©1998 A.D. Sullivan
Putting it into Reverse
An Unquiet Vision
strewn in to four winds
stellar quandaries realigned
into prodigious thunder
by Rosemary Puglise
Putting it into Reverse
August 29, 1984
Sixteen years after the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, I'm still appalled, though the years have painted a different, more nostalgic picture for many of the old hippies I hear on the radio and television, all of them still painting the same mistaken interpretation. Recordings of Abbie Hoffman hit memos vividly, his talk about being there, his talk at the time, his talk at the trial afterwards in which he was blamed for the violence.
I remember seeing the images on television, remember how glad I felt about not being able to go after all Frank's urging. He painted it into another Summer of Love, a festival of life to which we were both invited. Seeing the images of rock throwing hippies on the television told me the truth, and said something about the change underway in the movement I had always believed so peaceful. Though Abbie Hoffman and others still call the whole affair "a police riot" I believe it was always the unraveling of a movement, a moment in time when middle America got to see just what the youth were about, judging them evil.
From that moment, we stopped being the victims of a system and became its criminals. Historians always point to moment upon which change hinges. For America, that week was it. Although protests against the Vietnam War continued for years, the tide of public opinion had changed, giving the right wing the exact fertilizer it needed to grow.
Frank continually maintained we were innocent victims of an evil society, a machine like government imposing its will on us. Yet, in those film clips, I saw so-called victims provoking police, taunting them with stones, bottles and curses, something that made us seem as bad to me as anything the police did there, or the national guard did later at Kent State. It ruined me for Woodstock. It made sense of the Beatle breakup. It made hypocrites of those of us who continued to wear nehru jackets, love beads and peace symbols.
I guess it also partly explained the look on Frank's face a half year later when he took up his cheap guitar and tried to become a folk singer, passing out the hat at the club bizarre. Despite his rhetoric, he seemed to understand that something fundamental had changed. Recently, I asked him about the gig and why he hadn't kept up singing. He looked at me, shook his head, and said it would have been crazy for him to try.
"You heard how bad I was on the guitar," he said.
"Sure," I argued. "But the Monkees didn't know how to play when they got started. You could have learned."
"Maybe," he said. "But I couldn't have learned to improve my looks. No one who looks like me was ever going to make it in the music business."
"That's not what you thought back then," I said.
"Not at first," he said. "But I saw it in people's eyes when I sang that night at the club bizarre. They all applauded, but they were laughing inside."
He never attributed his failing to Chicago, but I did. I also blamed the whole sudden reversal of people's feelings on Chicago, feelings that over the last 16 years have brought us back full circle to where we were during the 1950s, where greedy, good looking people rule the world, and anyone who can't fit that image winds up working dead end jobs like Frank's and mine. People keep talking about a new revolution. But those that talk still think there was something noble in the old one. Maybe there was. Maybe the revolution made sense before we learned to curse cops and throw stones and plant bombs in bank doorways. Maybe there was something magical at first, but I think Chicago killed it.
The first hours, we're told, are the easiest, we, being no more than a bunch of logs lounging around after the bus dropped us off, Regular Army guys side by side with the US Army draftees resting from the ninety mile trip south from Newark, each passing cigarettes back and forth as if all were equal, watching the dust rise up on the horizon, stirred by a warm wind.
The heat should have warned us. But those first few hours intrigued us with new sights, brick buildings and mud-sided roads and jeeps traveling through the webwork of barracks that would be our home for the next eight weeks, beeping their way through the lines of troops until disappearing into the dusty hills. This was the stuff we'd imagined at Army, though we were still too new to know we should salute those with painted white stars on the hoods.
"Salute a jeep?" Vinnie asked when some crooked-toothed corporal caught up with us, "Are you crazy?"
The corporal did not make an issue of it, but looked us over, and nodded, as if he knew something about our immediate futures we didn't, knew we would suffer enough without his adding to our woes. He just nodded, then shied away, joining the parade of dust-covered uniforms passing by us, leaving us with the word "green."
Green for greenhorn. Green like wood. Green meaning we didn't know enough to know we were wrong. Green meaning the undusted color of our still brand new uniforms we would soon receive.
