Bravo! The Project - A Documentary Film

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

January 20, 2018

50 Years Ago Today–Spooky

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January 20

On today’s date, fifty years ago and the day before the Siege of Khe Sanh erupted, I woke my fire team before first light to go on a work detail.

One of the men in my team slept hard and didn’t like to wake up. This happened a lot. I finally told him if he didn’t get out of the rack and eat some chow, I’d kick his ass.

That was a mistake. We didn’t really think much of each other. He jumped up and wrapped me in a bear hug. A strong kid from Detroit, he squeezed and made mention about my heritage and my mother. I thought he’d crush my chest.

Somehow I struggled and freed my arms and with my left hand found a metal bucket on a shelf in the bunker. Using both my hands, I clutched it and drove it down on the top of his skull.

He dropped me as blood shot into his brown hair, down the sides of his head and over his forehead into his eyebrows.

Concertina Wire. Attribution: Wikipedia

My stomach churned at the sight of all that blood and I figured there would be hell to pay. I sent him to see the corpsman while we ate chow. Word came back that he went to the battalion aid station to get his head stitched up.

We went off and built a concertina wire barrier somewhere behind the main trench lines. All day I worried about the private, his split open head and the ramifications with which I would have to deal.

While we pounded posts into the ground and strung concertina wire, a Huey flew over with a man hanging below. It looked like his hands were tied to a cable. The helicopter had no markings that would identify it as an American chopper.

We all watched as the Huey flew above a line of ragged trees that grew along the south side of the base and dragged the dangling man through the tree tops. I still imagine the sounds I imagined at the time—snapped bones, ripped flesh, the wash of guts and other organs impaled on the remains of broken branches.

For years, I didn’t remember the incident of the chopper dragging that man but I did remember splitting the private’s head open. Not until the mid 1990s did I recall the Huey and the dangling man and it wasn’t until 2010 that I was sure I’d seen what I saw. I was worried that I had taken someone else’s memory and made it mine. One of the men who we interviewed for BRAVO! asked me, while we were filming him, if I remembered seeing the Huey and the man hanging below.

Fifty years ago, when we arrived back at our fire team area the private with the busted head waited. He seemed quite pleased with a head full of stitches and that he didn’t have to help string concertina.

As I stood there peering at the top of his head, someone down the line set off a claymore mine by accident. When I looked that direction I saw Marines charging into their fighting positions and for the first time, an inkling of what was to come at the Siege of Khe Sanh snuck into my consciousness.

A time lapse of Spooky firing it’s miniguns.

Later that night, I took first watch. A heavy mist hung over the combat base. I walked up and down the trench, thinking, I suspect, about the bloody skull and the man who’d been hanging from the bottom of that Huey. I know I thought about that claymore mine and the echoes of its explosion that bounded along our lines.

I heard a soft, low moan and shivered. A waving line of red tracer fire sketched out of the sky and out to the front of our position. We called that moaning weapon, an airplane, Puff the Magic Dragon but it was more commonly known in Vietnam as Spooky.

And spooky it was as the red tracers etched a curved crimson line into the misty night and the low, sad moan of its sound followed and made me think of lamentations from spirits of the dead.

Ken Rodgers prior to the beginning of the Siege. Photo courtesy of Michael E. O’Hara.

As I got ready to go off watch, I stood at the back of my hooch and stared into the night.

It was spooky.

***

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

May 7, 2014

On Art and War

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We have art in order not to die of the truth.
Friedrich Nietzsche

Betty and I recently returned from a trip to California where we screened BRAVO!. On our way back to Boise we stopped in at the Living Memorial Sculpture Garden outside Weed, California, to look at the sculptures. The work exhibited here is the brainchild of a group of veterans from the Weed area who got together in 1988 and brought in sculptor Dennis Smith to create the work. Dennis Smith is a Marine who served with Bravo Company, 1/26, during the Siege of Khe Sanh.

