Some of us are old enough to remember when images surfaced of actress Jane Fonda sitting with VC at their anti-aircraft gun, during her famous tour of North Vietnam in 1972, so roiled the Man that his MSM lackeys began routinely referring to her as “Hanoi” Jane in their reports of the war. She had proven to be a huge disappointment to right wing hegemonists who might have enjoyed her work in Barbarella (1968) as a übergun-toting sexpot who keeps Icarus (or a near cuz) high and Marcel Marceau flailing (a mime is a terrible thing to waste, they say).
Vietnam was already an unpopular war by the time Fonda went on a political jaunt to NVN. Still, she gave a radio broadcast from Hanoi in August 1972 that some veterans, to this day, regard as propaganda bordering on treason, and yet which I find quite lovely and moving, accentuating a people’s culture and humanity, de-demonizing them. Of course, she gave more than one broadcast and one speech. Here’s an excerpt of things she saw on her tour of war:
Fonda’s more infamous speech describing the locals as humans is sharp. Here is her speech presented before Congress during hearings they held on her travels to the North Country. (It’s preceded by Congressional denunciations that provide a glimpse at the poulter zeit geist.) It is full of humanistic observations of the North Vietnamese people.
The famous photo of her sitting comfortably with the enemy next to anti-aircraft gun should be weighed up against the fact that Nixon had begun withdrawing combat boot soldiers from Nam, to fool people into believing he was ending the war, while at the same time the US military amped up its aerial bombardments (an airborne preference that continues through to the present day of war by drones). Nixon’s three card monte needs weighing. Another film from 1974, The Year of the Dragon provides a similar attempt at humanizing the local population by showing bombardments they suffered through, followed by people getting on with their lives, rebuilding. Here’s the first five minutes, including an astonishing excerpt from a US military manual that includes dehumanization as a goal.
The war represented aggression that was often criminal in intention to begin with.
And it was even acknowledged in 1968 by LBJ to some reporters in theWhite House as pointless (sort of): Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961-1973 by Robert Dallek. OUP 1998. (p. 491)
And what’s more, Chicago 1968 and Chicago 7 had happened. Kent State 1970 had happened. In 1971, newspapers began publishing the leaked papers of Daniel Ellsberg that became known as the Pentagon Papers, which had a bottom line assessment of the Vietnam War: It could not be won. Consequently, continued military action there was to save political face. This is depressing enough to know, but in The Doomsday Machine, Ellsberg ups the ante of our outrage by talking of Nixon’s plan to nuke North Vietnam on October 15, 1969, averted due to the unexpected success (from a Left POV) of a nationwide anti-war moratorium that day. Ellsberg writes, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner (2019) by Daniel Ellsberg. (p. 356)
That’s right, you read it. So serious was Nixon’s threat that it would have preceded The Pentagon Papers. Tricky Dick, who’s war planning is post PP findings, was willing to nuke North Vietnam despite evidence that the US knew it could not win the war. Nixon, who came to power proclaiming a desire to end the war “honorably,” was willing to defy what planners, like Ellsberg, were telling him and nuke NVM into acquiescence — for political purposes. In the same section, Ellsberg writes that he was convinced that Kissinger believed that he was “the most dangerous man in America,” who “must be stopped at all costs” because he knew too much about Tricky Dick’s plans.
And there were other not insignificant factors that were at play in 1972. Many of the draftees — involuntary soldiers — were old enough to die for political purposes, but not regarded as mature enough to vote in national elections. This was a major reason for draft card resistance. In addition, there was a serious over-representation of African-Americans in the war. And many of them came to understand that what they were doing — even without any MSM announcement of Nixon’s intention to nuke their adversary — that what they were doing was essentially performing genocide for the Man. Oliver Stone’s Platoon and Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness — Apocalypse Now hint at the contradiction Black soldiers felt. But perhaps the best, and most direct, reference to this consciousness was delivered in Spike Lee’s recent Da 5 Bloods (2020). You can see the tension and anxiety brought on by their contradictory mission that Hanoi Hannah goes to work on in her broadcasts. “Why you here, Black soldier? You’re war at home.” Check it out:
While Fonda was “treasonously” carousing with the enemy, the war amounted to criminality. This especially apparent after Kent State, when even white middle class people on a college campus could be shot down by military reserves (National Guard) that the aggression in Vietnam was also an aggression against the American People — who, by and large, did not want the war, and did not buy the Communist domino effect as causal agent.
