A Tiny Girl with Paratroopers’ Wings

That’s the title of an editor’s note from a February 1968 issue of Life Magazine. I heard about it on a recent episode of On The Media (link below).

Before the Vietnam War there was a law that banned women from reporting on the frontlines of any war for the U.S. When President Johnson refused to officially declare a state of war in Vietnam, an opening appeared: no war, no ban. A handful of pioneering women bought one-way tickets into the battlefield. They had no editors, no health insurance and little or no formal training. This week, Brooke spoke about this time to reporter Elizabeth Becker, formerly a Washington Post war correspondent in Cambodia, NPR’s foreign editor and then national security correspondent for the New York Times. Becker is the author of a new book: You Don’t Belong Here: How Three Women Rewrote the Story of War.

“You Don’t Belong Here” | On the Media | WNYC Studios

While the profiles of all three women were impressive and fascinating, I was struck by the story of Catherine Leroy. The lines that grabbed my attention are below:

Brooke: The photographs that she took were legendary. Of course, later tremendously celebrated. You mentioned in passing, she was a parachutist, she was the first photojournalist to take photos from the air.

Elizabeth: She was the first and only because that was the first and only airborne assault of the whole Vietnam War. She was the only one in Vietnam at the time who was even qualified. You can imagine this teeny woman jumping with these big American airborne helmet, boots, she jumps and she’s got three cameras around her neck and you’d think one of them would have flown in her face but no, she managed to get gorgeous photographs that they almost look like ballet. Then, she lands in a combat zone. I get shivers when I think about it.

There’s also this retrospective from the New York Times: The Greatest War Photographer You’ve Never Heard Of.

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Book Review: Hearts, Minds, and Coffee

About a month ago I was sent a book called Hearts, Minds, and Coffee: A Vietnam Peace Odyssey. It is the first novel by Kent Hinckley, a veteran who served in Military Intelligence for a year in Vietnam. In the book, Mr. Hinkckley slipped in a note with the following:

I judge by the address that you are stationed in Afghanistan. I’m sorry to hear that and hope we can bring our troops home. What a difficult situation.

If you have any questions, please let me know. Thank you for your service.

All the best,
Kent Hinckley

The younger me would have been offended by that sentiment. Shortly after coming home from Iraq, I remember hearing statements like that from lots of people I met. I didn’t like it. I was proud of my service, and it was hard for me to understand how someone could feel “sorry” for me or the situation and still be thankful for my military service. I just couldn’t compute it, and I am sure many readers of this blog probably still feel the same way.

Over the years, however, I’ve come to understand that war and military service are subject that generate deep emotional feelings, and none of them are more right than the other.

The book follows the tale of a young officer “Slater” who joins ROTC to help pay for college, despite his anti-war leanings. The story takes him from his days as a farmhand in Iowa, his time at Officer Candidate School under the strict tutelage of Captain Gray, and then to Vietnam. Slater is pegged early in his military career as being a trouble-maker and anti-war. When he gets to Vietnam, he is given an austere and dangerous assignment with Special Forces, despite him being branched Adjutant General. For military readers, this is one drop in a bucket of seemingly incredulous things (blanks being fired without blank adapters, the wearing of an NVA ribbon on the dress uniform, etc.) that might drive by-the-book military types nuts.

The book flows well and is engaging. The characters that Slater interacts with – especially in Vietnam – reminded me a lot of the guys in “Bravo Squad” in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Hinkley manages to paint the reader a vivid image of what it must have been like to be in the mind of an anti-war military officer in Vietnam, focusing often on the inner-monologue of Slater and his thought process. The situations that Slater finds himself in border on the ridiculous, which led me to think that if this were to be made into a movie, it might be a comedy. Hinckley even named two staff officers Major’s Laurel and Hardy after the comedians. The two intercede the narrative occasionally to update the situation, often with information the reader knows to be false.

In Vietnam, Slater sets out to make sure he and his team make it out of Vietnam alive. Without spoiling the book, the team goes to pretty extreme lengths to ensure they are “at peace.” It’s a wild story, and the reader wonders how much of it is fiction and how much of it is inspired by true events – and if it could have even happened at all.

There’s a “forbidden love” story embedded as well, which felt a bit forced and obvious at times.

