Brutal Death In Life
Late in 1969 when I was seven years old I found a magazine somewhere in the house. I don’t think my parents would have wanted me to see it so I think I stumbled across it or perhaps I saw one of them with it and tracked it down later to where it was hidden.
The magazine was a December issue of that year of Life magazine and it was at that stage the major news picture magazine of the western world. It still exists online. Though not the cover story it carried many colour pictures of an event that helped end the Vietnam War. That event was the massacre of unarmed Vietnamese villagers by a unit of the US army at a hamlet called My Lai.
Newspapers around the world carried the story and photos but Life’s glossy paper and better print quality no doubt gave them extra punch, especially to a seven year old seeing graphic images of bodies and blood and mud and death. I doubt that mainstream media would publish the photos today. The fact that they were published for the US people in those frayed, angry times is in itself a testament to the great ideals that built the USA whilst condemning some of the actions that flowed from them.
Fuck they are powerful. I can see them in my mind’s eye even now. Women, children lying shot on the road, their village huts set ablaze and blank eyed USA troops aiming weapons; obeying orders apparently aka the Nuremberg Defence.
Such is war. All sides commit atrocities and perhaps Vietnam was the first war where the dividing line between the enemy and the non-combatants became blurred and difficult to see.
This all came back to me this week through a series of coincidences that happen in life. I mean life itself not the magazine.
First of all SBS On Demand is streaming the 10 part documentary of The Vietnam War by master doco maker Ken Burns with Lynne Novick. If you are at all interested in history and/or the USA this is fantastic emotional TV. Only released in September it has caused some controversy and has generated calls of bias, some of which I agree with. Even so the hard lessons highlighted in the history seem to have been forgotten when they were largely repeated in the Middle East this century.
The convenient rationales and lies and sheer hubris of the USA, and again our involvement with them, are in many ways so similar as to be sickening.
And I get it. Someone has to be the good guy, the world’s cop because I know that these people do not believe in democracy and human rights as we see them and therefore should be repulsed. But if we are so right why do we lie about our motives and what we do? And of course if the ends start to justify the means and we behave the same as the enemy we oppose, what then?
The documentary is particularly good at taking us through the divisions in US society that have never been healed and their effect on the war and its different participants. The Civil Rights movement, Feminism, the burgeoning drug culture and the whole late 60s hippy movement are all key players. Of course this makes for great visuals and Ken Burn’s unique directional style switching between video and stills, interviews, slow motion and even running video in reverse is wonderfully suited to the feeling of a nation divided and deeply searching its soul.
How divided? Have you heard of Kent State University?
In 1970 a US National Guard unit fired at and killed four university students at a Vietnam War Protest at Kent State University in Ohio. Try to imagine that happening at QUT or Melbourne University. Every time I see the images I am astounded and horrified.
His master narrator Peter Coyote and of course the music of the era are also critical.
The late 60s was rock music’s coming of age and was probably the only time that as well as entertainment and being a product there was a clear belief that rock and roll could help change the world. The songs were either made as tools for protest and change or at the very least as documents of the times.
Even a song so well known as We Gotta Get Out Of This Place has a renewed impact when accompanied by the script and visuals in the episode.
It is great TV and I am astounded it is sneaking on our screens without the fanfare it deserves.
Episode eight features the My Lai massacre and that triggered my memory of the Life magazine that my mother still has. I asked her whether it was Dad or her that had bought it, as we had no other editions of Life as far as I knew. Mum is 86 and she could remember buying it but not why. When I asked her what she thought of The Vietnam War at the time she was not really sure.
It has been almost 50 years since the massacre which occurred on March 16 1968.
The third link in the chain was a comment from my daughter. Mimi has been on a high school exchange program for the last three weeks in Washington DC. She has had a great time and Mimi is already building that same love/hate relationship with the USA that I possess.
When talking to her US buddy after a visit to one of Washington’s monuments to events and men of US history the conversation somehow turned to wars. As is common throughout the USA the buddy was surprised to hear that Australia was in fact involved in both WW1 and WW2.
The girls are only 15 and not historians but the USA population’s general lack of knowledge of what happens and what has happened outside their borders still astonishes me. They do love our country and us and they all want to visit here but don’t be fooled. We are a special friend only to their politicians and only when it suits them not us.