Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 23, 2020

The Return of the Chicago Seven

Filed under: Counterpunch,Vietnam — louisproyect @ 1:17 pm


Looking back at the choices I made, I often rue the 11 years I wasted in the SWP. While other people from my generation like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin were having fun, I was something of a worker bee. I remember one cold and drizzly night in September 1967, when I was with a team of comrades wheat-pasting posters on Broadway between 59th and 96th streets for the October demonstration in Washington. Just after we finished, the cops told us to take them all down. Our only reward was seeing a massive turnout that included Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg, Hoffman and Rubin trying to levitate the Pentagon. During the trial of the Chicago 7, Hoffman used his puckish sense of humor to make prosecutor Richard Schultz look foolish as he tried to make an amalgam between this stunt and the charge of fomenting a riot in August 1968. When Schultz asked Hoffman to explain why he urinated on the Pentagon that day, you could not help but laugh at the exchange.

After having seen Adam Sorkin’s Netflix docudrama and one that aired on HBO in 1987, I can’t remember which film recreated this exchange. What I can remember, however, is the significant political differences between the two, as well as my take on the Chicago protests and the ensuing trial at the time. The seven men on trial were committed to the politics of the spectacle, to put it in DeBordian terms. By the summer of 1968, Dellinger et al. had grown frustrated with the failure of the mass demonstrations to end the war. They believed that “resistance” was necessary as a tantrum by several thousand young people could force the warmakers into withdrawing from South Vietnam. On December 29, 1968, SWP leader Fred Halstead debated Jerry Rubin over “What Policy for the Antiwar Movement.” The Militant newspaper carried excerpts from Rubin’s speech:

The war in Vietnam will be stopped when the embarrassment of carrying on the war becomes greater than the embarrassment of admitting defeat. A lot of things embarrass America. A lot of things embarrass a country so dependent on image: Youth alienation, campus demonstrations and disruptions, peace candidates, underground railroads of draft dodgers to Canada, trips to banned countries, thousands of people giving their middle finger to the Pentagon over national television …

The long-haired beasts, smoking pot, evading the draft and stopping traffic during demonstrations is a hell of a more threat to the system than the so-called politico with leaflets of support for the Vietcong and the coming working-class revolution. Politics is how you live your life, not who you vote for or who you support . . .

Only seven months later, the Chicago Seven led actions based on these premises. Unsurprisingly, the war continued despite the embarrassment generated by the police riots and the kangaroo court that the two documentaries depicted.

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September 29, 2017

The best documentary on the Vietnam war

Filed under: Vietnam,war — louisproyect @ 4:42 pm

It was not funded by the Koch brothers and can now be seen for free.

September 26, 2017

Thoughts on Ken Burns’s Vietnam documentary

Filed under: Kevin Coogan,Vietnam,war — louisproyect @ 12:26 pm

Ken Burns

Stuck in a motel in upstate NY last night, I decided to watch an episode of Ken Burns’s PBS series on the Vietnam war to kill some time. It was far worse than I expected.

The hour and forty-five minutes was focused on events in 1968 and 1969, a period I am deeply familiar with. The methodology was apparent from the outset. Probably 75 percent of it was devoted to war stories from both American and Vietnamese combatants in an effort to be “balanced”. From the Americans, you get both Rambo-like regrets that we didn’t fight better as well as rueful thoughts about how futile it all was. One fairly high-ranking officer asserts that we backed the wrong side since the Communists were such better fighters—sounding as if he bet on the wrong team to win the Super Bowl. From the Vietnamese, we hear from a couple who were both part of the convoys in which arms and other material aid were sent to fighters in the South on the Ho Chi Minh trail. An American pilot spends 5 minutes reminiscing about how when they spotted a convoy, it was often a “turkey shoot” as they dropped bombs and strafed the slow-moving stream of trucks and men. It was like hearing a rapist describe how he beat up and then fucked a helpless woman.

Missing from these war stories from either side was any notion of why they fought. One supposes that the Americans were at a disadvantage since they enlisted (or were dragooned) into a war that was based on the most ludicrous of theories. Vietnam was a domino and if it fell, other dominos in East Asia would fall and the next thing you know, America goes Communist. Since Communism is a dead issue today (even if Trump is trying to revive it over the North Korea standoff), you need other Orwellian threats to keep society lined up behind the ruling class. It is al-Qaeda and ISIS that are the new dominos. The American bombing of Raqqa has killed 40,000 civilians and forced as many as one million more people from their homes. Back in 1968, the left would have organized protests against such a monstrous assault but today the left stands aside with its arms folded. Why? Because it is infected with Islamophobia.