All of this is necessary background to a review of the recently re-released film, FTA (1972). The film was chased out of distribution and a very limited run in cinemas, due, to a large extent, not so much the message (“stop the war”), which was widespread by Nixon’s second term (which he won in a landslide anyway), but because of the participation of American GIs overseas in the film’s making. Fuck the Army, as it’s otherwise known as, is a documentary of an anti-war “vaudeville” act that travelled to the troops in the Asian Pacific during the war and was meant as an alternative to USO offerings. Usual fare was sexy ladies brought out on stage to shoot cap guns, followed by comedians shticking ‘em up. Check out how Coppola handles it in Apocalypse Now:
At one point, in a latter day interview, Fonda even references the work of Bob Hope, who, she says, was a cheerleader for the war. FTA intersperses performances with talks with troops opining about the pointlessness of the war.
FTA is a troupe made up of about a dozen people that Fonda very carefully set up to more fairly reflect the racial nature of the war’s participant’s (another complaint about the USO’s offerings was its leaning toward whites and males in the audience). There were 21 shows, Fonda tells us, attended by 64000 military personnel. Starring with Fonda was Donald Sutherland, fresh off a stint as the crazed hippy tank driver, Oddball, in Kelly’s Heroes (1970), a soldierly anti-war film in its own right, that may (or may not be) a precursor to the first Iraq war cult hit, Three Kings (1999), starring George Clooney. The film was directed by a nobody, Francine Parker. And it’s blurb is simple and accurate: “Available for the first time since it mysteriously disappeared in 1972 after only one week in theaters, this raucous film is a riveting slice of the Vietnam anti-war movement.” More or less accurate.
Frankly, the folky music produced in FTA is not Woodstock quality, and the anti-military skits may seem stale in today’s Forever War environment. Back then, to many of us, it seemed that if we could only end the Vietnam War Americans would realize a “peace dividend.” We could finally set our sights on fixing some of the socio-economic ills that had been accentuated by the war and the resistance to it at home. But non, driven of that happened, and the sad reality is that America, driven by a war machine that has continued almost unabated since 1945, and continues to grow and expand — the most recent budget is its largest ever — for reasons that are incomprehensible without seeing in it continued unbridled imperial growth, and after two major defeats: Vietnam and, now, Afghanistan. Two of America’s longest and costliest foreign wars have been for virtually nothing. And the blood and treasure lost, in combination with the damage done to America’s reputation and to the environment is staggering to consider. The social ills that could have been addressed with that money wasted on unnecessary wars.
A principal joy of the film is the ebullience and energy of the performers and the warm reception they received from their military audience. Fuck the Army (“and the Navy and the Maries and the Air Force”) had a lot of resonance for soldiers attending. In fact, their response makes it fairly easy to see why the film may have been assisted in its quick departure from theaters by Pentagon frowns. Nixon was known to hate war protesters — to the degree he had them infiltrated and wouldn’t have easily accepted soldiers protesting the war on film. During the opening sequence of FTA,one of the performers gives a spirited rendition of “My Ass Is Mine.” to protest the pawnmanship required to serve the war effort.
In fact the opening minutes of the film provide a micro-glimpse of how the show goes, with skits and music carrying the torch. And, instead of Bob Hope, pleasing military brass at USO shows, FTA GIs get a healthy dose of empathy, satire, and sympathetic politics, Barbarella Unplugged and Unmadeup says Fuck the Aggression. It’s also amusing to have a skit where Tricky Dick and his wife Pat worry aloud over “protesters” out front, and when Nixon fears he made need to call in “the third Marines,” Pat says “we can’t” because they’re the protesters. This bit also recalls a piece Sy Hersh wrote for the Atlantic describing the grim Last Days of Nixon, during which he is said to have wanted to call in troops to surround the White House and refuse to leave and military aides secretly conversed on how to ignore any nuclear threats Nixon made (apparently, when he got shitfaced, heads rolled in his mind).
