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 Lempke 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 brothers and sisters who were in VVAW in the highest regard.
And we are also rightfully forced to witness the Kent State and Jackson State uprisings that show students under attack; and then there is My Lai and the trial of Calley and company, an ordeal that further tore apart the country. We are barraged with heart-rending images again and again.
But then there is the saving grace of the incredibly brave and articulate Eva Jefferson confronting Spiro Agnew on the “David Frost” show — you, Mr. Agnew, she rightly points out, are trying to make our parents afraid of us; you are trying to divide us. The audience erupts in applause.
And Bao Ninh is brought in again and again to poetically, powerfully represent the Vietnamese perspective, humanizing the people of his country while righteously condemning the very act of war itself. And the easiest duo to really revile in this whole enterprise — Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger — are hung on their own petards as taped conversation after taped conversation unveil their self-serving, duplicitous agendas that led to the slaughter of countless human beings.
And the dope-infused days of the war as savvy soldiers, reluctant to put their lives on the line for an immoral war, find some mind-numbing solace in the powerful drugs available to them. One factoid touted in the film is that 40,000 American soldiers became addicted to heroin. This number I cannot personally vouch for. But my year in country was riddled with dope from the get-go. As one young soldier tells us that within his first week in country, he was given some primo dope, and so was I. Heroin was available for $5.00 mpc a cap; opium-laced cigarettes were neatly placed into decks of ten; huge rolled joints of marijuana (Bong Son bombers) were thrown over the wire in sand bags. Juicers versus dopers became a serious dividing line. You identified yourself as a doper by the way you laced your boots although the sunglasses you wore day and night were a dead give away. The lifers went nuts over our obvious disdain for their regimen. We did, however, get our acts together when we pulled night guard in the bunkers or when we convoyed out to other bases. But given a few hours of down time, the dope came out.
And did you catch the graffiti adorning soldiers’ helmets like bumperstickers? Imagine how the lifers took that. We didn’t care. Generals were getting uptight as their sacred army, their band of dutiful “sons,” were openly defying orders. The end was near, and they knew it way before the Washington types got the hint. Tim O’Brien brings us back to My Lai, pointing out another layer of the American GI’s disaffection, as he reminds us that American soldiers “blew children’s brains out.” Of course some good general lambasts the likes of O’Brien and the scruffy John Kerry for his testimony that atrocities were not the rare aberration, but one only needs to read Nick Turse’s well-documented account KILL EVERYTHING THAT MOVES to find the lie in the general’s apologia.
And, yes, even though the filmmakers did not interview Daniel Ellsberg, his contribution to ending the war was explored. Not only did America get its wake-up call, but this revelation of his — the Pentagon Papers — set in motion Nixon’s own demise as he scrambled to put the lid on all “leaks.” I loved Yo Yo Ma’s musical background here, with sounds that made me think of someone scraping his or her fingernails down a blackboard. The vortex is spinning and the void is beckoning. America is losing its grip.
And the resistors in Canada are pitted against the POW’s suffering through the ordeals of the Hanoi Hilton. Sly smiles of well-fed, relaxed deserters in Montreal flip to the malnourished, depressed American pilots as they wonder if they will ever come home. And then the jubilation of all when they do get off the plane, the ultimate “freedom bird.” And on and on. We are indeed being battered here, but we need to be. As I said earlier, I don’t think this film passes muster as a documentary, but it sure is a powerful creative piece of art that needs to be seen again and again. So I’ll leave here with a personal note.
Nick Ut is brought front and center to our TV screens as he should be. He provided America with one of the most iconic photos of all time, which he won a Pulitzer Prize for, as he captured Vietnamese children fleeing a village mistakenly napalmed by South Vietnamese pilots. We have seen that picture multiple times over the years, but it was just this past fall that I found out that the little girl, Kim, was nine years old when she was scarred for life. My granddaughter was nine this past fall. I wrote this poem below out of deep remorse and with a glimmer of hope — perhaps, just perhaps, there can be some forgiveness bestowed upon us if we accept our responsibility for the suffering we have caused, and if we live our lives struggling to put an end to war.
THE GIRL IN THE PICTURE
for Phan Thi Kim Phuc
“Whatever you run from becomes your shadow.”– traditional
If you’re a namvet, a survivor of sorts,
she’ll come for you across the decades
casting a shadow in the dying light of your dreams,
naked and nine, terror in her eyes
Of course you will have to ignore her —
if you wish to survive over the years —
but then your daughters will turn nine
and then your granddaughters nine
As the shadows lengthen.
