RAMBLING RAMB OS
Dhiren Bhagat on the men
convinced that American
POWs remain in Vietnam I AM in the habit of walking around cities at night, talking to whoever will talk to me: pushers, winos, prostitutes, senators. I suppose one day I will get raped and mugged and will finally abandon this prac- tice: till such time I look upon it as an educational exercise, a more stimulating alternative to evening classes. In June I was in Washington, covering Rajiv Gan- dhi's state visit, and dull though the Amer- ican capital is by night, whenever I had a free evening I would eat early and com- mence tramping by eight, returning to my bed some time after two.
One night I ran into Gino and his mate (I never got his name, I'll call him Mack). They were on the edge of the Mall not more than a half-mile from the Lincoln monument. Gino was a thin tallish black, an Eddie Murphy lookalike; Mack was a bearded, solider white, quieter but not without a sense of fun. They were both dressed in combat kit — camouflage jack- ets, khaki trousers — and held lit lanterns. They were both very drunk.
Together they made up the Veterans' Vigil of Honour, which has been going strong since Christmas Eve 1982, the 24- hour vigil by the low, sweeping V-shaped black granite Vietnam Veterans' Memorial which bears on its face the names of the 58,000 American dead, 'our own wailing wall' as a vet once described it. 'We used to be near the wall but they pushed us out,' Mack muttered. 'Pigs, they won't allow us near our wall, won't let us alone. Keep pushing us about, pushed us around about 20 times, I think. Won't let us talk to the press, they just want us forgotten, shoved around, out of sight.' Gino Was in no mood for this paranoid solemnity. He was busy making desperate whoopee, jumping, laughing. Soon enough he pushed a piece of paper in my hands. 'Sign this, man. Sign this so we can get our friends back.'
It was a petition, addressed (if I remem- ber rightly) to the President of Vietnam, to return the 2,476 Prisoners of War/Missing in Action (POW/MIAs) who, it alleged, were still in Vietnam. It began: 'We, as citizens of the United States . .'. I tried to point out to Gino it would not be proper for me to sign this as I was a foreigner. 'It don't matter, man. I signed it an' I'm Mex- ican.' He then leapt a bit more, as if the prancing proved he was a Mexican, and spoke with what he took to be a Latin accent. Was this man ever in Vietnam?' I asked Mack. 'Yeah,' said Mack with a wink that could have meant anything. 'He was in Nam. We were all in Nam. We're still in Nam.'
By now Mack had pulled himself together somewhat, stopped waving his lantern and begun to explain to me why he thought some of his mates were still in Vietnam, sweating in the jungle, incarcer- ated in bamboo cages. At one point he began gently crying. I could not help think- ing this vigil, this pathetic drunken hiccup, was somehow a truer epitaph to that crazy war than all the elegantly turned out ten- years-after pieces we read in April.
Gino and Mack may get drunk about it and stay up all night on the Mall making whoopee but the POW/MIAs issue is one that exercises many more people. Some 15 organisations (some pro-war, some not) are trying to get the '2,476' men back. (There are various numbers bandied about: 2,464 in the Washington Post, over 2,400 in Congressman Applegate's House Joint Resolution, 2,490 in the Dept of De- fence Fact Book published in January 1984, 2,477 in the New Republic.) Last year President Reagan signed a declaration making the third Friday in June the annual National POW/MIA Recognition Day. This year he declared the recovery of the men to be 'the highest national priority'.
And it's not just Reagan and the veter- ans. This summer as the Shi'ites kicked and pushed the grunting Uncle Sam, Sylvester Stallone's latest film Rambo: First Blood 11 raced to the top of the all-time charts, gros- sing $108 million in the first 40 days in 2,165 cinema-halls, becoming thereby 'the most popular adults-only US film ever screened'. As you will have heard by now, it's all about a hulk of a man, 'a pumped-up cartoon palooka', as a reviewer recently described him, a half-German, half-Red Indian, American super-patriot who is sent out to Vietnam to check if there are any American prisoners of war still there. It's all part of a nasty Pentagon game, or so Stallone will have us believe. If Rambo doesn't find anything, there's nothing to rescue; if he does, they'll ditch him. He finds the POWs. They ditch him.
All recent wars are rolled into one: the cold war (the Russkies are helping the Viets), the second world war (the Viets dress like the Nips in the movies of the last war) and, of course, the war America lost ten years ago. The tragedy of Rambo, we are to believe, is that America no longer loves him as he loves America. Using the only long word in his repertoire he says he is 'expendable' and then for the benefit of the guys in the audience whose verbal apti- tude scores aren't too hot he explains what that means: 'like someone invited to a par- ty they don't show up, doesn't make a dif- ference'. Sob sob.
But the nasty bureaucrat from the Penta- gon doesn't have a chance, however sens- ible his views: 'What do you want to do, Sarge? . . . You want the war all Over again? . . . Show POWs on the six o'clock news? . , . You want to bomb Hanoi? Want everyone screaming for armed invasion? You think somebody's going to get up on the floor of the US Senate and ask for $50 billion for another . . . for a couple of forgotten. . . •
Goddamit, I'm going to forget this conversa- tion ever took place.'
`And if I were you I would never make the mistake of bringing up this subject again.'
`It's you who's making the mistake.' 'Yeah, what mistake?'
Sure enough Rambo gets him in the end but only after our hero has flown out dozens of POWs to freedom and single- handedly wiped out half the Socialist Re- public of Vietnam. Rambo, Stallone proudly announced to an interviewer, 'is a machine our society has created to destroy other societies'.
