I’m about to show my youth and ignorance here with regard to the Vietnam War (’cause even though I lived through it, I was truly a child then). But first, let me back up a bit. Mr. Bookworm rented Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a film with an interesting conceit: Ms. Taymor takes 33 of the Beatles songs and interweaves a story around them. As a musical, it’s pretty successful. Bucking trends in musicals for the last 40 years, she chooses actors who actually have really good singing voices. Also, showing her background in theater and puppet work, it’s a visually impressive movie, if you don’t mind that she goes over the top sometimes. That’s the praise.
Now for the criticism: The movie is set during the Vietnam War era and is totally anti-War. American soldiers are shown as brutal robotic types who work for a military that takes sweet, innocent young men and throws them into the maw of hell. Anti-war protests are shown as seminally important events that simultaneously reveal the grossness of American policy in Vietnam and that allow wholesome, moral young Americans to find a place for themselves in opposition to the evil war. In this regard, the movie is both a babyboomer nostalgia trip and a nudge-nudge wink-wink anti-Iraq War movie. So, even as the movie is beautiful to look at and lovely to hear, it offends me. It’s blithe acceptance of the 60s Leftist tropes is so facile as to be almost grotesque — but it did leave me thinking.
The street protest I mentioned above culminates with a speaker talking about American imperialist aggression and Americans as baby killers. What I wondered very much was how and where this angle on the war started. Truth to tell, it sounds precisely like the kind of talking points you can see brooded over by a handful of people attending some secret Communist meeting in a grimy NY basement apartment.
Looked at objectively, from the point of view of a whole nation, the “our nation is evil” idea is kind of fringey. That being the case, how did it gain so much currency? Why did Americans embrace this paradigm about the war instead of viewing the War — as John F. Kennedy, their hero, viewed it — as a necessary (for America) way to stop worldwide Communist aggression and as an act of decency to keep the Vietnamese free? Where did Americans get the idea, stated in this movie, that the Vietnamese wanted us to go? Maybe the North Vietnamese, who were Communist puppets did, but I was under the impression that the South Vietnamese were desperate for us to stay there and protect them from a Communist takeover — a takeover that, when we pulled out, was even more horrific than anyone had anticipated. (One of my most vivid pre-teen memories is of the extraordinary panic on the ground, amongst ordinary Vietnamese, when the Americans pulled out.)
In the current War, from the first second, the Leftists just leapt upon the Vietnam War template, dragging their old signs out, and replaying the identical scenario, with a sympathetic media to help out and spread it amongst people who normally wouldn’t give too much of a rat’s ass one way or another. It’s been like watching a re-run. But who created the original 1960s script, and how did it spread so rapidly and effectively that it became the accepted view that our American men and boys were brutal, imperialistic babykillers — end of story?
Did the original script come from the Kremlin, which was gleefully spreading misinformation, or was it an organic, homegrown Leftist process? Was it embraced so quickly because, after the Korean War, we were sick of getting involved in jungle fighting in the Far East? Or was the draft the problem, with articulate, well-read, generically liberal/Leftist students suddenly having a vested interest in saving themselves — and shooting further Left in the process? And if it’s the latter explanation — that is, the draft created self-interested young people who would rather attack their own nation and leave the Vietnamese in hell than put themselves at risk — why didn’t the draft create precisely the same problems with WWII?
I know I’m asking a lot of questions, but it suddenly occurred to me that, while I’ve always seen the end result of anti-Vietnam War agitation, I’ve never understand how the theme came into being and how it got a toehold in the American psyche and the American body politic.