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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives

Thinking About the ’60s: Thawing the Souls on Ice

Scenarios for Colorizing the War Movie

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.

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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.

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“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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.”

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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. ■

1988 Village Voice article by Dalton Narine about Black soldiers in Vietnam

1988 Village Voice article by Dalton Narine about Black soldiers in Vietnam

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From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES Protest Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES

New York’s Finest: Busting Out All Over

New York’s Finest: Busting Out All Over
May 2, 1968

WASHINGTON SQUARE — While the good John Lindsay praised the peace parade in Central Park, the bad John Lindsay had the peace parade busted in Washington Square Park. While the good Sanford Garelik passed out flyers of “principles to guide police officers at demon­strations,” the bad chief inspect­or gave the order to attack the demonstrators. While the good William Booth looked on, the bad human rights commissioner looked away. While the good Jay Kriegel and the good Barry Got­tehrer privately deplored the police action, the bad mayoral aides publicly condoned it.

Saturday was a fair, gray day. At 11 a. m. the Anti-Imperialist Feeder March began to form in Washington Square Park. Its marchers, some 400 strong, had split with the Fifth Avenue Viet­nam Parade Committee because, according to an ad, “the Parade Committee leadership arranged for strike-breaker Lindsay, whose police regularly attack the black and Puerto Rican commu­nities and break up anti-war and Yippie demonstrations, to greet the anti-war rally in the Sheep Meadow.” So the dissidents — ­mainly Youth Against War and Fascism and the United States Committee to Aid the National Liberation Front — planned their own march.

As police and city officials met under the arch, plainclothes heavies massed on Washington Square North. Cheaply dressed, each cop sported a red hat pin and secreted a sap. City officials also wore hat pins. Tethered by Garelik’s glance, the plainclothesmen waited hungrily at the edge of things, ignoring the far-off challenges of their enemies and prey.

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Aryeh Neier, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, leaned against the arch and waited for the bust to begin. Earlier, Neier had sug­gested to Kriegel that the march­ers, two or three abreast, be given a sidewalk route. “You’re telling me what’s legal, I’m tell­ing you what’s practical,” responded Kriegel, who had evi­dently already decided on the bust. So there was nothing to do but wait.

At exactly 12 noon the march­ers hoisted their banners (“Poli­ticians lie — Vietnamese die”) and Vietcong flags, marched out to the sidewalk on Washington Square North, and turned west.

An aged police lieutenant with a bullhorn intoned a warning: “Atten-Shun! There are two authorized parades. This parade is unlawful, having no poi-mit. You are in violation of the law and subject to arrest.”

“The streets belong to the people. The streets belong to the people,” responded the marchers, inching forward on the sidewalk.

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The cop with the bullhorn con­tinued to urge marchers to join the Loyalty Day Parade down Fifth Avenue or the Vietnam Peace Parade up in Central Park as plainclothesmen led by Assist­ant Chief Inspector Sidney Cooper seized some 50 demonstrators, slammed them against parked cars, and tossed them head first into paddy wagons. Other cops chased would-be marchers west on 4th Street and north on Seventh Avenue. They caught a few at Perry Street and beat them bloody. The plainclothesmen worked in teams, shielding their colleagues from the press while they pummeled their prisoners. One photograph­er was so carried away by the action that he joined the police in seizing a demonstrator. Aryeh Neier objected, and he too was arrested and thrown into a van. Kriegel watched Neier’s arrest, made a feeble attempt to stop it, failed, shrugged, and went back to directing the bust.

Within a few minutes some 80 persons were arrested and hauled off to various precincts. It took hours to book them and longer for arraignment. At 100 Centre Street, the cops, claiming the court rooms were filled, closed the criminal courts build­ing, denying access to attorneys and bail bearers. It took the DA to re-open the place.

On Monday the New York Civil Liberties Union called for a dep­artmental trial of Chief Inspectors Garelik and Cooper on charges of brutal conduct by plainclothesmen in dealing with the Anti-Imperialist marchers. The NYCLU also said it would bring suit in Federal Court against the Police Department for deprivation of civil rights in Saturday’s incidents and during earlier demonstrations.

“The Police Department be­haved abominably … with the active support and the agree­ment of the Mayor’s office,” said Neier. “Either Lindsay is poorly served by Kriegel and Gottehrer or he is complicitous.”

Neither the Mayor’s office nor the Police Department could be reached for comment. They were busy busting Columbia.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES Protest Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

A Radical Departure: On Not Interviewing the Patriot Party

On My Mind

I left the whipped cream tortes and gemutlich music of the 86th Street burghers behind and moved through a tenement neighborhood of liquor stores and funeral parlors, Yorkville poverty’s only escape. My destination was the office of the Patriot Party. Not some group or strutting storm troopers, but white radicals out to organize the working class.

When I finally found the storefront on Second Avenue, I didn’t really want to go in. Despite my usually over-active curiosity, I couldn’t work up any enthusiasm for the interview. Only boredom prevailed. The feeling I would have heard it all before. Not just a replay of the Panthers and the Young Lords, but a rerun of the ’30s.

Not that I was putting their dreams down or even the small amount of good the breakfast program and the medical program and the housing fight might do. It was just that I couldn’t face any more machine-made revolutionaries who would talk to me about The People instead of people and re-confirm the movement’s loss of soul.

So feeling very alienated from the alienated, I kept circling past shops full of second-hand furniture and second-hand clothes and second-hand lives. Circling as I had since returning to this country after a long hiatus, unable to find a home anywhere in the movement.

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I was still as disgusted with the country, still as concerned about changing it, but there was one difference. Before leaving the country, I had little doubt that movement people were the best of the generation. Now, I was no longer so sure of that.

My encounters with radicals since I returned had been strained, if not disastrous, and I was no longer on their wave length. The meetings I attended for assorted causes were totally unfamiliar — no longer run in the open, tolerant style that was reflected in the slogan, “One man, one soul,” and that made room for all politics and points of view. Instead they seemed dedicated to making everyone conform to the current version of the truth.

