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!

Doctor Blake Mysteries: “Crossing the Line” (December Media, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, ITC, 2014)

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

I put on a Doctor Blake Mysteries episode on PBS: “Crossing the Line” from 2014, set in 1958 and depicting a fire in the projection room of the local movie theatre (which is showing, of all films, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo — not exactly a non-mainstream movie but still pretty recherché fare for a small-town theatre in the Australian outback) which kills its projectionist, Adam Summers (Ted Stryke). In an anachronistic mistake I red-flagged on imdb.com, a firefighter tries to revive Summers with CPR — which didn’t exist until the 1960’s. The cops initially suspect the owner of the theatre trying to burn the place down for the insurance, but eventually Dr. Lucien Blake (Craig McLachlan) deduces that the fire was actually started because Patrick Tyneman (John Wood), spoiled son of local land baron Edward Tyneman (Lee Beckhurst), had formed a ring to make and show pornographic movies, shooting them at a local estate his dad had given him and forcing people, like the usher at the theatre (who, in a touch that really dates this movie, is shown walking the aisles of the theatre selling cigarettes as well as popcorn!), to be his on-screen talent by blackmailing them. In her case, Patrick had loaned her brother a large sum of money to start a business which had failed, and Patrick offered to “forgive” the debt if she would agree to let herself get fucked before his cameras. Adam Summers was part of this gang because he owned a 16 mm projector and provided the expertise needed to show the films, and though they promised they wouldn’t show them outside of the town of Ballarat, where the Doctor Blake stories take place, in fact they exhibited them all over the country — and the reluctant porn star’s dad happened to see one of them at a stag party he went to and, while everyone else was laughing and having a great time, he was so ashamed at seeing his daughter doing it on screen he determined to have his revenge, first killing Summers and then Patrick. When Patrick’s dad finds out what he’s accused of he pulls the family attorney he’d assigned Patrick and essentially disowns his son, leaving him on his own to face the consequences of his actions for the first time in his life. This wasn’t the best Doctor Blake episode I’ve seen but the show remains reliably entertaining and has that odd reticence that makes British mysteries so appealing (and it’s revealing that the one murder that takes place is committed by rendering the victim unconscious and then locking him in a sealed room and starting a fire — no gunplay or literal bloodshed).

This Island Earth (Universal-International, 1955)

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

I managed to spend most of the morning in front of the TV set — watching the Superman serial and also the 1955 movie This Island Earth, produced at Universal and starring Jeff Morrow, Faith Domergue and Rex Reason in a Technicolor science-fiction epic directed by Joseph M. Newman. I’ve already noted Newman’s deficiencies as a director in my comments on Kiss of Fire, which he made the same year (a movie which also suffered from casting deficiencies — Jack Palance and Barbara Rush in roles which cried out for Tyrone Power and Rita Hayworth), but while This Island Earth wasn’t anywhere near as good as the other “serious” sci-fi movies of its period (The Thing, The Day the Earth Stood Still and the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers) — and certainly would have profited by the involvement of any of the auteurs of those films (Hawks, Wise or Siegel) — Newman was at least more in his element in this genre than he was in an historical costume romance. Morrow stars as Exeter, a scientist from the planet Metaluna, who seeks the intervention of Earth’s leading experts on atomic energy in order to restore the force-field that is protecting Metaluna from the attacks being launched, almost constantly, from a neighboring planet, Zagon. Reason and Domergue play two of the Earth scientists who are virtually kidnapped to work on Exeter’s project, recruited through a taste of Metalunan technology and the offer to work in a secret laboratory for an unnamed employer (given the 1950’s, and the fact that up until three-fifths of the way through the movie, the fact that Exeter is from another planet is kept carefully unspecified, one wonders why they don’t suspect they’re being recruited by the Soviets).

The main defect of this movie is the script by Franklin Coen and Edward G. O’Callaghan, which took an essentially interesting story (the basis was a novel by Raymond Jones, who presumably explained the title — something the movie never does) and managed to miss, or dramatize just at the most superficial level, all the potential conflicts that would have made it interesting. Still, the movie is absolutely ravishing to look at — thanks to the photography of Clifford Stine and the special-effects work (Stine and David Horsley were co-credited with the effects), as well as the uniquely 1950’s conception of what an alien planet would look like (art directors Alexander Golitzen and Richard Reidel — though Golitzen’s was probably just a department-head credit and it’s unlikely he did specific work on this film — and set decorators Russel Hausman and Julia Heron), dated but still visually appealing (it looks like one of the earlier “space rides” at Disneyland, actually). The cast is workmanlike — though, with all the advantages of Metalunan technology, it’s surprising that they couldn’t have come up with a more convincing wig for Morrow to wear as Exeter (and Lance Fuller, as another, more doctrinaire Metalunan who keeps pressuring Exeter to use the “thought transference” brainwashing machine on Our Hero and Heroine, despite Exeter’s protestations that it will make them less useful scientists, has to wear just as bad a wig as Morrow does) — and the color helps, though the story could stand a remake (maybe John Carpenter could do it — he’s done well by other 1950’s sci-fi classics in his underrated remake of The Thing from 1982 and his 1989 near-masterpiece, They Live, which made the powerful personal metaphor of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers into a political one) which would actually dramatize all the potential story points evaded or worked “around” in this version. — 10/31/94

