An Old-Fashioned Angle on Vietnam
“Go easy, man. That’s the American
flag you gettin’ yo’ foot into.”
- A Marine at Khesanh to another Marine
who had just kicked a blood-soaked poncho
in Michael Herr’s Dispatches.
With the release of “We Were Soldiers” this past weekend, we have come full circle in the Vietnam war movie genre. It’s the type
of movie that came out while World War II was still going on: a patriotic journey in which soldiers rely on their instincts and their concern for each other as they go into battle, savoring honor and steadfastness
and valor and becoming men in their late teens.
For a long time (perhaps until now) it was not acceptable to do this type of movie on the Vietnam war (if you dismiss, as you should,
John Wayne’s laughable “The Green Berets”). Instead we got films like “Coming Home,” a post-mortem on the trauma and challenges of attempting to live life after being a witness to horror.
For many of our soldiers, another war had to be fought when they got off the plane after serving a tour of duty. There were no ticker
tape parades and no ceremonies and no banquets in their honor. More often than not, they were shouted at by peers with long hair who elected not to serve. They were called “baby killers” while getting pelted
with rotting flowers.
It’s no wonder that the bonds soldiers formed with each other were strong. There seemed to be nobody else who cared. But there are
growing numbers of people who did care then and who care now and who feel guilty about never expressing their gratitude to these soldiers who served with honor in a tough, thankless conflict.
Is it too late to say thanks?
Thanks, PFC Jeff Maurer. You were a basketball star in Bennett, Iowa, a newly graduated senior when I was a sophomore in 1970. Your
sense of humor and energy were amazing to witness. Girls, coaches, teachers, teammates: you made everybody smile. We all stopped smiling on a cold winter day when we found out that you had stepped on a land mine in
Vietnam and were blown completely apart.
Thanks, Sgt. Rick Roth, my brother in law, for serving two tours of duty in Vietnam with the Marines. After you survived that, thank
you for standing up to a liberal panelist’s charge of the military committing “genocide” during a taping of an anti-war Phil Donahue show in 1969 and maintaining that people were being helped over there and
that genocide was what the soldiers were trying to prevent. Later, the discovery of Pol Pot’s Killing Fields would prove you were right all along.
The pictures come back to me in impossibly bright color: Rick sitting at a poker game, shirtless, a Bowie-style knife nearby, amid a
group of dirty-faced guys managing small, tight grins under a relentless sun. They all have the look of robbed youth. Young in years but not young in experience. Guys who had to become men very quickly.
The full title of the book that “We Were Soldiers” came from is “We Were Soldiers Once … And Young.” There’s a ruminative
aspect in the full title, a musing on the valorous behavior of young men put to the test and thrown into war’s fiery cauldron.
Vietnam was never called a war. And now the country’s management is quick to declare war on nouns instead of countries, as in “War
on Terrorism” and “War on Drugs.”
Ask any survivor of Vietnam what it was to them.
And don’t forget to say thank you.
©Mark Andel 2002
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"Here come old flattop, he come groovin' up slowly."
Rest assured that whatever the CIA, the FAA or the FBI happen to hear about terrorist plots in the future, however vague they may
be, the public will be informed.
From now on, the slightest buzzing in bin Laden's hive will evoke stern pronouncements from our government officials about threats and
dangers swarming on the horizon. In fact, it has started already, with Vice President Dick Cheney saying that future terrorist attacks on U.S. soil are a "virtual certainty." That pretty much covers the
bases. So now, when it does happen, the White House will be able to say, "We told you so."
Why the added caution? When it was revealed that a memo was circulating last August about an inordinate number of Middle Eastern
men taking flight training at U.S. schools and the rumor mill began churning about possible hijackings of commercial airliners, politicians began their tongue-clucking in earnest about how "the events of
9-11" might have been prevented. Politicians are famous for this stuff. It's what they live for, the chance to put on a sharp blue suit and sit on the armchairs at CNN and do some quarterbacking.