It was at one of those meetings, after dissenters tired of the put-downs and contemptuously walked out, that I first became aware of my own estrangement. Most of the other radicals in the room considered the walk-out a great success because now they could run things their way, while I thought it was a complete failure, a violation of the humanistic and unmanipulative style of politics I and the movement once valued, and a long way from the germinal ideas of the Port Huron statement that said at whatever cost to the cause, one had to care for the dignity of each individual, and not let vague appeals to posterity justify the mutilation of the present.

From that meeting on, I was an outsider. How could I re-join a movement that had opposed the depersonalization of human beings and now called all cops pigs? How could I re-join a movement that had been people-centered and now broke up not only organizations but long-standing friendships over ideology?

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The ultimate in the loss of personalistic politics, of all that made the new left new, was when one faction of Columbia SDS beat up another faction of SDS for passing out leaflets. It inspired a New York Times reporter, in a rare moment of levity, to write the story in Stalinist jargon, full of long unused phrases like leftist sectarian deviationism. The fact that neither the city desk nor the movement saw anything satiric in the story is a measure of how much things have changed.

The movement seems to be sliding backward to the kind of ideological politics that made it possible, during the Spanish Civil War, for Harry Pollitt, the leader of the British Communist Party, to tell poet Stephen Spender to go get himself killed in Spain because the party needed more martyred artists to bolster its image. The new left, like the old, is beginning to subordinate the individual, his needs, his feelings, his beliefs, to the cause.

And that isn’t my kind of movement. As the French students so incisively said in one of their 68 mottos: “Une revolution que demande que l’on se sacrifice pour elle est une revolution a la papa” (“a revolution that expects one to sacrifice one’s self for it is Daddy’s kind of revolution”). More than just Daddy’s revolution, it is the reverse image of the society it is supposed to change. Instead of material goods, abstractions like the movement or the doctrine become more important than human well-being, deadening our sensitivity to one another, isolating us, and opening the way for the self-righteous use of others as objets.

My own estrangement and immediate lack of enthusiasm for the Patriot Party was caused not only by the elevation of ideology, but by the limiting of vision. The creativity, the flexibility, the willingness to dream of worlds not yet seen, has been squeezed into dry socialism. Utopia reduced to an economic formula. There was the phone call I made to a friend who had been part of the Mississippi Summer and who was now devoting herself, with the all-excluding obsessiveness of any business executive, to the study of Chinese. I wanted to discuss The Politics of Cultural Despair, a book that fit my present mood. Although it dealt with 19th century Germany, the German people’s reaction to the Industrial Revolution that disrupted their society was like our own loss of certainty, of values, of faith in our institutions. Their rebellion against modernity and the sterility of urban life included our longing for a simpler past, communal bonds, a hero to save us, and even the flourishing of fresh air hiking clubs to get the young out of the cities as often as possible.

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Yet every time I tried to talk about the psychic dimension, to connect the malaise and feelings of cultural despair to the rise of Hitler, she kept stuffing me back in the economic bag, kept talking about the conditions of the workers and inflation in the Weimar Republic. When I said the book had led me back to Nietzsche, it was as if I mentioned an author on the Index. I was immediately reprimanded for not reading Marx or one of the proper books everyone else was reading. It was as if all truth and all solutions to the ills of the nearly 21st century resided in one 19th century man and his disciples.

Yet this constricted thinking, the tendency to talk only in terms of overthrowing capitalistic systems and ruling classes, can lead only to a one-dimensional revolution. It would mean only redesigning the turrets and towers on the technocratic citadel. For socialist as well as capitalist countries are motored by a technocratic machine that needs constant and instantaneous coordination from the center. In the name of progress, efficiency, and necessity, government officials and experts in the East as well as in the West manipulate lives, while we, like Kafka’s bewildered K, remain powerless dependents on inaccessible and inscrutable castles where they conjure with our fate.

Even sacrosanct Cuba, despite all its homage to the creation of a new man, has made its main thrust the accomplishment of agricultural and technical feats. For the sake of progress, as well as self-preservation, the Cuban revolutionaries have sacrificed the rights of individuals.

Not that the political forms are important. The American experience has taught us that a free press does not guarantee truth, that laws do not guarantee justice or elections representation. Yet Cuba and the new left’s cavalier dismissal of these forms seems based on the assumption that the state and its survival are more important than the individual. In that reversal lies the danger of the creation of another Superstate, the danger of the destruction of Cuba’s possibilities once the genuine concern and charisma of Fidel are gone.

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For me, the movement’s easy adoption of the socialist economic and political system as its panacea is a cop-out, a failure to do the tougher job of coming up with ideas for a new society which, unlike either the capitalists or the collectivists, will do more than make the unlimited satisfaction of material wants its god, which will put the individual at the center and make all economic and political activities subordinate to his human growth, and which will make no man the means to either the state’s or another man’s end.

A couple of fringe efforts seek to go beyond this one-dimensional revolution. The women’s liberation movement recognizes that it cannot depend on the revolution to change the relationship between men and women. They are trying to do something about it now. Yet the narrowness of their concern makes it impossible for me to become all-involved in that one issue, the way so many other homeless activists have become.

I also admire the hippie-yippie effort to evolve a new style of community to rediscover joy and redefine living, but the egocentricity of just doing your own thing keeps me from donning love beads.

I even believe the new politics has some merit in its search for ways of letting people more directly affect the choice of candidates. Yet when I consider the possible candidates the former “clean for Gene” kids might come up with for ’72, I can’t share their faith or illusions. Nor in ’68, our hour of need, could I convince myself that a moderate liberal like McCarthy or Kennedy would be the savior. The compromises, the petty power plays, the think-small mentality needed to become a politician in this country makes the liberal left think only in terms of extending the welfare state rather than redistributing the real power that sets our priorities, makes even the best-intentioned candidate unable to do more than bandage the country’s wounds.

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And so I remain an alien among the alienated. Unable to find an honest home among the new politics because listening to the New Democratic Coalition argue the marginal differences between a Nickerson and a Goldberg is like listening to competing cigarette commercials trying to sell their nearly identical anti-life products. Unable to comfortably fence-sit with the radicals who dropped out of the political system either before or after Chicago because I’m not self-indulgent enough to deny an extra 50 cents on a welfare check to someone who may need it while waiting for the revolution that may never come. Unable to be just a women’s liberationist or hippie, a Panther or Patriot.

