Pulp Fiction and the Vietnam War

W.J. Astore

Growing up, I watched a lot of James Bond movies. That super-tough, super-sexy, British secret agent, played with such brilliance by Sean Connery, always seemed to have great fun as he saved the world from various dictators, terrorists, and megalomaniacs. I wanted an Aston Martin like Bond had in “Goldfinger,” tricked out with all the latest gizmos and gadgets provided by Q Branch. But more than anything I wanted Bond’s competence, his swagger, his ability to win the day while getting the girl as well. Such movies are harmless male fantasy flicks — or are they harmless?

While Ian Fleming was writing his “Bond” books and Sean Connery was breathing life and fire into the character, another sort of male fantasy was being promulgated and promoted in men’s adventure magazines with titles like “Stag” and “Man’s Life” and “Man’s World.” These pulp magazines appeared at a time when men’s masculinity was threatened (then again, when hasn’t masculinity been under threat?), in the 1950s and 1960s, a new nuclear age in which America seemed stuck behind the Soviet space program and stuck fighting wars (Korea, Vietnam) that ultimately proved unheroic and unwinnable.

It’s easy to dismiss such men’s magazines as a simplistic variety of pulp fiction, but we’d be wrong to do so, argues historian Greg Daddis in his new book, Pulp Vietnam: War and Gender in Cold War Men’s Adventure Magazines. Daddis is quite convincing in showing how this pulp fiction advanced a view of Western, and specifically American, chauvinism in which war served as an adventure, an opportunity to demonstrate the innate superiority of the American male over various foreign, often Asiatic, opponents, while getting the girl, of course, with the girl usually scantily clad and stereotyped as vulnerable and/or duplicitous and/or sexually available.

Daddis is careful to say that such magazines, with their often violent and sexist fantasies, didn’t drive or determine U.S. behavior in places like Vietnam. But they most certainly reflected and reinforced the idea of American martial superiority and the notion that foreigners, and specifically foreign women, were both inferior and exploitable. The book is well-produced and well-illustrated, including color plates of a representative sample of these magazines. “I’m not afraid of World War III,” “Castration of the American Male,” and “Beat it Sister, I’ve Got a War to Fight!” are a few of the article titles that caught my eye from these pulp covers.

For me, Daddis hits a homerun as he compares the harsh realities of the Vietnam War to the bizarre fantasies of these adventure magazines. If there were U.S. troops expecting lots of easy victories and easier women in ‘Nam, they quickly learned that pulp fiction had nothing to do with hard reality. In Daddis’ words:

In the macho pulps, brave warriors had fought for honor, for their comrades, for a sense of triumph. In Vietnam, GIs simply wanted to leave the fighting behind … The gaps between truth and fiction seemed insurmountable.

The undiscovered adventure thus generated a lingering sense of anxiety that Vietnam might not be the man-making experience as publicized in the macho pulps. The modern battlefield engendered a sense of helplessness, not heroism …

[M]ore than a few discouraged American soldiers in Vietnam took advantage of wartime opportunities to behave aggressively toward the very people they were there to protect … the pulps played an outsized role in contributing to a portrait of a manly warrior, conquering enemy forces in alien, savage lands, and, frequently, the women who resided there as well. For the men who were schooled by the Cold War pulps, actual experiences in Vietnam proved nothing like what they expected from stories of adventure and domination … [A] climate of deep frustration … might have contributed to violence against Vietnamese people in general and women in particular. After all, had not the macho pulps for years been promising them the sexual rewards of an exotic Orient?

Daddis, pp. 172-73

I’d wager that most men recognized the fantastic elements of the pulps — even laughing at some of the more outrageous stories and exaggerated illustrations. But on some level fantasy has a way of informing the reality that we construct out of the cultural material that surrounds us. Sure, I know I’m not James Bond, and I know that real spy work isn’t an adventure-filled romp as in a Bond flick like “Thunderball.” But I still prefer a martini that’s been shaken, not stirred.