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This Island Earth was a much better movie — a genuine, though flawed, sci-fi classic (and, at least judging from the excerpt published in the book They Came from Outer Space, a more exact transcription of Raymond F. Jones’ source novel than most sci-fi films of the time). The film could have done without that horrible mutant that emerges at the end, the makeups on the aliens from Metaluna could have been more convincing (“Why do aliens in sci-fi movies always have to wear really bad wigs?” Charles asked), and we could have been given some idea of what the war between Metaluna and its neighboring planet Zagon was all about — as it is, the ship bearing Exeter (the nice Metalunan) and the two scientists he’s brought back from Earth arrives just in time to witness the destruction of Metaluna and (in an interesting anticipation of Arthur C. Clarke) its conversion from a planet into a star (a special effect that remains convincing and incredibly beautiful), whereupon Exeter sacrifices his own life (a la The Last of the Mohicans — he’s the last of the Metalunans) to get Our Hero and Our Heroine back to earth. One could wish for a remake that would be more complex, more sensitively written and equipped with state-of-the-art effects, but the movie we have is moving and at times awesomely beautiful (as when we first see the skyline of Metaluna, a ravishingly colored matte painting, and realize how defenseless the planet really is against the ceaseless bombardment by the Zagonian energy weapons). — 6/6/97

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I ran the science-fiction movie This Island Earth from 1955, which I’ve been curious about re-seeing since I recently read Raymond F. Jones’ source novel and found the first half of the movie tracked the novel surprisingly closely but the second half was radically different. Both book and film begin in the labs of Ryberg Electronics in Arizona, where principal scientist Dr. Cal Meacham (Rex Reason) is working on a machine to turn lead into uranium to create an inexhaustible source of atomic fuel for nuclear reactors. Only the capacitors available to him can’t take the sheer voltage level needed for the machine to work, so he orders new ones — but instead of what he was expecting he receives an envelope stating that he’s being sent a substitute which looks like a bunch of glass beads. He tests the beads along with his colleague Joe Wilson (Robert Nichols) and realizes they actually do work as condensers — and what’s more, they accommodate such high levels of voltage they’re clearly unlike any technology he’s ever heard of before. Then he gets a mysterious electronics catalog printed not on paper but on some sort of flexible metal, which offers a kit to manufacture a product called an “interocitor.” Naturally Meacham has no idea what an interocitor is or what it does, but he’s so curious he orders the kit (which comes with a solemn warning that if any part is lost, stolen or accidentally destroyed it will not be replaced — in the book Meacham and his crew actually do destroy a part by accident and the mystery firm that sent it to them sends back a note that they won’t replace it, which forces them to jury-rig something that will take its place), builds the interocitor and finds that the entire operation has been a recruitment and testing operation from a mysterious company that is recruiting engineers for a project in an underground lab. The catch is that the scientists working on it will have to live there and won’t be allowed contact with the outside world — though they will be given nice places to stay, fabulous meals and all the accoutrements they want. The project is run by a man named Exeter (Jeff Morrow), who looks like a normal human except for his shock of white hair, abnormally (for us, anyway) elongated head and crease in the middle of his forehead, and ultimately it turns out that he’s from another planet and he uses a spacecraft to fly Dr. Meacham and his assistant, Dr. Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue, who actually met and briefly dated Meacham three years earlier but can’t acknowledge him because their sinister employers want there to be no emotional contacts between their workers that might distract them from their tasks), to their home base for further work on the mysterious project. 

