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.
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.
A Paper for War Criminals?
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
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.
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.
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.