Photo: Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library Audiovisual Archives/PBS
“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; the guy trying to hail a cab to Roxbury. 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.