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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/.

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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.