It’s at this point that Jones’ novel and the script by Franklin Coen and George Callahan diverge: in the book Exeter (who, if I recall correctly, is actually called something else) is the representative of a federation of planets that’s fighting an ongoing war against another federation, an evil one — the Cold War parallels between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and the satellite countries on both sides, is quite obvious — and the reason for the title, which isn’t explained in the film, is that just like U.S. companies have outsourced much of their industrial production to Third World countries, many of them located on islands, because the labor is cheaper, so his federation has outsourced both production and R&D to “island” planets, located far away in the galaxy from the ones that are warring with each other, where labor and other costs will be cheaper. Only in Jones’ novel the existence of factories on Earth turning out goods to maintain the good federation’s military machine has been noticed by the bad federation, which determines to destroy Earth just to handicap the good federation’s war production — and in the end Meacham and Adams have to trick the representatives of both federations into leaving Earth alone and carrying out their battle somewhere else. Screenwriters Coen and Callahan changed much of that: in their version Exeter is the representative of a planet called Metaluna that has been fighting an extended war with a rival planet, Zagon. The reason they need Meacham and Adams is that they’ve shielded themselves from Zagon’s interstellar missiles by means of a force field powered by nuclear energy — only they’ve depleted their total supply of uranium and need someone who can supply them a new way to make atomic fuel. The problem is that by the time Exeter’s spacecraft arrives on his home planet, it’s too late: the Zagonite energy missiles are already breaching the Metalunan force field and it’s only a matter of time before the planet is utterly destroyed. 

Exeter, who in previous scenes has been depicted as a real S.O.B. whose only saving grace is that the other Metalunans we see — Exeter’s sidekick Brack (Lance Fuller) and “The Monitor” (Douglas Spencer), president of Metaluna’s governing council — are even worse (Exeter casually has two of the scientists he’s recruited to the project, Dr. Steve Carlson [Russell Johnson] and German-speaking Dr. Adolph Engelbord [Karl L. Lindt], killed for attempting to escape the Metalunan campus on earth) — becomes a tragic figure as he flees Metaluna in the spacecraft, taking Meacham and Adams with him, then essentially sacrifices his own life to make sure they get home safely. This Island Earth has acquired a bad reputation because the makers of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 chose it as their “target” when they decided to do a feature-film version of their TV show mocking old movies, and it does have its silly aspects: the high-tech gizmos and especially the spacecraft, no doubt impressive to 1955 audiences, look pretty fake today, and the writers couldn’t resist writing in a bug-eyed monster (a sort of mutant supposedly created by the Zagonite energy weapons tweaking Metalunan DNA, or whatever their genetic material is, in a tacky-looking costume under which is all-purpose Universal-International stunt double Edwin Parker, who’d previously filled in for Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney, Jr. in their later Universal horror pics) to menace Our Heroes both on Metaluna and when it stows away on the spaceship. (Meacham and Adams are in large plastic cylinders that are supposed to adjust their bodies to the differences in air pressure between Earth and Metaluna when it starts menacing them from outside, and I couldn’t help but think that Coen and Callahan had seen the 1932 film Doctor “X” — though unlike the people in Doctor “X” Meacham and Adams are able to escape their plastic confinements and wait until the injuries Mr. Mutant suffered back on Metaluna do him in aboard the spaceship). It also doesn’t help that, like The Day the Earth Stood Still, This Island Earth has a line of abysmally clunky religious dialogue obviously put there to appease the Jesuits who were still in charge at the Production Code Administration, when Meacham tells his Metalunan captors, “Our true size is the size of our God!”

But all in all, This Island Earth is one of the better science-fiction movies of the 1950’s, at or just below the level of The Day the Earth Stood Still, the first Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Forbidden Planet (whose makers actually borrowed some sets and props from This Island Earth). Its morals and especially its politics are considerably more ambiguous than the straight Cold War propaganda of the source novel: one can read the conflict between Metaluna and Zagon as a Cold War metaphor (Zagon as the Soviet Union or the Communist bloc as a whole, Metaluna as the U.S. and its allies who thought they could handle the outside danger by “containing” it), or one can give it a more radical reading as a statement on the futility and wanton destructiveness of all war (especially since it came from the studio that had produced the anti-war classic All Quiet on the Western Front a quarter-century earlier). Exeter’s emergence as a tragic figure and his well-wrought philosophical reaction to the destruction of his planet (one could make a case that This Island Earth essentially ends where the Superman mythos begins) alone gives This Island Earth more philosophical depth than the common run of 1950’s science-fiction movies and brings it closer to the sophistication of the best sci-fi writers of the time — which is a real surprise when one reads the novel, because Raymond F. Jones was not one of the best sci-fi writers of the time and the book is straightforward with virtually none of the hints of psychological or ethical complexity of the movie. This time I liked This Island Earth the film a good deal better than I had when I’d seen it before — though I still think it deserves a modern-day remake that would make explicit what the writers and director (Joseph M. Newman, a Universal-International contractee with a hacky reputation who acquits himself quite well here) could only hint at in 1955, with the Production Code Administration as well as the studio “suits” breathing down their necks. — 9/24/17

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Live at the Belly Up: The Mick Fleetwood Blues Band, featuring Rick Vito (KPBS, 2015)

