Saturday, September 30, 2017

Live at the Belly Up: Anderson East (KPBS-TV, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched a Live at the Belly Up episode featuring singer Anderson East and his band. He was billed as “blue-eyed soul” — i.e., as a white singer trying to sound Black — though his label, Elektra (who signed him after he did two self-produced CD releases), has “typed” him as country since he was born in Alabama (as Michael Cameron Anderson) and now lives in Nashville. Indeed, one of the things I found out about him is that he’s essentially Miranda Lambert’s new boy toy — she not only started dating him after breaking up with Blake Shelton but last July she shocked the country-music world by proposing marriage to him. I’ll give him props for having assembled a marvelously tight band for this performance — though at first I didn’t think much of him either as a singer or a songwriter and, if anything, with his casual dress, scraggly hair and rail-thin frame, he came off like the lead singer in a punk band doing retro-soul as a side project. I must admit that I was put off by the title of his first song, “Find ’Em, Feel ’Em and Forget ’Em,” not only because of the foul attitude towards women expressed in that title but because I suspect that away from the puritanical Federal Communications Commission restrictions on broadcast television, the second F-word in the title is something bolder and nastier than “Feel.”

He did three more O.K. soul romps with similar sentiments, including “Quit You” (though the gravamen of that lyric is that he can’t bring himself to quit the woman he’s singing about), “Only You” (one of those modern-day songs that begs comparison with a classic of yesteryear with the same title — in this case the beautiful doo-wop ballad Buck Ram wrote for his management and production clients, The Platters), and “Always Be My Baby,” before announcing that for his next number he was going to do a love song (“As opposed to all the political songs he’s been doing up till now?” Charles joked). He picked up a guitar and played a ballad called “Lonely,” and while it still had an annoying streak of self-pity (lamenting that his girlfriend has left him and utterly unwilling to accept any responsibility for the breakup), he was much more convincing in this more lyrical mode. Generally Anderson East is better on slow songs, and better when he plays guitar (and his usual lead guitarist switches to lap guitar, a variant of a slide guitar that is generally played sitting down, though the player in East’s band last night was doing it standing up) than when he just sings. After “Lonely” he did a song that the Live at the Belly Up chyron advertised as “She’s Sweet” but which really turned out to be Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey” — and while he was hardly at Morrison’s level as a blue-eyed soul artist he did sing the song with distinction (I’ve certainly heard far worse Van Morrison covers, including the awful one of “Wild Night” that was making the rounds about a couple of years ago which so infuriated me I walked into Off the Record, bought the used copy of Tupelo Honey they had and told the man at the counter I needed to get Morrison’s original of “Wild Night” just to clean my ears after the horrible sound of that cover!).

Then he did another soul cover, Eddie Floyd’s “Knock on Wood,” and while his version was hardly as good either as Floyd’s or the best one by a white artist, Melanie’s cover from the Phonogenic (Not Just Another Pretty Face) album from 1977 (once again Melanie is a woefully underrated artist whom I think of as one of the great white soul voices of the 1960’s, rivaled only by Janis Joplin: if you don’t believe me check out “Momma Momma” from her first album, Born to Be, or “Cyclone” from the 1978 album Photograph), it was appealing — oddly, Charles said he associated the song mostly with a disco version by Amii Stewart in 1979, though if I’ve heard that I certainly don’t remember it! After “Knock on Wood” East did his most “country” song of the night, “The Devil in Me” (which is about him lusting after a minister’s daughter — sort of “Son of a Preacher Man” with the genders reversed), and then his most haunting selection, “What a Woman Wants.” It suffered from the same annoying sexism of most of his songs — the full title is “What a Woman Wants to Hear” and obviously the singer is trying to think of what he has to tell his girlfriend de jour to get her to have sex with him — but it was also lovely and benefited by the way East let his band sit it out and played it with just his own guitar backing. The next song was “Lying in Her Arms,” for which he began it as another solo, then brought in his two horn players (tenor sax and trumpet) to add fills — a haunting effect — and after that he brought in the rest of his band, one by one. Alas, then he put down the guitar and said he was going to do some more uptempo songs — a bit of a mistake since he’s quite obviously more effective on ballads — “Stay With Me,” “Learning (To Be a Man),” unique in East’s repertoire (at least as showcased last night) in a quality of self-reflection rare in his work, and his closer, “Satisfy Me.” Anderson East’s act is an oddball combination of soul, country and rock, and while he doesn’t have that authoritative voice he does quite well with what he has (and I generally liked him better as the evening went on) — I just wish he’d lose the sense I get from some of his songs that he’s just another one of those country boys who treats sex and seduction as a game to be played instead of an expression of love between equals!

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Viet Nam War, part 10: “The Weight of Memory” (Florentine Films/PBS, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “feature” was the 10th and final episode of the Ken Burns-Lynn Novick-Geoffrey C. Ward documentary series The Viet Nam War, “The Weight of Memory,” which takes up the story from the official U.S. withdrawal of military troops in early 1973 under the Paris Peace Accords to more or less the present. The first half of the program dealt with the final stages of the war, the last two years during which the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN), the military force of the South Viet Namese government, vainly — and, at least in this telling, heroically — tried to resist the onslaught of the North Viet Namese army and the National Liberation Front (the so-called “Viet Cong”) and held out for two years even though the NVA and the NLF were fully armed with Soviet and Chinese weaponry (more Soviet than Chinese because the Soviets had long since enthusiastically accepted North Viet Nam as an ally while the Chinese were considerably warier — a feeling that went both ways since for about 1,000 years before the French conquered it in the 1850’s Viet Nam had been a Chinese dependency, nominally independent but subject to what the Chinese called “suzerainty and tribute” — meaning that the Viet Namese had to accept the Chinese as ultimate authorities and pay them large amounts of money — and the Viet Namese had long enough memories not to embrace the Chinese as friends) while the U.S. Congress voted down any more military spending on Viet Nam and thus neither Richard Nixon nor his successor, Gerald Ford, were able to come up with the equipment and air support Nixon had promised in writing to South Viet Namese president Nguyen Van Thieu to get him to sign the Paris accords in 1973. The war didn’t really stop until the Communists finally took Saigon in April 1975 — and of course Burns, Novick and Ward couldn’t resist a fairly lengthy sequence detailing the fiasco the American evacuation of Saigon became, thanks (at least in this telling) largely to the obstinacy of the last U.S. ambassador to South Viet Nam, Graham Martin, who delayed the evacuation until literally the last days (by which it had become impossible to evacuate anybody by land or through a Viet Namese port — the only thing that could be done in those final days was to fly them out by helicopter, and even that was delayed because the only place the large ’copters could land was the parking lot on the U.S. Embassy grounds, and there was a tamarind tree blocking the way that Ambassador Martin wouldn’t allow to be cut down until literally the final day — whereupon crews had not only to cut down the tree but sweep the parking lot of any debris that might have got sucked into the helicopters and screwed up their engines) out of some crack-brained idea that there was still going to be a South Viet Namese government and he needed to show them that the Americans were still their allies — either that or he just didn’t want to lose “face” by leading a tails-between-their-legs evacuation. Of course, a tails-between-their-legs evacuation was exactly what happened, made even more bitter by the decision at the last minute that since the ships the ’copters were flying too were getting too crowded, they would evacuate only Americans: the Viet Namese who had helped us, either by working as translators or support staff for the U.S. presence or being officials in the South Viet Namese government, were left behind (a shameful practice we duplicated when we more or less left Iraq in 2008 and left our Iraqi support people, especially the translators, to their fate). 

