Thinking About the ’60s: A Special Section
Thawing the Souls on Ice — Scenarios for Colorizing the War Movie
March 8, 1988
GOOD RIDDANCE, Vietnam! — a likely sentiment for the groundpounders whose war experiences have been regurgitated on film. Enter the most recent of this set, Good Morning, Vietnam, a movie that wants to be comically therapeutic about our dark affair there. The humor is as skittish as the war was; Robin Williams’s sidekick is a black named Garlick, whose role as Williams’s foil is ultimately blunted by his shuffling caricature.
It’s no wonder you could sniff out the tokenism like nuoc roam (fermented fish) in the recent spate of Vietnam War movies, though the colorized war story is under our very noses. Not only are blacks out of focus in these “new-wave” films but no screenplay has yet dared to chronicle the bizarre war stories of black troops. Not Oliver Stone’s autobiographical Platoon, with its vapid treatment of blacks; not Stanley Kubrick’s touted Full Metal Jacket, which may have actually suspended belief in the fact that black heroes existed in Vietnam. So nothing’s changed — Hollywood has a history of revisionism.
The other night during a hard rain I suffered a rare flashback, an image as vivid as lightning. Amid the cacophony of a midnight enemy raid near Tay Ninh, I’d realized I was the token black in my platoon.
Was this sharp memory the result of Post-Vietnam Stress Syndrome, the kind that has been induced by the recent barrage of Vietnam War films? So what did you do in the war, Daddy?
Well, it might depend on how blacks were typecast into various roles in commercial dramatizations of the war. I wish, at least, I’d had a line like “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” Instead, I was lost amid the surrealism of battle fatigue in Apocalypse Now. Shooting myself in the foot was the only way I could avoid extensive combat in Platoon. And I overdosed on acerbic wit and trench warfare as a medic in Hamburger Hill, so I couldn’t fully articulate my problem with Whitey. My most prideful experience, though, was in Full Metal Jacket while persuading a Vietnamese prostitute to give me a “short-time,” I had to flash my genitals in the middle of the street to prove a myth. As for Rambo, come now, you know blacks “don’t have those necessities,” according to prevalent racial gospel.
But what did you do in the war, Daddy?
The real story is in how black troops served a pivotal, double role, as hawk and dove, in the affairs of the Vietnam debacle. Prior to 1970, black brothers were as feared by the enemy as were helicopter gunships and B-52s. Then, in the wake of a prolonged mourning of Martin Luther King’s ’68 assassination, and spurred on by myriad cases of overt discrimination on the line as well as in the rear, black soldiers risked losing honorable records by marshaling their brethren in the Vietnam Theater for a reprise of a very old and personal war. Indeed, the civil rights movement had resurged on a new battleground some 12,000 miles from home.
“BLACKANIZED PEOPLE,” or BP, was organized to instill, in the words of one brother, “respect in the world [the States] for black brothers and sisters, respect we never had before for our race.” Eventually, blacks would slow down the U.S. anti-communist war machinery by scuffing the army’s spit-and-polish image.
In Saigon, the designated ringleaders of these blackanized warriors were jailed by the army in the early ’70s. And, as a deterrent, the army mustered “beaucoup brothers” out of Nam with “212s,” jargon for undesirable discharge. Thirteen years after the war’s end, brothers holding “bad papers” are still chilling out. They’ve become souls on ice.
Blacks, or “bloods,” who saw action in the first half of “the conflict” (1965-68) didn’t fare any better than their blackanized replacements in the later stages of the war (1968-72). Despite the fact that blacks were 12 per cent of the national population, brothers were humping more than their fair share in the jungle. Proportionately speaking, there were more black KIAs (Killed in Action) than white deaths. It wasn’t unusual for some units in the field to be 40 per cent black. Oliver Stone’s own 25th Infantry Division was anchored by a legion of black grunts, and elements of the 173rd Airborne Brigade were as colored as Harlem. Throw in the First Infantry Division, to which I was assigned in 1967, Phuoc Vinh, and the expansive war zone to Saigon’s north dubbed the Iron Triangle assumed the air of a convention of displaced black Americans.
“An air-traffic controller, eh?” mocked my commanding officer in Vung Thu, where I was stating my case for rear-echelon duty. I was instead reassigned from a helicopter company there to a leg outfit in Phuoc Vinh, where the war and black heroes were in sharper focus.
The first black granted the Medal of Honor in Nam was a teenager who dove on a grenade to save the lives of four comrades. It was a posthumous award. Back then, such heroism sprang from black pride — a tough statement of black identity, racial discrimination notwithstanding.