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

Last night I watched a quite good Live from the Belly Up episode featuring “The Mick Fleetwood Blues Band with Rick Vito.” Mick Fleetwood, you’ll recall, is the drummer for Fleetwood Mac and has had that gig since the band started in 1968 — it was named after him and the original bass player, John McVie, who met in the 1967 edition of John Mayall’s Blues Breakers with lead guitarist Peter Green and decided to form a blues band of their own. They added a young British musician named Jeremy Spencer and the four of them recorded the first Fleetwood Mac album, called simply Fleetwood Mac, at the CBS Studios in London in 1969 for Mike Vernon’s Blue Horizon label. Blue Horizon was a label that specialized in reissuing American blues records, including quite a lot of Elmore James (they licensed the tapes of James’ last sessions in 1963 for Bobby Robinson’s Fire label — Fire was one of only a handful of labels recording African-American music in the 1950’s that was actually Black-owned — and so Elmore James became one of Blue Horizon’s most prolific artists even though he’d been dead for four years when the label was founded), and in recording British musicians who played in the American blues style. (Their biggest acts were Fleetwood Mac and the Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation, another band formed by an ex-Mayall drummer.) They made three albums with that four-piece lineup, one for Blue Horizon and two for Andrew Loog Oldham’s short-lived Immediate Records label, as well as a marvelous set of recordings, originally issued as Blues Jam in Chicago and later in the mid-1970’s as Fleetwood Mac in Chicago (an obvious attempt to cash in on the later success of a quite different, in both personnel and style, Fleetwood Mac, though anyone who bought Fleetwood Mac in Chicago expecting it to sound anything like Rumours would have been sorely disappointed!), in which the Macsters backed real Black blues musicians from the Windy City. (For me the high point of that album was the appearance of Elmore James’ surviving band, led by saxophonist J. T. Brown, backing Jeremy Spencer on great performances of some of James’ songs.) 

In the early days Fleetwood Mac’s material was almost all blues — either covers of Black blues songs or their own originals written in the same style — until the band in general and Peter Green in particular got to be more experimental and started sniffing around what would eventually become known as “progressive rock.” Green started writing and playing long, atmospheric songs, many of them either outright instrumentals or long jams with just bits of vocal. He also started taking a lot of LSD, and after one of his trips he announced to his fellow band members that from then on he wanted them to take just enough money for bare subsistence, and give the rest away to various charities. Needless to say, the other band members weren’t too thrilled about that, so they fired Green and hired another guitar player, Danny Kirwan, to take his place. Then, just as the new Fleetwood Mac was about to start a major U.S. tour, Jeremy Spencer suddenly became a born-again Christian and quit the group to join the Children of God cult. Since there was no time to break in another new musician and teach him all their material for their tour, the band had to go, hat in hand, to Peter Green and ask him to rejoin — which Green agreed to do, but only for that one tour. Over the next few years the band went through various personnel changes and morphed their music from blues to mainstream rock, and they added the other three members — McVie’s then-wife Christine, Lindsay Buckingham and his then-girlfriend Stevie Nicks — recording another album simply called Fleetwood Mac in 1975 and then following it up with the 1977 mega-success Rumours. The “new Fleetwood Mac” hung together for a while, broke up more due to personal than musical issues, and periodically have re-formed for widely publicized and highly lucrative reunions. Meanwhile, Mick Fleetwood decided to form a side project that would allow him to get back to his blues roots, and the result was the Mick Fleetwood Blues Band — though I couldn’t help but make the joke, when Charles arrived home early on while this show was on, that with his other band Mick Fleetwood gets to play stadia and with this band he gets to play bars. The Mick Fleetwood Blues Band is a solid band that puts on a good show and, like the original Fleetwood Mac, relies for material on a mix of Black blues covers (Elmore James in particular) and originals in blues style. 

