Uncorrected transcription from tapes
STONE tape 1,side B (this is the beginning of the interview))
Q. There's a question I had on your speech before the National Press Club on your own background. You first arrived in Vietnam in '65. You said that the First Infantry Division and the Marines were shooting off guns in Saigon. Were you speaking just rhetorically? As I understand it the Marines were only at Da Nang and Phu Bai in '65.
The Marines were in the north. The First Infantry Division was in the streets of Saigon in June. They were up near, I guess it was Bien Hoa, or An Loc. They were starting to make their base camps. The soldiers off duty were in the streets of Saigon. They were carrying weapons at that time. And there were several rowdy incidents that I witnessed.
Take American GIs, put them in a situation like -- for most of these kids it was the first time they were abroad, and they were wide-eyed and goggle-eyed about looking at these beautiful Vietnamese women in their Ao Dais, drinking Ban I Ba??, and beer. Ten o'clock rolls around at night and Tu Do Street got pretty hot and all the other streets that led into Tu Do Street. It was pretty wild, not only in Tu Do Street, but also in Chu Lon which was where I lived. There was a lot of billets around there and there was another area in Saigon which was popular. I would say it was a heavy-drinking town back in those days. And it had a certain glamor as a foreign capital in an old movie set, like Casablanca or something.
Q. But not repulsive to you? You were young at the time.
I was eighteen, going on nineteen. To me it was a great adventure.
Q. You were there in '67 again? You went on two tours?
I was a civilian in '65. A teacher in Saigon, taught at the Free Pacific Institute in Cho Lon. I was hired by a Taiwanese based Catholic organization which I've since heard had been involved with the CIA. I didn't realize it at the time. They were very strongly anti-communist and my job was teaching Chinese kids history, English, mathematics, general liberal arts curriculum in a Chinese school.
Q. You sound highly idealistic, like you would have gone into the Peace Corps. It sounds like a missionary job.
I was idealistic. I was also fascinated by Asia. I had read Conrad's book Lord Jim. The whole allure of the tropics and the east was very strong in my imagination. I wanted to get out of a certain east coast narrow perspective which I felt like I was raised in and I was destined to be an east coast socio-economic product coming out of Yale University. I didn't want that in my life. I wanted to broaden out. Which is why I went there originally.
Q. Oliver Wendell Holmes "Life is passion in action. It is the duty of every young man to involve himself in the passion . . . .
I remember that quote. I remember that very well. I remember it from that time period. My father gave me that quote too.
Q. So you went into the service. Then '67 you were in the platoon you wrote about?
I had a bunch of adventures in '65, stopped by VC on the road to Da Lat in the Central Highlands, but I spoke French and I was with other French so they treated me as a Frenchman. I was on the periphery of the war. It being from June to February, '65 to '66 it being the beginning of it all. It was quite an adventure. It was quite exciting. And I wanted to know more. I really felt like I had started to re-educate myself, to broaden my life experiences, but I hadn't gone far enough in '65-6 because of the nature of the civilian work that I was doing.
After teaching I went in the merchant marines there in Saigon and I worked around Saigon in several boats and I also went to Bangkok. Then I got another boat. I was working for several different shipping lines that had contracts with the Defense Department and they'd bring over material. But then there was a big logjam in the port in Saigon. Sometimes boats would be stuck down in Vung Tau for like three, four or five months before they could unload. It was a real logjam. And it was a crazy port, a lot of crazy incidents.
Q. Did you learn Vietnamese?
No, I didn't. I spoke French and I got along with a certain portion of the Vietnamese with French and English. They were starting to learn English. As a matter of fact, most of the Vietnamese I knew did.
Q. The "Can Do" guy, were you one before you actually went into the military or did you get disillusioned, lose your innocence before going into the military? What did you conclude about the way the people around you were living? It was a free country? Or not?
South Vietnam. I couldn't judge at that point in time. They seemed like a free people. I didn't realize at that point in time the degree of corruption that was inherent in the Diem regime and actually the South Vietnamese governing body that had ruled since 1946, that had come in with the French. Basically the colonial regime. Those people were really in control. I sensed the corruption at the highest levels. We all knew the Viets, the guys with the long fingernails were the bad guys, and we all knew that they would take bribes and we heard stories of very rich Vietnamese. So I think that was part of the allure, the "Casablanca" feeling, was the sense of corruption in Saigon. It was very evident. I was also a member of the racing, the tennis club, the Cercle Sportif. I was there in 1965 as a member, so I played tennis with a lot of these people. I got the feeling of what was going on. I was nineteen and as I said, I wasn't very sophisticated in the ways of the world. It was all new to me. But something was certainly seedy and corrupt at the top. There was a lot of fat cat South Vietnamese officers. I remember a lot of generals and a lot of colonels who were not in the field and they were living pretty high on the hog, playing tennis, etc.
At that point in time I didn't see the corruption. It's interesting. I thought that we were doing the right thing. I thought we were fighting communism. I thought the communists were the bad guys. I had been raised that way and as I said in my speech, my father had inculcated in my that.
Q. You ignored something that other people bring up, World War II movies. Hadn't they too had an important impact on you?
Q. Your movie is going to be in the minds of millions of kids for many years, but I wondered if you remember specifically things like Caputo remember John Wayne movies, and the way people died, gloriously, and the way people sacrificed themselves.
My father was in World War II and my grandfather was French soldier in World War I and was mustard gassed and had very serious wounds. He would tell me stories when I was a kid about war and stuff that certainly made an impression. And certainly the Wayne movies and also the Audie Murphy picture was very important in my background. Or Hemingway. I thought that war was the true test of manhood, that war was the divining rod, so to speak. I also knew that this would be THE war of my generation and I wanted to be part of it. I assumed that I would survive. There was a certain naivete there, I think. But I certainly went to that war in 1967 whole hog. I was college educated, dropped out of college. I could have avoided the draft very easily by staying in college, but I volunteered for the draft and I asked specifically to be sent to Vietnam. I didn't want to go to Korea, did not want to go to Germany. I didn't want to be in the Army, I just wanted to go see a war. This was my only way to get there except for journalists, which they wouldn't hire me to be, because I just didn't have the credentials.
