Friday, April 13, 2012

Blame who you want, but don’t blame the Vietnam War on the vets. (And the bookies win again)

Thirty years ago, Britain achieved a remarkable victory over Argentina when it successfully deployed ships and troops to the Falkland Islands more than 8,000 away and retook them after they had been invaded and occupied by the Argentines. Whether it could do so again were that lovely woman Cristina Kirchner, Argentine’s president, to decide that the domestic situation is dire enough to warrant a foreign adventure to concentrate Argentinean hearts and minds is another matter and - thank goodness - not the point of this entry. What is most certainly beyond doubt is that Britain’s response might have been a great deal less wholehearted had Labour been in government or even Tories of another stripe.

As it was Mrs Margaret Thatcher was in charge and she was never one to do anything by halves. Whether or not you actually believe retaking the Falklands was actually worth the effort involved to say nothing of the deaths it cost is again not the point of this entry. I happen to believe it was, in as far as Britain, then as now, is still one of the world’s leading nations and has a reputation to protect, and allowing the Argentines to get away with it would have done a great deal of damage diplomatically. So having Maggie in charge was a stroke of luck. Some cynics claim that going to war over the Falklands was also a stroke of luck for Maggie herself. Politically things were not going too well for her at the time as economically things were pretty dire in the country, so not only did the Falklands crisis take away a great deal of attention from the domestic situation, but once it had been concluded successfully, it also earned her a great many very useful brownie points.

Naturally enough, and for a variety of different reasons, some honourable and some most certainly not, not everyone supported the campaign to retake the Falklands, and of those who were opposed, some were employed by the BBC. The BBC, from its inception and throughout its history, has often been accused of being a tad pink round the gills and are only too pleased to oppose when the government of the day is right-of-centre. There were, of course, others in the BBC who, professionals to their fingertips, were keen to ensure the BBC’s coverage of the conflict, initially in the run-up and then the campaign itself, remained studiously neutral. Good for them, I say, but others disagreed and felt that as the country was once again ‘at war’, the BBC should wave the flag as vigorously as possible, if not even more so.

It all came to a head when the current affairs TV programme Panorama broadcast an edition about the crisis simply called Can We Avoid War? That, of course, went down like a lead balloon with the Tories who smelt treachery at every turn. What especially enraged Thatcher at the time was a comment by someone or other in the BBC that it was not the corporation’s role to boost the morale of British troops and that ‘the widow in Portsmouth is no different from the widow of Buenos Aires’. To that I must - and shall always - give three cheers. And that quote brings me rather closer to what this entry is about (although you might already have an inkling from the title of this entry).

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That quote likening the widow in Buenos Aires to the widow in Portsmouth says it all for me. Being half English and half German I was always angry - or, at least, always once I was old and mature enough to understand these things - with the prevalent attitude in the Fifties that, in World War II, for exampe, there were the guys in white hats and the guys in black hats. Most certainly no one in his or her right mind would spend more than half a second defending the Nazis who created the conflict. But to equate each German squaddie fighting on the ground with the party elite seemed to me particularly asinine. Yet that was what many did and still do. But growing up in the Sixties (and living in what was then still West Berlin) I was caught up in the Cold War and its equally moronic monochrome view of the world. We, the West, stood for all that was good, honest and true in life. They, the East were Commie rats who opposed us and were thus, by definition the personification of evil.

I should like to make it very clear as soon as possible that you will never find me breaking a lance for any of the shower in power in any of the Soviet bloc countries, but we now know that the motivation of the West, and especially the United States was anything but pure and principled (unless, of course, you regard it as a matter of principle that we should do anything and everything, ethical or not, to maximise profit. I don’t). In his address to the nation on national television on January 17, 1961, the outgoing U.S. President (and very admirable) Dwight D. Eisenhower was quite explicit about the threat to democracy posed by his country’s growing military-industrial complex, (you can find the text of his speech here and even the most benighted idiot alive would be hard-pushed to persuade anyone that Eisenhower was a commie stooge. As it happened no one seems to have heeded his warning. Most certainly many took it seriously and knew that Eisenhower was no alarmist hootsie-tootsie, but this was in many ways the height of the Cold War and I imagine many would have argue that now wasn’t the time to get to get the problem under control. If only they had.

