Doug Rawlings, Impressions of the Vietnam War Documentary By Episode
I began the evening in a funk. Shut down and somewhat angry. Here comes THE DOCUMENTARY. It was something like how I felt when I first heard in the late seventies that somebody was going to build a memorial to “my war.” Fuck them. What do they know? Hell, what do I know? I have since become enamored with Maya Lin’s magnificent Wall, so I thought, what the fuck, maybe I could become captivated, elevated, “cured,” even “healed,” by this documentary. After watching Episode One, I have become disabused of that notion.
First off, it has been 47 years since I ended my 411 day journey through that war, so I have survived what I first characterized as a “surreal” trip through stupefying violence, dread, and, to paraphrase Hannah Arendt, an evil made even more crippling through its daily banality. I came home, compartmentalized my experiences, got an education, got a job, and raised a family. I was in control. Maybe.
Now Burns and Novick have stirred up the pot. Now, after watching their bizarre cinematic flashback PTSD-infused jumble of images, I feel like I am looking back at my year in Vietnam through a kaleidoscope. Nothing makes sense. Maybe it shouldn’t, but, damn it, I thought I had fixed up a comfortable narrative to rest in as I slide toward oblivion. Spirits have been awakened. Now, what to do with them?
I have joined many of my comrades in Veterans For Peace for a decade-long mission we have entitled “Full Disclosure” as a means to counter the revisionist history of the American War in Viet Nam spun out by the Pentagon and their minions. So I am committed to using my experiences to question cultural artifacts such as this documentary. First and foremost, why doesn’t Burns frame the war as an exercise in hubris, cultural ignorance, and mendacious colonialism? There was no nobility in our government’s motives nor in its policies. None. And why should we believe wholesale the comments of South Vietnamese quislings who portray the war as a struggle against communism? And where does this guy Marlantes get off referring to the violence we had to dish out in order to survive as some kind of “finishing school”? Of course there are some saving graces, like Tim O’Brien’s philosophical musings on the “heroism” involved in just taking one more step down the trail. And the unflinching portrayal of the misguided “pacification” program with its feudal “strategic hamlets,” another perfect example of our tone-deaf clumsiness — removing villagers from their sacred villages to “protect them” behind barbed wire and sand bagged bunkers. Seriously?
So what did I expect anyways from an exercise in documentation that calls itself “a story”? A series of stories, actually, that loop back on to themselves, making the viewer question which one is true and which one isn’t. Or are they both true at the same time? This kind of a narrative is a slippery slope that is greased by moral ambiguity, leaving the audience crumpled down at the bottom of the hill in a bit of a daze. Maybe that’s it. Maybe we should just give up and accept the filmmakers’ imagistic metaphor of a red plague creeping down Indochina that we brave band of lads were sent to dam up. But I can’t. And I won’t.
Lots of people have written about Episode 2, which was more like a history lesson (albeit a flawed one) than the gut-wrenching first episode. I had read Sheehan’s A BRIGHT SHINING LIE a few months ago and found this section pretty much a videocast of the book. I agreed with Sheehan’s analysis of the immoral calculations of our government and then Diem’s. He captured the lies spun to entice Catholics down from the north, the completely insidious evil of General Harkins, and the stunning idiocy of trusting an army made up of lying generals and disinterested conscripts (the ARVN, he means, but wait! That sounds like another army over there). In any event, I did appreciate the demythologizing of JFK (he couldn’t expect to get out of Vietnam and win re-election) as well as the gut-wrenching video of the self-immolating Buddhist monks and then the courageous resistance to the war building up on American and Vietnamese campuses. Here’s a poem I wrote over fifteen years ago that tries to capture my disillusionment with JFK and his “best and brightest,” as well as my plea to namvets to carry on….
“The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to
this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it —
and the glow from that fire can truly light the world”
—from JFK’s Inaugural Address
(20 January 1961)
It has been three decades
of oak, maple, ash
the dreaded birch
and stacked again
over at Togus*
my thorazine brothers
tend to their own fall chores
shuffling through twenty years
of smoke and mirrors:
the smoke from JFK’s
nothing more than
sawed off barrels of burning
to slit a wrist
Late September again.
Back to the woodpile
to work up a sweat
to clear my head
(fires are burning within fires)
to hold out against
the coming of another
winter’s long night
*Togus is Maine’s VA hospital
Here comes the dread again. Having been fed on the misty legends of the Battle of Ia Drang Valley over and over again through basic and AIT, when I “arrived in country” in July of 1969, and then choppered up to LZ Uplift in the central highlands, I fully anticipated being overrun by hordes of NVA at any moment. We weren’t. In fact, we were confronted by the NLF (out of respect for the Vietnamese, I now use that term instead of VC, which we used all the time. Not to mention the term “gooks”). Still, I was not prepared for the footage of that battle last night.