I tried to be a journalist in '65. Before I went in the Merchant Marine I tried to get into UP and AP. As a matter of fact, I wrote an article, you just reminded me, that they published but they rewrote it, about my being almost arrested by the VC on the road to Da Lat.
Q. Were you associating with news men at that time?
A little bit.
Q. Did you have an early assessment of what they were saying, because your conclusion was coming out of your own eyewitness.
No. What's interesting was I really was not awake to what was really happening. The American newsmen did not really know in my opinion, what was going to happen. There were people like Malcolm Brown, guys like that. This was all new. They were out there photographing artillery and infantry and getting their rocks off. We were fighting a bunch of farmers. We were bullies. The odds were in our favor. There was no real sense of danger that we were really going to lose or get killed because we were the big guys. We were six feet tall, these farmers didn't look like serious . . .
Q. By November '65;, the NVA had come into the Ia Drang Valley.
That's right . ..
Q. The other side -- you seem almost solipsistic in the way you look at things. The other side is almost like Nature or something. When you talk about good guys and bad guys, you never seem to assess the other side. Some of the Vietnamese say you Americans are so naive, you see the world as a choice between good and bad. Having lived in Asia we see the choice as between bad and worse. I wondered if you had ever taken an assessment --or take a measure of the other side.
I didn't understand it at that point. I spoke French, my mother was French. I also got to know a few French newsmen who were, I think, a little more cynical about the chances of the U.S. to win than the U.S. newsmen that I bumped into.
Another image I have of '65, very vivid, was on Tu Do Street, seeing Teddy Kennedy on one of his junkets over there walking down Tu Do Street with his entourage, his people, he was all wide-eyed too. I don't think it crossed Teddy's mind that this was also going to be a disaster. I think he was kind of checking out the scene, but I think he was rather impressed with what he saw.
Q. Everyone has an image of some congressman coming in for their junket.
The other side-- I respect the NVA. They were great soldiers. They were very good. They fought -- I was in the Twenty-fifth. There were huge tunnels under. They fought a tremendous war. They fought against overwhelming air superiority and they beat us.
Q. But of course they were good soldiers in a bad cause. The German soldiers in Africa were wonderful soldiers. What I wonder about was the assessment of the cause.
This is all in retrospect. This did not come to me until 1970s when I did some reading into the Vietnam war and the roots, what happened in Vietnam. My assessment and I'll try to make it real quick-- is that Ho Chi Minh would have made a deal with the United States in 1946 or 47. Ho Chi Minh essentially was a nationalist and a patriot and cared about Vietnam. Whether he'd been to Moscow or not is not really relevant to the central issue of what he wanted. What he wanted was the country to be -- he loved his country. He was, I think in many ways, the George Washington of his country. I think that he wanted to make a deal with the States. We made a decision because of our cold war politics, at that time, in 1946 to support the French who wanted to get back into Indochina. I think that what happened --
Q. I'm agreeing with you a hundred percent on this. You obviously are quite aware of the English decision to let the French back into Saigon which seems to me to be the big decision that everything else came from.
It had a lot to do with it. I think that somewhere along the line, American interest dictated that there was suddenly a South and a North Vietnam, because the South Vietnam was basically locked up by the French. They couldn't lock up the North. That's what they fought for. But in my gut, I think that Vietnam is one country, always one country with different regions, but it was one country. It was called Vietnam. I think the South was totally artificial state constructed by the French and the Americans and supported and essentially corrupt. An authoritarian government. And Ho Chi Minh was the true custodian of the national interest. He had to fight and he fought well and I think he was pushed into a corner eventually by a set of circumstances.
Another thing that a lot of the people overlook about Vietnam is that there was a VC. We all automatically assume that it was all NVA troops, but there was a very strong VC through the war.
Q. But they say that in 1975 in no city was there a popular uprising to welcome troops going in. No internal thrust. It was the 16 Armored divisions that came in from the west and north.
That's true, but you have to look at it also from the -- first of all the countryside we don't know what their reaction was.
Q. People in DaNang, or Qui Non??? --
You're talking about the city people. Country people are the ones who suffered the most from the United States. They suffered from the North Vietnamese and from us. They certainly know what our bombs did and what our troops did. In the cities you had an under class that really benefited from the United States' economic prosperity and abundance that we were lavishing on Vietnam. In my speech I go into this enormous infrastructure that we built in South Vietnam which if you are going to do a book about it, you got to get to that point. That is what it is about.
Q. When we come to corruption, most of the Americans start talking about we outdid them all the way down the line, from buying military food to anything else. They said any American can outdo any Asian when it come to corruption. David Simmons screwed the South Vietnamese out of 4.25 million dollars in petroleum money in 1975. Nobody's ever found him. I found him right down here in Santa Ana. He was the American who brought petroleum for them and screwed them like nobody else possibly could. Nobody seems to know much about him. He went to prison for three years.
So many guys really made a lot of money on that. The First Sergeant -- I don't think they were the only ones doing it, but they were certainly very important. We saw it in the field to a very limited degree, the corruption going on. The top would never go out in the fucking bush. Number Two, the beer supplies were always somewhat siphoned off and somehow they always had the beer and I always felt like they were selling stuff on the side that was supposed to go to us. But that was small time shit. The big stuff was happening in the rear where we never got to, which was basically DaNang, PXes, electronic equipment that was being sold for the Vietnamese, tv sets, that's where the South Vietnamese prospered.
They loved us. I think the city people just loved us, the bourgeoisie class had to love us. We brought prosperity. We made this into Vegas, or Miami Beach.