Vinnie sneered after the man, calling him stupid, never quite getting the idea that the jeep we were supposed to salute had a general inside, and though the general might not notice the lack of our attention, his underlings would.
But seeing us also made most real soldiers realize we weren't worth yelling at yet. Too green, they'd think, meaning we were still innocent.
All that changed when the sergeant showed up, he kicking dust off his shinny boots, looking at us as if we were made of shit. Maybe to him we were, chunks of undeveloped shit he would have to shape into soldiers. He looked at each of us, then down at his clip board, sighing over it as he wrote down a reminder to himself, then, he looked at us again and told us to listen up.
His speech reminded me of home with my uncle getting ready to lay out the ground rules: get a job, pay some rent, then when you have enough saved, get the hell out.
I had chosen to get out first and save myself the effort of finding work and slaving at it, just to give most of what I made to him. I thought the army would provide me with housing, clothing, free meals, and little labors. From the faces of those around me, many of the other Regular Army people seemed to think the same, showing some of the same doubts when the sergeant began to speak.
We looked a little silly huddling in a crowd around him, a semi-circle of innocent faces who didn't even know what was about to hit us, our trusting gazes cast upon this huge, mountain of a man, as if he could guide us, as if he and the Army would provide us what we had come here to get.
Some faces looked smug, like Vinnie's, though his pimple-blistered face lacked any real toughness, and he fit in better than he realized with the fat-faced, big-bellied momma's boys who were already whimpering at the rear of the pack, mumbling about following their mother's wishes in going to school to be priests. Even the slick-haired, I'm so cool boys who had joined the army to kill, looked a little taken back, as if they hadn't expected any preamble to their wish for murder and only then realized just how much pain they themselves would have to endure before they could inflict pain on anyone else, the guns they'd come to shoot firmly locked in some closet until these children grew though enough to learn how to use them.
Later, some of the staff would tell me how much they feared us Regular Army volunteers, saying that for all our gung-ho, we didn't perform well as soldiers, lacking that fundamental sense of fear to keep our egos in check, bragging about killing gooks without understanding gooks were people, and as people, scared enough to want to kill us back.
"I told you to listen up!" the sergeant said that day. "I want you to puck up your gear and move in as orderly a fashion as you can into that building over there."
He pointed to one of the white and brown little buildings that dotted the landscape nearest us.
"Did you get that?" he shouted.
We all nodded, staring at that building, as if we hadn't noticed it before, or noticed the paint peeling from his sides, or the fact that it no longer had any windows, only shabby screens to cover each hole in order to keep the bugs out.
We were far from orderly in our parade, most of us shuffling along while some of the particularly macho recruits began to gab, talking among themselves, seeking to convince themselves that this was really it, that they had finally made it into their dream of violence, even though none of this looked like a scene from any of the army movies we'd watched on TV.
Later, these same fellows gabbed when in the field, talking themselves into thinking themselves invulnerable as their camps got overrun and their buddies got shot. Many of these same fellows ran into the jungle to escape, and came face to face with those little yellow men they thought so easy to kill, yellow men who killed them instead. They gabbed and gabbed and gabbed until the sergeant told us all to shut up. Cocky Vinnie floated along beside me, saying not one word, sweating as if we had reached high summer, with huge circles forming under the arms of his shirt. For the first time, his pimply pink face looked his age, and as scared as the rest of us.
"All right, you boot-licking motherfuckers, straighten out those lines," the sergeant roared.
We didn't know what he meant. We didn't see any lines. We had come here like a herd of cows, ambling towards the building in our civilian ways. But a spec-4 came, plowing through us, kicking our bags aside when they cluttered his sense of an aisle. We, meanwhile, fell quiet and waited. We could feel the thickness of that quiet.
"You! There!" the sergeant roared, pointing his steady finger straight at me.
I looked right, then left, disbelieving it was me he had addressed. Eventually, I pointed to my own chest, watching the sergeant's face twitch -- what I would later learn was his only expression of humor.
"Yeah, you," he said. "Get over here."