The fiction sold by these men’s adventure magazines glorified war and the warrior even as it marginalized and stereotyped and demeaned foreigners of various sorts. Read enough of this stuff (or watch enough Bond flicks) and you’re bound to be influenced by them. Daddis is to be congratulated for writing a highly original study that sheds new light on why Americans fight the way they do, and for what reasons, fictions, and compulsions.

48 thoughts on “Pulp Fiction and the Vietnam War

  1. Books? Books? We don’t need to steeenking……

    Have you seen any of the promos for the newest sort of video games? These cost a bunch of money to develop and to buy, yet they are selling as are the electric gizzies that make them run. Very life-like with more killing and derring-do than Stallone ever fantasized. And all that shooting and killing is done with great realism except for the part that those being killed actually get to shoot back. These for the “new” American male?

    Really?

    Too bad we can’t teach these “new American Males” how to put down the game controller and do something real and productive with their pitiful little lives other than live in a flat screen fantasy world.

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        1. Well, I’d say that’s a factor! But the real problem is the decay of what “gray matter” they may have been born with. It’s the same mindset–if one may even associate “mind” with this crowd–that makes people susceptible to swallowing conspiracy theories or thinking that Trump was ever qualified to be POTUS.

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  2. Thanks for bringing this book to our attention. I’m sure I don’t “have the stomach” to wade thru it! I will just note the following: both Philip Caputo (author of “A Rumor of War”) and Karl Marlantes (author of “Matterhorn”) admit that part of their motivation to become Infantry officers in Vietnam was to “test their manhood” in combat. Okay, so the people of VN only existed for that purpose, gentlemen, to provide you with that opportunity? I take both these guys severely to task for this in my own memoir. Additional comment: when researching book titles on Amazon related to that war, I found a large number of self-glorifying tales penned by (alleged) combat VN veterans, many with a large number of glowing online reviews (like in the hundreds). So clearly there is an audience for fantasy efforts to rewrite how that despicable, utterly unjustified war went down.

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  3. We need more jobs for the “new American male.” Perhaps some retreat into fantasy because reality is so grim for them. We need a revival of the CCC and a renewed emphasis on rebuilding America. Bring the troops home and put motivated and healthy young men and women to work on restoring democracy in the US of A.

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    1. The young people do have jobs. They are called influencers. But even adults can be influencers, such as Anne Applebaum who had that title at the Integrity Initiative.

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    2. I’m not sure a new version of CCC would “restore democracy,” but there can be no doubt that much work would be provided trying to repair the damage done by the devastating fires out West of past few years, etc. POTUS-elect Biden makes the occasional “friendly noises” toward environmental issues, but I see no reason to have any “faith” in something significant actually getting done. Especially, as I’ve been forced to repeatedly point out, if action requires majority approval by US Senate. Needless to say, the immediate focus of incoming admin. is going to be getting the Covid vaccine distributed. The more the global environment declines, the more nasty new “bugs” are liable to suddenly emerge. This is simply one of the effects predicted by scientists years ago when the Climate Crisis started being taken seriously–in SOME quarters, at least. Has the jumping-to-humans event even been pinpointed yet? Bats and pangolins were key suspects, but I haven’t heard anything remotely definitive having been determined. And now it’s reported Snow Leopards, highly endangered, beautiful creatures, are contracting Covid. Very, very sad.

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      1. I have been a proponent of universal national service for decades. Children over 18 can take their pick of Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines or some sort of civilian service program, such as the National Teacher Corps of which I was a part, for four years. Either right after high school or right after college, their choice. One thing that would accomplish would be that the participants would at least learn one thing that they knew they didn’t want to do again. That’s more than the average high school or college student knows now when they graduate and it makes more sense than just wandering around and later bitching because the “good jobs” just aren’t there for them.

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        1. I concur Roger was just thinking that this morn over my Sunday Brunch I was very lucky indeed. Was pointed to the Air Force by an Older Friend, Future Brother Firefighter, and lastly Future “brother- in law”– who sadly is no longer with us. And.., it proved to be the best 4 Years of my Life, and better than any 4 yr. Degree!!! When Overseas in Portugal -Azores my fellow Air Base MP’s from Portugal were doing a Compulsory 2 Yr. Service, and didn’t seem to mind other than the meager pay compared to ours! I’d give them our American Cigarettes. The Portuguese ones were inferior. They could keep their long hair & beards kinda “Che Guevara” like. Great mems. Want to return someday!

