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Nobody Gets Off the Bus:
The Viet Nam Generation Big Book

Volume 5 Number 1-4
March 1994



Texts made available by the Sixties Project, are generally copyrighted by the Author or by Viet Nam Generation, Inc., all rights reserved. These texts may be used, printed, and archived in accordance with the Fair Use provisions of U.S. Copyright law. These texts may not be archived, printed, or redistributed in any form for a fee, without the consent of the copyright holder. This notice must accompany any redistribution of the text. A few of the texts we publish are in the public domain. For information on a specific text, contact Kalí Tal. The Sixties Project, sponsored by Viet Nam Generation Inc. and the Institute of Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, is dedicated to using electronic resources to provide routes of collaboration and make available primary and secondary sources for researchers, students, teachers, writers and librarians interested in the 1960s.



White Cong and Black Clap:
The Ambient Truth of Vietnam War Legendry, Part II

John Baky, Director, Connelly Library, LaSalle University

4. Finally, a cluster of legends center around the apparent periodic sightings of renegade GI's (usually low-ranking NCO's or, for some reason, a captain -and, inexplicably, always blond.) The renegade GI turned stealthy enemy, sometimes referred to as "White Cong" is one of the most resilient stories to survive the war. In fact, this particular cluster of narratives I happened to have witnessed firsthand in 1970 in northern I Corps. Both then and now, the White Cong legends are quite various and in their variety robustly inventive. For example, there are variants of the deserter story that posit the White Cong or "Yankee VC" to be a Special Forces nco who is blond and when caught, would be further identifiable by the brilliance of his war record before he ever turned his coat. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now prisms this legend as well. In another variant related by Lydia Fish on the Vietnam War Interest Group over the Internet in February 1992, she says that the most elaborate version she has ever heard is about an entire Special Forces A-Team that goes over to the enemy -- Since it is racially mixed, it is known as the salt and pepper team. Dr. Fish explains parenthetically that this is not a new story since she had recently been told (by a Chris Feola) of a version from the Philippine War, where the deserter-turned-headhunter is recognized by the presence of his West Point Class ring. Additionally, I have heard related a "Yankee Cong" variant centered in the Mekong Delta area of IV Corps to the effect that there was a black NCO who was canceling medevacs as an act of treason in support of the VC. He was alleged to have shown up at Can Tho Army Airfield. The word was that the gate guards were actually checking IDs at one point to see if they could come up with some one who had an expired ID. (Ed Hagen, the teller of this version, says "I do remember having my ID checked once or twice when I entered or left the air field.") In light of this particular version, it is fascinating if depressing to note that the damage perpetrated by this renegade is decidedly cowardly in that it attacks the wounded, but the renegade in this rare reincarnation is a black soldier! Among others, the PFC Robert Garwood case provided what appeared to be ample scraps of truth around which the White Cong renegade could accrete with more than usual authority. Winston Groom and Duncan Spencer interrogate this mythic core extensively in Conversations with the Enemy They make a point of

"... the way that a minor character can easily assume a large, if one-dimensional, image without facts to deflate it, Garwood's name had become associated with one of the barracks-room myths of the Vietnam War, the man called `Super Charlie'...a figure of prodigious strength and even greater cunning, but more than these qualities, a depth of evil bordering on insanity. In a war in which each side completely misunderstood the other, the figure was that of a soldier, either crazed by battle, brainwashed, or simply perverse, who had abandoned the U.S. force and joined the Viet Cong and combined technology with jungle cunning. The central outrage was the soldier had abandoned not only his country and his ideology, but also his hemisphere and his race. In the triple-canopy jungle where trails were spiked with bamboo spears poisoned with feces... the legend stalked in his tire-made sandals, dressed in loose pajamas. He spoke in an American accent through a bullhorn telling the troops to throw down their arms because, like the jungle, the foe could not be overcome. Like all soldiers in defeat, whether a Waterloo or Happy Valley many grunts thought they had been betrayed in the jungles, and the turncoat who understood their minds and their manner of operating was the obvious culprit, if only to explain some often unusual success of the enemy the turncoat took on an almost religious significance as a scapegoat whereby all the losses and effort wasted, the cries and hopeless blood could be made right and fair." (pp. 317-318)

These White Cong stories are so rich in implication that they have persisted in much more elaborate renditions twenty years after the American pullout. Stephen Wright's 1983 novel Meditations in Green has the following vision: "`I see him, I've got one, I've got a gook over here" and all the glasses turned until someone said, `My God, I think he's white!" not even astonished yet because by now the legend of the American who lived in the bush and ran with Cong was part of the general folklore of the war and if you could get three days in grubby Da Nang for zapping a gook what must be the reward for bagging an out-and-out traitor? (p. 304) There is an entire feature film starring William Katt wherein he plays a deserter lieutenant, sought years later for incomprehensible reasons by a coalition of CIA agents, Khmer rouge thugs, and American political operatives. The title of this film is The White Ghost. Guess what color William Katt's hair is. And finally, do not forget, Tim O'Brien includes in The Things They Carried a chapter in which the grunt's girlfriend arrives in Vietnam and can be interpreted as, of all things, a female deserter.

Though I may be proved wrong eventually, I think that the most useful way to contextualize these legends generated by the Vietnam war is to perhaps view them in the sense that Ralph Ellison valorized the Blues: "The Blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one's aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism. As a form, the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of a personal catastrophe expressed lyrically. [Ellison 1964:77-78] If we accept the countless novels and films in which these legends recur as truly popular art forms, and I believe we should, then Leslie Fiedler was correct when he observed that they "... should express the repressed: especially the dark side of our ambivalence toward what any status quo demands we believe." Helicopters raining small tied bodies on an arid chemically blasted landscape, the "Beave" meeting his end in the ghastly snapping jaws of an Asian vagina dentata, and a drug-induced strain of venereal disease so vicious that a government would rather execute its victims in secret rather than fight the enemy itself. These are dark visions, indeed. These are the mechanisms that you will discover driving the hallucinatory guilt that in turn powers the legendary undercurrents so obviously in evidence in the novels, poems, film, and graphic art of the Vietnam war.

Image or narrative clusters that will be productive of other legends are:

  1. The dead foxhole buddy whose throat was slit (presumably by VC infiltrators) during the night - leaving the other occupant alive to feel the terror;
  2. Eating C-4 (plastic explosive) in order to get a drug high;Shark hunting over the South China Sea using smoke grenades and.45s from helicopters;
  3. Vietnamese civilians tossing infants over the perimeter wire of fire bases in order to gain a better life for the child or in trade for materiel;
  4. 5. "phantom bloopers."

This paper was originally given in conference at the 1992 Annual Conference of The Popular Culture Association, March 18-21, 1992, Louisville, Kentucky.

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