Three passages in this unseemly documentary stuck in my craw.

Burns tells us that after the Tet Offensive, the North Vietnamese and the NLF were forced to draft new recruits to keep the war going but morale was so poor that men were getting drunk all the time over the despair they felt for being cannon fodder. This is par for the course for television-based history. Where did Burns get this information from? What are his sources? If I was reading an article that made such an assertion, I’d want to fact-check it. I should add that I probably should be inured to this kind of bad faith since I have been putting up with it for six  years in all those articles about how Syrian rebels were acting on orders from the CIA.

In order to stanch the flow of arms and fighters to the South, the USA adopted the Phoenix Program—according to Burns. However, the Phoenix Program was initiated in 1965 and could be best described as death squads designed to break the back of the resistance. Most of the victims of torture and execution were civilians who made the mistake of opposing the American occupation. Doug Valentine, a frequent contributor to CounterPunch, described the program in terms that never would have been conveyed to PBS viewers:

By 1967, killing entire families had become an integral facet of the CIA’s counter-terror program. Robert Slater was the chief of the CIA’s Province Interrogation Center Program from June 1967 through 1969. In a March 1970 thesis for the Defense Intelligence School, titled “The History, Organization and Modus Operandi of the Viet Cong Infrastructure,” Slater wrote, “the District Party Secretary usually does not sleep in the same house or even hamlet where his family lived, to preclude any injury to his family during assassination attempts.”

But, Slater added, “the Allies have frequently found out where the District Party Secretaries live and raided their homes: in an ensuing fire fight the secretary’s wife and children have been killed and injured.”

I should add that Valentine’s article was inspired by news last year that former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey was going to be named chairman of Fulbright University, a US-backed college with ties to the State Department in Ho Chi Minh City. Kerrey’s tenure there was short-lived since there was so much furor over his role in the Phoenix Program. I only wish that my fellow alumni at the New School had produced such quick results when he was serving as president of the New School for Social Research, an institution that had gained fame for hiring scholars driven out of Europe by the Nazi equivalent of the Phoenix Program.

Finally, there is the ridiculous war story by a physician who had been a POW in one of those legendary sadistic compounds that kept them on the brink of starvation. One day a cat that lived in the camp wandered into their midst apparently. They were so hungry that they butchered the cat, removing its head and paws, and then roasted it while the guards weren’t watching. When the guards spotted the charred remains, the prisoners claimed that it was a weasel they had caught and killed. However, when the guard spotted one of the cat’s paws, their goose was cooked since the cat belonged to the commandant. To start with, killing a cat with your bare hands is almost as possible as killing a weasel. Cats are not only pretty damned fierce but capable of screeches and howls when under attack that would have woke the dead, not to speak of Vietnamese guards. The physician claims that he was beaten to within an inch of his life and forced to wear the cat’s carcass around his neck while tied to a pole. You can’t make this shit up but it ends up in a Ken Burns documentary anyhow.

May 24, 2016

My Father’s Vietnam

Filed under: Film,Vietnam — louisproyect @ 3:03 pm

Over the years there have been any number of narrative films about Vietnam veterans ranging from the sensationalistic Rambo series to quieter and more serious films like “In Country” or “Coming Home”. As for documentaries, they tend to be made under the impact of the antiwar movement such as “Winter Soldier” or harrowing tales of survival like “Return with Honor” or “Little Dieter Loves to Fly”, both of which are focused on the ordeals of POW’s.

If you’ve seen these sorts of films, you’ll have a little bit of trouble getting the hang of “My Father’s Vietnam”, a documentary that premieres on VOD today, a deceptively modest but powerful work that combines stock footage, family photos and interviews with a number of veterans who were connected in some way with a man named Peter Sorensen whose son Soren directed the film.

The documentary begins with an epigraph drawn from a letter Ernest Hemingway wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1925 that “war is…the best subject of all. It groups the maximum of material and speeds up the action and brings out all sorts of stuff that normally you have to wait a lifetime to get.” This of course is not only appropriate for the experience the film contemplates but the particular connection made between Peter Sorensen and another soldier named Loring M. Bailey Jr. who was killed by an IED in Vietnam. Sorensen and Bailey, known to his friends as Ring, were white, middle-class and well-educated men who became friends at Officer’s Candidate School after joining the army in 1968 and discovering that they shared a love for Hemingway.