I think the suspicion that America’s military-industrial complex actively promoted escalating the war in Vietnam is pretty uncontentious these days (but then these days we seem to have overshot the mark rather badly: where once we were naive saps who believed everything, now we are cynical saps who believe nothing). There were enough politicos in Washington who were persuaded that ‘something had to be done and something had to be done now’ to halt the spread of communism and what was called the domino theory so it was not difficult to persuade everyone who needed persuading that South Vietnam needed more U.S. ‘military advisors’ to combat the threat from the North of the country. Later, of course, the figleaf of describing the hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops who were sent out to South-East Asia as ‘military advisors’was dropped completely, but by then America was so entrenched that that was the least of its concerns.

But back to the widow in Buenos Aires and the widow in Portsmouth and how in many ways they are soul sisters. There might not seem an obvious link between them and the grunts fighting the Vietcong, but to me the link is quite obvious: at the end of the day, both widows deserve our sympathy and in a curious, but for me related way, so do the grunts. They didn’t start the war. And although - according to various statistics I dug up once I had decided to write this piece - only a third of the U.S. servicemen and women were actually conscripted (i.e. two-thirds had signed up to serve wherever their country chose to send them), that cannot - to my mind, at least - justify the shit that was figuratively poured over many of them once they had returned home and once the Vietnam War and its perceived evil had become a national shame. That, really, is the point - the only point - of the video I have posted above.

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I should say that from the first time I heard Third World Man by Steely Dan on the Gaucho album I imagined it to be about a Vietnam vet who had been to hell and back and simply lost his marbles. That’s in as far as any Steely Dan song can be ‘about’ anything. Yesterday I decided to scour the net for any images of wounded soldiers serving in Vietnam and any I might find after they had returned home. These are the ones I came up with (or, at least, most of them.) I enjoy putting images to music as I have done for this video and doing so, indulging myself, so to speak, was as much a reason for constructing it as posting it and making a point I have long felt should be made. But earlier on today something odd happened. While editing and constructing it (in Apple’s iMovie), I realised that one of the images I had included was anything but what I thought it was. It is the fifth in the sequence. Look closely: what you’ll see is three U.S. soldiers engaged in water-boarding a prisoner (I assume a Vietcong). So how does that fit in with my purported motive.

I must be honest: these were my thought - look at the image and it is pretty unmistakable as to what is going on. In anyone’s lexicon ‘waterboarding’ is ‘torture’ and that is what these guys are doing. So what was I to do? The obvious thing was simply to remove it, but I decided not to. I decided that whatever the image did actually portray, it did fit in with the other images. In fact, some people might not have spotted what was going on unless I hadn’t alerted them to it as I am doing here. And my second thought was that one get-out clause might be to do what I am doing now: coming clean, alerting the viewer to the fact that one of the images is not what is seems. So that is what I have done.

It did occur to me to add a line suggesting that as war brutalises those who engage in it, in a sense (or, more honestly, ‘in a sense’) these three have become brutalise by a war which was not of their making and so, in a sense (i.e. ‘in a sense’) they are not ultimately responsible. Thus, they were demonstrating what could be regarded as a dramatic truth (‘dramatic truth’).

But that is, of course, complete bullshit. The more astute among you mgiht, however, have noticed that I have, perhaps, pulled off a double bluff: by giving the line of the three being ‘brutalised by war’, but then apparently rejecting it, I have succeeded in giving the line (and possibly gaining from it in some quarters) but then scored a moral point or two in other quarters by rejecting it. Then, of course, there are the super-astute among you who might have noticed that I might even have managed to pull off a triple bluff simply by writing the very paragraph you are now reading and by coming even cleaning underlining my integrity. But as for the super-super-astute - get to fuck.

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But I don’t really want to end this entry on such a flippant note. The end of my video says it all: blame the Vietnam War on whoever you want to blame it one, but give those who had little choice in the matter a break. Don’t blame the vets. It wasn’t their war.

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Well, if there are easier ways to lose your money than by backing a horse, or several horses, in the Grand National, I have yet to hear of it. Laying bets online with Ladbrokes for my family, both close and extended, we are all in total about £60 down because none of us came within a country mile of getting the winner.