‘Keep my name out of it’, was the fairly standard reply when Matthew Sweet started researching the story of the GIs who deserted from Vietnam. People’s concern, it turned out, however, was not about being associated just with desertion, but with a more complex story of duplicity, abuse and insanity.
Over time, the American Deserters Committee (ADC), the welfare group established to support the deserters in neutral Sweden, developed into a series of increasingly militant organisations. These were then infiltrated by the CIA. Sweet tracks the changing nature of desertion ‘from an individual act of conscience or cowardice to a political step that GIs could take together’.
But as he tries to unravel the role of the CIA and chart the changing beliefs, aims and acts of the deserters, their supporters and leaders over the following decades, his book morphs into something more nebulous. ‘Often, while writing this story, I felt as if I were recording a series of dreams,’ Sweet admits, before reporting a confession of confusion by one of his interviewees, Michael Vale, a former leader of the ADC. ‘Matthew, to tell you the truth,’ says Vale, ‘what exactly and specifically this book of yours is about still eludes my grasp.’
To write ‘exactly and specifically’ is a tall order when telling a story about people motivated by paranoia and delusion as much as politics and ideology. The CIA’s aptly named ‘Operation Chaos’ was launched as a counter-subversion project to gather intelligence and break up the ADC’s offshoots as they spread internationally, or at least silence them by letting them know they were under surveillance. Unfortunately, this effectively fed the activists’ paranoia and sustained their conspiracy theories.
By the end of the book, the Swedish prime minister Olof Palme has been assassinated; a prime suspect has been murdered; the American successor of the ADC has developed into a global private intelligence agency; and its leader, the extraordinarily unstable Lyndon LaRouche, has been pilloried on The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live for believing that Queen Elizabeth II controls the world’s drugs markets.