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          1. I was a part of The National Teacher Corps and as such had a student deferment the two years I was in graduate school. Then after those two years President Johnson identified us as critical resources and would be granted an occupational deferment if we wished to remain the under-served areas where we had spent the previous two years. I had two job offers and was quite happy working with the disadvantaged, but the political climate in city hall wasn’t in favor of changing the educational system for the disadvantaged. Finally I couldn’t quite figure out why some of my eighth grade students who were going to turn 17 as they entered high school, should be drafted if I a white guy from the other side of the tracks could get deferred. I ended up turning down my occupational deferment and joined the Air Force. Further, I also volunteered for Vietnam, ended up in Thailand where I was a weapons controller. After that I spent ten years in the Air National Guard and deployed to many different places around the world. I am enormously pleased that I was a volunteer and performed duty that at the time, my government said was in the best interest of my nation. In the end, I learned far more from my service than I could ever have imagined while contemplating how I might not have to serve at all . I thus believe that the opportunity for our youth to learn about at least one thing they might not want to do ever again, OR perhaps finding out something about themselves and their experience that they can be grateful for, is an enormously valuable kind of “higher education.”

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  4. We could not actually win the War in Vietnam. Hollywood came up with a variety of “Heroes” to win it for us. Those POWs that were left behind and had to be rescued. You can always depend upon Hollywood to come up with the Enemy of Day. The original Manchurian Candidate had devious Orientals corrupting minds. Bond had the Russkies. After Vietnam we went back to devious cruel Orientals holding onto our POWs.

    Tom Clancy had his superhero Jack Ryan and all that B.S.

    The message to this Vietnam Combat Infantry Vet was clear- We were not Heroic enough, We were not Mission Orientated or Centered enough or what ever euphemism is today’s slogan.

    I recall some young three piece suit with a “panel of experts” pushing Bush the Younger’s Gulf War 2 on CNN or MSDNC before we attacked. Young three piece suit from some think tank said the New Volunteer military would not be troubled by hippie thinking draftees or words to that effect. Our new Army and Marines were professionals, not us draftee rabble.

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    1. ML–Glad you brought up “The Manchurian Candidate”! Upon first viewing it (many years after its theatrical debut) I hated the simply ludicrous “brainwashing” sequences. Only relatively recently did I come to understand that the movie is socio-political satire, the novel having been written by Richard Condon, who also wrote “Emperor of America.” I only read the latter within past year or so, and purchased the novel, which still awaits my attention. I now own the DVD of John Frankenheimer’s 1962 film. The “brainwashing” sequences are STILL ludicrous to me, but I wanted to point out that there are Russians working alongside the “ChiComs” to do that dastardly deed of creating a “sleeper assassin.” Chinese-USSR relations were already getting chilly after 1959, I believe, and by 1969 Mao cut China loose from Moscow’s attempts at control. And in no time, Nixon was in Beijing, laying groundwork for China taking over so much of manufacturing. Gee, thanks, Dick!!

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  5. Fantasy has great appeal and a big part of it is vicariously experiencing power in full comfort and safety.

    What I note is not the male roles in particular but the almost universal role of guns. I used to ride the Chicago subway daily and on the walls were promo posters for countless movies. It was remarkable how frequently a gun was the most prominent item on display, often pointing out at the viewer greatly enlarged while the guy holding the gun was in the background, small by comparison. The gun was never listed in the credits but obviously was given star status.

    Guns are a cinematic obsession. Think of how often in movies there are sequences starring a gun with details like snapping together the parts of a rifle or pistol, the camera carefully showing each part, before a crime. Sci-Fi pictures feature exotic guns of the future such as the one used by Matt Damon in Elysium.On old TV shows we had The Rifleman, we had Steve McQueen with a kind of sawed off rifle he had in a holster. The leading character was distinguished by the weapon of choice. We even had the movie Winchester ’73. with a gun title! Movies, TV and now video games, with entire galleries of guns from which to choose, follow the course. BTW, I’m a big video game fan, but find the FPS (first person shooter) variety boring.