Either of them could have figured out a way to stay out of the military as I and most people from their milieu did but they joined mostly as a way of fulfilling a necessary obligation. Neither were particularly gung-ho but there were factors that likely influenced their decision. Sorensen came from a long line of military men, including the director’s great-grandfather who is seen in a Danish army uniform at the beginning of the film, looking for all the world like a cast member of a 19th century operetta.

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Ring Bailey’s father, who died in 2010 at the age of 96, is interviewed throughout the film. He was a lifelong employee of the Electric Boat division of General Dynamics in Groton, Connecticut where he designed warships. Unlike Peter Sorensen, who describes the Vietnam war as imperialist toward the end of the film without using the word, the elder Bailey says nothing about the war itself. His thoughts are riveted on his dead son who was lost to this senseless war at the age of 24 back in 1969. At one point, when you see him with an American flag lapel on his suit jacket, you assume that he was likely part of Nixon’s “silent majority”.

The other figure with a key role in the film is Ring Bailey’s brother-in-law Rik Carlson, who was an SDS member the year that Bailey was killed. He had a beard and shoulder length hair at the time with a willingness to do anything to oppose the war, including risking arrest for putting oil drums in the Connecticut River that were supposed to look like mines just after Nixon mined Haiphong harbor. Despite his hatred for the war, he loved his brother-in-law and remains haunted by his death. Forty-seven years after his death, he can’t help but cry over his loss.

Peter Sorensen is a thoughtful and reflective man whose recollections anchor the film. He had hopes of being a journalist before enlisting and actually realized them in the military after being reassigned to a media unit after writing an article about a battle with the Vietnamese. He tried to arrange a transfer for his friend Ring Bailey who was killed before it could come through. Like Rik Carlson, he can’t get the dead man out of his memory.

Soren Sorenson decided to make the film in order to figure out what made his highly introverted father tick. To some extent, this was a change of personality that followed the trauma of Vietnam. He suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome for years without understanding what was bothering him. In being interviewed by his son, he probably experienced a catharsis similar to those who have had successful psychotherapy.

For his part, Soren Sorenson was inspired to make the film to understand what made his self-contained father break down into tears at the Maya Lin Vietnam Memorial in Washington when he accompanied him at the age of 8. It disturbed him to see a strong man sob.

My own father, who died in 1970, was in the thick of the most brutal American campaign in Europe during WWII—the Battle of the Bulge. I could never get him to speak about it and doubt that having a video camera would have made much difference. For him, as it was for most GI’s, the war was such a horror show that he would not want to relive the experience even if only in his mind. He came back from Europe with the hope of enjoying a normal life and a modicum of security. The post-WWII boom fulfilled his wishes up to the point when LBJ escalated the war and turned me into a revolutionary. I sometimes wonder what he would make of the world today, with its ever-increasing insecurity for people like him and its non-stop imperial wars. I suppose he would have remained tight-lipped as ever, the characteristic of a man who simply lacked the perspective to put everything into context. As for me, I have that perspective but would have much preferred to have been untouched by the war that forced me to dig deeply into the question of why it began in the first place. Although Trotsky was misattributed by the wonderful leftwing novelist Alan Furst, I was impacted forever by these words: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”

March 18, 2015

Ernie Tate, the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign and the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation

Filed under: antiwar,Vietnam — louisproyect @ 8:33 pm

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February 13, 2015

Two Documentaries on Vietnam

Filed under: Film,Vietnam — louisproyect @ 3:03 pm

Screen shot 2015-02-13 at 10.02.00 AM

Two Documentaries: One Great, the Other Abysmal

The Mirror of Vietnam


On the Kickstarter page for the remarkable documentary “Same Same but Different”, the film takes note of the ignominious end of the war in Vietnam—at least if you view that ending from the point of view of the White House and the Pentagon: “Long after that last helicopter lifted off from the American Embassy in Saigon, Veterans of that War have quietly returned to their former battlegrounds to clear unexploded ordnance, work with victims of Agent Orange, and build schools and orphanages. Same Same But Different is their story.”