Left to right: Ken Rodgers and Sculptor Dennis Smith. © Betty Rodgers 2014

Left to right: Ken Rodgers and Sculptor Dennis Smith.
© Betty Rodgers 2014

The sculptures at the Living Memorial Sculpture Garden are beautiful depictions of the human form as we might view it: engaged in war and yet at the same time reacting to the atrocities of war, or suffering from the aftermath. They are thought-provoking, expressive, and evocative of something more difficult to discover, the “Why” of war and it’s aftermath.

POW-MIA by Dennis Smith. Photo © Ken Rodgers 2014

POW-MIA by Dennis Smith.
Photo © Ken Rodgers 2014

In Smith’s sculptures there is a distinct conflict between art and war. Humans often thrive on conflict, on the junction of fear and redemption, good versus evil. We want conflict in our novels, in our movies, in our visual art. We say we don’t like conflict, yet we crave it on more than one level.

Some of our finest art is based on the never ending conflict between us. Consider Stephen Crane’s novella, The Red Badge of Courage, or Eric Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. These stories are verbal works of art that capture the pure energy, the agony, the ecstasy of war and humanity’s propensity for creating war and conflict.

In more recent literature, Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn and Nick Warr’s Phase Line Green are fine examples of stories written about the Vietnam War that expose the depth and breadth of war and humanity’s experience in that conflict.

And it is just not in story and sculpture, but in poetry, too, such as the Vietnam War poetry of Bruce Weigl and Yusef Komunyakaa. As an example of war poetry, check out the piece that follows by First World War British Officer Siegfried Sassoon. I like how it mixes the beauty of lyrical poetry with the horror of war:

Hero

‘Jack fell as he’d have wished,’ the Mother said,
And folded up the letter that she’d read.
‘The Colonel writes so nicely.’ Something broke
In the tired voice that quavered to a choke.
She half looked up. ‘We mothers are so proud
Of our dead soldiers.’ Then her face was bowed.

Quietly the Brother Officer went out.
He’d told the poor old dear some gallant lies
That she would nourish all her days, no doubt.
For while he coughed and mumbled, her weak eyes
Had shone with gentle triumph, brimmed with joy,
Because he’d been so brave, her glorious boy.

He thought how ‘Jack’, cold-footed, useless swine,
Had panicked down the trench that night the mine
Went up at Wicked Corner; how he’d tried
To get sent home, and how, at last, he died,
Blown to small bits. And no one seemed to care
Except that lonely woman with white hair.

(Siegfried Sassoon, “Hero,” from the website: http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/hero/.)

Another example of art applied to war in the form of poetry is Brian Turner’s “Here Bullet,” about the horrors of the war. Turner served in both Bosnia and in Iraq.

Here, Bullet

If a body is what you want,
then here is bone and gristle and flesh.
Here is the clavicle-snapped wish,
the aorta’s opened valves, the leap
thought makes at the synaptic gap.
Here is the adrenaline rush you crave,
that inexorable flight, that insane puncture
into heat and blood. And I dare you to finish
what you’ve started. Because here, Bullet,
here is where I complete the word you bring
hissing through the air, here is where I moan
the barrel’s cold esophagus, triggering
my tongue’s explosives for the rifling I have
inside of me, each twist of the round
spun deeper, because here, Bullet,
here is where the world ends, every time.

(Brian Turner, “Here, Bullet,” from the website: http://www.brianturner.org/poetry/.)

What about other examples of visual art? Below are two paintings created from events that occurred during the First World War. The initial painting, titled “Gassed,” is by the famous British artist John Singer Sargent, and the second, titled “A Battery Shelled, 1919” is by Wyndham Lewis. Both of these paintings depict the horrors of war via the beautiful tools of the painter, the tools of the mind, the memory and the painter’s genre.

Gassed, by John Singer Sergeant

Gassed, by John Singer Sergeant

(John Singer Sargent, “Gassed,” from the website: http://ind.pn/RksGnw.)

A Battery Shelled, 1919 by Wyndham Lewis

A Battery Shelled, 1919 by Wyndham Lewis

(Wyndham Lewis, “A Battery Shelled,” from the website: http://bit.ly/1mwza0q.)