Q. You see it as a corrupted prosperity?
This is speculation. I don't think it ever succeeded in bringing prosperity to a third world country. For some reason all the money somehow gets funneled into the wrong pockets. And it just doesn't seem to get down to where -- we poured all this money into Salvador since 1980, one point eight billion dollars, which makes it about the fourth or fifth largest recipient of U.S. military aid. You go to Salvador and it's a shithole. The people in the bush dying of diarrhea don't get any money. It goes into the government pockets. It goes into the same Salvadoran military pockets, guys who run AMCAL, the guys who run the Army, the guys who run the telecommunication companies. That's where the money vanishes, or most of it.
To me the Salvadorans -- I'm jumping ahead, but that's exactly the same number -- I completely disagree with Phil Caputo. I think that it's exactly the same situation and that the Salvadoran military class, as well as the Contras are the exact equivalent of the corrupt South Vietnamese establishment of the sixties.
Q. I've seen "Salvador", I think, three times now and I keep talking to people about it. I thought it was fabulous. I thought that James Wood deserved the Academy Award. Why wasn't that a commercial success in the theaters?
I don't think the American people want to see anything about Central America yet. I hope so, I'd like to make another one.
Q. You think it may be like "Go Tell the Spartans" which is being re-released? You think it may come back and be a hit?
Salvador did very well on video. That's why I think Woods got the nomination and I got one for writing too. Because it had a second life. We did very well, actually, in Los Angeles for some reason, because there is a lot of Salvadorans there. It's very big business here and in various enclaves, but the film was refused by so-called "majors".
Q. Did they say why? Did anybody ever come out and say why?
It was too radical a view of American policy. And it was basically stopped. An English company made the movie and they had to distribute it. They didn't have any money to distribute it, so they distributed it badly. But then, thank God for video. Video has in a sense given value to the film it would never have had. We did very wll abroad. We sold every country, practically, in the world. That's amazing.
Q. James Woods just surprised me when he was in the confessional, we sit and look at that and he's absolutely great. Tell me about coming out of the military then. I assume you were mustered out. You were not an officer? You didn't go to OCS?
They offered it to me. I wanted to go to Vietnam as quickly as possible.
Q. Did you make sergeant?
No, I got only the Spec 4. Which is E-4 or 5.
Q. The autobiographical nature of the film. Simply because most of the marines, many of them are ex-marines, very bright guys and concerned, they insisted that it's eclectic. You took experiences from individuals in many different units and put them in one unit in a sense to universalize, but they said that also distorts because it takes all the bad and puts it in one group of individuals who seem to have all the experiences that maybe twenty platoons might have had over the course of many years.
I was interviewed on that. What does Melville do in Moby Dick? He takes one whaling ship and makes it a microcosm of the universe. He probably took from all his whaling experiences and put it into one boat. I did the same. I was in four different platoons actually. I served in the 25th. I served as an auxiliary military policeman for a brief two months in Saigon. They moved me up to First Cav, long range recon where I met Aluppi Elias's character???. Then I had a fight with a top there. I was always in trouble with these first sergeants who I hated. And they moved me from there to the first squadron of the Ninth D Troop, First Cav. So I was in four different platoons. All those guys were based on people that I knew from where -- Barnes and Elias never served in the same platoon. Barnes never shot Elias, that was an extension of what I felt about the war, that the Americans had turned on the Americans. WE were morally divided, that it was a civil war, mentally, physically, between two Americans, basically the left and the right.
Q. Do you use any literary pieces also as patterns? I was thinking of All Quiet on the Western Front. Similar story.
On the broad sense, yes. I think I was a little closer to the Iliad which I had read at school. The Iliad being, the Greeks beat on the shores of Troy for ten years or whatever it was, and then the Greeks were fraught with dissension. Achilles wouldn't fight. Odysseus was pissed off. Ajax was pissed off. Agamemnon couldn't hold the troops together. It was always that sense of dissension and civil war. So if anything I think that was more the literary model.
Q. You thought what you were writing was unique? Or was it simply the retelling of a story. What was new? If you have been in the Pacific in the Second World War fighting against the Japanese, couldn't you have told almost exactly the same story with different characters?
World War II raises another point. I think it was a moral war. We had to fight it because we were -- there was the bully on the block theory and we had to defend the block. They were intending to seriously conquer the world. And I think the Japs were seriously trying to get back their economic sphere in the Pacific from us.
Q. How about Korea?
Korea was a cold war, much different. I don't know enough about it, but I always felt that it was much more complicated morally because I think that we set up a rabidly anti-communist regime in the south in 1945 and 6 again. We brought in an ex-war criminal, I mean an ex-Japanese collaborator who was very involved in massacres and stuff to run. And we brought in an old corrupt politician called Syngman Rhee. We did the same thing in South Korea we did in Vietnam. In a sense they were the same wars. They are very parallel. I'm not going to justify the north, because Stalin there was no question at that point in time really had a hard on for America and he wanted a balance of power. He wanted his share of the world. He was going to divide it up with us.
Q. Even after Stalin died there was the invasion of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, etc.
That goes back to the Russian principle of balance of power. The Russians are only doing what we do in our part of the world. They are maintaining their balance. All the right wingers always mention Hungary, but just a little footnote is that John Foster Dulles that priest of the cold war did play a significant role in inciting the Hungarians saying we would come to their support if they rebelled and he didn't. I think that should be pointed out.
Q. You never had a vision in your mature years of a world divided between light and darkness. After Stalin's death in '53 you don't see dark forces in the world. within each of us? Organized, repressive societies in the world. You have no fear of Soviets --
I think the Stalin era is over. I've always felt the Russians have an enormous amount of problems of their own. They are undergoing changes and although they may never to what Americans would like in terms of political democracy, because it's not in their genetic pattern, they do tend towards . . .
What I'm trying to say it the whole world is shrinking down into basically a nuclear bubble, a very small planet. Russian submarines are off the coast of Long Island, they're off the coast of California. They can blow us up as much as we can blow them up. I don't think the geopolitical factors from before World War II are still the same today. We truly are living in a nuclear world. And it's necessary for us to make a deal with the Soviets and I think if we made that deal, which seems to be doable now it would have an effect on all these places from Nicaragua to Afghanistan. But I am not naive about Soviet motives. I think the Russians have always wanted security. I think they value security above freedom. And I think most Americans are starting to too. And I think that's too bad for the sense of the world.