Ignominious is certainly the word that comes to mind when you watch Rory Kennedy’s “Last Days in Vietnam” that has been nominated for best documentary for the upcoming Academy Awards. Like “American Sniper”, this is a film that turns history on its head. By portraying the liberation of Vietnam that was captured in memorable photos of the last helicopters lifting off from the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon as a disaster for the Vietnamese people, Ms. Kennedy keeps alive the myth of the American military as a force for good. By contrast and in Walt Kelly’s memorable way of putting it, “Same Same but Different” tells the truth, namely that “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

read full article

October 1, 2014

Abraham Lincoln Brigades Archive 2014 Human Rights Documentary Film Festival

Filed under: Film,Stalinism,Vietnam — louisproyect @ 7:02 pm

Last night I saw “Red Father” and “You’re the Enemy – Welcome Back!” at the Institute Cervantes in New York, two of the entries in “Impugning Impunity”, theAbraham Lincoln Brigades Archive (ALBA) Human Rights Documentary Film Festival that ends today. Based on the quality of what I saw yesterday, you might want to take advantage of today’s screening of documentaries on the impact of Israeli occupation on Bedouins and on the activist break-in at FBI offices in Pennsylvania in 1971 that led to the exposure of the Cointelpro. Scheduling information is here: http://www.alba-valb.org/programs/human-rights-film-festival/

It is no secret that the  ALBA, like most projects with such a provenance, has a solid base of support in the Communist Party and its periphery. As I gazed about the audience waiting for “Red Father” to begin, I felt young again by comparison. The average age appeared to be about 75 and most probably went through the experience at one time or another of selling the Daily Worker.

Despite this, Tova Beck-Friedman’s film was a searching examination of what it meant to be a life-long Communist and not at all an exercise in feel-good nostalgia like the documentaries “Seeing Red” or “The Good Fight” that featured Spanish Civil War veterans like Bill Bailey. As much as I loved those films, I was glad to see the CP rendered accurately, warts and all.

“Red Father”, however, did not demonize the CP. In its portrait of Bernard Ades (pronounced ay-dis), a Jew from a wealthy family who grew up in Baltimore and joined the party shortly after the Great Depression began, was simultaneously the best and the worst of his generation. A man of extraordinary principle and courage, he became an attorney dedicated to defending the African-American poor against a racist judicial system, including its ultimate weapon, the lynch mob.

This article from the November 28, 1931 newsweekly “The African-American” documents the case that is at the heart of “Red Father” and shows him demonstrating the mettle that convinced many Black Americans that the CP was their best friend in the struggle against racism.

Screen shot 2014-10-01 at 1.43.52 PM

Seven years later he ended up fighting in Spain against Franco’s counter-revolutionary army, once again showing great courage and dedication to the cause.

Throughout the 1930s, the party was at its height. If you didn’t bother paying close attention to the Trotskyist press, the USSR and its allies could easily be seen as the saviors of humanity. Indeed, it was exactly such a messianic belief that led party members like Bernard Ades to stick with the party until the bitter end, even after it became common knowledge that Jews were victims of discrimination in Russia and that the “socialism” being built had little to do with the democratic aspirations of the communist movement through most of its history.

As a sympathizer of the CP and a member of a youth group in its periphery, Ben Ades’s daughter Janet, who is featured prominently in the film and who spoke during a Q&A after its screening, had the misfortune to get romantically entwined with a comrade who had visited Hungary shortly after the Soviet invasion in 1956 and was shocked to see elementary socialist principles trampled underfoot. When Janet began repeating what she heard from her boyfriend, her father was chagrined enough to enroll her in a study group that was meant to cure her of bad ideas.

In the Q&A, Janet Ades was crystal-clear about her respect for her father’s dedication and for the need for social justice. What she would not accept, however, was the CP’s military like discipline that forced its members to go along with every twist and turn, always accepting the Kremlin’s word as if it were the Vatican. Indeed, like all members of religious sects, the practice of shunning was used to enforce a monolithic culture.

She added that it was not just the CP that had such a suffocating atmosphere. She alluded to a young man she met in a hospital once whose first name was Karl. Out of curiosity, she asked if he was named after Karl Marx. He laughed and said yes, proceeding to tell her his life story. His father was a member of the Trotskyist movement in Utah who had made a mistake like hers taking up the cause of Hungarian workers. She did not mention what got Karl’s father shunned, but eventually he left the movement in disgust. I commented from the floor that I probably knew his father since he was one of hundreds who had to put up with shunning in the SWP, a party that was created as an alternative to the “bad” CP.

