Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Under an Azure Sky, Death Awaited

Peering over the side of a landing craft, young Marines about to go into battle in the South Pacific must have experienced a momentary disconnect. There ahead lay a beautiful tropical beach fringed with palm trees swaying gently in the breeze, all framed under a bright, cloudless sky. Yet all their training had taught them that in minutes when the front hatch went down, they’d be hitting that beach, and just beyond, hidden in the dense jungle, Japanese defenders awaited.

Two decades later in the ‘60s many American troops arriving in South Vietnam experienced the same initial sensation. My brother Jeff Sharlet, who was in-country 1963-64, extolled the natural beauty of the country in letters home – the white sand beaches sparkling on the South China Sea and the dense green jungle undulating across the Central Highlands were especially stunning from the air.

Along the South China Sea

America’s Vietnam War was then still young and casualties light, but subsequent waves of troops would soon learn there was a price to be paid for the eye’s pleasure in such a striking landscape. Beneath the azure sky under the jungle canopy death awaited tens of thousands of Americans as well as countless Vietnamese on both sides.

Hollywood set out to capture the perverse dichotomy of stark beauty and hidden terror in a second wave of Vietnam War films. Having successfully tested the public’s tolerance for revisiting the war with three releases during 1978†, the film industry was ready for more ambitious projects, none more so than Apocalypse Now (1979).

With Francis Ford Coppola of Godfather fame directing; Brando, Duvall, and Martin Sheen co-starring; and Michael Herr of Dispatches as voice-over, Apocalypse garnered numerous nominations and awards from Cannes to tinseltown. The story line is simple – Kurtz, a maverick Special Forces colonel (Brando) goes rogue and out of control.  Captain Willard (Sheen), a special ops assassin, is dispatched upriver to “terminate with extreme prejudice.”

Before the two men come face to face in the wilderness, Willard travels by Navy gunboat up the fictional Nung River deep into Cambodia, a picaresque journey in the company of a bizarre crew. The setting is one of great heat and humidity, tropical jungle to water’s edge, and exotic birdsong – all creating an atmosphere of anticipatory anxiety for the well-armed and trigger-happy young boat crew. Occasionally fired upon from the riverbank by the enemy or natives with spears and arrows, the gunners respond with fusillades of heavy machine gun fire, but never see their adversaries.

The riparian vistas are scenic enough for a tourist excursion, but death lurks along those riverbanks. Still, during quiet passage the journey resembles a lark – one crew member sports a peace symbol, another gets high on drugs. At those moments the war appears as just another ‘trip’ with surreal sights of a GI surfboarding as enemy mortar rounds fall around him and even a light show as the gunboat glides beneath a bridge brightly lit up like a Christmas tree in the dark night.

When the real war does interrupt the crew’s reveries, the action sometimes anticipates a contemporary video game – an enemy soldier pops up, gets off a few rounds, and the high strung bow gunner answers with a curtain of fire temporarily silencing the cries and calls of jungle creatures.

Adventures occur en route, most memorably when Willard’s crew encounters a swashbuckling air cavalry commander, Lt Colonel Kilgore (Duvall). 

The colonel takes a sailor along on a helicopter assault on a Viet Cong village – complete with the whoosh of outgoing rockets accompanied by psyops loudspeakers on the command chopper blasting Wagner's 'Ride of the Valkyries'. Then, on the ground and while watching a bombing run along the tree line, Kilgore utters the movie’s signature line, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”


Kilgore and ‘napalm in the morning’

Overshadowing Willard’s mission and adding measurably to the tension is the sense of the crew having left civilization behind as they close on Kurtz’s camp, heading into a Conradian ‘heart of darkness’. And the great Brando does not disappoint in his essentially cameo role, stealing the show as he did in Godfather. The viewer comes away from seeing Apocalypse as if, in GI argot, returning from Southeast Asia’s cauldron of death and destruction back to ‘the world’.

Fast forwarding a decade past some better known Vietnam War flicks, we come to 84 Charlie MoPic, a small gem of a film which couldn’t have depicted the war more differently than Apocalypse Now. It is a relatively short (95 mins), low-budget film shot by a director better known for television work compared to the very long (2.5+ hrs in the original version), big budget film directed by a seasoned Academy Award winner.

While Coppola assembled a large distinguished cast of stars as well as upcoming lesser knowns, 84 Charlie was made with just seven actors, of whom a prominent reviewer wrote. “commanding performances by cast of unknowns.”* Predictably, while Apocalypse made tens of millions at the box office and has become a classic on the war, 84 Charlie, despite winning the coveted Sundance Festival Grand Prize, earned just over $150,000 and regrettably has slipped into filmic oblivion.

I say ‘regrettably’ because what the director may have lacked at that point in big screen experience, he more than made up for as an ex-Vietnam GI who knew the war from the inside. The structure of the film is highly unusual – a two-man 82nd Airborne film crew making a training film on a Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol, known by its acronym LRRP, while accompanying an actual patrol.