If they have a weakness, it’s their front man, singer-guitarist Rick Vito, who’s a perfectly competent blues-rock player but one would think that someone with Mick Fleetwood’s prestige and money could get a stronger, more assertive, more charismatic musician. Through much of the show I wondered what this band would sound like with Joe Bonamassa fronting it; though Bonamassa’s e-mails get awfully strange at times he is an excellent player (in a review of one of his own performances on PBS I called him the best white blues guitarist to emerge since the death of Stevie Ray Vaughan in 1990 — has it really been that long?) and a collaboration between him and Mick Fleetwood would be considerably more exciting than the Mick Fleetwood Blues Band as it stands. Fleetwood himself remains an excellent drummer, though when the show opened I was struck by the sheer amount of equipment he had on stage — at least four tom-toms, two or three bass drums and three crash cymbals as well as a set of little bells and a gong that looks like Fleetwood bought it at J. Arthur Rank’s garage sale — and couldn’t help but reflect how much Gene Krupa got out of just a snare drum, two tom-toms, a bass drum, two crash cymbals and a hi-hat. Much of the material the Mick Fleetwood Blues Band played was from Fleetwood Mac’s first three albums — including the song “Black Magic Woman,” which Peter Green wrote for Fleetwood Mac’s second album (Vito mentioned that in the U.S. it bore the title English Rose and the cover shot was Mick Fleetwood in drag — Fleetwood was predictably embarrassed that his band’s front man was reminding people of this) but which didn’t become a huge international hit until Santana covered it (less effectively, I might add, mainly because Carlos Santana, a great technician, simply isn’t as creative or individualistic a guitarist as Peter Green). They began with a song called “Fleetwood Boogie” which I suspect was written especially for this band, then went into a cover of another Peter Green original for the first Fleetwood Mac, a minor hit called “Oh Well,” and then a cover of an Elmore James song called “My Baby’s Hot.” Then they did a medley of two blues songs, “Rollin’ Man” and “Voodoo Woman,” followed by their version of “Black Magic Woman” — which was quite good even though Vito probably didn’t relish having to compete with both Peter Green and Carlos Santana! Then they switched gears for a nice bit of New Orleanian funk called “Lucky Devil,” for which Mick Fleetwood got up from his huge drum set and played another set of drums, and the keyboard player, Mark Johnstone — whom I thought was the best musician in the band next to Fleetwood himself: though he was playing two stacked Roland electronic keyboards he had one set to sound like a real blues piano and the other like a Hammond B-3 organ, so the sounds were authentic and right for the music — doubled on harmonica. 

Later another percussionist, Paulinho Morelli (at least I think that’s the name — he’s not listed on the official Mick Fleetwood Blues Band Web site and I suspect he was a guest the Belly Up Tavern brought in for this gig), took over that second drum set for a long song that was a blend of an instrumental called “Passage East” (which I suspect was a Peter Green composition because it was strongly reminiscent of Green’s more atmospheric instrumentals, both with Mac and on the beautiful 1971 all-instrumental solo album The End of the Game he recorded right after he left the band for the last time) and a song called “World Turning.” The band’s final song (of nine; Live at the Belly Up is one of those TV shows where the number of songs the band is able to squeeze into the hour-long time slot says a lot about their musical style — I’ve seen progressive-rock acts play only four, five or six songs in the slot and pop and blues acts play 12) was the searing Elmore James blues “Shake Your Money Maker,” which Fleetwood Mac played (with Jeremy Spencer on lead vocal and slide guitar) on their first album; Vito was hardly in Spencer’s league, let alone James’, but the message still got through and it was one of the infectious things the band played all night. Live at the Belly Up is one of the most important local resources for live music on KPBS — as the Belly Up Tavern itself remains a huge asset to the local music scene as well as a favored venue for major acts (like Fleetwood and Joan Osborne), as well as their offspring (Willie Nelson’s son Lukas has played a Live at the Belly Up telecast with his band Promise of the Real), doing off-beat side projects. Though not a patch on the Black musicians who created these sounds — in the 1960’s, when I first started listening to British blues records, they sounded a lot better than they do now, when the American originals they were covering are readily available in reissues of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James and others — the Mick Fleetwood Blues Band is a quite appealing blues-rock act, and the large, grey-haired, grey-bearded Mick Fleetwood himself has the look of an ancient sage behind all those drums, someone who has traveled the world to bring back wisdom in the form of a 12-bar blues.

Friday, September 22, 2017

The Viet Nam War, part 5: “This Is What We Do” (Florentine Films/PBS, 2017)

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

Charles and I watched the fifth episode of the Ken Burns-Lynn Novick-Geoffrey C. Ward documentary The Viet Nam War (incidentally Charles challenged my insistence on spelling “Viet Nam” as two words, unhyphenated, saying that the Viet Namese consulate in the U.S. uses the “Vietnam” spelling that was commonplace in the American media when the Viet Nam war was actually happening), which was called “This Is What We Do” — after the reminiscence of a soldier who fought in the war who when he complained, early on in his tour, about the inhumane things he was expected to do, was told by his commanding officer, “This is war. This is what we do.” The period covered in this episode was from July to December 1967, during which North Viet Namese Communist Party general secretary Le Duan (who according to this series was the real power running North Viet Nam; by that time, Ward’s script argues, Ho Chi Minh was just a figurehead) decided the North Viet Namese army and their allies, the National Liberation Front (so-called “Viet Cong”) in the south would launch a major offensive starting on the date of the Viet Namese lunar new year, Tet, on January 31, 1968. (Tet was a defeat for the North Viet Namese in military terms but a triumph for them politically: though they weren’t able to bring down the South Viet Namese government or conquer any major cities, they virtually destroyed the support base for the war among the American people, boosted the anti-war insurgent candidacies of Eugene McCarthy — who makes what amounts to a cameo appearance at the end of this show — and Robert Kennedy and brought down Lyndon Johnson’s Presidency. But then, as I’ve pointed out before, that’s how all successful guerrilla armies win: they wear down the will of the occupying country’s people to fight.) 