Audiences all over America have spent the summer cheering this machine on. ('It seems to have perfectly articulated the na- tion's mood over Vietnam,' chortled Time.) And before the surgeons got Reagan in the gut even the veteran star of This is the Army was flexing his muscles appreciatively. Just before he addressed the American nation after the hijack trauma, Reagan muttered into a micro- phone which just happened to be switched on: 'After seeing Rambo last night I know what to do the next time this happens.' (Not to be outdone by Reagan, even the Solidarity-bashing Czech here has joined the bandwagon. 'Is your man our Rambo?' the Daily Mirror asked its readers recently, offering a holiday in Acapulco to the Brit lookalike. 'The Mirror is out to find Bri- tain's RAMBO MAN, a Mr Macho who can flex his pex better than the rest . . . WAL- LIES, WIMPS and WEAKLINGS do not apply. Only REAL men read the Mirror.') Rambo may be the most popular of the POW movies but it's only a sequel. And even Stallone's original First Blood was merely one of several films on the theme: there have been Chuck Norris, the karate man's Missing in Action and Missing in Action II, Gene Hackman's Uncommon Valor and several episodes of TV series like Magnum PI and Airwolf besides.
he POW/MIA issue has been various- ly handled by successive presidents. In 1966 Johnson conducted secret negotia- tions with the North Vietnamese in Paris over their release. Publicity would only harm the talks, so the administration play- ed down the issue. Nixon in 1969 went public with the issue, trying to use public opinion to pressurise the Vietcong into fol- lowing the Geneva Convention. POW/ MIA families were now encouraged to de- monstrate. Spiro Agnew wrote out a $10,000 cheque to the National League of Families of Americans Missing in South- East Asia, from the proceeds of the sale of Agnew wristwatches and T-shirts. But by 1970 the affected families began to doubt Nixon's goodwill. Carter appointed a com- mission to look into the question, which reported (after a somewhat farcical trip to Vietnam: they weren't allowed to travel outside Hanoi) that there were no Amer- ican POWs in Vietnam. In 1978 the Penta- gon announced that all MIAs were 'pre- sumed dead' except for one POW, Charles Shelton, who was kept on for 'symbolic purposes'.
The point about Reagan's declaration of the issue being the 'highest national prior- ity' is that he has no new evidence that there are any men out in the jungle. The week I met Gino and Mack, the New Re- public ran a story on the subject with a sweating Rambo on the cover. 'Sorry, Rambo,' read the caption, 'there are no POWs in Vietnam.'
. . . of the 2,477 men categorised as MIA, nearly half (1,186) are known to have been killed in action, but their bodies were, not recovered. Of those, 436 were Air Force pilots shot down over the sea, whom the Pentagon lists as 'non-recoverable'. In 647 other cases a presumptive finding of death was made at the time of disappearance. Thus 1,833 of the 2,477 MIAs are known or pre- sumed to be dead. That leaves 644 men who theoretically could still be alive and in Vietnam.
' The writer of the piece went on to record that 'of the 3,508 reports from Indochinese refugees about alleged sightings of missing Americans since 1975, the Defence Intelli- gence Agency discounts all but five.' True, these figures suggest there might have been some POW/MIAs who were left behind but the New Republic (and many others besides) believe that the Vietnamese must have killed them by now. Why would they have kept them alive?
hen Mack ran out of facts he sug- gested I go to Arlington to meet Terry, who ran the vigil. A few dayS later I cross- sed the Potomac and found the rundown shack they were housed in. The place re- sembled a junkyard. In the porch lay rust- ing dumbbells, a sofa with its springs rip- ped out, empty gasoline tins. The trash can contained at least a thousand flattened beer cans, gold, pink, silver, blue.
I saw Gino lope into the loo, there was a Red Indian watching television in the shab- by lounge, a girl who poured me some lemonade and Kevin and Alan, whom I spoke to. On the walls I saw posters of Jesus Christ, the Pope, an eagle in chains, AMERICA REMEMBERS YOU, and paintings of bombers in sleek blue skies. By the din- ing table were maps of Washington DC, Virginia, Vietnam and a dartboard. On the notice board I spotted the 'Barrack Laws': 5. Absolutely no drugs, guns or knives (except pocket types) will be allowed in the barracks or duty areas.
6. No bringing of whores for lewd or lascivious activities.
Kevin laughed. 'It's all a joke, man, like the army.' I agreed; the atmosphere was lax enough to make the very idea of a set of rules seem outrageously funny.
Terry wasn't there, but Kevin and Alan talked to me. What did they think of Ram- bo? 'There are two reasons why I like the film,' said Alan in a precise, measured tone I had not expected. 'It shows there are POWs and MIAs in Vietnam and, two, it shows the government has turned its back on them. Otherwise it's typically Holly- wood and a piece of nonsense. It caters to the sensationalist attitude in the country.'
Why do they believe there are Amer- icans still languishing in Vietnam? Isn't it a myth they are helping sustain? Kevin had three reasons, reasons I have heard else- where but all the same worth recording. 'One, Nixon promised the Vietnamese $6 billion for reparation during the 1973 Paris peace accord but Congress wouldn't let him pay. Two, there is $40 billion-worth of equipment that we left behind; they need someone to teach them how to use it. And three, they have something that we want. It's that simple.'
I'm not sure it is that simple. Kevin's figures can be contested but his reasons do make it difficult for one to swallow entire the New Republic line. It was Mack that night on the Mall who gave the most intri- guing reason of all, the one that reeks most of myth and American impotence. 'Every time they're training terrorists, the Lebanese, the Libyans, the Nicaraguans, they take the boys they're training to the bamboo cages and show them our men, it's living evidence. Here, here we've got proof that the Americans can be beaten, that the greatest nation on earth can be humbled by anyone. We did it, and so can you.'