Tuesday, 15 March 2016


As discussed little while ago, I recently picked up the latest(?) posthumously assembled collection of never-before-seen (and previously-not-widely-seen) stuff by Charles Bukowski. Yet another volume for the collection.

Last time, I referred to The Bell Tolls for No One as a ragtag collection of short stories. But, having finally read the whole book now (I'm reading for pleasure much less often and much more slowly these days), I see that it's perhaps better to describe it as a mishmash of short pieces of writing.

Yes, of the various forms you will find between the covers of this collection, (familiar!) little stories grown from the kernels of real incidents in Bukowski's life are the most numerous. Yes, also well-represented here are small bits of dirty, ludicrous, fantastical fiction, each one realised over just a few pages: a factory worker shares an apartment with an ageing Adolph (sic) Hitler who is planning to populate the world with horrible creatures born of bathtub flatulence; a cop is kidnapped by a cast of grotesque, Rabelaisian and murderous criminals residing in a crumbling Hollywood mansion; in two separate but strikingly similar stories, mid-air havoc is wreaked by savage, perverted n'er-do-wells terrorising commercial flights.

But among all this fiction, we can discover think pieces that Bukowski contributed to underground newspapers such as Open City. Even in this context, the author tends towards anecdotes of a highly personal nature rather than towards pronouncing on the important and popularly discussed issues of the time.

But in the pages of The Bell Tolls for No One we do find one example of a form that Bukowski almost never used, namely straight socio-political commentary conveying a definite set of opinions presented plainly and unambiguously. This appears as the first part of a 1973 L.A. Free Press column, which does soon revert to something closer to one of the author's usual preferred forms, in this case a first person account of a friend telling a surreal yarn. But for a page-and-a-half, Bukowski writes about the then highly topical issue of American prisoners of war left behind in Vietnam:
The POW propaganda plant is still grinding against all sensibilities. We lost the war, got our asses kicked out by starving men and women half our size. We couldn't bomb, con or beg them into submission so we got out and while getting out, somebody had to come up with a smokescreen to make the populace forget we got our asses kicked. Let's build the POW angle, they said, and so it began. Bob Hope became concerned about the POWs; his wartime Santa Claus kick had rather petered out in the last two trips. The word was out and the act was in. The arrival of the first POWs was put on tv. Here came the plane in. And we waited and waited and the plane taxied and taxied. You never saw a plane taxi that much in any airport at any time in the world. The cameras waited and they bled it to death. Then out came the first grand POW and patriotism was back. 
These words written in the early 1970s took me back to the mid-1980s and to the first time I had any notion of a war in Vietnam having taken place. I was in my mid teens. Paul Hardcastle's 19 hit the  top of pop charts here in Britain and in many other countries. I clearly recall that several of our broadsheet newspapers took this as a cue to run Sunday supplement pieces on the Vietnam War. Up to then, then, I had been only dimly aware of this war. Fair enough. After all, the conflict had spluttered to its untidy conclusion when I was just five years old. I don't remember my parents speaking about it and it certainly hadn't been covered as part of the history curriculum at school. 

Something about the madness, the pointlessness and ugliness of America's ill-fated adventure in Indochina caught my adolescent imagination. So I went on to watch the movies Apocalypse Now and Platoon and the TV series Tour of Duty with morbid interest. Little by little, it dawned on me that all of these works of fiction seemed to be presenting Americans (if not America) as (the) victims of this war. Little by little, it occurred to me to wonder why the suffering and the deaths of Vietnamese combatants and civilians is passed over so lightly in these films and TV shows. Were they not victims too? If you really want to get into it, didn't the people of Vietnam suffer rather more badly than the fighting men of the USA? 

In those movies and TV series we see American conscripts and professional soldiers broken, brutalised and horrified by the things they see and do. We see American families and communities traumatised by grief for their dead or by the psychological and physical damage sustained by returning veterans. So we should, because, undeniably, tours of duty in Vietnam did ruin the minds and bodies of many American men. Men of modest means, on the whole, of course. Men whose families did not have the connections and wealth enjoyed by the parents of draft-dodgers such as Donald Trump, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Karl Rove and Dick Cheney.

In those movies we see American men dying in battle too, of course. So we should, because around 60,000 US service personnel lost their lives during the Vietnam War. 

Big numbers, yes. Horrible things, definitely. Big, bitter divisions in American society. So of course it's a big deal. Of course movies and TV dramas have explored this American suffering. But are these really big numbers when set side-by-side with a tally of dead and wounded Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian people? No. Decidedly not. Because between 400,000 and 900,000 North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong personnel died in the war. Around 250,000 members of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (America's allies) were killed. Civilian deaths? Estimates vary wildly, but most seem to place the number at well over 1.5 million.

In this context, wouldn't a truly compassionate account of the Vietnam War focus to some degree on the suffering of the Vietnamese people as well as on the miseries of American servicemen? But I think about those movies and TV shows. As far as I recall, the makers of these fictional accounts of the war make no meaningful attempt to convey the scale of the horror visited upon the people of Vietnam and neighbouring countries. This makes it hard not to form the impression that Hollywood doesn't give a fuck about dead foreign civilians.

I am not alone in arriving at this conclusion. In a 2012 article which asks a wider question about why Americans ignore the civilians killed in "American wars", John Tirman notes that "the lack of concern about those who die in U.S. wars is... shown by these civilians' absence, in large part, from our films, novels and documentaries" and that "the entertainment industry portrays these wars... almost always with a focus on Americans."

For my own part, I believe I am capable of sustaining a compassionate response to the plight of the Vietnamese dead and wounded and to the tribulations of conscripted men from poor neighbourhoods across America. I'd certainly welcome a novel, movie or TV drama on the theme of the Vietnam war which invites and allows me to experience both feelings at once. But I do understand why others might consider the existing Hollywood and TV treatments of the Vietnam war and grow weary of being expected to sympathise only with the battered and blooded GIs. It was with this in mind that I read on as as Bukowski continued with his reaction to the return of American POWs:
A POW is a man who went to war knowingly, knowing he might kill or be killed, capture of be captured, maim or be maimed. These is no special quality of heroism in this. There are few real patriots anymore, there have been too many useless wars and they have come too fast.
Most American men of war age merely took a gamble; they figured by going that the odds against them actually getting killed were high. By going and returning, whether they believed in the war or not, they would still retain their decent citizen status and be able to return to their women and their jobs and their homes and their baseball games, their new cars. By refusing they faced imprisonment and/or hiding.
Most weighed it all and considered that going to war was the easier way, especially those with college educations and ROTC training who were able to fly above the muck and blood, only pushing buttons. That some of them became POWs was just tough shit of the spinning of the wheel and they know it better than anybody. And if they are given a free fuck now or a free automobile or applause or a good  job, they're going to take that too.
The other night at the Olympic Auditorium boxing matches, a former POW was introduced and he got up into the ring and was given a standing ovation. I once had an almost-admiration for boxing fans. I now see them in a different magenta lavender brownsmear hue... 

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