All eyes were on me then and I felt the way I did when a little boy being called up in front of the class to recite. Only I had the definite sense that this would be infinitely worse.
The sergeant waited, his huge, knobby hands resting on his hips, fingers tapping his upper thighs. He twitched a little, and tapped his foot.
"What's your name, soldier?" he asked when I got close enough for him not to shout.
"Sullivan, sir," I said.
Pain erupted from my chest where he punched me.
"You don't call me sir," he snapped. "I work for a living."
"S-S-Sergeant?" I said, sputtering out the word.
I lacked the ability to express myself properly with someone hanging over me. I caught a glimpse of Vinnie in the crowd, who winced as well.
"I thought I told you I wanted straight lines?" the sergeant said, jabbing his finger towards the spot where I had stood. "Why the hell are you out of line?"
"Huh? But you asked me to..."
The pain erupted from my chest again, this time worse than before.
"You don't hear too good, get down and give me fifty."
This command made even less sense to me than the previous one. I blinked, and gave what might have been a puzzled look.
The sergeant's face actually reddened, and he looked at me as if I was the crazy one.
"Are you joshing me, boy?"
"No sir, I mean, Sergeant."
More pain, payment for the slip of tongue, I nearly didn't remain standing.
"Push ups, boy, I want fifty push ups," the sergeant growled through clenched teeth. "Is that clear enough?"
"I guess so..."
"Then get down and do them, asshole!" the sergeant roared. "And the rest of you, pay attention. You're all going to be doing them soon. In fact, why don't you all get down and do me fifty, just so that this asshole doesn't feel alone. You hear me. Give me fifty."
Two hundred men in various shapes and sizes got down, first to their knees, then to their stomachs and proceeded to give the sergeant something that only vaguely resembled pushups, each huffing and puffing and turning red with the effort, each trying to keep an eye on the man who had ordered the excruciating effort. I did only fairly well, being in only slightly better shape than the others, my arms aching as I tried to do the first pushup and then follow it up with another and another, each effort making me feel weaker as my energy evaporated. Some of the fat man had it easier since their bellies made the distance shorter and bounced them back into position, where I had no such advantage and had to handle both directions completely unaided.
Some of the smaller men struggled as much as I did, though they had less weight to lift and shorter arms therefore also short distance. Their groaning drew a kick from the corporal, ceasing numerous other complaints. But in the end, each of the other men, regular army or not, glared at me as if I was to blame, as if my being ever so slightly out of skew had resulted in this humiliation.
But as I pressed on, the flats of my hands doing battle with bits of gravel, I knew something they didn't, but that they would soon find out, that these hours were indeed the easiest. From here on in, things only got worse.
Why do I watch it, night after night?
I don't get it, what's the attraction?
That over-rated comic with his rodent nose
pinched, sexless body
and runners large as loaves.
The co-star with her Cyborg chin
and Medusa hair.
The next door neighbor
who ice skates in
throws epileptic responses and paranoid lines
seaweed hair electrically afloat
and the shouting man, the short angry friend
who refuses to work
and is petty with his cash.
Why do I watch it? it just doesn't make sense!
but it somehow twisters you in.
by Joy Reid
They say that history repeats itself, foolish mistakes made in the past are duplicated. With my Uncle Ted, it was as if he couldn't escape fate any more than his father could.
His father, Grandpa to me, had big dreams when he was young, a small, broad man born and raised in Hasbrough Heights where he excelled at mathematics, design and football. He had visions of being an architect during the most significant reconstruction of America since after the War of 1812. World War One had just come to an end and the country fitted itself up for a bout of prosperity. And he, as the star full back of his high school football team, had just won a complete scholarship to a New York State university.
It was a remarkable achievement for a boy who believed he would not amount to much otherwise, who saw himself as in the forefront of transforming Jersey farms into houses.
And he would have, too. He had the knack for fitting pieces together, wood and brick, doing it all inside his head, something he taught his son, Richi later, though could not instill in Albie, Frank, Harold or Ted.
Then, his father died.
