“The doors to the museum open every day at 10:00, and every day
at 10:01 people begin streaming into the exhibit.” The museum in
question is the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of
American History in Washington. The exhibit is the massive
18,200-square-foot “The Price of Freedom: Americans at War,” a
masterful look at America’s wars from the Revolution to today.
“It’s the most comprehensive exhibition of military conflicts in
American history,” said David Allison, the exhibit’s project
director, who recently guided us through the stunning exhibit.
permanent exhibit, which opened on Veterans Day 2004, is located
in the museum’s new Kenneth E. Behring Hall of Military History,
which replaces the American History Museum’s former military
history exhibit. This multi-dimensional examination of America’s
wars represents a giant step forward in the museum’s approach to
the subject. “Until this exhibit opened, there had been no
change in the way we presented military history since this
building opened in 1964,” Allison told us.
is evident the minute you enter the exhibit. One of the first
things a visitor may do is “fire” the first shot of the American
Revolution. You press a button in front of a giant video screen
and the opening of the Battle of Lexington and Concord (as
interpreted by veteran re-enactors) explodes on a huge TV screen
in front of you.
your way through other wars, getting up close and personal with
Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s buckskin coat; the name plate
from the battleship U.S.S. Maine; an original copy of the
CINPAC teletype, saying “THIS IS NO DRILL” and dated December 7,
1941; Audie Murphy’s field jacket. Not to mention hundreds and
hundreds of other artifacts, including weapons, uniforms,
paintings, photographs, newsreels, maps, and newspaper articles.
War section is dominated by a real Huey helicopter, which saw
duty with the 173rd Helicopter Assault Co. in the war, and was
used in the documentary film, In the Shadow of the Blade.
It’s one thing to see a real-life Huey in the Air and Space
Museum, surrounded by other aircraft; it’s quite another, more
intense, feeling to see it amid the much smaller museum
A huge TV
screen sits in one opened side door. Visitors have a choice of
taking in five personal stories of the war on the screen: from
Gen. Hal Moore, nurse Donna Rowe, infantrymen Fred Castleberry
and Carson Walks Over Ice, and Medal of Honor recipient Clarence
Sasser. A VVA “Welcome Home” decal graces one of the
the sobriquet as the nation’s first “televised war,” the Nam
section also includes a bank of 16 vintage television sets that
spin out cleverly edited five-minute loops of TV clips that
provide an encapsulated history of the war. Then there’s the
eight-foot-high vintage country map, to which Vietnam veterans
have been drawn since the exhibit opened. “Veterans love that
map,” Allison said. “On Veterans Day we had vets hanging out
here all day.”
The Vietnam War section also contains a long wall made up of an
effective montage of photographs, reproduced newspaper front
pages, and artifacts, again chronologically chronicling the
American War. Next to the helicopter is a bicycle used to ferry
material down the Ho Chi Minh Trail and an array of other enemy
material, including an AK-47, punji stakes, a VC uniform, and an
also a set of GI fatigues (just like the ones you probably have
hanging in a closet), a grouping of items left at the Vietnam
Veterans Memorial, and a sobering recreation of a cell at the
Hanoi Hilton put together with the advice of several former
POWs. Encased on the outside wall are a handful of small objects
the POWs managed to bring home, as well as a POW uniform worn by
Cmdr. Allen Carpenter and an NVA prison guard’s uniform.
lots of war and veterans’ memorials in Washington,” Allison told
us after our visit. “This is the first time, though, that we
have told the history of the wars they memorialize.”
You can visit the exhibit virtually at:
THINGS WE SCRIBBLED
Former Marine Corps Reservist Art Beltrone, who collects
military memorabilia and is long-time film and museum
military technical adviser, made an interesting discovery early
in 1997 while he was working on the movie The Thin Red Line.
Beltrone’s assignment was to find a ship that could be used in
the movie to simulate a WWII troop carrier. Beltrone, who lives
in Central Virginia, ferreted one out at a maritime- reserve
installation on Virginia’s James River. It was the rusting,
decommissioned General Nelson M. Walker, a P-2 troopship
that last saw active duty in 1968 and was slated for demolition.
The Walker’s last mission was a series of Pacific voyages
that took American soldiers and Marines to the Vietnam War.
poking around below decks, Beltrone spotted graffiti scrawled by
Nam-bound GIs on the canvas undersides of the sardine-like
berths. “There was a little of everything,” Beltrone told
Smithsonian magazine last year. “Obscenities, drawings, even
poetry.” That included phrases such as “Bong the Cong,” “George
Washington Slept Here,” “Will I Return?” and “Capitalist
Yankee Dogs Go Home!”
“I knew I’d
stumbled on a unique sort of personal history,” Beltrone said.
“These young men were going to war, while I had spent those
years on Long Island.”