    It’s an American thing and I’ve always thought gun possession for other than hunting is a symptom of insecurity in more than the sense of feeling threatened by crime, particularly when crime stats don’t support the fantastic increase in firearms purchases. Why do Americans in particular feel this inadequacy, this lack of personal power that makes one want to buy lethal power one can hold in the hand or seek satisfaction from seeing gun mayhem on screens big and little? Masses flocking to violent movies and masses buying guns are not unrelated. There is a craving, a need not being met that drives people. It’s a rat in the skull that makes me wonder where it came from and how can it be exorcised.

    Does anyone recall the movie Forbidden Planet? A very advanced alien race, the Krell, had disappeared from its home planet. The cause? “Monsters of the ID” (as with Freud, not I.D.), creatures imagined in their own minds turned on them, an enemy within the head that, because of that, for all their advanced technology, they were helpless to overcome.

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    1. What problem do you have with target shooting? That’s all I do with guns – entirely with an older 10 meter target air rifle for quite a while now. I don’t want to kill anything, just put round holes in paper to the best of my ability. How does that make me insecure? Here in Canada self-defense isn’t even considered to be a legitimate primary reason for owning a firearm in the first place.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Here in the USA, we have to confront the fact that we’re powerless. We have no voice. Our politicians spend our money in accordance with the dictates of their owners and donors. Many people are one paycheck away from eviction …

      In this powerless state, guns promise power. Safety. Security. And only for a few hundred dollars.

      Meanwhile, as you say, we see guns everywhere. They are totems. A fetish. Or they are normalized. So people want them without even thinking about their ability to take life. Why not buy a gun, they figure. You never know.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. But do we HAVE TO be “powerless”? Is it not interesting that it’s only extreme rightwingers who dredge up remarks by some of the Founding Fathers that “government should fear the people, not the other way around”?? Once upon a time, the peasants and urban workers of France felt powerless, too. The elites of the time pushed them to the brink, and the underclass fought back. In early 20th Century, who would dare challenge Czar Nicholas II, who had the total blessing of Mother Church? Yes, Christ stood with the monarchy, the people were assured. But things changed. The course of these revolutions after the revolts I’m conjuring here are another story. It’s fighting against oppression that I’m concerned with.

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    3. Yes, Clif “Forbidden Planet” a Classic based on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” For me a Former MP, and Firefighter who once had a large Gun Cabinet filled with all manner of handguns, rifles, and even Compound Bows before my Children came along to squelch this Hobby I can only speak for myself. They held a powerful attraction, and I must say bordering on love for lack of a better word. To open your Cabinet, clean, rub with Hoppe’s #9 Gun Oil & break down the assemblies… I saw this as well with other Collector’s, and thought it funny. I also enjoyed the blasts, the shooting Events & competition of Skeet & Trap shooting. And even got into the mock Battle reenactments Revolutionary War with Flintlocks even Cannons a former Father In Law had. Marching also on 4th. of July, Shooting & Lead Pot Casting the bullets @ the Firehouse & home Re-loading. Once in a Shooting competition I finished second place to an Old Lady who was a Modern day “Annie Oakley”with her Flintlock…lol So it can be a lot of fun– if your head is in the right place with good common sense!

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      1. Yes, just as no bottle of booze ever grew legs and walked over to an alcoholic and forced itself on that person, no weapon ever forced a human being to pick it up and use it in an unjustifiable manner. The disposition to do these things has to pre-exist. Marketing encourages alcohol consumption (with the mandated plea to drink “responsibly”!), and weapons are marketed as well in a society pre-disposed to accept violence in everyday life, at home and abroad. “American Exceptionalism,” you know?