Still, as I wandered orphan-like around Yorkville, I wasn’t unaware that it wasn’t just the movement that had changed, with guns and bombs becoming the escapist toys of radicals who have no other way of dealing with the political reality, it wasn’t just the country that had turned into a bad hallucination, with moon shots and map pins in Laos the romantic kicks for a Washington unable to deal with social disintegration. For a couple of months after returning from South America, I heard myself, the girl who used to be Pollyanna, who used to believe nothing was impossible, arguing with a professor who was saying pessimism was outdated — the young were going to save the world.

And it was loss of belief, near nihilism, that really kept me from going to see the Patriots, that reduced others alienated from the movement to talking to each other in assorted living rooms, made some even stop trying to search for answers and become the siren voices saying the hippies are right, nothing can be done, the only important thing is to enjoy your own life.

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Perhaps it was only the intensity of my despair that made it so rough, so constant. I had certainly been around activists for a long time. My memory went back to an afternoon when the civil rights movement was falling apart, just before Stokely gave birth to Black Power, the time when blacks and white radicals could still sit and talk about “the problem” which was our problem. The mood was not that different — the people in the room suffering from the same exhaustion of protest, the feeling that all the tactics had been used up, absorbed into the country’s tolerance system. Group fantasy became the afternoon’s relief. One black student jumped up and shouted he knew what we should do. With everyone’s attention riveted on him, he began to demonstrate how we would erect this giant computer on the comer of 126th Street and Lenox Avenue, feed all the problems about jobs and schools and housing and unions into it, push all the buttons, and then wait for the machine to tell us how to solve them. He reached for the imaginary computer card, then looking down, reading in a voice that still echoes out of time, he said, “The machine says there’s no answer… no answer… no answer.”

Yet blacks were able to discover their psychic salvation in the black power movement, to hold hope and pride together with a black beret, while white radicals went only to the fragmentation of SDS or the futility of the peace movement, knowing that demonstrating on Tuesday only meant Johnson would escalate the bombing on Wednesday, knowing that demonstrating tomorrow will only mean Nixon will defeat them with benign neglect the next day.

All this brought me to the Yorkville border of Lotus Land, but still refusing to cross over. Grasping at any rope that would lead me back over my nihilism and alienation, willing to believe the fault was all mine, that being gone so long I had lost my ability to listen between the lines of the hard-edged rhetoric, to hear what people weren’t saying, I decided I had to see the Patriots.

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The thought of the distance between us sent me on a preliminary bender — like some wild alcoholic, buying, buying, buying books I couldn’t afford, everything, anything that would reconnect me with the soul of the movement — and finally, stumbling out of the store, shopping bags full of truth, I returned to my apartment and piled paperbacks 20 deep on the coffee table.

For a while I just sat before them as if they had some totem power to illuminate the movement and bring me home. Then I began reading everything at once, hopping from chapter to chapter, and, following an old tradition, usually beginning at the back of the book. I found little cause for optimism, and, too often, a recognition of my own near resignation.

There were the doubts and weariness that made the hero of The Strawberry Statement say that we were the bridge generation, the product of all the past and the ones who had to keep the future human, and then wonder in the same paragraph whether struggling to keep people human was desirable. “I don’t know,” he continued to debate, “in Brave New World, the people were always happy. They were dehumanized and low, but the fact remains they were happy. It was repugnant to the observer, but they couldn’t step outside their system to see it. They were just happy. That seems all right.”

And reading it I remembered the perverse pleasure I had felt in the mindlessness of a filing job. The secret fantasy of being a content dumb blonde manicurist. The often repeated quotation of one of Lawrence’s heroines: “Why can’t I simply rest in him.”

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It was at that low point in my slide toward becoming one of the lotus eaters that the phone, my umbilical cord to the real world, began ringing. It was a call from the other half of friendship’s oddest couple that forced me to confront the toughest part of my own alienation from the alienated.

The conversation — with my favorite North Carolina cracker, honorary member of the Ku Klux Klan, and sharer of my concern for poor whites — began with his excited report about the postman’s strike, his announcement that, for the first time, he had rolled down his car windows, honked his horn, and given the V sign to demonstrators. It was his constituency on the move, the thing he had been waiting for, much more significant than some nutty kids who couldn’t even make a bomb without blowing themselves up, he said, winding up with a harangue against dynamiting radicals that would have done any Southern preacher proud.

My response to the harangue would have been much simpler a couple of years ago. Although always ambivalent in my feelings, arguing both sides of the violence question with equal conviction, it was easier to empathize with the strange kind of love that made the most sensitive and the most intelligent, the Malcolm Xs and the Le Roi Joneses, unable to passively accept the daily soul-worn destruction of their people. It was easier to justify rebellion, even violent rebellion, when it was a gut reaction to the irrationality, the incomprehens­ible injustice of the human spectacle, when it insisted the outrage be brought to an end in the name of life.

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It is quite another thing to justify murder for a rebellion which prefers an abstract concept of man to a man of flesh and blood, which forgets the spirit of humanity for the defense of ideology or the delusion of power, which puts resentment in the place of love, which vilifies all opponents, which measures convictions by the efficacy with which one can hit the nearest cop, which adores violence for its own sake, and which shrieks with exhilaration the ultimate cry of nihilism, “Viva, Viva la muerte.”

A movement that acts like the other side is the other side, and worth no one’s loyalty.

Muddling through the distinction for myself and my phone confessor, I began to feel the time had come for the alienated among the ashes to consecrate a new rebellion. A phoenix that would rise above the nihilism that is making us incapable of any action or only of desperate action. A phoenix that would return to its roots and use the intelligence, conviction, and passion of its followers to find a creative alternative to murder.

And if we still fail, if despite all our ideas and words and actions, we cannot turn this country around, if it becomes our curse to be faced with the choice between accepting an intolerable world and either directly or indirectly killing another human being, then let it be done not in triumph but in despair by a generation lost in its own loneliness, with weapons in its hands and agony in its heart, never for an instant deluding itself that murder is right, recognizing that the only virtue is in not deifying the power to inflict death, and in returning as rapidly as possible to the original impetus — the impetus of compassion, of community, of life.

