Bravo! The Project - A Documentary Film

Posts Tagged ‘John Huston’

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

October 11, 2018

Why I Fought the War

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Recently Betty and I watched a documentary film titled FIVE CAME BACK about filmmakers who served in the American military during World War II. Those men, Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens, and William Wyler, produced some of the most iconic footage to come out of that conflict and in some cases placed themselves in great danger to get the shots to make the films.

One of the interesting aspects of discovering the military service of these men was how the films they made following their wartime feats changed and generally became more serious, thought-provoking pieces. Thinking about that, it comes to me that I also got a hell of a lot more serious about life after my service in Vietnam. My outlook became darker as I realized what we were capable of as human beings. Knowing it in the gut is different from knowing it in the brain.

As a filmmaker myself, I was also interested in why these men were compelled to go into harm’s way in order to document the events of WWII when they probably didn’t need to, and that led me to ponder why it is I went off to fight in Vietnam.

Over the years people have asked me if I “was drafted,” which I wasn’t, and I have found myself giving inconsistent answers when they subsequently ask me why I enlisted.

Blogger Ken Rodgers at Khe Sanh, 1967.

I don’t think what follows will be any great revelation about why a young man goes to war, but like others I served with and those before and after my time as a Leatherneck, I suspect I was moved by more than one reason.

Of course, unlike today, the draft was in effect when I enlisted in the Corps. I hadn’t received my draft notice but I wasn’t particularly interested in staying in college—they didn’t offer degrees in boozing and hell raising—so I expected the notice to arrive in my parents’ post office box as soon as the draft board got news that I wasn’t a serious student. So, maybe—and I want to stress the word “maybe” for all of the reasons that I lay out here—I decided to beat the draft notice and joined up.

How I joined is something of a story in itself that will remain for a later telling.

In World War I, II and Korea, members of my family served in the Army, the Navy, the Air Corps as it was known before Korea, and the Marines. I had five Marines in my family, one of whom was killed at Chosin Reservoir in Korea in 1950, and since my father, a top sergeant in the Army during World War II, regularly derogated Marines, and since he and I regularly banged heads over everything, of course I chose to be a Jarhead.

I could have joined the Army, the Air Force, the Navy, or I could have just waited for the draft notice to arrive and then maybe I could get a doctor to provide a bogus excuse so I could be 4F, or I could beat feet for Canada. But I didn’t.

I tell myself as I write this that the Marines were my choice, in part, because they had a reputation for being the best and toughest to get through. I knew folks, again my relatives and some family friends, some school teachers, who were Jarheads, and they all had things to say that made the Corps look like it was tough—really tough—and they all warned me off of the Corps, and I believe now that the notion I needed to find out if I was man enough to make it was one of the primary reasons I joined the USMC.

A notion kind of parallel to that was the idea that going into battle was a way to see if one could measure up. And even though I’d read some of the “anti-war” literature such as Eric Maria Remarque’s ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, I suspect that all those messages about the horrors of war only made the specter of charging into the jaws of danger somehow attractive.

And so I went and did my duty and survived the horrors of Khe Sanh. When I came back, I subtly tried to rub it in my old man’s face since he spent all of his war time behind a desk working for generals.

A lot of folks think that patriotism was a big motivator for me and I suspect, a lot of other young men who went and fought in Vietnam, but I’m not sure it was a conscious one if it was a reason at all.

Most of us, back then, grew up around relatives who had fought the Germans and Italians, the Japanese, the Chinese Communists and the North Koreans, so service for a lot of us was something taken for granted. And there was the notion that we all had a duty to stand up and serve our country. Is that patriotism? Maybe.

Ken Rodgers. Photo courtesy of Kevin Martini-Fuller.

I had a second cousin, whom I called Uncle Bill, who was gassed while advancing through the thick woods of the Argonne Forest in the fall of 1918. There was Uncle Frank, shot in the head while serving with Brute Krulak’s Battalion of Marine Paratroopers on the island of Choiseul in WWII. I own a frosty memory of talk about my 1st cousin Reed Plumb, killed in action at Chosin Reservoir on the first day of the breakout. I imagine him stacked like a piece of cordwood in the back of a six-by with other dead Marines, frozen solid. There was a legacy attached to my being a citizen and some of it was inscribed in the blood of my family.

And so, for that reason and all the others mentioned and probably a few I haven’t even considered, I enlisted. Like those filmmakers I talked about when I began this piece, I came back with a darker view of humanity, but I went willingly into that maw of death.

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