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War Stories

John DiFusco’s Tracers, originally created by an ensemble of Vietnam vets, returns to the Odyssey Theater (where it premiered 20 years ago) in a vigorous revival that‘s garnered virtually unanimous rave reviews, probably because of its political chauvinism. However, despite claiming to tell the true story of ”the Vietnam War as seen through our soldiers’ eyes,“ it hides what made our soldiers‘ experience in Vietnam unique, and so leaves a gaping void. I am a former protester, not a veteran. But you don’t have to be a vet to say what‘s missing from this play any more than you have to be a plantation owner or a slave to say what’s missing from an artistic portrayal of the antebellum South that depicts slavery as a morally neutral institution, or fails to mention it.

Unless you were born after 1968 or were oblivious to what was going on at the time, it might be news that in the late ‘60s through the early ’70s, America was awash with domestic political strife. Blacks were marching for civil rights and facing attack dogs and fire hoses. Anti-war protesters were thrown in jail after having their heads cracked by cops, then were infiltrated by the FBI, which was also busy arranging the frame-up of Geronimo Pratt and the murders of Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton, Bunchy Carter and John Huggins. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated shortly after stitching together the civil rights and anti-war protests, then knotting them into the theme of poverty.

Abroad, the U.S. was continuing a colonial war against the Vietnamese begun over a century earlier, when the French captured Saigon in 1859 (only to lose it in 1954 to a strongly nationalist communist force headed by Ho Chi Minh). American policymakers were outraged that any people would, in their own free elections, ally themselves with communism vs. capitalism. So our Defense Department waged a campaign that cost the lives of 50,000 to 60,000 American GIs and 2 million to 3 million Vietnamese, many if not most of them civilians. When the death ratio is 50-to-1 and a people still go on fighting after a century of external rule, you know who the aggressor is, and how deeply the Vietnamese felt they had justice on their side.

The Vietnam War tore our vets to pieces emotionally like no other ”engagement“ because of military tactics most anti-war protesters considered profoundly immoral: napalming and cluster bombing civilian populations, while destroying millions of acres of jungle and arable land with herbicides. Such actions traumatized our troops, who returned home cheated of a heroes‘ welcome, themselves the victims of a war they didn’t understand.

White college kids evaded this hell through student deferments, or guile, or, occasionally, courageous acts of refusal; meanwhile, blacks and Hispanics from America‘s inner cities and whites from impoverished rural climes did the dying.

Tracers buries this history. The U.S. troops of DiFusco’s war have no racial tensions, no fragging, no Viet Cong whispering across the lines, ”Why you fight us? We no call you nigger.“ The only color is patriotic, Semper fi green, and the real enemy is the USSR. Little John, a black boot-camp enlistee, shouts out why he enlisted (”Sir, the maggot wants to fight for his country, sir!“) but never has a moment of patriotic disillusionment during the war -- only after, when he‘s dying from Agent Orange cancer and the government won’t fess, or ante, up.

The only racism found in the play is its unexamined take on the Vietnamese as a nameless, faceless evil trying to kill our soldiers for unfathomable reasons. Nowhere in the ever-so-brief exploration of postwar experience does any soldier ever confront the possible immorality of his killing. That‘s because nowhere in Tracers is the United States shown as being riven, never do its soldiers once stop to doubt their mission, nor ask why they’re killing women and children, why the people they are supposedly liberating are massed against them. One would never suspect that there was a Vietnam Vets Against the War, which was labeled traitorous by mainstream press.

In his 1994 Huntsville Memorial dedication, Vietnam vet Patrick Overton (The Healing Wall) recounts a conversation with his father, who returned a hero from World War II:

I told him, ”My generation fought in a war we did not understand, and when we came home we were demonstrated against, spit on, yelled at, shunned and left alone . . . to figure it out by ourselves, and many of us, unable to deal with the reality of what we did and what we saw, did the only thing we could do to survive -- we buried it.“

Not all the soldiers could bury it. The suicide rate of Vietnam vets was so high because those who couldn‘t numb themselves with either heroin or hatred for ”gooks“ had a moral incubus on their chests that wouldn’t leave. Two of Tracers‘ eight soldiers commit suicide, but without a clue as to why except that one reads Pirandello and obscurely remarks, ”Sometimes I feel like one of Pirandello’s characters“ -- a feeble excuse for a window into a soul racked with moral anguish.

Tracers, a play about the American GIs‘ experience, leaves out from that experience what the war was actually about, and what it put them through because of that. There’s no need to agree about politics and morality to acknowledge that profound differences at home -- in politics and morality -- are what made this war unlike any other, and that addressing those differences, rather than pretending they never existed, is what theater ought to be about.