Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Vietnam War’

Da 5 Hoods ***

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 14th June, 2020

Da 5 Hoods 1Having loved BlacKkKlansman and several earlier Spike Lee films, I awaited the release of his latest, Da 5 Hoods (now on Netflix), with eager anticipation. The fact that it is set in Vietnam, with frequent flashbacks to the Vietnam War, in which I was a cub reporter in 1969 and 1971, had further whetted my appetite. The core story focuses on four former black GIs returning to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh Ville) to search for the remains of their fifth and most charismatic comrade in arms who was killed during an operation out in the field. At least that is their public excuse, but it soon becomes clear that the real reason is that while examining the wreckage of a shot-down US plane back then they found a metal chest solidly packed with gold bars that had been destined to reward minority ethnic guerrillas fighting against the Communists. Revisiting the country triggers memories good and bad and in a couple of cases clear evidence of PTSD. The ambivalence of their relationship with the Vietnamese — some of whom would have been on the same side, others definitely not —  adds to the tension. Flashbacks include not only the gunfight in which their buddy lost his life but also splendid recreations of the broadcasts by North Vietnam’s Hanoi Hannah, who relayed the news of the murder of Martin Luther King to eager listeners and pointed out that although African Americans made up only 11 per cent of the US population at the time nearly a third of the drafted soldiers in the Vietnam War were black.

Da 5 Hoods 2Various other historic and contemporary references pepper the two-and-a-half hours of the film, from Nixon to Trump, MAGA and Black Lives Matter. Moreover, the cinematic references (both visual and musical, including the use of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries in homage to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now), come so fast and furious that one is left reeling. After a fine, strong beginning, in which the characters of the four late-middle-aged men with all their quirks and differences are well drawn, the plot starts to fall apart when a love interest (surely so old Hollywood!) is introduced in the form of a young French woman working for a charity she has helped finance to combat mines and bombs who starts to get entangled with the son of one of the quartet, who has materialised in Vietnam unbidden. Things really disintegrate when the motley gang happen upon first the gold and then their fallen comrade’s remains with literally incredible ease, after which the movie turns into a sort of action thriller where they have to try to hang on to their booty despite the determination of corrupt forces to get it off them. I shan’t spoil the ending by revealing what happens next. Suffice it to say that this visually glorious epic (congratulations to cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel) is sure to evoke nostalgia for Vietnam for anyone who has been there (even if some of the scenes were actually shot in Thailand), but whereas it had the chance of being a truly great film Spike Lee blew it by throwing almost everything into it bar the kitchen sink.

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Remembering Vietnam

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 20th October, 2017

Vietnam War helicopterRecently I’ve been watching the stupendous 10-part series of one-hour films on the Vietnam War, directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, screened on BBC4 but also available through BBCiPlayer. The project took ten years to put together, from contemporary news footage, home videos, interviews with survivors or families of those killed, Vietnamese North and South as well as American. There are also extremely telling tapes of US presidents J F Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon talking to top advisors, hoping to believe that everything was going well, whereas it became increasingly obvious that victory against the Communists — or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, against the Vietnamese people — was impossible. Tonight I watched Episode 6, covering the first half of 1968, which had some iconic moments, including the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in the US as well as the Tet offensive, when tens of thousands of North Vietnamese troops spirited into the South, hoping their assaults on major cities would lead to an uprising by the South Vietnamese, who would overthrow the corrupt regime of Nguyen Van Thieu and welcome them with open arms. That did not happen, though casualties on all sides were horrendous and the old imperial capital of Hue was largely destroyed. US propaganda portrayed the Tet Offensive as a failure for the Communists, arguing that the 510,000 US troops now in South Vietnam fighting alongside the South Vietnamese forces (as well as troops from Australia and South Korea, notably) were sure of victory. But many of the people really in the know, including Robert McNamara, who had recently stepped down as Defense Secretary, were aware that the cause would inevitably be lost, sooner or later. Anti-War protests were by now rampant on both sides of the Atlantic at it was at that moment, in the summer of 1968, that I decided that when I left school after taking the Oxbridge entrance exams, I would head out to Vietnam to see the truth for myself — as recounted in the second half of my childhood memoir, Eccles Cakes.

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I Once Met … Dr Spock

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 22nd August, 2015

Dr SpockFor millions of parents on both sides of the Atlantic Dr Benjamin Spock’s handbook, The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, published in 1946, was a kind of Bible. Indeed, for half a century it reportedly sold more copies round the world than any other book except for the actual Bible. Its central message to mothers was deeply reassuring: ‘You know more than you think you do!’ In contrast to previous child care ‘experts’, who argued that children should be taught to eat at scheduled times and be trained through ‘tough love’, Dr Spock encouraged parents to pick up their crying infants and hug them and give them what they wanted.

But parenting had nothing to do with my encounter with Dr Spock, one early summer’s evening in Trinity Term 1970, at the Oxford Union. The hottest political issue of the day was the Vietnam War and Dr Spock was one of its most articulate opponents. Two years earlier, he had been one of four prominent critics of the conflict to be singled out for prosecution by the US Attorney General, Ramsey Clark, on charges of conspiracy to aid draft resisters. So he was greeted as a hero by the predominantly left-wing Oxford University students of the time that balmy evening when he came to speak at the Union.

