Brad Davis in A Rumor of War
U.S. Marines at Danang airbase in 1965, from the 1983 PBS docuseries Vietnam: A Television History.
Carol Burnett and Ned Beatty in Friendly Fire
By the spring of 1979, when this article was first published, it had been six years since America had extricated itself from the Vietnam War. And U.S. troops were finding themselves the subject of every form of television series: documentary, drama, comedy and limited, as well as movies.
This article, from the second-ever issue of emmy magazine, is a snapshot of some of the cultural attitudes at that time (look no further than the original article title, "Why Are We in Vietnam Again?"), and the proliferation of content being made about the subject.
One example here was the 1979 telefilm Friendly Fire, starring Carol Burnett and Ned Beatty as parents grieving the loss of their son who died in Vietnam. There was also the ambitious 1983 docuseries, Vietnam: A Television History. The WGBH production, referred to in this article as The Vietnam Project (its working title at the time), was a thirteen-episode limited series which aimed to give a retrospective of the Indochina experience, going back to the 1940s.
Finally, there was the two-part limited series A Rumor of War, an adaptation of Philip Camuto's memoir of a Marine. John Sacret Young, the screenwriter for the series — and who later created the Emmy-winning Vietnam-set drama series China Beach — summarized the tragedies of war when he described the protagonist: "Whittled away by circumstances beyond his control, the war peels him like an onion, and tears him apart."
Many felt, as this article illustrates, that no matter what one believes about the Vietnam War or America's involvement in it, war equals tragedy. Not only for the service personnel on the ground, but also for the friends and family members waiting back home.
In the late afternoon sun, a tractor chugs across Iowa farmland. Michael Mullen, 25, has fed the hogs and repaired the fence, and now he rips up brush and dead trees with an almost desperate intensity from this earth first homesteaded by his great-grandfather over a hundred years before. In the ranch-style house, Michael's mother, Peg, works at her sewing machine, then moves to the kitchen to prepare dinner. Her husband, Gene, is still working the late shift as a quality control inspector at the John Deere tractor plant in a nearby town.
Around midnight, just before his father returns home, Michael tells his younger brother about the arrowhead he dug up from beneath the roots of a dead stump. Maybe the arrowhead belonged to the great old Sauk warrior chief, Black Hawk, after whom the county is named. Michael recalls Black Hawk's words shortly before his death: "This was a beautiful country. I loved my village, my cornfields — the home of my people. I fought for them." In the silence following Michael's voice, a radio broadcasts the week's casualty figures from Vietnam.
These are the opening scenes of Friendly Fire, an ABC Theatre special presentation aired in April, and even as the simple images slip by, the film begins to exert a power rare on television. For it is September 3, 1969, and the screenwriter, Fay Kanin, adapting C.D.B. Bryan's book, has drawn a subtle parallel between a young American going to a foreign war and the long-dead Native American, and we know we are watching the last night Michael will ever spend with his family. Within six months he will be dead, a shrapnel fragment lodged in his heart. The shrapnel will not be from enemy fire, but from misdirected American artillery. What the Pentagon terms "friendly fire."
But Friendly Fire, directed by David Greene for Marble Arch Productions (Martin Starger and Lew Grade), is less about Michael Mullen than it is the story of his parents, Peg and Gene (Carol Burnett and Ned Beatty), and of their anguish and rage and dogged search for the truth about Michael's death. In a larger sense, it is about what the Vietnam war did to countless ordinary Americans, perhaps forever estranging them from their government and military. By focusing on one Iowa farm family's story, the book and film seem to encompass the whole tragedy of that war.
"This isn't a war film in the conventional sense, explains Kanin (Hustling, Tell Me Where It Hurts). "There are no battles. It's about us; about the home front. Peg and Gene Mullen were loyal, patriotic Americans from Mr. Nixon's silent majority. They sent their son off to war with the fears common to all parents, but they did it for a country they believed in, and for a war they couldn't quite understand, but accepted. Then, when Michael was killed and the army dismissed them with curt telegrams and letters, they began to change. What I most admired about them was their willingness to ask unpopular questions, to risk becoming pariahs in their own county, and to dissent from the war when dissension was rare."
