Ha Noi, August 22 2008
Forty years ago I was in Chicago, working at “the Mobe” office, readying for the convention. My friend Kurt Heyl and I had already been arrested a week earlier, making some Bolex shots of the convention center, where in a piece of political hubris they’d decided to build a mini-White House portico at the entrance. In another week the chants of “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh, NLF is going to win” or “Hey Hey LBJ, how many kids you kill today” would echo through the canyons of the Loop, and the acrid bite of tear gas would float in the hot summer air. Far away in Vietnam Americans were writing their names on a dark wall in Washington, and unnumbered Vietnamese were giving their bodies to the fetid tropical soil of their homeland in what they called “The American War.” Little did I imagine 4 decades hence I’d be in Hanoi, a near life-time later, trying in some tiny way to make amends for the horrors my country had visited upon Vietnam, as well as upon itself. Though something in me knew that most likely were I to live so long, America would be doing much the same these forty years later: today my country – with a long list of detours through Grenada, Nicaragua, Lebanon, Guatemala, Chile and other adventures – has occupied Iraq, a country of 23 million but astride a significant pool of oil, and has laid waste in the same heedless manner with which it mangled Vietnam. Then it was Agent Orange, body counts, the Phoenix Program and a litany of other Orwellian military acronyms which hid the ugly truth. Today, having learned their version of the lessons of Vietnam, the cluster of resentful neo-con souls who gather around Richard Cheney, and whose signatures can be found in the documents of The Project for the New American Century, deploy what they imagine to be a smarter variant of the same programs, thinking to impose a Pax Americana on the middle-east, though transparently eying the resources that lie just beneath the surface of the sand – a policy written in the blood of now a million dead Iraqis, 5000 and more Americans (the number obscured by the privatization of warfare executed by the Bush Market-Economy wizards), and running from Azerbaijan to Afghanistan to Venezuela – wherever the oil that is needed to power the American military juggernaut resides. And likewise the landscape is littered with the toxins of American warfare, in this instance the cancer of so-called depleted uranium, settling in for its half-life of a million years, whether in the GIs who dispensed the weapons, or the Iraqi and Afghani terrain which now hosts the residue. The bill is just beginning to come in.
Forty years ago, in a paroxysm of violence, America turned right, electing Richard Nixon, who with Henry Kissinger – still alive and still maneuvering in corpse-like fashion in the underworld of arms and real politick power, ever a fixture at the Bilderberg conferences – dragged out the Vietnam war a few million more deaths, only to leave in an indecent interval, helicopters clattering from the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon as the VC rolled in. By then I was living a hardscrabble life in Montana and working on a film, SPEAKING DIRECTLY (1974-5), which sought in desperation to account for the maelstrom of America in the wake of the 60’s. It sought to explain in some manner the meaning of the sound “Vietnam” to one American, reflecting perhaps many others. Little did I imagine what would unfold in my life, or America’s, or the world in that time. Little did I imagine 4 decades hence I’d be doing a workshop in Hanoi for the Vietnam Film Department, trying to coax a little imagination and creativity from a dozen souls mired in a system in which rote learning is the norm, and exposure to the world is minimal.
August 27. Leaving Hanoi, we spent a few days in Hue, site of a military feint by the North Vietnamese Army back in January 1968, when they carried out an action to keep General Westmoreland distracted while the Tet offensive was prepared. It was one of the major battles of the war, and also site of what today might be called “ethnic cleansing” – the summary execution of governmental officials collaborating with the Americans. Today it is a languid provincial town, with a tourist strip, and the surrounding area offering a pock-marked landscape of bomb craters to remind of the war 40 years ago, with special DMZ tours.
And then we came to Saigon, now named Ho Chi Minh City. It’s a huge place, exploded from the one million of 1965 to eight million inhabitants (in part owing to the fleeing of rural peasants to Saigon during the war), a buzzing mix of tropic 3rd world impoverishment and hyper-capitalism, all cohabiting under the eyes of one of the few remaining Communist Party apparatuses of the world. Across the street from the Revolutionary Museum brand new stores dangle the baubles of Chanel and Gucci, underlining just who actually won the 20th century’s struggle between socialism and capital. Follow the money. Down the street near the Opera House – undergoing restoration – are the classier hotels. Not far away in the jammed streets of District 1, the signs of Sony and Nokia signal the marketplace of ideology in which I-pods and cell-phones have triumphed. The air chokes with the gas and oil fuel of a million motorbikes.
