My old friend Henry, as a young Georgia boy, served in the Vietnam War during the late 1960s, at a time when the fighting was reaching new levels of intensity. Most Americans still did not understand the scope or complexity of the war. They believed that since the United States had never lost a war our cause must always have been righteous. We knew that we had superior military might, and we were confident that we could dispose of the war quickly.
But the enemy’s strength, skill, and determination demonstrated by the 1968 Tet Offensive– which almost drove American troops back into the sea– changed all that. The military brass continued to give upbeat assurances about our military progress– based on measures like the body count of enemy soldiers killed– and Lyndon Johnson began escalating America’s involvement in the war. But the faith of the public in the war was beginning to erode.
Henry was there for all of it, and he observed what happened through the keen eyes of a highly intelligent Georgia youth. I’ve talked with him several times about his experiences, and I have found that he has distilled his memories into a collection of striking images.
He told me he served on a firebase in one of the most hotly contested areas of combat. He was smart kid, and capable with mathematics, so he was deployed as a forward artillery spotter, directing fire from his unit onto enemy positions.
The firebase took heavy shelling day and night. It was often a deadly place. The shelling would begin without warning and drive the soldiers back into their deeply dug earthen bunkers. Life in the bunkers under constant threat was dispiriting, so Henry’s commanding officers took steps to strengthen the welfare and morale of their men. They would plan recreational activities when there was an opportunity, sometimes helicoptering in cases of beer to allow everyone a precious hour or two to party around the bunkers. But sometimes, Henry says, the officers’ well-intended efforts led to surreal results.
Henry describes how one night, to lighten the soldiers’ mood and remind them of what they were fighting for, the officers brought in a movie to show at the camp. The movie was “The Green Berets,” a movie in which John Wayne, as a courageous Green Beret, educates a skeptical and cowardly reporter about how great and just the American cause in Vietnam is.
As the movie played that night, Henry and his buddies sat in the dirt smoking cigarettes and looking up at the screen where John Wayne was leading his heroic men into battle, and then delivering jingoistic speeches to the reporter.
Suddenly, amidst the sounds of the movie, there was a deafening explosion, and somebody yelled, “Incoming!” As shells began to fall on the camp, the men ran to their bunkers and dived in for safety. In the rush and confusion to reach the bunkers, though, no one thought to stop the movie. As the shelling continued, Henry says, so did John Wayne. After a while, though, even with shells still falling, the men began crawling back up to the edges of their bunkers to continue watching the mayhem on the screen. Henry smiled at the irony.
Henry had his metaphor: it would have been poetically just if a shell had struck and destroyed the screen, revealing that the way Americans understood the war was make-believe. The American public had no real understanding of what it meant to be shelled. They didn’t understand the grinding, soul-sapping fear soldiers had of a sudden and unexpected death. And they did not know the horror of seeing what happens to a fellow soldier’s body when he is blown apart by a falling shell.
No, they saw the war as John Wayne portrayed it. The war was a heroic American film to them. But it was all make-believe.
The shells didn’t destroy the screen that night. And the movie, like the endless war, continued to unspool as mindless make-believe until the end.