Friendly Fire is not the first television movie to concern itself with some aspect of the Vietnam war, but it joins a tiny company. Since the fall of Saigon, TV has largely ignored the subject, save for superficial news reports, an occasional documentary, and a few movies of varying ambition. Five years ago, while C.D.B. Bryan was still writing his book, an old friend told him it was "far too threatening" for television. That old friend is Brandon Stoddard, now ABC's senior vice president in charge of dramatic programs and motion pictures. "Needless to say," Stoddard says, "I was wrong. When I read the three original segments serialized in The New Yorker, I immediately called Courty, told him they were terrific, and wanted to buy the book for television."
Other Vietnam projects were not so acceptable. In 1974 ABC decided to pass on P.O.W., a script the network had commissioned from David Wolper. Written by Daryl Henry, a Canadian foreign correspondent in Vietnam, P.O.W. dealt with American airmen who were shot down and held captive. The project was considered too strong for television audiences. Too strong, not in terms of violence — here limited to one face-slapping and one man's confinement in a mosquito cage — but because of the psychological degradation portrayed.
ABC did go ahead with David Seltzer's original, Green Eyes (1977), the story of a soldier returning to Vietnam to search for his son among the thousands of children made homeless by the war. NBC contributed Just a Little Inconvenience (1977), with James Stacy as a disabled veteran struggling for a normal life, plus the curious My Husband Is Missing (1978), in which Sally Struthers and Tony Musante clambered across North Vietnam, seemingly more obsessed with their own torrid glances than searching for a missing-in-action husband. CBS has generally ignored the war as a source of drama, though, of course, in common with the other networks, it has offered up a scattering of Viet vets as heroes and crazies in their action series.
Now, if the three-hour Friendly Fire gains its audience, the networks will discern a trend as surely as they did when Charlie's Angels spawned Flying High and The American Girls. The comparison may be flippant, but TV's production pattern is well established. Already, CBS has commissioned an adaptation of Philip Caputo's harrowing memoir of a young marine, A Rumor of War; and PBS and ABC are collaborating on the tentatively titled, The Vietnam Project, 13 to 18 hour-long programs tracing the history of Indochina from French Colonial times to the reunification of Vietnam in 1975; and CBS has just finished shooting The 416th, a pilot for a half-hour sitcom about the Vietnam activities of the fictional 416th Medical Detachment — Supply Distribution Team of the U.S. Army Reserve. Other projects are in early development stages, though the networks prefer not to reveal details for fear of being ripped off by each other.
What's behind the networks' sudden interest in Vietnam? In part, it is simply a matter of time. Over half a decade separates us from March, 1973, when the last U.S. troops left Vietnam. If the pain has not subsided, it has at least become more private, the pain of men and women and children rather than of headlines and battle footage. "There's enough distance now," believes Fay Kanin. "For a while, we were all victims of the friendly fire of Vietnam, and we needed time to heal."
Not that television is leading the way with the first glimpses of what happened to us in Southeast Asia. As always, the small screen is following a trail blazed by books and theatrical movies. Friendly Fire, A Rumor of War, Dispatches, Born on the Fourth of July — these are among the books that are already building a body of war literature whose brilliance and power will almost certainly exceed that of World War II. Then there are the movies, most obviously Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, and Apocalypse Now.
"A real interest is developing," says ABC's Brandon Stoddard, "particularly about the way American families and friends reacted to the war. Viewers are endlessly fascinated by the workings of the family. Just look at the popularity of such shows as Family, Eight Is Enough, Dallas and Roots. And what's at the heart of Friendly Fire? The tragedy of an American family. Being a true story endows it with even greater significance."
Stoddard believes Friendly Fire will be a revelation to younger viewers. Kids in high school and college have no true idea of the war. Why did we get involved? How did the government behave? What did American citizens feel? Those questions are part of our lives, but for the new generation coming up, they mean... what? Perhaps through television they can begin to grasp what happened.
A sizeable chunk of the audience should also be drawn by the casting of Carol Burnett as Peg Mullen. One of those extraordinary television stars who command the affection of the center and backbone of America, Burnett subdues her variety show persona to portray a woman who, like the country itself, has become a casualty of war. "Some people ask, 'Why cast a woman who is known for her comedy?'" Kanin says with a smile. "But Carol is totally believable as an Iowa farm wife. You only have to see her kind of comedy to perceive her dramatic resources. She understands and draws upon real human strengths and frailties. And Peg's Middle America Iowa background is spiritually very close to Carol's early years in Texas."
