About an hour into the movie Going Upriver, a parade of disillusioned Vietnam Veterans Against the War walk up to a microphone, utter a few words, and throw their medals over a hastily constructed fence thrown up by Nixon’s people to keep them from walking to the Capitol. One of the men walks away from the mike and embraces another vet, a total stranger, both of them weeping.
The total stranger tells the interviewer why. Throwing his Silver Star over the fence was one of the hardest things he ever did, perhaps harder than winning it. “I had never accomplished anything before then. That Silver Star was the biggest thing that had ever happened in my life.”
I was recommended for 2 or 3 Silver Stars, though each one devolved to a Distinguished Flying Cross, so I know something about military awards. When a General pins such medals on your tunic, you get a kind of free pass. Never mind that you had been scared shitless, performing a series of recoveries from moments-earlier screwups and thinking only of your sorry ass. The award somehow ennobles your effort and gives you some cultural bragging rights.
To then feel so disillusioned by the campaign that brought you the award, to the extent that you throw it over the fence is a premeditated abdication that few of us are brave enough to manage. We risk our lives with far more abandon than we compromise our image.
(Don’t confuse my Wallace Beery version of gallantry with the real heroes who endured the unendurable in Vietnam and Iraq. I was a trash hauler, grinding around South Vietnam for 12 hours a day, repairing to a hot shower and a cold cocktail every night. If you want to see real heroes, go see the kids in Going Upriver.)
The movie brought the memories back in a rush: rice paddies hard against the mountains, mist lying on the brown river, the country’s beauty and its horror, terrorized civilians doing whatever they saw as their best way forward from dead children and torched villages. I remembered one particular day, shuttling between Bao Loc and Song Be, evacuating a horde of refugees. Bao Loc was a tiny red dirt strip, 2600 feet long. As you braked hard at the end of the tiny runway, the C-130’s 4 big props in full reverse pulled a cloud of red dust around the cockpit, totally obscuring the rubber trees rushing to meet us. I learned later that it works the same with burning jet fuel.
You sit and wait for the refugees to board, in the heat and the dust and the forlornness. I got it at Bao Loc that day in 1967 that the Vietnamese had been hostage to colonialists for time out of mind. Chinese, Japanese, French and now the Americans. It was all the same to them: forces and violence they couldn’t understand, sweeping across their country following choices made far away for symbols they couldn’t understand. We knew we were carrying Viet Cong to their next staging area, and we knew this fucking war was a tragic blunder. Everybody knew it was stupid who still had a mind.
Sure, there were gung ho idiots who convinced themselves, even before middle age, that we were there to make the world safe for democracy but, like the jocks in the back of Econ class, no one paid any attention to those dangerous fucks. They were so clueless they would kill you and themselves and never know what hit them and their surroundings. There were hardly any pilots like that, certainly fewer in the unromantic world known as Airlift Ops. A dozen assault landings and takeoffs each day in places whose ownership was uncertain made you a paragon of empirical thought.
Romantic thinking. That was the delimiter that mattered. You could pay attention to bullets or illusions but not both.
By romantic thinking, I’m talking about the guys who couldn’t or wouldn’t put themselves in harm’s way without some grand religious or political symbolism. Their passion, so bolstered, seemed their only way to put up with what the rest of us considered a glorified form of defensive driving. They were the guys who couldn’t imagine fighting this unfathomable war for anything but God and country. Conversely, you had the ones whose terror wrapped them up so tightly they’d fly into a large mountain avoiding small bullets. Terror was their form of romanticism, a kind of grand gothic horror rationalizing the reality they found themselves in.
Fear- or hate-based romanticism is like a high school crush. It deceives your brain and clouds your judgment. Confronted with unimagined horror, our facile brain rushes to concoct a quick way out, and the nearest exit is often a romantic one. We seize on a reason where none is possible because our circumstance is, literally, unimaginable.
Middle Age Romantics
Many of those same people now remember it differently for reasons that are basically romantic. But make no mistake: the young men they used to be, the ones who did the fighting, knew the war was stupid and that peasants were killed on the chance they were hostile, not because they were hostile. About one and a half million of them. 1,500,000 people with families and history but without writing or mortgages.
Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts… Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and in the best of hearts, there remains one small corner of evil.
— Alexander Solzhenitzen, Gulag Archipelago
It’s hard to disregard the difficult and evil things we do, so I’m not surprised that so many vets think John Kerry betrayed them by speaking against the war in 1971. But many of them are alive today because of the pressure he exerted on the US Government, at the age of 27, to quit Vietnam, well respected by the kinds of Senators we can barely imagine today.
Here’s the hard part. In the midst of the shock and awe of September 2001, many of us untrained for combat were thrust into Hell. With our conceptual frame shattered, we yearned for a voice of assurance and seeming confidence. We sought comforting words in the same way that a troubling movie sets us up for reassurance in the final reel. Manipulators of image and atmospherics know how to scratch that itch. Movie producers make billions, first by tickling us and then scratching us there . . . no . . . up a little . . . yes! there!.
Media manipulators know how to scratch the itch even when terrorists nick us. It’s a cultural ritual and a form of romanticism. We think we’re tough on terror when we scratch that itch, but we’re really just being easy on ourselves. Is it possible that some of us, given a little distance from the event and the speaker of those words, might summon up a small fraction of the courage of the kid who, in the spring of 1971, threw away his Silver Star, the only impressive thing he’d ever done?
Might we let go of our illusions about what happened to us and what we should do about it?
On the Record
Going Upriver records soldiers’ memories of what John Kerry did in Vietnam and soon after, and says nothing about who he is now. Some believe that as the twig is bent, so the branch is inclined and it’s therefore useful to understand who John Kerry certainly was from childhood through the spring of 1971. I know those years shaped me profoundly, so I cannot ignore how they shaped him. I must assume that George Bush was similarly formed by the experiences he had and the choices he made during that period.
Going Up Your Own River
An uninformed electorate is a modern invention. From the signing of the Magna Carta by King John in 1215, electoral power slowly leaked away from an absolute monarch, through his barons and eventually to you and me and middle-aged romantics.
Our Founding Fathers enfranchised landed white males. In 1790, that usually meant you had a classical education (Homer through Adam Smith), were able to write a 20 page essay with flawless penmanship and grammar, had led others in combat and were probably a little arrogant for modern tastes.
At our nation’s birth, most voters were smarter, tougher, better informed and more patriotic than you and me.
There’s no such standard today. If I can sit on the receiving end of $500 million of advertising and find my way to a voting booth, I qualify. If you don’t watch the Presidential debates and Going Upriver, you’re choosing to be a cultural romantic, uninformed about this election.
If you do pay attention, you’ll conclude that John Kerry is smarter, tougher, better informed and more patriotic than you and me. And that George Bush is not.