What is happening is that the thin veil of false security we once happily donned has been taken away from us, exposing our slight
shoulders to something much worse than the Cold War ever was: big White-House-sized chunks of disinformation and chaotic missives designed to keep us on edge all the time. This particular brand of terrorists will
not be satisfied until Americans all feel the anxiety of a cluster of people at a fruit market in the Gaza Strip every time they go out for their morning cup of Starbucks. The suicide bombers are coming, yes they
Dick Cheney's pessimistic outlook put me on edge, I'll admit. When you contemplate the inevitable, you begin merely awaiting your own
demise. When you start to turn your imagination loose a little, it's possible to dream up all sorts of horrific scenarios, stuff that would make any self-respecting sensationalistic novelist blush. Poison in the
water supply? Unthinkable! "Dirty" nuke bombs produced by an attack on our nuclear power plants? Outrageous! Crop dusting the small pox virus over the city? Too far-fetched! Who could "buy-in" to
that concept? And yet: commercial airliners crashing into landmark skyscrapers in New York City? Anthrax in the mail? Strange how the unthinkable becomes an issue of real debate when you're in a New York state
of mind. How could we not have foreseen the planes hitting the towers? We weren't tapping into the most malevolent aspects of what could be called "inhuman nature." The White House thinking is, "We
had better get in front of all these things and just say that we know bad things are going to happen. We can't say what or how or when, but once it's done it will make September 11 look like child's play – a bad
kid knocking down a rival's tower of Lego's."
By now, a lot of young people are used to living with danger. For much of the world, it's the only life they've ever known. So we, too,
will get used to it.
©Mark Andel 2002
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Fear of Flying
“Here am I sitting in a tin can.”
- David Bowie, “Space Oddity”
A few years back, I used to make a regular bi-weekly flight to Newark, New Jersey from Chicago over a period of several months, and my
biggest fear was the price of drinks in coach.
Now that I’m pretty much land-locked, there is something in the air, as the refrain goes. And it’s not so special. Fear breathes
around us like a big dog waiting to be let out, and our grip on the leash is tenuous. We can barely take hold of it. Airports are so worried about passengers commandeering planes with box cutters and bad attitudes
that the planes themselves may not be getting their wires checked and their bolts tightened and their gleaming fuselages polished on their six-month check-ups. These metal carriers are not getting their fair share
of attention, and they are (to use the parlance of social workers) “acting out.”
The aerodynamics and technology that lift a plane loaded with close to three-hundred people into the sky are awesome, and I mean that
in the way the word used to be meant before twenty-somethings turned it into their very own expression for “cool.” There is no feeling quite like being on a comfortable, cushioned seat while these magnificent
creations get up to speed and actually depart the surface of the earth. And who has not been concerned when the wheels get tucked back underneath the craft in those few seconds after take-off, and there is that
slight bang outside the plane that makes people look at each other just for a moment?
And so, another of these magnificent birds has gone down in Rockaway, a city that has suffered so much already (not the least of which
was having its name boosted for the title of a mediocre novel by Jill Eisenstadt). After the crash, analysts and pundits were burning up the airwaves with conspiracy theories and unconvincing shows of reassurance.
Meantime, the major airlines and aircraft manufacturers will get busy figuring out how many more jobs they can eliminate before Christmas. I wonder if Mayor Daley is still pleased with all the attention that was
lavished on Boeing bigwigs this past spring when the city was vying for the jet maker to land here in Chicago with all the gawky shamelessness of a nerdy prom date. The city did everything but lay boxes of Godiva
chocolate mint coins on Boeing CEO Phil Condit’s pillow. It doesn’t seem like such a great catch in retrospect – (that could apply to my prom date, too, actually).