Kanin found her own form of identification with Peg Mullen's pain. "Friendly Fire spoke to me because of my own son. He was 13 when he died of cancer. Michael Mullen died in a war his parents came to hate; well, I came to hate cancer, which is an equally terrible war for thousands of people. The loss of a child to any parent is... I don't even know the words to describe it. But it is a very difficult thing for a parent to live through. Like Peg, I had a lot of anger. Not all my anger was justified, or properly directed, just as the Mullens' anger wasn't always justified. But, boy, what anger. And guilt. What more could I have done for my son? Why didn't I do something? Why couldn't I stop him going? Stop the war? What did I do wrong?
"I hope audiences will remember their own feelings from that time. Too many people have stored their feelings in a subliminal consciousness. I hope they'll think about what war is. War is about dying. We forget that. We get caught up in the rhetoric and passions of the moment. You only have to read the headlines to see how easily we can slip into war. But then people die. People we love."
If Friendly Fire is a film about the home front, Philip Caputo's A Rumor of War is grounded almost totally on the battlefield. Recalling his arrival in Danang in 1965, a 21-year-old lieutenant with a battalion of the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, the first U.S. combat force sent to Vietnam, Caputo writes: "America seemed omnipotent then: the country could still claim it had never lost a war, and we believed we were ordained to play cop to the Communists' robber, and spread our own political faith around the world."
A major challenge for CBS' four-hour miniseries will be to capture Caputo's vision of the magnetism of war: "Anyone who fought in Vietnam, if he is honest with himself, will have to admit he enjoyed the compelling attractiveness of combat — while building relentlessly to a climax of absolute savagery: I mean the savagery that prompted so many American fighting men — the good, solid kids from Iowa farms — to kill civilians and prisoners."
Caputo himself is brought up on charges of murdering innocent Vietnamese civilians. Though the charges are dismissed, he "believed himself morally guilty, as he probably does to this day," thinks screenwriter John Sacret Young (Champions, Special Olympics).
"Caputo is like Huck Finn," Young says. "He starts young, with a sense of adventure, both cocky and insecure, but somehow gets on the wrong Mississippi. His moral values become fuzzy, whittled away by circumstances beyond his control. The war peels him like an onion, and tears him apart.
"He's a character in an environmental horror story. This was the first war where Americans faced an often unseen enemy whose principal weapons were mines and booby traps. In every other war, the ground was a friend to the foot soldier, but here the earth is filled with death. At any moment, it can explode and kill him."
A Rumor of War is simple in structure, following the linear time span of a year in Vietnam, but hardly simple to adapt for television, especially into two two-hour films. Unlike Friendly Fire, where tension springs from the Mullens' quest for information, Caputo's book builds on a series of often disconnected episodes.
To solve the problem of that episodic form, Young is "trying to follow the war literature of the twentieth century." "The opening is a little like Hemingway's short story, "Soldier's Home," in which the young man is smothered by small town life, and wants, needs, to break loose. Next, we meet a cross section of his platoon. One guy's Italian, one guy's Jewish, one guy's Black; just like World War II movies.
"We move beyond that into the realm of Catch-22 black humor; in one sequence, Caputo finds himself shuffling around the rotting bodies of three dead Viet Cong so that a visiting general can be suitably impressed. Then come the final sequences: the operation against a North Vietnamese regiment in which, momentarily, the platoon disintegrates into an incendiary mob; and the incident along the trail where Caputo's men kill two villagers. These are the deaths that lead to Caputo being charged with murder."
Philip Caputo concludes his book in 1973. As a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, he witnesses the fall of Saigon, and feels the ambivalence of one who hated the war, yet was emotionally tied to it. John Sacret Young ends his screenplay on a different note. Caputo is seen in 1979, in Florida, watching his son play with a gun. Caputo tries to teach the boy the first rules of handling a firearm, but the boy is too antsy to listen, too eager to try another quick draw. From that scene, Young cuts to Caputo waking in the middle of the night, drained by a nightmare. It is the same nightmare that plagued him a decade ago in Vietnam: visions of mutilated men in his old platoon. And we realize that for this man, Vietnam will never go away.