It was a sad ending to an incredibly sad, tragic and traumatic episode in U.S. history — as I’ve pointed out in comments on the earlier episodes, there was a lot of debate within the anti-war movement in the U.S. over whether Viet Nam was a “mistake” or a war deliberately fought as part of U.S. imperialism. As the movement radicalized, its leaders (the ones I knew about, anyway) made it clear that “mistake” was the “wrong” answer and “imperialism” was the right one — though it occurred to me that the U.S. involvement in Viet Nam was both an imperialist war and a mistake: the U.S. spent way too much blood and treasure in Viet Nam than it would have been worth to any rational imperialists (like the French, who had had the good sense to get out after their debacle at Dien Bien Phu in 1954). Once the North won the Viet Nam war — though one of the most tragic moments in this whole long film was one Viet Namese ruing the fact that with the U.S. withdrawal, instead of a struggle for national liberation it was one in which Viet Namese were killing each other (which I don’t think is what Mao Zedong meant when he wrote about “turning imperialist wars into civil wars” — what he did mean was an analogy to Russia in 1917, when Russia’s involvement in World War I led to the collapse of the Czarist regime and a civil war in which the Russian Communists prevailed) — the fabled “dominoes” fell in Cambodia and Laos but no farther. Thailand remained a non-Communist constitutional monarchy (and a favored location for shooting films about the Viet Nam war, notably Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, because it was as close as filmmakers could get to Viet Nam while the U.S. still didn’t recognize or have diplomatic relations with it), and ironically Viet Namese people found themselves at war again when, with the support of their Soviet patrons, they invaded Cambodia in 1979 to bring down the horrendous Chinese-backed regime of Pol Pot, Ieng Sary and the Khmer Rouge. Geoffrey Ward’s script for The Viet Nam War acknowledges that, despite the fears of a lot of U.S. policymakers (especially once the North Viet Namese captured enough classified documents from the U.S. Embassy, despite the efforts of Embassy personnel to destroy them, to piece together the names and locations of most of the Viet Namese people who’d helped the U.S. war effort) that there would be a bloodbath against anyone who’d worked for the South Viet Namese government or supported the U.S. war effort, there wasn’t (as there was in Cambodia against the Khmer Rouge’s real or supposed “enemies”), though members of the former South Viet Namese army were ordered into “re-education centers” and told that enlisted men would need only a few days there while officers would require a month. In fact the “centers” were really prisons and the people incarcerated there were held, in some cases, for years — one of the most poignant stories told here was of a former South Viet Namese army officer who was imprisoned in a “re-education center” for nine years, allowed to leave the country when he got out, and relocated to the U.S. and established himself but still, much to the consternation of his family, wants to return to Viet Nam and die there. The program also told of Viet Nam’s fate after the war, in which Viet Namese Communist Party general secretary Le Duan (described throughout the program as the real power behind the throne in the 1960’s even though Ho Chi Minh was the front person for the North Viet Namese government until his death in 1969) took a hard-line policy including the collectivization of agriculture. 

Exactly why so many Communist governments have copied Stalin’s deadly mistake about the collectivization of agriculture when it inevitably leads to under-production and mass starvation and famine is a mystery; there may be advantages to public ownership of industry but attempts to organize farming along industrial lines, whether by Stalinist government fiat or capitalist agribusiness, seem only to demoralize farmers and plunge yields. The result in North Viet Nam — as in the Soviet Union, China and every other country that tried this madness — was a decade-long famine and economic collapse until Le Duan finally croaked and his successors instituted something called doi moi, similar to Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika in the Soviet Union and Deng Xaioping’s market-based reforms in China, which allowed some amount of private enterprise, encouraged foreign investment and — an irony totally unmentioned here — eventually led to Viet Nam becoming an outpost of multinational capitalism, a pool of cheap labor companies could exploit when they decided that even Chinese labor had got too expensive. (In other words, in Viet Nam as well as in China the structure of Communist dictatorship, especially its suppression of independent labor unions, ultimately became the basis of capitalist dictatorship; the nominal Communists running both China and Viet Nam have essentially turned their countries into giant sweatshops for the multinational business elite.) The film ends with the tale of how relations between the U.S. and Viet Nam were finally normalized thanks largely, Ward’s script argues, to the efforts of three U.S. Senators who had actually served in the Viet Nam war: John McCain (R-Arizona), whose capture as a POW when his bomber was shot down over Hanoi had been a major propaganda coup for the North Viet Namese because he was the son and grandson of Navy Admirals and at the time McCain’s father was the admiral in charge of the U.S. fleet in Europe (this story is told in episode five and the contrast between North Viet Namese propaganda footage of the young McCain with what he looks like now was dramatic); John Kerry (D-Massachusetts), who had been one of the leaders of Viet Nam Veterans Against the War and had given the dramatic Congressional testimony in which he asked the rhetorical question, “How do you ask the last man to die for a mistake?” (words that came back to haunt him when he ran for President in 2004 and Republican propagandists savaged his war record!); and Bob Kerrey (D-Nebraska). The film closes with President Obama visiting Viet Nam in 2016 — the first U.S. President since Nixon to do so — and making one of his typical speeches about bringing unity and bridging the gaps between former enemies. 

Like so much of Obama’s rhetoric, this rings pretty hollow in the context of who’s succeeded him as President and the fact that Donald Trump’s whole strategy as a leader, as CNN commentator Chris Cilizza recently wrote (, Trump “seems bent on reminding us on what divides us rather than what unites us. … Whether he wants to admit it to himself or not, Trump is purposely playing on lingering racial resentment and animus in the country to remind people of what divides us. And he is doing so because he knows it will work.” The Viet Nam war divided this country into two large camps, the people who were horrified at the way the war seemed to contradict our stated ideals of individual self-determination for both people and nations, and those who saw it as a Holy Cause on behalf of Truth, Justice and The American Way and felt that war opponents should at best be forcibly silenced and at worst should be beaten, jailed or even killed. One of the quirkiest things about The Viet Nam War (the movie) is that it’s illustrated just how the divisions within America that emerged in the 1960’s have dominated and defined our politics ever since — and Trump’s election was a huge triumph for the love-it-or-leave-it crowd, who despite Trump’s paucity of any real achievements nonetheless love him for articulating their rage in his rhetoric. In that sense we’re still fighting the Viet Nam war (and the civil rights battles that also took place in the 1960’s), with Trump’s base viewing him as the ideal vehicle to rid the American polity of all those radical Commie nigger and  fag ingrates who “lost” us the Viet Nam war and challenged what they see as the undeniable, unchallengeable “truths” that whites are superior to people of color, men are better than women and Queers are creeps who dwell under rocks from whom our children need to be protected. Just as the U.S. lost the war in Viet Nam but “won the peace” (we turned Viet Nam into an emporium of capitalist exploitation, much the way the South lost the U.S. Civil War but “won the peace” by being able to re-subjugate African-Americans into menial jobs, segregated everything and permanent second-class status), so the American Right lost the war over whether the U.S. should stay militarily involved in Viet Nam but “won the peace” in terms of getting their representatives elected and adjusting U.S. policy as a direct assault on African-Americans, Latinos, women, Queers and whites who reject the “timeless” values of masculinity and militarism as the American political and cultural Right defines them.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

The Viet Nam War, part 9: “A Disrespectful Loyalty” (Florentine Films/PBS, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “feature” was the ninth and next-to-last episode of the mega-documentary The Viet Nam War by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Geoffrey C. Ward, called “A Disrespectful Loyalty” after a statement one of the interviewees, John Musgrave, made about his evolution from front-line soldier in Viet Nam to critic of the war and participant in the famous demonstration at which members of the Viet Nam Veterans Against the War organization threw their service medals over a crudely erected wooden fence blocking themselves off from the Capitol in Washington, D.C. Their original plan, Musgrave mentioned in his interview, was to collect their medals in a body bag and deliver the lot of them to Congress, but the barrier made that impossible, so they threw the medals over the fence and each servicemember made a bitter little speech about how these pieces of metal and cloth, which they had been told meant so much and were such a major validation of their service to their country and their worth as men (I’m saying “men” because the women who served the U.S. military in Viet Nam did so as nurses and in the other traditional “support” category, and the idea that someday American servicewomen would be permitted to see combat would have been regarded as outrageous by people on both sides of the debate over whether the war was worth supporting) now meant nothing, or even less, to them since they’d seen the war as a futile enterprise. This episode took the story from the immediate aftermath of the Kent State shootings in 1970 (which was overwhelming support for the National Guardsmen who had gunned down students in cold blood — the polls registered 58 percent support for the Guard, which as I pointed out in my comments on the previous episode tallied with the 56 percent support for the Chicago police actions against unarmed demonstrators at the 1968 Democratic Convention and the 57 percent combined vote total for Richard Nixon and George Wallace in the 1968 Presidential election) to the final withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Viet Nam following the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973.

One can’t watch The Viet Nam War in the Trump era without realizing how much Donald Trump is the modern face of the reaction that began with the 1968 Nixon and Wallace campaigns, particularly the use of “law and order” as a slogan by both Nixon and Trump, who really meant the same thing by it: a promise to white America to use the full force of law enforcement, backed if necessary by military personnel, to keep Black America repressed, suppressed and oppressed. What was different between Nixon and Trump was that what Nixon said behind closed doors to his favorite advisers — Henry Kissinger, Bob Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, John Mitchell — his vicious references to the “lying media” and the “bums” who were demonstrating against the war, and also all the social anxieties and racist animadversions — Trump has said openly and proudly to rallies drawing tens of thousands of people. Indeed, one of the reasons Trump’s fans love him so much is that he dares to say publicly what they really think, but felt too ashamed of being considered “politically incorrect” to say in public. (Few people know this — and when I tell it to them they’re flabbergasted — but the phrase “politically correct” actually originated in the late 1970’s on the American Left, as a way for Leftists to criticize other Leftists for being too dogmatic in their application of Leftist principles. I know that because I was there and heard the phrase many times before the Right co-opted it and turned it into an attack on all Leftists.) The sheer length and scope of The Viet Nam War has the consequence — intended or not (and I suspect Ken Burns and Lynn Novick are good enough filmmakers that they intended it) — of making the film seem as oppressively long and seemingly endless as the war itself. The ninth episode does seem a bit rushed given all it has to cover — not only in Viet Nam itself (the increasing sense that the people fighting the war had of the pointlessness of it all and the ways they handled that — through heavy use of drugs, particularly marijuana and heroin, and in some cases by “fragging,” i.e. murdering, gung-ho officers who either still believed in the mission or at least acted like it and ordered potentially deadly offensives when the troops cared only about surviving their tours with their lives and limbs intact and then going home) but also at home, with the rising numbers of people demonstrating against the war and the increasing desperation Nixon and Kissinger felt in their desire to have the whole bloody business of Viet Nam over and done with before Nixon came up for re-election in November 1972.

The film mentions the Pentagon Papers and the Nixon administration’s prosecution/persecution of Daniel Ellsberg for stealing them and leaking them to the media — and the almost unprecedented U.S. court ruling enjoining the New York Times from publishing them until the U.S. Supreme Court reversed it 15 days later: the very sort of “prior restraint” censorship the First Amendment was designed to prevent. What it doesn’t mention is that after Nixon organized the “plumbers” to gain information on Ellsberg, including a bombing of the Brookings Institution (which never happened) and a break-in at the offices of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist (which did, but it didn’t find his files), and (not mentioned here) they tried to bribe the judge in Ellsberg’s case by offering him the directorship of the FBI, Ellsberg’s prosecution was finally thrown out of court due to government misconduct. So were the charges against the Weather Underground, the offshoot of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) which had come full-circle from opposing the Viet Nam war as an act of violence to plotting and carrying out violent actions themselves, including homemade bombs (though they were such inept terrorists the only people they killed with their bombs were three of their own number in a townhouse in New York City where they were assembling bombs, and a college student in Ann Arbor, Michigan who was studying at 2 a.m. in a library the people bombing it thought would be closed). They also were involved in bank robberies, in one of which a police officer was fatally shot, but for the most part the Weather Underground were among the most incompetent terrorists of all time. As luck would have it, I met and got a chance to interview Mark Rudd, one of the leaders in the student strike at Columbia University in 1968, later a founder of the Weather Underground and still later a fierce critic of domestic terrorism whose advice, he told me, to would-be urban revolutionaries in the 2000’s who might want to follow the Weather Underground’s example was “don’t do it again.” Like Ellsberg, Rudd and most of the Weather Underground members who were arrested and prosecuted were ultimately freed because the government had broken the law itself in gathering evidence against them — though I noted grimly that all the government tactics, including entrapment and infiltration, that had been illegal in the 1970’s were made legal when Congress passed, and President George W. Bush signed, the USA PATRIOT Act in the wake of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.

What also doesn’t get mentioned in this show is that the Watergate break-in in June 1972 was not just a scheme cooked up by Nixon’s “Plumbers” because after the failure of their campaign against Ellsberg they had nothing better to do; rather, it was literally the tip of the iceberg, the one part of a giant scheme Nixon and his advisors had to rig the U.S. Presidential election of 1972 so that Nixon would not only win, but be re-elected in such a landslide his legitimacy would no longer be in doubt. Part of the Nixon strategy was to sabotage the campaigns of the more electable potential opponents in the Democratic Party — Senator Ed Muskie, Hubert Humphrey’s running mate in 1968 and the early front-runner for the 1972 Presidential nomination, in particular — so that George McGovern, whom the Nixon people considered the Democrat easiest to beat, would be the party’s nominee. One of the most fascinating clips in episode nine of The Viet Nam War was the appearance of Valerie Kushner, wife of Viet Cong prisoner Dr. Hal Kushner, on the podium of the 1972 Democratic convention giving a seconding speech for McGovern’s nomination; the years without any contact between her and her husband had moved her to the Left (while most of the POW’s wives remained staunch and public supporters of the war and expressed nothing but confidence in Nixon’s tactics for winning the war and bringing their menfolk home), while he had been kept so isolated, not being allowed any contact with his family until he was permitted to record a tape for them just a few months before his release, that on that tape he refers to the child his wife was pregnant with when he shipped out as “he or she” because he had no way of knowing whether the kid was a boy or girl. (It was a boy.) The show covers the denouement of Viet Nam, at least as far as the American involvement was concerned — the negotiators in Paris, Henry Kissinger representing the U.S. and Le Duc Tho representing the North Viet Namese government (both sides deliberately kept the two other parties to the talks — the National Liberation Front and the South Viet Namese government of President Nguyen Van Thieu — out of the loop), cut a deal in October, the North Viet Namese government asked for time to review it, and Nixon responded by ordering the worst bombings of the war on North Viet Nam’s key port city of Haiphong (one person called it “the first bombing ever ordered by tantrum,” to which I could only think, “If you think Nixon’s tantrums were bad, just wait until you see Trump’s!”) as well as on Hanoi, which led to both sides ultimately agreeing to the same deal they could have had in October with that last nasty fillip of bloodshed.

The show also contained a fascinating digression on Jane Fonda — in the middle of the blood and guts Burns and Novick suddenly cut to the opening credits of Barbarella, the sci-fi sexploitation film Fonda and her first husband, French director Roger Vadim, had made in 1968 — and John Musgrave explains that though a number of Left-leaning celebrities from the U.S. visited North Viet Nam during the war, the GI reaction against Fonda was particularly nasty because she had been their fantasy object, the personification of what they’d been fighting for. (What he really meant, of course, was that she’d been their jack-off fantasy; it’s hard to imagine Jane Fonda being to the Viet Nam war what Betty Grable had been to World War II, but that’s what Musgrave was basically saying.) Burns, Novick and Ward also mention Joan Baez’s visit to Hanoi during the war (she made amateur recordings while she was there during the Christmas 1972 bombing and wove snippets of them into a song called “Where Are You Now, My Son?” that took up the entire second side of her album of that title) but do not mention that, while Fonda’s statements in Hanoi (in which she called the U.S. POW’s “war criminals” and called for their trials and even their executions) followed their party line — and, even more infuriatingly for many Viet Nam vets, she was photographed taking a joy ride on an anti-aircraft gun turret that was used to shoot down U.S. bombers — Baez took a different stand, calling the North Viet Namese government out on its political repression and telling them to their faces that just because she was opposed to the U.S. attack on their country, she was not an uncritical supporter of the North Viet Namese Communist government either. Indeed, if there’s any message in The Viet Nam War it’s one of the sheer evil of all war; the segment on episode eight detailing the way North Viet Namese captors treated U.S. prisoners of war was followed by one in which a North Viet Namese recalled how people on her side who were captured were tortured by Americans, often in the same ways (especially electrocution and waterboarding) later used at Abu Ghraib and other locations in which the U.S. held people in Iraq. Many of us in the peace movement slowly reached the conclusion that since our country had gone so wrong in Viet Nam, the side we were fighting must be “right,” and that’s why people in the later peace marches carried North Viet Namese and NLF flags and openly rooted for a North Viet Namese victory.

The extent to which the political and cultural battles from the Viet Nam era are still being fought in the U.S. is exemplified by the reviews on the site of the various episodes in Burns’ film by someone calling himself (or, much less likely I suspect, herself) “dncorp,” who’s basically making the arguments supporters of the war have been making from then till now: the U.S. should have deployed everything it had in Viet Nam (the fact that a total war in Viet Nam would have amounted to genocide against the Viet Namese people doesn’t seem to bother “dncorp”); the U.S. military won all the battles in Viet Nam but were stabbed in the back by disloyal or incompetent politicians (does “dncorp” even know that that was also the argument Adolf Hitler used to gain power in Germany — that the German military had won World War I but the disloyal politicians had stabbed them in the back and given up, allowing Germany and its power to be shackled by the Treaty of Versailles?), and that all the people protesting the war should have been rounded up and dumped in the middle of the combat zone, where they could either have taken up guns and found their courage at last or met the brutal deaths he seems to think they deserved. So much of President Trump’s support seems to go back to this atavistic demand for revenge — not only “America, love it or leave it,” but “America, love it or die, and good riddance” — even his recent tweets criticizing African-American players in the National Football League for doing gestures of protest when the national anthem is played before games hearken back to one of the most famous protests in the 1960’s, when Olympic medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their arms in the clenched-fist Black Power salute during their medal ceremony — and got roundly criticized, including the usual death threats, by the radical Rightists of their time. I’m sure “dncorp” would bristle at being called a fascist, but as Jesus Christ said, “By their fruits ye shall know them” — certainly his ideology, which goes beyond even the usual defense of the war (there’s actually something to the argument that so-called “limited war” is an oxymoron: if a war is worth fighting at all, it’s worth fighting to the max and going all-out to win) to a kind of outraged brutality that’s been at the center of a large part of the American Right ever since and now, with Donald Trump as President and Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, is essentially running the country.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Viet Nam War, part 8: “The History of the World” (Flirentine Films/PBS, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched episode eight of the 10-part Ken Burns-Lynn Novick-Geoffrey C. Ward (the first two credited as co-directors and the third as writer) documentary series The Viet Nam War. In a way it’s a follow-up to Burns’ earlier mega-epics on the Civil War and World War II (though since World War II was such a huge topic Burns decided to focus on individual Americans who served in the portion of the war in which the U.S. was involved and made the film more personal and less political than The Viet Nam War). Burns’ and Novick’s cause was helped by the fact that so many people from the Viet Nam era are still alive — including the fascinating John Musgrave, who went from gung-ho soldier who was a strait-laced clean-arrow young man, eager to fight the Reds halfway across the world, to increasingly doubtful young man wondering whether the war was worth it, to out-and-out hippie (the closing shot of episode eight, “The History of the World” — a line from one of Burns’ and Novick’s interviewees, who said that the history of the Viet Nam War was a microcosm of the history of the world, which is arguable but also a sad commentary on how much of its history the human race has spent developing new ways, and also new excuses, to kill each other in mass slaughters that, unlike killing in the animal world, have no real point and don’t help us survive as a species — shows Musgrave with a thick head of long, bushy hair, a jolt compared both to what he looked like as a servicemember in Viet Nam and what he looks like now) to philosophical old sage. This episode focused on the Viet Nam conflict itself for the first three-fourths of its two-hour length, and only then did it cut back to the home front, to the growing unrest on the college campuses — especially the mass reaction to President Nixon’s invasion (for which he coined the term “incursion” — I remember Eugene McCarthy joking that the problem with the word “incursion” was it had no verb form: when there’s an invasion, you invade, but what do you do when there’s an “incursion” — you “incurse”?) of Cambodia, which left a lot of Americans wondering why he was expanding a war he was simultaneously claiming to be winding down, and which in turn led to the Kent State killings of four students (one of whom, ironically enough, was not an anti-war protester but an ROTC scholarship student who just got caught in the cross-fire while going from one class to another — which didn’t stop his family members from getting letters denouncing their dead son as just another “dirty Commie” the U.S. was better off rid of) by National Guardsmen firing in strict formation. 

What’s really fascinating about The Viet Nam War viewed through the lens of the Trump Presidency — more even than Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump has turned himself into the personification of the white backlash and the reaction against the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the Queer movement, the expansion of the welfare state and the anti-war movement of the 1960’s (which means that The Viet Nam War plays quite differently from how it would have if Hillary Clinton had won last year’s election) — is it shows just how early that reaction solidified. In 1968 polls showed that 56 percent of Americans approved of the heavy-duty police tactics used against peace demonstrators at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago; two years later 58 percent approved of the killings of students by National Guardsmen at Kent State — and of course in between those two events Richard Nixon and George Wallace between them had received 57 percent of the vote in the 1968 Presidential election to Hubert Humphrey’s 43 percent. Those statistics indicate just how quickly Right-wing sentiment in the U.S. hardened as a result of, and a reaction to, the progressive causes of the 1960’s (with opposition to the counter-culture having basically morphed from anti-hippie, as the hippie lifestyle faded, to anti-Queer, these are still the issues that drive the American Right and helped elect Nixon, Reagan, both Bushes and Trump to the Presidency) and how early the conservative consensus formed that has basically dominated American politics ever since — since 1968 the Republicans have won eight Presidential elections to the Democrats’ five, and they’ve done it largely by appealing to the bloody shirts left over from the 1960’s: anti-people of color, anti-terrorist (replacing anti-Communist), anti-feminist, anti-Queer (replacing anti-hippie) and at least theoretically anti-welfare state (though, as the debacle of the Republican attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, there are a lot of white voters out there who hate the welfare state when it benefits people of color but are just fine with it and will even defend it fiercely when it benefits them). 

“The History of the World” also covered the My Lai massacre, a topic they introduced in an interesting and unusual way; in the interview with Tim O’Brien, a Wisconsin native who served in Viet Nam and later wrote what are often considered to be the best works of fiction to come out of the U.S. experience in Viet Nam, the novel Going After Cacciato (1978) and the short-story cycle The Things They Carried (1990). O’Brien recalled going into a part of southeast Viet Nam the Army called “Pinkville” because it had been a major center of Viet Cong resistance (and of Viet Minh resistance against the French colonizers in the previous part of the war) and found the Viet Namese in the area regarded them with a bizarre mix of hatred and fear he hadn’t encountered in any other part of the country. He eventually learned that the reason was that in 1968, a year before O’Brien got there, the My Lai hamlets that constituted “Pinkville” had been the site of an outright massacre of between 347 and 504 unarmed civilians by a company from the Americal Division led by Captain Ernest Medina and Lieutenant William Calley. The massacre didn’t become common knowledge until 1970, when investigative reporter Seymour Hersh found out about it and was able to acquire sufficient documentation to publish a story, and while 25 U.S. servicemembers were indicted only Lieutenant Calley was convicted (he was essentially made the scapegoat and there was even a hit song glorifying him, “The Ballad of Lieutenant Calley,” set to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”).  

The Viet Nam War is an excellent series, and yet it’s also all too faithful to the spirit of the war itself, an extended conflict that just wore down the American people as well as many of the folks on both sides who participated in it. I’ve heard presentations by members of Maoist parties who argue that the biggest single contribution Mao made to Marxist-Leninist theory was working out the strategy for “protracted war,” stretching an anti-imperialist conflict to years or even decades until the war becomes a permanent fixture and the imperialists feel compelled to bog down ever more men and resources until they finally give up and the progressive forces win. It does seem as if the wars the U.S. has got involved in have become ever more protracted until we’ve lost track of the original war aims — as happened in Viet Nam: the series includes a film clip from Richard Nixon explaining that the war goal as of 1970 was not necessarily to “win” it (whatever “win” meant) but to get out in a way that maintained our national credibility intact — which plummeted morale among the “grunts,” many of whom said, “I’m not here fighting and risking my life for the credibility of Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon.” But we’ve seen the “protracted war” cycle repeat again and again, especially in Afghanistan (where our involvement, dating back from the weirdly misdirected response to the 9/11 attacks — as I told a person who was heckling me during an anti-war demonstration in 2002, “Where did the people who did 9/11 come from? Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Where did we go to war? Afghanistan and Iraq. What’s wrong with this picture?” — has since surpassed the American Revolution and Viet Nam as the longest war in U.S. history) and Iraq (where we essentially destroyed a stable and secular, though insanely repressive, government and midwived the birth of ISIS). 

It’s hard to listen to President Nixon on these film clips saying he wanted to withdraw American troops except as advisors and “trainers” so the South Viet Namese could take up the burden and learn to defend themselves — a strategy that worked short-term for Nixon politically (as more U.S. servicemembers got to go home people — even supporters of the war — felt relieved that they were going home upright and not in body bags) but was an abject failure in terms of sustaining and ultimately “winning” the war — just as it’s been in Afghanistan and Iraq (where in response to the first ISIS attacks the servicemembers the U.S. had so expensively “advised” and “trained” either turned tail and ran or, more infuriatingly, joined ISIS — as ISIS’s leaders had actually advised them to do: “Enlist in the Iraqi army and let the infidels train you on how to fight the infidels”). What’s really sobering about The Viet Nam War is how many of the fights that rocked the nation in Viet Nam are still going on, and how what political scientist Samuel Lubell called The Hidden Crisis in American Politics in his 1970 book of that title — he argued that Nixon was the first U.S. President to deliberately divide the U.S. people for his own and his party’s political gain, confident that he and the Republicans would end up with the larger half and therefore be able to dominate long-term (previous Presidents, Lubell argued, had either sought to unite the American people or, when they divided them — as Lincoln did with the Civil War or Franklin Roosevelt with the New Deal — they did so over matters of principle) — is still going on and has led to our current situation, with President Trump and the Republicans, though a minority of the American people, have shrewdly exploited the anti-democratic features built in to the U.S. Constitution by its framers into a position of absolute political dominance and have become, as Leonard Schapiro called the Bolsheviks in his history of the 1917 Russian revolutions, “a minority determined to rule alone.”

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Viet Nam War, part 7: “The Veneer of Civilization”

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched episode seven of the Ken Burns-Lynn Novick-Geoffrey C. Ward documentary The Viet Nam War, “The Veneer of Civilization,” which began with stunning archive footage of a parade in suburban Wisconsin — the date was 1968 but it looked like 10 years earlier, with the parade headed by a local beauty queen riding in a cool-looking late-1950’s red Mercury convertible followed by contingents representing 4-H clubs, local high school bands and sports teams, and the like. It was a perfect time capsule into what had been called “Wonder Bread America,” and at first it reminded me of the sequences from the adaptations of Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles stories shown as part of the Ray Bradbury Theatre TV series: all those Stepfordian images of an all-white (and white-bread) America formed by the Martians out of their mind-reading the white American astronauts who had come to their planet with those images of their ideal environment. Then it hit me: this is the America Donald Trump’s voters think was “great” and to which they want to return to “make America great again.” It’s an America in which the ideas that white people were better than people of color and men were better than women were just taken as incontrovertible truths, while Queer folk were at most darkly whispered about — “Watch out if another guy looks at you too closely in the locker room,” that sort of thing — and at worst actively sought out, arrested, harassed and beaten. In what’s been otherwise a pretty straightforwardly directed documentary in what’s been called the “Ken Burns style” — though since the Viet Nam war took place in the TV era he hasn’t had to resort to the kinds of expedients (panning over still photos while actors in sepulchral voices read letters written by servicemembers and their families) he had to when he did his star-making series The Civil War.

Instead, in this episode one deceased servicemember is depicted in his own voice, via tape-recorded letters he sent home to his family, and their replies. “The Veneer of Civilization” is a title that could be used for just about any documentary about war — an exercise that is quite good at stripping off the thin veneer of civilization and exposing the real barbarous nature of human beings (and how much we still are programmed evolutionarily from the time when we had to kill beasts and beat up each other to survive at all) — and in this one the title is especially appropriate, since the film covers the period from July 1968 to May 1969 (including the disastrous Democratic National Convention in Chicago — and the counter-protests that would have been a lot less damaging to the Democrats’ electoral prospects if Mayor Richard J. Daley and the Chicago police had just given the protesters permitted space to do their thing, picked out and arrested any who turned violent and left the rest alone — and Richard Nixon’s election as President) — indeed, one irony was that America was so unsettled during that campaign it almost seems like a relief when Burns and company cut from the home front to the relative kill-or-be-killed simplicity (for both sides!) of the actual conflict in Viet Nam. (One interviewee on the documentary is a Viet Nam veteran who returned to the U.S. during the turmoil during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago and also while the Soviet army was intervening in Czechoslovakia to put down the liberalizing “Prague spring” movement: he made the same comparison between the images from Chicago and the ones from Prague I did at the time, which led me to coin the term “Chiprago.”) It also makes the fascinating accusation that the Nixon campaign and South Viet Namese president Nguyen Van Thieu cut a deal for an “October Surprise” — actually an early November surprise — in which on November 2, just three days before the election (in an era in which the vote at the actual polls was even more decisive than it is now because the modern laws permitting just about anyone in certain states to vote by mail ahead of the election didn’t yet exist), the South Viet Namese government announced that they were not going to attend the expanded Paris peace talks with the U.S., the North Viet Namese government and the National Liberation Front. This, Ward’s script argues, was the final blow that sealed the election for Nixon against his tainted Democratic rival, Hubert Humphrey — tainted not only by the process by which he was nominated (essentially anointed by the party bosses without having contested a single primary) but his down-the-line support of Lyndon Johnson’s war policy and the chaos surrounding the convention, for which he largely got blamed. I think the film overrates the importance of the last-minute maneuvering around war negotiations; if anything sealed the fate of the Democrats in 1968 it was the intensity of the backlash surrounding the civil-rights movement and the anti-war counterculture and the determination of white, male, straight America to teach these uppity Blacks and ungrateful college kids a lesson they would never forget — reason enough why Nixon and Right-wing independent candidate George Wallace between them got 57 percent of the vote to Humphrey’s 43 percent. 

A President Humphrey in 1969 would have been the old-style liberal president of a country whose Right and Left had both decisively rejected old-style liberalism — just as, had Hillary Clinton squeaked out an Electoral College victory in 2016, her presidency would have been largely ineffective because she would have been positioned between two political extremes, a Right who would have thought their movement had been robbed of the victory they deserved and a Left who would have blamed her for destroying the progressive side of the Democratic Party. (I think Donald Trump is absolutely right — for a change — when he says that the accusation that his campaign colluded with Russia to affect the outcome of the 2016 election is an excuse cooked up by the Democrats to explain why they lost an election they should have easily won. The reason Hillary Clinton lost was that she was, well, Hillary Clinton, representative of a Democratic Party that under her husband and again under Obama had engineered so-called economic “recoveries” that actually only benefited the wealthiest people in society; also she had been successfully demonized by Right-wing propaganda for literally a quarter-century — reason enough for Trump to say that he didn’t need to go to Russia for dirt on Hillary since he had enough already, albeit mostly made up by previous Right-wing propagandists — and a lot of working-class Americans have blamed the Clintons for the destruction of America’s industrial jobs base since Bill Clinton had forced the loathsome North American Free Trade Agreement through Congress and into law in 1994.) There were some interesting bits of irony — including one woman who had lived in North Viet Nam through the war and who recalled that it was mostly poor and working-class Viet Namese who got drafted into the North Viet Namese army while the children of the elite were protected — a lot of the leaders of the North Viet Namese Communist party kept their kids out of the army by sending them off to college in the Soviet Union (like general party secretary Le Duan’s kids) or China — which was a fascinating glimpse on how the world’s 1 percent, capitalist or Communist, are brothers (and sisters) under the skin since one of the key criticisms of the war from the U.S. anti-war movement was that the children of privilege in our country were largely exempt from the draft (either they had rich families paying their way through college or they found other ways to shield their kids from the service — can you say “George W. Bush and the Texas Air National Guard”?). 

There was also a segment on the sheer amount of money floating around in Saigon thanks to the enormous amounts of supplies the U.S. were shipping in, ostensibly for the American troops, much of which was diverted to the black market (one picture of a shipping crate with a hole crudely punched in to extract its contents said more than all of Geoffrey C. Ward’s commentary!), and how a lot of women from the countryside came to Saigon to work either as B-girls or prostitutes (though I suspect a lot of that was less voluntary than Ward made it seem and they were probably being human-trafficked). But the most important part of this episode by far was how much it showed the role of the Viet Nam war and the other cultural conflicts of the 1960’s in determining the political and social conflicts that have riven our country to this day. One interviewee who participated in the anti-war protests in Chicago in 1968 recalled that the cops seemed especially venomous when they walked into the crowds, billy clubs out, beating everyone in sight, and he got the impression that the police simply objected to their existence — even though surprisingly few of the street protesters in Chicago in 1968 actually wore their hair long or looked in any way hippie-ish or countercultural. As a lot of people who weren’t around during the 1960’s for whom the decade is a matter of history don’t understand, there was actually a divide between the political movement and the hippie counterculture: the political young Left saw the hippies as lazy ne’er-do-wells who weren’t interested in the serious task of building and carrying out the Revolution — an ironic inversion of the way mainstream America saw them as lazy ne’er-do-wells who weren’t interested in making something of themselves and earning their way into the American dream — while the hippies frequently rejected political involvement and the “bad vibes” it brought. The two groups really clashed on the issue of drugs, especially drugs stronger than marijuana, which the hippies eagerly embraced and the politicals not only often opposed, they argued that drugs were being deliberately brought in by the U.S. government to turn people away from political involvement and get them to destroy themselves — a bit of Left-wing paranoia that has appeared in future generations as well. 

One particularly poignant story was told by Matt Harrison, the son of an Army family who recalled his parents moved every year or two because both were in the service; he more or less eagerly joined to do his duty to his country, while his brother Bob — whom the family nicknamed “Robin” — turned against the war, though he had a funny way of showing it: he defied the family’s tradition by joining the Marines, then went AWOL, then Matt bailed him out by signing up for a second tour in Viet Nam (during which he was shocked at the general breakdown in discipline compared to what it had been his first time “in country”) because he’d learned there was a regulation in the U.S. military that two brothers couldn’t be in active duty in combat in the same time. Assured that he wouldn’t have to serve in actual combat, Bob returned to his Marine unit — only he went AWOL again, and when his unit was doing some training in Washington state he took advantage of the border’s proximity and fled to Vancouver. A decade later, after the war, the family learned that Bob had fallen into drug use and died of an overdose, ironically enough, in Hong Kong — not that far from Viet Nam. (I’m using the word “ironically” a lot in this post because it seems more than any other to sum up the weird contradictions and convolutions of the Viet Nam story.) Overall, the Ken Burns-Lynn Novick-Geoffrey C. Ward film The Viet Nam War has been an excellent history, avoiding the obvious traps of either glorifying the war or damning it — given its auspices (not only the PBS umbrella but also the huge amount of sponsorship from corporations like Bank of America and wealthy individuals like David H. Koch — the presence of one of the two hated Koch brothers, whose name has become this generation of progressives’ personification of the ruling class the way “Rockefeller” and “Morgan” were to previous generations, might have led one to expect, or dread, a Right-wing justification of the war, but fortunately that didn’t happen) it could easily have turned into an “official” history instead of a thought-provoking and relatively even-handed look at an event in American history that is still a touchstone of controversy.

Monday, September 25, 2017

The Viet Nam War, part 6: “Things Fall Apart”

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched the sixth episode of the Ken Burns-Lynn Novick-Geoffrey C. Ward documentary The Viet Nam War, “Things Fall Apart” (after the famous lines William Butler Yeats wrote about the original fascists, “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” which were apparently quoted by New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy in a famous anti-war op-ed he wrote for the New York Times in November 1967), dealing with the first months of 1968. “Things fell apart” in that period both in Viet Nam and in the United States: in Viet Nam the North Viet Namese army and the National Liberation Front (so-called “Viet Cong”) guerrilla fighters launched a major campaign, the Tet Offensive, which was intended to seize South Viet Nam’s six major cities (including Saigon, Da Nang and Hue) and encourage the people of South Viet Nam to rise up and rebel against the government, demanding reunification of Viet Nam under Communist rule. The North Viet Namese in general — and in particular Le Duan, the militant party secretary who ordered the offensive against the advice of his chief military commander, General Vo Nguyen Giap — were, ironically, making the same mistake the U.S. CIA had made when they planned the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1960-61: they based the plan on the idea that the local population would rebel en masse, and instead the people mobilized, all right, but to defend their country and its government, not overthrow it. 

The show includes a clip of U.S. President Lyndon Johnson giving a televised speech explaining that in the Tet Offensive “the North Viet Namese were defeated militarily, and they were defeated psychologically.” The first was correct — even in Hue, the city the North Viet Namese came closest to conquering, the North Viet Namese forces were ultimately defeated and forced to withdraw, though only after nearly a month of bitter house-to-house fighting in which two of Ken Burns’ main interviewees, U.S. Marines Bill Ehrhardt (white) and Bill Harris (Black), recalled participating — while in Saigon the North Viet Namese sent a commando unit to break into the U.S. Embassy but a South Viet Namese security detail blocked them and killed most of them. The second couldn’t have been more wrong: aided by U.S. media reporting that made the Tet offensive seem less of a debacle for the North and the Viet Cong than it actually was, Tet, more than anything else, made many Americans regard the war as a lost cause and swing from supporting to opposing it. One incident in particular came when a South Viet Namese officer ordered that a Viet Cong fighter who was approaching and wanted either to surrender or defect be shot and killed on the spot — and when the soldier he gave this order to hesitated, the officer pulled out his own Colt .45 pistol and shot the man himself. Aside from being a war crime, this was also militarily dumb; as the old intelligence saying goes, “You can’t get information out of a corpse.” Any reasonably sensible officer would have taken the man into custody and interrogated him. As it was, the South Viet Namese officer not only gave the man a summary execution but did so in front of a TV camera and a still photographer — and the still photographer managed to capture the moment right when the officer had fired and the bullet was entering the victim’s head and distending it just prior to blowing it up. This became one of the most famous media images of the Viet Nam war and a lot of the Americans who saw it began asking, “What are we doing fighting a war and losing so many of our own people just to keep these barbarians in power?” 

During the first six months of 1968 “things fell apart” in the U.S. as well: Lyndon Johnson ran in the New Hampshire Democratic Presidential primary and, though he technically defeated challenger Eugene McCarthy he did so by only seven percentage points. This provoked Robert Kennedy to enter the Presidential race (my mom and I were both staunch McCarthy supporters and thought of RFK as a man who marched onto the field to take over as quarterback after McCarthy had already got us within a few yards of the goalpost — my mom hated RFK with a passion and fervor that no doubt fueled my own rather cynical view of him and his motives; not until Barack Obama defeated Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries would my mom again loathe so completely a politician who ostensibly shared many of her, and my, views) and Lyndon Johnson to withdraw from it. On March 31 he made his famous announcement that “I shall not seek, nor will I accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President” — according to the book An American Melodrama by Godfrey Hodgson, Lewis Chester and Bruce Page, the definitive history of the 1968 Presidential election, Johnson had worked out a private signal with his wife by which he would give a gesture, known only to her, to let her know just before he started speaking whether he’d announce his withdrawal from the race or not — and when he gave the gesture she became only the second person in the country to know he was going to drop out. 

Geoffrey C. Ward’s script gives a couple of conventional wisdom points that rankled me, including claiming that polls showed half of McCarthy’s voters in New Hampshire actually weren’t against the war, but wanted it prosecuted more intensely, and also saying that Robert Kennedy could well have got the Democratic Presidential nomination if he hadn’t himself been killed in June 1968, two months after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the nationwide spate of racial tension and rioting (the last thing King would have wanted to see in response to his death!) that followed. The first point is an oversimplification; what Americans were almost unanimous in rejecting was the whole concept of “limited war” John F. Kennedy had put into place in Viet Nam and Lyndon Johnson had continued — the idea that by measured steps of escalation an enemy could be brought to the bargaining table — and what pollsters were actually recording in 1968 when they asked Americans about Viet Nam was a large group of people saying, “We should withdraw, but if we’re not going to withdraw we should go all out to win,” and another large group saying, “We should go all out to win, and if we’re not going to do that we should withdraw.” Even after the Korean debacle (where we had basically given up after three years and accepted the status quo ante of two Koreas) most Americans still thought of war as something that lasted a limited time and had a definite, unambiguous, we-won you-lost outcome — the terms that had applied in the U.S. Civil War, World War I and World War II. It was the whole concept of “limited war” that rankled the American people about Viet Nam — it ran against the national grain that if it was worthwhile to fight a war, you went all out to win and threw whatever you had at the enemy; and if a war wasn’t worth doing that, it wasn’t worth fighting at all. 

The second — the idea that Robert Kennedy could have won the Democratic nomination if he had lived — is frankly nonsense: at the time the process was too totally controlled by party bosses for the will of the people, as expressed by the significant votes Kennedy and McCarthy had received in primaries (in the 14 states that had them, much fewer than there are now at least partly because the parties changed the rules after 1968), to matter. Hubert Humphrey would have still been installed as the Democrats’ nominee even though he hadn’t competed in a single primary, though it’s possible the party bosses would have made the unity gesture of asking RFK to be Humphrey’s running mate — which, if he’d accepted, would probably have left a lot of anti-war Democrats feeling as betrayed as they did for real. In short, even with a living RFK the 1968 Presidential election would probably have turned out the way it actually did, with Richard Nixon and George Wallace racking up a combined 57 percent of the vote to the Democrats’ 43 percent, ushering in the Right-wing age that has persisted, with some temporary reversals, to our own time, when Donald Trump won the White House frankly running as much or more against liberalism, progressivism, counter-culturalism and anti-racism as Nixon and Wallace did in 1968 and Ronald Reagan did in 1980 and 1984. It’s also fascinating to be reminded that hostility between the President and the U.S. media is nothing new; The Viet Nam War is studded with surviving tapes of private phone calls (every president from Franklin Roosevelt to Richard Nixon recorded at least some of his White House conversations, though Nixon was unique in setting up a system that recorded all of them — the earlier Presidents who recorded had switches on their desks and their phones so they could decide, case-by-case, whether a particular meeting or phone call should be recorded) in which President Johnson lambasted the “lying media” and said they were deliberately hurting the war effort — not that different from what we’ve been hearing from Trump, except Trump is willing to say it publicly.  

The Viet Nam War at its midpoint is getting into the political and social conflicts the war engendered here at home, which are becoming more interesting (in a way) than the story of the actual fighting “in country” — though one good thing about this program is it outlines that the North Viet Namese leaders had as much hubris as ours did. Before I watched this I’d always thought of Tet as a brilliant strategic calculation by the North Viet Namese to end the war by wiping out the U.S. people’s confidence in their leaders; I’d had no idea they had actually expected this series of pitched battles on enemy turf, which violated every principle of how you win a guerrilla war, to result in the fall of the South Viet Namese regime and the North’s military conquest of all Viet Nam. Another good thing about the series is that it’s an important counterweight to the romanticization of the North Viet Namese and their cause a lot of us in the peace movement indulged in as the war dragged on; we assumed that the North Viet Namese had the support of virtually the entire Viet Namese population, which they didn’t (though they probably could have won a nationwide election if one had been held as the original Geneva Accords of 1954 had promised); and we assumed they weren’t committing war crimes — which they were, as were we. One of the most chilling sequences came in a scene detailing the discovery of a mass grave in which the North Viet Namese and National Liberation Front forces had buried over 2,000 people they had summarily executed, a few because they were soldiers in the South Viet Namese army or officials in the government, but some people innocent of government ties who were simply swept up in the pogrom. The message was pretty well summed up in the title of the episode just preceding this one, “This is what we do” — this is what war is. 

It was intriguing that of all the things Bill Ehrhardt did during the war, the one he feels most guilty about — far more than he does over anyone he actually killed — was when his company came upon a Viet Namese woman who was willing to have sex with everyone in the unit in exchange for C-rations. At first he balked at participating in what amounted to a mass rape, but eventually — as much as a show of solidarity with the others in his unit as anything else — he did. That, he said, made him feel guilty because “my mother is a woman, my wife is a woman, and my daughter is a woman,” and he could imagine any or all of them being similarly exploited sexually if a military force came through and conquered the town where they were living. I’ve noted before in my comments on The Viet Nam War that ever since men have been fighting wars, they’ve regarded rape as one of the spoils of victory — which is another reason, besides the obvious ones, to be against war, period — and Ehrhardt’s anecdote also reminded me of a similar story I heard from a Gay man who had served with the U.S. armed forces in the Philippines. His unit, too, had encountered a young woman who was willing to have sex with them all for money or food, and though he was Gay and hadn’t the slightest sexual interest in any woman, the combination of peer pressure and the threat of exposure at a time (even before “don’t ask, don’t tell”) when the U.S. military banned Queers from serving altogether led him to compromise: he dropped his pants and pantomimed having sex with the woman, convincingly enough that the other guys in his unit assumed he had.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Global Citizen Concert 2017 (Global Citizen/MS-NBC TV, September 23, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Yesterday I wanted to watch the big “Global Citizen” telethon MS-NBC has been regularly promoting (and which I was startled to find out has been going on since 2013 — I haven’t heard of it before probably because I wasn’t a regular MS-NBC viewer until Donald Trump got elected President and, as much as they harp on the Trump-Russia investigation, they’ve still been an island of sanity in the spiraling madness this country is going through under the rule of Führer Drumpf!) even though I wasn’t absolutely sure when it would start (the promos announced the start time as “3 p.m. Eastern” and I didn’t know whether they were going to start it in real time, which would mean noon our time, or have we West Coast viewers suck hind tit with a tape delay again) or how long it would be. I suspect Charles was disappointed that the show lasted so long (seven hours) that we didn’t have a chance to go out together until we took a short walk through the neighborhood later in the evening, but I was glad I watched it because, despite some hideous glitches, for the most part it erased the foul taste left in my mouth by the “Hand in Hand” mini-telethon from September 12 that was supposed to raise money to clean up the damage and repair things after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma (which of course have now been joined by a third, equally destructive one, Maria, that hit Puerto Rico and took out its entire electrical power system — the current estimates are it’s going to take months to restore electrical service to the entire island, a reminder of just how much on the fringes of nature our whole modern lifestyle is and one disaster can literally plunge us back into the Dark Ages).

The “Global Citizen” show lasted seven hours — an hour-long “pre-show” from noon to 1 p.m. (featuring interviews with a few musical celebrities who weren’t performing — including one, John Cougar Mellencamp, who probably should have; he was shown performing a song called “Easy Target” about the ability of police officers to shoot down African-Americans with impunity, a powerful piece that would have been even more powerful except that in one of the most boneheaded production decisions of all time, the powers that be at MS-NBC decided to show a chorus of it, then cut to an interview between Mellencamp and Joe Scarborough, then another chorus, then another bit of interview, and so on — when it was introduced as a performance between Mellencamp and Scarborough I had actually hoped they would play the song together, since Scarborough is a pretty capable rock guitarist and singer who’s recently released a CD of his own which he promoted on Stephen Colbert’s show the night he was interviewed about his kerfuffle with President Trump) and a concert that lasted just shy of six hours. The musical guest list was quite impressive — Stevie Wonder (the only performer here who also appeared on “Hand in Hand”), Pharrell Williams (whom I usually can’t stand but who, largely because he was performing here as a guest artist with Wonder and his band, came off beautifully), Green Day, The Chainsmokers, Andra Day, The Lumineers, The Killers, rapper Big Sean and teen diva Alessia Cara (actually, according to her Wikipedia page, she’s 21), who opened the show and turned out to be one of the best performers on it.

She isn’t anywhere near as zaftig as Adele but she obviously has a figure and isn’t starving herself to concentration-camp-survivor dimensions the way so many other young women singers do. She performed three songs, “Here,” “Stay” and her star-making hit “Scars to Your Beautiful,” a slashing attack on the whole cult of thin = beautiful and a plea to her audience to accept themselves no matter what their bodies look like. (I love the message, but it also happens to be a great song!) She was also dressed unassumingly — a white T-shirt with the word “EMPATHY” on it in letters formed by lines in various rainbow colors, and a loose-fitting pair of camouflage pants — and, like Adele, Maren Morris and other singers of today I particularly like, she relied on the power of her singing and her songwriting to make her effect instead of drowning herself in gargantuan production numbers à la Beyoncé. Musically she’s yet another one of Melanie’s children — though Melanie herself has been pigeonholed as the hippie girl who sang “Beautiful People,” “Lay Down” and “Brand New Key,” she was actually a far more wide-ranging artist than that and her example seems to have filtered down through plenty of other women singer-songwriters since — Cyndi Lauper, Tori Amos, Sheryl Crow, Jewel, Lorde — who like Melanie have sung in high-lying voices with fast vibrato and written songs that alternate between the deeply philosophical and the childlike. I was very impressed with Alessia Cara even though I’d never heard of her before, and I put up a tweet to that effect. There was one big problem with this show: not only did MS-NBC run all their usual commercials during it, they did not bother to time the commercial interruptions to what was going on on stage — with the result that a lot of songs were heard only in excerpt form and items we were promised appeared either not at all or only as fragments. The first artist on the bill to be so afflicted was the second performer up, Detroit rapper Big Sean — whom I actually rather liked: despite my general loathing for rap as a form, he came off as better than most of the breed because his rapping was slower and more lyrical than usual, his musical backing reached back to the classic soul styles of the 1960’s and 1970’s, and lyrically his songs hearken back to the early, socially conscious rappers like Grandmaster Flash and Public Enemy (and The Last Poets before them!) rather than the awful pro-capitalist, pro-conspicuous consumption, anti-woman, anti-Queer and anti non-Black people of color crap we’ve heard from most rappers, especially the “gangstas,” ever since.

Next up were The Killers, formed in Las Vegas, Nevada in 2002 (though for some reason Charles thought they were from Salt Lake City — a big difference culturally even if they’re not that far apart geographically!), who sounded to me like yet another attempt to be an American U2 and who rather irked me because, in an event one of whose guiding issues was women’s equality and access to education and business opportunities, the lead singer was standing behind a three-foot-tall male symbol. The band included three women backup singers who stood behind female symbols — and I rather grimly joked that if someone ever does a documentary on The Killers’ backup singers they could call it 20 Feet from Sexism. Their four songs — “Mr. Brightside,” “All These Things … ,” an excerpt of “Read My Mind” (MS-NBC’s commercials struck again!) and “When You Were Young” — were pleasant enough U2 pastiches. Next up was the Lumineers, who formed in New Jersey in 2005 (though they now live in Denver) and are described on Wikipedia as “folk-rock/Americana.” I think that comes off mostly in lead singer/guitarist Wesley Schultz’ appearance: he came on wearing a big hat with long, scraggly hair and a long beard under his chin even though his cheeks were relatively clean-shaven, a physical look that alerted the audience (this member of it, anyway): “You’re going to be hearing ‘Americana’!” They obliged with some nice originals — if I had to come up with a capsule description of their sound it would be The Band meets Coldplay (though maybe I was just thinking of Coldplay because Chris Martin had done one of the celebrity cameos before the Lumineers went on) — their songs were called “Sleep on the Floor,” “Ophelia,” “Stubborn Love” and “Cleopatra,” and the most beautiful moment of their performance was the quite lovely slow version of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” they used as an introduction to “Cleopatra” (the title track of their latest, and according to the MC who introduced them their most socially conscious, album).

Then, as part of the overall educational purpose of the show, there was a segment about the history of lynching of African-Americans in the U.S. which was placed to tie in with the next segment, gospel-soul singer Andra Day singing — what else — “Strange Fruit,” the 1939 song written by Abel Meeropol under the pseudonym “Lewis Allen” and introduced by Billie Holiday (who was inspired to sing it when her father, guitarist Clarence Holiday, was in a car accident in the South and according to the inflexible laws of segregation was taken past the emergency room of the whites-only hospital and died before the ambulance driver could get him to the E.R. of the Black hospital — this story eventually got conflated with the death of Bessie Smith the same year, 1937, even though it is not how Bessie died). The segment would have worked the way the concert organizers intended if Andra Day had sung the song simply and straightforwardly, the way Billie did on her famous 1939 record (her biggest hit to that point and the release that established the success of the independent Commodore label, for whom she recorded it after her usual label, Columbia, wouldn’t touch it). Billie’s chilling understatement drove every line of the song home with the force of a thrown dagger penetrating a tree; Andra Day made the mistake of throwing the full armamentarium of her professionally trained gospel-soul voice — leaps, screams, “worrying” notes, improvising and moaning — at “Strange Fruit”; technically she could have sung rings around Billie but emotionally she almost totally missed the point. Day did considerably better with her own songs, vehicles designed to take that kind of singing: “Stand Up for Something,” “Rise Up” (comparable to Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising” and Yoko Ono’s “Rising” as an inspiring anthem, even though you can write just a halfway decent song around that title and concept and still make an uplifting effect) and a slice of “I Want It All” (yet another of those damnable commercial breaks cut off most of that song and gave us just the climax).