I am not sure where or when this eye-opening documentary will be shown again but will make sure to let you know about it in advance. Educational institutions can purchase it from Dark Hollow films for the customarily prohibitive price. http://www.darkhollowfilms.com/our-films

Finally, I recommend Dan La Botz’s article on the film that appeared on New Politics.  Dan concludes and I concur:

This well-done documentary will be of particular interest to those who want to better understand the history of the Communist Party of the United States and international Communism, as well as to those interested in American Jewry. As a teacher of college courses in American History, I would certainly use it in my upper division classes. The film which is being independently distributed will be shown in the fall at the University of Minnesota Law School and to the Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers and in the week of November 10 at Baruch College of Performing Arts.

Pankaja Brooke’s “You’re the Enemy – Welcome Back!” also deserves the widest viewing. Brooke went to Vietnam and interviewed a group of Vietnam veterans to returned there to atone for their misdeeds by getting involved in various projects that benefit a country still feeling the lingering effects of a genocidal war.

I was shocked to discover that over 100,000 people died as a result of stepping on unexploded landmines and bombs left over from a brutal war, also that over 3 million have suffered birth defects or illnesses caused by exposure to Agent Orange. To her credit, Brooke spent time visiting clinics and orphanages devoted to caring for Agent Orange victims, whose care and treatment costs an economically devastated nation millions of dollars each year. If there was any justice, the USA should have paid reparations for the damage it did to people and to precious resources.

Fortunately, Brooke’s documentary can be seen on Vimeo and I recommend it strongly:


As a group, the Vietnam veterans—all about my age—show America at its best, just as Bernard Ades’s service in the cause of the Spanish Republic did. Next year I will be posting an announcement about the next ALBA film festival. The people who put it together should be commended for fighting the good fight as well. My recommendation is to visit their website (http://www.alba-valb.org/) and stay informed about this excellent resource for human rights and social justice.


January 30, 2012

Vietnam: An American Holocaust

Filed under: Film,Vietnam — louisproyect @ 6:53 pm

Among the handful of blogs I have bookmarked and visit each day is Clay Claiborne’s at Daily Kos. I first got wind of Claiborne’s penetrating analysis when he began taking exception to an “anti-imperialism”  that sided with Qaddafi’s troops against the revolutionary people. I was staggered by the force of his arguments and his willingness to swim against the stream. You can get a flavor of his take on things by reading his latest post on Libya titled “The Current Situation in Libya“, dated January 13th:

Another thing that is becoming clear now is just how little real support Qaddafi had. While there was that one sneak attack against an oil terminal while Qaddafi was still alive, there has been nothing since. The guerilla war by Qaddafi supporters against the revolution has simply failed to materialize, and while wavers of the green flag still have had some freedom to demonstrate openly, as this video illustrates, there just haven’t been very many of them.

For a few days, those nostalgic for Qaddafi took heart at news that a revolt against the government-backed militia in Bani Walid took place under the toppled regime’s green flag but eventually it turned out that there was no support for Qaddafi, even in his erstwhile stronghold. Apparently, the real base of support is among Western leftists who resent those Libyans who had the impudence to rise up and defeat the dictator who worked with the CIA and killed 2000 prisoners at Abu Salim in one fell swoop.

I had always noticed Clay’s description of himself as a filmmaker on his blog profile but had not given it any thought until a comrade urged me to look at his documentary titled “Vietnam: An American Holocaust” that is for sale on his website. I had a chance to view it recently and want to second my comrade’s recommendation. This is a very powerful retelling of the genuinely anti-imperialist narrative of the war in Vietnam and very much worth purchasing for those of a certain age like me who became radicalized in the 1960s by this horrible war as well as by young activists today.

Narrated by Martin Sheen, a long-time progressive activist who played a deranged special forces combatant in “Apocalypse Now”, the film is a shocking reminder of what a criminal enterprise the war on Vietnam was. Using archival footage of madmen like Curtis LeMay, rank-and-file soldiers who turned against the war, and the Vietnamese themselves, it explains why so many young people became enemies of a socio-economic system that could spawn such cruelty. Among the archival footage is Dwight Eisenhower explaining why we were in Vietnam:

If Indochina goes, several things happen right away. The Malayan peninsula, the last little bit of the end hanging on down there, would be scarcely defensible–and tin and tungsten that we so greatly value from that area would cease coming. But all India would be outflanked. Burma would certainly, in its weakened condition, be no defense. Now, India is surrounded on that side by the Communist empire. Iran on its left is in a weakened condition. I believe I read in the paper this morning that Mossadegh’s move toward getting rid of his parliament has been supported and of course he was in that move supported by the Tudeh, which is the Communist Party of Iran.

