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Archive for August, 2015

Documentary Film,Khe Sanh,Marines,Other Musings,Veterans,Vietnam War

August 31, 2015

Vietnam in the Battlefield of Memory

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In the 1960s and 1970s,there was the Cold War

There was the Vietnam War

And there were the wars we fought at home.

The older I get the more I find myself seeing multiple sides of the same issue. I am not sure whether that arises from age, education or what.

For instance, I recently ran across a long magazine article in THE NATION titled “Vietnam in the Battlefield of Memory,” written by Jon Wiener who is a professor of history in the University of California system.

The article basically talks about how, originally, the Department of Defense set out to have the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War honor, for the most part,—through events signifying the war’s history as well as educational materials on the conflict—the sacrifice and valor of Vietnam veterans.

A group of individuals who participated in the anti-war events of the 60s and early 70s protested the DOD’s approach to remembering the war and insisted that the memorial should include a “full and fair reflection of the issues that divided our county.” Or what I like to call the war at home. The activists’ approach to remembering Vietnam would include information on the protests and activities of the anti-war movement and less veneration of the war itself.

I do not, in this blog, wish to get tangled up in a rehash of whether the war was right or wrong. Whether the conflict was good or bad often depends on one’s point of view. A lot of my friends and fellow veterans, some who have been ardent supporters of our film, BRAVO! COMMON MEN, UNCOMMON VALOR, feel that the war was an honorable endeavor and that the results were, among a number of factors, caused by a lack of intestinal fortitude in those individuals here at home who were protesting against the war, as well as the politicians who eventually agreed with the need to vacate Vietnam.

Conversely, a lot of my friends, a few who are veterans, were involved in the anti-war movement and feel that our efforts in Southeast Asia were a disaster. I would add that many of those folks have also been great supporters of BRAVO!.

Jon Wiener’s article points out that after meeting with the anti-war individuals, the Pentagon agreed to scale back its activities on behalf of the 50th anniversary. I suppose this came about as a result of the DOD not wanting to be forced into appearing to agree with the anti-war folks and spending a lot of time and money rehashing all the internal anti-war trauma of the 1960s.

Anti-war demonstration, 1968.

Anti-war demonstration, 1968.

Some anti-war activists, after all these years, still think the war was a mistake, killed millions of Southeast Asians, not to mention all of the Americans killed and wounded. Not only was the war a serious mistake, they believe, but we lost.

What’s more interesting to me is that even after fifty years, we are still fighting the war at home. We are almost allies with the Vietnamese, do massive amounts of business with Communist China, and are engaged with Socialist Russia. We are at some level of peace with these former enemies, yet at home we are still battling the Vietnam War.

Is this unusual? Are we still fighting World War I, World War II, Korea?

I don’t think we are still fighting those conflicts in our aggregate American memory, but as I think about it, we may still be battling over the outcome of the Civil War.

My great-great grandfather and my great-grandfather and a lot of other distant relatives of mine marched up out of Texas and Mississippi and Arkansas and fought for the Confederacy. I recall sitting around the house listening to my sister and mother wrangle about the reasons for the war, the underlying ethical notions, the outcome.

Since we were descended from a Reb clan, I often heard excuses for stuff that maybe we shouldn’t have made excuses for, like slavery and certain aspects states’ rights and the bitter southern reaction to the reconstruction era of 1865-1877.

A lot of the arguments I heard in the 1950s are still in play in 2015 and I think the possibility that we are still battling the Civil War, or our collective memory of it, means that some of those issues I heard around the dinner table are still unresolved.

And that leads me to wonder if one of the reasons we are still fighting the Vietnam conflict is because the underlying issues—or at least what we think they were or what we remember—aren’t really a battle over something deeper, something political and philosophical.

Part of my conundrum is that I can see both sides of the different arguments and I can even agree with some of the tenets put forth on both sides. And not just in terms of our involvement in Southeast Asia, but our involvement in the Middle East and farther away in time, the Civil War.

Back to the Vietnam War; if you are a person who believes that the Vietnam War was a part of the larger scheme of things called the Cold War, then it’s quite possible you tend to think that the Vietnam War was an integral part of the ultimate destabilization of the Soviet Union and in that regards a victory.

If you are a person who fought in Vietnam, you probably think, for the most part, that what you did was an honorable sacrifice for your country.

And if you are anti-war, you probably still think that the war was a horrible mistake that killed millions and was not a victory.

These criteria are not mutually exclusive, of course, because you might be a Vietnam vet who feels his service was honorable and a great sacrifice, personally, while still feeling the war was a huge mistake.

Confederate dead at Fredericksburg, Virginia, 1962. Civil War.

Confederate dead at Fredericksburg, Virginia, 1962. Civil War.

And that leads me to think about how these arguments, philosophically and politically, tend to forget that these things happen to people and whether the war was right or wrong, the fact remains that men and women and children on both sides died, were wounded, were maimed, found themselves unable to view life as they had before the experience. And I think that’s what matters most to me.

Yet the war at home lives on and probably will until everybody who was old enough to have an opinion about it has passed on. But then again, maybe it will refuse to die, like the Civil War, and a hundred years from now we will still be fighting the Vietnam War in the battlefields of memory.

If you would like to read Wiener’s entire piece in THE NATION, you can find it at http://www.thenation.com/article/vietnam-battlefield-memory/. For Vietnam veterans, a caveat, this article may get your hackles up.

If you or your organization would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town in fall, winter, or spring, please contact us immediately.

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. Please consider gifting copies to a veteran, a history buff, a library, a friend or family member. For more information, go to https://bravotheproject.com/buy-the-dvd/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject?ref=hl.