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From The Archives Protest Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES Violence

Peace March, 1966 

Peace March, 1966
March 31, 1966

I live on 103rd Street near Central Park West, one of the very few whites in a block of Negroes and Puerto Ricans. Garbage strews the streets and children play in it. Their elders view the scene with sullen passivity. Getting drunk seems to be their only retort. The subway strike and the blackout before it seemed not to affect their lives, both being manifestations of a foreign life in a society in which they are kept alien. 

When I saw the ad in The Village Voice that told of the Peace Parade down Fifth Avenue on March 26, I had been watching several men and women in windows opposite my building going through an elaborate system of signals, all directed to a window next to mine. One, a man I’d noticed often before, wearing a dirty white trench coat and limping, I had put down as a runner of sorts. Another, a janitor with a carrying voice, still young and dressed always in army fatigues, carries on as the neighborhood pimp. All would appear as Hollywood spies but for their apathetic demeanor. I wondered what Vietnam meant, if anything, to these victims of the Great Society. 

I turned on the radio to get the weather and had to wade through a report on the War on Poverty, a bulletin telling us that narcotics addiction threatened our way of life, then came the voice of a hero of my youth, Louis Armstrong, singing about Schaefer’s beer, a premature estimation that 10,000 to 12,000 were marching in the Peace Parade that wasn’t to start for at least an hour and a half. Then I got it: it was 43 degrees and windy with partially sunny skies. I was slightly hungover from a $20 evening listening to Sonny Stitt and Roy Eldridge, both of whom had thrilled me in the late forties and early fifties when we were all young. I would go to the parade to see what youth was up to now. 

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I dressed warmly, left my apartment to pick my way through the debris of Friday night’s brawls, and entered the park. 

The sun was filtering through a hazy sky, and wind blew dirt into my eyes. The pond is idyllic from a distance, but up close its water is green with slime and dotted with broken buggies, beer cans, unidentified junk. Plane trees with greenish-yellow peeled bark seem the only trees able to thrive in the polluted city air. Even the squirrels look ratty and undernourished. 

As I walked, I thought of the 2,000 Vietnamese we were said to have killed in the past week, of the President’s voice when he branded those who spoke out against the killings as misguided, and how carefully parental he made his voice sound, like a misunderstood teacher explaining to his very young students that their welfare was in his heart. Further on in the park, boys played baseball desultorily, some drank from bottles in bushes, others fought in cruel desperation. Here and there an old woman fed squirrels or birds with bread crumbs. A man tossed a stick for his dog to chase. Spring had come to Central Park and was greeted apathetically. 

When I reached Madison Avenue, I headed south toward Ninety-Second Street where The Village Voice said that the “unaffiliated” were to gather with “professional groups” and “pacifist groups.” Having spent the major portion of the past fifteen years as an executive of an automobile-leasing firm, giving up finally when I realized the only legitimate concern was the making of money in the shortest and cleverest way possible, I decided that I was one of the “unaffiliated.” 

It was a little after 12 when I arrived at my corner. Small knots of people had congregated and were being stared at by the police, who were out in riot proportions. One or two looked at me with the deference I had become used to, and I hoped the small frays in my Rodex overcoat that had cost me $175 a few years ago would be noticed by the young people who were, I thought, beginning to eye me with suspicion. I reached greedily for a copy of The National Guardian being shoved into my hands, sticking my finger through the hole in my leather gloves as I did. I even tried to adopt the sullen looks the partisans were giving the police. But the feeling of alienation was strong within me, and as I pushed past the corner, throngs were on Fifth Avenue, and I saw myself as they must have seen me: a forty-nine-year-old man who could afford to dress well, one with gray hair and a white mustache, an Enemy of the People. When a girl asked me to buy The Catholic Worker, I said in a loud voice that I hadn’t enough money. Several near me tittered, and she said it only cost a penny, or what else I felt like contributing. I fumbled nervously in my pocket and gave her all the change I had, four pennies. A bearded youth gave me a placard to carry, saying “Bring the Boys Home Now!” I was in business. 

It was getting on toward 12:30, and I realized I had been foolish not to have had a more substantial breakfast than a cup of coffee and a glass of orange juice. My back, which plagues me from time to time, began to stiffen. I sat down on the low stone abutment of the Jewish Museum to wait for the start of the parade. A policeman, with a forced smile, asked me to please not sit there, that no one was allowed on the sidewalks. I took my stand close to a family group being photographed by the father — two lovely teenaged girls in long straw-colored hair, and their mother. The girls were eager for action. Two middle-aged and respectable couples were working on a banner strung between two wooden poles on which a crude replica of Picasso’s “Guernica” was drawn. The street was filled up. I couldn’t now, if I wanted, leave for food or for any other reason. There was barely room to move without jostling. 

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There were several young men looking self-conscious in their attempts to live up to newspaper descriptions of “beatniks,” in long matted hair and beards, talking overly loud to girls neutered by clothing that de-emphasized their sex. There were also those who seemed to be cultivating a look that would brand them as “radicals,” wearing the mask I remembered from the Depression leftists, along with the newer Fuck-Communism-Let’s-Have-a-Ball variety. There were, too, a few teenagers out for kicks. But most of the men and women packed close to me were coupled, concerned and brimming with enthusiasm I had been taught by my daily reading of the press had been stamped out. On no face did I see the signs of cowardice, malevolence, or moral depravity such “peaceniks” were implied to be contaminated with. 

A jolly fat man pushed through with a shopping bag, crying out, “The old button man is back with more goodies!” Another, bare­headed and scholarly, followed in his wake, distributing placards, a baby slung round his back, calling out with the placard waved aloft, “Who is qualified to carry this sign? Step right up!” Laughter floated round in the cold air of the shaded street. “I want to see the parade,” a small child’s voice complained. Police had given up their attempt to keep people from the sidewalks; paraders now occupied the window ledges of the Jewish Museum as well as the doorway. Behind me, all the way back to Madison, the street was walled with people. Signs of all kinds were held aloft with now and then a streetwide banner proclaiming the groups to which they were aligned: teachers, scientists from Rockefeller Institute, writers and artists, professional groups. Before me, across the weakly sunny Fifth Avenue, on the park’s stone wall, were photographers taking pictures of us. Over the heads of those in front, the tips of flags could be seen. People were patiently waiting for their time in the sun. Overhead, a plane buzzed and someone shouted, “There they go!” and nervous laughter broke out. 

