Volume 5 Number 1-4
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White Cong and Black Clap:
The Ambient Truth of Vietnam War Legendry, Part I
John Baky, Director, Connelly Library, LaSalle University
Not knowing me, people often attribute to the Vietnam war my startling array of grotesque facial tics, simian wheezes, and tedious prony\ts about the literary aethestics of the sucking chest wound. These people, silently nodding to one another, cluck knowingly: "My, my, it's a damn crime how poor Baky has suffered such trauma from that evil war. Good God, what must he have witnessed? Isn't it fortunate, though, that he can deflect his psychosis into something so socially useful as collecting primary resources for the scholarly examination of others." People who do know me, however, understand that in fact the precise inducement of my richly varied neurosis is not actually anything that occurred in Vietnam, but rather the decidedly postwar exposure I have had to the very act of collecting Vietnam war-related material. An act that has turned toxic that which used to be therapeutic.
Those of you who have examined the Imaginative Representations of the Vietnam War Collection at LaSalle University will expect that, sooner or later, a Curator of such a Collection must be irreparably damaged by unshielded exposure to such artifacts as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial kitchen wall clock (for a slightly greater price, available with wee chips of the original WALL's granite inlaid in the clock's face); a five-foot-by-two-foot clear plastic holding device into which the owner is meant to insert enormous replicas of his military ribbons and then suspend the entire shimmering contraption from his front porch or roof; a colorful board game, suitable for ages 6-14, that proclaims its selfless purpose to be "Making knowledge of the Vietnam War FUN for all ages." Remember, too, that all this stuff lies festering in just the non-bibliographical part of the Collection known as ephemera, or known to Rare Book Librarians and archivists as realia. On the other hand, the printed material that forms the much larger core of this Collection has itself achieved a level of toxicity that ought to justify the display of "biohazard" warnings at the entrance to the vault in which the whole throbbing mass silently dwells.
Now, having once again exploited this forum and your kind attentions shamelessly to drum up curiosity in this Collection, you may--between yawns--be wondering just what in hell any of it has to do with the "White Cong and Black Clap" of my announced title. Well, what it has to do with it is that both the sort of thing that is in this Collection, and is represented in the folklore of the Vietnam war, vividly illustrate the very valuable lesson that the public understands history according to what they already believe about it, rather than what they might know or are told through sober authority. That is to say, what many people "believe" about the Vietnam war can be far closer to folklore than it is to history or other documentary modes. And further, this tendency to selectively fabricate knowledge increases almost geometrically as each year advances past the original event. To anyone familiar with the nine-hundred-odd novels written in connection to the Vietnam war, it will come as no surprise that there are persistent narrative patterns that recur. I want to caution researchers how some of these patterns resemble something more akin to legend in their structure and origins than to either simple truth or reported fact.
The scores of undergraduate students, visiting scholars, and teaching colleagues who come to dredge the fictive record for muddied evidence are all eventually exposed to a number of "revealed" truths about the war; and, once in the presence of these recurrent tales, the researchers often as not ignore them or, inexplicably assuming that simple repetition bestows veracity, fail to interrogate further these recurrent tales/motifs. Otherwise sober authorities on the historical realities of the Vietnam War hesitate not a single minute before silently assenting to tales of GI's being spat upon (copiously and often) at any of ten different national airports; steely-eyed graduate students who would no more include an unverified footnote in their dissertation than admit to liking professional football accept the notion that some VC prostitutes carried on their trade while indulging the puckish frolic of lining their vaginas with sharp objects, usually thought to be razor blades. Or again, how many of you, during the course of reading some of the hundreds of novels about the war have glossed over the assertions of characters who swear that they know of an Army Jeep or large piece of lethal armament that eventually arose, piece by piece, in the garage of some one who simply mailed the pieces home over a year, reassembling them upon their arrival back on the block?
I want to make it clear that these ahistorical stories bear distinct narrative motifs that share in common the telltale folkloric characteristic of displaying a teller's "culturized" emotions, while collecting in one legend-like circumstance the sort of mythopoeic operations that allow people to discharge anxiety. These motifs are everywhere resident in the vast fiction of war, but they are seldom identified or analyzed as legends. The half-dozen narrative motifs here adumbrated represent legends that I believe embodied the adolescent angst, societal taboos, and the uncertain cultural remorse of tens of thousands of American soldiers (and their expectant families.) Even though I have not yet had a chance to make a systematic collation of the 19th-century motif indices (or Seth Thompson's work) in comparison to the Vietnam war legendry, I nevertheless sense that many of these "new" Vietnam war legends are curiously related to "urban legends," and are isolated from World War II legends. Eventually, I will be careful to present these legends as ones that can be clearly traced to their appropriate folkloric antecedents; and those that do not melt back into a recognizable traditional mainstream ought then to be treated as brief narrative revelations bobbing to the surface of the fearful broth of collective anxieties and cultural guilts imagined forth by the thousands of terrified men-children in whom the dread quietly fermented.