It may be time, too, to shelve all the talk about expanding O’Hare airport. The need simply will not be there for a very long time
now. The city could end up tearing down a bunch of great and unique Chicago-style bungalows to build runways that will go unused, creating instead a bleak and desolate stretch of asphalt, gathering weeds and
allowing the winter wind to rip more mightily through the western suburbs. It is going to be hard to prove “need” now that flight schedules are falling off quicker than American Airlines’ projected quarterly
The talk of the airbus A300 going down in New York prompted memories of that same type of craft going down near O’Hare airport in
1979, and I had a kind of “where were you” moment. I was playing golf on a company league at a Glendale Heights club, and from the third tee, I could see a plume of black smoke twisting into the sky less than
ten miles away. At that time, there was no utterance of the word “terrorism.” It was seen simply as a tragic and terrible accident, because it was quite inconceivable that anyone would visit such horrors on
other human beings on purpose in the name of God, Allah, Buddha, or Yahweh. “How horrible,” someone responded when the person driving the beer cart told us the news, and we all shook our heads and observed a
moment of silence before pulling out our three-woods. It was the good earth yet. It was just that bad things happened on it sometimes.
Within hours after the crash in AOL chat rooms, conspiracy theories were being clicked off with the rapidity of a Wall Street ticker.
There was rabid talk of “Ahabs” and missiles and revenge and nukes and the “last straw.” I offered up, “Perhaps it was just a mechanical failure. It has happened before,” and I was called a
“bleeding heart” and told to “shut up.” Someone smirkingly countered, “Yeah, I get tired of dodging all those jet engines that just happen to fall off airplanes all the time.”
Here is what caused that accident more than twenty years ago, according to the investigation: “Just as the plane lifted from the
runway, the left engine and pylon separated from the aircraft damaging the wing and hydraulic system which caused the aircraft to roll and crash.” It appears the same thing happened again.
Fear is strange. It seems to make some people smaller all over so that they don’t notice the narrowing of their own heads. If we feel
that we cannot trust in basic goodness to prevail, and that horrible accidents happen and that’s just what they are, then our world will become nothing more than a foxhole in which to entrench, from here on in.
©Mark Andel 2001
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Preparing the Survival Bunker
“Duck and cover.”
- 1950’s Government warning about what to do when an atomic bomb drops
We have to admit. Uncle Sam doesn’t seem to treat us like fools quite as much as he used to. Remember that one time when he
told us that big stretcher about how sporting a pair of Ray-Bans would protect us from the harmful effects of the nuclear tests in Nevada?
Now, Uncle Sam is pretty much up-front about things like not having near enough vaccines or antidotes for biological weapons should
this whole anthrax special delivery thing get out of hand or if small pox or the Plague get unleashed in heavily populated areas. He is not as comforting, certainly, but our old furrowed-browed, worn-out Uncle is
definitely more forthright. There’s a hint of resignation in his slight shoulders now, but he’s still pretty forceful when he wants to be.
So I have been hatching a plan to set up a groovy little survival pad in my basement. And in my bunker, I don’t want any of those
awful saltines in cans that soldiers get stuck with. I’m going to have to insist on Cheese Nips in resealable bags and Ritz crackers with the peanut butter already spread on them. And when it comes to canned
goods, I’ll have none of those freeze-dried or reconstituted noodles with garlic powder that are the bane of backpackers everywhere. I want neatly stacked cans of Chef Boy Ar Dee pastas and Progresso soups and
Bush brand baked beans with that little piece of fatback thrown in, even though the Tennessee family that makes them is no relation whatever to the guy in Washington, D.C. They’re just great beans, that’s all,
and that’s the kind of bunker I’m running here.
For cookies, I’ll have Oreos in tins and I’ll have to come up with a way to keep cases of those Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies
fresh. I’ll get some of my best people on that.
