Thursday, August 13, 2009

WAR. What is It Good For?

Absolutely nothing.

Which is exactly why you should head on over to the Virginia Historical Society for their 3-part show on Vietnam. Soul Soldiers: African Americans and the Vietnam Era; Marking Time: Voyage to Vietnam; and Vietnam War POWs all provide a fascinating look at a war that shaped a generation and a much-needed black perspective on it all.

Start with the film of present-day interviews with Vietnam vets reflecting on how they got to Vietnam and what they experienced. Then be sure to notice those same men's uniforms, boots, canteens, draft orders, pictures and letters home displayed throughout. One guy was caught in a stolen car back in the 60s and given a choice of jail or the military and opted for the latter. That's a draft board of a different era, for sure.

Some of the journals and letters home were heartbreaking, evoking the fear of very young men (most were around 19) as they headed into an unknown future. The bunk graffiti of the men aboard the huge ships that took them to Vietnam mixed poignancy with bravado. Some of them were going to kill the Cong and others just wanted to remember the girlfriends and families they left behind. Almost all included their hometown along with their names on the canvas bunks above them.

Because music was such an integral part of the war experience, the exhibit includes multiple headphone setups and many songs that evoke the era (Edwin Starr's "War," Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On" and many others). I'd forgotten just how many recording artists acknowledged their anti-war feelings in song. I learned that after Hendrix's electrifying version of the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock, his music was banned by the military. Truly, it was a very different world back then.

The best reasons to make sure you see these exhibits is because they are so interesting in a personal sort of way. Should you need extra incentive, the VHS is foregoing admission charges through the end of August, so it won't cost you anything. And whether you have vague memories of that tumultuous time (as I did) or weren't even born yet, (like my companion), you're sure to come away with a new understanding of the Vietnam experience.

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