Apparently, the West has still not gotten used to Iran breaking free from the rule of its oil companies as the threats over its right to develop nuclear power continue to mount day by day.

The film would be ideal for high school and college classes as an introduction to a war that still exercises a kind of restraint on American power referred to as the “Vietnam syndrome”. Indeed, it was the war in Iraq that inspired Clay to make the film since it was obvious at the time that the war would take a terrible toll on all its victims, the GI’s falling victim to IED’s as well as the Iraqis facing a new holocaust.

In exercising my usual due diligence in finding out about a film’s director, I discovered a fascinating interview with Clay Claiborne, who is an African-American and three years younger than me. You can both listen to it and read the transcript at the American Lives web pages at the U. of Washington in St. Louis, a school that Clay attended in the 1960s.  Like so many of us whose lives were torn apart by the war in Vietnam, Clay was very much a man of his times.

Asked about some of his “extra-curricular” activities, Clay answered:

I was around, now, I was in St. Louis from the fall of ’66 when I came to school here as a freshman until August of 1970. I was, I did four months in St. Louis County Jail for a demonstration against ROTC, and they paroled me to New Jersey. So, in fact, there was gonna to be a party for me at Left Bank Bookstore when I got out, but when I got out, they took me straight to the airport and put me on a plane, like I was Public Enemy Number One. I couldn’t be trusted loose in Missouri, you know, even for an afternoon. And the attitude in New Jersey was quite different. In New Jersey, my parole officer looked at my record and he said, “You’re a political prisoner. This would have never happened in New Jersey”, you know and he completely left me alone. The only thing I had to see him for was permission to come back to St. Louis, which I did a couple of times under the eyes of the Red Squad. And then a couple years later, I think ’73, ’74, I came back to St. Louis in, no, that was actually 1972, I came back to St. Louis, but by that time, my political work had almost entirely gravitated off campus. Still with a lot of the same people that are here, we formed the Worker Unity Organization and put out a newspaper called On the Line. I worked in ACF, the American Car and Foundry, a boxcar factory. I don’t know if it’s still here or not, was active in the union organization.

I read this and smile. When I reflect on the deeply evil deeds of the men running the American government during the Vietnam War, anybody being described as “public enemy number one” deserves a badge of honor. Like the young people in Germany who formed the White Rose resistance to Hitler during WWII, those who resisted the war in Vietnam constituted the country’s real democratic values. Given the continued willingness of American imperialism to wage war across the planet without even any pretenses of maintaining a “guns and butter” regime, a film like “Vietnam: An American Holocaust” is a very useful reminder of what our fight is all about.

April 9, 2009

Rescue Dawn

Filed under: Film,Vietnam — louisproyect @ 7:06 pm

Out of curiosity, I watched Werner Herzog’s 2006 movie “Rescue Dawn” on Showtime the other night. This is a movie based on Navy pilot Dieter Dengler’s escape from a Laotian prison camp in 1966 that I could not help but lump in with similar efforts involving Sylvester Stallone or Chuck Norris. Perhaps I am a glutton for punishment, but I then watched Herzog’s 1997 documentary “Dieter Dengler Needs to Fly” on Neflix online (my first stab at this-not bad all in all), his first stab at glorifying a killer in uniform.

As many of you probably know, Werner Herzog has an attraction to the grotesque that is only exceeded by David Lynch’s. Additionally, both have questionable politics. Lynch was a Reaganite, but it is difficult to detect any kind of political statement in his movies. For his part, Herzog claims to be above politics but when it comes to the wars in Nicaragua and Vietnam, his films clearly had a rightwing tilt even if they are couched in his peculiar aesthetic.

“Little Dieter Needs to Fly” is a fairly worshipful view of the German child who decided to become a pilot after watching an American fighter pilot coming in to blast his home town in Germany in 1945. It is clear that Dengler has his priorities screwed up. Most children would be horrified by such a sight, but he was transfixed so much so that he came to the U.S. as a teenager to join the air force, as war-ravaged Germany had not yet created its own.

