Day 16 Fall 2002  October 22, 2002


1. Names. Exams back. There was a range, of course, but overall I thought they were good; average was almost 85.


Coming events: we’ll start War Memorials Thursday; three days on it, so read at least through page 70, the first four chapters. A and B responses due Thursday. Next Tuesday Juhnke will be here with us for part of the period; I’d like to break at about 10:10 when he needs to go to a reception, and ask everyone to attend his Forum lecture unless you have some unbreakable commitment elsewhere.


No reading for that day; I’d just ask everybody to write down two or three questions that you would like to ask him. I thought I’d ask him to talk for a few minutes about Missing Peace, how it’s been received and so forth, then just take questions and have some discussion.

2. Today, our subject is Vietnam, at least what Vietnam means for the US, which is of course quite another thing than what it means for Vietnamese.

Start with some general feedback on Platoon. What did you think? It’s very close to the ground, very much about the experience of combat there. I want to also step back and talk about wider issues, but let’s start with the close in ones.

What are the realities of war, here? No fixed battle lines, night missions out into jungle, villages where it’s not at all clear who’s on which side, the near-massacre that results, ambushes and booby traps, tunnel complexes.

The soldiers: mostly young, heavily skewed towards poor and people of color. Drugs and alcohol. Division between “heads” and drinkers. Ineffectual lieutenant. Rotations by individual, rather than units that stay intact—everybody counting down his own time left in country.

The two sergeants: Barnes and Elias. What do they represent for Taylor, the narrator and central character? His two fathers, he says. The difference in how they fight: both are capable soldiers, but Elias has a sense of honor and discretion while Barnes is just a killer. Barnes as Ahab, bent on revenge (complete with scar). Elias as Christ figure, raising his arms in the clearing with the ruined church in the background.

The last battle, chaos and confusion, finally the officer calls in air strikes on his own position. An ironic variation on one of the most famous lines of the war: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”

We might, of course, ask whether these are the only two options. Certainly this isn’t the “whole story” of the way. But it’s a part of the story that I think rings true.

Wider Issues: How did this happen? This summary of the TV series provides a useful overview of the history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and much more if you explore the links.

My Notes from 2000:

Some background: A kind of progression from WW II, the “Good War,” with a clear enemy, a clear sense that fundamental US interests were directly threatened.  Next came Korea, which was less clearly defined, more localized, and less successful for the US; it ended in an armed truce that persists to this day, 40-some years later.  Then came Vietnam. 

Essentially the US took over the French role as colonialists; the war represents one of the most striking practical results of the “liberal consensus” conviction that in Cold War conditions, the US must be transformed from a nation born and rooted in anti-colonial revolution to a conservative world power committed to suppressing such revolutions. 

There were a variety of rationales given for the war.  Perhaps most important now is the realization that unlike WW I or II there was no single, clear entry point, no starting date. Less than 1000 advisers under Eisenhower, up to 15,000 by 1963.  The Tonkin Gulf incident in August 1964, significantly misrepresented and used by Johnson to justify expansion of direct U.S. military role.

The US slipped gradually from supplying a few advisors to taking a more active role to escalating numbers of ground troops to a truly massive investment of people and weapons. At the high point there were more than half a million US soldiers in Vietnam, a country on about the same scale as Ohio, and there were more tons of bombs dropped on North Vietnam and its neighbors than in all of WW II. Tactical strikes by small planes to support ground troops and strategic “carpet-bombing” by B-52’s, some of which flew 10,000 mile missions from Guam, dropping their tons of bombs from 30,000 feet where they were safe and all but invisible from the ground below. 

LBJ’s speech.  There was the “domino theory”: that if one country in the region fell to Communism, others would follow.  There were the “strategic location” and “valuable minerals” theories, though we seem to have survived the years since Vietnam fell to the Communists somehow.  Really, pretty clearly, the dominant reason was the felt need to resist the spread of communism, to stop “it” there before, as someone famously said, we had to fight “them” in San Francisco.  Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon were all faced with a set of bad alternatives: escalation, stalemate or losing, essentially.

The idealism of the early years of the war.  Caputo (102) writes knowingly, if somewhat bitterly, about his own entrance into the war, his fascination with the idea of war and the excitement that it promised.  At the start of the 60’s, with Kennedy idealism in the air, the idea of fighting bravely (and inevitably victoriously) for freedom was widespread.  As a nation we were closer to WW II in 1965 than we are to Vietnam in 2002.

