RANGER AGAINST WAR: He's Kinda Big in China <

Monday, November 03, 2014

He's Kinda Big in China

--The SOG Tactical Backpack,
$29.97  (retail), Walmart

 And what was all that shit about Vietnam?
What the FUCK, has anything got to do with Vietnam?  
--The Big Lebowski (1998) 

 I'm a fool to do your dirty work
Oh yeah
I don't wanna do your dirty work
No more

--Dirty Work, Steely Dan

I'm waking up to ash and dust
I wipe my brow and I sweat my rust
I'm breathing in the chemicals
(inhale) (exhale) 

--Radioactive, Imagine Dragons

Behold, the SOG Ninja Tactical Backpack, replete with MOLLE loops and the iconic SOG death's head crest -- yours for a mere $29.97, constructed by the peons of your faithful Chinese overlords, to be found at a Walmart SuperCenter near you.

In Ranger's war, "SOG" stood for Studies and Observations Group, a euphamistically-named highly-classified operation that operated in denied areas of Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia during that generation's most excellent adventure. Today, if you had more pressing things to do during Vietnam (like former VP Cheney claimed) or your main battle experience consists of marathon sessions at the computer screen playing World of Warcraft, not to worry. If you need to stow your gear in a quasi-hipster mode, the SOG Tac Backpack might be for you. 

America's conflicted relationship with the Vietnam veteran has played out daily since that event. A short piece in the 31 July 2006 New Yorker, "The Ambien Cookbook", gives a taste of the uncomfortably irreverent-and-disrespectful line that many Vietnam vet depictions walk:

 Nhi Ho Trang Phu

1 package beef jerky
1 quart mango-flavored Gatorade
1 saucepan potable water
Salt to taste
5 mg. Ambien

Lay out beef jerky and Gatorade on nightstand, in anticipation of somnambulistic snack attack.
Take Ambien, fall asleep.
After 2-3 hours, awaken half-submerged in a rice paddy in the jungle lowlands just north of the Mekong Delta.
Back “in country.” You know you’re going to Heaven, ’cause you’ve spent your time in Hell. But here you are once again—back in the Shit. Stay still, stay quiet—as quiet as a mouse. You are asleep, but all of your senses are alert.
Spot V.C. sapper no more than one foot away, playing possum in spider hole beneath duvet-cover camouflage.
Silently stalk stationary V.C.; two can play this game, no? When you gain tactical advantage, corner V.C. and remove ear(s).
Go to kitchen, put ear(s) into pot of water on stove, tie on souvenir lobster bib from Cape Cod trip last summer, sit down at kitchen table with knife in one hand and fork in the other, saying “Fee, fi, fo, fum” over and over—until water boils, or you wake up in police custody despite now earless wife or girlfriend’s protestations of your innocence as delivered to police detective in emergency room, where she now is (whichever comes first).♦

The local Florida State University Museum of Fine Arts is currently hosting a "Vietnam Retrospective" display. The card for the exhibit says, "Veterans of the Vietnam War from throughout the region contributed their photos and memorabilia for this touching exhibit." The 10-piece installation of mostly generic material from the media was housed in a small room; included was a helmet and helmet cover from the 1980's.

When we inquired who curated the exhibit, we were told, "It was a labor of love," and the sponsors did not wish to have their contact info given out. The implication being that the installation hardly merited a vetting by the Military Sciences, History or Political Science Departments, a poor way to run what aspires to be a world-class college museum. 

We thought: if the curators had spent an hour in the waiting room of the local VA Outpatient clinic, they could have filled several exhibition rooms with personal memorabilia. The paucity of materials in the needlessly empty white space gave the impression that the veterans of that war no longer had much of a presence. 

The fact is quite to the contrary, especially if one takes a toll of the nation's psyche (to borrow a phrase from former President George W. Bush.)

--Walter Sobchek, fr. The Big Lebowski (1998)

Three gross views of the Vietnam veteran have emerged since that conflict.

First is the crazy and angry man, personified by the egomaniacal Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now andThe Big Lebowski's Walter Sobchek  (a man so annoying at times that even The Dude cannot abide him.) Next is the penitent, bearing the cross for a nation upon his aggrieved soul. Finally, the vet who resembles Us, tenuously existing somewhere in between -- not fully reintegrated into society, not quite trusted. He is the fallen angel, representing a cynical society which has lost faith with its leadership.

The Vietnam veteran was triply-betrayed. Sent to fight an unwinable war, he was not only abandoned by his civilian fellows (who claimed to protest for his safe return) but also by the institution he served. The severe military Reduction in Forces (RIF's) immediately following the cessation of U.S. involvement in Vietnam gave lie to the idea that we celebrate our soldier's sacrifices, as many careers were nipped in the bud.

A nation's naivete and disgust was projected upon him, an unspeakable and irremediable offense to a young mind. He was denied the accolades of his fathers and uncles not because he failed in his duty, but by dint of being born into a society undergoing a total involution. He ain't no fortunate son in so many senses of the phrase.