After joining the air force, he learns that his duties will not include learning to fly. Undaunted, he goes to college in order to help smooth the way toward his next bid at flying, this time in the U.S. Navy in 1965 at the start of the Vietnam War. Herzog claims that his movies about Dengler make no political statement because his subject had no intention of getting involved in fighting and assumed that the war would be over in months. Clearly, Herzog had little interest in bothering about ancillary issues such as the right of Vietnam to live in peace since they would only interfere with his mission to make the ultimate adventure story.

In a way, “Rescue Dawn” could never meet the expectations of the typical Chuck Norris fan (like Mike Hucklebee) since it is so imbued with Herzog’s mannerisms and oddball sensibility. Typically, he cast Christian Bale as Dieter Dengler. As a latter-day Anthony Perkins, Bale is the first actor casting actors will call if they are looking to fill the role of some lunatic or other.

Herzog must have decided that he would be right for the role since Bale had lost 63 pounds in order to play the deranged hero of “The Machinist”. In striving for verisimilitude, Herzog had his actors lose weight to play the captive American pilots. The Thai actors playing Air America (the CIA air company, not the liberal radio network) prisoners all had the good sense to maintain proper food intake. Just to show how gung-ho he was for the role, Bale eats live maggots direct from a bowl in one of the movie’s more unpleasant scenes.

Bale has garnered quite a reputation as a madman on the set as well, making him quite a match for Herzog. During the filming of the latest Terminator movie, he threw a tantrum when a lighting technician got on his wrong side.

Perhaps the most off-putting and least realistic aspect of “Rescue Dawn” is the treatment of the captors, who are rendered as over-the-top grotesques. The ringleader has hair down to his shoulders in a look that evokes the villains in Jackie Chan movies from the late ’90s rather than Communist guerrillas. One of his henchmen is a martial arts devotee who periodically flails at unseen enemies for no apparent reason. Another is a perpetually grinning dwarf who seems oblivious to everything, most of all the fact that a war is going on. Like David Lynch, Herzog seems to have a thing for dwarfs. In 1970 he made something called “Even Dwarfs Started Small” that depicted dwarfs in a mental institution run by other dwarfs. Although I have not seen it, it supposedly has a grand climax in which the rebel inmates uproot a palm tree, burn flowers, kill a pig, crucify a monkey and hurl live chickens against the guy in charge. One critic feels that Herzog was trying to make a statement about the 1968 student revolt. Whatever.

In order to increase the alienation effect, Herzog does not bother to use subtitles when the guards are shouting at the prisoners. This means that the audience will not be discomfited by the enemy telling their captors why they are being mistreated. Who would want to hear something like this? “Take that, you killer. Your fucking napalm killed my wife and our five kids.”

Despite his best (or worst, perhaps) intentions, Herzog did not endear himself to people connected to the prisoners, including the brother of prisoner Gene DeBruin. (Dengler died in 2001 so he would not be able to comment.) He set up a website called Rescue Dawn: the Truth that takes exception to his brother being portrayed as “an uncaring, deranged and derelict Charles Manson type entity, devoid of humanity.” What was he expecting? After all, this was not a Chuck Norris movie.

This was not the first time that Herzog cooked up an ostensibly rightwing propaganda piece that was undone by his unwillingness to settle for the pat. In 1984 he made “Ballad of the Little Soldier” on behalf of the Miskito counter-revolutionaries in Nicaragua. The movie can be seen on Youtube in five parts and all but the last part consists of Miskitos denouncing the FSLN as a bunch of Communist killers. Herzog made no attempt, of course, to get the other side of the story.

But the last part, an interview with 10 or 11 year old Miskito soldiers in training, undermines any attempt to build blind loyalty to their cause. Their instructor tells Herzog, “This is the best age for training. Their minds are clean, not corrupt yet, we can teach them.” Denis Reichle, Herzog’s co-director who apparently is not as gung-ho as Herzog, tells the instructor: “You mean you can brainwash them.” The instructor replies, “Yes, we can brainwash them and show them the reality of why they are fighting today.”

Coming full circle to the end of WWII, when young Dieter was discovering the need to fly, Reichle tells the camera that the young trainees remind him of the German children who put on Nazi uniforms and carried weapons in the final months of WWII.

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