It was as if the Great Depression had come a whole decade early, he aching to leave, but unable to, his mother insisting she needed him to help keep the family together, to feed and clothe them, his four younger brothers unfitted for the task.
It was the great moment of Grandpa's life, and one from which he never recovered. More than once he told my Grandmother he should had gone, refusing to honor his mother's request. It was a moment that ruined his life and the life of his children, twisting him up inside, without George Bailey's angel around to rescue him.
Grandpa succeeded after a fashion. He got to build houses as a contractor, stretching his gift to build in designs that might otherwise have not been incorporated. But he never felt satisfied with this limited success. He continually saw himself as something else which he could never be.
In World War Two, he hid materials in order to stay ahead of competition during a time when most buildings materials were being rationed. Many contractors, who later emerged from the war to acquire fortunes, did this. But his mother, the same woman he blamed for destroying his dream earlier, told the authorities. Thus, he emerged from the war little better than when he entered it, working very hard for very little, working his children so that they could help him buy a house of his own, not just any house, but the grandest in Clifton, a monument that would later serve as he only real accomplishment.
Some in the family say he paid for that house in heart attacks because soon after he had moved in, he was forced to quit construction.
My grandfather - to take it easy on his heart - decided to build boats instead. It was hard, brutal work, that left his hands blistered and his brow covered with sweat. He used to stink of motor oil when he came in from work. As he had taught Richi to build, Grandpa taught Teddy to work on motors. It was a great skill that Teddy had talent for, but little taste. He dreamed of better things, as a business man, part of that entrepreneurial flavor then alive in the country. He had friends who had gone to college, and he believed that if he went to college, too, he could rise about the sweat and stench of common labor, and perhaps, too, have a house of his own and family to install in it.
Even before he left high school, Ted had begun working elsewhere, believing a job -- that wasn't family related -- was his first step towards freedom. I remember him coming home from Pep Boys auto store in Passaic, weary, but satisfied, wearing the expression of a man who believed he was making his own way in the world. He even attended classes at the community college.
Then, he received his draft notice.
Vietnam wasn't yet the bad word student protests would later make it, and Ted saw it less negatively than his friends did. Instead, he viewed it as one more step creating distance between him and the family, something that would once and for all establish his freedom from the drudgery his brothers suffered. Even his being sent to Vietnam did not discourage him, since the army was offering to make him an officer, giving him exactly the kind of experience that he would need later when he came out and went into business.
Vietnam, however, was unlike many other wars, leaving him confused and scared, leaving him with the dread that he might not survive it to take his place in the business community. Yet, he was determined to stick it out, vowing to make his break now while he had the chance. He would not make the same mistake Grandpa did.
Word reached him of Grandpa's death in the middle of a battle, the big cannons roaring around him as the communication man shouted at him the news.
He had very little time to take this in. The Red Cross arrived within hours, telling him they were going to airlift him out. The war is over for him, they said. His mother had contacted a senator. He was being sent home.
Years later, he would think about that moment, pondering it, cursing it, blaming it for ruining his life.
His return meant he would have to take over the boat store. Gone were visions of his own business. This one would have Grandpa's ghost haunting it forever. Gone were his chances for going to college, since he would be too weary and full of sweat at the end of the day to ever contemplate lessons.
An Unquiet Vision
The Quiet American
by Graham Greene
Ten years before American involvement in Vietnam become overly apparent, Graham Greene published this novel. Unlike Orwell's 1984, it was not intended as a warning of future events (although for Orwell to have written his own novel, he must have seen quite clearly the elements of the societies he described emerging out of the time in which he lived.)
Few great writers really believe what they predict. When H.G. Wells wrote The Time Machine, he didn't envision working class people actually devouring the flesh of the wealthy upper classes, who had grown ignorant of their own survival. He had likely seen a similar society of Young Upwardly Mobile Professionals, growing more and more dependent on the surfaces of those over whom they felt so superior, until they lacked the ability to do anything for themselves, from shining their own shoes to cooking their own meals.