Next up were The Chainsmokers (Charles joked that probably most people today don’t know what the phrase “chain smoker” means — it means a smoker who smokes so continually s/he lights each new cigarette from the dying embers of the previous one), who are listed on Wikipedia as “a DJ/production duo” consisting of Andrew Taggart and Alex Pall. They were probably the two sexiest guys on the whole show — before Taggart made his appearance Pall came on in a white T-shirt and lime-green sweat pants, carrying a pair of drumsticks and beating on various bits of electronic percussion as a pre-recorded track of women vocalists and a dreamy pop backing played in the background. Then Taggart entered, and he was wearing a white T-shirt and skin-tight blue jeans that showed off an enviable basket (as had Pall’s sweat pants). They were so far apart on the Central Park, New York stage that it was difficult at times to tell just how many people there were in the band — I counted three, a conventional drummer in addition to Taggart and Pall — or how they related to each other. Perhaps reflecting their DJ origins, they blended each of the songs they played into a set-long medley: “(I Want to Be) The One,” “Closer,” “Honest,” “Paris,” “Something Just Like This” and “Don’t Let Me Down” (the last song I probably would have liked better if they hadn’t ripped off the title from a much better song by The Beatles), and once again one of their songs got abysmally truncated by a commercial interruption. They were considerably more fun to look at than to listen to — indeed they came off as the closest group on the bill to a boy band — though their music was appealing and lacked the aggressive ugliness of a lot of what DJ’s who try to cross over into full-fledged music-making come up with.

Then came Green Day’s fairly extended set of eight songs covering most of their career, and it was amusing how front man Billie Joe Armstrong changed his guitar throughout the set to mirror the content of each song and what part of his band’s history it came from. He started with a guitar painted to look like an American flag, only in black-and-white — the red stripes were black and so was the blue field on which the white stars appeared — which I believe was a design he started using in response to the George W. Bush administration, led by a President he called an “American idiot.” (Inevitably he played “American Idiot” as part of his set, changing “Bush” to “Trump.” Maybe he should call it “American Idiot II”!!) He used that guitar for “Know Your Enemy,” an excerpt of “Holiday” (once again a song wretchedly truncated by commercials), and “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” (a song that, unlike the Chainsmokers’ “Don’t Let Me Down,” does hold its own in comparison with the classic from which its writer ripped off the title), before switching to one with a motif from the cover of the band’s star-making 1994 album Dookie (which I heard when it was new and remember thinking, “This is what Elvis Costello would have sounded like if the Clash instead of the Attractions had been his backup band”) for “Minority” and a plain guitar for “American Idiot,” “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” and “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life).” It’s amazing how Green Day has been able to rise from the ghetto of punk rock to enough mainstream success that their songs got turned into a Broadway musical, and despite his travails Armstrong remains a strong performer, front man and writer.

Then Stevie Wonder held the stage for nearly an hour and a half, running through mostly his great hits from the 1970’s, and starting his performance by dropping to his knees as a gesture of support to the National Football League players who are protesting anti-Black police brutality while the national anthem is played at their games — and whom President Trump called on the NFL team owners (many of them gave seven-figure sums to his campaign) to fire immediately. (The ones like Colin Kaepernick, who were reaching the ends of their careers anyway, probably are in jeopardy from this; but no team owner is going to fire someone at the height of his career who’s going to help them win football games and maybe make it to the Super Bowl. They may be Right-wingers but they’re also too smart capitalists to launch a career vendetta like that!) He got up rather uncertainly, helped by his son Kwame (one of a number of grown children Wonder has fathered over the years, all of whom he seems to have given African names), and for the first song on his set he did “Jammin’ (Master Blaster),” his memorial tribute to Bob Marley. Then he did the song he should have done on “Hand in Hand,” “Higher Ground,” following which there was a song on his set that I missed almost completely because they cut away for a commercial break while he was still playing the intro and didn’t return until he was almost done. After that he did “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” (a 1968 hit and the only song Wonder played last night that came from before he gained control of his career and started producing himself with the 1970 album Where I’m Coming From) and a medley of “Overjoyed” and “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” Then he did “Don’t You Worry ’Bout a Thing” and the beautiful “Living in the City” (the socially conscious song Wonder recorded after his Motown label-mate Marvin Gaye broke Motown president Berry Gordy’s taboo on political material with the What’s Going On LP), following which he did one of my least favorite Wonder songs, “Isn’t She Lovely?,” though it sounded a bit better this time because he said it was dedicated to his oldest child, daughter Ayesha, and its sappiness is more understandable as a father-daughter song than as a romantic love song.

Alas, yet another commercial break at this point lopped off most of “Sir Duke,” a favorite Wonder song of mine if only because it’s a tribute to Duke Ellington — the artist who lobbied for (and wrote a song to promote) the designation of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday as a national holiday paying tribute to the genius who composed Black, Brown and Beige — and after that he hinted he was going to perform “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” (one of those songs, like Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are,” I liked at first, then got thoroughly sick of when it got way overplayed, then heard again a few years later and thought, “That was really a good song after all!”). Instead he did “My Cherie Amour” and then went into “We Are the World,” the song he wrote with Michael Jackson for the 1985 “USA for Africa” fundraising campaign, for which he was joined by Pharrell Williams essentially taking Michael’s part. Wonder and Williams continued to perform together for the rest of his set, doing “Get Lucky,” “Superstition” and Williams’ song “Happy” — which generally has struck me as one of the most putridly banal songs ever written (I once joked that I never thought anybody could write a song about happiness worse than Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” but Williams pulled it off), but in this context — after a show that had been studded with various officials from the United Nations and its member countries (the “Global Citizen” concerts are deliberately timed to coincide with the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly) about such evils as famine, impoverishment, lack of access to clean water and safe toilets (though when an official from Nigeria discussed the problems his country has in getting everyone access to safe toilets I grimly muttered, “Hey! We can’t even do that in San Diego, and we have a hepatitis A outbreak on our hands because we can’t!”), the oppression of women — including forced marriages of teen (or pre-teen) girls, rape and denial of education and business opportunities — and AIDS, a song about happiness, even a silly and stupid one, was actually a welcome relief. Then Wonder came out again with that weird little tablet-sized mini-keyboard which seems to be his go-to instrument whenever he covers the Beatles — he used it for “We Can Work It Out” on the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ appearance on the Ed Sulllivan Show and last night he used it to cover John Lennon’s “Imagine,” a song almost de rigueur for a major “Cause Celeb” benefit, following which the various musical guests all came out for a reprise of “Happy.”

Despite the infuriating commercial breaks and the spotting of them with absolutely no cognizance of what was going on on stage, in all other respects the “Global Citizen” telecast was a model of how this sort of thing should be done: the artists (even the lesser-known ones like Alessia Cara) were given enough time on stage to showcase themselves, the show was long enough to make that possible and the speech-making, though it got interminable at times, actually had a context. Predictably, the one segment that really rankled me was the one expressing the mainstream myth of “HIV/AIDS,” especially when the scientist from Johnson & Johnson announced that his company was about to start major efficacy trials of a proposed AIDS vaccine in humans — and Whoopi Goldberg came on to rejoice that the scientist had announced a major step forward in a cure for AIDS. He hadn’t; he’d announced a major step forward in a vaccine for AIDS, which is not the same thing even if you believe in an AIDS vaccine (which pioneering AIDS dissident scientist Peter Duesberg pointed out is an oxymoron, because you’re defined as having “HIV/AIDS” if you test positive for antibodies to the virus — and the “AIDS vaccine,” if it works, will give you antibodies to the virus and thereby make you “HIV positive”!).

The real problem with Global Citizen as an organization is that it claims to be aimed at ending “extreme poverty” (indeed, one of the speakers boasted that since 1982 the percentage of the world’s people in “extreme poverty” has gone down from 52 to 18 percent — though a) I’m not sure how they came up with those statistics, and b) even 18 percent is 18 percent too many), but at the same time they rely so much on the largesse of major corporate and rich-individual donors like Sumner Redstone (who came up with a last-minute $1.5 million contribution to make the first Global Citizen concert in 2013 possible) and Mark Cuban (who was prominently featured on stage) they can’t — or won’t — mention the basic class-struggle fact that the reason there are poor people in the world is that there are rich people in the world, and the rich sustain themselves on the basis of what Marx called the “surplus value” extracted from the poor by the rich. Doubtless the programs advocated on Global Citizen are going to get some of the right money to some of the right people — and I give them major kudos for making one of their demands to preserve the U.S. foreign aid budget instead of cutting it by 32 percent as President Trump has called for in his budget — but they’re relying too much on the kindness of the super-rich to talk about the class structure and the organized machinery of oppression and exploitation that is making the overall distribution of wealth and income in the world increasingly less equal. Still, Global Citizen puts on a good show for a good cause, and if it starts making at least some of its idealistic participants (you earned admission to the concert by racking up “points” for various good deeds, including sending texts and tweets to politicians) think more deeply about why there is poverty, hunger, ill health, oppression of women and preventable disease epidemics throughout the world, it’ll have done some of the good its organizers obviously intend it to!