It may be no news to most of you that legendry is both result and process of a larger cultural determinant that has come to be called "folklore." Now the formal academic study of folklore has matured in tendentiousness to the point where accredited Ph.D.s are awarded in something near a score of universities. I point that out to ensure that neither folklore nor legendry are dismissed as intellectually remote, or as derivative, or irrelevant modes of explanation for complex cultural phenomena.
The question is, what does one learn from this category of cultural narrative. I hasten to point out at this juncture that this paper bears no pretensions to being authoritative about either the underlying theory of folklore or a praxis of legendry. In fact, it is important that I define what I am calling a legend in the first place. Refreshingly unlike more esoteric academic delimitations, a folklorist's definition of "legend" is pleasing in its consensus. Dr. Lydia Fish (SUNY-Buffalo), a professional folklorist often focused on the Vietnam war and known to many of you, gives clear voice to what a legend must be when she says it is simply a story told as true. As far as that folklorist is concerned, the historical accuracy of the narrative is "never of primary concern." Even a cursory review of the professional literature dealing with legend and its over-arching folkloric origins reveals repeatedly that a legend must be believed by the teller to have actually happened. That is the absolute extent of a legend's legitimacy. For the purposes of applying the concept of legendry to the fictive product of the Vietnam War, I believe a number of other simple characteristics must apply. The tale must: sound plausible; it must have at least part of its origins in oral transmission; it must exist in more than two variations; it must accommodate traditional themes; and it must lack any systematic means of authentication. This last requirement entails anonymity; and this sense of anonymity functions most evidently in the fact that legends are almost exclusively authenticated by what folklorists refer to as FOAF accounts (friend-of-a-friend), or authenticated by RIITP accounts (read-it-in-the-paper).
I must mention a strong caution here. Care should be taken not to confuse a legend with a rumor. A rumor is merely a sort of plotless unverified report. Rumors, for example, frequently assume the shape of so-called "celebrity legends" like the annoyingly persistent rumor that TV's Leave It To Beaver star Jerry Mathers was killed in combat in Vietnam. There are many of these celebrity-based conceits. As potentially gratifying as their "truth" might be, they are not to be confused with legends.
When addressing true legends, "Folklorists," Barre Toelken tells us, "accept that the ultimate sources of legends are long lost," (Dynamics of Folklore, 1979) so collecting all possible variations of a tale becomes imperative if the core meaning of a particular legend is to be posited. After all, very much like the much more elaborate metaphorical context of myth into which legends sometime fit, it is the concept of truth that is the real fruit of a legend rather any sort of historical data extracted from durable traditions. To return to the subject at hand, and in summary, it is my purpose to warn researchers stumbling around in the thickets of fictive Vietnam war writing that there are a number of recurrent discretely related narratives that are indeed legends. They are not anything else--regardless of how "truthish" they may have come to sound. When the researcher trips across one of these, set to lurk as lethal as a boobytrap, she must take care to draw attention to it, disable it through exposure to those who follow her, and--by all means, when she finishes her research foray--laugh like hell (in relief) with someone she has been able to warn about its once perilous power. I say laugh because, like many daily threats, these legends eventually reveal themselves to be preposterous, if not absurd, when they are actually uncovered and deconstructed.
Nonetheless, if encountered in the midst of a well-written narrative or heard from the lips of an otherwise truthful authority, these legends bear a deceptive degree of veracity both in how they are actually related and in their very richness of detail. Brazenly allusive sources, like putative eyewitnesses, can produce questionable evidence. From among the nine-hundred or so novels I have examined that deal in some way with the Vietnam war (and its aftermath), and from among the four hundred or so films similarly related to the war, I have so far identified about a dozen distinctly recurring tales or discrete sets of short rhetorical narratives that could be accepted as legends in the general parlance of the professional folklorist. These recurring tales share in common the characteristic that they are told as truth according to the narrator, that somewhere within the body of the tale is embedded one or more factual elements, and that each tale appears in more than two forms repeated across a long period of time during and after the event to which the tale refers.