There were some fascinating stories, including one from Jim Musgraves (at least I think I’m recalling his name right), a quite personable (and attractive, even 50 years later) man from Missouri who like a lot of other boys from America’s heartland bought into the idea that the Viet Nam war was a) a noble struggle against Communism any right-thinking American male of military age would want to be part of, and b) his generation’s opportunity to serve the country the way World War II had been for his parents’ generation. He was so severely wounded in one firefight his chest was literally ripped open, and though he was evacuated by helicopter he was visited by about four or five doctors who gave up on him, saying there was nothing they could do for him — one even asked what religion he was so he could call the appropriate chaplain to give him last rites — until finally he lucked out with a doctor who said, “Why isn’t this man being treated?” Musgraves also said that after his first week in Viet Nam “I never killed another human being” — not because he stopped fatally shooting the people who were shooting at him, or trying to, or might have been there to do so, or even looked vaguely like people who might have been trying to do so, but because he started thinking of them as “dinks,” “slopes” and “gooks” (all terms of abuse that had come from previous U.S. war or racism against Asians — Ward’s narration includes a brief etymology for each) and he could therefore kill them with a clear conscience — just as people on the other side (one of the best aspects of this program is the fact that they extensively interviewed people who fought on the Northern side — even though between them and the South Viet Namese who were also interviewed, and Burns’ and Novick’s decision to give the translations via subtitles instead of voice-overs, leads to an awful lot of Viet Namese on the soundtrack) called Americans “puppets,” “imperialists” and “monsters.” 

The story of the part of the war covered in “This Is What We Do” (a title with an oddly fatalistic air) is one of a steady escalation on both sides, and President Johnson’s response to Robert McNamara’s series of secret memos explaining that the current strategy was not working and the war could not be won, which was to arrange for him to be appointed president of the World Bank and for long-time Democratic fixer Clark Clifford to replace McNamara as Secretary of Defense. It also covered the disputed 1967 election in South Viet Nam, in which the U.S. prevailed on the principal rivals in the government, Nguyen Van Thieu and Nguyen Cao Ky, not to run against each other but instead to form a ticket with Thieu as President and Ky as Vice-President — and despite extensive election rigging and fraud the Thieu-Ky ticket only got 35 percent of the vote, though without provision for a runoff they were declared elected. (Shortly after the election, one of the rival candidates, General “Big” Minh — who’d also been a player in the period between November 1963 and June 1965 in which there were no fewer than eight South Viet Namese governments — “Musical Governments,” Mad magazine called it — asked for permission to leave the country, and instead was arrested. Some democracy.) The elections were held largely to placate opposition both in South Viet Nam and the U.S.; American critics of the war were wondering why we were being told we were fighting for “democracy” when the local government we were allied with was being run by military officers who’d taken power in coups, and Viet Namese Buddhists (which was about nine-tenths of the country) were once again mounting resistance actions and claiming that they were the victims of discrimination by the Roman Catholic minority who were actually running the South Viet Namese government and had been since the formation of the rump state of South Viet Nam and the installation of its first president, Ngo Dinh Diem, in 1955. 

There is no doubt in my mind that the war in Viet Nam was a misguided misadventure that didn’t even make sense as an act of imperialism — Viet Nam had no resources to speak of (about all that could be said for it in terms of its value in international trade was it was a great place to grow rice), nor was it strategically located in terms of confronting China (as Korea was), and any value it could have had to the international capitalist ruling class was hardly worth the toll in human lives, financial resources and overall national energy the American elite put into it. It will be interesting to see how this series develops — even though, in one of the dorkiest decisions any American broadcasting network has ever made, they’re putting the series on pause for the next few days and won’t resume it until this Sunday night (with “Things Fall Apart,” the episode that will cover the Tet offensive); either way, the conflicts that drove U.S. politics and society apart over Viet Nam — and the other two big things that happened to America, politically and socially, in the 1960’s, the African-American civil rights struggle and the emergence of the counterculture (which in the 1960’s meant the hippies and today mostly means Queers) — still divide the country, and Donald Trump’s election as President was in large measure a triumph of the racist, pro-war and anti-counterculture movement that emerged in the 1960’s on the American Right to support the war in Viet Nam and drive — politically and, sometimes, physically — the war’s likely opponents out of any influence in what went on in American governance and society.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Viet Nam War, part 4: “Resolve” (Florentine Films/PBS, 2017)