In Philip Caputo’s memoir A Rumor of War he writes of how that idealism and excitement were driven out of him by the reality of Vietnam combat, where the clarity and chivalry of his generation’s vision of combat--largely a romanticized version of the WW II experience of their fathers--crashed and burned.  Heat, rain, jungles, a slippery and persistent enemy, boredom and fear and sudden bursts of terror.  A slow war of attrition, in which “body counts” became the official measure of how we were doing. 

Official pronouncements were optimistic for years; surely, it seemed, with so many men and such overwhelming firepower we would crush the Viet Cong guerillas and North Vietnamese.  But the war on the ground was always difficult; jungle terrain, hit-and-run tactics, no clear front lines, no clear enemy, very difficult to achieve clear results.  The problem, always, is fighting the last war rather than the current one. 

In 1967, determined to muster public support for the war that had been drifting away, LBJ demanded good news.  “Body counts” and kill ratios went higher and higher, and Gen. Westmoreland claimed that the end was in view, the famous light at the end of the tunnel.  Approval ratings did go up, sharply; sometimes lies work, for a while.  During this time, though, television news coverage brought images of the war into everybody’s living room--images of confused struggles in jungles, men ducking and firing blindly, scurrying around, tending to each others’ wounds. 

161: spring 67 mainstream protests on campus, increasing perplexity about war even within administration.  McNamara’s questions that became “Pentagon Papers.”  Bad options, 162-3: escalate, keep stable stalemate, or demobilize. 

Then in Jan. 1968, just as the presidential primaries were about to begin, came the Tet offensive, with bitter fighting in Saigon, Hue, Khe Sanh, and elsewhere.  Though the US beat back the enemy eventually, Tet made it plain that the official pronouncements of victory at hand were just not true.  And the offensive fundamentally changed American public opinion, as the pragmatic argument that we just couldn’t win, at least not without wiping out Vietnam altogether, gained strength. 

Anderson 185: “Tet shattered the myth [of American invincibility on the battlefield.]  Polls from January to March recorded one of the most profound opinion shifts in history.  Earlier, hawks had outnumbered doves 60 to 24 percent; a month later doves led hawks 42 to 41 percent.  Furthermore, those approving LBJ’s handling of the war plummeted to a record low, only 26 percent, and almost 80 percent felt that the U.S. was not making any progress in Vietnam.”

By the spring of 1968 the unpopularity of the war and the surprising strength of antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy in the primaries forced LBJ to announce he wouldn’t run again for president. (I read recently, somewhere, that by then he knew the war could not be won.) That left McCarthy, RFK, and HH as the main contenders; both McCarthy and RFK were antiwar, RFK less so, but a good campaigner whose success in California was punctuated by his assassination.  With his death, HH’s nomination, and Nixon’s victory in the ‘68 election the antiwar movement also became rather divided, as the war dragged on for another five years while Nixon and Kissinger tried to extract concessions from the North Vietnamese at the bargaining table and the North Vietnamese, aware that time was on their side, gave up more or less nothing. Finally a “peace agreement” was reached and the U.S. pulled out completely, only to see the N. Vietnamese sweep south and into Saigon not long after.

The war, and popular opposition to it, raised questions that Americans are still trying to answer.  Some are symbolized in slogans: “Love it or leave it,” “change it or lose it.”  It divided the country in ways we’re still trying to recover from. It deflected huge sums of money and public attention from other causes, and made it harder to unite people toward reaching other goals. It helped to create suspicion and cynicism about politics and politicians . . . 

Some are more abstract and troubling: Anderson 165: what is treason, what is patriotism?  Is the primary duty of citizens to obey their leaders, or to act according to their conscience and convictions?  What is the truth, when what is happening so far away reaches into every living room and classroom in the country? 

LBJ’s and MLK’s versions of the war and reasons for being for it and against it: it’s hard to believe they’re talking about the same situation, hmm?  Though they both invoke the Bible, and other powerful archetypes. Johnson’s speech on Vietnam, 1965.

“But there is more to it than that. For our generation has a dream. It is a very old dream. But we have the power and now we have the opportunity to make it come true.

For centuries, nations have struggled among each other. But we dream of a world where disputes are settled by law and reason. And we will try to make it so.

For centuries, nations have struggled among each other. But we dream of a world where disputes are settled by law and reason. And we will try to make it so.

For most of history men have hated and killed one another in battle. But we dream of an end to war. And we will try to make it so.

For all existence most men have lived in poverty, threatened by hunger. But we dream of a world where all are fed and charged with hope. And we will help make it so.