I was with the 7/15th Artillery, attached to the 173rd Airborne, essentially spending the bulk of my time at LZ’s and then one firebase. As the Airborne guys filtered back in “behind the wire” every morning, I pitied them — man, I thought, I’m glad I wasn’t them. But pity is self-serving. And self-indulgent. What I felt last night was true compassion — I put myself into their boots and quaked with fear. And also anger. The Ia Drang was a true FUBAR (fucked up) — outnumbered by a factor of at least seven, these guys were decimated. And I get so tired of the military trying to pull something grand out of a self-made disaster — bad intel and arrogance (“itching for a fight”) cost the lives of many and the souls of those who survived. Want to know where PTSD comes from? There it is. And what do we hear last night? How brave “my men” are. Not how their lives, if they survived, will be broken forever. And, of course, in case you didn’t get the message the military wants you to hear, prior to covering the battle we have a mother reading from “Henry V” the famous speech on St. Crispin’s Day that stirs up the “brave band of brothers” image that many think all of us carry with us after surviving an attack.
But then I have to give credit for an interesting choice of music underscoring the scenes last night. Episode Two began with the haunting, abstract, probing trumpet of Miles Davis as we pondered the implications of history. Episode Three starts differently. Bob Dylan is singing in the background: “My name it means nothing,” implying for me the ultimate truth of being a soldier — you are, first and foremost, an “asset” to be deployed. JFK, LBJ, McNamara and other “leaders” ad nauseam talk of numbers — “give me 50,000;” “no, I want 100,000” (oftentimes throughout the documentary delivered via a tape recorder). Wait a minute. We are not Christmas toys to be played with (that’s Kurt Vonnegut’s metaphor); we are human beings with loved ones aching for our safe return.
And then later on we hear the plaintive voice of Buffy Ste Marie measuring us all against her “universal soldier.” Her anger grows in that song in proportion to ours. And Phil Ochs saying it as it is: “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore.” I was fully expecting to hear one of our favorites of the day: the Animals singing “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.” That kind of lyrical pushback to the cold, calculating militaristic account of that war is much appreciated.
And, finally, finally, someone really does pull the curtain open on the travesty of the Gulf of Tonkin “incident” that propelled us into full-scale war. Kudos to the documentarians for that one. Once again, it comes down to posturing by presidents concerned about their images and ultimately getting reelected. Was it a coincidence that the August retaliation that showed how “strong” LBJ was came before an election? I think not.
On a personal note, as this episode unfolded I heard names of places I have not really thought of in decades — An Khe, Pleiku, Qui Nhon, Bien Hoa — that I stepped through on my journey through that war.
Two other passing thoughts: 1). Was it a mistake or a calculated design to name this episode “Crossing the River Styx” after a passing comment from a soldier or a politician when, really, it should have been “Crossing the Rubicon” — Caesar’s infamous remark as he brought Rome deeper into their war? Perhaps the Styx boundary, separating us from hell, is more appropriate. Interesting choice. 2). The running commentary of Bill Zimmerman is appreciated as he chronicles his own personal journey through the anti-war movement (demonstrating in front of Dow Chemical with forty people and then a year later joining thousands in protest against the war). I am sure my friends who were in SDS want more coverage of their heroic stance against the war, but Zimmerman’s voice, so far, is a needed thread that young people today might need to help them weave the resistance into this narrative of war. Let’s hope he is joined by others as the documentary continues on.
So, yes, I join with many of my fellow VFP members in our reservations about this documentary. But, as we also know, this work is providing us with an opportunity to further deepen and enrich our country’s realization of how devastating the American War in Viet Nam was, and is, to us and the Vietnamese people. And, I might add, there are some amongst us whose participation in this conversation fifty years after living through it is taking its toll. Please be conscious of that.
EPISODE FOUR: “RESOLVE”
This is the story of 1966, a year that the producers of this film have designated as the time when doubt began to worm its way into the American troops. This doubt sows the breeding ground for what we now call “moral injury.” You begin to realize that your job of killing others, or supporting those who are carrying out the killing, is not divinely ordained. You are not in a just war. In fact, you are being used by others who have much more pedestrian motives — rank, saving face, gaining political favor. This is three years before I even set foot in country, into a war much different than early 1966. In 1969, we trudged into that muck and mire as reluctant cynics. We were intent on surviving. Not attaining some fanciful glorious victory over the demonic communists. But not so for the 173rd Airborne in the Central Highlands in mid-1966. So, let’s assume that Burns and Novick et al are somewhat accurate in setting off 1966 as the “turning point” in our slow awakening to the truth. So what?