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

Last night I once again watched the new episode of the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary The Viet Nam War (Ken Burns gets all the credit but the two are listed as co-directors and Geoffrey C. Ward as writer, so it’s really a collaboration among the three of them), which was called “Resolve.” That brought back memories: I’m sure it was the use of that word as a noun during the Viet Nam war (as in, “We have to stay in Viet Nam because we must show our resolve”) that has given me a lifelong allergy to the word “resolve” as a noun. Usually, “we must show our resolve” means “we’re doing something incredibly stupid and pointless and wasteful, but by gad, we’re going to keep doing it!” Ironically, with this, its fourth episode, the Viet Nam War documentary is getting as repetitive as the Viet Nam war itself: a jumble of odd names of people and places, a battle here, a protest there, a student strike in South Viet Nam itself when a popular commander in the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN) was fired by dictator Nguyen Cao “I have only one hero — Hitler” Ky; he was also a Buddhist, and apparently Ky, like Ngo Dinh Diem, was a Roman Catholic and was giving Catholics (who, remember, had adopted the religion of Viet Nam’s former imperialist occupiers, the French) preferential treatment in both the government and the military. 

The open unrest in the streets of South Viet Nam’s two major cities, Saigon and Hue, made it even harder for the U.S. government and the war’s supporters to maintain the fiction that we were fighting to protect the South Viet Namese people’s right to “democracy” against the enslavement of Communism. (Historically, ironically enough, there had not been two Viet Nams but three: the country had long been divided into three provinces — Tonkin in the north, Annam in the center and Cochin-China in the south — and interestingly, when Ho Chi Minh first appealed for American aid after World War II he signed his letter not as the actual or would-be head of state of a united Viet Nam but specifically as Annamese.) The period of the war covered by “Resolve” was from January 1966 to June 1967, though it could have been just about any time between the introduction of U.S. ground troops in January 1965 and the Tet offensives launched by the North Viet Namese army in February-March 1968 — the first time they had risked a major conventional offensive instead of grinding the U.S. troops down in one guerrilla firefight after another. Tet went badly for the North Vietnamese militarily — the U.S. and their nominal Viet Namese allies were overwhelmed at first but quickly rallied and retook the territory they had lost — but it was a smashing success for them politically: it basically evaporated much of the support the U.S. population had previously shown for the war and was the final factor in Lyndon Johnson’s determination to bow out of the Presidency and abandon his 1968 re-election campaign. “Resolve” is at its best on the occasions Burns and his team are able to cast Viet Nam as the sort of war they had famously made films about before — the U.S. Civil War and the American involvement in World War II — and one of the most interesting points it made is that both the U.S. officers and the actual servicemembers doing the fighting had been conditioned in their expectations of what war was by World War II. 

The officers, including U.S. commanding general William Westmoreland (whose name I can recall the peace movement caricaturing as “Waste-More-Land”), had come through the ranks and had actually fought in World War II, and the grunt soldiers — especially the ones who volunteered rather than waiting to get drafted (Viet Nam was our last major conscript war and Burns and company really don’t go into the dynamics of the draft and how it actually operated as they should have — ironically, ending the draft has been one of those be-careful-what-you-wish-for-you-might-get-it moments for the American Left, since having a so-called “volunteer army” has actually made it easier, not harder, for more recent U.S. governments to get into and sustain endless wars, while the growing economic inequality of American society and the drying-up of alternative opportunities for upward mobility has meant that the “volunteers” of today’s U.S. military look a lot like the draftees of the previous one: largely working-class or below, and with a far greater concentration of people of color than the population as a whole) — had been conditioned on what “war” was by the memories of their parents and family members who had fought in World War II and how that war had been depicted in movies and on TV. The closest thing so far in this film to a typical “Ken Burns hero” — Denton “Mogie” Crocker, Jr. (his nickname came from his having been such an assertive child his parents called him “our little mogul”), a Midwestern boy (his mom and sister were interviewed for this show) who was so determined to fight in the war that he ran away from home at 17 and refused to return until his parents agreed to sign the exemption that would allow him to enlist before 18 — gets honored here with Burns’ trademarked sepulchral-voiced readings of his letters to his family back home (in which actor Ben Rappoport “played” Mogie) as well as interviews with his survivors. Once he went through basic training he was sent to Viet Nam, but at first he was only given desk work counting the casualties — a job he deliberately screwed up so he’d be fired and reassigned to do what he really wanted, which was actually to fight. Only as he saw what war in general and this war in particular were really like, he began to get disillusioned, and on June 23, 1966 (ironically, his 19th birthday), he was killed when his unit was ambushed. 

