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Matthew Sweet: Operation Chaos review - paranoia and insanity in the Cold War | reviews, news & interviews

Matthew Sweet: Operation Chaos review - paranoia and insanity in the Cold War

Matthew Sweet: Operation Chaos review - paranoia and insanity in the Cold War

The deep, dark, wittily told story of the Vietnam deserters who demonised Her Majesty

Matthew Sweet: reassuring company among the fruitcakes of 'Operation Chaos'

In 2017 the documentary series The Vietnam War told the story, from soup to nuts, of America’s misadventure in south-east Asia. It now seems the comprehensive history may have missed some nuts out. Not that anyone would question the sanity of a deserter from the US Army in 1968.

Seen on the ground and from the air, the hot front of the Cold War was no place to be.

Thus a group of four daring pioneers shucked their uniforms while on leave in Japan, and made their way via a fishing vessel to the eastern shore of the Soviet landmass, across which they were ceremonially paraded as propaganda trophies until they fetched up in Sweden. The Swedes, those traditionally neutral peaceniks, offered a haven to men who refused to participate in Uncle Sam’s ideological blitzkrieg. Six more followed, and in due course hundreds of others. It became, in Matthew Sweet’s phrase, the Casablanca of the Cold War. So far, so sane.

The tributary narrative of the Vietnam deserters is told by Sweet in Operation Chaos. The title barely hints at the ensuing miasma of paranoid lunacy which culminated in a cult accusing Queen Elizabeth II of plotting to trigger the Third World War. Even the subtitle – The Vietnam Deserters Who Fought the CIA, the Brainwashers, and Themselves – barely covers it.

It’s quite easy to get lost in the maze of this 50-year story. Sweet supplies a map upon entry in the shape of lively pen portraits of the dramatis personae. An index at the exit would have been a helpful bonus. But the essential through-line goes more or less as follows, although not necessarily in this linear order. Some deserters in Sweden organised themselves into a hard-left revolutionary cell which naturally pricked the interest of the CIA's Operation Chaos, designed to sniff out foreign infiltration of protest movements. The American Deserters Committee treated enlisted members to a technique of personality-stripping designed to render them slavishly obedient to the cause (and to weed out any suspected agents of the US government: several were randomly subjected to accusation). The ACD split, a bit like a prog rock band riven by musical differences, while Sweden’s goodwill towards the deserters - some of whom were homesick depressives, others plain delinquents - dwindled as the Vietnam war ended.

Matthew Sweet: Operation ChaosThe story’s rococo second act begins as this point. The spirit of revolutionary fervour, which had already spread into other European nations, then boomeranged back to the US as deserters returned home to slapped wrists and even pardons. There several of them fell under the aegis of Lyndon LaRouche, an epically narcissistic cut-price Kurtz who specialised in brainwashing followers to believe the most fearful ragbag of hallucinatory claptrap. The National Caucus of Labor Committees which he led was a religious cult which happened not to have any dealings with God, a role usurped by LaRouche, who soldiers on at 95 and is perhaps immortal. In the swiftest imaginable sprint up the blindside the NCLC travelled from the hard left to the hard right, around the time of Jimmy Carter’s election, and offered their services to the formerly loathed CIA. Larouche ran for president eight times, while a LaRouchian offshoot set up in Sweden as the European Workers Party, whose members may or may not have been behind the unsolved assassination in 1986 of the prime minister Olof Palme.

Matthew Sweet is a familiar voice on Radio 3 (his Wiki page needs updating: it says he presents Night Waves, which was supplanted by Free Thinking four years ago). Those who enjoy his wry tone can choose to hear it as they read. It’s a great help, especially as he has reassuringly inserted himself into the narrative as a sane and rational guide down a weird rabbithole into a barking netherworld of adamantine delusions. All over America and in sundry parts of Europe, he chases down the players in this lurid psychodrama, and does normal things like have lunch with them, go on walks with them. Keeping a foot in the real world, he tries kindly but firmly to extract the truth concealed among buried memories and long-cherished fantasies.

The story is on firmest ground in these encounters, when Sweet is closest to the action. His most regular, if not most reliable confidant is a penumbrous figure called Michael Vale who, a decade older than all the deserters in Sweden, marshalled and frankly bullied them into compliance. Then LaRouche came along and, much as Stalin did to Trotsky, chewed up this rival and spat him out, condemning him to an eternity of globe-wandering exile.

Sweet keeps a weather eye on his own sanity as he spends years seeking answers in a vortex. In the reader the company of conspiracy theorists induces some weariness and claustrophobia, and blurred vision. There are a lot of acronyms clotting the copy. A couple of chapters on, the details of something known as Jerum Affair rapidly deliquesce. Alert to this danger, Sweet peppers the canvas with gossipy cameos for writers, intellectuals and film stars: your Fondas and Redgraves, Sartre and de Beauvoir. Stieg Larson pops up. Bertrand Russell features as the NCLC's British enemy number two (the top spot is reserved for Her Majesty, obviously).

After detours into Swedish porn, a fictional farm and other bizarre narrative outposts, the story fetches up in the urgent geopolitical here and now. President Trump’s adviser on Russia is Fiona Hill, who has a degree from St Andrews (but is not the Scottish Fiona Hill sacked last year by Theresa May). She landed the gig as a result of her definitive book on Putin. Her Wiki page doesn’t say so, but she wrote this volume with Cliff Gaddy, a co-worker at the Washington-based thinktank the Brookings Institute. In another life Gaddy was a US army deserter and energetic brainwasher who became a kingpin of the European Workers Party in Sweden. Once a prime suspect for the murder of Olof Palme, his transformation into a respectable citizen is just one more baffling metamorphosis in a hypnotic history composed in a long and winding hall of mirrors. Enter at your peril.


The company of conspiracy theorists induces some weariness and claustrophobia, and blurred vision


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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