2017-10-19 13:52:03
Art Review: The American Vietnam War Is in the Spotlight, Again

For the people who live it, history is personal. And if you live it intensely, you feel you own it, or it owns you. A lot of Americans still feel that way about the Vietnam War years. No matter how removed you were from actual combat, if the war consumed your attention, shaped your emotions, and dictated your actions, you were in the middle of it.

That’s where the word-and-object jammed exhibition called “The Vietnam War: 1945-1975” at the New-York Historical Society puts you. From the minute you walk in, you’re surrounded.

I was an antiwar undergraduate in the late 1960s, marching and mood-swinging like many others. In my final year, my dorm roommate, who had become my partner, registered with the draft board as a conscientious objector, a peace-believer. He endured a grilling, held his own, and was told to find alternative service. He got a job in a community hospital and I took a job in the same hospital. We worked there together for two years, living in an apartment close by. We had neither a telephone nor a television. We wanted to shut out the political noise, the daily explosions.

The exhibition, basically, is that noise, and early on comes an image of explosion: an oil painting called “Atom Bomb Hits New York City” by the science fiction illustrator Chesley Bonestell (1888-1986). The picture, of a flaming mushroom cloud dwarfing Manhattan, was commissioned for a 1950 Collier’s magazine cover headlined “Hiroshima, U.S.A.” It’s a reminder that the American war in Vietnam was, among other things, a product of Cold War paranoia.

In 1945, the United States had opened a window onto the realities of one-shot mass destruction when it bombed Hiroshima. In 1949, the former Soviet Union, an ally turned rival, tested a bomb of its own, and in the same year, Communist revolutionaries, led by Mao Zedong, took control of mainland China. Fear of Communism, the ideological Other, brought the American presence to Korea the year that the Collier’s issue hit the stands, and four years later to Vietnam, where French colonials were terminally losing ground to an independence-seeking resident population.

In contrast to the recent, stately, hourslong PBS series “The Vietnam War” by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, the exhibition delivers its historical data, and a lot of it, quick-and-dirty, through labels, film clips, audio bytes and objects, some of which fall under a broad definition of art. In addition to paintings (three by Bonestell, and one each by the contemporary Vietnamese artist Dinh Thi Tham Poong and the veteran Tran Huu Chat), there are graffiti-style drawings on helmets, bedding and Zippo lighters, and an attic’s worth of period design in the form of album covers, posters, G.I. Joe dolls, and uniforms, from jungle fatigues to a denim jacket armored with protest buttons.

Words and images work together in a pair of large murals by Matt Huynh, commissioned for the occasion and labeled “Home Front” and “War Front.” Installed in the galleries, and available as brochure handouts (a keeper of a historical cheat sheet), they detail, in more or less chronological order, the war’s primary issues and events as played out in two crucial years, 1966 and 1967.

The “Home Front” gives paragraph-long descriptions of domestic developments, from epical public protests for and against the “Living Room War” — so called because of its ubiquitous presence on network television — to the almost furtive return of traumatized veterans. The “War Front” maps the sites of major battles and catalogs military maneuvers (surveillance, bombing, “village pacification”).

It also describes the damning coolness of state-of-the-art weaponry like the defoliant Agent Orange, which sends “toxic chemicals to unintended spots, including populated areas.” And napalm: “The villagers flee or try to hide. A plane drops canisters of napalm — a thickened fluid designed to stick to skin — that incinerates everything in the vicinity.” You got that information from the PBS series too, but in the gallery you can linger over it, reread the words, let them sink in.

And in labels accompanying the murals are oral-history quotations, from the words of marchers in the Support Our Men in Vietnam Parade (“Pacifists are Commie Rats”) to Stokely Carmichael’s famous indictment of the war in colonialist terms, as “the white man sending the black man to make war on the yellow man to defend the land he stole from the red man.” What’s missing almost entirely are Vietnamese voices.

This is the old story of a war that was never not, from a Western ideological perspective, a colonialist enterprise. A few New York exhibitions in the recent past have tried to shift the balance. “Another Vietnam: Pictures of the War From the Other Side” at the International Center of Photography in 2002, a collaboration with the National Geographic Society, was one. “Persistent Vestiges: Drawing From the American-Vietnam War” at the Drawing Center in 2005 was another.

In addition, individual artists like Tiffany Chung and Dinh Q. Lê, both born in Vietnam during the war, have given nuanced views of a period in which, by some estimates, up to 2 million Vietnamese civilians on both sides died, and more than a million North Vietnamese soldiers and Vietcong fighters. Beyond these exceptions, though, the historical view in our part of the world remains pretty much what it was when the war was actually in progress: on what America experienced, and suffered, and felt.

Obviously, this is not a small subject. The show’s curator, Marci Reaven, vice president for history exhibitions at the New-York Historical Society, is careful to bring many facets of it into the light. American racial and class divisions, generational rifts, a national culture of violence and a degree of governmental mendacity too crass to be ignored were all contributing factors to the country’s on-the-edge view of the war.

It’s impossible to locate a single, tipping point event that irreversibly discredited the enterprise. But one was surely the appearance of the June 27, 1969, issue of Life magazine carrying the cover headline “The Faces of the American Dead in Vietnam: One Week’s Toll.” Inside was a 10-page foldout of high school yearbook-style portraits, each annotated with date and place of birth, of 242 American soldiers who had died in the war from May 28 to June 3 of that year.

The issue is on display in the show, fully spread out. When it arrived that June a collective cry went up. I still remember the sound, or the sense of it: accusatory and anguished. Why did the magazine wait so long to do this? What right did it have to do it at all? By then, my partner had been preparing his case for the draft board. His time to present it would come soon.

He died in 1993. As I went through the show, I wondered what he would have thought of it in the bellicose, Neo-Cold War American present. My own first reaction was a pull of nostalgia: We once lived with that song, that poster, that look. But the pull was brief. What cut it short were the statistics recorded in murals: the tonnage of chemical destruction delivered; the count of Americans dead; the incomprehensibly higher count of “enemy” dead; the count of lies leaders told.

The show leaves you at Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, a great work of art, and a total heartbreaker. As of last spring, there were more than 58,000 American names inscribed on its surface. It’s not only a military grave-marker though. It is, by default, a memorial to a generation’s thinking, to a belief in alternative everything, including alternative service as a valorous way of life. Seen in that expanded view, many more names could be added to the ones already there.