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    4. Very cogent remarks, CLIF9710, and I saw them on anniversary of the massacre at an elementary school here, perpetrated by a son of privilege who’d apparently been holed up in mother’s basement for months, playing video games. I quit watching any prime-time TV “dramas” literally decades ago, only patronizing select sitcoms. But from the promo clips I was seeing on broadcast TV, it seemed like corpses, especially of attractive women, were just as prominent as images of firearms being brandished or discharged in these messages. Ditto for “teasers” for feature motion pictures, of course. Why does the American male feel emasculated? Because when the Boss Man was shipping our industrial jobs to China and other low-wage environments, Joe Six-Pack stood by, whining “Nothing I can do! (Pass me another Schlitz.)” This is the fruit of the obliteration of class consciousness, of the very notion of fighting back! It’s so much easier to channel your rage at “foreigners” in general, especially those trying to enter US at its southern border, than to take on your own boss. As exploited by Trumpism….Thanks for mentioning one of my all-time fave movies. Still love “Forbidden Planet,” despite some silly self-contradictions, e.g. why does a spacecraft that can exceed the speed of light still carry an old-school cook (other than for comic relief)? (Why the crew is all-white is another issue, of course.) Why are the crew so astonished by Robby the Robot? At any rate, the issue with the Krell was that almost unlimited power to assert their individual wills via technology unleashed previously suppressed petty jealousies against their fellows.

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    5. I should add that fascination with power is a very common thing in boys. Blowing things up, setting fire to and melting down plastic model ships and airplanes, making a flamethrower out of a lighter and a can of spray paint, playing cowboys and indians (back in the day) with pop-guns if possible, with sticks for rifles if not. These are all things I did with my buddies for power experienced relatively harmlessly but with intensity. One of our favorite activities was to employ a local hill for battles. Those running up the hill would pretend to be hit by fire from those on top of the hill with air rifles. Dramatic falls based on seeing guys get shot in movies were the standard we aimed at.

      What caused it all to lose any appeal for me with adulthood was gaining personal power in non-violent ways. This is the key to avoiding frustration and the feeling of helplessness. I came to be able to fully express myself in speech and writing. I realized I had power instantly at my command in the ability to know what to say and how to say it. It became clear to me that the pen is truly more powerful than the sword and that I could put up a personal defense to any assault.

      Applying this to the population generally tells me that too many people are left stranded in the childhood phase, not achieving a sense of personal power that one hopes to find in adulthood. In the days of big industry, one could take satisfaction even in simple skills and productivity. But industry moved out leaving people at a loss for a sense of personal power from a job.

      I think the real tragedy of the rush for personal firearms truly is American: that one can purchase personal power with an object. We see people, mostly male, striving to personalize a gun with all the attachments available at gun shows, a move to find identity with an object unlike those of others, when the only real solution to the problem of personal power is to actually possess within yourself what nobody else can have; real identity. What is missing and longed for is for one to be able to receive acknowledgement from others that you are something, someone like no one else, not as a result of owning anything external. That is the only way to peace of mind.

      Our consumer culture is based on the opposite of this, telling us that we CAN buy identity with stuff. In our modern sense of powerlessness, we’ve lunged for that, for what our true national religion preaches, and it doesn’t fill the void though it does provide profits. We’ve come to the point of alignment between the preaching of fear and the siren song of materialism. Arm up.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Then just the other day I saw a supposed funny Skit on SNL that just left me disgusted and sick inside. If you saw it you’ll know what I mean. A Parody on Conspicuous Consumption. A Husband & Dad buys a New Lexus with the Giant Bow like the Mass TV Commercials, and on presenting the “Present” to Wife & Son I believe gets dressed down for not having held a Job for the last couple of years even Pre- Covid, and this was supposed to be funny…!

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  6. William…
    Here’s a touching tribute to your inspiration that I saw today. It’s interesting to find out his favorite character part was near the reads end.
    I enjoyed hearing Jackie Stewart tell stories about one of my inspirations, and his close friend The Beatle George during the Scorsese tribute, Living In The Material World. Jackie Stewart is a gentle soul and his heartfelt nature comes through once again in this piece as he says so long to a dear friend.

    https://www.theguardian.com/film/2020/dec/13/sean-connery-remembered-by-jackie-stewart?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

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      1. “Sidney Lumet’s The Hill [from 1965], his favourite film in which he’d acted. It’s not well known, but he’s brilliant in it, playing a soldier in a north African army prison.“ Jackie Stewart

        When I read this it jumped off the page and I sat with this idea for a while. It seems difficult to insert oneself into that position of life; being captured by an oppositional force that lives to wake every dawn and break down your being. My imagination cannot construct the situation appropriately so that those forces come to strike my understanding with the same brutal negating impacts of that real life horror. But, I still wondered about how Sean prepared himself for this role and where he took himself to try and “know” that experience, so he could make his art appear real. To cherish the film and his contribution in it had to be a profoundly educational/meaningful period for him. It makes me wonder why a force so strong as war exists; it obviously shapes the participants with a masterclass in life’s lessons.
        One last idea came to me about being a prisoner of war. I got a sense that this is possibly the space where our beliefs about war are in this land of our people. Our desire to live without war is held in a stockade; and every day we wake up and walk out into the yard, that understanding is being broken down by the powerful monied elites who have captured the military media structures of messaging insuring insults will be hurled at that yearning inside for peaceful negotiation. Just prisoners in a forever war society, guarded by our captured countrymen’s less than independent thought processes. Some Freedom!

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        1. Well put! I hadn’t thought of this in quite that way. We are all, in a sense, prisoners of war in the USA. And it’s so very difficult to break out from this.

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    1. The peaceful production of weapons of mass destruction goes right along with the crazy notion a war economy for national prosperity and giving our country a reason for being.
      Dylan asks a question in the song
      Masters of War… it’s a line that should be asked of those who create war as a necessary part for our nation’s existence…
      Is Your Money That Good?

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    2. I’ve used this passage in the past:

      Another interesting passage I came across this week appears in Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity (1980). The main female character in that book, a Canadian economist by the name of Marie, muses about the men she’s encountered in government employ, at the highest and most secretive levels:

      Oh, God, she loathed them all! Mindless, stupid men. Playing with the lives of other men, knowing so little, thinking they knew so much.

      They had not listened! They never listened until it was too late, and then only with stern forbearance and strong reminders of what might have been—had things been as they were perceived to be, which they were not. The corruption came from blindness, the lies from obstinacy and embarrassment. Do not embarrass the powerful; the napalm said it all.

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    3. I really enjoyed reading this transcript. Especially the portion of his essay“ The United States Of America Has Gone Mad
      Thanks for sharing, he’s a powerful soul and I must admit he was unknown to me. I was so busy in my life that I was never able to watch movies or read many books. So this is going to be a treat playing catch up.

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  7. Written on the occasion of President George W. Bush finally making the trip to Vietnam on November 17, 2006, decades after a better American woman, Jane Fonda, made the trip in his place. Three-and-a-half years into his own Vietnam-style debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan — disasters that he would bequeath to his successor two years later — Dubya the Dimwit proved to the world that what he didn’t learn about America in Vietnam he [and as of 2020, his serial successors] wouldn’t learn about America in the Middle East, either.

    Hanoi Haiku

    In Hanoi at last
    Red-carpet in return for
    Our carpet-bombing

    The words no one heard,
    Due so many years after:
    “We apologize”

    Deputy Dubya
    Sheriff Cheney’s Barney Fife
    Lost in Mayberry

    Gullible Goofy
    The boy who cried Wolfowitz
    Far too many times

    Emerald City
    Naked ruler’s brand new clothes
    Viewed through glasses green

    Mission Accomplished!
    A cakewalk in its last throes
    Now a glacier race

    Four Years an “instant”
    Nothing happens right away
    What did you expect?

    Broken-egg omelets
    George Orwell’s Catastrophic
    Gradualism

    Shop till the troops drop
    Buy a plane ticket or two
    Your part in the “war”

    Rob the future now
    They will never break our will
    Those grandkids of ours

    Lecture the victors
    About their First and Second
    Indochina Wars

    Where did we get him?
    How come we can’t do better?
    We look so stupid

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2006

    Liked by 1 person

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