We visited the “War Remnants Museum” – a tawdry collection of American airplanes and tanks, pieces of weaponry from the gas-fed “seismic bomb” to an M-16. They all look terribly archaic and almost toy-like by contemporary standards. The museum, like Viet Nam, is poor – a new building of poorly done concrete, a yard cluttered with “the remnants,” and the staff loitering about in the yard. In one room is a photography exhibition of faded and yellowing images shot by the many journalist photographers who died in Indo-China. The images are searing ones of war and its collateral damage, made more poignant by the fact that the photographers all died in process of providing this witness. Back in the 1960’s and ’70’s these images were widely accessible, to be found in magazines like Life (now defunct), or each night on “the news” (also defunct). Looking at them I was psychologically telescoped to my youth – reminded of the tension and stress of the period, of the passionate response of some Americans to the war in Viet Nam. I was, of course, reminded of my 2 plus years in prison, 1965-67. When I arranged to come to Viet Nam, I had anticipated some kind of psychological upheaval, which I thought surely was one of the reasons for coming – it was something I wanted to touch, to confront in myself, in the raw reality of the place which had had so much impact in my life, as well as many others. In Hanoi and Hue there had only been a little ripple, a vague cloud of guilt, of the inadequacy of my long ago resistance – after all the war had ground on many more years and millions of deaths more. The transparent poverty and relative technological primitiveness of Viet Nam was made utterly clear, making all the more obscene my country’s arrogant behavior, one reflected in the present election where John McCain waves his bloodied flag and his POW status as a defense for all his actions, and it is somehow ignored that what he was doing was participating in a mechanized mass murder imposed on civilians, a vast pillage of a poor underdeveloped country which failed to submit to the imperial wishes of Washington. Adding to the painfulness was the simple fact that some 40 plus years later, my country is doing the same thing once again, now in Iraq. It attacked an embargo-debilitated country of 23 million, half children, waged a high-tech war of alleged “Shock and Awe,” displacing 3 or 4 million from their homes, ravaging the economy and infrastructure, and killed directly or indirectly one million, most of whom were civilians. But this time the images have been suppressed by a corporate media which is in the pocket of the government, or, in Mussolini’s terms, who are part of the fascist structure – the government and the corporations are the same thing, which in the US today is simply the truth, and the mass media are part and parcel of corporate conglomerates which dictate American governmental policy, and hence what “news” is to be. And this time in a clear effort to minimize political risks, the military is kept separate from the body politic, privatized, and there is no selective service. The young can be enraptured by American Idol and the myriad other corporate entertainments and enticements, seduced into a consumer landscape in which personal responsibility is reduced to the obligation to buy, be fashionable, and go into credit-card debt (forever). Iraq? Who cares. All of these are clearly deliberate policies developed over the decades since the 1960’s, policies intended to permit the government to do whatever it wishes, unfettered by any public revulsion or political discord. In the 1960’s there were massive demonstrations; today there are “free speech zones” to provide a fig-leaf of pretend “liberty” in the land of the allegedly brave and the free.
And so in this visit, the anticipated psychological impact arrived in full, mostly courtesy of the faded images of Robert Capa, Dana Stone, Kyoichi Sawada, and the other 130 war reporters killed during the war. Though it had already arrived in the numerous young people in Hue and HCM City, victims now 3 generations later of the use of Agent Orange, cruelly deformed and reduced to begging. Or in the chatter of an alleged former RVN soldier who walked with us on the street, who begs as well, pulling out an English language letter encased in plastic, hand-printed, detailing his past, his visit to America, and a litany of woe, which if true would tally with the treatment which RVN soldiers – collaborators with America – did in fact receive. Or in the irony which seems to pervade the streets of HCM City, where American capitalist triumphalism seems to have won out – if badly timed in light of America’s own collapse, thanks to its run-of-the-mill imperial life-cycle behavior: over-extended, fat, lazy, and sucking its own life and soul out in excessive and mindless military expenditures. On one building a large sign illuminates the phrase “PERFECT USA.” Well, not quite. Instead America is rotted on the inside, corrupted (and not just the government, but across the board), and intellectually and morally rudderless and at sea. The current election offers a quiver of hope, but it is probably far too little far too late.
In the photo exhibit there was a text in which the death of Robert Capa, covering the Indo-China war, in which a Vietnamese doctor inquired if Capa was American. Told yes, he commented, “This is a harsh way for America to learn.” That was in 1952, while the French were (not) holding down the fort. Now almost 70 years later, it seems America has not yet learned.