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A REASON TO REFLECT ON WAR : Seeing ‘Platoon’s’ Gory Violence Unleashes Some Memories

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Twenty years ago this month, I was on the other side of the world fighting in a war that my country said had to be fought. As a volunteer, I thought I was there trying to shed part of my youth while getting a taste of adventure. But really it was self-preservation. Thanks to a steady diet of violent war films, I was serving on a Navy ship cruising just off the coast and not slogging through the jungles of Vietnam.

I’d seen plenty of war-movie violence, perhaps not quite as graphically violent as depicted in Oliver Stone’s “Platoon,” but to a kid plenty gory enough. It was precisely because of the education I’d gotten in the numerous local movie theaters that I had volunteered for the Navy.

Growing up in the ‘50s with two competitive brothers, we occasionally were able to agree to take in a movie together. If it were a twin bill of war movies, so much the better. It didn’t matter if it were Army, Air Force, Navy or Marine Corps, World War I or II. Of course, World War II in the Pacific wasn’t our favorite. But the more graphic the violence, the better we’d like it. I didn’t know it at the time, but we relished director Lewis Milestone’s work such as “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “Halls of Montezuma.”

Graduating from college in a small central California town in 1965, I knew that it was only a matter of months before the local draft board would send me its greetings. I watched as my older brother joined the Air Force one jump ahead of his notice. Then my younger brother was selected for West Point.

Despite the glamorous images from Hollywood, I didn’t enjoy the thought of assaulting enemy machine gun nests or fortified bunkers, even if the movies made it always seem so victorious and heroic. I hustled down to see the local Navy recruiter. I can still remember the look on the chief petty officer’s face when I kept pushing him to administer the tests that would qualify me for the Navy.

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After a few months of basic training, I reported aboard the USS Alfred A. Cunningham, a destroyer named for the Marine Corps’ first aviator. In a way, the ship was to me as Sgt. Barnes was to Oliver Stone--battle-scarred and war-weary from World War II, Korea and now this little jungle war that we thought we’d show the French how to win--and quickly.

Although the ship and I were the same age--in our early 20s--she had experienced a lot of water under her keel. She could still make more than 30 knots and the combined organization and skills of her veteran sailors made what is called a tight ship. For me, a boot sailor who still got occasionally seasick, the entire ship was my Sgt. Barnes/Sgt. Elias.

There were 275 of us packed into her 376 feet. There might have been some cliques, but again not so clearly defined as “Platoon’s” boozers vs. the potheads. There was a nerd officer, but even he wasn’t as awesomely lame as “Platoon’s” Lt. Wolfe.

Like Oliver Stone, my innocence was a casualty of the Vietnam War. But unlike the stark black-and-white dramatics of his gut-wrenching movie, mine was more like the way old dogs wake up, a twitch here, a slow opening of the eyes, then full realization. When Washington sent a peace feeler to Hanoi, we were ordered to cease fire. We watched helplessly as enemy barges--which we had been blasting to bits--carried tons of war materiel to resupply their war effort.

Stone was a lot more at risk than I ever was, but there was risk to go around. I remember during general quarters hearing the electrifying words come from the bridge: “We’re under fire! Shore batteries!”

My duty station was in a closet-sized space outboard on the starboard side, about 40 feet above the waterline. Three of us were crammed in there with a load of electronic gear. The oscillating lines on a video display were supposed to tell us if the enemy’s fire-control radar had us in their sights. It was somewhat experimental, so we never knew for sure if the enemy had us or not.

But I do remember staring at the haze-gray paint on the outboard bulkhead and wondering what a shell burst there would do to my future. Every time the ship turned her other side toward the jungle, I breathed easier--but then we’d turn again.

Watching Stone’s foxhole view of the terrors of war loosened a flood of memories about my experiences over there, and also reminded me of a lot of other horrifying war films I’d seen in my youth. Both memories jumbled together. The violence shown in “Platoon” validated my thinking two decades ago to join the Navy and not get drafted.

I don’t know what conclusions “Platoon” will cause theatergoers to reach concerning combat, country, the arms race, Central America, the Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”) and our international policeman’s role. But I do think the Army and the Marine Corps will not be as pleased with “Platoon’s” impact on their recruiting as the Navy has been with last year’s top-grossing “Top Gun.”

Seeing “Platoon” has convinced me that the same audiences that embraced the video arcade-ish “Top Gun” should also make it a point to see Stone’s low-tech war. Whatever our thoughts are about the armed forces, “Platoon” should give us all reason to reflect on war and the use of military force to enforce politics.


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