Finally, at close to two o’clock, two flags, one the standard of our country, the other an older standard with thirteen stars in a circle surrounding the number seventy-six. A cry sprang up, building to a roar. The parade bad begun. Veterans from World War II and Korea were in the vanguard. Mothers gathered their children around them, some taking fresh grips on their prams, signs were held aloft as we strained on tiptoes to catch glimpses of the marchers and the signs they carried. The sound of applause was loud. 

Cold and hungry, my back threatening to break down at the first wrong movement, I stood in that crowd of dedicated young Americans and allowed their fervor to warm me in a way that food and drink never could. When the word came, we were let into the street, our banner aloft, to walk eight in a line down that sunny street, to the bursting applause of the throngs who lined the sidewalks on the other side of the barriers of wooden horses and policemen. It was like a sudden entrance on a stage lit by klieg lights. To my left a young good-looking couple marched hand in hand, next to them a woman pushed a stroller with a child in it, an old woman in a purple plush hat with pearl hatpin, an ancient man looking grim, two bright young girls with widely staring eyes. I was on the right end of the line on the park side of the street. Marshals in green armbands tried to keep the lines orderly, men with green badges of the press stalked along with costly picture-taking and sound equipment, policemen with bullhorns swaggered as thousands of their co-workers lined the streets facing the spectators. Here and there a small blue motorscooter buzzed by with a blue helmeted policeman on it. The chanting began, slow and faltering at first, then growing as it found its own rhythm: “Peace Now, Peace Now, Peace Now!” 

A can of red paint splattered on the asphalt, a scream, then the chanting rose to cover all for a time. I saw faces in the crowd along the route contorted by insane rage, mouths stretched to the breaking point, eyes staring, fists shaking. They were young boys in brown uniforms with orange lettering and green berets, though they were scarcely old enough to have seen action in Vietnam, most still in their teens. They were screaming as loud as they could in scratchy voices. When the “Peace Now” chant died down, I heard some of the words they spat at us. 

“Fruits, Communist bastards, cowards!” “We killed two thousand of your kind last week, queers!” “Killing’s too good for you bums!” “Look at ’em, they look like girls! A bunch of dirty girls!” 

“Don’t you like girls?” I found myself asking suddenly, my face hot with excitement and embarrassment for having been lured into talking back to them. My marshal came quickly alongside to tell me there was no need to answer. I marched in silence, eyes ahead, my ears ringing with the profanity of the hooligans from the right. It was no longer possible for me, seeing those faces, the signs that urged for more, more bombing of Hanoi and a mining of the Bay of Haiphong, to believe what the press told me, what our political leaders said, that these were men of courage while we, the marchers, were cowards, evil or misguided. Compared to the naked hate on the faces of these sidewalk hecklers, those of the marchers I associated in my mind with early Christian martyrs, as they bravely faced scorn with songs. 

The hecklers were only small pockets, isolated by long stretches of sympathizers who clapped their hands and called out encouragingly to us. I saw a Catholic priest bearing a sign saying “FOR GOD’S SAKE STOP IT!” An egg was hurled and it stained the street. An elegantly dressed woman of middle age, heavily painted with snobbery, looked down her nose and muttered something to a man with a cane. Behind them, on the steps of an institution-like stone building, a woman in her twenties in bizarre clothes, showed herself to the marchers, her long legs drawn up and wide apart. She giggled when the marchers looked. Her young man smoked moodily, now and then he raised his fist and screamed some obscenity. The woman laughed hysterically and opened her legs wider.

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Waves of weakness surged through me. My legs, from long standing, would not behave, and I stumbled along like a cripple or one with too much to drink. The sounds were overwhelming. Out of it came the high-pitched taunts of a young fellow, clean and scrubbed-looking, his hands in his pockets as he marched cockily along with us on the sidewalk, one eye out for his two straggling companions. When they cheered him, he screamed louder. He was centering his attack on the woman with the purple plush hat in my line. She was at least sixty and walking was a job. She tried to ignore him. He broke through the line of onlookers to walk beside her. “You filthy old whore!” he screamed, his face pushed close to hers. Above were the fat horizontal ramparts of the Guggenheim Museum. “A dirty old whore!” I moved without thought. I slapped that red young face and saw surprise and fear as police zoomed in to get him. There was some murmuring but I was too confused by the suddenness and unseemliness of my attack to know if I was being praised or put down. But I was pleased with myself, in spurts between waves of self-loathing, when seeing the distorted faces of the anti-demonstrators I appeared in my own eyes as one of them. “Please don’t answer them, and stay in line,” I was warned by my marshal. “That’s what they want. It’ll only get us in trouble.” But when I could look around me, I saw smiling faces, especially that of the old woman in purple plush. 

At 72nd Street the march turned into the park, where those before us were lined up along the paths, held back by policemen. From the mall came the amplified sounds of folk singing. There were to be speeches. I had had it. All I wanted was a place to sit and a drink to warm me. I left the march and walked for a time alongside it on the grass, feeling again the difference in my dress, my manner, my weariness. Was I no longer a part of humanity? Had I been led astray too long by the trappings of success? 

I had my drink in an Irish bar with a television set blaring out the final inning of the Chicago White Sox–New York Mets baseball game. Here were men said to be of my kind, well dressed, in various stages of inebriation, shouting, faces flushed, about sports. I left to walk back to the subway station and home. 

On my block swarms of children filled the streets, their parents shouted up to the windows of friends, who screamed back. Garbage was mashed into the sidewalks and spilled over cans already filled. A four-year-old was banging with two chair rungs on a sheet metal fence, while above him two older boys clung to a fire escape masturbating. On the wall of the tenement was a sign in chalk that said “Fuck China.” I was home. 

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‘Cinema of Resistance’: Reels of Rage

‘I make films—that’s what I can do for Vietnam,” says Jean-Luc Godard in the omnibus anti-war project Far From Vietnam (1967). If you replace “Vietnam” in that statement with, for starters, Afghanistan, Algeria, Argentina, Northern Ireland, the French West Indies, various factions of the New Left, and the Occupy movement, you’ll have a sense of the bracing scope of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s weeklong “Cinema of Resistance” series. The 15 feature-length works and various shorts programs here—whether fact, fiction, or, more often, an explosive hybrid of the two—are all acts of bearing witness, made to provoke outrage over abuses, conflicts, and wars.

Made a decade after Algeria won its independence from France, René Vautier’s To Be Twenty in the Aurès (1972) is set near the end of the brutal battle between those two nations, every frame a scorching indictment of colonialism. A dozen Breton pacifists, sent to a desert camp in the mountains of the title, near the Algerian-Tunisian border, quickly lose their principles—and their minds—after a lieutenant transforms them into a commando unit. “Then you take aim, and you get a taste for it,” one formerly nonviolent soldier tells another during shooting practice, their proclivities soon to include beating, raping, and torture.

France’s ignominious history in the Caribbean comes under attack in Mauritanian-born filmmaker Med Hondo’s puckish West Indies: The Fugitive Slaves of Liberty (1979). This centuries-spanning, stage-set chronicle of Martinique and Guadeloupe—both colonized in the 1600s by France, which imported human chattel from Africa to harvest the islands’ sugar and tobacco—often erupts into musical numbers. These delirious, incendiary interludes suggest song and dance as concocted by Bertolt Brecht, Jacques Demy, Alvin Ailey, and Frantz Fanon.

The blending of diverse styles into a singular howl of fury also defines Far From Vietnam. Under the guidance of Chris Marker, the collective behind the movie, which comprises 13 different segments, united to protest a war waged by the U.S.—”the biggest industrial and military power of all time,” as the voiceover narration reminds us—against one of the world’s poorest countries. (Many of the seven filmmakers—who, in addition to Godard, include Alain Resnais and Agnès Varda—involved in Far From Vietnam are French; France’s occupation, from 1887 until 1954, of the Southeast Asian nation does not go unremarked upon.) Interspersed between footage of Hanoi bombings and corpses of children are anti-war protests in Paris, where the demonstrators are clubbed by gendarmes, and in New York, where those who demand peace are shouted down by those who call for more bloodshed.

“American society is disintegrating,” someone says in Far From Vietnam. Another collectively made film about the war, Winter Soldier (1972), offers first-hand testimony about the U.S. military’s deepening depravity. Organized by Vietnam Veterans Against the War (member John Kerry is seen fleetingly in the documentary), the Winter Soldier Investigation convened at a Howard Johnson motel in Detroit; from January 31 through February 2, 1971, vets recounted the mutilations, rapes, stonings, and other atrocities they either participated in or witnessed while in Southeast Asia. “I didn’t like being an animal, and I didn’t like seeing everybody else turned into animals,” one Purple Heart–earning Marine tells the filmmakers (a group that included Barbara Kopple) about his decision to speak out against the war.

The event in Detroit was not without its fissures: The cameras capture an African-American vet confronting a white testifier over racial politics. The splintering and infighting that began to erode “the movement” in the late ’60s and early ’70s plays a larger role in Robert Kramer’s Ice (1970), a fictional work that imagines the “National Committee of Independent Revolutionary Organizations” fighting a fascist Amerikkka at war with Mexico. The movie may be fantasy, but many of the scenarios were surely rooted in the real experiences of activists like Kramer, one of the founding members of Newsreel, a collective that made scores of short films and documentaries devoted to far-left and anti-war causes between 1967 and 1971.

One communiqué in Ice emphasizes the “necessity of armed struggle” to overthrow the U.S. government—the goal espoused by the five fugitive members of the Weather Underground in the 1976 documentary Underground, a collaborative work by Emile de Antonio, Mary Lampson, and Haskell Wexler. Wanted by the FBI at the time of filming, Bill Ayers, Kathy Boudin, Bernadine Dorhn, Jeff Jones, and Cathy Wilkerson are shot only from the back or through an obscuring scrim as they recapitulate the experiences that made them “full-time revolutionaries,” each recollection amplified by footage from the 1967 March on the Pentagon, the 1969 Days of Rage, and other pivotal moments during this convulsive epoch. Though sympathetic toward (or at the very least intrigued by) the group, de Antonio, a deeply committed leftist documentarian, and his colleagues are not uncritical: A scroll lists all the bombings sponsored by the radical organization. Yet another block of text is also crucial: “The future will be what we the people struggle to make it,” reads a banner in the safe house where the insurrectionists were interviewed—a credo that serves as the organizing principle for most of the films in this terrific retrospective.

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Saiguette Tells A Tale of Two Soups

While New York has hardly been racing to close the pho gap, we are slowly catching up. Where in the U.S. are there better examples of this Vietnamese street-food staple? Well, Houston, New Orleans, Atlantic City, Falls Church (Virginia), and California’s Silicon Valley, to name just a few locales. All have pho of startling quality, better than anything here. Last year, I reported on a game-changing example found at Sao Mai in the East Village, but more recently stumbled on another great version in the Manhattan Valley, at a carryout called Saiguette.

What is great pho, anyhow? It begins and almost ends with the broth. In the part of Vietnam where the rice-noodle soup originated, it is said that bone-in beef is sometimes boiled for as long as five days, until even the bones melt into the soup. While this tale may be apocryphal, it does speak to the richness and labor-intensiveness of the wonderful broth. The biggest problem with New York examples is that they often seem thrown together, their stock not allowed to bubble long enough. They also tend to be unbalanced in their spicing, with cinnamon and star anise way out in front. Pho broth should be deeply flavorful but paradoxically light, amber-colored with tiny jewels of oil dancing on the surface.

Draped with a colorful banner proclaiming “Grand Opening,” Saiguette is mainly a large bustling kitchen with a carryout counter jammed in front, and a dining area limited to eight stools. If you choose to stay you’ll almost be sitting in your neighbor’s lap. But eaten in or taken out, the food always comes in carryout containers. When you order the pho ($8), the broth arrives near-boiling in a tall receptacle, while a squat plastic bowl is filled with tender cooked brisket, slender rice noodles, shaved onions, and raw steak sliced thin. Just before your pho is delivered, you can often hear the whirring of the slicer as the steak is freshly cut. This freshness means you can decide when and how much to cook the steak in the broth, rather than having it arrive half-gray.