For me, the most powerful part of the story came at the end, in what at first felt like a tacked-on epilogue following Slater and his team on their return to America and eventually the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC. Sitting in my room in Afghanistan, I couldn’t help getting a little choked up as I followed Slater’s eventual pilgrimage to The Wall, something he avoided for years.

Overall, the book is an interesting look into a rare genre – the anti-war military man. Slater is a character who did not believe in the Vietnam war, but went anyway. Once there, he did everything he could in his power to “make peace.” The usual depiction of the anti-war soldier is one of indiscipline – the pot-smoking draftee or the deserter. In this case, Slater and his team are actually pretty efficient, despite being anti-war.

While there may be more “Slaters” out there, this is the first I’ve read about the anti-war military man who still managed to work through the system. The author writes in the notes at the end that this is a story that needs to be told. I’m sure there were many who went to Vietnam who didn’t believe in the war but felt that it was their duty to serve as they were called.

Check it out if you’re interested. Thanks for sending the book, Mr. Hinckley!

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Tom Finton Vietnam

fmj-born-to-kill

Week ending March 2, 2014

I didn’t do a search term of the week last week because it was just the usual suspects. This week, the term was Tom Finton Vietnam. I had no idea what this was in reference to. I’ve written a number of posts orbiting Vietnam but the name Tom Finton didn’t mean anything to me.

After searching around my blog, I found a comment referencing Tom Finton on my post titled Conscientious Objection and the Moral Responsibility of Volunteer Soldiers. A little more searching and I learned that he wrote a book titled “The Folks Back Home Won’t Believe This.” Tom Finton didn’t agree with the Vietnam War and the book chronicles his service in the Army and in Vietnam. I haven’t read it, but it does seem interesting.

Here’s how he opens the book:

On the rear bumper of my ZX3 I have a 10- by 3- inch Vietnam campaign ribbon sticker. On the left rear side window I have a peace sticker. I put both stickers on the car when Bush went to war after 9/11. Occasionally someone will recognize the campaign ribbon and comment as if we have a symbiotic patriotic bond. When that happens I just nod politely and go on my way. But one day a woman who appeared to be in her mid-40s spoke to me in the grocery parking lot. She had seen both stickers and it piqued her curiosity. “I was in the Army,” she said, “Don’t you think it contradictory to display both stickers?”

As a former Concerned Officer Against the War in Vietnam I responded, “Not at all.” She didn’t stop to talk. Her bemused smile turned to a disapproving scowl as she walked past me.

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Vietnam Draftees

PL and RTO

Week ending February 2, 2014

The top search of the week was ‘vietnam draftees.’ I actually have no idea which post this search term led to, as I’ve never really written about Vietnam draftees. I’ve written quite a few posts referencing Vietnam though – a war I become more and more interested in as time passes. Growing up, I knew quite a few Vietnam veterans who were friends with my dad. They were young and building their lives. Even then, as a child, I knew them as “my dad’s friend, the Vietnam veteran.” That’s how he was identified. That’s how I – as a child – identified those grown men.

Here are the posts I’ve written that I’ve tagged ‘vietnam’:

Book Reviews: The Things They Carried and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Grunt lingo: “There it is” (Vietnam)

Book Review: The Short-Timers

The Black Magic of the Infantry

Jacob’s Ladder and the need for “serious talk” for veterans

Don Draper on war, youth, and military service

Not my Vietnam (~July, 2003)

The Command Sergeant Major’s Nightmare

There It Is Vietnam

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There It Is Vietnam

Week ending January 26, 2014

There was actually a bunch of ties for top search of the week. ‘Ranger concierge’ and ‘ranger concierge services’ were tied with ‘infidel’ and ‘Iraq’. At the top of it all was ‘there it is Vietnam’.

A little over a year ago I started reading a bunch of books and articles about the Vietnam War and one of the things I kept picking up on was the language. Soldiers in Vietnam had a unique lingo that has pretty much disappeared. It seemed hip and relevant.

One of the phrases I saw over and over again was “There it is.” That phrase was often used as a way to validate the entire experience of the war in a single moment or event. You come in from patrol and find out the chow hall was destroyed in a mortar attack. There it is. Your new platoon leader gets killed in a helicopter crash before even getting to his platoon. There it is, man.

I wrote a post on the phrase linking to another blogger who served in Vietnam who was able to explain its use way better than I could.

