Bill LeeFebruary 11, 2008
Born in the USA
(continued from Bill Campbell)
Epilogue: Home and Away
I discovered America in 1973, when I was five. Before that the world had no borders, no home and away. That summer we drove from New Jersey to Mexico in a white Volkswagen camper. My brother and I rode in the back, and Mom sat up front next to Tom, the longhaired man who had become a part of our family some years earlier, after my mom had met and fallen in love with him on her way to protest the Vietnam War. My father wasn’t with us, though he did fly down later to join us for part of the trip. The day after the Fourth of July, in Texas, my brother and I walked around collecting the remnants of exploded fireworks. The ground was hard and dry, the sun above us huge and hot and close. We must have been at another in a series of KOA campgrounds, but in my memory it seems like we were walking around a wide cracked battlefield at the edge of the known world, the smell of gunpowder still in the air, tiny shreds of red, white, and blue shrapnel everywhere. Afterward we ate chocolate Tastycakes from the campground snack bar, then we got into the camper and made America disappear.
In one hotel in Mexico I almost stepped into a bathtub with a scorpion. Out in the streets, the women all wanted to touch my blond curls. I wriggled away from them. I also wriggled away from the affectionate young American hippie couple we picked up hitchhiking. They rode with us for a while, crushed in the back of the camper next to my brother and me and mauling one another with groping, open-mouthed, tangled-hair love. Then they were gone. We stood on the lip of a volcano at the top of the world, my carsick brother puking. I chased a burro around some ruins. Dad showed up for a while in his button-down shirt then left. We walked up the steps of giant pyramids. My brother got such a bad sunburn that big blisters rose on his shoulders. Gods stared at us from ancient stone. There was a world beyond the borders of the world, strange and magical and dangerous. There were no Tastycakes there.
My mom painted an oil portrait of my brother and me after we got back to America. We are sitting in our pajamas in front of the television. I stare at the screen with something like gratitude, something like love.
I rented Stripes a couple days ago, self-medicating. I’d seen the 1981 movie before, many times, but I needed a laugh and some patriotism. I needed to hear Bill Murray’s speech about how Americans were kicked out of every decent country in the world, how we were homely and lovable castoffs, the whole nation a last-chance kennel of loyal and resilient mutts. I needed the unruly, stinging, incomprehensible defeat of the Vietnam War collapsed to the morphine core of a punchline.
“There’s something wrong with us,” orates the boot camp recruit played by Bill Murray. He is trying to rally his platoon in the face of a seemingly hopeless situation.
“We’re soldiers,” he concludes. “But we’re American soldiers. We’ve been kicking ass for two hundred years. We’re ten and one!”
Bill Lee, shown here with his Canadian team, avoided having to go to Vietnam because he was a professional baseball player, and with just a handful of exceptions professional baseball players were able to fulfill any military obligations by serving stateside in the reserves or the National Guard. This was how it was during the Vietnam War: some young men had more options than others. Money usually made the difference. For example, if you were a rich guy with a father in the oil business, you could jump to the head of a long, long list of people trying to get into the Texas Air National Guard, thus helping ensure that you will be intact and alive and able, years later, to send other young men to war.
Young men also avoided the draft by getting an educational deferment, which basically means if you had the money or the cultural capital to get into college the armed services left you alone, another obvious way in which the draft skewed along class lines. Even the economic hardship deferment, which in theory was set up to address the needs of the poor, was much more often taken advantage of by the well-off: rich draftees could more easily show that going into the army would seriously damage the standard of living of their families. Also, the rich could hire lawyers to argue their cases, and they could hire sympathetic doctors to declare them unfit for military duty.
I’ve wondered how I would have dealt with the situation. I think I would have gone to college and stayed there as long as possible. Maybe when that option ran out I’d have been faced with the dilemma described by Tim O’Brien in The Things They Carried. O’Brien, drafted just after graduating from college, seriously considered fleeing to Canada. He described his reasons for considering this in a way that speaks to me much more than the reasons that showed up on signs at antiwar rallies. Protesters of draft age saying that they didn’t want to kill, especially in the name of an illegal and immoral war, were fine, but when I imagine myself holding a draft notice I don’t imagine having room for such selfless thoughts. I imagine thinking what O’Brien thought: I don’t wanna fuckin’ die.
In the end, he didn’t flee to Canada because he couldn’t face down the specter of going against his family and his town and America. America was too much to turn his back on. America was every memory he ever had. It was a kid in a Lone Ranger mask, a kid at a high school prom, a kid turning a double-play. It was everything. How are you supposed to turn your back on everything?
“I was a coward,” he writes. “I went to the war.”