If our national spirit has waned in the intervening decades, it may be due in part to the presence of 100's of thousands of that conflict's walking wounded in body and mind in its midst. While cases of shell-shock and battle fatigue from former wars walk side by side with the VN veteran, they were the exception to the rule of their respective engagements.

The ebullient celebration with which the WWII vet was feted was absent from most VN homecomings. First came the brazen antagonism towards the "baby-killers", then the awkwardness and ennui when the damage and shame was recognized. The Vietnam vet found himself in a no-win, no-man's land in his home country.

The "Ambien" piece is an example of the shaky terrain in which we still place the Vietnam veteran. While he occupies the same physical zone as the rest of us, he is potentially combustible. In this case, the sleep drug Ambien awakens him to the technicolor madness of his long-recessed memories.

This is the representation of the zombie vet, revivified in his and our nightmares, exposed to toxins like Agent Orange -- a gift that keeps on giving. Every few years a new malady is adjudicated to be service-connected for VN vets exposed to the toxic defoliant.

So the tiny installation, not even correct -- the labor of love underwritten by a major university benefactor -- did not even have its own opening night ceremony. When asked, a museum representative said that we could attend the ceremony for the Renaissance bird exhibition in a concurrent display.  It would be almost the same thing. 

"Are you sure it's not $59.99?" Ranger asked hopefully.

"No. It's $29.97."

The price of heroism gets a little cheaper every day. 

--by Jim and Lisa

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Anonymous mike said...

Where do Vietnam Vets like Fred Smith, the founder of FedEx, fit in with the 'angry-man', or 'penitent', or 'fallen-angel' category? Or Craig Ventner, the geneticist who first sequenced the human genome? Or the many hundreds of thousands who came back and went to work and raised families and rebuilt this country? I do not count the politicians or the Pat Sajaks.

And the New Yorker article - - - don't get me started. Who the hell had gatorade and beef jerky in Nam? Not me, not even in my Fobbit days. Grape KoolAid vienna sausages maybe. And instead of the wacky pills I was overdosing on NoDoz. Sure a few smoked Bon Song bombers but compare those numbers to the percentage of civilian users at the time. The author of that article was probably a millenial who saw an Oliver Stone movie on TCM or AMC.

Monday, November 3, 2014 at 10:57:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger Lisa said...


Agreed, and I thought of this when writing it.

The piece addresses not precisely the categories into which the VN vets see themselves falling, but rather, the typologies into which those only tangentially-related to the vets would place them.

Only the more dysfunctional vets would self-identify with one caricature, for we all contain multitudes. To me, the tragedy of the labeling -- any labeling -- is in the dismissal of the human onto whom you hang the tag.

That dehumanization is as much a loss for the one labeling, as the one being so labeled.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014 at 1:10:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger FDChief said...

"The ebullient celebration with which the WWII vet was feted was absent from most VN homecomings."

True enough, Lisa, with the huge caveat that a LOT of guys came home from the Good War with a lot of the same troubles as the guys who came home from Vietnam, and a lot of civilians had the same reaction; impatience that "Joe just can't seem to get back to normal...", fear of the "psycho vet", and just a general unease that some of the "heroes" weren't slipping comfortably back into civilian life.

My old man still remembers the guys hidden away in the VA and the Army and Navy hospitals years after 1945; blind, limbless, crazed. Go watch some of the best of the Forties Hollywood flicks, like Best Years of Our Lives, where every one of the three main characters has some real mental, emotional, or physical problem to deal with...

No question that the Vietnam guys got the extra kicking of having a really "unpopular" war. But the whole business of stereotyping veterans is probably as old as war itself; I'll bet that there was a popular image of the gooned-out old GI carved in the mudbrick walls of ancient Sumer...

Thursday, November 13, 2014 at 12:04:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger Lisa said...


Jim's was one of the first major combat units redeployed from VN, and he remembers no joy in the ranks. Even though his compatriots were bringing home the group colors.

This was the 1st times an SF unit group redeployed from combat.

OTOH, having spoken personally with numerous people who remember V-day and VE day, all remember ecstatic displays of joy in the streets. This did not greet the returning VN vet.

This is not to say other era's vets didn't suffer. It was not all skittles and beer.

My point was:

The US public in the late 60's was so jaded and divided, they projected their feelings of angst and betrayal upon the body of the VN vet body politic.

It's not that the vets see themselves as being slotted thusly, but that the labels were imposed upon them.

Thursday, November 13, 2014 at 9:04:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger savagesupply said...

The SOG backpack shown in the post matches with canvas rucksack a lot. These are really strong and durable backpack that lost for many years. In olden days these were most used by the military. Thanks a lot for the sharing this beautiful post.

Monday, May 30, 2016 at 12:19:00 AM GMT-5  

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