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The Command Sergeant Major’s Nightmare

Patrol Base Diamond II in Vietnam, 1969 - Archive Photo of the Day - Stripes

I saw this picture in Stars and Stripes (online) and kept it open in my browser for a few days. I kept coming back to it. It’s one of those “cool” war pictures that came out of Vietnam – the sunglasses, cigar, ammunition around the neck and machine gun hanging over the shoulder. He even has a dust brush in his helmet band. “Fuck it,” he’s saying, “I’ll do it.”

It looks cool, but it’s a Command Sergeant Major’s nightmare.

Back in OCS, a well-respected CSM was speaking to the class shortly before we graduated, instilling us with his parting words. He wanted to talk about standards and discipline – surprise! The movie ‘Restrepo’ and its companion, the book ‘War’ by Sebastian Junger had recently come out and he wanted to use these to paint his words.

He couldn’t remember the author’s name, but was pretty sure it was Sebastian Bach.

I remember sitting there in the front row, biting the inside of my lip to keep from laughing. There was something about the forcefulness of him saying again and again that it was Sebastian Bach that got to the absurdity of it all.

Anyway, he said he was able to stomach Restrepo and enjoyed it, but couldn’t finish War because he kept wanting to throw the book across the room because of all of the glaring discipline infractions he kept reading about.

He then went into a story about meeting a fresh 2LT outside of a dusty chow hall in Afghanistan. As the 2LT approached, the CSM gave him the usual once-over, checking out his uniform and appearance.

“He had these boots,” the CSM recalled, “that looked odd. And as he got closer, I could see that they weren’t Army issue boots at all, or even a pair of authorized aftermarket boots. They were some fancy brand of boots, that had been spray painted tan to make them look passable.”

The CSM went on to talk about why shaving is professional, rebutting the thoughts in some of our heads “but special forces!” by telling us we’re not in Special Forces.

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Don Draper on war, youth, and military service

Don Draper Inferno

A couple of weeks ago, Don and Arnold sat down to discuss Arnold’s son’s predicament. He was avoiding the draft. The Vietnam War has been the background song of this past season, and I found myself enthralled by this conversation between Arnold and Don, talking about war, youth, and soldiering, topics I’ve been thinking a lot about lately.

Arnold: It doesn’t matter if he goes to school, he’s 1A, his induction can be tomorrow, he’s on a damn list for the rest of his life.
Don: On some level you have to admire his idealism.
Arnold: You sound like Sylvia. But she doesn’t really buy his bullshit. You think she’s gonna let her baby rot in jail for a cause?

<sigh>

I don’t know what to do. What would you do?

Don: What I’d do with my kid? Or if it was me?
Arnold: You were in the service right?
Don: I was.
Arnold: You see action?

Long pause.

Don: It was very different. I wanted to go. I did when I got there.
Arnold: That’s the trick. Kid’s 18, 19 years old they have no sense of their own mortality.
Don: Or anyone else’s. That’s why they make good soldiers.
Arnold: Well the Army paid for Med School. I served in a hospital in Pusan.
Don: We were very lucky.
Arnold: Lucky enough to live in this country. And service is a part of that bargain, sacrifice. We knew that.
Don: The war is wrong.
Arnold: I’ll tell you if there’s anyone that’s going to get it it’s going to be him. He’s soft.
Don: I’m sure he’s a good kid.
Arnold: The best.

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Jacob’s Ladder and the need for “serious talk” for veterans

I watched Jacob’s Ladder last night. I saw it once when I was a kid, probably around ten years old. My parents had HBO and it was on one day. It was a sleepy Saturday afternoon and I had control of the television and it was rated R. I remember being chilled to the bone when I saw it then and I was surprised by how much of it stayed with me some twenty years later. It all felt very familiar.

It’s a great movie and before its time. Seeing it now, as a veteran, it gripped me in a way it didn’t – it couldn’t – the first time. The movie is still terrifying, but less so because of the psychological/horror aspect of it and more because of the similarities some veterans face on homecoming.

The scene above (not in its entirety, unfortunately) [Don: 2020 – video no longer available] was especially powerful for me. Here are two Vietnam veterans in New York City who haven’t heard from each other in years. One calls the other and pleads, saying he has to speak to him. Without question, they meet at a bar. They speak in whispered tones, and admit to each other that they are both being chased by demons that others can’t see. Worse, they can’t talk to anyone about it, because no one else understands.

But they understand.