A separate baggie contains lime wedges, bean sprouts, and pungent basil leaves, to be tossed or squeezed in at your discretion. Call it bare-bones pho, since it lacks the usual add-ins that many could do without, including tripe and tendon. (A version retaining the offal has recently been added to the menu.) Assemble the soup, still steaming, and watch a near-perfect combination of flavors and textures come together.

There are other worthwhile things at Saiguette, too. The rice-paper-wrapped summer rolls called nem chao, Texas-big and filled with steamed shrimp and pickled vegetables ($6), are luscious to look at and even better to eat. Similarly exceptional, though not particularly Vietnamese, are the round, steamed moon dumplings, which come with a choice of fillings, including a delightful pork-and-dried-shrimp rendition ($5.50). The baguette-based banh mi heroes are good, too, with a catalog of innovative fillings, of which my two favorites feature boneless chicken thighs and grilled skirt steak. (A more conventional combo of pâté and pork terrine is also available.)

Though popular all over the country, pho is often associated with Hanoi in northern Vietnam. At the bottom of the restaurant’s slender pho list, pho nam vang ($8), a soup often associated with Saigon and sometimes called hu tieu. It might have become as famous as regular pho, except there’s no standard recipe. At Saiguette—where the menu claims the soup is made from an old family recipe—the broth is silky and porky, with ribbons of egg noodle, fish balls, fish cake, shrimp, and squid added in. Instead of basil, the predominant seasoning is cilantro and scallions, with hoisin for extra oomph. It’s delectable, and quite unlike pho.

How variable is this soup? I went to Vietnamese old-timer Nha Trang Centre (148 Centre Street, 212-941-9292) in Chinatown to find out. There, the broth is fishier and more saline, with purple onions and scallions dominating the flavor and a similar seafood assortment. Surprisingly, big rounds of daikon radish cooked to creaminess constitute another component, and the noodles are mung bean threads instead of the more European egg noodles. I later learned from vietworldkitchen.typepad.com that nam vang is the Vietnamese name for Phnom Penh, meaning that the soup originally hails from that Cambodian city. The recipe given on the website is far more complex than Saiguette’s, but the basic components of seafood, pork, noodles, and a flavoring scheme more Chinese than Vietnamese prevail. If you ever tire of pho, nam vang is your ticket.

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New Musical Dogfight Trades WW2 Sailors for Vietnam Marines

San Francisco, San Francisco, it’s a helluva town. Or so think the three Vietnam-bound Marines to whom SF plays host on their last night stateside in Dogfight (Second Stage Theatre), a new musical based on the 1991 movie. The date is November 21, 1963, the day before JFK’s assassination, but this has no noticeable effect on the action; it’s simply a pretentious way of telling us that the story takes place before Americans supposedly lost their illusions about politics in general and the Vietnam War in particular.

But Dogfight‘s three “jarheads,” who call themselves “the three B’s” because their last names all begin with B (they met while waiting lined up in alphabetical order), already seem well advanced in disillusion. The three sailors on leave in New York in the 1944 Bernstein-Comden-Green musical On the Town, the shadow of which hovers darkly over Dogfight—one of the latter’s three marines is even named Bernstein—only wanted to find compatible girls to date. Their ’60s Marine counterparts, more cynical, pool their funds for a “pig party” or “dogfight”: The Marine who brings back the ugliest date wins the jackpot.

This slimy but not unimaginable notion makes an iffy premise for a musical, requiring the female principals to start as victims shanghaied under false pretenses, and making the male leads seem like either unsympathetic schmucks or jerks who equate schmuckiness with Semper Fi spirit. The show worsens matters by ladling on globs of 20/20 hindsight, making its three would-be heroes warble about the ticker tape parades they’ll receive when they come home victorious from “this little country near India.” The tragic joke that history’s about to play on them, considerably nastier than the one they’re playing on their dates for the evening, isn’t seriously explored, just used as a lever, yanked periodically to keep us feeling compassion for them.

One of the trio, Boland (Josh Segarra), turns out to be a thorough schmuck (despite Segarra’s appealing performance). He not only cheats to win the bet, but also gives his buddy Birdlace (Derek Klena), the central figure, anti-advice on his romance with Rose (Lindsay Mendez), the not-really-so-doglike girl whom Birdlace recruits as his date. Naturally, while their night on the town runs through a string of false starts and harsh misunderstandings, Rose and Birdlace evolve from Petruchio and Kate into Romeo and Juliet. Or would if Boland and Southeast Asia didn’t intervene. The third Marine, Bernstein (Nick Blaemire), seems there mainly to provide comic relief, of a long-antiquated Jewish stereotype kind: glasses, big words, squeamishness about pain and sex.

Authors Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, and Peter Duchan spend much time on the men’s hunt for “dogs,” and on the gals’ rebellion when Boland’s date (an amusing performance by Annaleigh Ashford) accidentally spills the beans about his chicanery. Little time is spent delving into the characters of their three nonheroes, who they are, what drives them to pull this degrading stunt, what bonds them once Boland’s trickery is exposed. The Pasek-Paul songs, mostly entertaining and skillful, supply a lot of fun, as energetically choreographed by Christopher Gattelli, but very little emotional revelation. Duchan’s script chiefly keeps the plot moving, and is sometimes blurry even at that. (Since Birdlace misses the three men’s tattoo-parlor appointment, when did he acquire his three-bees tattoo?)

And for all its heavy ironizing about the distance between the glory the men expect and the crap they get, the show never conveys any sense of what Vietnam meant then or means now. Its political blankness is especially puzzling because of its setting—San Francisco was among the earliest sources of antiwar protest—and because the script makes Rose a wannabe folk singer who idolizes Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger, not famous lovers of military intervention abroad. The show’s last segment feels particularly cursory, embodying Birdlace’s Vietnam experience in a sound-and-light barrage that could symbolize any battle anytime, and conveying his grief over his lost buddies in a frenetic, nondescript final song that reduces Klena, otherwise an impressive performer, to off-key screaming, followed by a reunion with Rose that’s no more than a standard Hollywood clinch-and-fade-out. That’s especially disheartening because Mendez and Klena, like the history the show glosses over, clearly have the capacity to offer a much richer experience.

mfeingold@villagevoice.com

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Apocalypse Now Redux

Dir. Francis Ford Coppola (1979/2001) In 2001, Coppola restored 49 minutes of scenes that had been deleted from the original theatrical release, shoring up this infamous proclamation the director made at the world premiere of his war epic at the Cannes Film Festival in 1979: “My film is not about Vietnam; it is Vietnam.”