So, you will have no choice on that one night
screaming down the Ridge Road, lights off,
under a full moon, she standing in the middle of the road,
still naked and nine, terror in her eyes
Now you must stop to pick her up, to carry her back
home to where she came from, to that gentle
village where the forgiving and the forgiven
gather at high noon. There are no shadows.
— Doug Rawlings
Translated into Vietnamse by Lucy Do
BÉ GÁI TRONG BỨC ẢNH
dành tặng Phan Thị Kim Phúc
“Bất cứ thứ gì bạn chạy đi đều trở thành cái bóng của bạn” – châm ngôn
Khi anh cựu chiến binh, người sống sót sau những ngày bom đạn
hình ảnh ấy sẽ theo anh qua bao thập kỷ,
chiếc bóng hằn lên ánh sáng trong những giấc mơ đen
chín tuổi, trần truồng, mắt nai sợ hãi
Anh tất nhiên phải cố quên cô bé ấy —
để tiếp tục đời mình trong những trang kế tiếp —
nhưng đến lúc bé gái con anh lên chín
hay đứa cháu ngây thơ vừa tròn chín tuổi
Khi bóng xế đêm dài
Và một đêm anh không còn lựa chọn
tiếng kêu thét trên đường đê trong đêm tối không đèn
dưới ánh trăng rằm cô bé đứng giữa đường
vẫn chín tuổi, trần truồng, mắt nai hoảng sợ
Giờ anh bế bé lên nhẹ nhõm
đưa em về lại mái ấm thân thương
ngôi làng hiền hòa, nơi kẻ vị tha và người được ân xá
hòa hợp cùng nhau giữa buổi trưa đứng bóng . Đời không hắt bóng
Episode 9: A Disrespectful Loyalty” (May 1970-March 1973)
In the opening scene, marine Marlantes resurrects the theme of antiwar protestors attacking returning soldiers, claiming that his car was rocked. The accompanying footage doesn’t back that up (in fact the signs say Active duty GIs against the war) and organizers, including veterans, who were at the Travis base airport claim the demos, were peaceful. It is impossible to prove that something didn’t happen; the question is whether attacks on returning soldiers were typical.
Construction worker demo: these construction workers are constructed to represent the working class even though they are disproportionately white (through a history of racially exclusionary apprenticeship and hiring) and male. Polls consistently showed greater opposition to the war than among the middle class:
Twice as high a proportion of college-educated adults, 40 percent, were hawks, compared to only 20 percent of adults with grade school educations. And this poll [1971 Gallup Poll] was no isolated phenomenon. Similar results were registered again and again, in surveys by Harris, NORC, and others. Way back in 1965, when only 24 percent of the national agreed that the United States “made a mistake” in sending troops of Vietnam, 28 percent of the grade school-educated thought so. Later, when less than half the college-educated adults favored pullout, among the grade school-educated 61 percent did. (Loewen quoted in “Historical Revisionism and Vietnam War Public Opinion”; Author: Mark D. Harmon, in Peace Studies Journal, Vol. 3, Issue 2, August, 2010)
And construction workers sent 70 protestors to the hospital. Why is there a different standard for prowar violence than antiwar violence? The violence is justified by the presence of NLF flags at the demo. In episode 10, there will be further discussion of the question of solidarity with the NLF, for now it seems to B/N as well as the construction worker who says that the violence was provoked, that solidarity with the NLF constitutes treasonous acts that have crossed the line. If one thinks the US war constitutes suppression of a legitimate nationalist movement, isn’t it logical to have solidarity with the resistance? What does it mean to say that the war was wrong?
It’s hard not to think of our current President as Nixon proclaims the success of Vietnamization and the invasion of Laos. Never apologize; always tout victories and achievements. Yes they both learned Roy Cohn’s lessons well.
Eve Jefferson represents a moderate, but determined, wing of the antiwar movement who is eager to explain the depth of student alienation even as she doesn’t endorse some of the more militant tactics. She accurately calls out Agnew’s strategy of fear mongering and dividing parents from children.