You can sense the relief they feel, just knowing there is someone else out there that gets it.

It reminds me of one of the key findings from my research, that many veterans need “serious talk” in order to successfully transition from military service.

There’s another scene – of which I can’t find the clip – that demonstrates this perfectly. The group of vets are together at the funeral of a buddy and Jacob begins to talk about the demons. Most of the veterans pause and look up at him, wanting him to say more, to confirm that what they’re facing is real. One of them nervously makes a dick joke, not wanting to deal with it. None of them find it funny. The time for jokes and war stories has passed. These are older men now, out of Vietnam and trying to get on with their lives but still haunted by demons from the jungle. They want to get better and figure out. They want to move on.

I don’t want to spoil the movie for those who haven’t seen it – so if you want to call me out on some major plot points, don’t bother – I know.

For a movie that really isn’t about war or homecoming, it manages to capture both of those things in a way most movies don’t. There are some stereotypical Vietnam images in the film, but nothing that stood out as offensive.

Sometimes fiction speaks the truth better than the truth.

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Book Review: The Short-Timers

We are approaching the ten year anniversary of the start of the Iraq War. I am participating in a project called the Iraq War Reading Pledge. The pledge is to read a memoir about the war by someone who was there, a soldier, a journalist, an Iraqi citizen, between February 1st and March 20th.

You can follow the pledge here. Good luck!

timers2

Like all my book reviews, this isn’t really a book review. It’s more of a reaction.

After finishing Love My Rifle More Than You, I wanted to take a short break from war books. They can be draining. Unfortunately, I came across this blog post (by way of The Fighting Leprechaun) that argues Stanley Kubrick messed up the movie Full Metal Jacket (one of my favorites) by not sticking to some of the original plotlines in the novel it is based on, The Short-Timers. Mistakenly, I always thought that FMJ was based on Michael Herr’s Dispatches – it turns out that was Apocalypse Now.

As you can see, it all gets pretty confusing.

As a big fan of FMJ, I set out to read The Short-Timers and it totally sucked me in. Lots of the dialogue in FMJ is lifted right off the pages of The Short-Timers, and it was interesting to read the book with the images I already had of Joker, Cowboy, GySgt Gernheim, and Animal Mother in my head. In some cases this made the dialogue jump out at me, since I could hear Joker imitating John Wayne in a way I wouldn’t be able to if I was just reading the novel for the first time. But it also handicapped me in other ways. I loved Animal Mother in FMJ as a necessary evil. The guy you need in your squad, despite wanting to admit it. The “you need me on that wall” guy. In The Short-Timers, Animal Mother is hardly likable at all. He’s still a bad-ass, but he is a war criminal and a menace.

I’ve read a number of Vietnam books recently, and a lot of them were good. This book, however, really made me hate war. It was graphic and probably hyperbolic (it is a semi-autobiographical novel, after all). I found myself uncomfortable and disgusted reading it, but not able to stop.

Figuring that I was going to write a reaction blog to the book, I started to highlight a couple of passages that stuck out to me, because they were either similar to modern experiences or the opposite.

This is Cowboy talking to Joker about how the war is fucked up and why he can’t risk any more marines to try to take out a sniper that has already killed some of the squad. The whole dialogue is interesting, plus there’s the feeling of betrayal for not being able to hoist the American flag, something that was experienced in GWOT as well.

 Cowboy spits, his face a sweaty stone. “After the NVA pulled out, the lifers sent in the Arvin Black Panthers to take the Forbidden City. Shit. Nothing left but rearguard squads. We stomped the NVA and they stomped us and the lifers send in the Arvins, like the goddamn Arvins did it. Mr. Shortround said it was their country, said we was only helping out, said it would boost the morale of the Vietnamese people. Well, fuck the Vietnamese people. The horrible hogs in hard, hungry Hotel Company ran up an America flag. Like an Iwo Jima. But some poge officers ordered them to take it down. The snuffies had to run up the stinking Vietnamese flag, which is yellow, which is the right color for these chickenshit people. We’re getting slaughtered in this city. And we can’t even run up a fucking flag. I just can’t hack this shit, bro. My job is to get my people back to the World in one piece.” Cowboy coughs, spits, wipes his nose with the back of his hand. “Under fire, these are the best human beings in the world. All they need is for somebody to throw hand grenades at them for the rest of their lives… These guys depend on me. I can’t send my people out to get that sniper, Joker. I might lose the whole squad.”