First off, this would be a good point for the auteurs to work in the aforementioned concept of moral injury. I understand that term as a means to capture that slow, remorseful process of recognizing one’s complicity in what most religions call “evil.” You realize that there is no excuse for your unwillingness or inability to stop human degradation as it unfolds before you. For breaking deeply held moral codes. And now you must accept the consequences of that debilitating malaise that worked its way into your head. Some of us have deflected that responsibility by attacking the commanders and officers and politicians who told us to follow their orders. But that excuse wears thin over time. Now, in 2017, the proverbial chickens have come home to roost. Even though the film makers do not overtly acknowledge this concept, its presence begins to cast shadows on their narrative.
As I watched the faces of the soldiers caught up in the moment or moments that will change their lives forever, those acts of quick reflex to survive or to avenge the deaths of buddies, I cringed. Doug Peacock, a medic with the Green Berets for two tours, captures “the horror, the horror”of it all in his memoir WALKING IT OFF when he writes about the staggering realization that “everything is permitted.” You are nineteen, and you can end life, make life for another unbearable, and you can do it with virtual impunity. A person does not come back from that world unscathed.
At this juncture of the film, four episodes into a ten episode saga, it is evident to me that we are not watching a true documentary film. In my eyes, documentation is rooted in facts and, if at all possible, immutable truths. The documentarian’s function is to get down to historical truths, to discover cause and effect, and to provide us with a trustworthy scaffolding to rebuild our memories as soundly as possible. No, we are watching instead a series of anecdotes, each one imbued with the earnestness of the teller. Who dares to question the grieving mother or disillusioned sister or duty-bound soldier? We are not being invited into a logical discussion of facts here — we are being asked to bear witness. And that has its merits.
This realization of the film’s mischaracterization as documentary does not totally diminish it in my eyes. Indeed, it enhances its importance when I realize what it is doing to me right now, late at night, here in my house, in my seventieth year. Each episode is eliciting some deeply held beliefs, bringing stuff to light that I can ponder and try to understand. Maybe even finally put to rest or at least into a perspective I can grapple with. I also understand that this film is not a therapeutic tool, but it does force me to explore my own complicity in war’s terrible legacies. So, this is not history we are watching. We are watching theater. And we who lived through that war, whether “in country” or not, must see ourselves as players on a stage. We played roles back then, and we are playing roles right now.
The true value of this exercise in cinema, then, can be found in the telling — as it reaches into our psyches and teases out our own anecdotes for yet another walk-through, we hopefully become more aware of others, we deepen our compassion for the “enemy,” and we come closer to some real truths. And then we tell our own narratives to someone we love. Here’s a poem I wrote in the seventies about my year in Vietnam that tries to do just that :
YOU SHOULD WRITE ABOUT IT
write a book
Like that time
or when the stars
burst into flares
Or how about when
the earth flew away
before your eyes?
And how about
Maybe you should write
detailing how to
burn your shit
in diesel fuel
Or maybe you
could write a song
about the 175’s
and the 8-inchers
blowing away your eardrums.
Or perhaps a poem
to the girls
in their wooden faces
making love to the moon
bouncing behind your
Well, how about it?
It’s been awhile.
I know you still got it
god damn you
It won’t kill you, you know.
At least not anymore than
it already has.
“This Is War. This Is What We Do.”
This nightly trek to the TV screen is getting exhausting. Of course this medium that we have allowed into our homes these past five evenings, that we have chosen to bring us back into those years, is primarily visual, but it is the auditory barrage that is beginning to take its toll. The choppers, the 155’s, the constant ripple of machine gun fire, and then woven through it all the music that held us together through the chaos of growing up in war.
Tonight it was Jimi holding forth —“Are You Experienced?” — a song that I did not associate with Vietnam, quite frankly, but now makes perfect sense. Oh yeah, we were experienced. Fighting in the war and fighting against it, risking our lives and our futures, men and women alike stepping out of our comfort zones to confront the demons in the Pentagon and the White House who were intent on wasting us for their gain. It was indeed our “experience” that terrified them. We were going to come back from the jungles and the streets and the college campuses to haunt these bastards for the rest of their days — McNamara shuffling out of power, discarded by the war mongers, represented the harbinger of times to come. Damn, we almost did it. We shook them to the core. Their children were looking them in the eye with a newfound spite. And the arrogant sons-of-bitches couldn’t quite fathom that the real power was indeed out in the streets.
Granted, this episode is serving as a prelude to the game-changer in Vietnam — the 1968 Tet Offensive — but I also see it as the game-changer back home. As someone said during this hour, the anti-war movement had moved from protesting the war to stopping it. And then the episode eerily closes with the Stones’ “Paint It Black” speaking volumes — you want to paint it red, white, and blue, do you? Well, fuck you. We are going to paint it black; we are going to close down business. Damn it, we came close.
Another take away from this episode comes from the guy who has had the most air time so far — Musgrave, the Marine from Missouri. What makes him perfect in his role as a kind of “Greek chorus” is his almost boyish, gee-whiz look: let’s face it, folks, he says as he seduces the camera, “this is Racism 101. Gooks, dinks, slopes, whatever, they were subhuman.” Yes, there it is — one of the core realities of this godforsaken war was its inherent racism. Remember Muhammed Ali’s powerful rallying cry: “I ain’t going. No VC ever called me a nigger.” Racism at home was his real enemy, and he knew it; he was not going to have any part in exporting our brand of racism to another country.
And, whoa!, what is this? An army reporter sitting comfortably on a couch intones this observation: “yes, I witnessed atrocities committed by American troops.” Specifically, he was referring to the infamous Tiger Force carrying out what were probably Phoenix Program orders. To kill everything that moved — men, women, children, livestock. Perhaps as this episode is laying groundwork for the Tet Offensive, it is also preparing us for March 16, 1968 when the Americal Division slaughtered 504 Vietnamese villagers in My Lai. Is the American audience ready for this revelation? Sure, we saw the ditch with the bodies stretched out on the cover of LOOK MAGAZINE back in 1969, but to see it again….
I suppose we can fault Burns and Novick for not lingering as long as we think they should over these truths of the war — its racism, its mind-boggling brutality, its increasingly genocidal momentum as our desperate need for “victory” begins to become sickeningly macabre. Its use of chemical and biological weapons. Its parade of war criminals in grey flannel suits. But the very reference to these diabolical forces at play makes me feel that maybe, just maybe, this grand cinematic exercise is not going to be the total whitewash many of us thought it was going to be. For me, the jury is still out.
Here’s a poem I wrote in the early eighties as I heard about a monument being built in DC in “our honor.” I have since been to The Wall many times, and hold Maya Lin in the greatest regard for her masterful work, but, still, the notion of war memorials gnaws away at me…..
ON WAR MEMORIALS
We* are your karma
We are your Orion
rising in the night sky
We are the scorpion
in your jackboot
We will not buy
your bloody parades anymore
We refuse your worthless praise
We spit on
your war memorials
We will not feed you
If we have our way
(and we will)
the real war memorials
from your ashes
*The “we” in this poem are the Vietnam Veterans who have come home from the dark side of the empire to say: No More War
“Things Fall Apart”
485,600 American troops in Vietnam at the beginning of 1968; 510,000 at its close.
As any American veteran watching this series must be doing, I am guilty of — waiting for the episode that tries to encapsulate “my year in country.” That will probably be Monday night as 1968 dissolves into 1969 (I was there from July 2, 1969 to August 9, 1970). So I was totally unprepared for the chopper crew chief’s crazed voice suddenly shouting out “LZ Two Bits.” Holy shit, that’s where I spent the last half of my thirteen months, as we labored to turn that LZ into a firebase (we started that during Tet 1970). And with Janis Joplin’s voice crackling in the background. Too much.
But then I settled in and watched, listened to, breathed in the utter turmoil of 1968 (I was graduating from college) as MLK is assassinated, as LBJ quits his party, as RFK is gunned down, as the cities erupt (including Rochester, NY, my hometown and Cleveland, Ohio, where I went to college). But, again, I was able to pretty much wrap myself in a cocoon of received language, as all of this footage was pretty much familiar to me. I was safely distanced from my feelings. Until the battle of Hue came on the screen. Not because I experienced anything close to this city fighting — hell, I was never even in Saigon or any city for that matter — but because the “documentary’s” trajectory is advanced by intensifying the story of one young Marine, Bill Ehrhart, whose youthful patriotism had been alluded to earlier.
In 1976, Bill and Jan Barry put out an anthology of Vietnam veteran poetry, DMZ, that includes some of my poems. Over the years I have corresponded with Bill and another poet from the American war in Vietnam, Dave Connolly from Southie, who also published my poems. Both were approached by Lynn Novick to be interviewed. Dave said no, but Bill said yes. I respect both men’s decisions. Dave has written that he thought the project was going to be too flawed from the get go, whereas Bill has written that participating in it was worth the risk, that lending his voice to the narrative would at least awaken the American public to the realization that many American veterans are still grieving over what they did over there.
Bill was heavily involved in the fighting in and around Hue, being wounded but eventually choppered out, not because of his wounds, but because “his time in country” was up. He reflects on how minutes after leaving the street fighting he was flying over what seemed to be a tranquil countryside of rice farmers tending their paddies. He also painfully recounts how he joined his squad in taking advantage of a Vietnamese woman in the midst of the killing — as an 18 year old kid, egged on by pressure from his peers, to even further deepen the moral depths he had sunk into. As Bill looks into the camera, we get the sense that he will never fully come to terms with what war had done to him. Moral injury rears its ugly head yet again. I only hope that the film will, in future episodes, also show what Bill did, and has done ever since, to lend his voice to the anti-war movement over the years. Both he and Dave have used their remorse as powerful weapons against what the poet Robert Bly calls “Americans’ fantastic capacity for aggression and self-delusion.”
