Vietnam GI Challenged War Makers
June 1, 2011One of the most outlandish protests of the war in Vietnam, in the eyes of minders of military tradition, was a small independent newspaper, “Vietnam GI,” published by Jeff Sharlet, a feisty veteran of the early secretive stage of the conflict. With a top secret clearance and training in translating Vietnamese, Sharlet served in Army Security Agency operations in 1963-64 that monitored radio communications by both sides in what he came to see as a civil war in which the US government was propping up a corrupt, dysfunctional regime of revolving door generals and would-be dictators.
In the tradition of Ben Franklin-style colonial-era newspapers that challenged the coercive actions of the British empire, of Frederick Douglass’ “North Star” challenge of the entrenched institution of slavery, and of numerous other examples of journalism-activism in American history, Sharlet launched an antiwar newspaper for GIs, written by active duty GIs and young veterans of the controversial war in Southeast Asia..
Starting in January 1968, copies of the “underground” newspaper were widely distributed to soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines across the US and in Vietnam via informal networks of servicemen and women willing to challenge the official rationales for waging that war. Volunteer staff and contributing editors were members and supporters of the then-fledging Viet Nam Veterans Against the War. Sharlet paid for the initial printing with funds from a Woodrow Wilson Graduate Fellowship he had won for studies at the University of Chicago. Fundraisers with an array of peace movement supporters kept the monthly publication afloat.
Sometime in the spring of 1968, my brother Ted visited me in New York City and drolly told a story about how a copy of “Vietnam GI” had set off a big commotion in an Air Force special operations unit. It seems that a copy of the paper mysteriously appeared on the commanding officer’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 Ocean. It also, secretly, retrieved capsules from satellites that took photos of the Soviet Union and other places of interest to the US military.
Spying my name among the culprits 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 agitated colonel, who had lost a brother in the war, proposed that my brother join him in a raid on North Vietnam. 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 to military decorum was done. Somebody dropped that paper on that colonel’s desk in a top secret facility. The Air Force and FBI knew that, whoever did it, antiwar dissent now reached deep into even highly trained, highly motivated special operations units.
Jeff Sharlet came out of that milieu, working in secretive communications-intercept units in Vietnam that other GIs called “the spooks.” Working with Jeff—who abruptly died way too soon at 27 of kidney cancer in June 1969—was a big step in my education that the hidden truth of what happens in wars can be revealed by participants willing to counter the official mythologies.
Jeff Sharlet’s ripples of influence on the Vietnam-era antiwar GI movement have been memorialized in numerous books, publications for GIs challenging the war in Iraq and at least two websites. “The most dramatic tribute,” noted Jeff’s brother Bob Sharlet in a widely researched wikipedia entry,” has been the award-winning documentary, 'Sir! No Sir!'(2005), on the Vietnam GI anti-war movement screened in theaters across the country… co-dedicated to Sharlet, as the director David Zeiger put it, ‘for starting it all.’”
Another fitting tribute is Bob’s son, Jeff Sharlet, the investigative journalist and author of "The Family" and "C Street," among other works.
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