‘I saw the dream of Martin Luther King come true . . . in Vietnam.’
It’s become a catch phrase, with its own meaning, for any old thrilling reminiscence that begins “No kidding, there I was and . . . .”
But these were real war stories, about a number of different wars. They simply overlap, in time, in space, in the mind.
A couple of hundred students, mostly black, filled a room in the Cal State Northridge student union to hear a black former war correspondent tell them about blacks in Vietnam.
It was lunch time and the smell of french fries and hamburgers was thick enough to put ketchup on. The sound system played the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” and Country Joe’s bouncy, 1960s protest polka:
“What are we fighting for?
“Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn.
“Next stop is Vietnam.
”. . . Whoopee, We’re all gonna die.”
Wallace Terry brought the sound track to get the audience in the mood. Most of them had not been born when American troops were fighting in Vietnam, and much of what today’s college students think about the 1960s they get from movies and rock music.
Terry, a correspondent in Vietnam for Time magazine, wrote “Bloods,” a history of black soldiers there. Like all authors, he wanted to tell people about his book, hoping they would buy it. He also wanted to tell young blacks about the wars.
There was the war the United States fought against the Cong and the North Vietnam. On the U.S. side, there was the war between blacks and whites, Ku Klux Klan types against black militants. Back home, there was the war between the veterans and those who thought them crazy to go to Vietnam and crazier yet for having been there, perhaps dangerously so.
And there is the war in the movies and on television, between fantasy and reality.
Terry, a self-confessed movie addict, sprinkles his speech with references to films and TV shows. He is deeply bothered by Hollywood’s portrayal of Americans at war, because they are usually white, in defiance of the history books. Blacks served at Bunker Hill, he tells the students, and thousands of them fought in the Civil War, including one of his ancestors.
“There were even some who fought in Confederate gray, but we don’t talk about them.”
“A black scout died at the Little Big Horn, but Errol Flynn never heard of him.”
Even his favorite film, “Patton” (“I rent a videotape of it every couple months, when I need my fix”) has only one black, he said--the general’s valet--but in real life, blacks drove some of Patton’s tanks.
He is not a fan of Rambo-type movies, he said, despising them as showing a “cartoon” war, ignorant of chaos and suffering, that “we couldn’t win then, so we win on the screen now.”
He thinks Vietnam was the wrong war, asking too great a price for too small a prize. But they should honor its veterans, he told the students, and study it so “you don’t wind up repeating the same mistakes in El Salvador or Nicaragua.”
What he doesn’t see in the current wave of Vietnam films are blacks in positions of authority or heroism, he complained, and yet when he was in Vietnam he was accustomed to dealing with black officers, some of them decorated for heroics that would leave Rambo slack-jawed.
“The armed forces are the most integrated institution in our society, along with the NBA and the NFL,” he said. Blacks have been officers in large numbers since the all-black Air Corps units of World War II, and have been in positions of command for a couple of generations, yet “you still only see them as privates,” he complained.
But that didn’t mean that all was harmony between the races in Vietnam.
The first wave of black troops were usually professionals, too proud to notice confederate flags or racist remarks, he said. As the war ground on, the draft scooped up a generation of newly militant black youth. They admired Malcolm X, reveled in intricate “black power” handshakes and fought their own war-within-a-war.
Responding to cross-burnings and Confederate flags, black Marines made their own flags to serve under. Two of the flags hung behind Terry, who was soberly clad in an executive grey suit with conservative blue tie, the whole scene splashed with a Haight-Ashbury psychedelic pattern of white light and shadow.
One of the flags contained a black triangle (“mother Africa”) on a red field (“blood”) containing a green wreath (“for peace if possible”) around a green shield and red spears (“for war, if necessary”) and a slogan in Swahili which, he said, exhorted brotherhood.
A born raconteur, Terry rolled on, with tales that ranged from the dramatic to the incredible (a black unit that sang in combat) to the funny to the bizarre (the Time interpreter who turned out to be a Viet Cong colonel).
Many were about black soldiers saving white comrades, or vice versa.
That, he said, was “the great untold story of the Vietnam War.” For all the friction in the base areas, in combat “there was a true brotherhood,” he said. “I saw the dream of Martin Luther King come true on the front lines in Vietnam. If we could emulate that spirit I saw in Vietnam here, we’d advance race relations 100 or 200 years.”
We didn’t, he mourned. “The last thing a black guy could talk about when he came home was the white guy who became his best friend, and conversely, the white guy about the black guy who saved his life.”