Six klicks is a mighty short walk
When you march behind the band
But six klicks can seem like a hundred miles
When you’re walking in Charlie’s land†† 

The enforced silences of patrol in hostile terrain as well as the sharp disjunctions between boredom and terror in the combat zone are masterfully handled. The overall effect is of a documentary film, one that could be used in an Advanced Infantry Training course. The result is probably one of the most ‘realistic’ films made about the Vietnam War.

In effect, it takes one down trail in the Central Highlands on a familiar wartime tactical maneuver – to search out and gather intelligence on enemy positions without engaging unless necessary, the idea being to get back with the information. With little or no music compared to the soaring soundtrack of Apocalypse Now, the viewer accompanies the patrol and its embedded film crew step by cautious step, the point man several well out front looking to his left, looking to his right.

Every step you take
Death is holding your hand
     Walking in Charlie’s land†† 

As OD, Cracker, Pretty Boy, Hammer, and Pvt Easy penetrate deeper and deeper into what they dub ‘Indian country’, what began as a routine patrol goes awry. For the most part, their elusive adversary is unseen – mostly a potential threat, rarely a presence – until the patrol spots a large enemy encampment and beats a hasty retreat in the face of a superior pursuing force. Men are hit, people die. In general, although 84 Charlie is also a ‘journey’ film, it takes place within a small cinematic universe, a slice of jungle and underbrush that the GIs traverse at greater and greater risk. 

Some of our boys learned too late 
Just who owns this real estate  
This is Charlie's land†† 

84 Charlie represents the war as an unglamorous affair – methodical, wearying, and largely bereft of the vivid scenes of Apocalypse Now. Instead, the film has a plausible experiential dimension with which an average person could empathize, if not identify. Like Go Tell the Spartans (1978) starring Burt Lancaster, which came out in the same year with two other major Vietnam War films, 84 Charlie MoPic never found a significant audience.

America is a long, long way from closure on its catastrophic involvement in Vietnam, but one film offered a view of the finality of the war for at least a select group of those who fell: Gardens of Stone, Coppola’s elegy to Arlington National Cemetery, the nation’s most hallowed burial ground, where the precisely choreographed ceremony of death was performed with ever greater frequency during the Vietnam War.

Coppola's film goes neither upriver nor down trail, but is largely confined to the sacred acreage on a hillside across the river from Washington; it takes place in the thick of the Vietnam War. Many Americans probably know the ceremony, having seen either film or photos of the funeral of JFK in ’63 with the President’s body borne on a horse-drawn caisson followed by a riderless horse.

Not quite a decade earlier on a hot summer day, a writer, as he stood at the Arlington burial of his grandfather, who had served with the cavalry on the Montana and Wyoming frontier in the 1880s, looked out across the rows of markers and described the view from Arlington, “heat currents rise from the Potomac River to distort the classic lines of the Lincoln Memorial. The geometric panorama of Washington wavers like a quilt on a laundry line.”**

In Gardens, the non-coms, senior sergeants who’ve served and survived Vietnam (James Earl Jones, James Caan), are in a safe billet. A young private is assigned to the ceremonial platoon. In the Korean War, his father had been the non-coms’ comrade in arms. They take his son under their wing. The boy proves to be a model soldier in a unit distinguished by high standards. The war rages on as the Arlington Honor Guard performs the daily ritual of interring the dead from the battlefields of Ia Drang, Dak To, Khe Sanh, and other less well-known combat sites hallowed in Vietnam War memory. 

However, the young man is not satisfied to sit the war out in his spotless dress uniform. The legacy of a soldier-father, admiration for his Arlington mentors, and youth’s eternal attraction to adventure, to challenge, draws him to Officer Candidate School and then to volunteer for combat.††† The older men, knowing the war as a killing field, try to dissuade him, but to no avail.

The age-old quest to prove manhood proves too strong; the new lieutenant is determined to serve in battle. The young officer inevitably returns to Arlington for his final journey on a horse-drawn caisson and is laid to rest to the mournful sounds of Taps under an azure sky.


Burial procession, Arlington National Cemetery©

What have we learned from these three fine films – that misbegotten war becomes madness, that the deadly trail must be traversed to the end, and that the only certitude about war is the finality of death.

*L Maltin, Movie and Video Guide: 2000 Edition (1999), 399.
**H Masters, Last Stands: Notes from Memory (2004), 3.

©Leo Touchet, 1999. Photo is of the 1998 funeral procession for Lucien Conein, WWII hero and the legendary ‘Lawrence of Vietnam’. See


Wednesday, April 10, 2013

"Billowed Like an Arab's Caftan"

It was the summer of ’69, and my brother Jeff had recently died. He was but 27. Jeff had had an interesting life, and I wanted to recount it in a memoir. But first I hoped to secure for him a niche in the history of his times, a very public obituary. For days I holed up in my study writing a long synopsis of his short life, first his Vietnam tour, then his work as a founder of the GI antiwar movement.

I sent my account off to a senior editor at the New York Times, the paper of record – hoping to get Jeff at least a brief obit. I didn’t know the editor personally, but since we were both experts on Russia, I used our common interest as an entrée. Alas, he wrote back a few days later that he had tried, but the paper had a strict policy limited to current deaths, and, regrettably, I had let too much time pass.