The ordinary men and women of North Vietnam and South Vietnam-of China and India-of Russia and America-are brave people. They are filled with the same proportions of hate and fear, of love and hope. Most of them want the same things for themselves and their families. Most of them do not want their sons ever to die in battle, or see the homes of others destroyed . . . .

Every night before I turn out the lights to sleep, I ask myself this question: Have I done everything that I can do to unite this country? Have I done everything that I can do to unite this country? Have I done everything I can to help unite the world, to try to bring peace and hope to all the peoples of the world? Have I done enough?

Ask yourselves that question in your homes and in this hall tonight. Have we done all we could? Have we done enough? . . . . “ “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” Martin Luther King Jr., 1967.

“In 1957 a sensitive American official overseas said that it seemed to him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution. During the past ten years we have seen emerge a pattern of  suppression which now has justified the presence of U.S. military "advisors" in Venezuela. This need to maintain social stability for our investments accounts for the counter-revolutionary action of American forces in Guatemala. It tells why American helicopters are being used against guerrillas in Colombia and why American napalm and green beret forces have already been active against rebels in Peru. It is with such activity in mind that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable."

Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken -- the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment.

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

Another fascinating what-if question here: what if we had taken the side of Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese nationalists in the fifties, stood with a revolutionary movement that was trying to throw off a colonial power as American colonists had done in 1776?

My Platoon running notes

Sept. 67: Taylor arrives on transport plane, dusty runway, body bags being loaded onto the plane they just got off of. Seasoned GI’s passing the other way. “65 and a wake-up.” Counting the days—tours of duty.

I don’t think I can take this, grandma.

Sergeant who runs things, lt. who doesn’t, good corporal and bad corporal.

Going out on ambush, with the new meat, the cherries.

Dead end guys, poor and unwanted, fighting for our society and freedom. They call themselves grunts. They’re the best I’ve ever seen grandma, the heart and soul.

Maybe I can start over from here, not fake it.

Lizard crawling up statue, bugs wake him, watch guy is asleep. What’s out there in the fog, in the jungle? Guys with weeds on helmets.

Heart sounds. Fire fight, suddenly. Wounded guy screaming. Taylor gets little wound, thinks he’s dying. It’s Gardner has the big chest wound. Berenger says to take a look at this lump of shit. Keep your shit wired tight at all times. Taylor gets blamed for sleeping though it was Junior.

Back at base, King and Taylor get put on latrine duty by the nasty O’Neill.

How’d you get here anyway? I volunteered, says Taylor. Dropped out of college. Why should just the poor kids go off to war and the rich kids get away with it?

You got to be rich in the first place to think like that.

King introduces him to the heads. This here’s Chris, he been resurrected. He smokes the long pipe, while White Rabbit plays.

Dafoe: the worm has definitely turned for you, man.

Then “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee.” While the rednecks drink beer to that.

 Bunny: the gooks put chemicals in that shit, so we won’t fight, become pacifists. The clean cut lieut. comes in, looking to mingle. O’Neill sucks up to him, then “there’s one sorry ass mf.” He’s not going to make it.

Meanwhile the heads are getting happy underground. Tears of a Clown. Manly love of comrades. Singing along.

New Years Day 68. Taylor looks more like a real soldier. They find a bunker. Somebody goes in. Dafoe. Taylor sent to cover flank. Everybody smoking. Hospital underground. Dead soldier. Back up, maps, papers in box. Booby trap.

Dafoe/Elias gets out. Berenger mad about guys wounded. They move out. Lt. says to leave four there with medic. Manny’s dead by the stream.

Barnes was the eye of our rage, our Capt. Ahab. We’d set things right through him. Into the village they go.

Round up villagers, shoot pig, find people hiding underground, girls and women. They scream and cry, grenade in hole, man down in hut. They find weapons, extra rice. Taylor with boy who seems retarded, screaming, threatening. Guy has only one leg, one eye. Finally CT starts to cry. Bunny wants to kill the guy. Beats him with gun. Blood on face. “See that fuckin head come apart, man? Never seen brains like that, man. Let’s do this whole fuckin village.”

Talking to guy—waste him, then see who talks. He says NVA made them store stuff, they’re just farmers. Noisy woman, Berenger shoots her.

Just as Barnes is threatening little girl Elias comes in, stops him. Fight in dirt, men yelling.

LT. finally stops them. Torch this place, he says. Elias—to lieut, why didn’t you do something? Lt says he doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about.

Huts burning, Barber Adagio for Strings.

CT stops guys raping girl. She’s a fucking human being, man, you’re fucking animals. You a homosexual, man?

They move out with prisoners, fire behind them. Explosions.