A group of tales cluster around the belief that there developed among GI's a certain virulently drug-resistant strain of VD that was so lethal (and no doubt shamefully embarrassing to the armed forces) that its victims were routinely--though very stealthily--transferred to an unnamed island off the coast of South Vietnam. Upon this island the hapless GI would await excruciating death or miraculous pharmaceutical redemption, whichever arrived first. The island was known as Poulo Condore to the French and, in Vietnamese, Con Son Island. And, it turns out to be, incidentally, the very same island that harbored the infamous and all too real "Tiger Cages" cited by journalists, the military, the CIA, and the Government of South Vietnam itself. This cluster of narratives also bears legendary "data" such as the names assigned to this strain of VD, how it was treated, where it came from, and so on.
This cluster of anecdotes focuses on the ideologically suspect image of the routine ejections of rope-bound VC prisoners from the wide-open doors of American helicopters. The ceaseless repetition of this image in the films of the era has risen near to Gospel in its stature. With bound VC prisoners hurtling Earthward in mid-scream, booted gleefully from American choppers, we are given a twinned icon that achieves mythic power. This legend is reinvented so often that the sheer quantities of helicopters and rope would seem logistically much harder to get and keep than the correspondingly requisite numbers of poor prisoners. In fact, in an extraordinary case of logical absurdity, the film Off Limits actually has an American Colonel hurling himself out the door after tossing out three suspected VC.
Derives from the mythopoeic belief that returning GI's were routinely spat upon at some time during their repatriation to the USA. This particular round of tales has become so commonplace as to be treated reverently even among otherwise wisely observant veterans.
Old and persistent, valorizes the clandestine VC woman who, masquerading as a prostitute, heroically (and, I might add, miraculously) lines her vagina with sharp objects--usually thought to be razor blades--then engages GI's in intercourse, sometimes causing troublesome bleeding; and, following the act, disappearing silently into the local night.
The periodic sighting of renegade GI's (usually a low-ranking sergeant or, for some reason, a Captain--and, inexplicably, always blond) who run usually with VC units or sometimes with NVA main force elements.
Wherein the hyper-organized (and postally gifted) GI systematically dismantles Government equipment like M1A1 Jeeps and 105 mm howitzers then MAILS them home, piece by piece, until--mirabile visu --the item sits safe and functional in the GI's driveway back in Cleveland. And this legend derives, ironically, from GI's who used to complain that their franking privileges weren't worth much.
Since this paper is intended only as notes toward eventual systematic research, let us set aside these six sets of related tales and focus instead on just the four that I have seen ensnare researchers more often than the rest. Any scholar wishing to interrogate the origin and motives of these legends must take into account some of the following:
1. In the case of the "Black Clap," the shard of fact that must be present in order to qualify the tale as a true legend happens to be fairly easy to verify. Venereal disease was as common in Vietnam as in other wars. The difference, apparently, was the availability of broad-spectrum antibiotics. These multivalent drugs were used prophylactically by well-meaning Corpsmen in the ill-advised belief that they could prevent their buddies from passing on VD (particularly gonorrhea) to their stateside families simply by giving them one massive dose a day or two before the GI left Vietnam for home. Such injections of conscience proved ironically vengeful. Physicians specializing in infectious disease have long recognized the ability of disease agents to become virulently resistant to even the most powerful antibiotics if the antibiotics are administered in doses that allow the disease agent to build up a tolerance to the drug. That is exactly what happened; and after about 1970, select Asian strains of VD were extremely difficult to cure even when treated in isolation back in U.S. medical facilities. However, that certain of these languishing GIs were spirited away to an island to die alone and unmourned is a part of the legend that is lost in a cloud of tense anxiety. Still, it is not hard to imagine the degree of redemptive angst that might build up in the psyche of a nineteen-year old GI returning home to a nation that suggested to him that he was guilty just for being where he was in the first place. If he bought into such inventive shame it would seem quite fitting-- even logical--that a young man as morally infected as he obviously was would not only be incurable, but be made to suffer such vengeful horror in a jail-like setting in an alien nation. Keeping that in mind, we can then also envision another fairly late variant of this disease legend, the novel Meditations in Green written in 1983 by Stephen Wright witnesses that,
The privates were arguing about whose turn it was to have Number Three, apparently a girl of incredibly nimble fingers. Finally they decided to let her choose. Then they congratulated themselves on the easy availability of certified and inspected Grade A prime instead of village leftovers who all carried the Black Syph for which there was no known cure except an indefinite confinement in a military hospital on Okinawa until a treatment could be found and who were all VC sympathizer anyway with razor blades concealed up their snatches to mutilate imperialist pricks. (p. 123)
