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January / February 2008

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By Marc Leepson
I’m a big, big fan of the creative, innovative movie-making abilities of the Coen Brothers, Ethan and Joel. I’ve seen all of their movies. The best of them—Miller’s Crossing; Fargo; O Brother, Where Art Thou?; Raising Arizona; The Big Lebowski—are fiendishly clever, hugely entertaining, and brilliantly acted, filmed, and edited.

I sometimes cringe at the Coens’ propensity for in-your-face, gratuitous violence, especially in Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing, and Fargo, but have been able to overcome my squeamishness because the bloody mayhem seemed to be integral parts of those films. Which brings us to the writer-director Coens’ latest, much ballyhooed movie, No Country For Old Men. This blood-and-gore-infused thriller, which is set in Texas in 1980 and features two Vietnam veteran characters, hit the multiplexes in November to mostly rave reviews.

The film adheres closely to the plot of the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name, a book I read and did not like for several reasons. The main one: the immense amount of sociopathic mayhem perpetuated by the insane villain of the piece, a killing-and-maiming machine with the strange name of Anton Chigurh, played to psychotic perfection in the movie by the great Spanish actor Javier Bardem. What also put me off about the book was McCarthy’s portrayal of the two Vietnam veterans as more or less gun-totin’ societal misfits.

McCarthy, who served in the U.S. Air Force from 1953-57 (and the Coens who were born during those years), give us Carson Wells (a taciturn, steely-eyed Woody Harrelson in the movie), a professional hit man who served with the Special Forces, and Llewellyn Moss (very convincingly acted by Josh Brolin), a low-rent Texan who did two tours in Vietnam with the “12th Infantry Battalion.”

I guess a few of the 2.8 million men who served in Vietnam made their living as paid assassins back in the eighties; and more than a few liked to hunt in the great outdoors and made a few really bad life decisions. I know why these guys are in the novel and the movie: because no one wants to read a book or see a movie based on the experiences of the overwhelming majority of those of us who served in Vietnam and went on to careers in various average-Joe, nonviolent walks of life and to live quietly with our families and friends.

So, as I sat down to watch No Country, I was prepared to see a movie featuring two more stereotypical, violence-prone cinematic Vietnam veterans. I was pleasantly surprised, though, as I soon realized that the Coens avoided making Moss and Wells into stereotypes. They are fully realized characters, even if they are repugnant.

Moss, the movie’s protagonist and main character, for example, is not an evil man. Nor is he an ultra-violent type. On the other hand, he makes a dumb, monumental mistake, taking two million in drug money he finds while hunting and coming across a grisly drug-deal-gone-bad scene, all the time realizing the potential consequences of his actions. As the dire consequences played out, I kept thinking of that great line from Converse, the jaded Vietnam War correspondent in the movie Who’ll Stop the Rain?, which went something like: “I’ve waited my entire life to f&*^ up like this.”

As for remorseless killer Anton Chigur, we can all say a silent prayer that nothing is said about him having served his nation in the Vietnam War. Otherwise, he would have been the cinematic Vietnam vet from hell.

What I didn’t like about the movie (aside from the tsunami of in-your-face blood and guts) was its pointlessness, its slow pacing, and the fact that, to me, it fell flat in the last ten or fifteen minutes, following the demise of a certain character. It was a thriller, you could say, that just was not very thrilling. It was almost boring in parts, which is a first for a Coen Brothers movie.

Still, even the Coen Brothers’ misses are better than 95 percent of the crap that Hollywood churns out. You will get plenty of terrific cinematography here, some great black humor, and sterling performances from all the players, including Tommy Lee Jones as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, who does his usual great job with a meaty part.

AMERICAN GANGSTER
Ridley Scott’s American Gangster, which came out in November to rave reviews and did very well at the box office, stars Denzel Washington as true-life Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas. The film is set in the late sixties and early seventies, and the Vietnam War is integral to the main plot. Lucas hears of widespread drug use in Vietnam, flies to Northern Thailand to check it out, and then begins smuggling high-grade Asian heroin to the States in what can only be described as a cold-blooded but clever manner.

I skipped the movie because those facts had escaped my radar, until they were pointed out by my friend, David Willson. “There are also dramatic scenes that take place in S.E. Asia, two of which involve Denzel Washington’s character, front and center,” Willson told me. “There are also frequent newsreel depictions of Vietnam War-related news, and there’s a major scene in the United States involving the American military, related to using military planes, military personnel, and military coffins to transport the evil drugs.”

The Vietnam War, Willson said, “is at the center of the film as it’s the enabler for Frank Lucas to obtain the drugs he sells in great amounts in New York. The war is the conduit for the drugs. When the war ends, Frank Lucas is done.”

FORTY YEARS AGO
Somebody once said that during the year 1968, the United States suffered a nervous breakdown. Two demoralizing assassinations, race riots in big cities, and the chaos of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago at home, along with the Tet Offensive and its aftermath in Vietnam, certainly made for one painful year. Now that 2008 is upon us, it’s inevitable that the media will mark this quasi-newsworthy event with plenty of looking-back coverage.

The coverage, in fact, started late last year. Newsweek, for example, devoted a hefty section of its November 19 issue to a group of essays about 1968. The issue, with a cover by iconic sixties artist Peter Max, referred to 1968 as “the year that made us who we are,” on the cover; as part of “an era that just won’t end,” on the content’s page; as “a world in disarray,” on the Newsweek.com page; and as “the year that changed everything,” as the headline of the main article, by Jonathan Darman, put it.

Why the hoop-to-do? Because, Darman says, “all of us, young and old, are stuck in the ’60s, hostages to a decade we define ourselves as for or against.” The sixties, he says, “were not necessarily, as some baby boomers would have it, America’s defining moment. But they were an era when a generation held sustained argument over the things that have always mattered most: How should America show its power in the world? What rights were owed to African-Americans, to women, to gays? What is America and what does it want to be?”

Fair enough questions. But something about the whole exercise did not sit right with this Army veteran who spent nearly the entire year of 1968 in Vietnam and who has spent probably too much time since then writing and thinking about the sixties. What struck me most negatively about the Newsweek issue was the full-page black and white close-up photo of Robert S. McNamara in a section called “Faces of the Fiery Year.” Why highlight this man who presided over a war he thought unwinnable from the beginning but continued to prosecute for eight years? McNamara’s half-smiling visage in that issue is a slap in the face to the millions of American servicemen and women who risked their lives in “McNamara’s War,” not to mention the families of those who died there in large part due to McNamara’s disingenuousness, flat-out dishonesty, and arrogance.

The other smelly component of that issue was the excerpt from Tom Brokaw’s new book, Boom! Voices of the Sixties. No, Brokaw is not in the same villainous league as McNamara. But who appointed him to the position of Generational Expert Commentator? This is the same retired NBC News anchor who coined the phrase “The Greatest Generation,” in his upbeat book about our parents’ generation. I’d always thought if there was a “greatest” American generation, it was the one that included George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Paine, and company.

Why exactly is our parents’ generational cohort the “greatest”? Primarily, Brokaw says, because they came of age during World War II, a war against true evil, and they prevailed. But they did not choose their war. And they have more than a few “un-great” things to answer for after the war ended.

Such as the fact that the late 1940s, the 1950s, and early 1960s were an era of institutionalized racism and sexism, a time when we started the misadventure in Vietnam, and a period of untrammeled, virtually unregulated pollution of the Earth. There was nothing remotely great or “greatest” about that legacy as far as I am concerned.

In Boom! Brokaw has some good things to say about Vietnam veterans, although it’s nothing that we haven’t been writing about in these pages for decades. There is precious little insight into the (not-so-great?) Vietnam War generation. The same can be said about a two-hour “television event” based on the book called 1968: With Tom Brokaw, which appeared on the History Channel December 9. In that show, Brokaw, the channel’s publicity folks said, “offers his perspective on the era and shares the rich personal odysseys of some of the people who lived through that chaotic time, along with the stories of younger people now experiencing its aftershocks.”

Save me from Tom Brokaw’s perspective. The only thing I learned from his “perspective” that had a modicum of interest is that Brokaw (who was born in 1940) says he tried to enlist in the Army and Navy during the Vietnam War, but was rejected because of “flat feet.”

ARTS IN BRIEF
“The Remembered,” a performance made up of a compilation of messages posted by visitors to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial’s Virtual Wall web site, had its world premiere in October at Hofstra University’s John Cranford Adams Playhouse. Written by Elliott Levine and directed by Bob Spiotto, the performance featured images from the book Letters on the Wall by Michael Sofarelli. Proceeds from the performance went to the Stephen B. Carlin and Walter W. Rudolph Endowed Memorial Scholarship for first-year Hofstra students who are the children or grandchildren of Vietnam veterans.

Ed Milligan, who retired after serving for 25 years in the U.S. military, including two years in Vietnam, started his monthly radio program, “The Veterans Hour,” on KFGO, 790 AM in Fargo, North Dakota, five years ago. You can listen to archived shows online at www.tristateveterans.com and clicking on the “Veterans Hour.”

Last summer, fourteen Princeton University undergraduate students took part in a unique seminar called “America and Vietnam at War: Origins, Implications and Consequences.” The course, dubbed a “global seminar,” took place in Vietnam. It was the first such seminar offered by Princeton’s Institute of International Relations and Regional Studies, and it drew students with majors that included chemical engineering, anthropology, and foreign affairs.

The seminar was led by Desaix Anderson, 71, a former U.S. Foreign Service officer who served for 18 months in Vietnam in 1965-66, and then headed the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi in 1995. His students took classes at Hanoi’s National University, took part in community service endeavors, and otherwise immersed themselves in Vietnamese language and culture in Hanoi, Hoi An, Hue, Danang, and elsewhere around the country. Anderson gave half the lectures. The class also heard from a dozen Vietnamese academics, authors (including NVA veteran and acclaimed novelist Bao Ninh), former military officials, and government representatives.

QUERIES
Richard Jellerson, who flew two helicopter tours in the Vietnam War, is co-producing a documentary about the Hmong who fought on the side of the United States in the so-called Secret War in Laos. He would like to hear from Americans who were rescued by the Hmong. You can contact him at Storyteller Films at 626-355-0260 or email Richard@storytellerfilms.tv

As a follow-up to his previous anthology of veterans’ poems, Post Traumatic Press 2007, Dayl Wise, who served with the First Cav in Vietnam in 1969, is taking submissions of poems and short stories from veterans, family members of veterans, and non-veterans with experiences of the military.

“I’m looking for work on loss and reconciliation,” Wise told us. “Openly political stuff will be considered.” He would like to receive submissions by April 1.

His plan is to offer two of the chapbooks gratis to each contributor and to sell the rest to offset the cost, with any profits going to Veterans for Peace. If interested, send your work via email to dswbike@aol.com You can either paste your poem or story in the body or attach it as a file. Also include a short bio and photo. You may also mail your submission to 2206 Holland Ave., Apt 5D, Bronx, NY 10467. For questions, call 718-231-0616 or 845-679-2161, and mention you read about it in these pages.

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