Friday, January 28, 2011

Harrell Fletcher: The American War

The American War by Harrell Fletcher
J&L Books, New York, 2006. 96 pp., Numerous color illustrations, 5x71⁄2".

My first memory of the Vietnam War was Full Metal Jacket. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, my father would take my brother and me to the movies. Our mother seemed to have no voice in the selection process and my brother seemed to be the primary selector, at least until he went away to college and I became more involved curious about movies in general. While we may have seen a number of movies together, I only specifically remember seeing Full Metal Jacket and Robocop, likely because they were remarkably violent films for someone in elementary school to see, let alone process coherently as there was no post-film discussion to unwrap the experience.

It was up to my humble mind to accept the secondary traumas of the Vietnam War and that of James Murphy, played by Peter Weller, the protagonist and poor soul who became a cybernetic being in Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop (1987). While this robotic police officer was borne as a result of sadistic criminals torturing a young police officer, whose “dead” body was then exploited by a malevolent corporation, the traumas of the characters in director Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket were more grounded in history than the speculative near-future Detroit of Robocop. Most shocking in Full Metal Jacket were the murder/suicide bathroom scene of Leonard, better known in the movie as Gomer Pyle and played by Vincent D’Onofrio, and the final mercy-killing of a female Viet Cong soldier who lays dying after being cornered by the American GIs, including opposing characters played by Matthew Modine and Adam Baldwin. As the soldier lay dying, the central character must decide whether he will become a killer after all.

Until recently, I hadn’t seen the film since its original release in 1987 yet those images stayed with me. After the film concluded, I specifically remember being in the lobby of the Glenwood Theatre with my father and brother thinking that the movie was not something I should have been seen. Still, as the years went by I would see all the classics of Vietnam cinema including Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, and Platoon. Movies about Vietnam are never just action movies; at their best they are allegories of the moral imperatives of a man, or a few men, whose trust in the basic goodness of humanity is questioned or destroyed as a result of a violent conflict created by forces outside himself.

These cinematic tales, and most of those that have come to follow, are told from the American perspective. Until recently there has been little consideration of the Vietnamese perspective on the conflict in American cinema or media. The North and South of Vietnam stabilized under a communist regime, and the much-feared “domino effect” that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and other American leaders so feared, never came into being. Saigon became Ho Chi Minh City and that was basically that, especially from the perspective of most Americans. Communism failed to become a worldwide threat, the world moved on, and what we know domestically as the Vietnam War is known in Vietnam as the American War, for it was the United States that was ultimately considered the invading force.

The American War is also the title of Harrell Fletcher’s well-received 2006 exhibition and book from J and L books. The plain, pink covering is slightly misleading, leading the viewer to think that this will be a short novel or something a bit cuter than the menagerie of horrors inside. Within are Fletcher’s re-photographs of images displayed at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City [Saigon] depicting atrocities committed by American forces from 1965, through the fall of Saigon in 1975, and onwards to the ongoing affects of chemical weapons on the population today.

The slim book contains about half of the images on display. In a brief, included text Fletcher describes making these pictures during an artist residency in 2005. For better or worse, there is little else in the way of explanatory text. The images work as a DIY recreation of the permanent exhibition with the added effect of most images being shot from an oblong perspective to avoid the reflection of on-camera flash that would otherwise leave most of the displays illegible. It makes for skewed viewing. The content of the images is not unlike a procession of horrors that seem all too closely linked to reality, as the traumas in this Vietnam War are real and ongoing. GIs parade the heads of decapitated Viet Cong soldiers, victims of napalm are shrouded in gauze, and people are dragged to their deaths. Placed immediately below each image or on the facing page is a photograph of the caption, describing the content and further emphasizing the devastation wrought by American forces.

Looking at these re-photographs reminds me of another war film, Jarhead (2005). In that film the soldiers are heady to see action in the first Gulf War. They watch all the war movies they can in anticipation of battle yet see no moral lessons that the directors may have intended. In the original novel, the author and narrator Anthony Swofford: “The supposedly anti-war films have failed. Now is my time to step into the newest combat zone. And as a young man raised on the films of the Vietnam war, I want ammunition and alcohol and dope, and I want to screw some whores and kill some Iraqi motherfuckers.” Perhaps Fletcher’s American War is an antidote to all that has come before, sickly distilling the worst parts of war down to the non-American perspective of atrocity removed by three levels, away from the original experience of war, away from the exhibition, and pivoting one more time on the final oblong images distorted by angles and on-camera flash presented here. Men are thrown from planes and villages are obliterated. Lists of statistics describe the millions killed, injured, and quantity of bombs and chemical agents dropped on the nation. A better part of the small book’s content is delegated to physical deformities caused by Agent Orange and napalm, chemicals dropped to destroy the jungle and incinerate the enemy. These chemicals caused cancer and skin disease in the living, ongoing physical traumas for those who were there, DNA mutation, and still today as environmental pollutants.

All told, the images make for uncomfortable yet significant viewing yet there is still a desire to turn the page to learn more about the experience of those involved, rather than close the book from anxiety. In that way the book is an oddly accessible treatise on war, unlike most of the thick histories or fictions that make up the bulk of war book releases. It seems that there are no simple wars, or acts of righteousness that can ease the suffering of men, women, and children on all sides of a conflict. War and violence may make for fantasy to us as cinematic entertainment yet its origins will always remain painful. Harrell Fletcher’s The American War is a pink pill of a book to remove our complacency in story of war as it has been and will be, especially for those who must live with its ongoing legacy.

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