I watched Stripes after watching Full Metal Jacket, the last in a long series of Vietnam War movies I rented from the video store over the past few weeks. Oddly enough, the two movies—one a relaxed, thoroughly enjoyable comedy where no one gets hurt and everyone gets laid (or at least gets to ogle some good old fashioned early ’80s casual toplessness), the other a chilling portrait of war delivered with director Stanley Kubrick’s signature agoraphobic intensity—can be seen as two sides of the same coin.
Both are cut into two parts, a boot camp part and a combat part. Both are somewhat renowned for being clearly stronger in the first part. Both first parts have a dramatic tension at their centers that is missing in their second halves and that derives from the conflict between the main character, in both cases an unusually sophisticated wiseass, and the drill sergeant, played in Stripes by the great Warren Oates and in Full Metal Jacket by Vietnam veteran R. Lee Ermey.
Even certain key details contribute to the mirroring of one movie to the other. The first acts of both begin with the shearing off of the recruits’ hair (though Stripes precedes the scene with an amusing, typically languorous prologue in which Bill Murray’s character loses his job, his car, his apartment, and his girlfriend). Both wiseasses get punched in the stomach by their drill sergeants. Both movies end with the sound of soldiers chanting a popular song as they march: Manfred Mann’s “Doo Wa Diddy Diddy” in Stripes accompanies the platoon’s implied progress toward further bloodless boys-will-be-boys hijinx, and the theme to the Mickey Mouse Club in Full Metal Jacket provides the ironic backbeat for not only the continued advancement through the lurid fog of the savage and savaged Vietnam War soldiers but for an entire war-addicted empire.
The comedy ends with the gimmick of phony newspaper and magazine covers spinning into focus to suggest the immediate destinies of the primary characters, and the final cover, a Newsweek-type magazine featuring Bill Murray’s character, includes a subheading in the form of a question—”Can America survive?”—that both movies attempt to answer, the comedy with a wink and a Bill Murrayesque ironico-sincere Hell, yeah! yodel, the drama with the implication that America will endure but that being born in America will come more and more to mean being born to kill.
From my recent crash course on the subject, I have found that you generally don’t see much of the Vietnamese in the American cinematic re-imaginings of the Vietnam War. In Apocalypse Now you see some villagers from above getting gunned down by helicopter machine guns, then some deranged tribespeople who have adopted an insane American Colonel as their god. In Platoon you see shadowy figures with branches in their helmets, killing and getting killed, and you see villagers suffering the effects of a prolonged scene that evokes the spirit, if not all the excesses, of the My Lai massacre. In Full Metal Jacket you see a thief, a pimp, two prostitutes, and a sniper. In The Deer Hunter you see vicious captors forcing American POWs to play Russian roulette. Coming Home comes closest of all the major Vietnam War movies to eliminating the Vietnamese altogether, the only echo of a Vietnamese person the brief and disturbing appearance of a pointy-hatted “Oriental” ventriloquist dummy brandished by Willie Tyler.
According to sociologist (and Vietnam veteran) Jerry Lembcke, the message and success of the latter movie, which came out in 1978, provided a turning point in how America came to view the Vietnam War. Lembcke writes in his 1998 book The Spitting Image that “probably more effectively than any other film, Coming Home revised history so that the American people, and even many Vietnam veterans, remember the war as a coming home story.” The sprawling painful reality of the war shrunk to a tangible myth in Coming Home, Lembcke says, and that myth-making, along with the fact that, as he puts it, “the mid-1970s was a period for forgetting about the war” began to edit out some vitally important facets of the Vietnam War experience. “The reality of the war faded,” Lembcke concludes.
One of the elements edited out was the carnage rained down upon the people of Vietnam. The numbers are staggering: Three to four million Vietnamese killed. Actually they are unfathomable. In all my recent reading the image from beyond the edited myth of the Vietnam War that affected me most had nothing explicitly to do with those numbers. It is from a recollection of Jim Soular in Christian Appy’s book Patriots. Soular, who was a flight engineer on the gigantic Chinook helicopters during the war, participated in the forced evacuations that preceded the dubbing of a region a “free-fire zone” (which basically meant that anything that moved within that zone was the enemy and should be obliterated):
I never flew refugees back in. It was always out. Quite often they would find their own way back into those free-fire zones. We didn’t understand that their ancestors were buried there, that it was very important to their culture and religion to be with their ancestors. They didn’t understand what the hell was going on and had no say in what was happening. I could see the terror in their faces. They were defecating and urinating and completely freaked out. It was horrible. After we unloaded the people the helicopter stunk so bad we could hardly stand it. After we hosed it down we sprinkled bottles of aftershave all the way down the length of the chopper.