Well, Orwell, and Greene probably each believed they might help humanity avoid the disasters, by highlighting their possibilities. But more importantly, in establishing their own reality, each unconsciously manages to describe the pattern of their generation, creating a symbol by which future generations can identify that era. The greater the writer, the more accurately he or she portrays this symbolic truth.
In The Quiet American, Greene's details the early Vietnam era and the thought processes that went on behind it, better than any other author, creating a foreigner's vision if what America and its policies looked like to the rest of the world. In building the character of one American, Greene reveals the character of a nation.
Greene might have written simply about the conditions of the war. The French occupied what they then called French Indo-China, and like the Americans later, were bogged down in a war unpopular at home, their troops frustrated by that they saw as a rag tag army of ill-equipped guerrillas. The French, as the Americans would later learn to do, manipulated the news at home, so as to keep the public from becoming too aware of just how badly their troops in Vietnam were doing.
The French people, however, differed from the Americans later, in that their anger was not based on the slaughter of innocent people, but on the French government's inability to maintain its empire, although some Americans also felt this way later, resulting in Barry Sadler's song "The Green Beret" to top the sales charts for the year 1965.
For Greene, who did cover the conflict as a reporter during those years, the restrictions imposed by the French was unacceptable, and perhaps Greene's only way to tell the truth of what happened during his stay in Vietnam, was to say it in fiction. At points in the novel, Greene's main character complained about not being allowed to report anything but what the authorities told him, much in the manner American reporters would later complain during the invasion of Grenada and the Persian Gulf War. For the most part, reporters were herded to official press conferences where the French military would shed the proper light on the war. Later, the American military would repeat the practice in Vietnam, only to become the subject of mockery as reporters scoured the countryside and found evidence that refuted the military claims. Only later, when the military kept reporters from the conflict during Grenada and the Persian Gulf War did the trick work.
Early in this novel, Greene has his hero walking into a battle zone that would later be called North Vietnam, accompanying a troop of French soldiers.
"Words came over the wireless, and we went on in silence, to the right the straight canal, to the left low scrub and fields and scrub again."
Greene's hero wasn't sure why he had come to this place, except to take things in that he knew he could never report.
"The canal was full of bodies; I am reminded now of an Irish stew containing too much beat. The bodies overlapped..."
Later in the novel, it was not "Irish Stew" but a single monstrous explosion that brought home the full impact of the war to Greene's reporter, much in the way the explosion of the bar in "Good Morning Vietnam" changed the mood of that film and the feelings of that film's hero (a man who later became a defender of the war). Greene's hero was suddenly swayed by the full measure of the war, not as something to be observed, but as something to be endured, and then, just barely. This reporter (and the reader as well) is brought from that objective view of the war as a happening to the personal and tragic war as hell.
The first chapter opens in classic Greene style (which might be compared with Greene's later popular fiction of the 1960s such as Travels with my Aunt). In these opening passage, Greene's hero has his confrontation with drugs, and the social acceptability of opium. This scene in which Greene's hero smokes several pipefuls of the drug grows more and more startling over time, a pre-1960s drugs-as-custom that has historical omens Greene might not have predicted, of heroin flowing out of that part of the world and into the streets of America two decade's later. The drug in this novel because a symbol and a symptom of a frustrated society, and the characters need to escape the inability to change what he sees.
Moments after Greene's hero partakes, the police arrive. They have a few questions to ask him about a man named Pyle.
A symbol, Pyle is America, the heart and sole of a naive, isolated and somewhat arrogant America, an America that learns about the rest of the world through books, magazines and radio broadcasts, and an America whose opinion is based on that information, not reality.
The unwary reader likes Pyle, his clean cut image startlingly fresh in a hazy world of opium eaters and the unfamiliar Orient. This image was likely stronger during the 1950s when the book first hit the stores, when America was still perceived as hero after saving the world in World War Two. After so many years of Mei Lai, Cambodia bombings, LBJ, Richard Nixon, Iran-Contra, and other stains on American reputation, the modern reader might be less inclined towards an initial positive feeling.
To Greene's hero, however, Pyle seems refreshing after years of seeing the French at war, and the German (ex-Nazi) soldiers fighting for the French. They have the stain of histories upon them. They have grown bitter and hopeless the way the Americans later would fighting an apparently ceaseless Oriental war, the French, German, and even Greene's own English, symbols of decaying empires, whose time and energy has expired.
In comparison, America and its growing empire seems fresh and full of energy, capable of living up to its own continuing self-image as earth shakers. Pyle comes to Vietnam then with apparently "fresh ideas," something Greene's hero admires.
For Greene's hero ... and possibly Greene himself ... the simplicity of Oriental life is amazing, and so is their power. "These people were farmers, and would be farmers long after France, Britain, America, and even the Communists were gone."
Pyle is the Quiet American. The Communists call him that, as do the police and Greene's hero, a quiet man slipping into the scene in direct contrast to the boisterous Europeans who come and go with great fanfare and big promises. Pyle, as a quiet American, even differs from those America Greene's hero had seen in England during World War Two, no parades this time, no fleets of ships bearing supplies for a starving island nation. But it is Pyles quiet that makes him more dangerous, as America itself slipped quickly into Vietnam to prop up old regimes, to take over where the French had failed.
The Pacific was America's empire now; an empire over which World War Two was actually fought.
Yet, despite experiences in the Philippines earlier in the century, America comes foolishly into this part of the world, a bumbling youth full of energy but no wisdom, learning little from the French and English who had played this role before and had lost. Who finally, in escaping the trap of jungles and Oriental religion fled back to Europe, knowing such wars could go on forever.
But Pyle and America saw nothing here but profit.
In 1955, when Greene published this novel, he didn't have a name to put on Pyle, but later historians, realizing Greene's Pyle was based upon a real character, gave him the label of CIA.
This novel is about war, yes, but it is also above love: love of money, love of power, love of culture, and, too, about the love of a woman.
In many ways, this book is also a love triangle, between Greene's hero, a Vietnamese woman, and Pyle, and yet symbolically, the two men symbolizing their countries desire for the Vietnam, Greene, the old colonial world growing weary as the young and energetic America takes control. At one point in the novel, the somewhat overly energetic Pyle journeys deep into North Vietnam to find Greene's hero, only to tell him that Pyle wants his woman. He tells Greene's hero that he wants to be open about it. He wants everything "on the up and up."
This drips with irony, showing the two sides of America then, the one side which says that a man must be straight shooting and honest about matters of love, while at the same time, this character, this America, brings in bombs covertly to blow up civilians.
It is a dual personality that still haunts even in the 1990s.
Greene's hero sees no irony or duality. He sees only America as taking it all. For if Europe gives up its empire, it must give everything up, including all those attachments which are personal. And a hungry America claims it all. While Greene's hero attempts to confront Pyle with anger, much the way France's General DeGaul did during this time period, when he actually comes face to face with Pyle, Greene's hero falters. He can be cynical, he can be cruel, but Greene's hero cannot deny the truth of his own failure. What he has lost, Pyle gained. What Europe has lost, American has gained.
Early in this volume, Greene's hero is told he must take a side, must choose one perspective that is his alone, something divorced from the "objective point of view" journalists are supposed to have. And in the end, he does take a side. But only after a second look at the world of war, and his position in it. He comes to realized that among the victims of war are those farmers that he loved, those that would go on in their ways no matter who was master. A sense of disquiet comes over him, and a greater need for an extra bowl of opium.
For Pyle, like America, had come to Vietnam with more than just ideas for change. He brought American technology with him, a technology that kills innocents along with the guilty. This was the American way, going beyond the censorship imposed on Greene's hero by the French.
From beginning to end, The Quiet American is a stunning novel about the early involvement of America in Vietnam. It is not a political statement -- it is an observation. It is an account of a reporter in another world, watching the events of that world transpire. Greene's hero is drawn in because he is a human being and as a human being he is affected by the tragedy and suffering he sees coming.
Greene didn't predict the Bay of Tonkin. He didn't even say America was wrong. He simply presented a truth that will last as long as the current American method of controlling the world lasts.
c/o A.D. Sullivan
271 Terrace Avenue
Jersey City, NJ 07307