Documentary Film,Film Screenings,Khe Sanh,Marines,Other Musings,Veterans,Vietnam War

August 5, 2015

On Drones, Ghosts, Facebook and the O-2 Skymaster

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I recently ran onto a spoof written last summer that satirized both Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg and Google. In the article, Zuckerberg threatened to have Facebook shoot down all of Google’s drones. The piece, written by NEW YORKER satirist Andy Borowitz (you can read the entire Borowitz piece here), makes fun of the two gigantic social media and Internet companies, but the mention of drones as weapons owned by companies here in the United States got me to thinking about the insertion of drones into our everyday lives, not only as weapons but as tools for more peaceful tasks.

Both governments and businesses are using drones for a number of things. Last fall, while Betty and I traveled in the central California oil patch around Taft, we ran upon a drone hovering about forty feet in the air above the highway. I suspect that drone’s job was (or is) to provide security for the oil fields lining the road that runs north to south.

I had never seen a drone before, that I know of, but I have been paying attention to them a lot more now. As a filmmaker, I could buy one that would allow us to shoot movie footage from an aerial point of view. A quick look at a website curated by someone with the handle, “Droneguy,” lists a whole array of drones available for filmmakers to use. I suppose folks with other goals besides filmmaking might be interested in drones and the ability they allow a user to watch, record, spy. You can get a look at some of these drones at Droneguy’s site here.

It’s kind of creepy thinking about how your neighbor could buy a drone, attach a camera to it and watch what you or anyone else is doing. And not just watching. A few weeks back, some kid apparently attached a gun to a drone, so the potential of attack and defense by individuals and organizations other than the military are very possible.

When I think of drones as weapons, I think about twenty-year-old kids sitting in a command center somewhere in Colorado directing drones to exterminate terrorists in Somalia and Pakistan and Yemen. I imagine those twenty-year-old kids are also directing their drones to act as reconnaissance assets that can help the troops in the field.

Air Force photo of a drone.

Air Force photo of a drone.

We’ve come a long way in the last forty-seven years with the airborne tools we use to help the ground-pounders locate the enemy.

Around Khe Sanh in 1967 and 1968, long before drones, it wasn’t that unusual to see small, manned, fixed wing, propeller driven aircraft fly over the bush looking for enemy movement. One type of plane that operated out of Khe Sanh was the United States Air Force’s O-2A. According to Wikipedia, (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cessna_O-2_Skymaster), this plane was made by Cessna and owned the moniker, “Skymaster.” The plane was also known as “Oscar Deuce” or “The Duck.”

On January 17, 1968, four days before the Siege of Khe Sanh officially began, the men of Bravo Company, 1/26, watched as one of these Skymasters roared down the runway of the airstrip in an easterly direction, lifted off, seemed to stall and then tumbled out of the sky.

At the time, I recall it reminding me of hunting trips back home in southern Arizona and the way a quail would tumble out of the sky and then crash after I shot it with my shotgun.

The Skymaster fell and slammed into the red mud and dirt right out in front of our position. When I say, “our,” I mean Second Platoon, Bravo Company’s position.

It’s been over forty-seven years since that event and my memory may have veered a bit or grown a tad rusty, but as I recall that day, right after the plane came down, some of us, including me, ran out through the gate in the concertina barriers and the wire traps we had stretched across the terrain. We wanted to see if we could help the pilot.

I remember seeing two men inside. They frantically screamed at us but what they yelled I don’t recall. Maybe we couldn’t hear the particulars although I guarantee you we understood the gist of the situation.

The plane was smoking and burning and it must have been less than a minute when ammunition inside began cooking off from the heat. I don’t know if they were pistol rounds or rifle rounds or something larger, but as the fire grew and the heat burned our faces, we could hear the report of those cook-offs.

There were four or five of us Marines out there trying to liberate those men from that burning death trap. In my recollection two men in our film, BRAVO! COMMON MEN, UNCOMMON VALOR, were part of the rescue party. Those two Marines were Michael E. O’Hara and the late Dan Horton.

But the burning Oscar Deuce was too hot, and we couldn’t get close enough to the doors to open them and then someone, maybe our platoon commander Lieutenant John Dillon, maybe the platoon sergeant Staff Sergeant Gus Alvarado, or maybe both came and yanked us away from the heat and the cooking off rounds and the imminent threat of that plane exploding.

For years, I’ve been haunted by the image of a man’s face staring at me from behind a veil of smoke, a window, the face screaming, but very little sound in my ears.

We didn’t get those men out and they burned to death. As to the cause, the verdict is mixed. One report indicated the downing of the Skymaster was due to enemy fire, while another said the debacle was not the result of enemy fire.

I don’t recall hearing any small arms fire as the plane lifted off, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t any. To me, what matters a whole lot more than what caused that plane to go down was the fact that two men died in there, two men whom we could see and hear and could not save. Two men with families and friends were not going home except in a black body bag. And we who witnessed the event are left with the detritus of the memories.

Air Force photo of a Cessna O-2A.

Air Force photo of a Cessna O-2A.

Those two men were the pilot, Air Force Captain Sam Beach, and an observer, Army Sergeant First Class Donald Chaney. You can read more about Sam Beach and Donald Chaney on the Virtual Wall at http://www.virtualwall.org/db/BeachSF01a.htm and http://www.virtualwall.org/dc/ChaneyDL02a.htm.

As I write this, I think that the use of drones as a way to spot the enemy might be an improvement over manned aircraft. If that vehicle had been a drone, then I wouldn’t have those memories haunting me, those voices yelling through the smoke, the ghost of that horrified face looking at me through the Skymaster’s windshield and there would be two less names on The Wall.

If you or your organization would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town in late summer, fall, or winter, please contact us immediately.

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. Please consider gifting copies to a veteran, a history buff, a library, a friend or family member. For more information, go to https://bravotheproject.com/buy-the-dvd/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject?ref=hl.