Give me an F

On the 17th of March 1968 a university undergraduate suddenly felt a sharp blow at the back of his head. He was standing with 25,000 other people in Grosvenor Square, London, where the American Embassy then was. He didn’t know where the blow came from but managed to get out of the main melee to one side of the square where he saw his girlfriend crying somewhat desperately.

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The demonstration had started good-naturedly in Trafalgar square. The undergraduate and most others did not believe that it would degenerate into violence with fifty people taken to hospital and many arrests.

The Vietnam War was now no longer such a faraway event: it was here – a rallying cry for the youth of Britain, indeed the world, to stand up against what it saw was an unjust, totally preposterous war – an absurdity summed up in that Cheer rag from Country Joe and the Fish’s second album which came out around the same time:

Give me a F! (F!)
Give me a U! (U!)
Give me a C! (C!)
Give me a K! (K!)
What’s that spell ? (FUCK)
What’s that spell ? (FUCK)
What’s that spell ? (FUCK)
What’s that spell ? (FUCK)
What’s that spell ? (FUCK)

Well, come on all of you, big strong men,
Uncle Sam needs your help again.
Yeah, he’s got himself in a terrible jam
Way down yonder in Vietnam
So put down your books and pick up a gun,
Gonna have a whole lotta fun.

And it’s one, two, three,
What are we fighting for ?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn,
Next stop is Vietnam;
And it’s five, six, seven,
Open up the pearly gates,
Well there ain’t no time to wonder why,
Whoopee! we’re all gonna die.

Well, come on generals, let’s move fast;
Your big chance has come at last.
Now you can go out and get those reds
‘Cause the only good commie is the one that’s dead
And you know that peace can only be won
When we’ve blown ’em all to kingdom come.

And it’s one, two, three,
What are we fighting for ?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn,
Next stop is Vietnam.
And it’s five, six, seven,
Open up the pearly gates,
Well there ain’t no time to wonder why
Whoopee! we’re all gonna die.

Yeah, come on Wall Street, don’t be slow,
Why man, this is war au-go-go
There’s plenty good money to be made
By supplying the Army with the tools of its trade,
Just hope and pray that if they drop the bomb,
They drop it on the Viet Cong.

And it’s one, two, three,
What are we fighting for ?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn,
Next stop is Vietnam;
And it’s five, six, seven,
Open up the pearly gates,
Well there ain’t no time to wonder why
Whoopee! we’re all gonna die.

Come on mothers throughout the land,
Pack your boys off to Vietnam.
Come on fathers, and don’t hesitate
To send your sons off before it’s too late.
You can be the first ones in your block
To have your boy come home in a box.

And it’s one, two, three
What are we fighting for ?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn,
Next stop is Vietnam.
And it’s five, six, seven,
Open up the pearly gates,
Well there ain’t no time to wonder why,
Whoopee! we’re all gonna die.

This morning, visiting Ho Chi Minh City’s “War Remnants museum” (renamed from “The American-Chinese atrocities museum” so as not to offend either American or Chinese sensibilities), that far-away event of the Grosvenor square “incident” came back to me like a flash for I was that undergraduate and that was my girlfriend who was crying.

I matured as a young man in the almost daily newsreels of events, battles, defeats, atrocities of the Vietnam War. Here I was visiting a place that described it, mainly, through photographs, it’s true but photographs of such a harrowing intensity that I, like every other visitor there, walked in an almost stunned silence.

The museum, ironically, is installed in the former American Information bureau, an opulent modern building typical of the glamorous Kennedy years filled with chrome and marble. On the ground floor there was an optimist display of posters painted by local colleges.

To one side of the door a victim of Agent Orange defoliant-toxins was curled in his wheel chair selling souvenirs. I went to the second floor where the historical section was.

In 1945 Vietnam was fully prepared for independence: the Japs had been thrown out; Ho Chi Minh had prepared an assembly fully ready to govern a new nation freed from both colonial and war occupation. But the French decided to regain “sovereignty” of their colonial “possessions”. And that’s where the epic struggle, which only ended in the liberation of Saigon in 1975, started.

I don’t need to repeat the too well-known story here: the Vietminh victories at Dien Bien Phu over the French, the escalation of the war under the US support of the south Vietnam puppet government, atrocities committed (by both sides, I should say, but largely by the Americans).

There was an exhibition of photographs from war correspondents, not just from the west but also from the Far East and Japan. Some of these correspondents had died on the job – first among them Capa from the USA.

There was a particularly frightening collection of photographs depicting the results of carpet-bombing with napalm and defoliation with Agent Orange: the mutant births resulting from these measures still continue to affect Vietnam today.

There was a section of war atrocities perpetrated on the citizens of Vietnam in the name of anti-communism and the “domino” theory.

Outside the repulsive tiger cells where prisoners from the Viet Cong were incarcerated in cages where they could neither stand up or lie down. And then was displayed that wonderful French machine of law and order – the guillotine – a scaled down version of the originals used in France since less weight was needed here to sever the Vietnamese neck of those condemned.

I took a gasp of air from this horrible relentlessness of mankind’s inhumanity in the surrounding gardens which themselves were filled with examples of military hardware, including the notorious Chinook, protagonist of such films as “Apocalypse Now”. Tanks, other helicopters, armored cars were also on display.

How could the greater part of my teenage life have been passed in the shadow of this most useless of wars described by the former American secretary of state McNamara as “a great mistake”?

Here and now I was in a country which had twice the number of bombs thrown on it as in the whole of Europe in World War Two, which had millions of its people killed, tortured, mutilated and thousands of square miles of its once-fertile land devastated forever. Yet the scooter park attendant, the lift attendant, the guide and the souvenir shop seller were free of any rancor, free of any regrets despite the fact that if not they then their immediate progenitors must have lived through one of  the worst hells the last century knew.

Let bygones be bygones – sure, but even in one’s own life those petty injuries which are but insignificant microbes seem difficult to forgive. So much more so in the case of the “American war”, so much more so in the heroic mind and honest perspective of all who died on the battlefields of Vietnam, whatever side they came from.

This surely is the resilience and deep belief of a people in themselves and in their rightful future.

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2 thoughts on “Give me an F

  1. Simply put man’s inhumanity to man there is really no excuse for this! This is why it is my belief that when we remember the atrocities of WWII Shoa it would be as well to remember each and every country from the past and also in more recent 20th and 21st Century unfolding of events will man ever learn? Certainly a depressing museum to visit this is one that I would have avoided visiting as I really do not like this War machinery after all Nature now is at war with us and it is dreadful really really scary so hopefully no more wars and yet…!

  2. My teenage years were filled with night news reports from Vietnam where Australian troops were sent to fight. My brother would have been in the next call up, but luckily conscription stopped in time. I think we would have hidden him somewhere rather than let him go to that hell hole. How can we do this to each other????

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