Beltrone and his wife, Lee, a photographer, recorded the
inscriptions, and put together a book about it, Vietnam
Graffiti: Messages From a Forgotten Troopship. They also
talked the U.S. Maritime Administration into donating 127 of the
canvasses to seven museums around the country, including the
under-construction National Museum of the U.S. Army and the
Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
to say that you’ve never heard a CD like Zippo Songs: Airs of
War and Lunacy (Cantaloupe Music) by Phil Kline, an eclectic
music maker The New Yorker calls “one of downtown
[Manhattan’s] most skillful composer-provocateurs.” Kline mixes
elements of classical, rock, and ambient electronic music in his
works, some of which use strange combinations of boom boxes and
acoustic and electronic instruments. That includes “Unsilent
Night,” an outdoor event for massed boom boxes, and “The Garden
of Divorce,” an electronic guitar concerto.
Songs, Kline has taken words G.I.s in Vietnam had etched on
their Zippo lighters and turned them into ethereal lieders
featuring Theo Bleckmann on vocals. The dirge-like songs include
many of the well-know bon mots we used back then. Such as: “When
I die, bury me face down so the whole world can kiss my ass.”
“We are the unwilling led by the unqualified doing the
unnecessary for the ungrateful.” “When I die, I’ll go to heaven
because I spent my time in hell.” “Death is my business, and
business has been good.”
Kline also includes a group of “Rumsfeld Songs,” tunes written
to words spoken by the current Defense Secretary, and his
melancholy version of “The End,” the Doors song that forever
will be associated with the bombastic last scene in
Apocalypse Now. The CD, Kline says, amounts to “a sequence
of varied moods and activities— getting bummed, getting high,
getting horny, getting bored, dying, finding God.”
Blake Clark, the actor and comedian who served as a U.S. Army LT
in the Vietnam War, took his riotous stand-up routine on the
road late last year: to Afghanistan and Iraq as part of a
star-studded USO holiday show to entertain the troops. The group
also included Robin Williams, John Elway, and Leeann Tweeden.
They followed in the footsteps of other celebs who’ve made the
trek, including Al Franken, Toby Keith, Joan Jett, Sheryl Crow,
James (Tony Soprano) Gandolfini, David Letterman, and the Dallas
At the 2004
holiday show, Clark wowed ’em with lines that included: “We
can’t find Osama bin Laden, but Martha Stewart is in jail. I
know I sleep better. How hard can it be to find a six-foot-eight
Arab with a kidney problem? Just find the camel with the
dialysis machine and follow it.” The irrepressible Williams—who
portrayed former AFVN DJ Adrian Cronauer in the movie Good
Morning, Vietnam—greeted troops with: “Gooooood Morning,
ARTS IN BRIEF
The NEA’s “Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime
Experience,” a series of two-day writing workshops at military
installations for troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan,
will be extended three months until March 31 because of an
overwhelming response from the nation’s newest war veterans.
Those who cannot take part in the workshops, may submit work
works will be published in an anthology, due out in late 2005.
The anthology, NEA announced in November, will be edited by
Andrew Carroll, the director of the Legacy Project, which
encourages Americans to preserve wartime letters and e-mails.
Carroll edited the highly regarded book, War Letters:
Extraordinary Correspondence from America’s Wars. The new
book will be distributed to military installations, schools, and
libraries, and sold in bookstores. A percentage of the proceeds
from bookstore sales will go to military charities.
University of South Mississippi’s award-winning Vietnam Studies
program is sponsoring what it dubs an “Academic Excursion” to
Vietnam, May 16 to June 5. The USM students who go to Vietnam
will learn about the American War on the ground where it
happened. In addition to Professor Maureen Ryan, the instructors
will include American Vietnam veterans. They will make extended
stays in Saigon, Hanoi, and Hue, and then travel around the
entire nation, taking in the Cu Chi Tunnels, the Hanoi Hilton,
and battle sites in and around Danang, Hue, and Khe Sanh. In
addition to learning about the war, students will experience
life in Vietnam today. Students receive four semester hours for
completing the course.
who served as a U.S. Navy officer during the Vietnam War,
presented his 801st—and last— “Booknotes” program December 5 on
C-Span. Lamb, who also is C-Span’s CEO, started the popular
hour-long weekly author-interview program in April 1989, and
often featured authors of books dealing with the Vietnam War. In
fact, the idea for the show originated with a three-hour
interview Lamb did with Neil Sheehan in 1988 about A Bright,
Shining Lie, the excellent biography of John Paul Vann and
history of the Vietnam War.
was waiting for that book,” Lamb told The New York Times.
“Long after the Vietnam War ended, it was still discussed in
Congress.” C-Span aired the Sheehan interview in weekly
half-hour segments beginning in September 1988. “The viewer
response was such that it became clear that there was an
audience for a long-form author interview program,” Lamb said.
Brown, the novelist whose first book, Dirty Work (1989),
was a tour-de-force treatment of the personal legacy of the
Vietnam War, died November 24 at his home in Yocona,
Mississippi. Brown, 53, who succumbed to a heart attack, served
in the U.S. Marine Corps.
about Entertaining Vietnam, a well-done documentary by
Mara Wallis about lesser-known show biz folk who brought music
to the troops, go to