In comparison with Friendly Fire, which can be understood as an outgrowth of television's fascination with families under stress, A Rumor of War has no precedent. Even The Deer Hunter, which has offered the most horrifying Vietnam scenes of any movie, is finally less about Vietnam than about a community where friendship is tested and strengthened by war, and the unfortunate focus on Russian Roulette as a metaphor for war imposes an aura of artifice on the entire film. As for John Milius' script for Apocalypse Now, whatever its qualities as allegory, it has absolutely nothing to do with the war as most soldiers knew it. So if A Rumor of War survives with its guts intact, it will be the most honest and devastating portrait of real soldiers — young men who went to war and obeyed orders and took the heat — that any film, television or theatrical, has ever attempted.
Is television ready to confront the true nature of such a war? "I don't know," admits John Sacret Young. "But this project will challenge the limits of television. We'll soon find out how much balls network executives have, and how hard the production companies (Dick Berg and Charles Fries) will fight."
This March, Young completed his first draft screenplay. Thus far CBS has not indicated any problem areas of content where he had to downplay the book's reality. On the other hand, Young expects to rewrite several times. With himself, two production companies, and the network involved, "there are enough chefs in this kitchen to either make the best pie in the world, or kill it. First draft is early days. Another two weeks and CBS might shoot down the whole project. Fear is such a prime element in programming. On the other hand, TV is such a sausage factory, turning out 80-90 movies a year, that surprising things do slip through..."
Thus far, no Vietnam project has made a hero out of the military. In Friendly Fire, the U.S. Army assumes the proportions of Kafka's Castle as the Mullens plow through an enraging succession of bureaucratic obstacles. And, though Caputo describes the selfless devotion men in war can feel for each other, he cites General Westmoreland's strategy of attrition and body count as directly responsible for those same men plunging into a brutish state.
You might think, therefore, that the military wants nothing to do with Hollywood's version of Vietnam. Not so. Already familiar with Bryan's book, Colonel Pat Vitello of the Army's west coast public affairs office called producer Philip Barry and offered his help. "It was a lovely irony," recalls Kanin, who co-produced Friendly Fire with Barry. "The Army made life so difficult for the Mullens, yet were invaluable to us. They provided combat footage and a wonderful young major to advise us."
"We're really not all Bruce Dern crazies with grenades in our closets," chuckles Major Dennis Foley, who helped director David Greene simulate a Vietnam night defensive position in Malibu Canyon. "We're here to serve the public's right to know about the Army." Even when the Army is portrayed as an insensitive bureaucracy? "We never try to rewrite anyone's script," Major Foley insists. "To us, Friendly Fire showed the realities of Vietnam on a human level, as opposed to many other films done flippantly with little concern for accuracy or feasibility."
Major Foley cites the movie The Boys in Company C for several foolish scenes, especially one where the Viet Cong attack a soccer field. "What kind of strategic or tactical value is there in attacking a soccer match? The VC had better targets on their minds. But where have we seen something like that before? Right. The football game in M*A*S*H. Many war movies now draw upon scenes and stereotypes in other war movies. Officers are always seen playing golf, riding horses, drinking at the club or trying to get laid, and everyone else is a scheming Sergeant Bilko. Ridiculous!"
One of the strengths of Friendly Fire is that it refuses to deal in stereotypes. The obsession of two good people, the Mullens, almost destroys them. And many of the military officers and men do care about uncovering the truth about Michael Mullen's death. They exist as characters with their own feelings. And that, maintains Major Foley, is something television has never cared about before. "TV never investigated the guys who prosecuted the war, who were killed and wounded, who ended up with wrecked families. Thousands of soldiers lost wives who finally said, 'That's it! I just can't take this, you being in Vietnam every other year.'"
Major Foley believes that television newsmen rarely distinguished between "national leaders who set policy from Washington" and the soldiers who conducted the war, and suddenly "everyone was portrayed as a warmonger." In fact, a number of reporters, like CBS' John Laurence, went to great pains to show the "grunts" point of view. And, in the earlier days of the war, most of the coverage was optimistic, even somewhat righteous. True, in 1965 Morley Safer's crew filmed marines firing the village of Cam Ne, scattering old men and women and children screaming before them; but viewer reaction, according to CBS switchboards, was predominantly critical of Safer, not the military, for being disloyal to America's fighting men.
