Say "Vietnam" these days, and what you really mean is Iraq.
No disastrous war past or present has better proven Spanish philosopher George Santayana's truism that "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Vietnam should have been the lesson we all learned, but instead it has become the mistake we are damned to repeat -- the metaphorical war we invoke when taking a hard look at our current war is too troubling.
Though protest against our involvement in Iraq was squelched in the post-Sept. 11 PATRIOT Act fervor, there is clear evidence in the current 'Nam revival that discussion of Vietnam is evergreen. Once the Pandora's box was opened by John Kerry's Swift Boat detractors, Vietnam became a new means for pundits, writers and filmmakers to covertly attack the Bush administration and its own retro-quagmires.
Locally based art publisher J&L Books has released Harrell Fletcher's The American War (www.JandLbooks.org), a stomach-churning look at the Vietnam War (or the American War, as it's called there) as seen through Vietnamese eyes. The images of torture, bodies mangled by white phosphorous bombs, and chemical weapon-induced birth defects assembled in The American War are far more grisly and graphic than any of the familiar horrors documented by American journalists of the time.
The images suggest that the truth we never see is the most frightening of all.
Controlling public perception of war, symbolized by the current censorship of dead Americans returning in flag-draped coffins, has increasingly become an important third media arm in the management of war. But two recently released documentaries, Winter Soldier and Sir! No Sir!, challenge the current administration's alchemy of "spin" by referencing Vietnam as a war that not only was spun in the making but continues to be spun -- as the John Kerry debacle proved -- after the fact.
The Vietnam War continues in the forefront with the May 30 DVD release of the little-known anti-war document Winter Soldier, which focuses on the meeting in 1971 of 125 Vietnam veterans at a Detroit Howard Johnson to talk about the atrocities they witnessed during the war.
Organized by a group called Vietnam Veterans Against the War (which included John Kerry), the gathering was largely ignored by the news media, demonstrating that the Iraq War is not the first passed over by the mainstream press.
Former grunts and Marine officers take their turns at the microphone, speaking with the flowing, hypnotic cadences of people compelled to speak because talking is their cure. The former soldiers recount the wanton slaughter and rape of civilians that have become the plot lines of countless Vietnam dramas.
But it is the look in the vets' eyes and their words that make visuals irrelevant.
More disturbing than any specific atrocity is the vets' recounting of the process of dehumanization they endured; the slow stripping away of humanity and compassion, which allowed them to commit horrible acts without going mad.
In some ways, former Atlanta-based filmmaker David Zeiger's (The Band) documentary on Vietnam soldiers is like smelling salts passed beneath the nose of a fainting victim.
The men and women interviewed in Sir! No Sir! began the war Yankee Doodle style, convinced of the righteousness of the war, and of killing for Uncle Sam's cause. A former Green Beret hoped that, as there was for the men who came before him, "a war for me."
As the war continued and the depravity of the tactics escalated, these same soldiers had to weigh their own sense of right and wrong, good and evil against the politicians and generals. Murder, it turns out, is not an easy thing for good people to do. Ultimately, the version of morality offered by the politicians and generals lost.
Career soldiers, West Point grads and kids who grew up in gung-ho military families suddenly felt the very earth of America falling away beneath their feet. Many of them began to speak out against the war and were thrown with their brethren into a military stockade in San Francisco's Presidio. Others began underground newspapers and anti-war coffee shops, often on the very military bases that were training them for battle. Many, like the former servicemen in Winter Soldier and anti-war activists like Jane Fonda, who is interviewed in Zeiger's film, spoke out publicly.
In a formula that sounds relevant today, they were made to feel that questioning the political policies of their country meant they were somehow anti-American or unpatriotic.
Zeiger demonstrates the viral nature of protest during Vietnam, and how news of one soldier going AWOL or protesting against the war would then inspire similar defections. The greatest publicity coup of the current administration may have been its ability to squelch protest quickly and summarily, thus halting the virus flow.
Best of all, Sir! No Sir! is a revisionist tale that counters a deceptive version of history -- that it was the dirty, draft-dodging hippies who defined the anti-war movement. The documentary offers the fresh insight that a huge number of GIs were involved in protesting Vietnam. It is a redemptive portrait of Americans. Compassionate and moral with a deep sense of personal responsibility, they were compelled to speak out when they saw something was wrong.
If we can learn from the past, Americans will speak out again.
Director David Zeiger and Jane Fonda will speak at a Q&A after the 7 p.m. show and before the 9:40 show Fri., May 12. Zeiger also will appear at the Sat., May 13, evening shows. Tickets are $8.50 and can be purchased at Landmark Midtown Art Cinemas, 931 Monroe Drive, or online at www.moviefone.com. For more info, contact 404-872-5796.
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