I think the Russians are age-old contenders for the balance of power. This sphere of power in Europe. They've always considered Hungary and Rumania as their sphere of influence historically. And we have considered South America and the Caribbean, and Cuba ours. And we've tried to extend that concept to Iran, Turkey, which are on the border of the Soviet Union.
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. . . superiority. And I that if our leaders could be a little more sympathetic to another viewpoint they could wear Russian socks and shoes and just be in the Russian position they could understand their enormous fear of the United States. We seem to have a geographical and I think nuclear superiority now. I'm not sure about the nuclear but I'm sensing it in the latest offering. So I can understand the Soviet attitude, the Soviet fear of Americans starting the war and wiping them out because we've always hated communism, religiously. We've always treated communism as if it was a religious war. I can understand where the Russians are real worried.
Q. After you had gone into the service and come out, to get the position you are at now, did you have a moment of epiphany as writers might call it? A moment of clarity of vision or does this come over you gradually?
I think it was gradual. I think it was a combination of factors. I think when I came back from the war I was very much against protesters of the war. I was very skeptical of the Jane Fondas, I thought we had to be patriotic. I came back numbed, in shock, and I really wasn't thinking about the consequences of the things we were doing over there. So I really didn't do much in terms of -- I just kept quiet and went to college, went back to college and I never really talked about the war for several years. Never went to a protest.
Q. All these people I talk to say the same story. Nobody wants to listen to them, and they forget about it for a time.
Q. You never had a burning interest to write about it at the time, to tell people, to share with friends.
I wrote about it. I wrote a couple or three plays, very surrealistic, early versions of Platoon, but they are very surrealistic. They never dealt with Vietnam in a realistic way. I wrote Platoon eight years after it was over. I did it suddenly.
I really didn't want to discuss the war. I hated vet groups. I didn't want anything to do with that kind of shit. I just wanted not to discuss it. Then in '76, I think there were several revelations along the way. I think the Pentagon Papers was very interesting and I think the Watergate scandal touched on various things that have haunted this country through what I call the secret history of the United States, which is evident today. I began to read more and began to wonder why, what this foreign policy was and how it had come about, because it had always been there from the beginning of my lifetime. I have always been in a cold war ever since I was a boy. Why must I live my life like this. I started to ask those type of questions.
Q. Do you remember watching the fall of South Vietnam on television?
Q. Do you remember your feelings. Repelled, moved, embarrassed? Or did you watch with detachment?
It seemed to me like it was a long drawn out farce at this point in time, because my feeling was in March '68 after Tet when Johnson didn't declare that we were not going to win the war, had no intention to win the war. That was very clear. It was Johnson's war and he wasn't running on it. It was over. The whole point -- the grunts got it right away. Grunts are very smart, because their lives are on the line. They have a second sense about this. I think they got the -- the message sort of was clear. Already the morale was weak.
When I first got there in September '67, every guy was counting the days. "I got three twenty left. I got eighty left." It was no sense of "We're going to win this fucker." But I'd say after March '68 it got worse in terms of people -- I started doing more dope and I noticed more people around doing dope. It was just like we didn't want to look for the fucking enemy. You'd be in the bush but you wouldn't go out of your way to look for them.
Q. Did you get the idea they are not going to let us win it, or just we are not going to win it? The Rambo one was, "They're not going to let us win it, not going to do what's necessary to win."
We could have won it. In many ways we were beating them. Tet was not such a military defeat that everybody makes it out to be. I don't subscribe to that theory. I think that they really bled themselves. As a matter of fact they didn't do too much except for Khe Sanh in the rest of '68, which is probably the reason I was able to get out safely at the end of '68. I didn't see much action after my second wound in January. I saw a little bit but nothing heavy like I had seen from September to January.
Q. Was the disillusionment with the strategy or a combination ?
The will was gone.
Q. We had the means but not the will.
Yeah. If anybody really wanted to win you would have tried to go for Hanoi, right? You would have sent Marines into Hanoi. They're crazy enough to do that. I'm not sure they would have won, but that would have been a significant fight, instead of fucking around in a defensive position. You got to take the offensive. You can't win defensively a war. I don't think Klauswitz would say that.
Q. When you talk about the "grunts", the grunts felt leashed and this is what demoralized them, or ?
No, they didn't want to go out. We were not RA. You got to keep in mind you are talking mostly about draftees here. They were not eager to go out and kill by any means. They just want to go right through. A lot of them, their attitude was Muhammad Ali's attitude, "I got no beef with the VC." That was pretty much the black guys, most of them didn't really have a beef. They didn't know what the hell they were doing there, except trying to avoid the field which was always important for a grunt. I'm not talking of marines here. The marines, the happiest guys you talked to were marines. You are talking to pit bull types, they're not sane people. Especially marine officers. You talk to Jimmy Webb, Ollie North, Phil Caputo, they're all a little crazy. They lost it somewhere in their heads. And you've certainly got to qualify your discussion by saying Marine officers are a different breed of animal. These guys are gung ho. They want to win. They believe we could have won. They're the Chuck Norrises and Sylvester Stallones of that war. They have learned nothing from that war.
James Webb learned absolutely nothing from that war. He saw the memorial, he said it was a piece of sh-- , said it was a disgrace. He saw Platoon, he said that was a disgrace. That man has learned nothing. I can tell he's learned nothing because he's the Undersecretary of Defense. Before that he was in the Reserve Affairs, I believe, and had a lot to do with the National Guard during the Honduras -- to prepare us for another Vietnam.
Q. Why did you want to write about that experience. What made you decide that you wanted to write about it? I assume you wanted to write about it for other people, not just yourself.