FTA, though a bit long-toothed in places, is, in some places, still prescient and relevant to military activities in the Pacific Rim region that FTA performed in. It is of some use to see pictured the proximity of Japan to Okinawa to Taiwan to China, which provides a graphic impression of the current tensions there. Since the “surprise” attack on Pearl Harbor back on December 7, 1941, and the subsequent victory by the US over Japan amplified by the dropping of the Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the region has been important ideological battlefield, and the US, by way of its occupation of Okinawa and South Korea, has sought to control influences in the region. The US government has been doing The Asia Pivot for more than 75 years.
When we read about troubles in the straits of Taiwan, it doesn’t tell half the story that this image does about the conflicting geopolitical ideologies at work between the US (in Okinawa and the Philippines), Japan, and Taiwan.
A secondary benefit of the film is its depiction of the plight of Okinawans, especially the aborigines there, who were displaced first by Japanese invaders, then Americans with their bases. (This echoes the power exchanges of Taiwan, where aborigines were colonized by the Dutch, then the Japs, and then the Chinese.) FTA has a side-section of Okinawans pressing for independence and the elimination of American bases. A local band expresses the common feeling.
The scene reminds one that the protests against the war were not just stateside, and not merely against the war, but are colonial in their effect — always seeming to involve indigenous peoples caught up in the struggles of competing imperial forces (look at America). So the simplicity shown and expressed humbles, because sometimes when we protest our government’s actions there is a devil’s pride in our superior consciousness. Even our lefty morality can seem an effortless entitlement to others. Probably we should just leave the fuckers alone and bring neither our military nor our brassy morality to bear on others.
Donald Sutherland also has a poignant set of moments on display — the goofy Oddball character traded up for a sober, adult recounting of a soldier wounded in WWI who loses all his limbs and is almost nothing but a mere consciousness kept alive by prayer and intense medical attention. The horror, the horror comes home to roost:
When the lie that the loss of life and limbs was not for safeguarding liberty but political vanity, we have to wonder if we are not often ruled by a government of monsters in humanitarian clothes.
FTA features about a dozen songs and a poem, including the following: “Genocide,”
“My Ass Is Mine,” “Set the Date,” by Len Chandler; “Nothing Could Be Finer Than To Be in Indochina,” “So Nice To Be a Member of the Military Class,” “Save Our Soldiers,” by Robin Menken; “Broken Island, Island Home,” by Kintarozn; “Soldier, We Love You,” by Rita Martinson; “A Brand New Day” by Homer Swan; and, “I’m Tired of Bastards Fuckin’ Over Me” by Beverly Grant. Folk guitar, piano, enthusiastic revue voices.
The documentary is a bit raw and, at times, loses focus as it tries to bring in footage of locals resisting American occupation in Okinawa. This is a good topic, but probably deserved/deserves a film of its own. I could relate to some of the sense of occupation some locals felt in Okinawa, as it is similar in South Korea, where there are dozens of US Army bases spread around the country that is still in a suspended state of war with the North. For the South Koreans, there was often a resentment that, at times, American occupation wasn’t much better than under the Japanese before them, especially when the occasional GI Rapes Local Girl headline hit the papers. But, all in all, FTA’s laidback underproduced quality was a net plus, providing a sense of genuine feeling from participants.
A feature added to the re-release is an interview with Jane Fonda on the making of the film and the issues the troupe faced doing so. I was never either a fan of Fonda’s work or a hater of her politics. But this film gave me a better understanding of her work in South East Asia in 1972. A particularly useful segment of the interview is when she talks about shedding her role as the “sex kitten” Queen of Galaxy in order to be an anti-war advocate. She talks about the process of “objectification” and how it is similar to what’s done to GIs, and how she hoped the FTA revue would help people regain their humanity and their sense of belonging within what was then called the Family of Man. Here is that segment: