The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress
January/February 2005
ARTS OF WAR
 
 

The Smithsonian Makes History
With The Price Of Freedom

 

BY MARC LEEPSON

“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.

This 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.

The change 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. 

You wind 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.

The Vietnam 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 exhibits.

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 helicopter’s windows.

Befitting 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 NVA uniform.

There’s 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.

“There are 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: http://americanhistory.si.edu/militaryhistory

THE 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. 

While 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.

INSPIRED BY LIGHTERS

It’s safe 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.

In Zippo 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.”

USO TODAY

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 Cowboy cheerleaders.

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, Iraq!”

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 electronically at www.operationhomecoming.org

The best 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.

The 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.

Brian Lamb, 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.

“Everyone 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.

Larry 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.

For info about Entertaining Vietnam, a well-done documentary by Mara Wallis about lesser-known show biz folk who brought music to the troops, go to www.entertainingvietnam.com

   

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