You want movies? There will be a stockpile of movies on VHS because I haven’t made the leap to DVD yet, and many of them will be
films that were big in the early 70’s, because that’s when I ran projectors at the Muscatine, Iowa Twin Cinemas, and those are the movies I still like. So we’ll have “The Paper Chase,” and “Easy Rider”
and “The Apartment” and “The Sting” and “The King of Marvin Gardens” with Jack Nicholson, and a gem of a film starring Lee Marvin called, “Emperor of the North,” because, hey, this is my bunker after
all. Put whatever movies you want in yours, including the complete Freddie Prinze, Jr. collection for all I care, if that’s what suits you, and let’s hope the electricity holds out.
As far as music goes, my bunker will feature plenty of CDs with the music of Vern Gosdin, Hank Williams, Sr., George Jones, Merle
Haggard, and the Beatles and Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen and we’ll throw some blues stuff in there, too (as if Hank Williams wasn’t bluesy enough) because we’ll probably be in the mood for that over time.
We’ll line the floors with pillows and futons and the walls with books. And we’re talking the same books that I’ve packed in
boxes and moved across three states in the last decade. They are reliable old friends even if I can’t see them too well these days without hanging a pair of those Teddy Kennedy glasses on my nose first, and those
marginal notes in the fading volumes all seem to have been written by someone who knows me.
And I’ll gather up some of the people I love, and allow them to bring their personal touches to the bunker if they like, but I’ll
have to draw the line at putting Nintendo or Playstation games down there. My bunker will not promote the soulless and mindless and willful killing of people at the touch of a button because they happen to be in the
way of where we want to go.
We’ll let that stuff happen above ground.
©Mark Andel 2001
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Times That Try Men’s Souls
“He hath wickedly broken through every moral and human obligation, trampled nature and conscience beneath his feet; and by a
steady and constitutional spirit of insolence and cruelty, procured for himself a universal hatred . . . . .These are the times that try men’s souls.”
- Thomas Paine, “Common Sense” and “An American Crisis”
“He cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and all kindreds of the earth shall wail.”
- Revelations, 1:7
The Revolutionary War began in 1770 when some rabble-rousers including Crispus Attucks started throwing snowballs at some British
redcoat guards, and the guards opened fire, killing five of them in what is known as the Boston Massacre.
Not five thousand or more.
Still, the world changed that day because it seemed heinous, killing a handful of people for merely hurling snowballs and insults.
Attucks, a sailor, was among a group of hooligans that John Adams described as "a motley rabble of saucy boys, Negroes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tarrs" who probably had a few drinks and were just
out poking fun at the redcoats and making some snide remarks about the outlandish tax business.
The people in the World Trade Center last week weren’t taunting anyone.
And the world changed again.
When the Tylenol killer dropped a few cyanide caps into a store bottle in a bizarre domestic act of terrorism in the early 80s, it
changed everything. Thereafter, I would be forced to enlist the services of my kid for help in opening a bottle of aspirin because everything after that was safety sealed, from bottles of salad dressing and milk to
Pepto Bismol and pickle relish. Before that, the crime was unspeakable to contemplate.
Much like the bombing of the World Trade Center.
The world changed again.
And while people figure out how best to respond, from saying a quiet prayer to installing a flag or two on the front porch, it seems
sure that retaliation will cost the blood of our soldiers. We seem both resigned to it and stirred by it, as Americans get when they are geared up for a fight and recognize that the price tag will be high. The cost
of freedom has never been cheap.
And our first hero to emerge is named Todd Beamer, who along with a handful of other men, overwhelmed the terrorists on Flight 93 and
downed the plane before it could reach its intended destination of the White House or the Capital. He heard via a cell phone call to GTE operator Lisa Robinson that the World Trade Center and Pentagon were struck,
and rallied supporters on the plane to tackle a terrorist with a bomb strapped to him and take the jetliner down in a field. No lives on the ground were taken.