Significantly, black power reached across enemy lines, too. Following patrol one night, a cousin of mine was catching a few winks on the jungle floor when he was surprised by a North Vietnamese Army regular.
“Shhh,” whispered his foe, “you soul brother number one. No worry.”
But the enemy’s social behavior worried our officers. Additional evidence that he was aware of our racial problems and/or had acknowledged respect for the army’s black muscle was manifested in crude road signs in the thick of the bush. “Soul Brothers, Go Home and Take Care of Problems,” one message read.
IN TIME, blacks would be going home alive before their hitches had expired, though not because of the VC. No one’s sure how it began, but in 1970 a black insurrection was developing around the Iron Triangle, which the army seemed powerless to quell.
Blacks changed their names, grew beards, stripped away army insignia, un-bloused their boots, garlanded themselves with crosses and wristbands they’d fashioned from black shoelaces, eschewed salutes, and, yes, even refused to board choppers to the battlefield. Groused Brother Dickinson, citing a checklist of “harassment tactics” during an interview with me for a Voice story in 1970, “Every unit got a story. Our company quickly became blackanized after we scoped out a brother being tortured in the orderly room. He was bound with chains, hand and foot, standing there like a runaway slave. The pigs say he’s crazy. Shoot, he ain’t crazy. He’s blackanized.”
Attributing the army’s perceived persecution to oversegregation, Brother Me, another blackanized warrior, responded at the time, “The brass ain’t too comfortable with so many bad brothers on the line.” I was with a Signal Corps unit near Saigon when a racial disturbance flared. We brothers reacted by sabotaging the MPs’ phones. They couldn’t make calls to the world for weeks. We were so blackanized they shipped half of us [about 100] up north — on the line — against them bad [militarily strong] NVAs.” Instigators, he said, were confined to “Silver City,” or the Long Binh Jail, nicknamed for its coils of barbed wire. “That place got about 80 per cent brothers. Ain’t nobody but brothers there,” he said of his stay at LBJ.
Blackanization propaganda fanned out from its War Zone D-base like a napalm attack in a monsoon wind. Black air cavalry troops in the Central Highland acknowledged that there were “beaucoup accidental shootings during military sweeps.” That’s how some racial vendettas were settled. “Lifers were blown away in firefights,” said a black trooper, referring to “redneck” sergeants, and “fragging an officer was no big deal.”
At the DMZ, Brother PC was wearing black wristbands and a black cross when he was wounded — he attributed the poor treatment he received in hospital to these outward signs of his blackanized pride. Inevitably, Bro PC disdained combat and became a wristband entrepreneur, using free moments to teach blackanized converts the “dap,” (the Vietnamese word for beautiful) a handshake ritual adopted by and exclusive to blacks. The lengthy salutation was as much a ceremony of brotherhood as it was an overt display of militancy.
WITH THE SITUATION on the line turning potentially mutinous, search and destroy missions were redefined — hunters had become the hunted. Sister Tee Wee of the Lovely Bar, a blacks-only watering hole off Plantation Road in Saigon, confirmed a blackanized account of “Brother Harvey’s coldblooded murder” at the hands of the military police: “Well, the MPs come here, see, and search the place without asking Mamasan,” she said. “They run upstairs, find Brother Harvey, and shoot him up real bad. Beaucoup shots.”
By 1970, the war between blacks and whites had reached flashpoint. On January 7, a micro race riot erupted in the Saigon headquarters of the U.S. Military Command. Casualties were listed as “injured as a result of nonhostile action.”
And how were troops faring in the jungle? The U.S. war effort was put into microcosm the very last evening I spent at a base camp, in April of ’70: Perimeter guards are sending up fiares in the dense night to deter VC sappers. Every trench is manned. One bunker is already mellow with pot. Others are en route. In a twist of fate, a black soldier, who went by the sobriquet Brother Cloud, is stuck in a foxhole with two whites. He lights up a reefer, losing perspective on the impending attack. Nodding off, he warns his mates more dreamily than sarcastically: “Hey, Chucks, stay awake and look real hard for Charlie [Vietcong) huh, because I’m gonna cop some Z’s. Man, I ain’t in no mood to protect no crackers tonight.”
It didn’t matter what information the generals were reporting back to Washington. The program was literally going up in smoke. For that matter, regardless of how one viewed Indochina during the U.S. involvement there, or how intensely the action has been portrayed on the silver screen, the Vietnam War had darker overtones.
Maybe it behooves the veteran brother like myself to hammer out the unexplored secondary theme into a workable script. For sure, that could spell another battle along racial lines, what with the film industry’s historical treatment of blacks and provocative black statements. Nevertheless, the conclusive chapter remains — and needs— to be told. ■
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 24, 2020