The depiction of the VVAW’s Dewey Canyon III is quite powerful focusing on the powerful symbolism of veterans throwing away their medals and John Kerry’s eloquent testimony in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But again B/N show themselves unwilling to face up to the depth of American war crimes in Vietnam, having GI Gioia immediately demurs from Kerry’s litany of war crimes followed up by how Kushner’s refusal to countenance his words as the North Vietnamese show the POWs clips of Kerry’s testimony.
B/N seem to endorse Pat Buchanan’s view that the crazies were coming to town after Dewey Canyon III to disrupt business as usual in Washington DC. Again no participant in the demo is allowed to comment, but Bill Zimmerman is there to pontificate on how misguided May Day actions were—an unprecedented mass disobedience. Many of the vets participated in the May Day action, and absent are condemnations of the actions by any of the VVAW members. B/N are more negative about May Day’s civil disobedience tactics than the construction workers violent attack on antiwar protestors. And they show a construction worker justifying the attack.
As for Tricia’s wedding, I can’t help but recall the Cockettes hilarious spoof, featuring a transvestite Tricia, a drunken Mamie Eisenhower, a party crashing Lady Bird Johnson, and a drag Eartha Kitt spiking the punch with LSD, resulting in a mad orgy. (see http://www.cockettes.com/history/)
Again to not interview Ellsberg about the Pentagon Papers is inexcusable. B/N do make interesting points about Nixon’s fear that his 1968 scuttling of the Paris Peace Negotiations might become public. I, for one, was unaware of the failed attempt to burglarize the Brookings Institute. B/N also expose the connection between the creation of Nixon’s ‘plumbers’ and the release of the Pentagon Papers; too often Watergate is silo-ed off from the war and treated as simply an illegal burglary to undermine McGovern (who of course was an antiwar candidate). How do the Pentagon Papers–which trace the history of American involvement since Truman–square with the notion that the war “was begun in good faith, by decent people”? How important are whistle blowers to maintaining democratic oversight?
While the US consistently failed to create a ‘third force’ as alternative to Saigon and the NLF, we witness the creation of a Third Force (certainly with some NLF membership) from the bottom up in opposition to the Thieu government.
Thieu justifiably fears that Nixon is seeking a new Chinese ‘mistress’ and abandoning South Vietnam. It is also hard to imagine Thieu agreeing to any possible proposal, and he emerges as the main obstacle to the Kissinger/Le Duct ho negotiations. Nixon’s dallying with the Soviets and the Chinese does expose the lack of genuine interest in Vietnam on the part of US policy makers.
Nixon’s mining of Haiphong harbor, which is mainly portrayed as risking détente with the Soviets and Chinese is arguably a war crime.
The napalming of Kim Phuc is still hard to watch.
I still remember that the media was more upset by the disorder (to their TV scheduling) of the McGovern convention than they were by the war.
Jane Fonda is fully demonized; conspicuously left out is her FTA tour of army bases in the Pacific; as she and Donald Sutherland, among others, toured outside military bases from Guam to the Philippines, over 60,000 soldiers cheered and joined the show’s call to end the war. And Musgrave’s hyperventilating that his sexual fantasy betrayed him is taken at face value.
While B/N note that in October Le Duc Tho made the key concession in the peace negotiations in October 1972, they assert authoritatively that the DRV was selling out the NLF; without denying tensions between them, the B/N assertion is not generally agreed upon. It is agreed that China and the USSR were pressuring the DRV to settle.
Members of VVAW were in the DRV along with Jon Baez during the Christmas bombing. B/N neglect to mention the destruction of Bach Mai Hospital, considered to be a war crime around the world.
Are B/N unaware of Ambassador John Negroponte’s reputation as a “hardliner” in negotiations to end the war in Vietnam, once breaking with his boss Henry Kissinger for making too many concessions to North Vietnam? Why is Kissinger rightly condemned while Negroponte is left off the hook? And why is he the main spokesperson about the peace efforts?
What does “peace with honor” mean; is it merely a purely emotional platitude? What kind of honor did Nixon achieve for the US? What reparations does the US owe Vietnam? How could Nixon have been held accountable for breaking his promise to Pham Van Dong to provide reparations?
And finally Why isn’t one of the three unanswered questions posed by B/N—1. How long will South Vietnam survive: 2. What would be the value of American promises to support Saigon; 3. How long would it take the wounds of war to heal (they seem to be referring to the US): How long would it take and what would be required for the Vietnamese people to recover from this terrible war? They seem to have completely lost track of the central problem with the American war.