I think it was for myself. I don't think I had any great humanitarian impulses, just prevent another war. I don't think you do things for those reasons. I don't think the Peace Corps mentality works in either war or the arts. I don't believe in that. I think I wrote it because it was in me and I felt like it would be an honest piece of work that I could deliver. And I very much needed an honest piece of work at that point in my life. And to be honest with myself I was a little disappointed in some of the things that had happened in the eight years after the war. I was disappointed where I was at the age of 30. I felt like I wasn't going anywhere with my life. I just wanted to set the record -- just wanted one good piece of work before I forgot the war, because I knew I would forget, had started to forget. Even after eight years it was tough to remember many of the details. As Hemingway would have said, "One good piece of work about it." And I also wanted to use the war. I felt very used by the war and I wanted to use it back. I didn't want to get taken by the war, I wanted to make it work for me.
Q. Did that experience of going to Central America and having people who were there say, what are you talking about Vietnam? They had forgotten it. Did that motivate you? I don't remember the exact chronology, but did the fact that people didn't know anything about it also inspire you?
I wrote Platoon in 1976. I went to Central America in '85.
Q. I thought even the year of the Bicentennial people talked about how we forgot the past, what happened the year before.
In the 70s we were on a liberal bent. Essentially Nixon, even in spite of his real leanings, was sort of moving the country towards a more liberal foreign policy with the recognition of China. And we had Watergate, we had the Truth in Government thing, the CIA, the Church thing. I never thought we would go back to that 1960s cold war. I thought it was history. I said in my speech, I was amazed. I felt like we were on a progressive slant in American policy. But it all died with Carter and Iran and the hostages, and then we went back to this 1960s cold war mentality with Mr. Reagan, which we've had all through the 1980s. I'm stunned by the reversal.
On the other hand I've read enough history to know that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Q. I interviewed last week the last foreign minister of Laos, and he said that he thought what he called the "Vietnam generation" of Americans, people who had actually participated in the war and learned by it were now coming into power or positions of influence. And it sounded really good. But then all of a sudden, you would guess the individual he pointed out as being the architect of this Oliver North -- Oliver North obviously went through the Vietnam experience, came out and drew points diametrically opposed to your own. And I wondered if you can account for something like that. The lesson is, "we're never going to make those mistakes again". What did you feel when you see him show up in his uniform and be celebrated as a hero.
I feel disgusted and disillusioned with America. I feel that America is buying cheap heroics and cheap patriotism again. But I think nationalism and patriotism are the two greatest curses of mankind. And have been since god knows when in the dark ages. I think that he promotes the ignorance of the war. He's a war lover. He doesn't understand, and he didn't learn a thing from Vietnam. I qualify him in the same category as a pit bull, a creature of aggression, murder. To have this guy sitting in a uniform in Washington testifying as to how brave and how great he is, I keep wondering if only the American public could see a pregnant Nicaraguan woman dead by the side of a road as a result of one of his land mines, or one of the children dead and actually feel the death, the American public would certainly have a different viewpoint of Ollie North. They don't. They don't know what's going on in Nicaragua or El Salvador. They don't see the death. They don't understand it.
And that's what we have to remember what war is. We have to remember what death is. And I can't see how Ollie North can come out of war and not remember what death is. He's forgotten it.
Q. That's the question. Obviously he was a combat veteran, too, it appears, had gone on patrol. There were no guys in your platoon like him.
Yes, there was. I had many good soldiers. I'm sure Ollie North was a good soldier. The fact is, he learned nothing. He learned no compassion. He didn't understand the things that happened. I go back to what I said earlier. I categorize him as a military officer, marine class, very well depicted by Mr. Cooper in Full Metal Jacket. They're essentially insane. I think that they're partially insane people and that they are comparable to the pit bull class of dogs. They just have a hard head. They don't learn. There's a lot of guys like that. There's a lot of Chuck Norrises out there, Sylvester Stallones. They're the most dangerous single thing in America right now. They're the red neck, conservative, reactionary group that doesn't have any understanding or sympathy for the Third World. They will drive America, in my opinion, to another war that we will not win. Once again we will lose more soldiers, more men, more sons and daughters, and we will rent this country between left and right, because there's a lot of people out there like me, that don't want this kind of war, that don't want to fight third world people with legitimate aspirations towards making a living and staying healthy and getting food and shelter. I get too emotional.
Q. Not at all. These are things worth getting emotional about.
I am convinced this is the major, epic conflict of my life, of my generation, between the left and the right. And a lot of people on the left start to get together to work and we got to get rid of these red necks, we've got to get them out of the government. We've got to get the CIA down, the National Security Council down. We got to get all these forms of covert warfare stopped and made legitimate. The government has to be based on a separation of powers between the legislature and the president. Somewhere the President has become the totally dominant force in this century, I think because of the American love of the chief executive, the movie star, the baseball star. There always has to be that focus on one person.
So I think that since World War II the executive branch has totally misinterpreted the constitution in the concept of defending our national security. All of a sudden we need secrets in order to defend our national security. That same secret came out of the H-bomb, which was a secret we didn't have for very long any way. But we got into this whole concept of a secret. We didn't have that concept, it seemed to me, before 1930s. There was no great secret that we had that they could have to share our power. All of a sudden we got into that semen preservation that Sterling Hayden got into in Dr. Strangelove. We got into that mentality and we haven't been able to get out of that mentality. We're going to have a thousand Oliver Norths. If it's not Carlucci it's going to be Richard Secord or Ollie North or James Webb. That's the new power. That's the big split. Hopefully the John Careys or the Lane Evanses, or the guy Hardin of Illinois will come to the forefront, but I don't know. It's going to be a fifty fifty struggle.
Q. Why do you use the term left and right? Are they just convenient terms? You talk about American constitutional government and separation of power and then say we need more people on the left. What's left?
Terminology is very difficult.
Q. You talked about rescuing the language from those who had seized it, and I think falling into that left-right trap makes you seem something that you aren't. You were overwhelmed, it sounds like, by what you saw in Central America. Were you ready for what you saw when you went down there after Vietnam? To me it would seem like you could see nothing worse than Vietnam.