The horrible glories that arise when art and war combine can also be portrayed through photography as in the following photo of Khe Sanh shot by the famous photographer, David Douglas Duncan, whose images are featured in BRAVO!.

Photo Courtesy of David Douglas Duncan and Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas Austin

Photo Courtesy of David Douglas Duncan and Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas Austin

Having participated in war, I think something aesthetic intrudes into our minds as we retch at the carnage that man heaps on man. I think that is one way we can come to terms with all the horror: through the art that depicts it.

On a quiet night in the war zone, nothing is quite as arresting as the sight of Snoopy, or as some of us called it, Puff, firing at the enemy:

Puff the Magic Dragon

Puff the Magic Dragon

(An AC-47, Puff, from the website: http://cherrieswriter.wordpress.com/2013/10/09/when-puff-ruled-the-night-the-birth-of-gunships/.)

Or the terrible beauty of napalm dropped on human beings:

Dropping Napalm

Dropping Napalm

(Napalm dropped on Vietcong targets, from the website: http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/vietnam/photoessay.htm.)

Or the sight of concertina wire etched against muddy terrain:

Concertina Wire

Concertina Wire

(Concertina wire, from the website: http://bit.ly/1o0mAWF.)

I just finished reading the late war correspondent Ernie Pyle’s book about World War II, titled Brave Men. Pyle generally had a no-nonsense style of writing and describing, but when he really tried to get at the essence of how we kill each other in combat, he waxed poetic in a way that takes us away from the lists and statistics and into the human aspects of war, and not just the horrible, but the sublimely beautiful. Here is an excerpt from Pyle’s book that, to me, shows what I am trying to get at:

From the scattered green leaves and the fresh branches still lying in the road. From the coils of telephone wire, hanging brokenly from high poles and entwining across the roads. From the gray, burned-powder rims of the shell craters, their edges not yet smoothed by the pounding of military traffic. From the little pools of blood on the roadside, blood that had only begun to congeal and turn black, and the punctured steel helmets lying nearby…From the scattered heaps of personal gear around a gun. I don’t know why it was, but the Germans always seemed to take off their coats before they fled or died.

(Ernie Pile, from: Brave Men, Grosset and Dunlap, NY, NY, 1943 and 1944, Pp 309 and 310.)

I began this blog with a quote from the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche that implies that we need art so that the truth of what we are doesn’t kill us. As horrible as war is—and believe me, anybody who has fought in one understands the essence of pure horror—we need to depict, portray and ponder how combat and its associated mayhem fit into who we are; and how can we best do that but through the beauty and truth we attain through art?

With that in mind, if you head in the direction of Weed, California, consider stopping in at the Living Memorial Sculpture Garden to see some of BRAVO! brother Dennis Smith’s beautiful sculpture that contemplates our horrible human endeavor, war.

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. For more information about purchasing BRAVO! DVDs, go to http://bit.ly/18Pgxe5.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject/. It’s another way we can spread the word about the film and the Vietnam War.

Khe Sanh,Marines,Vietnam War

February 9, 2011

The Fall of Lang Vei

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43 years ago last Monday, the People’s Army of North Vietnam attacked and overran the US Army Special Forces camp at Lang Vei. Lang Vei was defended by 24 Americans, as well as detachments of South Vietnamese, Montagnard and Royal Laotian Army troops.

Lang Vei was located near the South Vietnamese-Laotian border about six miles west of where I, right then, stood watch along the Gray Sector perimeter at Khe Sanh. We had endured twelve days of rocket and mortar attacks since the siege of Khe Sanh began on the morning of 21 January 1968 and the attack on Lang Vei seemed, to me as I remember it now, a ramping up of action, a new punch in the nose from our enemy, the NVA (PAVN).

The night was foggy as I stood watch, and I don’t remember that specifically, that it was foggy, but I say that because it was always foggy at night. We got the word about the assault on Lang Vei through the whispered words of one man on watch to the next man. The word went around like a night creature in flight, changing form and function—messenger, harbinger, bringer of fright—as it flittered from bunker and fighting hole to bunker and fighting hole in and out of the thick mist. Growing larger, then smaller, depending on who was doing the whispering. Lang Vei is under attack. Lang Vei’s under attack.