Mike O’Connell, a managing partner at O’Connell and Crawford Public Relations and a speechwriter for top-level executives (as well
as a good friend), e-mailed me some brief remarks he had written that President Bush might have delivered after the attack. I’d like to share them with you:
“September 11 now becomes the fulcrum for the 21st century. The future began
today and it daunts with Biblical portent. Despite their intrinsic evil and utter senselessness, today's actions require no naming of
names. We know our who our enemies are... [Looking straight into the camera]... we know who you are... and we will destroy you. Quickly... and without hesitation. I hereby declare war, not on any
particular nation, but on the evil of terrorism. [again, straight at the camera] Don't get me wrong: This is NOT inflamed rhetoric. This is NOT the phraseology of statesmanship under
siege. Yours were acts of war. Ours is a declaration of war. We have the might, we have the wherewithal, and -- with God as my witness -- we have the commitment.
“We will find you as readily as if we had a map. We will find you more quickly than you could possibly prepare for. We
will bring you to justice... and we will destroy you. Any nation harboring you will likewise be destroyed. It is too late to talk. It is too late to run. It is too late to pray to your
God. You have crossed the line once drawn... and now
there is no going back.
“Our intelligence and our firepower – both the greatest ever witnessed by history -- have been strengthened by the
thousands of lives sacrificed by your heinous actions today. With the power of these martyrs behind us, America will prevail.”
©Mark Andel 2001
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“I wish coke was a cola
And a joint was a bad place to be.
It was back before Nixon
Lied to us all on t.v.”
- Merle Haggard
Some business took me to the Daley Center toward the end of last week from the relative calm of the far suburbs, and it dawned on me
while looking at the police squad cars flanking the buildings and the barricaded streets and more guys in blue shirts than a prison yard, that we’ve lost something.
We have lost that carefree feeling that we’ve had in this country pretty much since it was founded of being able to going through the
day like somnambulists, expecting no upheavals and nothing spectacular, no excess of emotion being expended anywhere.
We have lost the ability to ignore our surroundings as we trudge to work, oblivious to the eyes of passing strangers and unattended
briefcases on trains. We have lost the sensation of putting ourselves on autopilot and being carried through the day on great yawning, repetitive waves of ennui.
We have gotten our wake-up call, and we’ve responded admirably in most cases.
We have lost more than 3,000 humans, but we have gained something back of our humanity.
People reached out last week to help strangers. Others have called people they haven’t called or heard from in years to check and ask
how things were going. People have become tuned in to the brevity of their own lives and the meaninglessness of some of their daily routines, and have made an effort to connect with those things that have real,
human value. People have wept inconsolably at the stories of ill-fated strangers who were simply going about the business of their lives one morning and found themselves in an inferno with no way out.
People have gotten their resolve back, found strength in unity, and made millionaires of flag makers. People who have not been stirred
much by the warm embers of patriotism they have carried around like pocket hand warmers for so long have felt their very souls seared and tempered by unexpected glowing bonfires of pride. And they get kindled every
day by reports of other horrific plots that have been foiled or have not yet been carried out – such as the discovery of some Taliban soldiers taking a sudden interest in flying crop dusting planes, asking flight
training instructors how big a payload they could carry and how fast they could travel.
One such plane crashing into the Sears Tower and releasing a belly-load of anthrax could kill millions within a few days. It’s enough
to make you wonder about the real estate market in the West Loop, where all those lofts are being hollowed out of the guts of former factories and sweatshops. With this type of warfare, the buildings would remain
intact, but the people would fall as surely as the ones in the notorious Nazi cyanide shower rooms.
The Nazis worked hard to devise plans of mass destruction of human beings, and awarded engineers with praise and payments for
their innovations. Poison proved inexpensive and effective. It will probably be used again to commit crimes against humanity.
History books tell us that what Franklin Roosevelt felt when he heard the news of Pearl Harbor was an overwhelming sense of relief
because he knew he could act and have the support of the populace behind him.
We are all on alert now.
We have lost a sense of our basic, national freedom, which has made us all realize how precious it is.
We’ve gained knowledge of how much it is worth fighting for.
©Mark Andel 2001
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