That left the task of memorializing my brother exclusively to me, though years hence I would be posthumously grateful to my ex-wife and my father for recording their observations of Jeff and his times. The memoir would not be an easy task; I’d have to write my brother into the ongoing history of the Vietnam antiwar movement even as it was still unfolding. I went through the small archive Jeff had left behind and solicited letters from his friends and professors, but when I sat down to write, to record his days on earth, I couldn’t do it. At least not then.

Just weeks after his death, Nancy and I had had our first child, a little girl; later there’d be a boy named Jeff. The conflicting emotions of unbridled joy and profound sorrow were too much. I filed the memoir project away for another day.

Nancy and Jeff the namesake, 1974

Some years later, my father, a businessman – let’s call him Irving, that was his name – wondered what had become of the memoir of his younger son. He wrote diplomatically asking whether I’d mentioned the idea to him back in ’69, or had he imagined it. If he was right, and of course he was, Irving offered to help. Since I had all of Jeff’s papers, he focused on the times, the context of the ‘60s & ‘70s.

He declared the period a time of ‘great change’ – no surprise there – but then, with a keen eye, Irving riffed a long list of phenomena, some of which he clearly disapproved. He described a time:

                      beset with Vietnam, ecology, riots, drugs, radicals,
                    Joan Baez, human rights, sexual liberation, détente,
                    astronauts, Kent State, Watergate, inflation,
                    unemployment, welfare, disrespect for the law,
                    increased crime of all kinds, more concern for
                    the criminal, less concern for the victims,
                    lackadaisical court systems, and the influx of cults.

and he continued into the international realm, capping his riff with “the challenge of Russia.”

Black sails knifing through the pitchblende night
Away from the radioactive landmass madness

Irving took his self-appointed task seriously, asking rhetorically from what perspective Jeff’s story should be told – perhaps in the 3rd person, possibly the tumultuous times as ‘seen’ through the eyes of a typical high school boy and girl. Or possibly, he thought, I should personalize the account, adding in a few characters for impact. Of one thing however he was quite certain, “Naturally sex will be there as that change in the period is part of the story.”
One part of my father’s letter surprised me. When Jeff was in his prime, in the thick of the international GI protest against the Vietnam War, Irving seemed at best indifferent to his son’s deeply felt cause. Sometimes when he called home, Irving would ask, “Jeff, are you still with those anti groups?” – not quite implying disapproval, but more a concern that his younger son should move on, choose a career path.

Written nearly a decade after Jeff’s death with Vietnam in the rear view mirror, Irving’s letter clearly indicated he had come around on the issue of the war, lamenting the hundreds of thousands of mothers, fathers, and children who would feel the pain a loved one’s loss for “the balance of their lives.” And in the same paragraph, he expressed sadness for the former soldiers who returned home scorned, even reviled, and certainly forgotten, now “living as exiles in a foreign country.” Had Jeff lived, he couldn’t have said it better.

I can see by your coat, my friend,
you're from the other side,
There's just one thing I got to know,
Can you tell me please, who won?†

Then, closing his missive, my father, whom I’d never remembered having strong feelings about politics, turned his full fury on those who had led America into the “holocaust,” as he called Vietnam, concluding with uncommon vehemence that they “should stand trial like those at Nuremburg!”

My ex-, Nancy, who like Jeff would also die much too young, left behind her memories of him in a private remembrance probably written for the desk drawer sometime in the ‘70s, a document I saw only many years later. She sketched Jeff’s life, describing him as “small, dark skinned, muscular, very black thick curly hair,” and then in a series of near poetic strokes:

                      --He had that ancient look of a Persian or Assyrian.
                    --He had a gift for friendship.
                    --His mind was facile, theoretical.
                    --His experience was valuable.

Jeff at Indiana University, 1966

Nancy continued that Jeff had followed me to a Midwestern university, “lived poor, messed up, joined the Army, went to Vietnam,” came back to college, became an SDS leader, and then had moved on to the crowning achievement of his brief life – the creation of Vietnam GI, the immensely influential underground paper that gave impetus to the inchoate GI movement against the war. Jeff’s experience, as Nancy wrote, was “a heavy trip.”

And then with Jeff’s life coming to an end, in a few artful phrases she depicted his demise:

                      He was tired.
                    Did he know something was wrong with him?
                    Don’t know.
                    He was tired.
                    Found out about the cancer in Miami.

Nancy and I had flown down to see him. At the Veterans Administration hospital, she had watched Jeff in the X-ray chamber – a radiation map on his chest, lines and arrows, “zap here for what it’s worth” – while an old redneck waited his turn outside, smoking a Lucky and coughing again and again. Afterward she described a lighter moment, the three of us in the cafeteria laughing. Then we walked outside and the wind caught Jeff’s hospital robe so that it “billowed like an Arab’s caftan, and we laughed some more.”

We flew back north – I had to teach spring term – counting on chemo for Jeff, but cancer moves very fast in young people. Nancy closed, “but nothing worked” as she brought down the curtain on a life which had been like a luminous comet in the night sky – “His dying was awful and was finished on June 16, 1969.”

Link to music video

   Wooden Ships: