Tomorrow at 6:30pm we’ll be screening Thanh’s War, the fourth in the series Cinema of the Vietnam War we’ve been co-hosting with Brooklyn For Peace. Moss Roberts, Professor of East Asian Studies at NYU will be leading the discussion following the film.
Last Thursday, we screened Sir, No Sir, the second film in the Cinema of the Vietnam War series we are co-presenting with Brooklyn For Peace. It’s an award-winning documentary about anti-war activism within the military, including underground GI newspapers, the coffeehouse movement, and some high-profile cases of resistance such as Dr. Howard Levy’s.
We were lucky to have Dr. Levy himself leading a discussion following the film. A dermotologist, Dr. Levy was drafted in 1965 and assigned to instruct Green Berets in some simple medicine that they could use in Vietnam to “win hearts and minds” while they continued to bomb the country. Dr. Levy believed this was unethical use of medicine and therefore refused to continue training Green Berets – a decision for which he was court marshalled and spent three years in prison.
Several people in the audience said that seeing coverage of Dr. Levy’s case on television in the early 60s was a defining moment in their decision to take action in opposing the Vietnam War.
The discussion inevitably lead to comparisons between the anti-war movement then and now, some inspiring, some disheartening. Did we learn anything from those earlier movements? Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) certainly did: following one of the strategies of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, IVAW held Winter Soldier hearings this past March and you can watch their testimony online here.
As someone who works with oral histories, I was particularly interested in one part of the documentary where sociologist Jerry Lembcke basically debunks a story we’ve all heard in symbolizing one of the major problems of the anti-Vietnam War movement: a GI returning home from Vietnam in uniform gets spit on and called “baby killer” by a young hippie woman. Many veterans describe simliar experiences, but according to Lembcke, it’s unlikely that ever happened. Memory is so interesting: what’s emotionally true versus what’s physically experienced; I’m curious to read more in his book The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam.
Incedently, there’s a great series of photographs of U.S. military who have served Iraq and Afghanistan in this week’s New Yorker by Platon: Service.
What a cultural artifact! One of the Vietnam veterans in the audience said it was like a 2.5 hour long recruitment movie, and that’s a good description. Marilyn Young, author of The Vietnam Wars who lead a discussion with the audience, noted that John Wayne actually got permission from President Johnson to make the film on a military base in Georgia. They were given access to all kinds of military equipment – and that was actually the most interesting part for me, having heard many personal stories about Vietnam I was finally able to see what a claymore mine looks like (bigger than I thought) and get a better sense of helicopter travel (although much disbelief must be suspended to believe that Georgian woods are Southeast Asian jungle).
The pro-war film was a box office hit (in 1968!), which makes it even more disturbing to watch John Wayne’s iconic, macho, and irresponsible response to death: a brief drop of his eyebrows, and then he’s over it. One particularly saccharine and out-of-touch moment I noticed was a soldier wearing his green beret over the gauze wrapping a headwound he suffered during a mortar attack; a tight, sweaty wool beret over clean bandages? Suffice to say, the Communist Threat was as alive and well in John Wayne’s imagination in 1968 as it was in Joseph McCarthy’s in 1950 – and we can all feel confident that U.S. will win the war as we watch the amber sun setting beautifully over the Pacific Ocean which, by the way, is on the eastern coast of Vietnam.
The film is such an anachronism, even for 1968, I won’t even bother to go into how they depict women who put themselves at physical risk for their country.