Memorial Day 2019
Dear brothers and sisters on The Wall:
Well, this is it. My fiftieth anniversary year— five decades ago I crossed through some of your lives before yours were “dispatched” by the evil vagaries of war. I survived. This past year two film-makers put together what some consider the quintessential history of this war. Obviously, you have not had the luxury of reflection, but I have. And this latest attempt to capture your lives and mine falls short of many of our expectations. Maybe that’s what always happens when someone tries to chronicle a segment of time. Not everything can fit in. Still, there are many more stories to be told. This is our fifth year of visiting you and leaving these messages. In some weird way, I imagine you finding your way into our words. Take good care, my friends. There are fourteen episodes in this so-called “documentary” on “your war” ; I responded to each one. Here are two of them.
Rest in peace, Doug Rawlings
EPISODES SIX AND EIGHT: For what’s worth, here’s what I wrote immediately after watching each episode. Best, Doug
“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.
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
We were wrong, terribly wrong.
Visitors stand in silence—sharing
grief and pain. War casualties
etched in polished granite.
Each year the numbers grow, row
after row. Young lives cut short.
A girl stops, gently touches the
name of the father she never met.
Tears flow freely.
Leaders in Washington are not moved
by sentimentality. Vietnam casualties
are acceptable losses.
It was a long war
A tragic war
An unwinnable war
Barry L. Reece