Although Bill’s personal account helps shake up the audience on one level, Burns and Novick make a serious mistake on another. They provide visual imagery and “confessions” from NVA officers about a mass grave outside of Hue that point to a horrific massacre of civilians by NLF and NVA forces. Yet they do not mention the March 16, 1968 My Lai and My Khe massacres of civilians by American troops. Perhaps they are waiting to “cover” that abomination until their episode about 1969, when it was revealed to the American public, but, still, not even providing a reference to it at this juncture can only make the film makers complicit in Bly’s “self-delusion.”
Finally, the episode comes to a close with a homecoming narrative from a young black Marine named Harris whom we have come to know throughout the series. He is the veteran who tells of his correspondence with his mom who is convinced that her son will survive, while he tells us that “death was stalking him.” He does survive. He arrives at Logan Airport in Boston, in his uniform in 1968, to be shunned by taxi cab drivers at the airport. A police officer has to stop a cabbie and tell him to pick this guy up. Now at this point I was fully prepared for a story intended to reinforce the myth that returning soldiers were routinely spat upon and reviled by hippies and such. Not so. Our aging veteran looks at us, tweaks his bowtie, and says that that cab driver did not want to “take a nigger into Roxbury.“ It was too dangerous. Later on, the same Marine tells us that he refused to lift an M-16 against his fellow citizens as the National Guard was called out to “quell riots” in his hometown. To me, the virulent racism gripping this country in 1968 is embodied in this veteran’s closing narrative as we continue to sink deeper into the “big muddy” of the American War in Vietnam. Where is the end to all of this? Is there any light at the end of this rabbit tunnel? “Go Ask Alice,” Gracie Slick tells us. Indeed.
“THE VENEER OF CIVILIZATION”
Every episode is replete with images of the killing machine grinding away — B52’s float like geese thousands of feet above the terrain lazily letting their payload out to nonchalantly ravage the countryside as F-4’s swoop in and 155’s and 175’s pound away day after day. More ordnance than all of World War II let loose on a country the size of Massachusetts. By this time the viewer can’t be blamed for being numbed by it all. But now, in 1968, the bodies start piling up like cordwood, and we are locked into an Hieronymus Bosch painting of our own design. To break us out of our stupor Burns and company flash street scenes from all around the world of student riots and police clubbings (the Beatles’ “Revolution” screams away). Our chopper crewman from the previous episode recounts what it was like in an Australian hotel room (he was on R&R) to watch a cop who looked like his father beating on a kid who looked like him. From that moment on, he tells us, he was politicized. Note that the really bizarre part of R&R (I, too, went to Sydney) was going back. There was no excuse now — you knew full well what you were heading into. There were reports of guys deserting at this point, but not many. Meanwhile, the voices of Simon and Garfunkel singing from “What A Time It Was” wafts out of the TV screen. We are trapped. It is 1968.
Tim O’Brien, the author of what I consider to be one of the finest renditions of the “Vietnam experience” — THE THINGS THEY CARRIED — tells us what it was like for a middle-class white kid getting his draft notice. Canada beckons. His parents avoid the topic. He waivers. He finally admits to going into that immoral war out of cowardice. He did not want to embarrass his parents or have his family vilified by the townsfolk for having a son shirk his duty. He admits to “turning off a switch” in his mind — the debate has ended. He will go. As he looks into the camera from beneath his beloved Red Sox hat, he shares the haunted look of Bill Ehrhart from Episode Six. A lifetime of almost crippling remorse stares back at us. Note: I received my draft notice sitting in a boarding house just off the campus of Ohio State in the fall of 1968, where I was half-heartedly pursuing an MBA, and I, too, consumed by self-centered personal travails, caved in. I would go as well. What strikes me at this point in the film is how the auteurs have distilled hours of interviews into a few precious moments of deep truth — O’Brien connects with me almost as if an electrical charge has passed between us. I know that he knows that I know.
Khe Sanh by now has been totally decimated. And after all the blood and terror, the military packs up and leaves, deserts the landscape. Poof. Gone. A neighbor from around the block, brother of a woman whom my brother was engaged to, is on one of the first patrols leaving the encampment. He is killed. Surely, though, after all the bombing around the perimeter, the infamous “kill ratio” has to be in our favor. His death is slotted away, a digit lost in some bureaucrat’s bloodless calculus. What is left of the NLF slip away to be wasted down country in the streets of South Vietnam as the Tet Offensive gears up. Images of these poor bastards working their way down the Ho Chi Minh Trail are striking as they capture one thing that we all shared — the thousand yard stare.
Meanwhile, back home the debacle of the 1968 presidential election unfolds — with so much footage to choose from, Burns and Novick cannot be faulted for using scenes from Chicago streets, but I have to tell ya, the shot of LBJ and Ladybird laying in bed watching the convention proceedings is classic — quick! Think of John and Yoko holding their “bed-in” wearing, I swear to God, the same pajamas. Kids, it was truly bizarre being alive in 1968. And by now in the film, when the gentle music begins, and we are allowed to bear witness to clips of some young lad growing up in America, we know he is doomed. We just wait to hear of his particular fate — blown to smithereens while riding on an APC or gunned down while walking point. There are now some 37,560 American deaths in January of 1969 and, of course, who knows — in this racist war — how many Vietnamese. The camera rolls on.
Speaking of “kids,” I find Marlantes’ account of “his” war particularly grating. I recognize his honorable intentions, leaving Oxford University to be as deeply engaged in the war as the lowest grunt, and, by all accounts, fighting bravely. But he typifies for me the stupid patronizing attitude of the officer class — he is overwhelmed by the almost blind commitment of “his” 19 year olds, who, with no skin in the political game and virtually guaranteed to not reap any riches from this war, slog on under his command. I do not question his love and even allegiance to the men he fought alongside. I just remember being looked at by some “shake and bake” as if I were a piece of machinery to be used as he saw fit. Officers! Don’t get me started….
Burns and Novick packed a lot into this episode — the iniquitous Phoenix Program, General Ewell’s bloodthirsty “Speedy Express” murder campaign, the burgeoning black market, the corruption prevalent in the ARVN and the dehumanizing impulses of your average GI let loose in a “Free Fire Zone.” All there for us to see. But what to take away? An admiration for the heroism of Americans and Vietnamese caught up in a grotesque, immoral, unjust war, just trying to survive? Disgust at the venality of the old men in the background pulling the strings? A deep, abiding cynicism as we look into the future of our country? What? I dunno. Here’s a poem I wrote in 1986 after visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in DC for the first time:
Descending into this declivity
dug into our nation’s capital
by the cloven hoof
of yet another one of our country’s
Slipping past the names of those
refuse to heal
Slipping past the panel where
my name would have been
could have been
perhaps should have been
Down to The Wall’s greatest depth
where the beginning meets the end
Staring through my own reflection
beyond the names of those
who died so young
Knowing now that The Wall
has finally found me –
58,000 thousand-yard stares
have fixed on me
as if I were their Pole Star
as if I could guide their mute testimony
back into the world
as if I could connect all those dots
in the nighttime sky
As if I could tell them
the reason why
EPISODE EIGHT: April 1969 to May 1970
“THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD”
AS OF APRIL, 1969 THERE ARE 543,482 AMERICAN SOLDIERS IN COUNTRY.
40,794 DEAD AMERICAN SOLDIERS TO DATE
Silence. That’s the overriding theme of this episode although I don’t think Burns and Novick intended it that way. Silence, as in Martin Luther King, Jr’s admonition that “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Does that not perfectly frame Nixon’s so-called “brilliant” maneuver of celebrating the amoral, even cowardly, silence of the majority of Americans in the face of this war’s immorality and in response to the righteous anger of young and old who raged against it? His infamous “silent majority” speech kicks off this episode. To counter this political maneuver, one activist (I refuse to use the word “protestor,” which is like calling the NLF Viet Cong) seared our TV screen last night with this placard: “To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men —Abraham Lincoln.” Amen, brothers and sisters. That says it all.
And then there is the silence of the film makers themselves, so far, when it comes to the incredibly important GI Resistance Movement (for an insightful documentary on that front, see “Sir! No Sir!”) that began to rise up as Nixon tried to wind down the war. Where is that story? Just sticking in passing references to disgruntled veterans voicing their anger, as important as those voices are, does not do it justice. We need more. Maybe that focus is coming in the next two episodes. I suppose I may be accused here of falling into the trap of anyone critically analyzing a documentary — let’s face it, this exercise in filmmaking is indeed a zero sum game. You can’t have it all. Something needs to be left out. I’m just saying, though, that perhaps less time on the plight of POW’s and more time on the GI Resistance Movement would have been warranted. That said, I think the lead-in to Joan Furey’s frustration and the camera’s direct look into the horrors of triage and the bloody waste of American and Vietnamese youth, as she let loose her anger, is priceless. “Expected patients” — I.e., those young soldiers, mothers’ sons, determined too severely wounded to survive and, therefore, set aside by medics who are overwhelmed by the carnage coming their way — is a term that will forever be burned into my memory. “As my guitar gently weeps,” intones the Beatles throughout this section.
“Silence,” wrote Francis Bacon, “ is the virtue of fools.” The persistent, unrelenting attempts to keep the truth from the American people of the inhumane consequences of this country’s wars makes murderous fools of us all. Hats off, then, to those journalists, independent and corporate, who loaded on to choppers and dug in with the soldiers to capture their stories. In the telling of the personal, the more universal truths began to seep out. This film would not have been possible without them.
The military brass scrambling to silent voices like Ron Ridenhour’s for a year until the courageous journalist Seymour Hersch uncovered the My Lai and My Khe massacres. That kind of silence. American textbooks not celebrating the courage of Hugh Thompson and his crew as they dropped their chopper down between the murderers led by Captain Medina and Lieutenant Calley. That kind of silence.
Almost purposefully blanketing this eerie moral silence that has insidiously wrapped itself around our national psyche are the bombs blasting away, the M-60’s rattling on, and the American and Vietnamese cities burning in the background. Yet all is not lost. At this point in their narrative the filmmakers provide a welcomed sardonic voice to their portrayal of the war — suddenly, in late 1969 and early 1970, the Nixon crowd comes up with a marketing ploy — let’s “celebrate” the American POW’s by making hundreds of thousands of POW bracelets for kids to wear and an equal number of the POW/MIA flag to fly over all town halls across the land. One astute journalist says in the film, “It is almost as if the Vietnamese kidnapped 400 American pilots and the war is being fought to free them.” Even our so-called “terms of peace” (you know, our promise to stop the bombing and withdraw all the invading soldiers) are dependent upon the total release of all American prisoners and the return of all the remains of killed GI’s. The hubris here is staggering. What of the Vietnamese casualties of war? Should they not be accounted for as well? To this day, there are countless Vietnamese NVA and NLF soldiers whose remains are still buried under triple canopy jungle. Yet our refusal to provide reparations to the Vietnamese people after the war was one hundred percent contingent upon all American remains being found. The Vietnamese can’t find their own, let alone ours. No wonder the black POW/MIA flags still flutter.
If silence is to rule the day, then there is no means for truth to wend its way into our consciousness. This is by design, of course. As Aeschylus warned us some one hundred generations ago, “Truth is the First Casualty of War.” If Americans are convinced that their stiff upper lip brand of silence in the face of collective murder is the true face of patriotism, then we are condemned as a nation to follow the path of empires that preceded us. To break that crippling silence we must face facts. The difference between killing (as in self-defense or to rightfully defend our nation) and murder (as in slaughtering by bomb or by bullet defenseless, innocent civilians) needs to be held before us as a true measuring stick of our nation’s role in world history. As a basic fact. Thus, the importance of the veterans’ and civilians’ voices that are building to a crescendo in this film — even those who have not come to realize the difference. Look into the eyes of the young soldier who actually murdered women and children at My Lai as he looks into the eyes of his interlocutor. Listen to the voices of grieving American veterans and Vietnamese villagers who know, deep in their hearts, that they have been the players in one of history’s most grotesque “theaters of war.” If this film is to be counted as some sort of success (and I think the jury is still out on that one), then it must be measured in its contribution to breaking the sound of silence in our classrooms and town halls when old men and women try to throw away the lives of our children and grandchildren in yet another grand scheme called war. This exercise in reliving the past and calling forth old ghosts will be labelled another curious artifact if we don’t do something with it. If we don’t face our murderous ways.
A few Veterans Days ago, I met up with an old buddy from the war in Washington, DC. It was his birthday, and he was going through a divorce after years of marriage (his son was born when he was in Vietnam). I had never been in DC on Veterans Day before, so I wasn’t really prepared for the almost gaudy display of what the historian Andrew Bacevich calls “cheap grace” (the grace we bestow upon ourselves without earning it) as Americans waddled around literally wrapped in the American flag. Almost as if their willful ignorance to the real meaning of war, their silent acceptance of murder being committed in their name, was some kind of badge of honor. My buddy wore his “Vietnam Veteran” hat so was constantly barraged with “thank you for your service” remarks. My VFP t-shirt with the Eisenhower admonition that “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can” did not elicit the same response. I wrote this poem soon afterwards:
WALKING THE WALL: A SONG
for Don Evon
Note: My time in Vietnam started in early July, 1969 – Wall panel number W21– and ended in early August, 1970 – panel W7, line 29– a walk of about 25 paces past the names of the dead. I call this “walking The Wall.”
Got to tell you that you’re making me nervous
Every time you thank me for my service
I know you’re trying to be nice and kind
But you are really, truly, fucking with my mind
Trust me, it’s not that I really care what you think
You who have had too much of their kool aid to drink
You who don’t know shit about what service really means
You who need to know that nothing really is as it seems
So take a walk with me down the Wall some late evening
And listen to the ghostly young soldiers keening
But don’t waste your time thanking them for their service
They may tell you the truth – all your wars are worthless
A DISRESPECTFUL LOYALTY
MAY 1970 TO AUGUST 1973
We have reached the penultimate evening of what has become a ten round bout pitting character against character in the story of America. More than one interviewee has called the American War in Vietnam a game-changer in American history (one says that it drove a stake through the heart of this country that we have not yet recovered from). At least Burns and Novick have not relegated the story of the war’s impact on the Vietnamese people to a side-bar issue, but, still, the film is becoming more and more “our story.” Oftentimes it has come down to the flag-waving patriot vs the anti-war activist.
This Hegelian model is put into play (thesis-antithesis-synthesis) but without the satisfaction of a genuine resolution in sight. No light at the end of any tunnel here. And the preponderance of evidence as the jury of American generations stirs on their couches is definitely leaning towards the flag-waver’s narrative. Shots from drug-addled “hippies” frolicking at Woodstock are immediately followed by shots of American soldiers suffering in Vietnam. We know who is the sympathetic character here. The work of the SDS and the general student anti-war movement has been neatly packaged away as frivolous youthful indulgence as the real men of America, the construction workers, hammer street activists into silence. The voice of rural America is captured by a singer/songwriter mom whose son was killed in Vietnam telling an activist that his right to contest his government was won with the blood of her son, and she does not deny him that right, but, by God, if he comes near her door again, she’ll blow him away with her God-given, second amendment pistol.
And the ubiquitous Karl Malantes recounts having his car assaulted as he is leaving Travis Air Force base by sign-carrying neer-do-well’s. There is even footage of long-haired placard-wielding women and men at the gates. But hold on here. This blatant attempt to advance a myth should not go uncontested. Sure, the anti-war voices were there, but did anyone see them assaulting anyone in uniform? Marlantes claims that this attack on him and “his” men happened again and again. Not so, writes Jerry Lembcke in his book THE SPITTING IMAGE. As Bill Ehrhart has written elsewhere, we who returned from war may have been ignored and even avoided, but we were not assailed. Perhaps some veterans years after they returned home yearned for ticker-tape parades, but most of the guys I knew just wanted to be invisible and regain some semblance of their lives. I am sure there were isolated incidents of anti-war demonstrators losing their cool, but I, personally, and every namvet that I know, claim the opposite. In fact, we were welcomed into the anti-war community. In August of 1970, I wore my uniform from Fort Lewis in Washington state, where I processed out of the army, to San Francisco airport by myself. I was not even confronted by anyone, let alone assaulted. Pitied perhaps but not reviled. And then Judy, who met me in San Francisco, joined me, and we went down to Los Angeles and ended up hitchhiking across the United States, on the road for three weeks or so, down to Mexico and back up to Ohio. Not once, not once, did anyone upbraid me for my “service” in Vietnam.
And finally there is the excruciating portrayal of Jane Fonda as, first, a soldier’s wet dream and then a wide-eyed naif traveling through North Vietnam and exclaiming that American POW’s are war criminals and should be executed. Phew. I can see why she has spent the rest of her life apologizing for those remarks and regretting her callousness. The viewer is left with the impression that the flag-wavers have every right to dismiss her and her ilk as insensitive know-nothings. Perhaps Burns and Novick’s audience might not have been so ready to condemn her if they saw footage of her and Donald Sutherland and a host of Hollywood types on their FTA tour (Fuck The Army) being cheered on by soldiers weary of the war. She used her fame to try and stop the war and to bring the troops home, so she should at least receive some credit for that.
It is too bad that it has come down to this. What could have been a riveting history lesson, which the film mightily struggles to be, has devolved into “us vs them.” Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr are rolling in their graves, for a golden opportunity has been missed. Both of these legendary peace activists preached a basic lesson to the masses of their followers — real peace activism cannot involve an attack on an individual human being; rather, it is an attack on a system of oppression. Burns and Novick have certainly given us enough images of the system in America, the system in South Vietnam, and the system in North Vietnam all working behind the scenes, hidden from the very people whose lives they have put at stake, and all falling victim to the blind thrashing around of institutions gone amok. But those portrayals are quickly replaced by more visceral accounts of personal anguish. The filmmakers always seem to be pitting one agonizing anecdote of this character or that character against each other; people that we all recognize now after these nine episodes struggle to tell us what has happened to them as survivors of that war, and, by analogy, to us as a nation, and, I suspect, what the filmmakers think awaits us all in the future. Remember that they appointed themselves the Sisyphean task of using their art form to “heal” America: they have tried to become the ultimate peace-makers here. And I am afraid they are failing. But that might turn out to be a good thing. Maybe we need to have the wound opened up again and again until we finally come to terms with what we, as a nation, have done and then accept the responsibility we have to help heal the Vietnamese people and, in turn, ourselves.
There is just too much in this episode to go into. But here are a few take-away’s for me. First off, finally, the veteran anti-war voice is given its due place in the movement to stop the war as the VVAW guys are portrayed as the force they became to confront the flag-wavers. I wish now that I had joined them in DC. Instead, I had joined the Socialist Workers Party in Boston and bussed down to the nation’s capital to participate in the ill-fated May Day actions. We were to “take and hold a bridge” into the city. Instead, we quickly broke ranks and ran through the streets and were dispersed. Today, I hold my…