What I saw in Central America, I think was -- first of all, I had not understood the situation in Central America at that point. Boyle took me down and I was very confused by the American media. I think the American media has not given the American public, except for a few times, really cracked through and explained the contrasts between the Nicaraguan and Salvadorean situation. If I may just briefly touch on it.
We are condemning a Marxist-Leninist government in Nicaragua for certain civil rights abuses and to a certain degree human rights abuses. I don't think that more than fifty to a hundred people have been hurt by that government. Whereas a neighboring Christian Democrat government in Salvador is responsible for the murder of fifty thousand, done by death squads, by the military troops, done by massacre, done any way. And this with our support. I think you have to add up the casualty figures to be realistic, to get through, as you say, this language bullshit between what's a Marxist and what isn't a Marxist. You've got to look at what kills and what doesn't kill. And I think there's no comparison. We are the bad guys.
Q. Where's the Press? Didn't they learn something in Vietnam?
They've ignored Salvador. What did they do to Ray Bonner who came out of Salvador. Did you ever read his book?
Q. Vietnam correspondents are covering Central America, like Peter Collins, Bruce Dunning. . . . . I don't understand what's happening with the news?
Because the "Right" in terms of people like Jesse Helms, Ronald Reagan, and his gang and the Republican Party and also certain of the media, there's a certain very strong right wing media. People like "Accuracy in Media", what's his name? They are extremely organized. That's the one thing that the right has. They have a great letter campaign and a great mail campaign. They managed to move the spectrum of debate to the right by changing where the net in the tennis court is. They've put the left up against the wall. They've moved everything to the right. Even the New York Times, which used to be a venerable left-wing progressive institution, spends more editorial ink decrying the Nicaraguan government's preemption of democracy than paying attention to the people who are actually getting killed in Salvador and who the Contras are killing. We ignore that. We ignore the pregnant women and children and the innocent civilians who are being killed, in order to write about abstract concepts of democracy. That bothers me.
And that debate has been moved. In the old days I would think that they would address human damage first. Somehow it's been moved to abstract discussion. It's endemic to all Americans, absolutely necessary from Grade One up that you are anti-communist. The question is, how far do you have to be anti-communist? Everything seems to be a question of, at the very worst you have to be against communism.
Q. What about guys like Hasenfus, the Southern Air Transport guys. They are true believers. They are not simply pit bulls.
He seemed to me like a poor shlep who was trying to make some money. The guy's an auto mechanic.
Q. But he insisted he believed in what he was doing.
Yeah. I'm sure that he was one of the good old boys. You can always find thousands of red necks. Go down south. What about Tom Posey. What about Singlaub. What about Bob Bassett, the guy from Soldier of Fortune? There are a lot of those guys running around. They are dangerous, evil people. They see themselves doing good, but they're ideologues, maybe. They view communism as a religious war. So under those conditions are allowed to murder anybody in view of the fact they are fighting for a religious end, which is the eradication of communism. By that standard you can kill anything because it's a religious war.
Q. Did the boat people change your mind about anything? Their stories of what happened after the fall of South Vietnam? Or did the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia? The fact that our cause was superseded by one infinitely worse?
That's for sure. I abhor all kinds of killing. I abhor all kinds of repression. I suppose if you don't want to use "left" and "right" we should use "repression" versus "freedom". I abhor gulags. I abhor the Soviet system. I don't like the Soviet system. I don't think it's a good system. I abhor repression in all its forms whether it be a death squad in Salvador or the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, but believe me, if you're a peasant, it doesn't make much difference who kills you, the Khmer Rouge or a bomb from a helicopter in a Salvadoran village. It doesn't really matter. You die. I sympathize for all victims of human rights abuses and murders. And I deplore all sorts of repression.
Now, if your question is of another ilk, what happened in Cambodia and would our victory have prevented that, --
Q. Or is it worth intervening to stop when we see something like that? What is worth committing military force?
I think that World War II was a good war. I think that was justified. I don't think the situation would have happened the way it did if there hadn't been our presence there in the beginning. "The Killing Fields", I think, made a very strong point, probably the best point in the movie, which is pretty radical for a mainstream studio to say, but it did say that the Nixon war in Cambodia was partially, or strongly responsible for the attitudes of the Khmer Rouge towards the ruling class in Cambodia. It was well drawn. I'm saying the escalation of American force in Asia exacerbated the entire situation, made the North Vietnamese more angry, much more vengeful against the south.
Q. Somebody told me the only reason "The Killing Fields" was ever made into a movie was because of the Sidney Schanberg character. The American people don't give a shit about Asians and if there is not an American in a story, it's not going to be made into a movie.
That's true. I think they needed the American protagonist to make the movie. In "Salvador" I think I had the same problem. I made the protagonist American because I think it's hard for the public to get entry into a film through foreign eyes. You need American eyes to see. It's a form of cultural imperialism. I don't know any way around it. I was criticized on "Platoon" in Germany, I was booed by some people because they said this is another American view, American self-involvement. You see Vietnam in American terms. You don't see the death and destruction you dealt out to the Vietnamese. You don't deal with Vietnamese. Everything is through Robert DeNiro's eyes. That was their feeling, that cultural imperialism in our movies.
Certainly there is truth to it. It would be interesting to make a film of the North Vietnamese point of view. A guy in a tunnel under Ku Chi, and meets the American soldiers just the way I saw the NVA.
Q. Ann Mariano said when she went out and saw the headquarters over a tunnel complex of VC, she looked at that and thought, "We're in trouble". She thought it was one ignorant blunder after another. People weren't learning. Speaking of learning, when you go before an organization like this today, does anybody -- can you ever formulate the lessons of Vietnam. Does anybody want to listen, first of all, and secondly, can it be put concisely?