That same year, Walter Cronkite made his first trip to the war zone. He sent back an upbeat report. And in 1966 only NBC bothered to televise live the Fulbright Committee testimony of George Kennan, once the architect of U.S. Indochina policy, now a fierce critic of military involvement, despite the fact that the hearings had blossomed into the major forum of public debate on the issue.
And yet night after night, America drew its main source of information from the network news shows, and as the war escalated, and field correspondents filed report after report on the failures of the pacification program, the South Vietnamese government and military, and the overall U.S. effort, television began to work its influence, creating what New Yorker critic Michael Arlen called, "the living room war." It was without precedent in American history.
Lyndon Johnson himself identified one crucial moment when public opinion began moving away from him. When we lose Walter Cronkite, he is supposed to have told an aide, we'll lose the country. In 1968 LBJ lost Walter Cronkite. In that year, the CBS anchorman made his second visit to Vietnam. This time, he had a very different reaction.
"On his last night in Vietnam, Cronkite had dinner with a group of correspondents in Saigon," describes Gary Paul Gates in his book Air Time: The Inside Story of CBS News. "Clearly distressed, he asked over and over again: How could it have happened? What in the name of God went wrong? The other reporters, some of whom had been covering the war since the early 1960s, did not mince words. They replied that the whole sorry mess had been wrong from the start, and deceptions had been employed at every step along the way to cover up that original mistake."
Cronkite's field producer, Ernie Leiser, later said: "I think Walter must have felt he had been had, and he got mad because he felt that this was an inexcusable and, maybe, a criminal deceit by the federal government."
From that point on, Cronkite's reading of the war news, though moderate in comparison with militant antiwar critics, moved leftward: "It is increasingly clear to this reporter," he said on the air, "that the only rational way out will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could."
But if the nightly images of television's "living room war" helped shift the national mood, they did so through their pictorial power, not the clarity of their ideas. Watching refugees stream through the countryside, or soldiers under fire, or air strikes, is hardly the same as understanding how we became enmeshed in the quagmire, or what we were really doing over there, or who the Vietnamese really were. It is always difficult to grasp the significance of events that are immediately contemporary, and television news' major failure was its unwillingness to go beyond the immediate news event, beyond the violent and the bloody. The attitude of South Vietnamese villagers to being resettled in security hamlets obviously had low priority compared with those exciting pieces of battle footage — footage which often meant little, other than that certain people were fighting and dying on a particular hill on a particular day. Yet the former would have told us far more about the people for whom Americans were dying.
"Americans are terribly ignorant about Vietnam," believes L. Richard Ellison, lately Director of Current Affairs Programming at PBS, and currently executive producer on The Vietnam Project (tentative title), a documentary series produced by Boston's public television station, WGBH, for broadcast in the fall of 1981. "How many people know that an independent, unified Vietnam was declared in September 1945, with support from Americans on the scene? What do we understand about the Buddhist uprising and the role of the monks? Television rarely enlightened us with the wider view."
Budgeted at $3,000,000 (of which $50,000 will come from ABC, along with access to network film footage), The Vietnam Project will attempt a detailed, clear retrospective look at the whole Indochina experience, encompassing not only the American phase, but also events as far back as the 1940 Japanese invasion, Ho Chi Minh's declaration of a republic, and the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. The series will also include "more about the history, psychology, and culture of the Vietnamese people than was generally understood during the war," according to Ellison. Firsthand accounts by those who were there — from military and government officials to journalists and television correspondents; American, Vietnamese, and French — will be woven into personal stories of refugee families and American enlisted soldiers.
Ellison has already requested permission to take a camera crew into Vietnam for three months. Preliminary responses are good. And if The Vietnam Project does indeed show the Vietnamese as worthy of some understanding and sympathy, revealing former enemies as human beings rather than an anonymous communist peril, the small screen will have made an enormous step forward. Would it then be asking too much for television to try for a modern equivalent to Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion, portraying an American and a Vietnamese who affirm their common humanity? That surely must have happened somewhere in that war.
"For years, we suffered the Vietnam war nightly on our television screens without being able to understand it," says Ellison. The question is whether television, which was the instrument of our suffering, can now be the instrument of our enlightenment."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #2, 1979, under the title, "Why Are We in Vietnam Again."