“What the fuck has anything got to do with Vietnam?” asks the ‘little’ Lebowski at the end of the Coen Brothers’ modern, pre-Inherent Vice stoner-Noir classic, The Big Lebowski. In the film, Lebowski’s friend, the self-righteous Vietnam veteran Walter Sobchak (memorably played by John Goodman,) constantly attempts to relate every new experience to the Vietnam War, much to his compatriot’s dismay. Here at Randomaniac, once a bastion for critical media analysis, we will be, in a way, stepping into Mr. Sobchak’s very large shoes from this belated point in our journey together.
In short, and as this introduction suggests, I may someday write more about other topics, but for now and deep into the foreseeable future I am officially opening the Vietnam Files.
I saw a classic documentary about Vietnam several years ago called In the Year of the Pig directed by Emile De Antonio. It was in black and white and consisted mostly of interviews and simple news footage, but I remember sitting there after the film ended in total shock. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to scream. I felt unmoored. I watched it many, many times after that, sometimes twice in a sitting, transfixed by the sounds and images. Sometimes I would weep.
As I child I’d seen Full Metal Jacket and it thrilled me. The competence, machismo, and dark romance of the film’s characters was exciting, and the perverse Oedipal drama of the first act appealed to a child raised by a maniacal Marine. I obsessed over the film and the Marine Corps in general. I read books about boot camp and dreamed of surviving the horrors of war and becoming a real man. There was no hint of moral confusion about America’s reasons for fighting in Vietnam, but nor was there any consciousness of them either. For me, like so many Americans, all wars were just filtered through the WWII lens: America fought wars to protect liberty and destroy evil men like Hitler.
As a teenager I became aware of the antiwar movement, mainly through politically radical schoolteachers, and the Vietnam War came to be something I realized was somehow “different” from WWII. It’s hard to remember my exact thoughts because they’ve changed so very much since then, but I essentially thought of the war as a tragic mistake, when politicians sent American troops to fight an unwinnable war that wasn’t any of their business. This, I now know, was the position of liberal Democrats during the action of the war—the Doves, as they are known. The Hawks were the more extreme proponents of intervention, who thought that if America unleashed enough force, victory was just within reach.
Maybe like some of you reading this, I had never heard of the First Indochina War, the Viet Minh, Ngo Dinh Diem, Phoenix. From films and popular culture I had been taught that the VC were savages who fought with despicable tactics that drove our brave fighting men out of their minds with grief and revulsion. I had never heard of The Bell Telephone Hour, the water treatment, or “helicopter interrogations.” I didn’t know about Harassment and Interdiction fire, Province Interrogation Centers, or Poulo Condore. I had never been told about the Coup in 1963, roaming South Korean death squads, or the Vung Tau training center. I didn’t know that the US dropped more bombs on South Vietnam than all the Allied powers in WWII dropped on all the Axis powers combined, even though we were supposedly fighting against North Vietnam to protect South Vietnam from “outside aggression.”
In short, despite being a historically literate, politically engaged, adult citizen of the United States, I knew almost nothing about a war that some historians would say was the most important in our history. One that came to define us as a nation during its commission, and in our collective amnesia, stands alongside the eradication of this land’s native population as our great forgotten crime.
A few years after I first saw In the Year of the Pig I finally saw the Academy Award winning Vietnam War documentary Hearts and Minds. It too, was a shattering experience. Again and again I’m amazed by this subject’s eternal ability to shock, as layers of lies, half-truths, misused truths, and exposed truths are all sifted through, a kernel of understanding sometimes tumbles out amidst the confusion.
These two sisters represented part of that understanding for me.
An older sister died, and I have another older sister yes. Yes there were just the three of us and then one died, and I’m supposed to live in a house over there, but now its just a heap of rubble.
[How old was your sister?]
[What did she die of?]
Bombs. Bombs were dropped here the other day and they killed her. I am so unhappy. My sister died and I’ve got no home left. I’ve moved in with my sister here. I’ve been wounded, can’t do anything for a living. I’m old and weak; I’ve got nothing to sell, nothing to do…
The camera holds their gaze as the poor woman shifts around, miserably taunting the viewer in her silent despair. Where will she go? I wondered. How will she eat? How will she help her older sister sitting there next to her? She looks even more resigned to their fate than her little sis. How would my grandmother face such abuse? Would she kill herself out of fear and despair? What would I say to these women if they were sitting here with me now?
Of course, on some level I always knew war to be destructive. However I’d never been confronted with the reality of that destruction face-to-face. Many critics loathe Hearts and Minds for what they see as a lack of “objectivity”, but there is no objective way to portray these women’s misery. Sitting there, staring into their eyes, racked with sobs and contorted with moans, a question crawled up out of the black.
Such a simple question. One that children intuitively know disturbs adults because of its audacity. In the Year of the Pig had taught me the traditional Leftist (as opposed to “liberal”) explanation of the war as an expression of American imperialism. I think that’s true, but even that profound and disturbing explanation wasn’t enough for me after Hearts and Minds.
Sure, it explains much, but even the childish, oversimplified, and—in popular culture at least—largely unquestioned Conservative justification of Vietnam as the site of a Cold War showdown even explains some. Like all historical events, there was no single cause, but to this day, after thousands of pages read and hundreds of hours watched, I feel no closer to a solid, uncontroversial explanation than I was when I started. Because what happened in Vietnam is beyond explanation. It exists as historical reality, a fait acompli. Rashomon for historians, and I for one claim no special dispensation from heaven.
I merely wish to understand. If not yet “why”, then “how, where, when, what, and who,” will have to suffice. Come along with me and see what we find hidden in the bush. We’ll start slowly, even timidly over the next few weeks: book reviews, brief summaries & descriptions of moments and events, hopefully leading me to a broader and more coherent perspective than reading alone has so-far allowed.