MEMORIAL DAY 2011: ORDINARY PEOPLE IN EXTRAORDINARY TIMES
"How do you fucking pussies do it?"
When I was I kid (and many say I still am), Memorial Day was the day that I put on my Boy Scout uniform, joined the rest of the troop and went to march in the local parade together with all of the veterans wearing their dusty uniforms and medals, local reservists wearing their crispy uniforms, various high school bands and charity organizations. We would all March down our local "Main Street" to an American legion outpost and lay a wreath in honor of all the brave souls lost in foreign wars.
Later we would all go home to have our tasty barbecues.
I was never enlisted in the military and the sophistication of my views of war has evolved over the years. But one thing remains constant for me. I was one of the many lucky ones who did not have to go to Vietnam.
Consequently, my concept of what it was like for those who did have to go consists primarily of Life Magazine and TV images, books and movie scenes. I have also been to Hanoi and looked at what is in the war museums there.
I have known many Vietnam vets over the years. Some were clearly scarred and struggling to reacquire "normality." Others you would never guess until they would mention it in passing.
In every instance it was impossible to try to grasp what it was like.
Now I have no intention of turning out a political statement here and I would appreciate it if everyone reading this would recognize as much.
What I am presenting is a very unique opportunity for everyone to literally see what a member of our community saw when he lived through the experience. I am speaking of Aristarchan.
I few weeks back Ari tweet/published a batch of scanned photos that he took during his service in the US Army and deployment to Vietnam.
As many of you know, street photography is one of my avid pursuits. In street photography, you spend hours hoping you will stumble across what the great photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson called: the "decisive moment."
My way of gauging the "decisive" nature of a photograph is the innate ability to put the viewer in a trance. A state of wonderment and captive attention.
I looked at Ari's photos and was immediately entranced. These were not just war snap shots. These were a slew of "decisive moments" captured by the eye of an ordinary enlisted man on the streets of war. They were also not taken with any kind of agenda or profit motive.
You look at the photos and contemplate, what the experience was like for one of many "average Joes" put in the uncommon situation that is war.
Enough said by me.
I asked Ari to pick a few images I could post on Memorial Day and scribble a few words to go with them. I told him that I did not want to publish a political statement on Memorial Day and preferred to avoid any graphic content. With regard to the latter, I just feel there is plenty already out there and it has a voyeuristic tendency to visually hijack the viewers attention from the subtler human dimension I am referring to.
Here they are...
The one true line I remember from Apocalypse Now was: never get off the Goddamn boat. But, it was our job. At first, one took things in graded degrees of exposure. One, leaving base....that is a little risky, since you are going into Indian country. Two, heading down a river...very risky, since you are essentially a sitting duck. Three, getting off the Goddamn boat. There, you are on your own. Calling in an air strike on a position in heavy jungle was almost as risky as engaging the enemy, since accuracy was not something you could count on. A lot of guys (me included), leaving that little slice of home - the ramp, would sit down in the water and relieve their boiling bowels. In that position, war is not heroic. This is 1968, in a Bassack River tributary. [@Aristarchan]
Willie, you have seen this pic before. This is the eyes of a man who has learned to enjoy killing. He was an ear taker. This pic was taken in the U-Minh Forest. I guess some people can get so into what they are doing, they lose control of what makes them human. The eyes never lie. I avoided people like this like the plague unless in a firefight. In base, they were crazy, looking for fights and abusive and violent. In the field - in a firefight - they were good. Even insanity has it's uses.
Ok Bill, here is the first ( the messed up one). It was taken on December 4th, 1969 in Dinh Tuong Province. We were on S&D, and came up against the 502 battalion of the NVA. This pic was taken as we assaulted a bunker complex at the apex of a series of canals making up the Rach Ruong. This guy we called "hide skinner." He was under heavy machine gun fire from a bunker. I had just rolled off the boat and crawled through the mud toward the main canal, and I was lying in an intersecting canal with my head just above water trying to avoid the snap and whine of bullets overhead, and snapped this pic as he looked at me. Later, another battalion of Army, and one from the Marines joined us, along with helicopter gunships. It was one hell of a fray. I have never been so fucking scared in my life.
Yeah, snakes were a part of things, but not that much. Some guys were scared to death of them - feared them more that the VC. And, a lot of guys got bit. Most snakes would move on if you let them, but crawling under a low canopy in a muddy canal at night...it did cross your mind. I hated the tree vipers that would hang down from the limbs at night. This is Roy McDow, who found this Python curled up in his bunk. It is still alive.
Chris Noel entertaining the troops. This was in Dong Tam in 1969. She was one of the most prevalent entertainers of the era, spending a lot - too much - time in Vietnam. Later, she was hospitalized for what is now called, PTSD. She was one brave lady, and I always admired her for going to places a lot of other folks would not. And, she stuck with us when it seemed everyone else had abandoned us as baby-killing monsters.
Thanks, Bill. An FYI, "Hide Skinner" got killed two months later in the U-Minh Forest. He walked through a gate with a wired grenade on it ( he fucking should have known better), and it blew his mid-section out. He bled to death while medics tried to grab hold of the artery in his abdomen and shut off the blood flow. The whole time he screamed for his mother. A tough killer reduced to a dying child. I was reduced to lying down inside the treeline crying.
This pic was taken - I think, in late 1968 in the Delta. The point man, Waverly Grearson, had fallen into a Tiger Trap - a boobytrap. In the bottom of it was bamboo sticks sharpened to points. When we pulled him out, he had one ft. stakes driven through his boots and into his feet and legs. He died three weeks later from tetanus. The VC would dip these things in cow piss and dung. I snapped this pic running back to where it happened. I was on trail, so missed what happened.
This pic tells a lot about the war in Vietnam. Helicopters, red clay, dust, bush, scared men, weapons and constant movement. The sound of a helicopter today - in a movie or in reality, puts my head on a swivel. What a lot of war movies miss, even the ones who try to portray war in a frail-human light, is the constant, low-level, subconscious terror when one one is not in battle....but sitting back at camp, or on leave, knowing you have to go back. It gnaws on you like going back to the dentist every day and having the same tooth drilled on...day after day. A Navy SEAL once told me, on a boat in the Bassack: "I have a lot of respect for you Army guys, you have no training or inclination for this war, you walk through the bush talking, smoking, farting, coughing and thinking about home. You are constantly terrified. We, on the other hand, consider this our life. It is normal. How do you fucking pussies do it?"
[WB7: I want to mention that Ari sent me two other photos that I decided not to post for the reasons I state above. One is a picture of a Vietnamese soldier with his head blown off and the other is a "body count" score board with Ari's reflections on the official rules of engagement.
With regard to the "pussy" observation, I have one minor anecdote to add. When I was at the National War Museum in Hanoi, which is really a celebration of Vietnamese victory over the American imperialists, I was struck by two things. First, how much the Vietnamese like Americans. Second, I had a brief conversation with one of the curators who was also a war veteran. One of the things he said was he bears no grudge against the enlisted men he fought. It was their country and so they knew very well what kind of hell it is to live and fight in their jungles and swamps. He said they were ceaselessly amazed at how much of that shit the "pampered" Americans could handle.
Thank you Ari for sharing these images and thoughts.
Let us all remember the personal sacrifices and struggles made by all ordinary men and women in the extraordinary experience that is war.
Happy Memorial Day 2011