2. Persistent testimony to the revilement of returning GIs by spitting is the hardest of the legend-like tales to interrogate. In Bob Greene's 1989 book entitled Homecoming: when the soldiers returned from Vietnam it is possible to read the edited and selected results of what the syndicated journalist claims are one thousand letters written to him in response to his question "Were you spat upon when you returned from Vietnam?" What becomes very clear from these responses is that there seem to be about as many that deny the veracity of the spitting as confirm it. Characteristically, that is not what a legend tends to do concerning an issue. The compelling reality of Greene's hundreds of responses is that returning GIs felt spat upon by virtue of being pointedly ignored and verbally abused by large segments of the population. Marilyn Young, in her recentVietnam Wars: 1945-1990, notices this exact tendency in reaction to a population that simply did not know how to act toward its own collective children. Children who, as it turned out, were only exercising the deadly power bequeathed them by a bewildered myth-entangled polity. The vast majority of this "spitting" testimony that a researcher will encounter is of the Friend-of-a-Friend variety, but evident to a troubling degree are those who themselves claim to actually have been spat upon. Perhaps the delusion of spitting is caused more than anything else by the phenomenon of several veterans who have achieved national audiences becoming some of the very ones who testify to having been spat upon. Attributions from people such as Larry Heinemann and Linda Van Devanter may produce an effect that distorts memory through imagination. Such "distortions" of imagination are what, after all, drive fiction; and in any case, in the face of trauma, probably a useful affect anyway. It remains curious, however, that this most photogenic of public acts is almost never portrayed in the hundreds of films that otherwise carry Vietnam war images. That a public act so egregiously insulting, and an act so metaphorical of a society's inability to become redemptive would recur so often in novels and letters yet remain almost totally unvoiced in other narrative modes is inexplicable;
3. References to the razor-lined vagina are among the most varied and colorful to have come out of the war. This group of tales is the legendry that is least unique to the Vietnam war, at least in the context of oral tradition. The Vagina Dentata is a mythopoeic artifact as ancient as narrative itself, and its revision employing the grammar of Vietnam attests more to the variety of human imagination than it does to a correlation with a specific war as a unique historical event. Accounts told as true from one GI to another concerning the ubiquitous Vietnamese prostitute with a razor-lined vagina were extant for the duration of the war, and heard in every sector. That is a claim that probably could not be made for the provenance of many of the other legends we might consider. This one, however, was a show-stopper. One might wager safely on the power of this particular threat to gain the wide-eyed attention of a postpubescent male --talk about "just say no!" More to the point, though, the moral implication of GI's being injured in this ghastly way during the precise carnal act usually reserved for joyous rites of passage, is obviously a very fertile cluster of images for interpretation. Just placing the female agent in the role of avenging angel could be another entire paper. In his book The Dynamics of Folklore Barre Toelken points out, rightly I think, that "In the psychology of ethnic folklore, the majority group symbolizes its anxieties about minority groups by seeing them as sexual threats to `our' innocent males... The virtue is on our side, the aggression on theirs." (p. 273) If true, what is interesting in such a gloss is that the male GI's who were being mutilated in the bush (as it were), are in fact the minority, not the majority. Nearly ageless are related stories of the castrated boy representing a society's dark psychological hostilities. These ancient mutilation tales have similar ethnic bias resident in them:
"one of `our' innocent people has been mutilated by members of the locally feared minority group. One need not ever have heard of Freud to be aware that castration has been widely used as a symbol of taking power away from some one. We have stories in which other people's aggressions toward ourselves are described in terms of castration, and there are stories, legends, and even factual occurrences that detail how castration has been used in retaliation to such aggression." ( Toelken)
Moreover, I myself have examined photographs of 19th-century Caucasian cavalry found dead at the hands of Sioux warriors revealing undeniable sexual mutilation prominently displayed. Carol Burke speaks of a variant issue when, in her article about military cadence calls entitled "Marching to Vietnam," she locates an even older reference to similar sexual mutilations--albeit an inverted one--in a naval cadence call that goes
"The cabin boy, the cabin boy/ That naughty little nipper/ He lined his ass with shards of glass/ And circumcised the skipper."
At any rate, "we can assume from the records available in folklore that such an image as sexual mutilation may stand as a startling kind of tableau that can express for a close group the most horrible aspects of interracial strife. On a somewhat broader level, but related nonetheless, we noted that feared ethnic groups are often depicted as being `out to get us' sexually. (Toelken)"
Considering the events orchestrated almost operatically near the end of Full Metal Jacket when the small dark Asian woman becomes the lethal hunter of the young, "innocent," light-skinned American boys it is not hard to see how fear may be translated from one culture's myth system to another.