One of the quirkier points made in the documentary was that since Viet Nam was basically a guerrilla war (even when the North Viet Namese “regulars” were sent into the country to fight alongside the National Liberation Front guerrillas, they still fought like guerrillas, luring their enemy into devastating ambushes and then slipping into the mountains and blending in with the local population), the usual metric by which commanders determine whether they are winning or losing — how much territory they are holding versus how much the enemy is holding — didn’t apply in Viet Nam. Instead Robert McNamara, who among other bad habits he’d picked up from his long career in the private sector (at Ford Motor Company, where he’d risen to president before taking the job as John F. Kennedy’s, and then Lyndon Johnson’s, secretary of defense) was an obsession with quantification and a sense that any problem could be reduced to a statistical analysis that would in turn generate the “right” solution, decided that the metric for success would be how many enemy fighters the U.S. killed. General Westmoreland regularly talked of the “crossover point,” meaning the point at which the U.S. were killing more North Viet Namese and National Liberation Front fighters than the other side could replace — and in early 1967 he was claiming he’d actually achieved the “crossover point” everywhere except in the northern end of South Viet Nam near the demilitarized zone the 1954 Geneva Agreements had set up to divide the country. As a number of people point out in the show, this emphasis on the sheer number of “enemy” dead as the metric of success led to some pretty distorted command decisions; not only did it mean that battlefield commanders, in their reports to their superiors, counted just about everyone they killed as “NVA” or “VC” whether they had been or not (which was also a convenient way to avoid criticism of killing civilians as “collateral damage” — just define the “enemy” so broadly that civilian deaths virtually ceased to exist), it also meant that in planning actual operations, battlefield commanders deliberately chose tactics that would maximize the body counts whether that made sense either in terms of human cost or simple military effectiveness. 

Another of the anecdotes concerned a young Marine who was shocked that when the U.S. captured NLF fighters who presumably had information as to where the enemy was waiting to ambush U.S. soldiers, they took them in on armored personnel carriers, tied them up and just pushed them off the carriers with no way to break their fall, resulting in a series of cracked ribs and other injuries. The Marine, Ben Earhardt (who was interviewed for the program and was the one who told this story), was about to protest when the superior officer he was going to protest to said that the U.S. spotters who had been responsible for detecting the ambushes had it in for these people because they could have told them where the ambushers were and didn’t, and if Earhardt spoke on their behalf they’d beat him up. (I couldn’t help but reflect, as I had also with regard to the counterproductiveness — never mind the morality, or lack of same — of the tortures inflicted by U.S. servicemembers on similarly detained “enemy fighters” in Iraq — of the lesson British commander John Masterman wrote in The Double-Cross System, his marvelous book about the British success in “turning” virtually the whole German espionage network in the U.K. during World War II, that the most important thing a country fighting a war can do to ensure its success is to treat its prisoners of war decently, respectfully and humanely. Apparently the old you-catch-more-flies-with-honey-than-with-vinegar principle had never occurred to those “spotters” — neither they nor the officers above them got it through their thick heads that they stood a better chance of “turning” the captives and finding where the NVA and NLF forces were by treating them respectfully than by torturing them.) 

One other point about “Resolve” was the way in which, by counterpointing anti-war and pro-war demonstrations in the U.S., it showed how the division of the American population into two strongly opposed camps and the resulting “polarization” of American politics really had its roots in Viet Nam (though I would argue that it was also due to the success of the African-American civil rights movement, which had the unforeseen consequence of dividing white America and giving the Republican Party and the U.S. Right in general the wedge through which they finally destroyed the New Deal coalition and made working-class whites a bulwark of the Republican Party by appealing to their racism and cultural prejudices). We’re still living in the America that was created in the 1960’s by the galvanic shocks of the civil rights movement and the Viet Nam war, and despite a few reversals, the Right is winning that racial and cultural war. Richard Nixon would win the White House through allying with white supremacists like Strom Thurmond and practicing the “Southern Strategy” that essentially flipped the two major U.S. political parties’ traditional positions on civil rights — the Democrats, once the party of slavery, segregation and the Ku Klux Klan, became the party of civil rights, and the Republicans, the “Party of Lincoln,” re-invented themselves as the party of racism and white supremacy — and though the Watergate scandal (which was merely the tip of the iceberg of an elaborate plan by Nixon and his campaign people to rig the 1972 election so he would not only win, but win in such a devastating way it would end all challenges to his legitimacy) temporarily derailed the Right-wing revolution in the U.S., it finally came to power under Ronald Reagan in 1980 and, even more forcefully and transformationally, under Donald Trump in 2016.