Image Union, episode 0417

Part of the Global Perspectives on War and Peace Collection. "Cause I've Already Been To Hell" by Marianne Hjertstrand and Birgitta Karlstrom. This film focuses on the difficulty Vietnam veterans have had dealing with the psychological impact of their tour of duty. The tape is structured mainly around footage of a roomful of veterans discussing their experiences with each other, cutting to other interviews with veterans at times, or having them narrate the stories behind gruesome war photographs. It was filmed in New York in May 1981.

0:16Copy video clip URL Image Union opening. Voiceover introduces the tape, explaining, “It’s been almost six years since American forces pulled out of Vietnam. In our country’s consciousness, the war is over. But not so for many Vietnam vets.”

1:03Copy video clip URL A group of Vietnam veterans is sitting around a table discussing their experiences. Tom O’Hearn: “It all goes back to Vietnam, you know. I’ll be sitting in a bar and not thinking about Vietnam, somebody’ll put it on a jukebox and [snaps fingers] it blows my whole evening.” Nick Pascucci: “Everything goes back to Vietnam, it goes back to the war, it goes back to our involvement.” These veterans explain their frustration that their experience was so different from that of WWII vets. John Smerley: “In the second World War, it was accepted by the general public that under certain circumstances, yes, it was moral to kill. And we get to Vietnam, and they say, it is not moral to kill. However, we’re going to send you there anyway.”

2:43Copy video clip URL A veteran relates a story of killing a Vietnamese woman who had been approaching with hand grenades, an action that saved his and his comrades’ lives, yet still haunts him.

3:53Copy video clip URL Former lieutenant Alan Schefels relates his shame at feeling excited by combat. “One of the things that was really strange was that one of the times I was in combat, I really enjoyed it. I mean, I thought it was really fucking exciting… The village was being hit and I happened to be, at that point, protected… But I was like, really turned on.”

5:39Copy video clip URL Robert Santos: “On the one hand, the best part was finding out that you could do things you never knew you could do. And the worst part was finding out that you did things that you never thought you would.”

7:30Copy video clip URL Psychiatrist and veteran Arthur Blank explains that in Vietnam, there were extremely high levels of gruesome mutilation of human bodies, and that these events have been much harder psychologically for veterans to get over than things like close calls.

8:41Copy video clip URL Schefels relates a story of being obliged, as an officer, to attend a party hosted by the wife of a colonel who was living in Saigon. He describes the incredibly surreal and offensive experience of coming out of a war zone to eat hors d’oeuvres and socialize. “I couldn’t fuckin’ believe it – this guy’s havin’ a party in Saigon.” Smerley responds with anger, “This is really a microcosm of how the entire society works. Because while we were in Vietnam, fighting this war, and our blood was being put on the line, and our lives were being put on the line, the American public was sitting back, drinking cocktails and partying, saying, [uses dainty voice] ‘War is basically immoral. We shouldn’t fight in Vietnam.’ But they were collecting and reaping the benefits of the experience we were laying our lives down with. We came home, we were not given employment, we were not given human dignity, we were given no respect, and to this day we have not been incorporated as part of the society for which we fought. We’ve become the new niggers of America.”

10:22Copy video clip URL Arthur Blank: “I think America could help Vietnam veterans by reexamining the war. And letting it in, and facing up to it, if you will.”

11:26Copy video clip URL Over a photograph of a dead North Vietnamese soldier, a veteran describes his death, and explains the habit his company had of leaving tags on the dead bodies to send threatening messages to those who would find them. “We did that on our own, just to let them know that we will kill you to survive.”

12:44Copy video clip URL Tom O’Hearn describes his attempts to return to normalcy after his return. He goes on a double date, and his date slips out early in the evening. “Finally, it got down to the bottom line: she was afraid of me. I said, ‘Wow. She was afraid of me?’ But I was categorized as ‘a killer.'” He says that the attitude was that Vietnam vets were immoral and crazy.

14:23Copy video clip URL Nick Pascucci: “You just cannot involve yourself in a war without losing something and going through a very painful process… And the bitch of it all is that we carry most of it, because it falls on very unsympathetic people, who they themselves can’t seem to find the capacity to share, to cry, to see just how sad it is.”

15:06Copy video clip URL Matthew Rabel, former USMC paralyzed from the waist down. “I dream. I recall. I’m living it… I want to be an individual. I want to be a contributing individual back in society.”

16:02Copy video clip URL Arthur Blank: “I have only bumped in to two people – this is over a period of about a decade – who really seriously wanted to hear about my experiences in Vietnam. One was my wife and the other was a woman who lives down the street who felt, I think, connected to the experience because of her own family connections to the Holocaust in World War II… I did have one friend, just a couple of years ago, who began to ask me about it. And I started to tell her. And after a few minutes, she asked me to stop.”

17:00Copy video clip URL From what appears to be a lower income New York City neighborhood, Angel Almedino describes having his war experience totally ignored by his community. “There’s a lot of priorities here – people were broke, people were hungry, at that time, you know, they were roughing it. So it’s like a lot of people didn’t even realize I had been gone that long… The guys went and you’re supposed to go, and you come back, and you’re supposed to fit right in. You’re just supposed to. That’s the way we operate, you know… It took me a lot of years to even discuss it. I just didn’t. They didn’t talk about it, I didn’t talk about it.”

17:55Copy video clip URL Blank describes the traditional healing process that soldiers go through in dealing with their war experiences. The process of accepting the fact that one is a murderer is a painful one, but it is helped by the fact that society welcomes the soldiers and venerates them as heroes, and listens to their stories. In the case of Vietnam, however, this process was subverted as the community rejected and isolated returning soldiers. “The whole normal and healthy structure which a person can build in post-war to counter the effects and experiences of the war didn’t happen.”

19:51Copy video clip URL Irwin Parson, veteran and psychologist: “I think that the single variable that is most crucial is whether or not the soldier or soldiers have forgiveness. It seems like a very small word, it seems almost magical or whatever to say ‘forgiveness.’ It doesn’t seem to make much sense. But even though most Americans didn’t put the Vietnam veterans down, they were also indifferent.”

20:47Copy video clip URL Blank: “Well, it’s not quite clear to me who has to forgive who. You know, I think a lot of Vietnam veterans justifiably blame people who – especially our leaders, for sending them there. And I think therefore, many of the Veterans have to forgive the country for creating the war.”

22:27Copy video clip URL Parson: “The country has lost a lot in this war. A lot of what we thought we were and we realized we weren’t, we’re not really that. We’re very ashamed of ourselves. Veterans are very ashamed of themselves. How could a country who is that ashamed of what they’ve done, and so guilty, help the veterans themselves?”

23:33Copy video clip URL John Smerley: “Whatever atrocities and inhumanities that happened in Vietnam – that did occur – were attributed to the American G.I. or the American veteran who fought there. And it’s the responsibility of the whole country, and it’s the responsibility the United States has never accepted. We’ve become a subculture within the society. We’ve simultaneously become the victims and the oppressors of the people that suffered in Vietnam. So we have a double-bladed sword to bear, in a sense.”

24:52Copy video clip URL Narrator sums up the current situations of each of the veterans in the film. End credits.

26:41Copy video clip URL Image Union closing.



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