The other key element that has been edited out of the popular conception of the Vietnam War experience is the antiwar movement. Jerry Lembcke asserts that this elision took a significant step in Coming Home, aided by images of drug-addled hippies protesting soldiers as they returned from the war. He points out that there is no evidence that such a protest ever occurred (on the contrary, protesters did try to stop buses carrying inductees toward the war), and according to some accounts the antiwar protesters were often the first to reach out to Vietnam veterans. Furthermore, there was a much more widespread alliance between antiwar protesters and veterans than has been presented in the prevailing cinematic myths of the Vietnam War. As one soldier quoted in a 1969 Life magazine article put it, “I think the protesters may be the only ones who really give a damn about what’s happening.”
Awareness of that connection was all but obliterated by the 1980s. In many ways, the definitive movie myth of that decade was ostensibly about the Vietnam War experience, the gentler aspects of the previous decade’s coming home story stripped away. Now it’s no longer about, as in Coming Home, paralyzed Vietnam veteran Jon Voigt rediscovering his lost humanity. Now it’s about kicking ass and taking names. Now it’s about Rambo. And the only mention of antiwar protesters by Sylvester Stallone’s steroidal Vietnam veteran is a blast of vitriol blaming them for America’s defeat and vilifying them for mistreating veterans on their return to America. “Somebody wouldn’t let us win,” Rambo mutters at the end of First Blood. “Then I come back to the world and I see all those maggots at the airport. Protesting me. Spitting. Calling me baby killer, and all kinds of vile crap.”
With this widely seen accusation of protesters as being stridently opposed to the soldiers, and not the war (an accusation that Jerry Lembcke discovers has no actual backing evidence), the demonization of the antiwar protesters is complete. This demonization, it should be noted, began during the war in the highest reaches of the federal government, with Vice President Spiro Agnew characterizing protesters as “hardcore dissidents and professional anarchists” and accusing them of “demoralizing American soldiers.” President Nixon got into the act most notably after his widely unpopular invasion of Cambodia expanded the scope of the Vietnam War, calling antiwar protesters “bums.”
This line of thinking was picked up at the State level, with one governor, a former B-movie actor named Ronald Reagan (who would later, as President, earn the nickname “Ronbo”) claiming that “some Americans will die tonight because of the activity [protests] in our streets.” In Ohio, Governor James Rhodes called the Kent State students congregating to protest the Cambodian invasion “worse than the [Nazi] brownshirts and the Communist element and the night riders and the vigilantes. They are the worst type of people that we harbor in America.” Soon after this characterization, Ohio National Guardsmen fired their rifles at Kent State college students, killing four and wounding nine others.
Many years later, as America finally toed the waters of war once again in the 1990s with Operation Desert Storm, awareness of the origins of the demonization of antiwar protesters was virtually nonexistent; conversely, awareness of the myth of antiwar protesters as demons was high. According to Paul Loeb in his book Generations at the Crossroads, students in college during Desert Storm shied away from taking a stance against the war because they were swallowing the myths about protesters of the Vietnam War as facts: “At every kind of college, in every corner of the country, the slightest mention of antiwar activism of that time would impel them . . . to describe how peace marchers spat on soldiers, called them names, and drove to bases and airports with the sole purpose of heaping contempt on the already scarred young men as they returned.” By the 1990s to speak out against the war was to speak out against those sent to fight the war. It was to become, as Rambo might put it, a maggot.
Naturally, the common people don’t want war, but after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. This is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country.
I found the above quote in John Crawford’s book The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell. Crawford was a National Guardsman who served in the infantry during the Iraq War. The quote is from a statement at the Nuremberg Trials by Hitler’s second-in-command, Hermann Goering.
“People say you leave home, go to war, and become a man. I want to be a little boy again.” – John Crawford
When I was a little boy there was a girl in my class who claimed to be from Mars. She signed her name everywhere: “Beth from Mars.” It was odd, but it wasn’t completely beyond the pale in those days. In the late 1970s, America wasn’t quite all there. It was mired in recession, trying to forget a war. It was neither home nor away. It’s no accident that the biggest movie of that era began with the words “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” Who wanted to be in the here and now? Who wanted to inhabit the realm of the defeated? Sometimes people were from Mars. Sometimes people were from Ork. Sometimes people were from Lovetron. Sometimes people were just from outer space.
Bill Lee, known in those days as Spaceman, did odd things and said odd things. His unorthodox behavior ultimately got him banished from my favorite team and from, as it happened, the USA. Then it got him banished from major league baseball altogether.
He proceeded to continue playing baseball all over the world. He plays to this day, ignoring borders, ignoring concepts of home and away. Baseball is his home, his eternal childhood. As he puts it in his first book, The Wrong Stuff, “Like Peter Pan, I’ll never stop enjoying my games.”
He loves baseball as much as any little boy. He even believes baseball can be the America of our dreams, the America as a child would imagine it, a game without borders or wars. As something to believe in, you could do much worse.
“If we start playing [baseball] in Afghanistan and Syria and Iraq,” Lee said in a 2005 interview, “we will have world peace.”