The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress
December 2004
ARTS OF WAR
 
 

The Oakland Museum Takes On
The Vietnam War In 2004

 

BY MARC LEEPSON

Like many Vietnam veterans, my brief stay at the Oakland Army Base in December 1967 is etched in my mind. Why wouldn’t it be? It’s the place hundreds of thousands of us shipped out of on the way to the war and into on the way home. In my case, I was heading off to Vietnam, and you just don’t forget the last place you slept in—or tried to— in your own country before taking off for a war on the other side of the world.

What I remember most are the row upon row of cots the Army thought we could sleep in piled into this enormous, hangar-like room while we waited for the buses to take us to Travis Air Force Base. I can’t recall much else about the place, except a free-floating anxiety. Some GIs unjangled those nerves by scribbling on the walls. I don’t remember if I added my two cents, but if I did, I would have written something like “What is reality?” or “365 and a wake up.”
 
A few years ago, Marcia Eymann, the curator of the Oakland Museum of California, spotted a bunch of GI graffiti at the Army Base—where the museum stores some of its artifacts. That gave her an idea: to put together a huge museum exhibit that would examine the impact of the Vietnam War on California life and culture. The Golden State, of course, had a large role in virtually every aspect of the war. The state was home to some of the biggest defense contractors, a slew of military bases of all the services, large antiwar demonstrations, tens of thousands of Vietnam veterans, and even larger numbers of Vietnamese refugees. Not to mention the Oakland Army Base.
 
Eymann’s vision came to fruition August 28 when the museum opened a huge, $1.9 million, 7,000-square-foot exhibition called What’s Going On?—California and the Vietnam War. The exhibition contains more than 500 historical artifacts, photographs, and oral histories, including many from Vietnam veterans and Vietnamese émigrés. It  covers the period from the Cold War to the present, but concentrates on the war itself during the years 1965-75.
 
The show—which ends February 27 and then will travel to Los Angeles and Chicago—is divided into eleven sections. They relate California’s role in the war chronologically. Some of the more striking images include a display of baby clothes and a photograph of Vietnamese orphans strapped into cardboard boxes aboard a World Airways jet flying to California during the April 1975 Operation Baby Lift and artifacts from a Vietnamese re- education camp.
 
The latter reflects an intense lobbying campaign waged by the Vietnamese community in California to include a significant amount of material about our South Vietnamese allies in the exhibit. “It’s about historical accuracy and just giving voice to primary sources— people who have lived and survived,” said Mimi Nguyen, a researcher who helped plan the exhibit. Added Joe Holt, a Marine Vietnam veteran who contributed to the exhibit’s oral history component: “Nobody museum-wise has ever dealt with the Vietnam War, ever.  The fact that they added the Vietnamese is so brave.”
 
ON THE RADIO

Gary Lillie, a longtime VVA member from Michigan, is one of the guiding forces behind Veterans Radio, a live radio show produced by veterans for veterans. The show airs from Ann Arbor, Michigan’s WAAM-AM on Sunday nights from 7:00-8:00. Next year, the show will go to two hours, beginning at 6:00 p.m. There are plans to syndicate Veterans Radio  to as many as sixty stations around the nation and to Armed Forces Radio. It’s also broadcast today on the Internet at www.veteransradio.net

The show includes guests of note who served in the armed forces: politicians, veterans’ benefits counselors, poets, writers, and others. On November 14, Lillie and company broadcast a special two-hour, one-year anniversary show, live from the Sidetrack Bar in Ypsilanti. “The show is informative and, above all, entertaining,” Lillie says. “We hope to inform you and make you laugh at the same time.”
 
HEARTS AND MINDS
 
A newly restored print of the 1975 Oscar-winning Vietnam War documentary, Peter Davis’s Hearts and Minds, appeared in movie theaters around the country this summer and fall. That was not a good thing, to my way of thinking. There’s some great stuff in this polemical, antiwar film, but Hearts and Minds gives a distorted portrayal of Vietnam  veterans. Davis’s point is that the United States had no business being in Vietnam and that everyone who took part in the war has blood on his or her hands.
 
In putting forth this oversimplified—at best—message, Davis willfully ignores anything showing Americans and South Vietnamese in a positive light. And he portrays the NVA and VC as heroic freedom fighters. In Davis’s version of the war, American GIs raped and pillaged innocent villagers, while an unseen enemy went about heroically defending its homeland against the imperialist aggressor.
 
Davis’s hero among American veterans is a deserter who tells his tale to a congressional committee. His villains are a series of military men who were up to no good on the ground in Vietnam and back home. Some veterans in the film, such as VVA founder Bobby Muller, don’t fit in either category. But the veterans Davis highlights make it appear as if we were all either racist killers or apologizing wimps. We all know that that’s not true and that the truth is much, much more complex.
 
ARTS IN BRIEF
 
Two recipients of the National Medal of Arts, which President Bush presented at the White House on November 17, have done work in which the Vietnam War figures prominently. Honoree Twyla Tharp, the renowned choreographer, is the creator of the critically acclaimed dance-saturated smash Broadway musical Movin’ Out, which revolves around three characters’ service in the Vietnam War. And the late Frederick Hart is the sculptor best known for his Three Fightingmen statue at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. VVA presented Tharp with the President’s Award for Excellence in the Arts in August at the 2004 Leadership Conference in Nashville.
 
Among the arts-related activities on Veterans Day was a new National Geographic Special, Arlington: Field of Honor, a documentary that aired November 10 on PBS Television. The film provides a backstage look at Arlington National Cemetery by following groundskeepers, volunteers, and members of the cemetery and military staff in their day- to-day activities. John Bredar wrote, produced, and directed. For more info, go to www.pbs.org
 
New York’s nonprofit American Place Theatre and the Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project presented the premier of the drama, Voices of War: A Vietnam Nurse’s Journey, November 12, at the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium in Washington. The piece is based on the memories of Captain Rhona Marie Knox Prescott, a nurse who served a 1967-68 tour in the Vietnam War. Written and directed by Wynn Handman, the play includes a character adapted from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. O’Brien and Prescott took part in a panel discussion following the performance.
 
The National Archives honored veterans, active-duty military personnel, and their families November 11 in Washington by giving them a special sneak preview that day of the new permanent exhibit, The Public Vaults. The exhibit—which opens many areas of the recently remodeled National Archives to the public for the first time—opened to the public the following day. “The records of active military personnel and veterans are such a key part of our holdings and are a highlight of this exhibition,” John W. Carlin, the Archivist of the United States, said. “We want to honor those who have served this country by welcoming them as our first visitors.”
 
On December 2, the Library of Congress hosted a reading by John Balaban, an English professor and poet-in-residence at North Carolina State University. Balaban, a Vietnam War conscientious objector who did his CO service as a civilian in Vietnam, is the author of an excellent war memoir, Remembering Heaven’s Face. He read from Spring Essence: The Poetry of Ho Xuan Huong, a collection of 29 poems by one of Vietnam’s most celebrated poets that he translated.
 
In October, the U.S. Army announced that world-renowned architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP will be the architect for the National Museum of the United States Army, a $200 million, 255,000 square foot museum and entertainment complex that will be built at Ft. Belvoir. The facility is scheduled to open in June 2009. For more info, go to www.army.mil/nmusa

   

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