I think you have to simplify it. It's the only way to deal with humanity in general. It's the only way to lead a nation. It's the only way to be political. It's up to the leaders, like Pericles, to simplify for the public what the fuck it is all about. You have to make conclusions. It's up to our young political leadership to draw the conclusions from the war. And certainly one conclusion is that we have to reassess our attitude toward communism. We must discuss what communism is. Is it a threat or not to the American system. We have to explore this in detail. And I think the answer is going to come out on the negative side. I think communism is subject to change and I think communism can be influenced. I think communism can coexist. I disagree with Lenin. I think that we have form of semi-communism in various countries already in Europe. And we have another form of it in Communist China and even another form of it in the Soviet Union. And Yugoslavia and Rumania, Hungary is a semi-free market. There's a wide spectrum and we have to deal with that fundamental issue. And nobody wants to go back to those roots. They want to assume this status quo that we are at war with them.
That is the single strongest lesson of Vietnam. Because Vietnam was a cold war.
Q. The nature of war itself, people always forget.
That's for sure. People forget death and pain. That's in normal life. If you have a fire and somebody gets burned up, they forget it a year later. That's normal. You forget pain. Because the human being doesn't want too much pain.
Q. You believe there always will be war? There will always be human conflict?
As long as there is a pit bull mentality in the human race we will. And I don't see a consciousness coming in that -- you have to evolve as a consciousness and how can that happen. The best thing that could happen to Ollie North might be a heavy dose of acid and start to experience real life, but that won't happen.
(((end of side A, tape 1.)
. . . I don't think the French fall for it. But I think there is a love of macho???, a love of aggression. There's a love of being a tough guy in the American public. I suppose all through the world. If you look at the movie heroes, Jean Paul Belmondo, to the Russians have heroes in their movies, they wipe out the American troops. There seems to be a love of the higher being, the Nietzschean animal, the Hitler ideal, the muscle man, the Schwarzenegger. It seems to be endemic, except possibly in Italy -- well they have a couple of body builders. That's a generality but I always thought the southern climes, the Mediterranean were less hostile. But the Spanish Civil War came to mind. Italy was aggressive in World War II.
Q. Phil Caputo took his sons to see your film. One was an artistic sensitive kid. The other was a high school athlete. They came out of the movie and the artistic one said, "I'm going to Canada if there is another war." And the other one said, "I want to join the Marines." Caputo said the movie is neutral. It depends on what you bring to it. Your mind is made up and is simply justified. Do you agree or disagree?
I got a lot of letters from kids and mothers too, saying they had seen Top Gun and they were thinking about joining that kind of a thing. And they had seen my movie and they had changed their minds. So I think there is some percentage that is changeable. There's no question Caputo is right. Some of these kids want to go to war, the same way I did. They want to experience something that's intense. It's the most intense experience I know that we have as human beings. The most intense maybe, except for death and being born. I'd say war is right up there.
Q. Caputo says it is like being reborn. He died and came out and was reborn again. It was the most experience in his life. Nothing will ever supersede it. I asked if he still agreed with that and he said absolutely. Would you say you were reborn in Vietnam, being in a combat unit? Or is that too strong?
I don't say "reborn". Although I did have a scene in Platoon when he gets wounded that first time when he comes back to the bunker and the black guy says,-- somebody says, "Is that you Taylor?" and he says, "No No this is Chris, he been reborn." Meaning that now that he'd been wounded his name was Chris and no longer Taylor. Which was a little moment, that happened to me.
Q. Were you looking death in the face, was it transforming?
Yeah I think in a much subtler way. It's not like a born again experience. I'm not Charles Colson and coming out with a white coat saying "Holy Jesus Christ". It never happened that way.
I just think it was very intense and very lonely and very alienating. As I said in the interviews, I think we all came out, every man who fought there, not the guys who ate the steak lunches and dinners and made a lot of money -- I'm not talking about those guys. I'm talking about the guys who came out with combat or some form of it, medics, came out with their souls somewhat stained by that war. You had to come out from a war feeling dirty if you're at all human. But some people don't.
Q. What about the memorial? Appropriate when you saw it? Just the stone itself?
I thought it was beautifully done. Yeah. Because it takes you in. It starts from the side very simply. It doesn't look like much and then you just go in and in and in and then you see more and more names and you are deeper in the quagmire and you realize in the middle somewhere the immensity of the tragedy, the enormity of it. It dawns on you and then you can walk out gently. It doesn't imprison you. It doesn't trap you. It's a memorial that educates. I think it's wonderful. That woman deserves praise. Ironic. Webb didn't like it apparently.
Q. Some of the Marines told me they didn't like it because the rank of the individuals wasn't on there. But then the CIA head Tom Polgar told me that he loved it because they just boys and to put a rank on there would destroy that.
That was the day I located Elias. I never knew Elias's real name. It was ironic. I just looked in the book. I thought his first name was Elias. He got killed by our own side. He got killed by accident. A lot of guys got killed by accident, about twenty percent, I think.
Also, there was about five hundred and eighty three -- by the way -- fraggings in 1972, Department of Defense Report, Five hundred and seventy-three fraggings, that is assuming that you know successful fraggings are not investigated. You've got to assume there was five to six times that which is quite a bit. I got a couple letters from some real assholes saying there was never any proven fragging in Vietnam. I just want to set the record straight.
Q. Caputo says he's still writing about Vietnam. He said, "I'm not like Oliver Stone. I'm not just going to touch on it and move on to something else. I'm always going to be writing about this." Now you are doing Wall Street. Have you moved on? Or will your theme be --
What, Caputo's negative about my moving on?
Q. He thought that it was important enough in his life he will always deal with the Vietnam War. He'll either write about the veterans dealing with their problems from the war, or go back to the war. It's not something he touches on once and is freed from it. So you did Platoon, and now you can move on to "brighter fields", another story? I wondered if you'd thought of doing something again, not like Platoon, but dealing with it again.
