It opens with statements from several participants in the Vietnam War -- from captain on down to "private." And it includes statements from relatives, some of the statements endorsing values that now seem curious.
One wife, a beautiful and intelligent woman, describes her marriage to Terry Allen, an Army Lt. Col. in El Paso. There was never any doubt about the war as far as she was concerned. We would go there, whip the enemy and liberate the civilians. She wished her husband would be sent to Vietnam and see combat because it would probably lead to a promotion. Yet, one is a function of his or her milieu. When everybody around you thinks that way, so do you. It's not at all odd except from the perspective of forty-nine years. From that distance, a lot of things we've done seem curious.
Maybe, somewhere along the line, it ought to be mentioned that in 1967 the war was truly warming up and the troops tended to be a few patriots and a lot of draftees, especially those from lesser socioeconomic backgrounds, including minorities. Those who didn't want to go and who had assets could avoid the draft. Going to college earned you a student deferment. A friendly doctor could excuse you for a minor ailment, a sore back, a bone spur, a spell of depression, a Rhodes Scholarship.
By 1967 there were about half a million men in Vietnam and General Westmoreland was being urged by Congress to ask for one hundred thousand more. I should also mention that my remarks here have been influenced by David Halberstam's history, "The Best and the Brightest." This is no place to review the varying strategies used in the war but during this period the general idea was to fight a battle of attrition against the Viet Cong and the NVA. Kill as many as possible. That's when "body counts" became a measure of success. Our leaders wanted pitched battles in which we could deploy our superior technology and boost the body count, but the enemy rarely obliged. We hadn't learned how to fight an asymmetric war. We still haven't. The pressure for more enemy bodies mounted.
Meanwhile, at home, Allen's wife has been watching television news and realizes that something is desperately wrong. She finds her role as a single mother raising three children challenging and questions her goals and those of her absent husband. She begins divorce proceedings. Allen's unit was among those pressured. His predecessor had been fired for not being aggressive enough, which reduced Allen to flying around in a small helicopter urging his men below to start moving faster, while they struggled with full field packs through mud, mangrove, and jungle. Under such pressure, Allen decides on a frontal attack against a fortified position with two companies. The VC have divined his intentions. Allen has 160 men and the enemy has 1,400. The Americans are ambushed, one company nearly wiped out and the other decimated. Allen is shot through the head and dies holding a photo of his three girls.
Back at the ranch, the students at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, are protesting the war and by the hundreds they occupy a large building, sit down, and prepare themselves for arrest. They don't ALL sit down. On the steps are far more students howling and demanding an end to the war. The president of UWM can do nothing to stop it. He calls the police -- mostly working-class men from the other side of the tracks with traditional values -- and requests that the Madison Police Department "clear the building" without saying how. The police believe they know how, and they set about their task.
The two narratives are parallel and both end in defeat, but the media portrays both as victories. In Vietnam, an enemy attack (which was never planned or intended) is stopped by the victorious American First Infantry Division. In Madison, there were agitators brought in to provoke violence among the "long-haired greasy kids". Order is restored and everything is hunky dory as far as the public is concerned, although the participants know better.
I'll have to end this comment, but let me do so with two observations. One is that I attended some anti-war protests on or near the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. Several hundreds students were loosely ringed in by uniformed police. I found the behavior of the students non-productive, even offensive. Ending a pointless war fought by the less well off is one thing. Giving the finger to the police observers and calling them "pigs" to their faces leads nowhere. Powerful social movements are prone to achieving functional autonomy. That is, the original goal is lost sight of and the important thing becomes the power and defiance of the group itself.
Another observation is that whirling around and indiscriminately busting heads with riot batons is no way to clear a room. It's not only unprofessional, it's counter productive. I learned some crowd-control tactics from corrections officers at Chicago's Statesville prison. You don't attack the group willy nilly. You form a coordinated pattern that drives the protesters outside, step by step, using the batons as threats, busting very few heads, if any at all. The natural impulse is to corner the protesters, leaving them no escape because you don't want them to "get away" -- but that completely loses sight of the goal, which is to disperse the crowd, not destroy it. A bit more maturity in the students and a lot more training in the police force could have avoided the bloody encounter entirely.
This is a powerful documentary. We no longer talk much about the Vietnam War. It's fading from our collective consciousness. And it's useful to be reminded once in a while of what can happen if you act without thinking of the consequences.
0 of 0 people found this review helpful.
Was this review helpful to you?