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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.

Documentary Film,Guest Blogs,Khe Sanh,Marines,Vietnam War

January 19, 2013

BRAVO!: An Appreciation

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BRAVO! supporter Jean Hegland muses about the film, history and the Vietnam War

Although I grew up with the Viet Nam war, it was never very real to me. I was born in 1956, and in the 1960s when my parents began to watch the nightly news on our family’s first television, reports of Viet Nam conflict were nightly fare when I wandered into the living room to check on dinnertime. After Walter Cronkite had finally announced, “And that’s the way it is,” and the television was turned off, discussions about the wrongness of the war and the inadequacies of the politicians who were promoting it were often a topic of my parents’ conversation as we ate.

But despite its frequent appearance in my family’s living and dining rooms, in many ways the Viet Nam war was an abstraction. I knew my parents were against the war—I couldn’t fathom how anyone could actually be for the crumpled bodies and destroyed landscapes I glimpsed on our TV screen—but no one I knew was directly affected by the conflict. My parents’ affiliation with the military had ended when they were discharged at the end of World War II (my father from the Army and my mother from the WAVES); and the draft was cancelled and the conflict in Viet Nam was officially over before any of my brothers or boyfriends were impacted. Later, when I went to college, there were few vets in the circles I ran in, and those I did meet—and occasionally even dated—seemed very reluctant to discuss their experiences in what they called “Nam.”

I suppose I was used to veterans staying silent about their war experiences. Although my mother privately told me that my father had been decorated for his service when he was a medic in the South Pacific, he himself never spoke of his experiences to anyone. I never heard my uncle or my aunt speak about their experiences in WWII, either, nor my other uncle who had been a fighter pilot in Korea, nor my great uncle who fought in France in WWI. And of course my ancestors who’d fought for the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War and those who fought for America during the Revolutionary War were also silent.

Novels such as Johnny Got His Gun, and The Red Badge of Courage, and later, Snow Falling on Cedars, The Things They Carried, and Matterhorn taught me a little about what war might be like for a soldier, but I have Ken and Betty Rodger’s remarkable documentary film Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor to thank for bringing the experience of soldiers at the Siege of Khe Sanh excruciatingly close.

I understand that no one who wasn’t there can ever really appreciate what those men endured during the 77 days of siege, and I also have some inkling of what a truly remarkable group that particular battalion of soldiers were, but after having watched Bravo! I feel I know much more than I did before about a soldier’s experience of the horror, pity—and glory—of war.

I wonder if anyone can listen to Cal, John, Daniel, Ken Korkow, Ben, Frank, Mike, Ken Pipes, Tom, Ron, Ken Rodgers, Lloyd, Peter, Steve, and Michael share their stories without experiencing both shudders and tears, if anyone can watch that film and not be haunted by it afterwards. Each time I watch Bravo!, I am appalled by the situation those men—then kids the age of my lovely son and his dear friends—were literally thrust into as they leapt out of moving planes and had to scurry to safety. I am heartbroken by the suffering they endured and the appalling waste that occurred. But I am also struck by the fierce, bright spirit of each of those men, by their commitment to each other in the face of such horrible odds. I am stirred not only by their courage in 1968 when they sacrificed so much to defend what turned out to be “a worthless patch of ground,” but also by their courage now, as veterans willing to risk further tears and nightmares in order to share their memories with the rest of us. Thanks to them, I feel I understand much more than I did before—not enough, to be sure, but a great deal more.

Bravo! has not changed the opinion I grew up with that the Viet Nam War was a horrible mistake, but it has deepened my sympathy for everything that those who fought in it endured, increased my appreciation for everything that they achieved, and my gratitude for the huge sacrifices that they made. It has given me fresh insight into all the silent warriors in my own family, too, and has encouraged me to reflect on the strange and compelling machine that war is, and why it is that we humans seem to have such a hard time getting beyond it. For all that, I am very grateful.

In addition to expressing my gratitude to the brave men who allowed their intimate stories to be captured on film, I also want to applaud Ken and Betty Rodgers, whose hard work and commitment brought Bravo! into being, and whose skill as interviewers (along with Mark Spear) and vision and craft as story-shapers helped to make Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor the compelling—and transformational—film that it is.

Jean Hegland is the author of the novels Into the Forest and Windfalls.