time organizers to the staff –Nam vets mainly.

#57     Bob Brown writing Terry DeMott on 9/22/68.

We Were Short on Bread

           The reason you didn’t get your bundle of August VGIs is not because the Army stopped them. What happened is that we had a hard time getting all our bundles out because we were short on bread, and some of our staffers (like me) were on vacation.

           Your bundle went out today so you should get it in about a week. Sorry ‘bout that.


#58     Bob Brown to Terry DeMott on 9/22/68.

Turn in Bonds as Protest against the War

           We’re thinking of urging guys to turn in their bonds en masse come election week as a sign of protest against the war, and all the candidates.

           What do you think? Would guys go for that?


#59     Bob Brown to Terry DeMott, 9/22/68.

Army Is Cracking Down on VGI

            All kinds of stuff are beginning to happen in the Army here. Guys are ready to organize all over the country. 43 Black GI’s at Ft Hood refused to come to Chicago for the convention and are up for court-martial action.

           Guys are putting out underground GI papers at 5 or 6 different bases. We have part-time organizers in several different parts of the country. And we can use more, especially guys who’ve been to Nam.

           One thing, the Army is really trying to crack down on GIs who are connected with VGI in any way, so be cool.

P.S. Sept VGI will be out in 2 weeks!


#60      Bob Brown wrote to Terry DeMott on 7/23/68 who was in the 5/46 of the 198th Inf Brigade within the Americal Div. 

There Must Be a Lot of Pissed Off Guys

           How are things in your unit? I notice we’ve been getting a lot of subs from the 5/46, so I guess you’ve been working a bit. Thanks. We also seem to get a lot of mail from the 198th in general.

           There must be a lot of pissed off guys in the brigade, I guess.


#61      Charlie Fisher and BDRG greatly assisted VGI’s mission.

Vietnam GI Caught on Like Wildfire

           VGI, a brilliant newspaper written by returnees, has caught on like wildfire. In Boston, the BDRG and the New England Resistance have been talking to GIs at airports, bus stations, and USOs and distributing VGI at Ft Devens and the Boston Army Base.

           At Ft Devens [an ASA base], mere possession of a copy of VGI means loss of a security clearance and assignment to the Nam as an infantryman. Despite these standard disciplinary measures, 350 GIs are acting as VGI distributors on their bases, requests for the paper have increased, and more and more GIs are talking together about the war.


#62     Charlie Fisher relates an example of BDRG distributing VGI.

He Accepted Two Copies of VGI

          At approximately 7:35 PM on Friday, November 15, 1968, I entered the Boston Greyhound bus station with Miss Nina Moliver. We went up to a sailor who was seated on his suitcase and began talking with him. Our conversation was quiet, and the sailor seemed to take part in it with interest. He made no objections to our presence.

           In the course of the conversation, I offered to him and he accepted two copies of VGI. As we continued to converse, he held the papers rolled up in his hand.

          At about 8:15 we were approached by a man accompanied by a uniformed officer, badge number 107. The man asked the sailor to show him what he was holding in his hand. The sailor showed the man the newspapers.

          The man in turn said, “Vietnam GI,” then came over to me and identified himself as “Mr Barton, the station manager.” Mr Barton then asked us to leave the premises, and, if we did not, he would have the policeman arrest us for trespassing.


#63  Headline in bold of 2nd issue VGI, 2/68, Jeff’s interview with Pete Martinson.

       The Girls Turned into Whores

        “… the girls turned into whores, the men into pimps, and the kids into thieves and beggars.” 
#64     Jeff and VGI got a fair amount of media attention.

Donald Duncan in Ramparts

          Donald Duncan wrote Jeff and VGI up in Ramparts. Jeff was also included in an article in Esquire, while VGI was covered by the New York Times, a wire service, and the major regional press. In addition, the paper was referenced in Newsweek, Commonweal, Washington Post, and Columbia Journalism Review.