Officer tells Barnes and Elias to cease fire. Back into bunker complex tomorrow.

Black guys talking. Barnes knows what he’s doing. Other guy: a Christian wouldn’t be going around cutting heads off.

Bunny and O’Neill sucking up to Barnes. Somebody ought to frag Elias.

CT and Elias. “I love this place at night. No right or wrong in the stars.” Elias: ”I believed in 65, now no. We’re going to lose this war.” “It’s time we got ours kicked.”

CT voice over: struggle to maintain both strength and sanity. Civil war in platoon, half with each guy.

Ambush, Taylor charges up. Calling in artillery or something. Big fire fight. Lt. gives wrong coordinates, guys get wounded.

Taylor with Elias. E. sets off on own. Barnes says pull back, he’ll get Elias. NVA come, CT and one other shooting at em. Crawford shot. They pull back, Barnes after Elias. He’s frozen in the undergrowth, listening, then moving.

Barnes shoots a bunch of gooks, Elias gets some too, they run toward each other. Barnes shoots him. Taylor comes out, Barnes tells him E. is dead and CT should fall back.

Evac. wounded. Guys look bad. Bodies under tarps, helicopter wind blows cover off.

Elias being chased by whole mob of NVA. He raises hands as chopper goes over, collapses. Taylor looks at Barnes. He killed him, Taylor says to Ron as they light up. Let’s frag him. CT says military justice will never believe them.

If there’s a heaven Elias is in it, drunk as a monkey and smoking shit.

Barnes been shot seven times. He ain’t meant to die. Only thing that can kill Barnes is Barnes. And there he is, whisky in hand, “Talking about killing? Smokng this shit to escape from reality? Me, I don’t need this shit. I am reality. There’s the way it ought to be, and there’s the way it is. Elias was a crusader. I got no fight with any man do what he’s told, but when he don’t the machine breaks down. And I ain’t gonna allow that. You all loved Elias. You want to kick ass. Well here I am all by my lonesome. Nobody gonna know. Six of you boys against me. Kill me.”

“I shit on all of you.”

CT bangs head into post. Barnes has knife. Don’t do it, says guy with mustache. B: ”Death? What do you all know about death?”

Back into the valley the next day, returning to scene of crime. Two thousand meters from Cambodia. Burned out buildings, ruined huts, debris.

Alpha company the bait to lure out the whole 141st NVA regiment.

Moocher gets Elias’s squad. Ramouchey? Lt. brushes off his complaints. He doesn’t give a flying f. any more.

CT with King. Ten and a wakeup. CT complains, people like Elias get wasted, people like Barnes go on making up the rules any way they want. We don’t matter.

King: who ever said we did? O’Neill comes by saying that his orders have arrived. Ten minutes to go.

Martin has bad feet, says he can’t walk. Barnes threatens him with courtmartial, then centipede.

O’Neill wants to get out, says he has a bad feeling. Everybody gotta die sometime, Red, says Barnes.

King on the chopper. It blows up. No? No.

Bunny with shotgun. Sometimes he gets a bad feeling. He likes it here, you get to do what you want, nobody fucks with you.

Officer asks for grid. Radio guy panicking. Then no reply. Then Vietnamese.

Battle starts. Flares, probing. They blow CT’s hole, he charges back and kills a batch of them. Bunny blasting away with shotgun. Bunny shot, black guy too. O’Neill hides under dead guy. Perimeter breaks, NVA all over. Capt tells lt there’s nowhere to pull back to, stay and fight.

Zips in the wire down here. The captain calls down fire on his own position. Barnes ready to kill CT when the air strikes hit. Major explosions, then all goes black.

Morning, and all’s quiet, birds and insects. CT sees deer, hears chopper. Picks up a gun. Bodies all over. There’s Barnes, crawling. “Get me a medic. Go on, boy.” “Do it.” And he does.

Here come the marines, heavy vehicle. most everybody dead.

Black guy stabs himself. O’Neill crawls out. Guys cutting off ears, etc.

Est. 500 VC KIA, 22 US and still counting. We gonna get out, says somebody. O’Neill makes second lieut, just what he wants.

Guy with club hits himself on chest with gun and roars. CT gestures back, then looks out from chopper at guys in dust below. Crater with bodies everywhere.

CT: “I think now we didn’t fight the enemy. We fought ourselves, and the enemy was in us. The war was over for me now, but it’ll always be within me, as Elias was, fighting with Barnes for my soul. My two fathers . . . Those of us left have an obligation to start over, build again, find a goodness and meaning in this life.”