Clearing roads for mines/IEDs. Not a new thing.

 I was writing a feature article about how the grunts at the Rock pile on Route Nine had to sweep the road for mines every morning before any traffic could use the road.

Probably one of my favorite lines from the book. This line is a part of a long stream of consciousness explanation of how Joker sees himself as part of the machine, his place in the war.

In the darkness I am one with Khe Sahn – a living cell of this place – this erupted pimple of sandbags and barbed wire on a bleak plateau surrounded by the end of the world.

I find myself fascinated more and more with Vietnam not because it seems familiar – which it does at times – but how completely foreign the experience seems from my own. It’s something I’ll need to write about later.

After finishing The Short-Timers, I came across a couple of related and interesting articles. Gustav Hasford, the author of the novel, died in 1993. Someone runs a blog in his honor that runs pieces by or about him from time to time. The lead was this one, titled VIETNAM MEANS NEVER HAVING TO SAY YOU’RE SORRY. It’s a railing against Hollywood and especially the depiction of Vietnam veterans a lĂĄ Rambo. It’s fantastic.

Then, while searching for the etymology of the phrase “Is that you John Wayne? Is this me?” which was used in both the movie and the book, I came across this scholarly article about myth and myth making in America from WWII through Vietnam. It’s really fascinating. John Wayne was the hero that simultaneously made war palpable to the Vietnam generation but was rejected when the reality of war – and homecoming – became apparent.

Who is the John Wayne of our generation?

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Grunt lingo: “There it is” (Vietnam)

There it is.
There it is.  (pic from the blog “We’re Just Sayin”)

Over the past few months, I’ve read a number of books about Vietnam. I’m currently reading The Short-Timers which is the book that Full Metal Jacket is based off of (along with Michael Herr’s Dispatches). I’ve come across the phrase “there it is” numerous times and for the most part just glossed over it. Eventually, I realized that it was part of the lingo, but a phrase that has completely fallen out of favor. I’ve never heard any service member or veteran say the phrase. So I started Googling and this is what I came up with.

From Urban Dictionary:

English phrase, the literal meaning of which is obvious.In American English, the phrase is commonly associated with American servicemen in Vietnam, and to a lesser extent, with American veterans of the Vietnam War. The particular usage of American servicemen varied wildly. While the phrase could be used literally, it was often used in a figurative, and decidedly fatalistic, sense. The meaning was usually something along the lines of, “I cannot put into words what I mean, but this situation/scene/event/dead body/etc contains all the truth necessary to understand precisely what I mean, if you can only see it through the right eyes. I don’t know how to express that truth or I do know the right words but it would be too painful for me to actually express them.”

The phrase was the most common example of “grunt lingo” and was repeated ad nauseum.

There it is, they’d say, over and over, as if the repetition itself were an act of poise, a balance between crazy and almost crazy, knowing without going. There it is, which meant be cool, let it ride, because oh yeah, man, you can’t change what can’t be changed, there it is, there it absolutely and positively and fucking well is.

Better, is this blog post I found from the blog “We’re Just Sayin.”

“There it is
.” There is what? you ask. And just where IS ‘there?’ Well no sense in trying to read too much into it. “There it is
” said with a flat tone, mildly strong emphasis building up to “is” was the one lingua franca which all GIs shared. Well, officers, not so much. But if you were under the age of 25, had been drafted, and didn’t particularly want to BE in Vietnam, “there it is” was your key to sanity. The three words which let you express your profound emotional mĂ©lange of disgust, annoyance, fear, despair, surprise, acceptance, satisfaction, and occasionally contentment. Once I arrived in Saigon in October, 1970 and began a two year interaction with the world the American GI, it was a phrase which meant so little, yet so much. You could almost say that it meant whatever you wanted it to mean, and be interpreted almost any way. It often just served as a coda in conversation. It was the comment which had the force of finality in a discussion where soldiers were otherwise unable to explain something. “There it is
” was a way of just saying, ‘yeah, that’s how it is here, and this is how we have to deal with it.’ What has always surprised me is that once back home, the phrase seemed to disappear. The context for its usage was gone. Without the very personal, very weird, perplexing, illogical elements of the war lived first hand, it seemed to no longer have a proper context.

Maybe I’m out of touch, but I can’t think of a comparable line that we have in the Army today that has the same resonance.

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