Dr Spco bookHe looked the antithesis of a radical, so clearly East Coast Ivy League, in his Brooks Brothers suit and elegant shirt with detachable collar. Though almost 67 years old, he was super fit, a testimony to his time as an Olympic sportsman (at the Paris Olympics in 1924 his men’s rowing eight won a gold medal for the United States). As the Union President Stephen Milligan – who was also Chairman of the Oxford University Conservative Association – looked on with furrowed brow, Dr Spock had us undergraduates cheering to the rafters as he blasted US imperialism and decried the suffering of the Vietnamese people.

His speech resonated deeply with me, as the previous year, before going up to Oxford, I had been a cub reporter in Vietnam, freelancing for the Manchester Evening News and the Geographical Magazine, so I had seen the napalming of civilians and the defoliation of that verdant land with my own eyes. I thus had no hesitation in bounding up to Dr Spock like an eager puppy at the end of the meeting to let him know. Instantly we were in deep conversation; he had the skill some politicians have of making one feel singularly important while they are talking to you.

Stephen Milligan, who had been hovering on the side in his white tie and evening dress, then astonished me by asking Dr Spock – by this time joined by his wife, Jane Cheney Spock – if he would forgive him if he disappeared to revise for his Finals. I piped up that I would happily look after the Spocks, enabling Stephen to rush off relieved. Though not expected to get a first by his PPE tutor at Magdalen, he was intensely ambitious. It was such a shame that his later political career, after successfully getting elected as the Conservative MP for Eastleigh, was prematurely cut short when an auto-erotic adventure misfired and he was found dead dressed only in stockings and suspenders, with an electric flex round his neck, a piece of orange in his mouth and a black bin-liner over his head.

Back to the Spocks. There was no question of my taking them to my rooms at St Edmund Hall, as there was no water in my building (mercifully demolished soon after) and in a fit of nostalgia for eastern living on the floor I had removed the legs from all the furniture. But fortunately a friend who was with me, the post-graduate social anthropology student Kaori O’Connor, suggested we all go to her comfortable ground floor room in a house in North Oxford. I suspect Kaori’s exotic beauty – a heady mix of Hawaiian Japanese, Irish and Native American – was a major reason Dr Spock agreed.

Vietnam WarAt Kaori’s lodgings we talked long into the night about Vietnam and about the eating and social habits of the Pacific islanders who were our hostess’s academic speciality. Mrs Spock, who had previously been overshadowed by her husband, now came into her own and I was fascinated to learn that she was herself a prominent civil liberties advocate and academic researcher. In fact, she had done much of the research for and writing of The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, though her husband got all the credit. So I was not especially surprised when I read some years later that they had divorced.

By then Dr Spock’s reputation had taken a hammering. A popular conservative American preacher by the name of Norman Vincent Peale, who was a supporter of the US attempt to thwart the so-called domino effect of Communism spreading through South East Asia, blamed the anti-War movement, hippydom and youth’s desire for instant gratification on the laxity engendered in the generation that had been babies raised along the guidelines set down by Dr Spock. Vice-President Spiro Agnew added his ten cents worth by declaring that Dr Spock was personally responsible for the permissive society.

In 1994, at the age of 91, in a new book called Rebuilding American Family Values, Dr Spock was still trying to refute his critics, maintaining that he had always advised parents to give their children firm, clear leadership and to ask for cooperation and politeness in return. Conservatives hated him for his political activism, not for his child psychology, he argued. However, I fear he did no favour to his reputation when he recommended shortly before his death in 1998, in a new edition of his original book, that children should be fed a purely vegan diet from the age of two. I wonder if I would have had such a positive impression of him if I had been fed on lentils since infancy.

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We Mustn’t Take Peace for Granted

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 12th April, 2014

Battle of the SommeIn this centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War many minds have been turning to the issues of war and peace, and when I make speeches at hustings or rallies in the current European election campaign I always make the point that the founding fathers of what is now the European Union wanted to enmesh the economies of France and Germany (in particular) so that war in western Europe would be unthinkable. And so it appears. But it is all too easy for us today to take that for granted. As a child of the 1950s, I was very much aware of the legacy of the Second World War — the bomb sites, the drab unpainted unrestored buildings, the dreary food and the tail-end of rationing — but I was too young to see National Service. So it was perhaps a little perverse of me to go off to war voluntarily at the age of 18 — as a journalist in Vietnam. What I saw there burned into my heart a hatred for war and for all the human emotions connected with it. I attended my first Quaker meeting there, and joined the Society of Friends when I went up to Oxford. And although Reuters sent me off to comfortable Brussels when I joined the news agency after university, the lure of conflict zones was too great, and relaunched as a freelance commentator and broadcaster I covered a whole range of bloody situations, from Israel/Palestine to Central America and Angola. That was not because I revelled in the suffering. Quite the contrary. But I believed passionately that it needed to be reported, so people might learn that humanity should develop ways of resolving differences and rivalries more constructively. I still feel that today, as Vladimir Putin seems intent on infiltrating deeper into eastern Ukraine, alarming not just Kiev but several other of Russia’s neighbours. In the recent Clegg versus Farage EU IN/OUT debates in Britain, Nick Clegg stressed the importance of Britain’s EU membership for jobs — and of course that is true. But I shall also carry on talking about something that is not just related to the economy or livelihoods: the EU — enlarged a decade ago to take in formerly Communist states of central and eastern Europe — is a brilliant example of how to do things differently, about how to live togeter in peace, celebrating diversity. Fall back on nationalism, as Nigel Farage and some of his more unsavoury counterparts on the Continent would like us to do, will only lead to renewed tensions between peoples and, yes, the reappearance of the spectre of war.

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