“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
The episode might be titled the US Marines vs. the NVA.. the almost conventional combat which was concentrated along the DMZ.. There’s some justification for this emphasis, in that – while not conventional in the sense of fixed battles for the most part, and not about – as was stressed – gaining and keeping “real estate,” the Marines suffered a disproportionate number of casualties. This was consistent with the tooth to tail ratio which B/N states as 20%. The ratio I’m familiar with – i.e. combat to support troops – is actually 10%. But, again, the guerrilla tactics of the NVA – who “knew the ground”, the well executed ambushes, the fading away after the fire fights, were not in any classic sense conventional combat. There is the one case where the NVA held on to the real estate, but then withdrew under the withering air and arty strikes. Hanoi had manpower and was willing to use it to maximum effect, even at the horrific cost of so many killed and wounded. One wonders how the NVA veterans have processed this sacrifice.. well, Bao Ninh’s bitterness gives us one reading against the grain of the more sanguine commentary of the film’s other combat vets, most of whom, I think, were officers. I remember hearing one comment from an old NVA commander in Hanoi about how there was no ptsd among the Vietnamese veterans… I don’t buy that.
Maybe I am going soft or getting lost in the fog of Burns/Novick but I found this episode somewhat intriguing. The NVA and the NlF are depicted as redoubtable fighters. And the battle scenes continue to pack a punch. The diversionary pre-Tet strategy of the NVA and NLF in the ‘border war is clearly laid out. The surprise of the Tet offensive is set up nicely (if not particularly originally) by LBJ’s short-term “Success Offensive”.
In February 1967, for example, the United States and allied foreign forces in South Vietnam numbered: United States, more than 400,000; South Korea, 45,000; Australia, 4,500, New Zealand, 360—a total of more than 450,000. The North Vietnamese forces in the South were estimated at about 50,000. President Johnson’s proposal of February 8 amounted, in effect, to freezing the forces on both sides in the South in return turn for a cessation of United States bombing in the North but not in the South. By stopping all movement to the South, which was undoubtedly what would have been required, North Vietnam could not even have maintained the forces which it already had in the South because it could not provision them by plane and ship, as the United States was able to do. Just as the United States felt that it could not accept any offer which might discourage or demoralize its South Vietnamese wards, so the North Vietnamese leaders doubtless felt the same way about their own troops and protégés in the South.
President Johnson, it should be noted, did not offer a military truce or ceasefire in the South in exchange for halting the bombing of the North. Thus, morally, numerically, and materially, the proposal of February 8 was palpably unequal because the sides were so unequal.
The United States was, in effect, doing what General James M. Gavin (Ret.) warned against in his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on February 21—using the bombing of the North as a bargaining instrument. The bombing had been initiated in February 1965, primarily to bolster the South Vietnamese government’s faltering morale. At that time, according to Secretary of Defense McNamara, North Vietnam’s regular troops in the South had numbered only about 400, and the bombing could not have been justified on the ground that it was necessary to interdict their lines of communication with the North. First came the bombing, and then came an escalation of the war on both sides, which provided the major justification for the bombing. In February 1965, the bombing of the North represented a desperate United States effort to save the South Vietnamese forces from defeat; in February 1967, it represented an offensive effort to bring about North Vietnam’s defeat. After two years of bombing which had unilaterally changed the pre-1965 rules of the war, the North Vietnamese and United States conceptions of “reciprocity” were understandably different. North Vietnam could not stop bombing the United States in exchange for a similar courtesy on the part of the United States in North Vietnam. The price the United States demanded was in South Vietnam, where the advantages and disadvantages on both sides were so different that the concept of “reciprocity” was far from the simple numerical arrangement that President Johnson proposed on February 8.