Watching Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods (2020) last night was like a flashback for this old Vietnam veteran. I lived vicariously through his characters’ return to the country where they had fought decades before. Lee filmed on location, and I soaked in the sights of modern-day Saigon—pardon me, I mean Ho Chi Minh City—with its skyscrapers, McDonald’s, and, well, its vibrant sans war life.
No more armed solders patrolling the major thoroughfares, no more roads, sidewalks, and storefronts pockmarked from past shellings. The old Saigon—and I was there many times—was a war-torn big city of two million (nine million today), French colonial still, with whores and black marketeers everywhere, poverty at every corner, armies of lambrettas and bicycle riders waiting at every intersection, many of them ridden by beautiful women in their traditional ankle-length Ao Dai dresses, little alleyways where old men offered you reefer, opium, and their granddaughter.
Big as it was, there was a leisurely pace to the city, something the tropical heat required, a place where you could sip your Biere 33 at a sidewalk café and only intermittently worry about danger coming out of those shadows around the corner.
(To the right, yours truly in the center with my buddies Bob to my right and Parker to my left. Saigon, 1971.)
Spike Lee’s film, compelling but flawed, follows four vets through the streets of Ho Chi Minh City and into the countryside, where they search for the remains of their wartime squad leader and a cache of gold that they had buried near those remains. The issue of race is at the heart of the film, of course. It is, after all, a Spike Lee film, and indeed race lay close to the heart of the conflict in Vietnam, where GIs, black and white, regularly joked about killing “gooks” as if the Vietnamese people were something less than.
The Vietnam War was about more than race, however. Race is usually a symptom of a much larger problem. Vietnam came after more than a decade of Cold War-mongering, witch hunts by Joe McCarthy and the U.S. House for Un-American Activities Committee, the constant saber rattling of the military-industrial complex Ike warned us about. Greed usually can be found in the shadowy origins of every war. We left Vietnam with our tails between our legs, our first official loss but not our last. We keep wanting to relearn the old bitterly learned lessons.
I was a war protester, a veteran of so many marches and anti-war rallies that I was burned out by the time I got drafted. So I became a soldier. I didn’t want to go to Canada. The whole time I was in the Army and in Vietnam I worried my protester days might come back to bite me in uniform, but I gave the Army too much credit. I’m glad I went to Vietnam. It’s a beautiful country even in war. I met some amazing people—my girlfriend Hanh, my Army buddy Bob (we remain in regular contact), the old Mama-San at our base who was always wanting me to get her cigarettes from the PX so she could black market them.
(To the right, a movie theater in 1971 Saigon)
In my mind, Da 5 Bloods begins to unravel and lose focus somewhere along the search for that hidden gold. Maybe that was appropriate. This nation went on a similar kind of misguided journey when it went to war in Vietnam, and that, too, unraveled at the end.