I was trained as a film maker, consider myself as a film maker before I consider myself a Vietnam vet, to be honest. It's what I do. I'm a film maker. I am learning to expand my craft. I think being stuck in the same subject matter can be detrimental to the expansion of your craft. On the other hand, for some people it might work, too. Hemingway wrote about the Spanish Civil War, he wrote about World War I, he wrote about his love affairs. He lived through a broad spectrum of experience. I would like to do the same. "Wall Street" is important in it's own strange way. It's the apotheosis of urban life in the 1980s and I felt it would make an interesting subject for a social examination of our time. I have made a contractual agreement with Hemdale to do a film called "Second Life", which is about the return from Vietnam of the vets. I don't feel I want to do it now, because at this stage I've felt like been enough in Vietnam mentally. For that year I made that movie I was in that subject and I just feel dirty again, and stained and soiled by it. And I'd just like to get away from it for a while. Mr. Caputo went and wrote three or four books about other subjects. So I'm sure he can share the feeling. Now he's ready to go back to it and maybe someday I'll be ready to go back to it.
Q. You mention Hemingway. You mention Conrad. You're mentioning *****????. Hemingway never made a movie. You don't see any greater power in the written word to convey meaning than images. I mention that because of television which tends to give the illusion of knowing things without going into it in depth. Obviously you are a fine writer because of the dialogue in your films. Have you ever thought of writing just for print?
No, I'm not a novelist. That's a whole different viewpoint of the world. The approach is different. I feel like we've moved beyond the novel. I was a kid in the 40s, 50s and 60s, and I think it was right at that point in time. I'm much happier in the movies because, first of all, more people see it. It's a much larger spectrum. And much of modern fiction has lost its power. I don't know why. I just don't feel the desire to read much of it. I find it stylistic. It's really more about the writer's sense of style than any driving narrative subject matter, which made for the great novels of the early 20th century and 19th century. I just don't feel that drive any more. I like the narrative impulse and I think that movies can convey that narrative impulse successfully. I think that we can do what Tolstoy did. We are about to enter an age where we can test those limits. I think that film has a long way to go. But right now we're still limited to the two hour movie. It's a tremendous handicap because some stories are three hours long and four hours long, or should be sixteen hours long.
Q. Why did you select "Adagio for Strings" for the music?
My editor actually put it on in the early editing stages as what they call a temporary dub, for temporary music before we got the final music and we liked it so much, found that it was so elegiac, so mournful that it virtually represented sort -- I didn't want to set out to make as hard edged a combat film as Sam Fuller might have done.
Q. Full Metal Jacket uses rock music.
I wanted to have a sense of a memoir, of boys looking back through time at himself. And the music helped distance me. Also there are images of tremendous brutality and when you have beautiful music underneath it, for some reason it emphasized that brutality and drives home the image even stronger. I did the same thing in Salvador. I used the romantic theme from George Delaroux??? and I think I drove home some points with the strong counterpoint music instead of going with the image. I was going against the image.
Q. You said "Everything is negotiable in life". Movie business a microcosm of the rest of the world?
No, I consider it one business that represents all businesses. All businesses are based on accommodation and compromise and negotiation. What I think I was trying to say was "Let's be businessmen rather than ideologues." Businessmen run the world.
Q. You said, "I hope I haven't bored you with my feelings." Why did you say "Feelings" rather than "thoughts"?
Because I think of them as very much the same. Feelings become thoughts.
Q. I think of feelings as more emotional myself. I just wondered about the selection of words.
I'm sure a lot of those thoughts are based on my feelings.
Q. On Vietnam, now, where we are now, should we open relations with the country, normalize relations?
Most definitely. I think this MIA issue is no issue. I think it's a trap, a phony issue. It's a subterfuge. I heard thirty-five thousand, or some enormous figure of American troops disappeared in World War II. Are they still looking for them? They're dead. They died. So these twenty-five hundred, they're dead. Let it go. This is a right wing issue again. This has been absorbed by the right and it's revisionism. It's Chuck Norris time. It's that old bullshit line, fight the war again.
Q. What do you think is the intent of Stallone, Norris, these others? They're pouring out movies, sequels, another Rambo, Norris is now doing one on a guy who goes back to find his Amerasian kid. What is that. Do you take them seriously?
I think it's very destructive. I think that they are very evil people. They don't know it. They are doing a lot of evil. And I think they are setting up the parameters of this civil war that I addressed here in our interview. They're creating this moral climate for war.
Q. Do you want to go back to Vietnam yourself?
I've been asked to go back by Riley?? Muller, with him. And we've talked about -- I'd love to if I found the right time. I think it takes about two weeks and right now I'm cutting a movie, but I'd love to go. I'd love to see it. I don't live in the war. I'm not traumatized by it, I don't think. I've been very healthy and outward. My first few years were very tough, because I had a bit of a drug problem and other problems, you know, but I got out of it. And I think I'm very outer oriented.
Q. Is the ending of "Red Badge of Courage" . . . the great death . . . he was a man. Was that appropriate for Platoon? At the end of that it was so melancholy the last thing I would have expected was somebody to say "He was a man." Your character comes away having lost something, never to be recovered, rather than gaining his manhood.
I see what you are saying. I was a child born of those two fathers. He is a new man. He came out a killer. He came out a murderer, actually. Call it what you want, he's a killer and his soul was to a certain degree soiled or stained.
Mike Mason has written some wonderful poetry about that. I hope you can reflect it in your book. I hope you don't give the right wing agenda.
You should talk to Larry Heinemann. He's also very articulate. Wonderful man. And Tim O'Brian. You should have been at the convention a few weeks ago. All these guys made a speech, Caputo --
Q. Do you speak to Vietnamese organizations? I was wondering if they were receptive to what you have to say.
They like the movie. I got a lot of nice letters from Vietnamese people, boat people.
Q. But you haven't addressed any V. civic groups?
No, there was some press about it. There was positive reaction.
I got a lot of invitations. I don't remember any Vietnamese ones. But I got a lot of vets that liked the movie. I got honorary memberships in various veterans of various wars and in many states. A lot of veterans know what happened over there and they are not going to buy into the bullshit. Just because they are militarily oriented doesn't mean that they think the war was right.
(((Conversation while taking pictures ))) (((End of tape at 183)))