During the night of 6 February and the dark morning hours of 7 February, the Khe Sanh combat base took a lot of incoming, often a round or two every few seconds, and the NVA, I suppose, intended to keep us in our bunkers and off Route 9 between our position and Lang Vei. We were on our faces in the trench when rounds came in, then on our feet, alertly watching into the mist because if the enemy was assaulting Lang Vei, they might assault us, too. Every Marine in our section of Gray Sector was on alert. The hidden red ends of burning Camels and Lucky Strikes, steaming cups of coffee and cocoa, our rifles locked and loaded, grenades lined up on the parapets to toss at Charlie when he rolled over the concertina and came at us with his screaming, fanatical attack, bayonets fixed on his AK-47s, ready for stabs and horizontal butt strokes to stomachs, chins and cheekbones.

Then the word “tank” flitted into the mix. “Tanks, they are hitting Lang Vei with tanks.”

All my memories of the Khe Sanh experience are tainted by time and by all that I’ve read and all that I have heard from other people who were and who were not at the siege. Yet, sieved out of those tainted memories, I see Lance Corporal “C” running from bunker to bunker, frantic whispers. “Tanks, the gooks have got tanks and they are overrunning Lang Vei right now. Hell, they might be done over there and on their way here.”

We had never faced the specter of hostile tanks and I remember in my mind the images of them rolling over the wire barriers to our front. I recollect the shock of it invaded the bottom of my spine, down at the pelvis, and snaked up my back. I shivered. I tried to hide it. I didn’t want anyone to know I shivered. Tanks.

Lance corporal “C” was a big man, bigger than most Marines who were small, tough kids tired of being pushed around a lot and joined the Corps to prove some things to themselves, and to others. “C” loved rumors, scuttlebutt. And he savored passing them on, one bunker to the next. He had begun his Nam stint with me in my squad back in March of ‘67 but somehow got himself moved up to Supply. Yet he never failed to show up and give us the word before the word was ever official. Whether the word had substance or not.

“C” must have had ears like fingers, good for plucking rumor out of the wind. And more than that, told it lasciviously. He’d hunch his large frame and get an impish look to his face, his big blue eyes darting left and right, left then right, then over his shoulder to see if Lieutenant “D” or Staff Sergeant “A” might come snooping down the trench line and catch him delivering forbidden goodies.
I remember my fright like the wings of miniature bats caught in my throat, their little claws scrabbling, intent on ripping through to the back of my neck. Tanks, and all that meant: crushed by steel tracks, blown apart by their cannons, the screams of elation of the NVA ground-pounders as they came in behind the tanks and caught us in crossfires as we tried to escape. Death…it was death, and it was coming at us on the rumbling engines of those tanks.

I remember, between dodging into the bunkers and hitting the muddy deck to avoid the whoosh, wham, zing of rockets, hearing the sound of those tank engines. Caught in the tiniest of breezes that moved the fog, the rumble and clank of those tanks….coming to get us.

And of course the sounds of those tanks I heard could have been nothing more than my imagination riled by the rumors that did, in fact, turn out to be true. Tanks did indeed overrun Lang Vei, although they did not show up to roll over the concertina wire around our position at the Khe Sanh combat base.

As the chaos of night battle amped up, we were ordered to saddle up and prepare to go save Lang Vei. But later, we stood down.

The next morning, the survivors of Lang Vei, showed up at the gates of Khe Sanh. The surviving Americans came in the gate and the indigenous people remained outside, confined in bomb craters and stripped of their weapons. I recall a lot of complaints back then—and probably there still are today—about how we, the Marines at Khe Sanh, didn’t go out and relieve those men at Lang Vei; and I have heard and read all the reasons why we didn’t. If they had ordered us to go save those men, we, the snuffies in the trench, would have dutifully gone to our probable demise. But we just sat and waited, all night, in the fog and mist as the rockets, mortars and artillery pounded us and we listened for the clank and rumble of those tanks.