Fri., July 13, 7 p.m.; Sat., July 14, 6 p.m.; Sun., July 15, 6 p.m., 2012

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Dog Meat: What Does It Taste Like?

In case you Fork in the Road readers don’t Google-stalk me, you might not know that I wrote a book called Four Kitchens: My Life Behind the Burner in New York, Hanoi, Tel Aviv, and Paris, which recounts the year I spent learning to cook in restaurants around the world. It came out last Wednesday. Yay! Buy a copy! Can’t be persuaded to shell out the $15 on Amazon just yet? Understandable, times are tough. Perhaps this sneak peek of one of the most unique dining experiences from my year abroad can change your mind. Behold my edible adventure of eating dog meat — yes, little Rover — in Vietnam.

Now, before you get all PETA activist on me, you should know that dog is actually a specialty in Vietnam, and I wanted to experience the local culture as much as possible, which meant getting out of my culinary comfort zone and eating like the Vietnamese.

Dog meat is thought to bring luck and prosperity, but only during the second half of the lunar month. Consuming dog during the first half is considered very unlucky; consequently, many dog-meat restaurants close during that time. Dog meat is more commonly eaten during the cold winter months because it is considered a “warming” food according to traditional food classification. However, I sampled it at Tran Muc, a famed dog restaurant just north of Hanoi, in the sweltering summer heat.

The most traditional way to sample dog in Vietnam is in a set of dishes known as cay to 7 mon, in which a whole dog is used and prepared seven different ways. We knew that would be too much food for the two of us, my friend Hung and I, so Hung ordered a trifecta: steamed dog, grilled dog, and dog stew. Yum!

Steamed dog meat is on the top left, grilled dog on the bottom left
Steamed dog meat is on the top left, grilled dog on the bottom left

Our waitress soon brought out a plate filled with lemongrass stalks, basil leaves, and a large-leafed Vietnamese herb called la mo that was grassy-tasting and covered in a light fuzz; a plate of cucumber spears with chile salt, sliced chile peppers, and lime wedges; a large sesame-studded rice cracker; and a small bowl of purple fermented shrimp sauce whose potent smell and taste are supposed to help mask dog meat’s strong flavor. The steamed dog pieces were placed before us; several slices of fatty, pinkish gray meat resembling boiled leather slumped atop one another on a small white plate. The olfactory mirrored the visual — the scent wafting through the air recalled wet cardboard in a slaughterhouse. My stomach clenched.

The grilled dog placed in front of us, however, looked more appetizing than the steamed version. The bite-sized chunks of meat were covered in a paste made from galangal and had been grilled on skewers until lightly charred. The dog stew closely resembled a vegetable-free beef stew and followed next, but Hung, a medical doctor, quickly inspected it and then dismissed it, claiming that it might not be fresh. But onward march!

Inside Tran Muc, the dog restaurant
Inside Tran Muc, the dog restaurant

Now, our table wasn’t so much a table as a piece of newspaper on the floor. As you can see, the restaurant is open-air, and you sit on the floor. (Note: don’t wear a skirt like I did.) I was one of the few women in the restaurant (dog meat is particularly prized for its virility-inducing properties).

Chopsticks in hand, I reached for the grilled dog. Hung instructed me to wrap it in herbs and dip it in the murky shrimp sauce. After a deep breath, I slowly nibbled the meat. It was chewy and fatty, with a strong animal taste like squab or venison, but not as succulent. The minced galangal and subtle charcoal flavor were pleasant enough, and the meat itself was reminiscent of beef — if you closed your eyes and didn’t think about it too much.

While Hung lapped up the meat, I nibbled on the cucumber spears, dipping them into the chile-flecked salt. Seeing that I wasn’t going for the steamed dog meat, he placed a piece in my bowl and smiled. I hesitantly wrapped it in herbs and told myself that it had to taste better than it looked. Yet as soon as I began to chew, my visceral reactions took over and my throat closed. All I wanted to do was gag, but somehow I swallowed.

I tried to force a smile as Hung watched my every move with gleeful anticipation. The steamed dog meat packed a primordial punch; it was strong and complex, but also extremely earthy and wild, like nothing I’d ever tasted. I can say with authority that steamed dog meat is an acquired taste, and one that I hadn’t acquired — nor was likely to.

“So, did you like dog dinner?” Hung asked when we were finished.

“It was interesting, although I’m not sure I’ll be eating dog again soon,” I said. Indeed, my Tran Muc dog dinner doesn’t figure into my top five most delicious meals. Or top 10 or 20 or 100. But hands down, it was my most unforgettable meal of all time.

Adapted from Four Kitchens: My Life Behind the Burner in New York, Hanoi, Tel Aviv, and Paris (Grand Central Publishing, 2011).

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Family Affair: Peering In on Another Screwed-up Clan

The latest entry in the increasingly popular “meet my fucked-up relatives” documentary subgenre, Chico Colvard’s Family Affair spotlights a clan whose dysfunction makes Precious Jones’s household look like The Brady Bunch. A black Vietnam vet and himself an incest victim, Chico’s father instituted a reign of physical- and sexual-abuse-laden terror over his Kentucky home throughout the ’70s, leading indirectly to the then-10-year-old director shooting one sister in the leg and another sister later succumbing to paranoid schizophrenia. In an effort to understand his past actions and his sisters’ present-day decision to maintain a relationship with the father who repeatedly raped them, Colvard turns the camera on himself, his siblings, and, finally, his old man, whom he lets off easy by spoon-feeding him an excuse (the pressures of racial prejudice) for his actions. Still, Family Affair delves with fascination, if insufficient depth, into the psychology of victimhood, probing the tendency of the abused (represented by the director’s sisters) to rationalize for their abusers. But while Colvard’s film is always queasily watchable, as with other voyeuristic entertainments that insist on making the private public, there’s the sense that such matters may be better dealt with in-house—or in a courtroom—than writ large on a movie screen.